Not so long ago, Qasim Basir went back to where he filmed his latest feature “Destined” just two winters ago in Detroit and realized there was no way he could’ve made the same film now.
“The crazy thing is literally, half of those locations we shot in are gone now because of what we were talking about in the movie, the gentrification,” Basir said recently, much to the surprise of his leading man Cory Hardrict.
“What about that field?” asked Hardrict, with Basir shaking his head.
“It’s condos there now,” said Basir. “We captured it right at a point where it will never be like that again in history.”
Freezing the Motor City in time for posterity is a somewhat ironic virtue of “Destined,” since in the story Basir tells, everything is fluid. Centered on a young African-American man faced with a turning point in his youth to become a runner for the local drug dealer, the film sends him down two different paths, showing what life has in store for him if he’s caught, growing up to be a kingpin himself named Sheed, or if he’s able to get away, eventually becoming a budding architect named Rasheed. However, one decision leads to another and Basir continually upends expectations as Rasheed increasingly becomes suspicious of being elevated to serving as the face of his firm’s major redevelopment projects, potentially imperiling the low-cost housing that once put a roof over his head, while Sheed evaluates at what cost he’s built a drug empire.
Although Basir distinguishes the two paths with blue and gold tint, Hardrict intriguingly creates various shades of grey in playing the two roles, bringing out the subtle ways in which the smallest choices accumulate into cataclysmic events that ripple throughout the lives of his family and community. Basir, who previously explored an African-American Muslim man’s reckoning with his identity in the days before and the aftermath of 9/11 after moving away from his conservative family for college in 2011’s “Mooz-lum,” uses the parallel storylines to not only investigate the power of “what if,” but captures how African-American men, in particular, must constantly grapple with how they feel compelled to present themselves differently in different contexts in a society where they’ve long been marginalized.
After a celebrated festival run that began last year at the L.A. Film Festival and picked up an award for Basir for Best Director at the American Black Film Festival, the film arrives this week in theaters and in far warmer weather than Detroit, the director and his star Hardrict spoke about surviving a bitterly cold shoot, making two stories cohere in one film and how audiences who may have already caught “Destined” during its festival run will be rewarded if they check it out again.
How did this come about?
Qasim Basir: Like anything I’ve done, I just started writing one day and this was something I had been thinking about for a while. I always grapple with this idea of what if I stayed in this neighborhood and hung out with these kids instead of playing football, but I can never know that, you know? And my dad worked at Jackson Prison for most of my life and he would call me every once in a while and be like, “Do you remember so and so? Yeah, he’s in here now,” like guys from the neighborhood. And I’d be like, “Damn. What if I were to stay here? Or what if…” So that concept was fascinating to me and I can’t know what would’ve happened to me, but I can make a movie about it. I always loved that movie “Sliding Doors” and I’m interested in doing different stuff from the boilerplate, A-B-C storyline, so that was the inspiration.
Cory Hardrict: I read that script about five years ago and I thought it was amazing and [that] whoever gets to play this, it’s a dream role – you get to play two characters in a movie. Very rarely you see movies like that, so I felt like it would be an opportunity of a lifetime. [Initially] I was involved in the movie in a smaller part and as years went on, Qasim believed I could play the main character – he saw something that I could pull it off and I’m thankful that he believed in me.
Qasim has said that this evolved a lot from the initial incarnation, like how Rasheed/Sheed’s mother became played by Paula Devicq, a white actress. How did Cory come to play the lead and what impact did that have on the rest of it?
Qasim Basir: Because over time, it became really clear to me. Sometimes you don’t see it right away and then there are other elements at play that contribute, but over some time, seeing [Cory’s] range and understanding the difficulty of playing both of these roles – there are a lot of people that could play one or the other, but then noticing that he’s the kind of guy that could be convincing in both – that dawned on me at one point.
Then, because you’ve got to cast your lead and then create the cast around them, I thought “Well, he’s a little lighter-skinned and we’ve seen the struggling black mom in the hood a thousand times in movies.” And I’ve noticed that in a lot of hoods I go to, there’s two or three white families living there, fitting in and become a part of the community, so I thought it would be interesting to have someone like that in the film. And [Paula] was terrific – As soon as they met, it was like immediate [chemistry].
Cory Hardrict: I loved working with her. She was amazing.
Sheed and Rasheed are two sides of the same coin – was there something you latched onto to play them?
Cory Hardrict: We shot Sheed first, and I did want to make sure that I did play them different, but the same as far as the tone. It’s like a certain tone in the film, and I tried to make sure both characters are grounded. I’m not really into characters – changing my voice or doing anything like that because that comes across a little corny and just not relatable.
The first day I’m always rusty because it’s the first take, the first frame, and you’re finding your way. You’re trying to say how can I fall into this character and make it organic and natural, so as time went on, I just let go. I act off of instinct – that’s how I operate is from the heart and a gut feeling – and I never really want to act. I want to give you real life when I’m doing it, so hopefully that’ll come across – to the camera, to the people and I just try to keep it simple.
So the shoot was structured in such a way that the Sheed stuff was first and the Rasheed stuff was second?
Qasim Basir: Yeah, I needed them to stay in those characters because I feel it would be irresponsible for me to be like, “Hey man, be Rasheed on this day and be Sheed the next.” I have a high regard for actors and I want to give them the best chance to flourish and do their work. The environment was brutal enough, given the weather – it was one of the coldest winters on record in Detroit that year we shot it, and we didn’t have much time, so I thought at least let them have a couple weeks with each character so that they don’t have to go back and forth.
Cory Hardrict: Yeah, when it was like 30 below zero, I had the tank top going and you see the snot coming down, the smoke coming [out of my mouth]…
Qasim Basir: It may have been 15 below…
Cory Hardrict: Well, what’s the difference? [both laugh] 15 below, 30 below? I just know we had to do this scene and it was icicles out there. We had one take and at first, I was like, “Man, I don’t know if I’m taking off my shirt. Am I going to have to go to the hospital after for hypothermia?”
Qasim Basir: And you did have to go to the hospital…not that day.
Cory Hardrict: Not that day. I got sick. But that was the most challenging [day] I’ve ever filmed, rolling around in that snow. Qasim and our other producer Tommy [Oliver] took their shirts off with me because they felt for me. They were like, “You know, he might not be alive after this scene, so we’re going to do it up.” [laughs] But it was rewarding because we all did it and we got something special out of that whole climactic scene towards the end.
What was it like filming in Detroit? Besides the cold, it looked like you had your run of the place.
Qasim Basir: Yeah, it’s on a major, major comeback [now], but the population has been very low for a long time, so we would go places and there was no one around. [laughs] When we were shooting between those buildings, there was nobody for a mile, and not only that, but that’s home for me, so I know everybody there and like half of the cars we used, it was just me calling a friend I knew had a Porsche and I’m like, “Hey, man, let me use your Porsche for this movie, let me use your bar for this scene…”
Cory Hardrict: That’s the beauty of Detroit, though. You can’t get that cinematic universe nowhere else. Just the landscape. I would love to shoot more movies in Detroit. I’m sure I will.
Qasim Basir: Being down in Detroit, it’s a hard shoot to produce, but it feels like a bigger movie than what we spent on it and that’s high production value, and to have a producing team that can pull that off, it’s pretty significant.
The idea of distinguishing which world you’re in by color is such an elegant solution to what must’ve been a tricky structural issue. Did you have that in mind – with Sheed in gold and Rasheed in blue – from the start?
Qasim Basir: Yeah, I always saw these worlds to look and feel different. From the beginning, the idea was to shoot Sheed, the drug dealer’s world, mostly handheld, which gives a lot more movement, and the colors are a lot warmer and a lot of our environments, we’re surrounded by more brick and more concrete. [There’s a clear contrast to] that element of the bronze, gritty brick feel versus the colder more steel and grey bluish look of the architect’s world [Rasheed is in] where the tension is more cold and under the surface, [which] we shot more static and more steadicam. All this was planned before [as early as] when we were selecting locations and then when we got in post, we just pushed the colors a little further.
What’s it been like to bring this out into the world?
Qasim Basir: It’s been great and I want it to go out into the world and live its life because we’ve done 10 film festivals. We’ve been to every major city in this country basically, from here to New York, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, all these film festivals, and so far the response has been great. That was actually an earlier cut of the movie and I think it’s just gotten better as we’ve noticed what audiences have appreciated about it, so this final version, I’m really happy for it to go out.
Cory Hardrict: I think once the movie gets out there to the world, there’s no stopping it because people make that decision to keep it around and I believe it will. I don’t think it’ll be a movie that people in two, three, four months, that people go “Ehh…” I believe it’ll be around, and that’s what it’s about – the longevity of the project.
Qasim Basir: Yeah, it’s been quite rewarding because it’s always a risk doing something different. I want to break open these boxes that we as African-American filmmakers have been put in for so long. It’s like why can’t we do a thousand different things that everyone else is doing? So when you see something like parallel realities and that it works, it’s a great feeling.