Radha Blank is conflicted. As would anyone in her position be right now. Way back at Sundance in January, her breakout film, The 40-Year-Old Version (which is in the process of being rebranded as The Forty-Year-Old Version, in an effort to avoid confusion from people completing on-demand purchases who were looking for the 2005 Judd Apatow comedy) debuted to rave review and accolades and nothing was going to stop Blank now. And then, of course, the whole world basically stopped. And her film, ripe with comedy and a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, would not be able to play in front of any crowds. Or, at least, the big raucous crowds she had envisioned. So here we are, at the biggest moment of her career, but it’s not how she saw things playing out. None of us did, really.
Her film – in which the title is a play on The 40-Year Old Virgin because, as Blank puts it, there are enough movies about white guys trying to figure their lives out; Blank says she even appropriated Apatow’s notoriously long-running time – stars herself as a middling Harlem playwright whose new play has been workshopped to the point she doesn’t even recognize it anymore. To take out her creative frustrations, she enlists the help of a Brooklyn musician, D (Oswin Benjamin), as she embarks on a new career in hip-hop.
When I spoke to Blank she was in Baltimore where Netflix had given her a socially distanced, limited capacity premiere, which will have to do for now. (Her film hits Netflix this week.) Though she’s been promised that once things return to normal she’ll be given her theatrical run on gorgeous 35mm print of the film. This interview turned out to be somewhat impromptu, originally scheduled for a future day, the film’s publicist asked if I could just do it right then, which led to maybe a more freewheeling conversation since we were both just kind of going with the flow. And, as it turns out, Blank is especially great at going with the flow.
Where in the world are you right now?
I’m in Baltimore. I live between here and Harlem.
So, I saw this movie at Sundance with a crowd in a theater…
Oh, the olden days.
It seems like six years ago.
Oh yeah. Ages ago. A whole other time.
When I watched this at Sundance, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I miss New York. I want to go back.” And then I watched this again today and I had similar feelings even though I have not left New York City since February.
Boy, if we knew and could do it all over again, I’m sure we’d be in a different place. The funny thing is, the other day I walked outside without a mask and I felt like a pariah. I walked outside and I walked up the block going to my juice spot. And, I was like, “Oh no!” And I ran back inside. I didn’t want to be the person not following the rules.
Something similar happened to me. I wanted to shout, “No, no, I’m not a no-mask guy. I just forgot.”
“I’m a good person.”
Right. I’m a good person.
It’s where we are. The movie opens in theaters Friday, and I can’t lie and say I’m not conflicted about it. Here is the biggest moment of my career as a filmmaker, and because we’re in a pandemic, I can’t really fully celebrate it. But, Netflix is so cool. The film is not showing in theaters in New York.
They’re not even open here.
Right. Netflix supported me in doing a really cool friends and family, socially distant, very socially distant screening in Baltimore. And my friends, they have their trepidations, but we’re the COVID test crew. I’m like four tests in. Netflix has been very supportive in helping me to have some kind of moment. Honestly, I am in a better place than other filmmakers. There were some people who did not get to show their films in a festival because the festival was canceled.
Yeah, you were at one of the last ones.
Right. Exactly. I don’t take my six screenings lightly. It also was an opportunity to learn more about the film. I’m that kind of writer. I spend so much time with the words or the world that I’ve been creating that I don’t really know what it is until I hear it or see it or watch people watching or hearing or seeing it.
I know the movie’s a little different now than the one I saw in January…
Just a little bit.
You got to use the audience to probably make some of those choices.
I will say, though, that artists, storytellers, the industry is doing their best to respond to that. Netflix has been a great partner in trying to give me the best first filmmaker experience as I possibly can. You don’t shoot a 35mm film with the intention of people watching it on a tablet or on the iPhone. But, I will get some of that cinema experience, and we’re hoping next year, as we close out our campaign, that we get to do some special screenings in New York of a purely black-and-white 35mm screening.
If it makes you feel better, I think most people are watching on their big-screen TVs now. I know it’s not a theater, but it’s better than a phone.
I hope so. I was inspired by Roy DeCarava in terms of making sure you see the difference between my skin tone and Peter Kim who plays Archie, his skin tone, as well as Oswin Benjamin, who plays D. It’s been a real labor of love. And I think that those 35mm screenings, when they happen, hopefully in 2021, as a part of this awards campaign, it’ll be a moment to celebrate cinema in a theater. You know what it’s like when you’re in the theater in New York? And it’s dark and you go to a screening? God bless Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Ugh, God, that’s heartbreaking that that place isn’t there anymore, but that’s where I used to go.
I used to go there all the time.
Oh my God, I remember when I discovered it was closed. I was across the street and it was like being in a ghost town and seeing this saloon, this place I used to frequent. Letters were practically hanging off of the marquee. I cried.
I loved that escalator ride down, that you’re still kind of outside and then you’re being enveloped by the theater.
Right. To get to the hallway or to get to the bathroom or even to get in the aisle, you had to kind of squeeze yourself in front. I went to see Dancer in the Dark with my mom, who was the first major cinephile in my life. I remember sitting in that theater, and it’s always the same thing. It’s like a routine. It’s choreographed. You sit down, and there’s the older couple ahead, and he’s coughing and she gives him a mint. And, then there’s the older women behind us, the widowers who are just like, “Is this going to be any good? My daughter said this was great.” I miss that so much.
When I was rewatching it today, speaking of the way things used to be, the scene where you get shamed on the New York City bus stood out. Everyone who lives in New York has that moment where someone with a leg cast is getting on the bus and you think, “Oh my God, this is going to take 20 minutes and I’m late.” But, then you feel like such an asshole for thinking that. And it’s such a great scene.
Thank you! This is based on a true story of me taking the Bx19 across town. It’s stopping at every stop. I got on that bus and it felt like it took me an hour to go what I think is a 25 minute ride. Initially, we meant to shoot a third beat at that, but we didn’t really need it especially for New Yorkers, like yourself, who have been through that experience. You already know that that scene could have gone on for another 10 minutes.
Much longer than that.
Much longer. You know what I love about that, which is why New York will always be my home? I’ve grown very, very romantic and nostalgic about the Upper West Side because I find that even though there’s some economic disparity between where I live in Sugar Hill, it still is what it is. I don’t know that that place could be gentrified in the way that other parts of New York are gentri-fried: like all new businesses, new buildings going up, new cultural hubs. When I go to the Upper West Side, especially by the park or by the museum, I love walking through that neighborhood. I can count on my New York elders walking around hands in hands, sitting on a park bench. Every once in a while, there will be that homeless guy who has an opinion and is waxing poetic.
It sounds like you were hesitant at first about selling to Netflix because the theatrical experience means so much to you. Do you look back at that decision now with what’s happened in the world and go, “Oh, thank goodness.” Instead of being in limbo, you’re in this group of movies directed by yourself, Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher…
Right, and Charlie Kaufman.
Well, it’s one of those things. When my mom passed away, one of my friends said, “You know, one day you’ll see the beauty in this moment.” My inkling was to punch him in the dick. I didn’t do that.
I lost my dad in 2017, and people would say that. I was like, “That is not what I want to hear right now.”
“Fuck you. First of all, fuck you.”
It’s usually people who haven’t gone through the experience.
It’s people who lost a grandparent. And I’m like, it’s not the same.
It is not the same, especially when you’re so close. My relationship with my mother, she really was the Sophia to my Dorothy Zbornak. We really were close. We share the same birthday. When I lost my mom, my life was pretty devastated because it was like, how am I going to call myself an artist when my biggest fan or champion is not in the audience? We were best friends. I bring up that thing of the beauty of the moment. because when we started those meetings, those quiet clandestine meetings in the cloak of night in the Sundance mountains with all the interested parties – the reality is that everyone doesn’t have an art-house cinema in their town. But everybody has Netflix. If you have WiFi, you have Netflix. It did turn out to be the best thing because now also people can return to it over and over again if they want to. It’s something I do with films I really love. I will pause it, and go have tea or whatever and come back and revisit. There’s a show on HBO max, Ridley Scott’s Raised by Wolves.
I’m up to maybe episode seven, and I really love this show. I’m just refreshed by it, and the production value is so damn high. There was a moment in there where I had to rewind this thing eight times. You can always go back and just play, like me and The Wiz. It’s a childhood treasure for me, mainly for the musical numbers. And, it’s so funny, because Sidney Lumet is one of my heroes. And that’s a film that, when it came out, got trashed. But, for Black children the world over, it is a classic.
I’ve seen it again recently. It’s very entertaining.
It’s so entertaining when you see what these artisans, how they transform these street scenes into something really mystical and magical. The messages, there’s a song in there, “You Can’t Win,” by the late, great Michael Jackson. I know he has a, you know, cloak over him. But at this particular time, he was definitely a celebrated artist. If you listen to the words of that song and how it relates to Black pathology in America, I mean, my God. I did not appreciate that as a kid, but as an adult – I think I was on mushrooms at the time – I heard that song in a way I had not heard before. “You Can’t Win” is that self-hating voice that has come out of years of oppression and white supremacy in this country that a lot of Black people walk around with day to day. That darker self-defeating voice we don’t all adhere to. Sidney is someone who, I think the reason I love him so much is because he’s an actor’s director. He really trusts the people that he hires.
He worked with Vin Diesel, which is still so weird.
I wonder what he would say about that now? But yeah, it’s very crazy. He trusts himself. And when asked, when someone said, well, wait a minute, your films are all over the place. But then he said, “No, the running theme is the dissenter.” The person who says “no.” Whether it’s Serpico or Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men or Sean Connery in The Hill. It’s the person who’s pushing up against something. He is a God to me. He was an influence. Robert Townsend was an influence. Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes. My mom turned me on to all these people.
I’d embarrassingly never seen Hal Ashby’s Shampoo until recently. That movie is amazing.
What a voice. I don’t know if you saw the Hal doc on him and his life?
What a storyteller. Harold and Maude? Come on. What I got from Hal is fearless. To leave a camera lingering on an actor for that long and to trust an actor, not cutting away, not cutting away. It’s like theater. Christopher Guest was an influence just in terms of… I’m obsessed with mockumentary. I do want to make a straight-up, cold mockumentary.
There are moments in this that feel like that, little exchanges you have.
Great. The first film for a lot of people, they put everything in there or they’re experimenting. And, that is something I do want to do at some point.
Did anyone try to talk you out of the title? I’ll admit when I first heard people saying it I thought they were saying 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Yeah, absolutely. And, that whole thing of, oh, version, in your head… And I’m being quite explicit about my appropriating Judd Apatow’s title. While there are numerous films about white guys trying to figure their lives the fuck out, this for me and people who look like me, I appropriated his title and appropriated his running time. Why not? And why not make it two hours? You know? I’m going to be honest with you. I didn’t set out to make a two-hour movie, but for me it was what was required to tell this big, epic New York story. I had potential producers at the time telling me, “You need to change that title.“ I actually think it’s one of the best things about the film, because now I have this acronym, “FYOV.” Know what I mean?
Well, I’m looking forward to your version of The Sing of Staten Island.
And when are you going to be at The Comedy Store?
I’m doing open mic next week.
I can’t wait. I’ll be there, front and center.
‘The 40-Year-Old Version’ streams via Netflix on October 9. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.