April 08, 2016 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
In “Morris from America,” Craig Robinson and Markees Christmas play an African American father and son adjusting to their new life in the not-so-diverse town of Heidelberg, Germany. The 13-year-old aspiring hip-hop artist struggles to adjust as the only black kid around, facing racist assumptions made by his teachers and fellow students, and finding a new dynamic to his relationship with his father.
Writer and director Chad Hartigan wanted to tell a coming-of-age and first-love story. He made the characters African American early in his writing process. “It became a movie I felt I had never seen before,” he says, “And that’s what I’m always striving to make.”
Hartigan says at one point he questioned if he was the right person to tell the story, but he decided it was no different from him writing characters outside his specific economic or demographic background. “You’re always just trying to find what’s universal about characters and experiences so that audiences can relate,” he says. The writer/director draws from his own experiences of growing up in Cyprus as an Irish American. Like his previous feature, “This is Martin Bonner,” “Morris from America” revolves around outsider identity and themes of uprooting and dislocation.
As he spoke no German when he wrote the script, Hartigan felt like a bit of an outsider during shooting. Although he took some lessons before flying to Germany and lived in Berlin for nine months, he says he didn’t progress much past being able to order in coffee shops and markets. It helped that the cast and crew spoke English on the set.
“For the scenes in German,” Hartigan says, “I found it actually refreshing to be able to watch the actors and just try to instinctually feel if I believed what they were saying or not, without the exact words to lean on, just body language and emotion.”
Hartigan found Christmas, considered one of the young discoveries of the Sundance Film Festival where “Morris from America”premiered, after a friend told him to check out a Channel 101 short video series called “Markees Vs.” “I cast him because his attitude and energy is just so infectiously joyful,” Hartigan says. Before the film, Christmas’s other acting experience consisted of school plays. “By week two,” Hartigan says, “he was a total pro, asking the director of photography how tight the shot was so he’d know how much he could move in frame.”
Hartigan is full of praise for Robinson. “He showed up 110 percent committed and prepared and he just knocked the role out of the park with very little help from me,” Hartigan says.
“I think he relished the opportunity to stretch his muscles a little bit and show people what he’s capable of.”
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