Set against the backdrop of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Oakland, California, Blindspotting centers on the lifelong friendship between its two main characters, Collin (Daveed Diggs), and Miles (Rafael Casal). Taking place over Collin’s last three days on a year-long probation, the film never shies away from the issues plaguing Oakland, and most major U.S. cities right now, while also telling a story filled with both humor and humanity. After its surprisingly quiet premiere at Sundance earlier this year, Blindspotting made it onto the film slate at this year’s SXSW, where it got a standing ovation from the audience.
We got the chance to sit down with stars Diggs and Casal, who also co-wrote the film together, and director, Carlos López Estrada. The three of them talked about the whirlwind process of making the movie, as well as how their background in theater and hip-hop ultimately helped it come together.
There’s a lot going on in this movie, so let’s just start from the very beginning and go from there.
Daveed Diggs: Well, we’ve known each other a long time, and Jess and Keith [Calder] have been the producers of this from the beginning, and they discovered Rafael Casal.
Rafael Casal: On YouTube.
Diggs: On YouTube doing poems a decade ago.
Casal: Poems and rap music.
Diggs: After HBO had discovered him.
Casal: But Jess and Keith were starting their company and were looking for interesting writers and I think they were looking to develop new writers and…
Diggs: They made the mistake of thinking Rafael was interesting.
Casal. They made the mistake of thinking I was interesting, and then I stalked them for quite a long time. [Laughs.] No, they came up and met me and were like “Do you want to film stuff?” I was like, “Sure, of course.” That’s a very theoretical question to ask an 18-year-old. But they wanted to do something with heightened language, and over the next year they got introduced to Daveed and we sort of all realized we really wanted to do something together. And there was a lot of turbulence in Oakland with the relationship between black men and police and — I don’t know if it’s a turbulent relationship so much as police shooting black men. Not a 50/50 relationship so much as a hunting mission. We realized that that’s part of the story we want to tell about Oakland.
Diggs: Shout out to some of the great police officers on OPD, though. Margaret Dixon, what up?
Casal: None of the guys on The Force documentary. So, we were like, “Well, the relationship between that and what gentrification is doing for Oakland and continuing to polarize the city seems like two issues that were a massive intersection.” We had loosely conceptualized these characters, Collin and Miles, and decided to write a script that was just around what was happening in the city around a shooting.
So, we started writing nine years ago, and we’ve had start and stops of almost making it and not making it, always with Jess and Keith as the developing partners. Then it really came to a head last spring and at that point, the three of us has been working together for a while, Carlos had done a few projects with me, a bunch of projects with Daveed, and this felt like the right intersection of people and wanted to work with the most natural shorthand group of people we could work with. Because we had this massive task of shooting it in the one month that Daveed had free in his schedule.
So, Carlos and I moved to LA in March, and I embarked on this page-one rewrite of the script. And Daveed being my like midnight to 2 am conference call, “Here’s what I did today what do you think, okay cool and go back and change this the next day.” And Carlos sitting two seats ahead of me in our little theater at the Snoot office, me handing in pages and saying “What do you think of this? Well, I’d shoot it like this, wouldn’t it be cool if this happened? Cool.”
Then running upstairs with Jess and Keith and showing them what we did and getting their notes. [It] became this massively collaborative, all-hands-on-deck process. Diggs, the writer from afar. Me, the writer in the room. Carlos, the director in the room. Producers 20 feet away. Constant check-ins and big conceptual ideas, until a month later we had this script. And we realized we could actually shoot this thing in June, and a couple days after we did the table read.
Diggs: Everything happened very fast.
Casal: As our AD [Susan Alegria] would say, “Let’s be like Mike Vick and shoot this puppy.” It’s a terribly painful joke.
Diggs: A terribly painful joke to tell every day.
Casal: She would tell it every day and it would make the whole crew groan and that’s who got us to shoot this thing.
Diggs: I hope that makes it into the article.
Casal: I hope it does.
Did your real-life friendship help inform the on-screen relationship between Collin and Miles?
Diggs: I think it definitely helped inform the onscreen relationship. Those characters are not based on us at all. They are based on people we know and grew up around. We have the same touchstones, we grew up in the same place around the same people. So we could, while writing together, be like, “You know who this is like? This is like [this guy].” And it’s like, “Okay great, now we know how to write.” So that was useful.
But our friendship certainly helped in the shooting of the thing. You know, it’s a delicate situation often with actors. Working on other things, particularly in film and television, time is always the biggest issue, right? And we shot this in 22 days. Time was an issue, but so much work has to happen with actors to make us comfortable to do the things that we need to do. Particularly given the time and given that whatever they choose is forever, and you don’t get a say over what is being chosen and all this stuff, and all these sorts of horrific things about being an actor. But we got to skip all that because we all trust each other and know that it’s coming from a place of love and wanting to make the thing great. And also sort of this shared history.
So, having all of that around the project allowed me to not feel any kind of feelings when someone was like what you’re doing doesn’t work, do it different. Which is actually incredibly useful, it was an incredibly good streamlining process. Just knowing [that] because you’re friends, the people you’re around have your back, and that any decision we’re making is for the good of the project. It’s not about you. That’s really helpful.
Casal: And that if something’s not working we had the luxury of just changing it. It’s out loud in-between takes. And a big part, at least for me, was looking at him and sort of reminding me where Miles was at in the scene and me looking at him and hopefully reminding him where Collin was in the scene. And sort of pushing each other into who we think the other one is at that point in the movie.
And if for some reason it wasn’t lining up, like Miles is too big or Collin’s too big or one’s too small, whatever that adjustment is, to go, “Why do you say the line like that? You know you say it with this inflection, and that makes me want to respond differently,” and be able to understand the interpretation of the script in real time. Or for Carlos to see something on the monitor and go, “Oh man, why don’t you come over this way on this one?” To have that trust because we’re all so baked into the script, we’ve been intensely sitting on it for the last few months, really helps.