Joe Robert Cole has been grinding out superb work for years now. Yet, he still does not get nearly as much due recognition. More prominently known for co-writing Marvel’s Black Panther with director Ryan Coogler, Cole also had a huge hand in bringing FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson to life as a producer and writer. Even though Marvel has announced a sequel to Black Panther, Cole has yet to confirm his involvement despite teasing his hopes.
Cole is currently riding high on his latest film, All Day and a Night. The film was released on May 1st by Netflix. Believe it or not, it is only the second film Cole has helmed as both lead writer and director. The potent and tantalizing crime-drama boasts an immensely talented cast featuring Jeffrey Wright (Westworld), Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen). The film tells the story of Jahkor Lincoln, a young aspiring rapper who contemplates his past in the search for a new path in life – all the while in prison for murder
We were fortunate enough to have finally sat down with Joe Robert Cole for an exclusive interview. We talk the complex nature of writing the timely story of All Day and a Night, how he selected his outstanding cast, and even a new project on the horizon – an adaptation of F.J. DeSanto’s graphic novel Failsafe with Michael B. Jordan. Covid-19’s impact on the film industry could, of course, also not be ignored.
How have you been dealing with continuing work during the pandemic?
JRC: It’s a trying time for everybody, but as a writer, I can write from home. I think I’ve been doing all right. I’m trying to stay sane and following the social distancing restrictions that have been put in place and trying to do my part to prevent the spread of Covid and that’s where I’m at.
All Day and a Night just released on Netflix, congrats on that! What made you choose this story as your next directorial venture?
JRC: The film is inspired by the things that I’ve seen throughout my life and some folks that I’ve met and spent time with. I wanted to speak to the community that the film takes place in – in a way that I felt I hadn’t seen for some time. And that I hadn’t seen quite from the perspective that I told the story. That was kind of my main focus. I think my thumb speaks to some systemic issues that exist in underserved communities and I wanted to explore those.
Right because even during a pandemic, underserved communities suffer the worst.
Those underlying issues are magnified in any crisis situation. They get hit the hardest.
Was there any inspiration or research that you undertook before shooting the film?
JRC: I was fortunate to have lived all around the Bay area while I was in college. So I spent a lot of time between classes and semesters with people from the Bay. During that time I fell in love with the city, the heart and uniqueness of the place, the sense of community and family history. And I also saw the struggles while I was there. So I was able to draw from some of my own experiences. I felt like I had a unique perspective because of those experiences in telling the story the way I chose to approach it.
When did the decision come to tell the story in a nonlinear style?
JRC: The journey I wanted to take the audience on was one of taking someone that we in society would generally deem as “unredeemable” and to humanize that person by peeling back the layers of their life. What I thought a lot about was Memento. The idea of how that film told a crime story going backwards in time was something that was inspirational to me. So that was the genesis of how to approach this story. Here’s a way of telling a story backwards in time, but in my version I’m really trying to paint a portrait of the humanity of a particular person.
Can you discuss the casting process for this film and why you chose names like Jeffrey Wright and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II for these roles?
JRC: I really wanted to – in a visual way, in an aesthetic way – embrace a crime movie genre. But in my mind and from the genesis of the process, I’ve always viewed it as a human story. My focus with my casting director, Kim Coleman, was to find actors who could embody the humanity of the characters. So we really were looking for that. Jeffrey Wright is such an amazing actor. We wanted someone who could vanish into the character of JD, the character that occupies a dark space in the world of the story.
It would be really easy to forget about the vulnerability and humanity of the character. We wanted someone that could capture the nuance of the disappointment and regret the character has beneath all of his anger, and bring that humanity forward. I just felt like Jeffrey was the perfect person for that. He brings such intelligence to every role he plays. So we were really excited when he responded to the material.
Then after Jeffrey, Ashton Sanders was next. I really was moved and affected by his performance in Moonlight, the character journey that he took. This is an unlikely character journey that Jahkor takes in my film. So I really felt like there were few actors that possessed his ability to exist so naturally and empathetically in the skin of a character like Jahkor, and to take that journey and allow us to go along with him.
So that’s how the two primary players got involved. Then Yahya came on board with Gina Taylor. We were just really fortunate to have all of them anchor the story and then build out the cast with an outstanding ensemble. They’re just some fantastic actors; Shakira Ja’nai Paye, Kelly Jenrette, Isaiah John, Jalyn Hall, James Earl. They all went forward and poured themselves into the material. And I think it shows.
You’re also working on another film for Netflix, Failsafe with Michael B. Jordan. Could you tell us the current status on that film?
JRC: I’m still writing on it. I’m excited about the project. Michael approached me about it, the graphic novel written by F.J. Desanto. He approached me about those graphic novels I believe on the set of Black Panther. I felt they tackled some very real questions about public health, public safety, and technology in this very entertaining and thought-provoking way. I’m jiving with it and it feels very timely considering what’s going on with Covid-19. I’m still in the writing phase, it’s going well though.
Streaming and video on demand releases have been a really popular option for many films during the pandemic. Do you have any thoughts on how more films are moving from theatrical to streaming or how that’s going to be going forward?
JRC: I can speak to what has been exciting to me, with regards to Netflix and having my film on their platform. I love it. I love the global reach that they have. For me, I want as many people to see my movie as possible. They’re in hundreds of millions of homes, folks who may not be able to get to a theater or don’t have theaters in their neighborhoods, people all over the world. That was really exciting for me.
At the same time, I love going to the theater and that experience of going to see movies is something that I certainly don’t think should be replaced wholly by streaming. That is a very unique experience and certain films I would only want to see in the theater, but I think there’s room for everything. I’m excited that we have the option for both. To have high quality content on streaming and to also have films that are in theaters if you want to go and have that experience.
Right. There are just some concerns right now, with the pandemic and theaters closed that the whole theater industry might collapse.
JRC: I certainly hope not. I think it would be a great loss if we weren’t able to go out and catch a movie in the theater on the big screen.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers who are struggling during quarantine?
JRC: Right now, no production is being done. By virtue of the quarantine, nothing’s being shot. You can’t have a production going. So it’s a great time to hone that script or that story that you’re going to want to shoot when we come out of the pandemic. Go back and take another look at the work that you’re doing or figure out the project that you want to be working on. I would use this time in that way to make sure you’re completely prepared and your script is in the best possible shape it can be for when the world opens up again.