Independent Filmmaker's Guide
August 25, 2020
BlacKkKlansman Oscar Winner teams up with Empire's Trai Byers: The 24th
When Oscar winning screenwriter Kevin Willmott decided to make his next movie, he teamed up with star of the hit show Empire, Trai Byers, who joined not only as the lead role, but also as a co-writer and co-producer. Together, they created a movie with themes as relevant today as they were 100 years ago, the new historical drama The 24th. We sat down with them, just as the film is being released, and talked about their experience and journey.
Kevin Willmott: A long time ago, about 30 years ago really, I saw a photograph, the only real photograph of the trial. And I saw it, it was in a book called The Black West. And this photograph just blew my mind and the caption below it is said, “Largest murder trial in American history.” And I’m a history guy, I mean, certainly a black history guy and I’d never heard anything about this. Never knew anything about it. And so I started looking into it and found out it was the Houston Riot of 1917 and there was a really great story there. And I thought, this was long time ago when it originated, even then it really spoke to a lot of problems today. And more than anything it was just, I thought, a really important piece of history that everybody should know about. And at that time, this was a long time ago, my agent said, “No one is going to make this film.” And so the script would get me other jobs but I couldn’t get that script made. And so I went on to other things, always hoping to get back to it at some point. And so Trai was my screenwriting student in my screenwriting class at Kansas University. And I said to him way back then, I said, “Hey man, I think you would be great in the lead in this part.” And so cut to many years later, Trai has gone on to success in Empire and I was working on BlacKkKlansman for Spike and I said, “Hey, man, I’ve got this script and it needs to be rewritten. I want to update it, I want to make the romance bigger.” I just handed it off to Trai, he took it and ran with it and came back and did everything I would have done. And so we just started to work on it more from there.
Steven Pierce: That’s really interesting, so you were a student, Trai? You were Kevin’s student to start with and then you got to come back and not only work with him as an actor but then as a writer and a creative partner later in your career. That’s got to be a pretty interesting, full circle experience.
Trai Byers: Oh, man. Full circle is the word, my man, that’s exactly how it happened. And I mean, I count myself blessed. Outside of the huge respect that I have for Kevin, just as a filmmaker, I have such love for him as a man. And we’ve learned so much in terms of what we’re doing technically but as an actor as well, as an actor first, what always touches me is the heart and the compassion. I mean, with all of his pieces that I’ve been a part of and this one in particular, not only is it great to be here with my former teacher, it’s also good to be here with my friend and a man with such a big heart. Outside of the fact that he’s an Oscar winner, outside of the fact that he’s magnificent in what he does. And has so much history, knowledge, historical knowledge, especially as it pertains to black history. It’s just great to be arm-in-arm with my buddy.
Steven Pierce: You said that your agent said this movie wouldn’t get made 30 years ago, right?
Kevin Willmott: Yeah. 30 years ago, Hollywood, I think I would say Hollywood was a different place. And black dramas specifically were very hard to get, black historical dramas were very difficult to get made. And I would argue that it’s only in the last really 10 years has that gotten better. I think the historical relevance would have been still very important but obviously is connecting dramatically right to this moment in our history as Americans, right? We’re in this moment where we’re really questioning police abuse. The wake of George Floyd’s death is a huge thing and it’s shaken the justice system of the country, really. I mean, back 30 years ago we didn’t really believe that police did this to black people. I mean, people knew it happened but there were always reasons, people would give excuses. “Well, he had some drugs,” or, “He might’ve looked like he was reaching for a gun.” There’s all these kinds of things. And now I think people understand that there are bad policemen, I mean individuals, not the police force, but there are individuals who can get away with murdering you and the justice system has protected them. And I think that has been a part of our American history for a very… 103 years ago when we tell this story, 1917, and it was happening before then. And it’s the invention of the body camera and the cell phone that has changed everything.
Steven Pierce: Right. Where everybody’s now a journalist, there is more accountability almost because of that availability.
Kevin Willmott: No doubt about it. If those people had not been standing on the street where George Floyd was being suffocated, I mean, we still wouldn’t know about it now. And so that changed everything, it changed everything.
Steven Pierce: On the film itself, and I don’t want to give anything away because definitely the ending is worth sticking around till the last moment to understand, you even show that courtroom that I believe you spoke about and about the biggest trial in American history. And that really struck me because that was a really interesting fact I’d never known about. But this is really an interesting path about, I’d say, it’s about identity, right? It’s about who you are and how society has oppressed these people to where they’re actively dying to go defend their country, to be a part of the fight overseas. And they’re not even allowed to do that. They’re not even allowed to be a part of the actual fight, they’re just part of defending building construction on this other base. So talk a little bit about the character journeys for you guys. Maybe Trai, I’d love to hear what your initial thought is, having lived those moments.
Trai Byers: I love Boston, I think that for me he’s a superhero. He’s somebody who’s very sacrificial, who is definitely concerned about identity, definitely concerned about honor, humility and patriotism. And it’s in his blood, ultimately. His background, and I don’t think this gives too much away, his background is that of former slaves turned abolitionists. Those were his parents, they raised them in a community of abolitionists who were all progressive minded. So with that in his blood, with that in his DNA, and in his education, I think that there was really no choice for him in terms of coming back, giving back to the community in a way that he felt it would be helpful and in a way that he thought would be productive. For me that’s everything. I mean, that’s the story of my family. My people are from Kansas city by way of Louisiana. It’s all about going out and getting educated and bringing that education back to the community to help others. It’s something that I can understand but it’s not something I personally have been asked to do in my life, just in general. I guess it’s modern times, I don’t know. But yeah, I think that was one of the big sells for me, that I feel this character is unlike many that we see in terms of that type of sacrifice. Being able to live a life of, “privilege,” because of his education. And, at that time, even because of his light skin color. And despite all of that, in terms of what you were talking about, being black in America at that time when so many black men were volunteering for World War I and being put in the 9th cavalry or the 10th cavalry or the 24th or 25th infantry to do menial tasks, I think it’s just really an important story. And Boston, I think, represents so many men who had hopes for honor and just a good name as a man, not just a black man.
Kevin Willmott: No doubt about it. And I’d just like to add to that, soldiers period, white soldiers, black soldiers, the way that you advanced in the military was you had to go to war. I mean, that’s how you really progressed. And so the black soldiers are looking for that opportunity as well, they’re looking for that opportunity to fight because they know if they get a chance to fight then they’re going to – they’ll have a chance at civil rights and they’ll have a chance to maybe gain some equality.
Steven Pierce: So let’s talk a little bit about the process of filming, you filmed this all in North Carolina to represent Huston, right. What was the schedule like and how did you guys arrive at that and what was it like whenever you actually hit the set?
Kevin Willmott: Well, as with most films it’s all about the tax break, right? And so that sent us to North Carolina, really. But we really found a great, great place to shoot. I mean, obviously we were on a very tight schedule, we shot the film in 18 days and so it was really tight.
Steven Pierce: Well, 18 days and you have a lot of gunfights, you have horses, and it’s a period piece, which damn.
Kevin Willmott: Yeah, I had to dip into my low budget techniques to make sure I pulled this off. But the locations were great. I mean, we were in Charlotte and we found an abandoned air base there that really lends itself well to Camp Logan to a large degree. And then found some neighborhoods in Concord and Salisbury, that was really great as well. And found a trolley there, which they have a railroad museum which really worked out incredibly well. And when you’re working with a tight schedule you’ve got to find places that are in a geographical area that you don’t have to do a lot of moving around. When you move, you lose time. So we were really fortunate to find that, that was really the key to pulling it off in 18 days.
Steven Pierce: How do you approach your collaboration, as actors and writers on set, especially with that amount of time? Were you able to rehearse a lot beforehand? Did you know how the scenes are all going to stage? Did you lean on the DP to handle the shots? How do you work in that way?
Kevin Willmott: Well, for me it was a lot of it goes into when Trai and I were working on the script because especially when you know that you’re going to have a tight schedule the script to me becomes the key to pulling off the budget and the schedule. And what I mean by that is that we wrote the shots into the script. I mean, I knew what everything looked before I got to Salisbury. And then when we get to the set and we find the actual occasions and they’re finalized, then of course you finesse them. And we worked with Brett, our DP, he was super, super great. And we had an excellent assistant director who really kept us on schedule. I mean, they were the people that really made it work in the end.
Trai Byers: Absolutely, absolutely. We had some good rehearsal time but we also had a lot of our friends there, people who we brought on board in terms of other actors. But no, it’s good to surround yourself with the people who know what it is they’re doing, who we were able to have good conversations, I know Kevin had some, I know I had a couple in terms of what we were going to be doing, what was going to be required of us. And we just hit the ground running, having studied as much of the time as people could with the time that we had, It came together in a beautiful way. We’re telling a story about a real event with real people and it just felt very spiritual in that way and we all connected, in that level, outside of the technical aspect of the film work. That I felt like really gave us a leg up as well.
Kevin Willmott: It’s easier to adjust a script than it is to adjust the location and the budget and the schedule. And so when we would run into problems, this is a thing I’ve learned many years ago from making low budget films, the script is the place that you can adjust so that you don’t create problems in production, really. And so when production problems, we’d have a problem like, well, this was supposed to be daytime but we’re on the second floor and we can’t get in there to black out a window. So we just changed the time period, we just changed the time period. And you look at the script and you change the time period. And those kinds of things, I think, I’ve always embraced the problem. When problems come up, schedule problems, those kinds of things, I embrace those things from an artistic point of view. It’s not a problem if we just adjust things accordingly and use it. And a lot of times you can discover things that actually improve things a bit.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely. I mean, you’re approaching it from the beginning and being like the script is what we’re going to change rather than force a small production into a compromising situation.
Kevin Willmott: No doubt about it. No doubt about it. And I think a lot of productions, it’s the old country saying, you go the long way around the barn to go fix things when you can just really change a couple of sentences in the script and it’s done.
Steven Pierce: That’s an advantage you have if you guys are the writer and leading actor and director, that you can do that. Whereas sometimes you may not be able to do that if you’re detached. Are there any specific scenes that you guys remember, going through for each of you, that ended up having to change, or you ran out of time, or something happened on set that you ended up having to amend on the fly that – and this is how I handled it all?
Kevin Willmott: Almost all of them.
Steven Pierce: Let me rephrase. Are there any scenes that went as planned?
Kevin Willmott: Well, actually I’m exaggerating. But actually as a whole, wouldn’t you say, Trai, as a whole we had a very smooth production.
Trai Byers: I think it was very smooth. I remember one scene in particular that was supposed to be in between Boston and Marie and it was supposed to be in a different location. And Kevin, you actually thought of, we made it into a bit of a swing set scene. And that I felt was so much more just romantic and in terms of what we were dealing with it really provided in terms of our story. A bit of a relief, that thing that you were talking about with building up the romance, I mean, it’s all encased in that scene. And that location shift, I think, is much better than what we would have had initially.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. I remember that scene and you totally feel the romance, you don’t feel that it wants to be at a different location. So I think that’s just great intuition and recognizing. Did you do that on the scout or whenever you were on the day?
Kevin Willmott: It was on the scout, on the scout we were trying to find ways to reduce the schedule and save days. And that was one we discovered on scout, really, and we just adjusted the script accordingly because of that. And as well, the swing, this was the way Trai and I wrote it, but the tree and the neighborhood, all of that really brought the period of that swing set and all of that to another level. I mean, so the way it was designed was more a country swing out in the middle of nowhere and this actually made it a far more richer period cinematic shot than it would have originally.
Steven Pierce: It’s one of my favorites, it’s one of my favorites.
Kevin Willmott: Yeah, definitely, definitely.
Steven Pierce: Trai, so whenever you’re the co-writer on something this and the lead actor and then you’re doing scenes with other people, because I think you’re in almost every scene of the film, so did you find it hard to move the page? The script out of the front of your face when you’re seeing the other actors and see them as another character? Or what’s your process for converting the words on the page as a writer to turning it into the words, in the voice, as an actor?
Trai Byers: It’s not precious to me when I’m dealing with people that I know can handle The language. And again, we built our team, Marie – Aja Naomi King – we went to Yale school of drama together. Mo, who plays Walker, is a great friend of mine. Tosin is a frequent collaborator with Kevin and I worked with them on Destination Planet Negro. We had a second hand. In terms of just being able to get away from the page, whether I’ve written it or not my rule as an actor is everything between action and cut is fair game. You know what I mean? Whether it makes it better or not. I’m not really method but I guess I’m as method as you can get in between action and cut, whatever happens is whatever happens. I mean, I found that a lot of Empire got me ready for that. There’s a lot of improv and that from day one with what Lee Daniels would do with us and it just stuck. But I think it gets good things out of people just in general, for those who don’t want words specific scenes. It certainly made me feel more free.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely. So let’s talk just a couple of technical aspects, do you remember what camera and lenses and what your general crew was like? Your crew size?
Kevin Willmott: We shot with an Alexa and we probably had about… Would you say about maybe 30 people, Trai?
Trai Byers: Yeah.
Kevin Willmott: We had a lot of extras, we had a lot of big days. The crew was great, it was a small tight crew but we had everything we needed. It was the first time I shot on an Alexa, I’ve usually shot on a RED, but it worked really great. And Brett, the cinematographer, he works very fast. I mean, that’s the key to 18 days, is working fast and knowing what you want. And his guys, I mean, they work very fast and we got a lot of setups. We didn’t take a lot of takes, there were only a few scenes where we had to take more than, I’d say, six or seven takes. But we worked very fast and very smooth and everybody was very cooperative and there were never any problems on the set.
Steven Pierce: What was post like? Where did you guys do the edit and how long did you have to do all that and finish the film?
Kevin Willmott: Well, we were in New York for that and we used a RedThread, yes, RedThread in New York city for that. And it worked great, I mean, we had a great editor. And you know how it is, there’s the movie you write, the movie you shoot, the movie you edit and they’re three different films. So we had a process of discovering the film and I think we finally came to the right one.
Steven Pierce: So let’s talk a little bit about you- it, you were heading to South By, right? For another premiere of this and then COVID dropped upon the world.
Kevin Willmott: Yeah. Well, maybe you could talk about that, Trai?
Trai Byers: Yeah, I know, we were all excited about the big stage and the big screen. Ultimately it didn’t happen, as you know. I’m happy that, again, I don’t know who’s going to the movie theaters. I’m not going anywhere near a movie theater or anything just in general in the public. This movie is available to everybody at a good price, I was saying the other day at least you don’t have to go to the movies and spend 15.99 for you and 15.99 for your girlfriend or your boyfriend or whatever, you’re saving money and getting a good film and a history lesson that has been buried for 103 years. So COVID, no COVID, it’s a powerful film and I’m just happy that we get to get into people’s houses and give people the opportunity to watch a film in their homes and actually think and feel in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have in public.
Kevin Willmott: Yeah. And the movie, as much as it is a history level, the movie is funny and it’s dramatic and it’s romantic. And I think because we worked really hard at making this difficult period of our history cinematic and entertaining. And I take great pride in the fact that I think Trai and I and everyone, we found a way to make it a great movie. I mean, obviously it’s got a lot of things that are important about it and those things are important to us as well. But our first job is to entertain and to really tell a story that holds up as a movie and that people can sit down and really enjoy watching. And it is dramatic and it is moving and it’s powerful but it’s also very entertaining. And so I don’t want people to think that we’re given them medicine here because it’s far beyond that, I think it’s very far beyond that.
Steven Pierce: Because it is a period piece, I mean, how do you approach that on an indie budget? Because that means everything’s got to be basically replaced or you’ve got to find a location. I guess you found the museum so that helps, right?
Kevin Willmott: Yeah, yeah. Well, that goes back to a lot of the films I’ve made, really. And I mean, this film was far bigger budget than most of my movies ever been. But even when you’ve got a big budget a period piece is a costly movie, it just costs a lot more. And we had to build a camp and we had to do a lot of things that are very costly on a very low budget. And so part of my approach is always to know what I’m going to shoot and know what I’m not going to shoot. And so I would always talk with the production designer to say, “I don’t need that, I’m only going to use this, and this, and this, I don’t need that.” And so I would always go from the very beginning with him and worked with him very closely to tell him not to build stuff that… I mean, bigger budget movies they build the whole world and then they use only a quarter of it, right?
Steven Pierce: Yeah, that’s very smart. I’ve heard, yeah, where production designers, they want to build the whole thing and make sure you’re ready to turn around and make sure you get all these angles. But that’s very smart because then you’re saying, “No, no, no, I’m committing to this.”
Kevin Willmott: I’m committing to this. And so ultimately when you’re having to work fast too, that really adds to the speed of it. Because when you’ve got the whole ship, the whole Titanic, you feel stupid just using the little front of the deck, right? So you end up wanting to do more and you end up wasting time that way. And so you’re not distracted by that, when you commit to it you say, “This is exactly what I need, this is how we designed the scene, this is how it’s going to work.” And then you keep moving forward.
Steven Pierce: Right. If you have 35 days I’m sure you want it because they’ve what if factor really will play a big role. If you have 18 days…
Kevin Willmott: You get all the fun you want, right? You can just say, “Let’s try this.” But we didn’t have it like that. And it never hurt the film, I mean that’s the thing to me that I’m very proud of about our movie, was that the limitations never heard the film. If anything, they might’ve helped the film a little bit. And that’s from I think all of us approaching it in the way we did in terms of not getting caught up on budget and days and all that stuff.
Steven Pierce: For both of you, if you were going back, knowing what you know now, starting over, what would you tell yourself to do differently? Or would you just do it exactly the same?
Kevin Willmott: Wow. What do you think, Trai?
Trai Byers: I’m a man of faith, I’ve been a man of faith. I wouldn’t do it differently because I don’t have a blueprint to give to anybody at this point. What happened with me was I got educated, I learned what I needed to know and the other things along the way. And when I was met with an opportunity I took everything that I had learned, I took the moment, and did the best that I could. I mean, I think at the heart of everybody’s experience, that’s what you’ve got. You’ve got what you know and you’ve got the opportunity and now what are you going to do with it?
Trai Byers: So, I mean, I’m 37 this year and I feel like I’m just now starting. I feel right on time, I don’t feel like I’ve missed a lot of time because I spent most of my time in school or on this television show. And I couldn’t have planned that, I had no plan but to do the best that I could with opportunities that I could get. So I don’t know, I mean, there was never a plan B for me. Maybe I’m one of those, I don’t know, I’m an anomaly or whatever but, yeah, no, I wouldn’t do it differently. I wouldn’t even know at this point, even having experienced this, I wouldn’t know what to do differently.
Steven Pierce: I mean, that’s “confidence meets patience,” right? Like “tenacity meets time,” kind of thing.
Trai Byers: Yeah.
Steven Pierce: How about you, Kevin? What would you say to somebody starting off now? What would your advice be?
Kevin Willmott: Well, I think what Trai said, I’d have to second that. I mean, I think the education is a pretty important thing and it doesn’t mean that you have to always go to school, necessarily, but you do need to learn your craft. You need to learn how to do whatever it is you’re trying to do. And I think the more you can figure out what you want to do, do I want to be a director? Do I want to be an actor? Do I want to be a screenwriter? Whatever it is, narrow that down as much as you can and then learn to do as many other things as you can to try too. But try to get really good at one thing, I mean try to really, really focus on one thing. Because that’s one of the things I tell my students. I mean, you want to go out there and not just willy nilly, you want to go out there with a skill that people can use that you have. It’s like anything else it’s people say, “What resume do you make when you want to… ” It’s like no one’s ever asked for my resume. But they do ask, “Can you do something?” And so when I, for instance, I met Spike after I made my second film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. And I made that film and it got to Sundance and he heard about it. And people before that had always been saying, “Try to get to Spike, try to get to Oprah. If you can just get the Oprah, maybe she’ll give you a break.” And then I made this film and Spike heard about the film, wanted to see it, loved the film. And then Spike called me. And that’s how it works. I mean, you have to go and do something. You want to be a director? You have to go and make a film. You have to find a way to make your film and go make that film the best way you can with the best people you can find. And I don’t think there’s a shortcut around that, I think that’s the way that everyone has to do it. If there is a shortcut you actually don’t want to take that because you want to prepare yourself for being a real director and that’s the only way to prepare yourself.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely. So The 24th is going to be available on TVOD, where can people buy it? Where should they go get the film?
Kevin Willmott: Well, I think they can get it from iTunes, It’ll be on AT & T and all the video on demand services around the country. So look at your, if it’s Spectrum, look for your video on demand on your TV and it should be there. But I think to buy it, own it, I think you’ll be able to get that from iTunes. And then hopefully it goes wider from there after video on demand, hopefully it’ll go to Hulu or Netflix or someplace from there.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. As you’re building up your next projects, where should people come to follow you? If they want to see what you’re up to next, Kevin, Trai, if they want to see where you’re going next, where should they follow you.
Kevin Willmott: I don’t have a website, man.
Steven Pierce: Kevin, you’re going to be eternally mysterious.
Kevin Willmott: I know, I know, it’s horrible. My kids, they’re on me all the time, “You need a website, dad.” I say, “Yeah, I know I do. I do.” So I’m working on that, look for my new website coming soon.
Steven Pierce: There you go. It sounds like you need to put a new incoming freshmen on this, this fall.
Kevin Willmott: I think so, man, I think so.
Steven Pierce: How about you, Trai?
Trai Byers: I’m the same way, man. I don’t really do a lot of the social stuff, bro. My stuff comes as it comes, there’s something that I’m working on right now that is in the production phase. And it’s interesting, it’s contemporary, it’s still dealing with identity and brotherhood, it’s actually a really great piece. So it comes when it comes but I think it will come hard and timely as well.
Steven Pierce: Well, I know I’m a big fan of both of you guys so I’ll just keep an eye on it. And the next time we got something coming up we’ll just get you back on and we’ll talk about that then.
Kevin Willmott: That sounds great, man.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org.