Originally conceived back in 2009, this summer’s Blindspotting has come out at the perfect time. The highly original film—written by and starring longtime friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal—combines spoken-word poetry and a racially charged plot, winding up as a unique piece of art that stands out among the season’s pack. In the film, Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) try to avoid trouble as Collin spends the three days left on his parole. But when Collin witnesses a white cop murder a black man in Oakland, their lives turn upside down. The film was shepherded by producers Keith and Jess Calder, who first discovered Casal online through the performer’s spoken-word videos. Casal had been wanting to pen the film with his friend Diggs, who at the time was a struggling actor and musician. Seven years later, in 2016, Diggs was awarded a Tony for his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. The two spoke exclusively to Backstory about the challenges of working with first-time screenwriters, solving on-set problems and why the movie’s nine-year run-up was a blessing in disguise.
Backstory: Jess, you discovered Rafael via his online videos. What was it that made you want to collaborate with him on a film?
Jess Calder: He spoke with a raw honesty, which is really rare. From the beginning, I was drawn to his work because of that. I thought it was incredible how he was able to tell a complete story in two minutes. I could tell he would plant something early and then wrap it all up in an engaging way with the audience, so by the end of the poem everyone has gone on this amazing emotional journey with him. I thought that was really impressive. Anytime I’m looking for a collaborator, I’m looking for someone with a voice that hasn’t been heard before and someone who is exciting as a storyteller. He had all of that within his work. We had coffee, and it was this effortless conversation for three hours talking about all the kinds of films we love and what we would try to accomplish in a movie.
Once Rafael and Daveed officially decided to write a movie together, what was your role in preparing two individuals who had each never written a script before?
Keith Calder: A lot of it was long discussions over years about what makes a story work and what makes a movie work. For us, it was that balancing act of getting Rafael and Daveed access to screenplays and talking about how writers approach writing but also protecting them from bad habits or lazy thinking or traditional ways of doing things.
Jess: The benefit of the movie taking so long to write was they were part of the process with us on a bunch of our other films. They would come to every screening we ever did and said oh I’m not sure if this was working or that was working or why did you choose to shoot that a certain way? From the beginning, we were always constantly talking about what the right way was to tell the story we were trying to tell and at the same time establishing a strong working relationship.
Keith: The four of us came up with a process where Rafael and Daveed would do all the writing, but a lot of the key story decisions are things the four of us would talk about, and if they weren’t things that all four of us were excited to do, then we would brainstorm other approaches. It was very collaborative and almost a collective way of thinking about story.
This project took more than nine years to get made. What were some reasons for the delay—were there logistical or story problems?
Jess: I think it was a combination of everything. The initial prompt when we met Rafael was to create a kind of film that hadn’t existed before—a kind of musical but instead of having the characters burst into song, they would burst into verse. I think no matter what writer we gave that idea to, it was going to take a long time to figure out what to do with that in the right way. So there were definitely drafts of the script that came to us that were a lot more in verse or some that felt the verse wasn’t landing in an organic way. While they were growing as writers, I think we were also trying to figure out what the film is we want to make. Over nine years that took some turns. The closest we came to getting it off the ground was 2009, and that draft was very much about the Oscar Grant shooting, and because of that it was a very different script. [Editor’s note: Grant was a 22-year-old who was murdered after being detained on Oakland’s BART system.] Collin saw that specific shooting, and everything in the story was different. There was a giant riot scene and conversations about whether they should join in or not. It was much more about Oakland being so angry. We were really excited about that draft, and then we heard through the industry that there was another film in development dealing with this [Ryan Coogler’s 2013 masterpiece Fruitvale Station]. We did our due diligence and realized that was an amazing film. We had to reexamine that if our movie was not going to be about this, then what was it going to be about? In 2015, we finally figured out what the new script would be because those types of shootings had not stopped. The Black Lives Matter movement, which we all are so passionate about, doesn’t seem like it’s garnering the change we would have hoped. So we said, “We’re going to shoot this summer, and Daveed at the time said, “Oh I want you guys to know I’m doing this off-Broadway thing at the Public Theater. I’m not sure if it’s going to transfer to Broadway, but if it does I won’t be available. Either way, you should come see the show.” So we’re sitting there opening weekend, and of course it’s Hamilton and we realize Daveed is not going to be available for a while. His entire life is going to change.
Even though Hamilton delayed the project a little bit, I imagine having Daveed star in and win a Tony for such an iconic musical only helped eventually get the film made and seen by people who may otherwise not have been interested?
Keith: I would say it had three really positive effects for us. One, our friend was in a hit musical. Two, Hamilton is incredible and we’re huge fans of it and I’m just glad it’s in the world. And three, it allowed us to have more flexibility in terms of how we were putting our movie together. There wasn’t as much pressure.
Jess: The amazing thing of what Hamilton did is it made verse and hip-hop a little more universal. People have now seen Thomas Jefferson have a rap battle. It made everything seem more accessible.
Why did you choose Carlos López Estrada to be the film’s director? Was there any concern about having a first-time feature director on the project?
Keith: We work with a lot of first-time directors, and we have a good record of figuring out what kind of first-time director we can work with. We had seen Carlos’ music videos and liked a lot of them. Because Rafael and Daveed had such a grasp on the script and Jess and I had a lot of in-depth production and postproduction experience at that point, it seemed like we could build a system around Carlos and he could do a great movie even if we ended up having to support him more than would be the case if we worked with an experienced director.
Jess: It was just the four of us for a long time so it was really important that if we brought someone else in, they would come in with a distinct point of view. I think what I really loved about Carlos’ work and him as a person is he had a very interesting view on identity, which I think both Collin and Miles are dealing with. He was coming from a point of view that none of us had, so I think having someone else seeing it through a different lens was really important.
You were on set for the entire shoot. Were there any problems that arose before or during the shoot that you had to step in and solve?
Keith: We didn’t have a lot of time, especially in prep. We didn’t have the full go-ahead for the movie until at some point in April. We had a window with Daveed to make the movie in June  because he had another obligation starting July 4. We were casting and prepping and putting the whole movie together in a five-week window to go shoot it in 22 days. It has a lot of locations and characters, so a lot of it was getting a sense of how to prioritize problems. We knew we weren’t going to get all our locations locked before shooting—we just didn’t have time. So we would focus on all the things that had to happen during the shoot, then at night we’d go scout locations for later in the shoot. We were just hoping we would figure it all out as we went, [but] we only felt comfortable doing that because we had a great team around us.
Jess: I feel like a lot of times first-time filmmakers might feel a little shy about working with a more experienced DP [director of photography] or other department heads. But what we try to do is surround our first-time filmmaker with as many experienced and supportive heads of departments as we can because there’s something to be gained when the shit hits the fan. For example, there’s an amazing scene where Collin is walking down the street as a cop car starts to stalk him. Initially, we were in such a run-and-gun shoot that we didn’t scout that location until the night before and our DP signed off on how the street was lit because on the night we scouted, all the street lamps were on. He signed off because the street had this great pre-existing light. Then the next day when we showed up—at the exact same time—all the lights were off, so we basically had to figure out how to light it with just the lights we had available to us. He did an incredible job, and the fact that he had that sense of knowledge—I think we ended up with a scene I can’t imagine any other way.
Even with all your experience, are there still situations that rattle you on set?
Keith: Yes, sometimes people ask me what the job of a producer is, and I joke that it’s to look like you’re not worried about anything while actually being worried about everything. It’s a joke response, but it is the job. We’re constantly thinking through all the things that can go wrong and then trying to make small adjustments that people aren’t noticing, so a lot of problems we’re able to avoid by seeing it coming and dodging it, and then most people don’t even realize the problem was ever coming. That said, there are things that happen that are out of our control. There was a moment in the fight [between Miles and a guy who’d just moved to Oakland] outside the hipster house, and it was our second to last day of shooting. We went through all the precautions. We had mats down to protect everything. In a total fluke accident, when Rafael was being taken down to the mat, his head just flung back and hit hard enough that he got a concussion and we had to take him to the hospital. We had to shut down the whole production and wait until he was out of concussion protocol and then come back and finish that and one other scene. That shakes you. Your leading actor hits his head and is out cold, and you don’t know the extent of the injury—you’re trying to figure it out. But we knew we had experienced people around us. We trusted our AD [assistant director], and we trusted our key people. I knew we could go with Rafael and Daveed to the hospital and our AD and line producer could wrap up the location properly and get things started for insurance claims.
The film premiered at Sundance in January and then sold to Lionsgate. As a producer, what were the options available to you pre-release, and why did you decide to go the festival route?
Keith: It’s funny. Jess and I have worked with a bunch of different distributors and we’re pretty well versed in the marketplace both domestically and internationally. Before we made the movie, we reached out to some friends at companies we thought could be good homes for it. Both places were like, “This script is fantastic, but we have no idea how this movie is going to turn out. It’s a first-time director, two actors that have really never been in movies before. We just can’t get involved now unless it’s great.” Our response is, “Of course it’s going to be great!” We saw really quickly this would not be a movie we could pre-sell. We would kind of just have to trust in ourselves and our collaborators to do the work and make it the best it could be. So that’s what we did, and luckily we got into Sundance and Lionsgate picked it up. The funny thing is Lionsgate is one of the companies we talked to at the beginning of the process where they wanted to know how it would turn out. But because we reached out to them early, it was already on their radar and they were excited to see the movie at Sundance.
The film has been incredibly well received by audiences so far. Has it been all that you hoped?
Keith: The response from audiences have been fantastic. A real highlight was going to the premiere up in Oakland and seeing the movie with an audience of people from Oakland. We were very careful to make sure the movie played well to everyone in the U.S., but it plays in a special way when you live and breathe West Oakland and know all the little references that Rafael and Daveed snuck in.
Jess: Every now and then, this thing has happened at multiple screenings where an older white woman will come up to us afterward, emotionally shaken and asking us, “Is this what it’s like to be a young black man?” Obviously I can’t’ speak for that, but just the fact that our movie allowed her to attempt to understand what that’s like—to me, that has been the ultimate highlight. The fact that people, when they watch our movie, are understanding the underlying themes of empathy coming through. I really hope that moment stays with them and they tell others to try and empathize in a deeper way than maybe they would have before seeing our film.