Sundance 2018 Exclusive: Director Anthony Mandler Talks About His Feature Debut MonsterPosted by Wilson Morales
January 28, 2018
Recently making its World Premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival was “Monster,” which marks the feature debut of acclaimed commercial/music video director Anthony Mandler, who received worldwide notoriety for his work with some of the music industry’s most influential artists.
Written by Radha Blank, Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer, and based on the award winning novel by Walter Dean Myers, “Monster” is what the prosecutor calls 17 year old honors student and aspiring filmmaker Steve Harmon. Charged with felony murder for a crime he says he did not commit, the film follows his dramatic journey through a complex legal battle that could leave him spending the rest of his life in prison.
The cast includes Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the role of Steve Harmon; Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Ehle, A$AP Rocky, Nas, Tim Blake Nelson, John David Washington and Jeffrey Wright.
Blackfilm.com spoke exclusively with Mandler as he spoke about making this transition from videos to feature film and being connected with this film.
How did you choose this project to be the first feature you wanted to direct?
Anthony Mandler: When I read the script and the book, the idea to be part of a film that looked at this topic with the idea that one moment, one decision in someone’s life can affect their whole life. When you talk about a young black boy, who’s caught in a penal system that is not set up for him to land and you’re seeing him fight for his innocence, it just felt really important. The lens that the film crystalizes and our ability to look at criminal justice and prison reform and the social set of issues was important. On the flip side, watching a young kid grow and find himself and his vision was very close to my own experience. So I can really identify with that and I felt to the other side of what was happening and the importance of telling that story.
Coming from the music video world, what were the challenges you faced on this feature length film?
Anthony Mandler: The challenge was really about stripping away the tendency to elevate what you’re doing, which is like music videos and commercials and throwing a lot of glitter in the air and set off fireworks, figurative speaking. With an independent film and this sort of topic, you have to strip that stuff and get to the core of what’s happening while still making it an entertaining piece of work.
Can you talk about putting together this cast?
Anthony Mandler: That’s the great advantage of being from where I’m from. I can pick up the phone and call A$AP Rocky and pick up the phone and call Jennifer (Hudson). Working with the cast and working my way to work with Jennifer Ehle and Jeffrey Wright, the caliber and authenticity of actors. The big question was finding Kelvin. I wanted a kid who wore his emotion on his face and sometimes could do nothing and would tell the whole story; and had the confidence about the world because he had a great set of parents and a real good foundation, but maybe not enough street sense to know right from wrong. That sort of nuance and duality is something Kelvin lives in within the actor of his sort of age.
Did you draw upon other films when filming the courtroom scenes?
Anthony Mandler: I watched a lot of Sidney Lumet movies and I watch Larry Clark’s Kids. Those were the two film references for the film.
How exciting was it for you to see your film get applauded at Sundance after its screening?
Anthony Mandler: It’s what dreams are made of. No matter who you are and the success and no matter how cool you want to be, I was crying and smiling and just living in that energy and moment. You live your whole life for some of these big moments and that was one of them for me.
Will directing movies be now your day job or you going back to doing videos and commercials?
Anthony Mandler: I recently announced that I will be directing called “Man of Cloth” this summer, partnering back with Bron Studios. My day job will continue between videos and commercials but the idea is to keep staying on the path of directing films.
What makes “Monster” different from other courtroom dramas about the innocent?
Anthony Mandler: I chose a very specific tone with the film and that tone was essentially gray. I want dot stay away from the black and white mentality, whether it’s network TV like Shots Fired in that sort of version of drama of young black males, or even long form documentaries that look for the truth. I believe that life isn’t black or white and no matter what you discover like from a Trayvon Martin documentary, there’s still a guy that paid $200K for the gun that killed him and they put it on the wall. That disgusting institutional racism exists in a huge vacuum in our country, and it’s something that a documentary is not going to change.
My objective was to be in a gray zone where you show every side of this crime and all the different scenarios and all the victims and really get to the heart of what this kid did; and how the system does not allow for the truth to come out by the way the law is set up. The difference about the courtroom is that the film is told from three timeframes and flashbacks. It’s put together in a non-linear sequence. You’re consistently being shook and rattled from your seat as to what’s happening. The idea was to prevent the viewer from formulating too deep of opinions from they are watching. So, as the film pushes in the third act, you’re like in a narrowing hallway and you have no choice but to say from a basic come reaction, “This is what I feel.”
What’s the biggest thing you learned that you will take to your next project?
Anthony Mandler: It’s all about the group of actors. That’s how we made this in 20 days. That’s why I’m so proud of this film. The embodiment of people playing their roles and the honor they did to the word from bring it from the book to the screen.