Radha Blank joins a long line of filmmakers making their feature film debut at Sundance with The 40-Year-Old Version, a black and white comedy she not only helmed, but wrote, produced and stars in as well. I can’t remember many who’ve waited as she has for the big moment that happens this afternoon. Here, the New Yorker playwright/rapper/teacher of screenwriters/writer of episodes of shows that include She’s Gotta Have It and Empire, explains how she got here. Her film premieres this afternoon and as you will see, she is no overnight success.
DEADLINE: Are you more nervous about this premiere than the opening night of one of your plays?
BLANK: [Pauses]. Mmmmm, yes. I think so. As a playwright, sometimes things don’t go right, and you can look at the director and say, hey, what happened? In this case, that doesn’t work, because I had the bright idea to write, direct and star in the damn thing. It is on me, but honestly, I am very proud of the movie. It’s not perfect, but it’s perfectly me. I wanted to create this love letter to New York and these cultural institutions that impacted me. I feel like it does that. I hope people think it’s as funny as I think it is, but no matter what, I can at least say I got my first film into Sundance. And, I”m officially a film director.
DEADLINE: The sly humor worked for me, including the very first moment where your character wakes up, and puts her ear to the wall when she hears the sound of her neighbors having sex. And that gives way to someone crying.
BLANK: Yes, that changes the mood very quickly. New York living, and everybody living right on top of each other, you hear conversations, you hear sex, you hear fights. I wanted it to be authentic without overstating, this is what it’s like to live in New York.
DEADLINE: You’ve made this transition after writing plays and TV shows. How does this happen, where you come out of nowhere to become a movie star, at age 40?
BLANK: I’m 40 plus, and I don’t know if I would use the word star, yet. I feel honestly that all of my experience has culminated in this moment. I was raise by cinephiles, so movies are so important to me. I was raised on them and movies are more important to me than most people. My friends don’t like to go with me because I want to talk, and break it down two hours later. Maybe this was inevitable; I was going to be working in films in some capacity because I was so invested in story. You mention some plays. I’ve written a lot of plays but I haven’t had many of them produced. Part of that adversity lent itself to the storytelling in the film, but the plays became my writing samples for TV work and are how I got on Empire, and Get Down and She’s Gotta Have It. The money is good, which is why I think people put up with the dysfunctional TV writing rooms. The money is very good and it supplemented my play writing income. You are in a room six months, every single day, as part of this super brain working in service of the creator’s vision. I always felt, I have a vision of my own. I don’t know there’s another TV writer who worked with Baz Luhrmann, Lee Daniels and Spike Lee. I worked for three auteurs putting their voices into this TV mode. I saw them have victories and challenges working in TV but they also walked away and did their film work. I thought, this is a viable career path for me.
The plays got me in the writing room and the writing rooms got my screenplay read. Found myself at Sundance and I consider myself a Sundance baby, having come through numerous labs, two screenwriting and a director’s lab. Sunance made a huge investment in the development of my voice, and a lot of the people there my age, they were very invested in me winning. There were a lot of young artist who come through there, but what I heard was, your voice is so crystal clear because I had all these years to get clear about what it was I wanted to say. I was the senior member of my class in ’17, but most of us have gone on to make features, and two fellows who are in development, or in production. It was one of those key, pivotal life changing moments, getting the Sundance stamp of approval, and advisors like Octavia Spencer being invested in me finding the right financiers and producers. The lab gave me a chance to learn what the film was and what it wasn’t. There was one scene I shot and it was very funny, but it wasn’t my movie and I thought what a gift I have been given, to get to explore and experiment with story. It made me more confident. A lot of people said, don’t shoot black and white, don’t shoot on film. Make it easier on yourself.
But Sidney Lumet, Spike Lee, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, all the people who inspired me, they didn’t have another format to fall back on. I wanted to make a film in the spirit of those filmmakers who not only had to work in film, but who had tremendous respect and trust in their actors. I feel like I hit the jackpot here, and found people who just made my job easier. They’re either from New York, or are the starving, downtrodden artists themselves. I got really lucky with the cast. Over the three or four years it took to get this made, everyone said they really loved the script and that’s what they invested in. I had never directed a feature in my life; or acted, really. I was on a show called Timeless, where I played Bessie Smith. That doesn’t mean people are going to believe me, or that the other actor in the scene won’t demolish me because the performance is bad. I think that the film, if it works, is because I play a heightened version of myself and I’m relying on a documentary style of filmmaking where the shot might not be perfect, but the audience is kind of peeking in on a conversation as it’s happening. It’s raw and feels in my mind the way New York flows.
DEADLINE: You said you’re a cinephile. What’s your favorite movie?
BLANK: Probably Dog Day Afternoon, and I use that film a lot when I teach screenwriting. Mind you, I’m a person who decided to write, direct, star in and produce my own film, but what I love about that movie is, a lot of people look at that film and gave Lumet all the credit in the world. If you look at the script by Frank Pierson, you remember that scene where Sonny leads the manager down the basement to check on the air conditioning when the bank teller is going to pass out. And he hears the scratching at the window and you realize he’s like, the cops are about to infiltrate us. And the gunshot comes and people scatter. It is masterful, and it is all on the page. I feel like that one moment; there’s a book called The Art of Dramatic Writing, which I use in my class. That book has a section on characters plotting their way and to me, Sonny is that character who, based on certain actions he takes, gives you a sense of who he is. It is part of why the movie moves and happens as he does. If Sonny wasn’t the kind of bank robber who had empathy for the bank teller, they probably would all have gotten shot. His character strength was his character flaw. I just felt like that was a film that was a beautiful marriage where a director elevated the words of a writer.
People ask me, why black and white. When I was a kid, my mom would be watching Night of the Hunter, The Lose Weekend, The Apartment –okay that’s my second favorite film — but when you shoot in black and white, you can’t hide behind color. It boils down to the words people are saying and the performances of the actors. Someone coming from New York and from the hip hop culture, I wanted to give it mature, vulnerable sophisticated treatment. Hip hop these days is so over-saturated, over-sexualized and loud. The black and white gives it a certain level of vulnerability I feel the culture deserves at this moment in time.
It was fun to play with influences. I don’t know if a lot of people are going to catch them. There’s a scene where Radha’s student and their friends are taunting Radha after her debacle at the hip hop club. That’s a reference from Purple Rain, the scene where The Kid [Prince]’s father shot himself, and Morris Day and the Time peek in the door and say, ‘How’s the family?’ This movie gave me a chance to celebrate what I loved about some of my favorite films. I’m fine that a lot of people don’t catch it, but some die hard Prince fans did. As hard as it was…the film damn near killed me and I’m still recovering, things like that made my job fun.
DEADLINE: How close to your life is the core story of the film?
BLANK: Some of it is. I have heard some off color stories about theater producers. I did lose my mom, and I was very close with her, like the character who loses her confidence after. My mother planted those storytelling seeds in me. I was a teaching artist for 20 years and the kids in the movie are amalgamations of the students I’ve taught over the years. I was a playwright who felt I might die an obscure one. Black actors in New York, certain literary agents and people who came to see the work would tell me, your work is amazing. I had done this play in 2011 and everybody knew it was going to break. And it just didn’t happen. I, like my character, was dealing with bitterness. Other characters signified what pushed me in different directions. Tiny Furniture is a film that inspired me. When I saw that, and saw her mother and sister were in it, they were not the greatest actors, but they were perfect for that. You knew [Lena Dunham] had invited you into her world and they shot in her mother’s apartment and a lot of her real friends were in it. I did the same thing. That’s my brother with me when we’re evaluating her mother’s art.
DEADLINE: What will make this a perfect Sundance?
BLANK: It’s a cocktail of things. I hope they love the movie, and fall in love with it. I hope we meet our buyers here and there’s someone who gets it, immediately and wants to support the film and bring it to a greater audience. I don’t know who that is. It may be streaming, or theatrical. I know at some point I want people sitting in a theater, with their popcorn, watching the movie. The Film Forum showed Manhattan last year and it was on one of those tinier screens. That’s a film that when you see it on a screen, that opening number with the Gershwin tunes, I cry every time; it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I hope that is a part of the journey of this film. People in the dark, and you hear cackling, two older women saying, shut up. That real New York cinema moment, I want it to be part of this film’s story.
DEADLINE: People in Hollywood always say to newcomers, so what else you got? What’s your answer?
BLANK: This is a moment where all my other scripts burst in the door and go, yeah, uh huh, you better tell them about us! I have an arsenal of plays, screenplays, and plays that could be screenplays. TV pilots I’ve been cooking, slow baking and marinating over 20 years. I have a father daughter road trip film inspired by a road trip I took with my dad when I was 19 years old. Sun Ra is considered the father of Afro Fusionism and he was a jazz musician who turned his life around and created a whole new form of jazz. That film, that story I’m hoping to do next. It’s so different from The 40-Year-Old Version, but what’s not different is I am once again using my family as the resource. When people call me a late bloomer, an overnight success, those scripts walk in the door and they have something to say, that’s not true at all. I am now just waiting to figure out what my next 20 years will bring. I want to be a serious filmmaker and I think this film can help establish that.