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‘The Inspection’ Writer-Director Elegance Bratton on Making Films With “Radical and Defiant Empathy”

Elegance Bratton, writer-director of A24’s The Inspection and the inaugural recipient of NewFest’s Breakthrough Queer Visionary Award, says the cast and crew were “fighting the elements” during the filming of his narrative directorial debut about a young Black gay man who joins the Marines under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

“We were shooting in summer in Mississippi and it was biblically hot,” he recalls to The Hollywood Reporter, laughing. “I don’t even know how to put it. Like Black church in the summer.”

The production, which is based on elements of his own life, was completed in 19 days — four less than what was originally promised — after facing a shutdown due to the pandemic. But once off the ground, Bratton had a defining moment as a director. Heading back to the video village following a chat with star Jeremy Pope, a moment the director recalls as finding “our little love language of how to work with each other,” he heard his name called.

When he turned, there were 10 hands in the air, all cast he would eventually individually huddle with before turning again to discover more hands of crew members. Maybe it was the clawing summer heat driving a sticky, clingy bond. Maybe it was an early career director realizing the demands of a narrative film set. Or maybe it was the direct result of the kind of environment that could only be shaped by an artist like Bratton.

After being unhoused for 10 years between the ages of 16 and 25 following a split from his mother, who he says was an orphan teen mom with a “severe undiagnosed mental illness,” Bratton joined the Marines, a place that even in its hostility towards a Black gay man “helped me to really get to this moment right now.”

“I can’t stress enough how hard it is to start one’s adult life as a teenager with this handicap in your head of everything I am is wrong because look at how my life is going,” he recalls. “I was fortunate enough to have a drill instructor reminding me that I was valuable and because I was a Marine, I had a responsibility to protect the marines to my left and to my right. That responsibility made my life have meaning.”

As a result, Bratton has developed a certain relationship to relationships, boundaries and the necessity for sensitivity, safeness and consent. Protecting people — regardless of the working elements — is essential to his filmmaking ethos.

“I try to make things as private and personal between me and an actor as possible, after having that experience of being with a black trans woman in public and you don’t know who knows what so you don’t want to say anything too loud because you don’t want to put someone in danger,” he tells THR. “The safety of the person is my main thing, and that definitely comes from Pier Kids and having had eight years of learning how to work with people on camera.”

In a discussion following the NewFest screening of his new A24 film, and accepting his award, Bratton spoke to THR about his filmmaking style, inspirations, how his doc and narrative work overlap and whether Hollywood has become more open to the stories of Black and brown LGBTQ+ people.

Elegance Bratton

Elegance Bratton at the #NewFest34 screening of ‘The Inspection’ Courtesy of Mettie Ostrowski

You had the responsibility of capturing and telling other people’s stories in Pier Kids, but with The Inspection, which is a more personal piece, where was the line in terms of how much real detail you were going to put in the story versus how much you might adapt or leave out? 

One hundred percent of it is autobiographical when it comes to the hopes and fears of Ellis French, even if the situation itself is not something I’ve been through. I read about other people who’ve done biographical films and sometimes people think that you’re just remembering what happened. You’re writing it down and then you call up some people, you get some money and you shoot it. That’s not really what it is. This is not a process of recollection, as much as it is a process of the remembrance of the essence of emotional truth. I wanted to make something that spoke to the universal elements of it first. What is it about this experience that I think the world needs? What is it about this experience that I think a lot of people go through? 

This is about a young man who’s going to do anything to get his mother’s love back, even go to the most hostile environment. In the process, he learns how to respect himself. So when it comes to that line between what’s real, I guess if there’s anything that’s like 100 percent — though even this isn’t 100 percent exact — [it’s] the stuff between French and his mother. I grew up hearing my whole life I could have left you anywhere. I could put you in a shoe box. I felt like a lot of queer people have heard versions of that and I wanted to honor what my mother and I had been through to get to this point. So when it comes to French, he’s a composite but a much more heroic version of me. I really put a lot of work into creating a character that could be what we needed when we were teenagers.

You have a really distinct style and vision with The Inspection. Can you talk about how having your cinematographer and editor on your first narrative feature helped with that? 

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” may have gotten its name in the 90s, but queer servicemembers were asked to serve in silence for almost 80 years up until its abolition. So it was important to me that French be a composite of those experiences. With someone like [cinematographer] Lachlan Milne — he shoots Taika Watiti and the most recent season of Stranger Things — this man is a visual titan. And we were looking to create a bit of a hybrid, where when we’re in French’s point of view, this is very much a European art movie like Claire Denis. Our camera is a subjective, pensive type of camera that’s really supposed to be personal to French. It’s handheld. When we see French in the world, it’s very composed. It’s Full Metal Jacket. It’s Jarhead. What Lachlan and I were looking to do was to create a visual language that could speak to the shaky ground that queer troops stood on for those 80 years of serving in silence.

Lachlin is a white straight guy from Australia, so there’s some of that, too. It’s important that whoever’s holding the camera is telling their own story, but there’s something about bridging the differences of where we came from that I think makes French even more empathetic. And if there’s any kind of slogan of what I’m trying to do with my work, I tend to inspire radical and defiant empathy. I’m trying to inspire people to find family in the least likely places. So having someone like Lachlin to build out the visual image of the film, I thought was really helpful to me because it helps me to imagine an even bigger audience of who could be watching this movie and how am I accessing them, where is he responding to, what is he not responding to — and vice versa. We spent so much time just talking it out: “I don’t understand why you don’t understand. Let’s figure it out.” 

When it came to the editing, Oriana Soddu’s done a lot of Andrew Dosunmu films — she did Mother of George, which I thought was a really clever edit of a film that is also pensive and very much thoughtful, yet really compelling. She’s a queer woman and I wanted to have somebody for whom patriarchy and masculinity have held a burden on them too, so that way when we are talking about it, we just have a ground zero — a shorthand of understanding each other. I read a book called In the Blink of an Eye about film editing and I really do believe that movies are the language of dreams. What Oriana does is establish the pace of this dream, so that we can really be pulling the levers right. When are they going to be panicked? When are they going to be on edge? And when are they going to be peaceful? That balance I don’t think I could have gotten with anyone else. Having Oriana here — this incredible female voice — was really, really important in the whole visual stew of the film.

How might that have been different or informed by your experience on Pier Kids and doing a doc?

Pier Kids I basically did it all. (Laughs.) I shot the movie. I gracefully bowed out of editing it after four years, literally pulling my hair out. I got bald making that movie. (Laughs.) Gratefully, I raised the money on Kickstarter, with 719 people giving me their $5 and $20 to make that movie. I took it to more than a handful of labs, more than a handful of studios, more than a handful of distributors, more than a handful of festivals. I’m grateful for the people who showed up for me, but a lot of people did not. Yet I had to continue to make that film because I knew I had something to say. Honestly, if it wasn’t for my creative partner Chester Gordon, one of the producers of the film, I don’t know if I would have finished it. They let me know I could get here once I finished that film. So if there’s anything I take from documentary — I mean, there’s many things — I bring stamina to this process. And I have cinematic dyslexia. I don’t really see a difference between documentary and fiction from an artist’s level because ultimately, what I’m concerned with artistically is truth-telling and trying to elevate, inform and welcome the audience to places that they could never go unless I take them there. As a documentarian, I’m literally going with the camera on my shoulder. As a feature fiction filmmaker, maybe that process isn’t so geographical. When I made Pier Kids, I got on a train, went to the pier. When I’m making this, I have to excavate in a very different way.

POV’s Pier Kids Courtesy of Elegance Bratton/POV

But nonetheless, I’m chasing truth. When I spend 10 hours with someone and then there is an event, and then that event summarizes and captures a central, emotional truth about them, now I have to go back into edit and go through all of those hours and see what supports that moment. When you’re making a fiction film, you rehearse it, you write it, you block it — you do all of the stuff to make it work in the time that you have. Then the actors show up. Especially with a person like Jeremy and this incredible cast of supporting actors, they bring their own take on it. And I find a way to chase the truth that is revealed through that process of preparation. What is really the difference, I think, between how — so far — I’ve made a documentary and how this movie came about is the infrastructure around the performance and knowing that I have to make really good use of my time and make sure that the gaffer and the cinematographer knows before I even bring this to the actor, so that they don’t have to be stressed watching us figure it out. Humility is another thing. An actor’s humility to participate — like this can’t happen without you. As much as I’m appreciating all this attention, when I grew up watching movies, I remembered the actors’ names, not the director’s name. I have a real respect for that. I want to privilege that and give them the respect that they deserve. That sense of respect of being on camera was burned into me through Pier Kids

In terms of working with casts, on Pier Kids — real vulnerable people who hadn’t spent time in front of the camera professionally — and The Inspection, which features trained performers who make themselves vulnerable, what are the similarities and differences in terms of process and collaboration?

That’s an incredible question. I want to walk it back a bit and state that I don’t refer to the people in my documentaries as subjects. I call them participants because of their vulnerability and their bravery. I would not have a movie if it wasn’t for Crystal [LaBeija] saying, “Be a part of my life and witness my existence.” So we participate together and I take that mentality forward into the fiction film space. We are in this together. There is nothing that I want to ask or compel you to do that you are not passionate about doing. I’m big on consent. I spent a lot of my life being violated against my will, so when I’m with an actor, I really want to make sure that they are with me too. That I’m not just telling them what to do. That being said, this is a boot camp movie. (Laughs.) So I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Sgt. Maj. Octaya Jones in the Marine Corps. She’s this incredible Black woman who, prior to coming to my set, had just finished her tour of duty as a drill instructor for the Marines. We served together in Hawaii when I was a private and she was a sergeant. And when these actors came up on set, we shot at a police academy called MLEOTA run by Lt. Col. Thomas Tuggle, who also was a Marine and went to [Marine Corps Recruit Depot] Parris Island in the late ’80s. 

This police academy was built to mimic his memory of what it was to be at Parris Island. So there was a true spiritual alignment in that my script is my emotional memory of what happened on Parris Island. This poetic alignment occurred between the location and the document that creates the foundation within which the actors play. On top of that, this is an academy that’s supposed to be like boot camp. I put the actors in the academy for two weeks prior to getting on set. When I spoke to Octaya, I was like I need you to put your foot in these actors’ asses the way you would any recruit off of any bus headed to your training. That kind of immersive quality is something else I take for my documentaries into my fiction films. Pier Kids — I don’t want to lose the fact that it’s different, but at the same time, it’s very much not about the ballroom scene, but it’s with performative people. These are folks kind of caught up in ideas of realness and passibility and all of that is being performed in public. So there is a kind of overlap and how I would speak to participate and speak to an actor on set. By enveloping them in the real thing, they have no choice but to rise to that thing. In that distance between who they are and the thing I’m asking them to portray, that is where the director’s notes come in.

Jeremy Pope as Ellis French in 'The Inspection'

Jeremy Pope as Ellis French in The Inspection Courtesy of A24

When you made Pier Kids, Hollywood was in a very different place than it is now in terms of producing and financing — and ultimately finding value in — the stories of Black and brown LGBTQ+ people. Can you about your own experiences and whether you feel like attitudes have changed when it comes to telling stories like Pier Kids and The Inspection?

It’s a complicated question and a good question. I don’t know everybody who’s at every desk, so I don’t feel confident in my ability to speak to whether or not it’s become easier or become harder. I don’t know. I can’t imagine it being that much easier if it’s the same people working in the same position. George Floyd gets murdered by the police and all of a sudden, everybody’s like, OK, we need to fix ourselves. But a lot of times the same people who were problematic before George Floyd are the same people who are fixing themselves. In my experience as a person who has dealt with abuse, I just don’t know how to trust someone who has been abusive to not be in the future. I do know that there are people in this business who will hold this industry accountable and I’ve been fortunate enough to find those champions. There’s no mistake that A24, a game changer, got behind Chester and I to make this film. I would say they’re an industry leader when it comes to diversity and representation of storytelling. On the other side, I’ve got Gamechanger Films with Effie Brown. She’s very much known as a champion of diversity in the business and has built her legacy on it. I can also say that I’ve learned a lot through the process of rejection.

Being an artist, you’re always in a process of managing rejection, no matter how successful the artist may seem. So I can’t say that this was easy for me, but it was important for me to have a queer Black actor like Jeremy Pope in this role. This is a 120-year-old medium and maybe for the last 20 or so years, we’ve been talking about how we make sure it’s accessible to everyone that lives in our world and is depicted through this medium. It’s not like we’re not present. It’s just that we haven’t really had an opportunity to speak for ourselves as auteurs. And because of the diversity problem in Hollywood, my whole identity as a Black gay man is like a Frankensteinian assemblage of these little glimpses of myself — whether it be Beyonce choreography or RuPaul or Karl Lagerfeld eating with chopsticks. Jeremy and I really wanted to shrink the distance a bit. The representation in this film is meant to be a beacon to a generation of Black queer people and queer people in general and, really, everybody. We all have to go through some kind of hell to be ourselves, you know, and I think for black queer men, it’s important that you get to be the hero of your own story. There are a lot more household name-type folks who wanted to play this part. These studios held me down and allowed me to pick who I felt was right for the message of the film.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

The Inspection releases in U.S. theaters on Nov. 18.



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