How ‘Harder They Fall’ was rolling along until Murphy’s law went into overdrive
When I embarked on making “The Harder They Fall” as my feature film debut, I had a strong idea of the joyous but tumultuous journey that lay ahead, because close to 10 years ago I wrote and directed a 51-minute western short film, “They Die By Dawn.” That was a proof of concept, almost a practice run.
Although it was much shorter and smaller in budget, the fundamentals, I thought, would remain the same: stellar cast, costumes, locations and horses. It turns out, however, I had no idea of the journey that lay ahead. I’ll get to that in a minute.
For me, a film starts with a story that I want to tell. A story that I haven’t been told before. That for me was “The Harder They Fall.” I was passionate beyond words about telling this story, and nothing was going to prevent me from telling it, even if I had to shoot it on a bunch of iPhones, seriously.
On the surface, “The Harder They Fall” is a revenge story, a man hunting down the killer of his parents. Beneath that, however, it’s much deeper. It’s a love story about two men caught in a never-ending cycle of violence because of their loss. It’s a story where both the hunter and hunted are essentially the same person, only to have a final confrontation with tears.
I needed to tell this story because it speaks to the cycle of violence I witnessed in my community growing up and is still so prevalent today. Without being preachy or trying to provide an answer, I merely wanted to shed a light on what goes on and ask the question, “Why?”
In their own words: Tony Kushner, Rebecca Hall, Jeymes Samuel and other screenwriters take us on a journey through writing their film scripts.
First, I needed the team — that included Idris Elba, whom I have known for around 15 years and with whom I have never stopped talking about this movie. There was no version of this movie without Idris playing the notorious Rufus Buck. Next, I needed my producers — Shawn Jay-Z Carter and James Lassiter. Jay and JL called me in London and said, “We have a meeting set up at Netflix, and they will be the ideal home for the movie.” I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, after 10 years of hard grind … things just got mad real, mad fast!”
Then it was about assembling the rest of the cast. I think I’ve always been good at explaining my particular brand of crazy, but you still need what I call “golden angels” to champion the film and spread the word about you. One of these angels was Lorrie Bartlett, who believed in the movie and moved heaven and Earth to put Regina King and myself on the phone. Regina believed in my brand of crazy. I was always excited about this movie, but with Regina King in it? I. Could. Not. Wait. To. Start. Shooting. Jonathan Majors as Nat Love was nothing but a godsend.
Soon I had the full cast and crew to bring the vision to life. But then something happened that in a million years I could never have seen coming. In reading thousands of books on filmmaking, I would always hear about Murphy’s law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Well, folks, Murphy caught COVID-19 and was out of here. That phrase should be changed to COVID’s law, where every single thing you had planned gets merked. The entire world went into chaos one day before filming. We were shut down.
Everyone was now in Santa Fe, N.M., without a project. It was no longer about our movie; it was about the safety of the entire populace of planet Earth. I can’t even believe I am writing this. I cannot even believe I ended up making “The Harder They Fall” in the eye of the storm of COVID. But make it we did. Netflix was not backing down on their commitment to this film. In fact, they doubled down, tripled even.
Five months after being in the worldwide lockdown, we were back up and running. But this time, I was told I had to wear a mask, goggles, face shield, and I couldn’t stand closer than six feet to any cast or crew. There was not a vaccine at this point, so the paranoia was through the roof. PCR tests were not commonplace, so we had to use the rapid tests, which forced us to shut down on a number of occasions due to false positives. But we persevered, and I have to say, we had so much fun in the process.
I always say the film we make is for the audience, but the actual making of the film is for the cast and crew. I was going to make sure we all had a memorable experience in making it. That meant I would OK music on set, rock out whenever we all could and speak to every single person on set, from the caterers to what we called the COVID Police keeping everyone six feet away from each other.
Nothing on this movie was normal. I suppose that goes for any movie, but, man, dealing with COVID in the desert, while making a western, with all folks of color, while I’m simultaneously scoring and producing the soundtrack … it was bonkers.
But I wouldn’t change a second of it for the world … except maybe the time when R.J. Cyler wouldn’t capture the lizard in my bedroom for me! That’s why his Jim Beckwourth character had to go!
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