Los Angeles natives Travon Free and Kris Bowers have more in common than their hometown. The first-time directors both received Oscar nominations last month for their short films, which are currently streaming and boast name-brand support from the filmmaking and Black communities.
Free’s “Two Distant Strangers” (on Netflix), co-directed with Martin Desmond Roe, is a narrative short that sees its subject (played by rapper Joey Badass) being killed again and again by the same malevolent police officer in a fatalistic time loop. It’s a dramatic change of pace for the comedian and writer, a veteran of “The Daily Show” and “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.”
Bowers co-directed, with Ben Proudfoot, “A Concerto Is a Conversation” (on YouTube), which sees Bowers — a composer for award-winning projects including “Green Book” and “When They See Us” — reflect on his path to creating a concerto and the road that his grandfather took from Florida to help establish his family in Los Angeles.
Each film enjoys high-profile backing — Sean “Diddy” Combs and Kevin Durant for “Two Distant Strangers” and Ava DuVernay for “Concerto” — and the coincidental involvement of producer Gigi Pritzker, CEO of Madison Wells. She appeared with the duo and their co-directors this week at a chat sponsored by the Ghetto Film School that addressed social justice in filmmaking.
“I have always believed that the stories we tell help shape who we are as a society,” Pritzker told The Times. “When the script for ‘Two Distant Strangers’ came to me in the summer of 2020 I knew it was a story that needed to be told and I was happy to play a supporting role. I [also] couldn’t be happier for Kris, Ben and the entire [‘Concerto’] team. These two films embody exactly why I wanted to be a filmmaker in the first place.”
We caught up with Free and Bowers — who are looking forward to meeting in person at the Academy Awards on April 25 — for a video-conferenced chat about the recognition for their films, the particular hurdles of pandemic filmmaking and their L.A. roots.
Oscar-nominated. You can put that in front of your names forever. How has the journey been so far?
Kris Bowers: For me, I mean, it’s definitely been a pretty wild journey — especially for my grandfather, being able to see him just receiving this public recognition and seeing people react to his story. And I think that’s been a big win for me ... . Every time I call him now he’s excited to hear what new piece of information I have for him, and he’s all ready for the Oscars.
Travon Free: It’s been really, really wild. I haven’t really had a ton of time to even process it because it all happened while I was running a writers room for a TV show and also writing a movie for Apple, and it just kind of all collided on each other at the same time. My writers room started in February, my script was due in February, and then we were running our campaign and showing people the movie, and then the nomination happened. That day felt like one of the most amazing experiences of just trying to really comprehend what just happened to me from an individual perspective and even from a career level. I mean, my co-nominee/co-director is actually close friends with Kris.
Free: They’ve actually worked together, and so it’s just a crazy experience. I don’t think I can fully be able to even comprehend it until we finished it, because it all happened so fast, and the train just keeps moving.
This past year must have made production exponentially more difficult. How did you navigate the challenges of 2020?
Free: We shot our movie in the middle of the pandemic in September in five days. A lot of the hurdles and barriers to getting our film made was the fact that, at the time when I had the idea and I wrote the script in July, SAG wasn’t allowing people to shoot anything in L.A. They weren’t giving permits for anything in L.A. [FilmLA] wasn’t giving permits in L.A. So, we just kind of took up the ambition of acting as if we were going to be able to make the movie — not knowing if we would ever be able to make the movie — and assuming that if we get to late August-September, and things change, we can keep the production train rolling.
While we were filming, we were still raising the money [to cover the extra costs of production during the pandemic], while also dealing with all the parameters of COVID. We lost two hours a day of filming because of COVID, we had 10-hour days instead of 12. ... It forced us to get real direct and decisive about what we wanted to do because there was not a lot of time to think about decisions beyond what our initial instincts were. And I think that helped us. I think it helped us not overthink things ...
And so we were fortunate enough to shoot our movie in the two-week window at the end of last summer where you were allowed to film, because right after we finished, that next week, they ended it. We barely made it.
Bowers: For us, we got really lucky with the filming aspect. ... The conversation was [filmed at] the end of 2019, and then the concerto premiered in February of 2020 — literally maybe three weeks or so before the lockdown. So most of the issues came up in post, and we had to figure out how to score it remotely, because we still had a live string ensemble and some other instrumentation that we did remotely and recorded everybody separately and pieced it back together, and had to kind of figure out that process.
How did you each work with your co-directors to figure out the specific tone and the style to tell your stories?
Bowers: The style really is a lot of Ben [Proudfoot] at the end of the day. His company, Breakwater, they’ve found this really signature way of filming interviews for short documentaries. Ben has a theory that he feels like we watch most of these things on small devices, and so he wants to fill that device and that screen with as much information as possible.
It feels like, especially with a documentary, that seeing as much of the face as possible, you really get to see so much of the story and the way people feel as they’re navigating these memories or emotional conversations. ... As soon as we talked about the conversation being between my grandfather and I in that first meeting, he was like, “I’ve always wanted to try this two-interrotron thing. I have no idea how it’ll work or if it’ll work, but let’s just try it.” And it was much more seamless and comfortable than I expected it to be.
The process is a teleprompter system — I’m looking at a screen [and] behind the screen is the camera, and on the screen is my grandfather’s face. And so when I’m looking directly into his eyes, I’m looking into the camera. For me it feels like we’re just having a conversation, and it actually ended up being really easy for my grandfather in that way, too.
I was a bit nervous how he would feel staring at a camera for three or four hours, but being that it was this screen interaction, it made it not too dissimilar from these kinds of conversations on Zoom and FaceTime and all of that. And then it was just about trying to find all these different ways to get us into that conversation and really put us in the middle of it. It was a pretty fun thing to experiment with, and it’s been interesting to see the people that really react to being put in the middle of a conversation in that way.
For you, Travon, there’s “Happy Death Day,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” movies that are in a fatalistic time loop where people die and come back, but yours is connected to contemporary issues. How did you decide that this was the way you wanted to tell the story?
Free: As often as the “Groundhog Day” trope is used now to tell stories, and they’ve gotten more and more creative, this was the first time that it felt like an actual metaphor for something. It’s a metaphor for what it is like to be Black in America. It is the loop.
I mean, if you put all those movies next to each other and you look at the actual purpose the time loop is serving ... we’re literally living that experience. We go through the cycle of hearing about Daunte Wright, being angry about Daunte Wright, being sad for Daunte Wright and his family, and then the hopelessness you feel that this will never stop happening to us. And then getting yourself back to a place of being hopeful and resilient enough to fight, to continue to find a solution to a problem that seems unsolvable.
So the thought occurred to me last summer, when we were marching and protesting, that this cycle of internalizing the emotions around these deaths feels like the worst version of “Groundhog Day.” Even in the actual movie itself, the original movie, the device only serves to stop to help a white guy understand “you just shouldn’t be an asshole to people,” for lack of a better term.
For us, it’s demonstrating to people the cyclical nature of the trauma we experience just living in this country on a day-to-day basis. And that to me took it to another level. That to me was taking it beyond what we had seen it used for before.
What did L.A. mean to each of you in terms of your storytelling?
Bowers: This story in particular, it’s really layered. I mean, for my grandfather to hear about this place and decide that it’s going to be possibly the safe haven for him to go to after coming from the experiences he had in Florida. ... Like he says in the film, he got here and he was like, “In the South, they tell you. In Los Angeles, they show you.” And he’s always said that for my entire life.
Los Angeles has always had this interesting thing — I grew up here, my dad grew up here, my grandfather has been here since the ’40s. We have easily 50 family members in this city and I have such fond memories growing up and being in some of the best music schools here in L.A. My parents did everything they could to drive all around the city to find the best music schools for me, the best education with anything ... it always felt to me like an opportunity in a really beautiful way where I just had whatever I wanted.
And I think the older I get, the more I realize [that’s] because of my parents and because of my grandparents. It’s not the land of opportunity — it only is if you can get it. And I think that’s what the film really speaks to. My grandfather found a way to get here, and realized that people weren’t going to tell him to his face that they didn’t want to help him or support him or any of that, but once he felt an inkling of that, he did everything he could to try to find a way around that system and find a way to build his own success.
Free: I grew up in Compton in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it was at a time when it was one of the worst places to live in America in terms of its murder rate and crime. I was a basketball player all the way through college, and it was the thing that kept me from doing anything else. It was that pursuit of basketball that kept me on the straight and narrow. And I think a huge part of that was my mom, and my grandmother, and my mom’s brother.
I didn’t realize till I was much older that a lot of the things that were happening in the city missed me because of my uncle, because he was, at the time, a very powerful gang member in the city. And there was a bubble of protection around me I didn’t know existed until I was old enough to talk about, or be talked to about it.
I had many friends who died over the course of my getting through high school, and leaving the city to go to Long Beach for college, and it gave me so much character and resilience when it came to firsthand experience with trauma and death and how to persevere through that. I felt fortunate to get out alive, because you didn’t have to be a gang member or participate in any type of dangerous activity to find yourself a victim of a stray bullet or somebody’s gun or knife.
And it gave me this desire once I got out and into the world to want to do more for that community, to represent something. That people, the kids who are now coming up, could point to people like me. I think in terms of filmmaking, you have me and Ava [DuVernay], and occasionally people throw in Kevin Costner. I guess Kevin Costner’s also from Compton. But it’s not a dream people from Compton are typically chasing.
A lot of what I learned growing up there is what made it easier for me to survive in this industry. Oftentimes we find ourselves the only Black person in the room, and it takes a strong mindset to not let that change you in a negative way. I think L.A. and Compton was a huge part of what made me strong enough to be a 6-foot-7-inch Black man who is also a filmmaker and TV show writer in an industry where there ain’t very many of me.
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