Joe Talbot won the Best Director prize at January’s Sundance Film Festival for his debut feature The Last Black Man in San Francisco. But, as he explained when I sat down with him and his lead actor Jimmie Fails, on whom the film’s story is based, it took a village.
A love letter to the titular city, the film deals with the ravages of gentrification; the lost souls left to wander when the ground beneath their feet is snatched from them. Fails and his extended family lived in a large house that they lost, displacing them all. But Fails returned, desperate to reclaim the now vacant property, and recapture the memories he forged there.
It is a story the lifelong friends had been trying to tell for many years. Before it became a feature, it was a concept trailer and then a short film, which played at Sundance and attracted the attention of Plan B and A24, who came aboard.
The film had a strong opening in New York, LA, and, of course, San Francisco this past weekend, grabbing a $230,744 take and, says A24, strong word of mouth. That had started at Sundance, where the film was the festival’s most beloved discovery this year.
And while The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a paean to the city by the bay—and particularly to its displaced communities—it also resonates more universally, with anybody who has ever felt the shifting sands of home, and the encroachment of a colder, soulless world. It is a powerful statement of intent by Talbot and Fails; the kind of big-screen debut that comes by once in a blue moon.
What’s the history between the two of you?
Joe Talbot: We’ve known each other for a very long time now.
Jimmie Fails: Half our lifetime.
Talbot: And from the beginning it’s always just been a unique friendship that we had, which is different from all our other friendships. We’re so similar in how we think and we know each other better than ourselves sometimes. I’d come up to him on set and be like, “Hey,” and he’ll go, “I know. I got you bro.”
Fails: I can tell just by the look on his face [laughs].
Talbot: It’s really our friendship that kind of made this movie happen. The movie came out of us just walking around the city as friends. It’s such a great walking city, so that became sort of a ritual for us. We’d talk about life, music, girls, whatever. And we talked about Jimmie’s life, obviously, so informally those conversations—which, at the time, I don’t think we were thinking much about—because a movie.
I did make movies when I was younger, and Jimmie was often in those movies. We made a movie in high school—
Fails: We’re not going to talk about that [laughs].
Talbot: Jimmie had a flat-top then [laughs]. Well, Jimmie has no reason to be embarrassed. I was co-starring in it, so I’m the biggest reason to be embarrassed about that movie. I am much better on this side of the camera.
And Jimmie had a flat-top.
Fails: Yeah, I was going through a phase, OK?
Talbot: We were pretty young. But that movie got into the San Francisco International Film Festival, in the youth portion, and I think for us, that was the first time we were like, “Oh, maybe we can actually do this…” So since, I think we’ve been working on stuff, and this was obviously the most personal for Jimmie; and for me, being a native San Franciscan.
How close is this to your narrative?
Fails: Pretty close. I lived in a house like that. It’s not the one that’s in the film, unfortunately, but most of what you see in the movie are true events. It is still a movie, and you have to tell a story, but there are a lot of real things. That’s my real mother in the film. The character Bobby, that Mike Epps plays, is based on a real person that actually stole my dad’s car.
Talbot: We always say that Jimmie had a big imagination. There are places where it’s fictionalized. The character of Montgomery is fictionalized. He’s not someone that existed. We met Jonathan [Majors] and he sort of became our third brother, and so we really made that character into someone who’s completely his own.
But what we were always trying to get at were the emotional truths. Even the parts that we created were maybe loosely based on something, like something that didn’t necessarily happen to Jimmie, but happened to a friend of ours. What were the emotional truths of those experiences?
What did that house mean to you, Jimmie?
Fails: That’s where my family was. It was the house I stayed it. It represents the only time I had with family, basically. I could have dinner with my whole family. I’d come back and my cousin was there, my aunt was there, everybody. It wasn’t only about losing a house. My family was dispersed, so it was like losing them too.
The film has so much to say about the gentrification going on in a big city like San Francisco, and ends with a moving moment on the bus, where you say to a woman…
Fails: “This life ain’t me.” Yeah.
Talbot: It was a line that was very important to us, so it’s nice to know it resonates. I don’t even remember where it came from, honestly. If it was Jimmie, or me, or we have a really great team of collaborators who all got their hands deep into the script in different ways.
Fails: I don’t want to take credit for it. I do think it was me, but I don’t want to take credit. I’m not sure though, but I think it was [laughs].
Talbot: I’ll bet it was. You know, Jimmie also directed himself in the movie. I just sort of showed up.
Fails: He got in the way sometimes a little bit.
Talbot: Yep [laughs]. But do you remember where that line came from?
Fails: I think we were just talking. We both wrote it together, because I remember us talking about it. That scene was a little different at first; the bus scene. In rehearsal or something it was a line we came up with and we were like, “boom.” It happened. That’s how it was.
Talbot: It was a feeling we felt, you know? It’s a strange thing, for us, trying to wrestle with both loving San Francisco and being from multi-generational San Franciscan families. On my mom’s side we’re fifth generation, on my dad’s side, he came with that great wave in the ’60s. People that just wanted something to believe in. A lot of kids I grew up with, their parents came in with that wave, or they came from the South. Or their grandparents were working the shipyards. So you grow up with this very proud history in San Francisco between the music, the cultural values, and even the movies.
Fails: Every native is super proud to be from there. Anyone from there is just going to ride for their city.
Talbot: A lot of die-hard San Franciscans, yeah. And I think part of it, for me at least, is that I never left San Francisco. I have very little perspective outside of the city. The longest I was away was to edit this film down in LA.
But for Jimmie and I, I always say my fear is that in a future version of San Francisco, friendships like ours won’t exist because you don’t have that same crossover that felt like it was such a big part of our upbringings.
There’s people in the movie that I met on Muni when we were teenagers, and we became friends. It just felt like a place where you’d meet people from all walks of life.
So there’s this intense love for San Francisco, and then there’s this really strange feeling, that came from being away for editing for five months, and coming back it feels increasingly unfamiliar. What is the city, if the people that make it great can’t be there anymore? As more people leave… The architecture is still beautiful. Although, even a lot of that is being destroyed.
Since we filmed, the two vacant lots next to Montgomery’s house, one of them has a hideous new development on it. It’s strange how fast that happened. We scout locations, lock them, and then realize, Oh, they’re going to be gutted, and we can’t film there. It’s all so fast.
I don’t think you have to be from that city to love it. I think some of the people that make San Francisco great are the people that arrived there because they felt like freaks elsewhere. They came to find themselves, or their people.
Fails: Yeah, I think that’s a big problem with change too. Back in the day, there were more artists and stuff. An influx of people escaping something. Outsiders. Now, there’s a loss of that. It’s a gold rush for tech, you know? The creativity has been lost, and it feels like it’s become a dead zone for art. It’s hard. There are still pockets of it…
Talbot: Enough that it’s still worth fighting for. But it’s hard. It gets harder and harder.
The same has happened elsewhere. It’s the story of London, too, in which residents are being forced out by vacant luxury apartments bought as investments by multimillionaires who don’t even live in them.
Talbot: We always say it’s an unfortunately universal story. We didn’t realize it when we started, because it just felt like the personal story that we wanted to tell. But the more we talked to people outside of San Francisco, the more you realize it’s everywhere. It’s scary to think about that. It just seems so large and so complicated. It’s hard to know what to do about it, other than make a movie like this. Document it. Just document the city as it is, because it might not be that way for much longer.
How long did it take to make this?
Fails: About five years, and a lifetime. It feels like a lifetime.
Talbot: We did start about five years ago, in the more official sense of trying to turn it into something. Jimmie and I shot this very funky concept trailer, which was a much cheaper version of the opening scene in the movie where he’s skating. It was basically Jimmie telling his family’s story as he skated from the outskirts of Hunters Point back to the house in Fillmore.
I was being a perfectionist sort of director. I was shooting with a fancy camera, and hanging out of my brother’s car, but I was like, “I want to tweak it.” I had it on my Vimeo for some reason, and it was hidden, but then I didn’t pay the annual fee and all of my videos went public. Some local blogger saw it and said, “I’d like to post something about this.” I wasn’t sure, but at the last second, I was like, “OK.” And thank god for that, because she posted it and we started getting all these letters and emails from people saying, “I connected to Jimmie’s story. I lost a house.”
It started off very locally, just in Mission Bernal, and then it spread neighborhood to neighborhood and became this thing.
Fails: That’s how we got the team together as well. That was the biggest thing to come of it. The team of people who saw that trailer and rallied behind it, and eventually helped us make it happen. At the premieres now, we get to bring like 70 people on stage that all had something to do with the movie and had big hands in it.
Talbot: Big hands. It really does feel like the city made the movie in a way, because it was all these people who were mostly artists and mostly from San Francisco. They were all struggling with the same things. Some of them were filmmakers who gave up their own movies. My co-writer, Rob [Richert] and [co-producer] Luis [Alfonso De la Parra] are two particular heroes—two of our co-producers who are both filmmakers, but signed on to do this for the past few years just because they believed in Jimmie’s story. I met our producer, Khaliah [Neal], through the trailer too.
It was a slow burn. People started reaching out and we built this small sort of collective. Still, it was a hard film to get made, because even with this sort of growing attention there were still a lot of nos. We weren’t exactly the most bankable team, I’m sure. I’m a high school dropout—never went to film school—and Jimmie hadn’t starred in a feature film, or even been in a feature film before. So in risk-averse Los Angeles…
“Sounds like a nice project, but…”
Talbot: Yeah. We did a short film as a means to an end, with the same team that would go on to make the feature, to try and make something that would push it to the next level. It’s a very different story, but Jimmie sort of bookends this very strange story that is also based on a true story. That went to Sundance, and that’s where we met our producers at Plan B.
For us, that was a dream, because I knew Barry Jenkins a little bit from San Francisco before Moonlight, and seeing what happened to him with Plan B, watching from afar, was exciting. They brought on the team at A24, and after five years it’s like, “Oh, here we are.”
Tell me more about Plan B. Those guys have been making beautiful movies for years but seldom want to stand up and take credit for them, so it’s up to you to shout them out.
Fails: Yeah, they’re pretty humble [laughs].
Talbot: I can’t imagine being anywhere else. We were so lucky to work with them. Christina Oh, Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, they just love movies, and you can feel that. When we were editing, or talking about the different ideas at the script stage, the ideas they brought were all coming from a purely creative place. That’s what’s so remarkable about them.
The first meeting we had with them, you could feel that immediately. There were other people we met along the way who would ask silly questions like, “Oh, does it have to be Jimmie?” Or, “This title’s no good…” They never said anything like that. They got it immediately: this is Jimmie’s story. They trusted that.
The other thing that’s remarkable about them is they take risks that other people clearly don’t want to take. I understand why now. I don’t have any bad feelings about that, but I think what’s really unique about them is they believed in us in that way, and they took that risk. They trusted us.
It’s a very similar thing with A24, where when they came on you could immediately feel their artistic sensibility. All the people you talk to their feel like creatives. I can’t say enough nice things about either of them. They were so supportive of us.
Jimmie, what’s the experience been like of having shown this movie to people?
Fails: It’s been so heartwarming, having people respond. After the premiere, this very nice lady was crying and telling me how beautiful she felt it was. She was trying to take a picture, and she couldn’t even take the picture because she was crying. I nearly started crying myself.
People were telling me, “Thank you for being vulnerable.” That’s the best compliment I’ve gotten here, and that’s why you kill yourself for your art, is for people to tell you that. That’s so beautiful. It’s the main takeaway from sharing this movie, and the thing that makes me feel the happiest.
Talbot: I have to hype Jimmie up for a second, because it’s so brave to do what he did. Truly, Jimmie, to go into some of these scenes and open yourself up in the way you did… It feels like people are responding to that. It’s hard. It’s scary to do that, and so it’s nice that it’s been a part of the response.
Did you feel the catharsis of having done it?
Fails: There are scenes where I’m so deep into the scene that I’m really being taken back there, and I would have to sneak around the corner and cry afterward. But I think it also helped me grow in a lot of ways too. Everyone in the cast and crew made it so comfortable, because I knew everyone was there to support the project and support my story. It made it so much easier to be that vulnerable.
Everything was true for me. It didn’t even really feel like acting, because it was so true for me. It was hard, but it was fun, you know, and it was really a learning experience in terms of self-discovery as well.
Talbot: There was a lot of love on that set. It makes sense, when you consider so many of our core friends group helped develop it, and became our team. But what was crazy for me was to see how that extended to people like Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold and Rob Morgan, who are these veterans, some of whom we grew up watching. They just came in with love. There was this understanding that it came from a purity within.
When you shoot LA, that city can play anywhere on the planet—and has done. There’s so much more identity to San Francisco, and so many movies that have shot that city and made it look as glorious as it is in real life. You’ve found a new angle on San Francisco and shot it in a dreamlike fashion.
Fails: We’ve always been obsessed with the nostalgia of our city, and its old architecture. You fall in love with it, and it’s a character in the movie too. We needed to capture that for ourselves, really. It was important that we captured San Francisco in a different light. And I feel like we at least tried to do that.
Talbot: San Francisco does have this great film history. It goes through these different waves. So many great noir movies in the 1940s, some of which weren’t even filmed there, but you were still sort of proud. Then obviously you have the 1970s, with films like The Conversation.
To me, the movie that was required viewing for everyone that worked on our film was Harold and Maude. That always stands out as such an interesting interpretation of the Bay Area, because it’s almost shot through this foggy British lens. It feels kind of gothic. And that movie, at its heart, always feels to me like the ultimate San Francisco film. That’s a period in the city that I’ve always been in love with, and I’ve grown up with the music and movies of that time.
But really, there’s something in those performances as well. That movie was a big turning point for me. When I saw it, it really changed the way I thought about movies. There’s something in Harold and Maude where even the quote “bad guys” are treated with love. And that feels like it comes from the hippie ethos of Hal Ashby and what I know about him. It shoots in San Francisco and San Bruno, which is not exactly a destination in the Bay Area, and it makes them both feel really beautiful and dreamlike. That movie was very inspiring for us.
Our cinematographer, Adam Newport-Berra, is incredible, and so is our production designer, Jona Tochet. They both did unbelievable jobs in so little time. They’re our heroes. And in addition to them, I think one of the secret sauces of our production was that we also spent over a year scouting locations.
Fails: Shout out to Daniel Lee.
Talbot: Daniel Lee, our location manager. We just walked around the city, you know? And that’s how we found the house that ended up being the house. It was actually really hard to cast that Victorian house in San Francisco, because so many of them have been gutted and they don’t all have that gingerbread design. Or, if they’re in that beautiful a condition, the owners are very particular and don’t want to let some crazy-ass film crew in their house to break stuff.
The guy whose house it actually was, he has his own kind of incredible story. He lived there the past 60 years, and he’s done all the work himself on the house. He’s kind of Jimmie-like, and his name is Jim. He became one of the very magical people on this movie that allowed us to make it.
It says a lot about the city, doesn’t it, that it was so hard to find a Victorian like that these days?
Fails: That organ is his too. He’s the pre-eminent organ repairman. He even carved every single shingle on the witch’s hat roof. They’re all different sizes, but he did it. He loves to tell us they’re different sizes [laughs].
Talbot: He loved Jimmie because he loved the idea of the story we were telling. It was like a Valentine letter to his house, too. He took Jimmie under his wing, and would explain how he did all the work.
You felt like, when you walked in there, everything else disappeared. It was exactly what we were trying to capture in the movie. The first time we knocked on his door, we said, “Hey, we’re making a movie.” And he said, “Well, come on in.” He beckons us inside. It was me and Luis and Jona. We walked inside and it literally felt like the sound disappeared, and you were in this other world. There’s something about these old Victorians that feels that way. It’s a special feeling, and I don’t know if it can ever fully translate into a movie. I don’t think it can. But there’s something about the sound and the light, with all that stained glass. You never want to leave.