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.
That’s interesting because certain filmmakers are so protective of the words on the page, but this collaborative effort sounds like it helped to understand how to make each scene work right there as you’re filming.
Carlos López Estrada: I think for me this was a nine-month-long exercise in improvisation. Because of course these guys worked really hard on the script and we put a lot of thought into it. But we learned that the movie was going to happen in April and we had maybe two days in April, and then all of May to prep it, then we were shooting. And I don’t know how familiar people are with prep, but that gave us very little time to do all the things we had to do. The movie wasn’t cast, we hadn’t scouted [locations], we didn’t have a crew. So we were all thinking on our feet and two of us were scouting in Oakland while the other two of these guys were checking audition tapes and doing rewrites on the last draft, and we were crewing up. [When] we start shooting, we still didn’t have a few cast members.
So I think it was, in terms of production, I never had a minute to sit down and realize that we were making our first movie. I think now it’s finally dawning on me. It all happened so fast, we were extremely lucky to find, both cast-and-crew-wise, the people that we ended up working together with. Because they all just contributed so much to the project, I don’t know we could have made this movie with a different group of people. Whether it was our DP or our production designer, our entire cast, they all loved the script and said ‘I know we don’t have a lot of time, I know we don’t have a lot of money, but I feel like this is a movie that needs to be made and you’ve got me for as long as you need me, how can I provide and how can I add my part to this?’
A year ago today I didn’t know this movie existed and I didn’t think we would be premiering nine months later.
Diggs: We also all come from a theater background, and then Rafael and I come from a hip-hop background too, which is you throw stuff out all the time in that world. The best idea is the one that needs to happen and so you know here in the studio, the line doesn’t work, you change the line. That’s just part of it.
Casal: Nothing’s precious.
Diggs: So, I think we also look to work with people who are also good at that. And that’s a big part of the reason, like Carlos said, that we got the things that we got. That whole part where you find out what Collin did in the film, [that leads to his probation], that whole scene was very meticulously written. And Utkarsh [Ambudkar] decided to improvise the whole thing differently. And his was better, so we had to figure out how to shoot his version.
Casal: I was watching an interview with Jeff Bridges the other day, and he was talking about The Big Lebowski. He was saying that everyone thinks that movie, because it’s so sort of charming and buddy comedy-ish, that there’s so much improv, and he says it’s 99.9% what was on the page. And was, like, “I want to do it exactly as it was written,” and some actors are like that. And some actors don’t thrive in that space. And I think when we got Utkarsh on set for that scene, it was immediately apparent that you just let that man off the leash. He knows the gist of the story, and we haven’t shot it yet so it doesn’t matter. And his natural inclination is to embellish and get into the charisma of the character and every single take just got more and more interesting and animated and hilarious, and the crew’s just falling over.
What I realized that we had been doing up until that point was that we were doing two things that I’ll take with me for the rest of my career: [One] was leaning into people’s strengths and adjusting to help them lean into their strengths, and… what was my other one? That one, let’s just do that one.
Diggs: There’s one thing. There’s only one thing that we do.
Estrada: I think hearing Daveed talk about their freestyling, their rap background, I think to me, I don’t know if this is a stupid thing to say, but music videos are the rap equivalent to filmmaking. You usually don’t have a lot of time or money, and you have to be very resourceful and you have to throw stuff out, and you have to sort of make do with what you got. It’s like the scrappiest, most in-the0moment kind of filmmaking you can do. I guess maybe a documentary is as well.
But in terms of scripted stuff, having come up doing music videos I think allowed me to show up to set and we had just lost a location and we would show up to a brand new house that we had never seen before, only in photos like we were scouting over lunch. And we would just show up and say, ‘Hey the scene that exists doesn’t really work with the location let’s just sit together and figure out we can adjust it so that we can make it work where the door is, where the window is, and the camera doesn’t fit in this room.’ And then Daveed and Raf would sit down and just do two, three tweaks to the script. There was a lot of that. I mean, we had very little prep and very big ideas, and I think we all had to, to me it just felt like, I’m going to repeat what I said, it just felt like using my best skills of improvising and using little tools to come up with big results.
Casal: We made all our decisions about the why. It was never about the line, it was like why are we saying it, why are we making this choice, what does this do for the character, what does this do for the moment? So it’s less about this rigorous strict, stick to every line because that’s what we said in pre-production, but why does this line exist in the story? If there’s a better way to do it, or if it’s unnecessary, we change it.
Speaking of big ideas, you guys put so much of them into this movie, but at its heart is a really charming story about Collin and Miles. It seems like the kind of film that would be able to break down these barriers and get talking, and maybe even get them to realize that the people who lack the ability or willingness to have empathy for people who didn’t grow up in this world.
Diggs: I think it’s part of the story of the Bay Area, and us really wanting to tell a story representing that part of the world well. I say this about my upbringing all the time, I grew up poor, but not sad. People sometimes equate poverty with sadness, and it’s similar with all of these other things, right? Because you live in the wake of police brutality doesn’t mean that you’re crying all the time. In fact, generally speaking, if you talk to people who live rough, they tell jokes a lot, we told a lot of jokes growing up.
Casal: It’s the tool of the impoverished and the sad.
Diggs: There’s so much laughter and love in the world that we come from. So, if we’re going to accurately represent that world, the only way to do that is to do it with a bunch of laughter and love. And through that we’re able to see and feel even more prevalently all of the issues around, because it doesn’t feel like we’re being yelled at, feels like we’re just trying to live, we’re just trying to survive around all of the things that are going on. Nobody in the film is trying to solve a problem for the world, nobody has the resources or the time to sit back and philosophize about policy, right? This isn’t about policy, it’s about survival. So, in that sense, you gotta laugh and live and get through it. And so that’s what we get to watch people do, laughing and enjoying their lives to the best their ability until something runs up against that and then you get to watch them deal with it.