Digging into one of my favorite films from Sundance with the filmmakers
Easily one of my favorite films from Sundance this year was Carey Williams’ Emergency. The razor sharp entry in the “one crazy night” sub-genre, puts a relevant twist on the well worn formula. Taking place the night before spring break it follows two black college students: the studious — Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and the partier — Sean (RJ Cyler) at a mostly white college. The two planned to spend their last night on campus completing a “Legendary” tour, hitting all seven frat parties in one night. The problem is when they run home to pregame, they find their front door open, and a 17 year-old white girl (Maddie Nichols) unconscious in their house that they share with a Hispanic student, stoner Carlos (Sebastian Chacon). The three men then charge themselves with getting the girl help, but thanks to the current state of the world, calling the cops in this situation might not be the safest bet. So the three men risk their lives to drive the girl to the hospital in Sean’s busted up minivan.
While I enjoyed the comedic aspects, I thought the film had a tremendous heart and had a lot to say about not just racism, but growing up and learning to be your own person. During the festival I got to attend a virtual round table with the director, writer and a few members of the cast — who were generous enough to let us in on how the film’s themes and plot were very much influenced by real situations and experiences.
Emergency will hit AMAZON, May 27th, but in the meantime check out my chat below.
Emergency deals with lots of themes, but there’s also really great individual moments. What was the inspiration behind the movie as a whole and some of the individual scenes?
KD Davila (Writer): Well, for me, I’m Mexican American. I’m from Los Angeles and I grew up as one of the paler people in my family. As I grew up, I started noticing this phenomenon with my dad and a lot of the other men in my big Latino family, they had to do this strange calculus every time we went anywhere, considering how they’re being perceived. So like this, this questioning of like, do I seem like a threat right now? How can I not seem like a threat right now? And then I saw it happen a bunch of times, even when they’re trying their best to anticipate how they’re being perceived, you still can get pulled over and searched for no reason. You know often the excuse is you match the description of a suspect and I just saw this happening all the time.
And it’s a thing. I remember talking to my dad about this idea and he didn’t realize that it wasn’t a universal experience, for people just to get pulled over for no reason. Like he didn’t realize that that wasn’t something everybody goes through, which is insane to me, but I mean, so that was something that I grew up with and I just like Carey and I talked about the movie, like what the movie would look like. I mean, that idea of perception and being treated differently, just based on what you look like is definitely bigger, like it’s part of the short in a very overt way. The idea of colorism is something that’s played within the short more explicitly, than in the feature film, but in the feature the inspirations came from that.
In the film, you’re watching these guys try to anticipate how they’re being perceived and trying to make sure — every effort that they’re trying to make to try to anticipate that is like watching the dominoes fall. Because it doesn’t always go their way, spoiler.
I guess, inspirations for other things are like, these are things that really happened. Like the kind of big in your face classroom scene at the beginning of the movie that happened, twice, at my undergrad and my grad. It sounds insane, and I’m trying to be vague for spoiler reasons, but you know, it has to do with using the N word, in a classroom academic setting. I mean, it sounds insane that these things keep happening, but that really happened, and it kept happening.
The situation of finding an unconscious white girl on your floor as a person of color is something that’s happened to several of my friends. I mean, in a college setting, it’s not really that unusual to come across a stranger in your own house, it’s a little more unusual, but that did actually happen to my friend. I remember him telling me he’s, he’s also Chicano, I remember he tried to be the good Samaritan, and she was more conscious than Emma is in the movie. But she’s still a little, you know, and wasn’t doing well. So he figured out where she lived and he was like, okay, I’ll take her. He had this realization while he was in the car, that this does not look good, cuz she passed out while she was in his car. He was like, this is the longest drive of my life, because people do pull, pull people over in that area frequently.
So anyway, it came from a lot of different places. Carey and I also talked about a lot of things, especially when it came to the relationship between the characters.
So since Emergency started its life off as a short, what were the challenges and what went into adapting that into a feature length film?
Carey Williams: KD wrote the short, and then she wrote this feature of course. I mean, we had some success with the short thankfully and I just kind of put it out there that we were making a feature, kind of without really checking with KD first. Thankfully she was like, yeah, let’s, let’s talk about what that looks like.
KD Davila: We wanted to stay true to the tone of the short film, and keep that sort of comedy thriller tone. We decided the best way to do that would be to keep it all in one night so that you’re really with the characters, watching them make these decisions and watching the dominoes fall throughout the night for them.
I mean, it was a process of a lot of talking about it. When we made the short film, it was intended to be a standalone story. We didn’t make it as a proof of concept for a feature. So you know, it was a journey and we wanted to make sure it deserved to be a feature film and that the story could be sustained for an entire movie. I think we figured it out, and keeping that tone was really important to us.
For the cast, was the tone of this film, challenging to nail exactly, when you’re being funny and when the film leans more into the thriller aspect?
RJ Cyler: You know how in a lot of traumatic situations, you know, we try to find the comedy in it, to kind of cope. I think that just came naturally. I don’t even think it was more of a reach. I feel like KD really did great with the writing. Of course, Carrie can direct while he sleep, to make things, you know, a lot easier for us. I just feel like it just came up a lot more naturally, than more strategic, at least for me, you know?
Sebastian Chacon: I agree. I think that for a lot of the film, you know, in my experience at least, is that, the funny moments and the serious moments, you’re not playing for the laugh, you know, we’re all really like in the movie throughout, and we’re kind of suffering, right? Like we’re all in a really intense situation. You kind of laugh a lot of the time, just because of the absurdity of it, you know? But throughout we’re just, we’re going through it. So it was just, being committed throughout the whole thing.
What was the casting of this film like since it was shot during the pandemic? Was there something you were looking for specifically?
Carey Williams: I’m looking for all these mugs again, when I do another movie, that’s all I’m saying.
There’s no one thing that I look for, it kind of depends from project to project, I guess, depending on what the script is. I feel like, it’s weird cuz when you’re in the zoom of it all, it’s kind of hard, cuz I look for the body language, like I look for when they come in the room and how that personality is. Cause I feel like when you’re casting, you’re trying to see how you’re gonna get along with the folks, as well the audition, the reading of the sides, or whatever. But I think everyone came in and just nailed it.
My question was for the cast and crew. Have you personally ever experienced racism similar to the characters in the film and if so, did you use that as fuel in your performance?
Donald Elise Watkins: Yes I have and without, without going too deep into it. One of the things that really stuck out to me was like the loss of innocence when it comes to people of color, like not knowing what this world is. It’s never, like a fluff into it, it’s always like a ripping of something. So immediately I always hearken back to like the first time, where I felt something racist, and I’m like this could “Oh this have been something else.” It was, no, this is because you look this way and that’s it. And once your eyes are open to it, it’s almost like now you can spot it. Now you can see it. And then it happens more and more frequently. I was nine maybe like, yeah, I wanna say I was nine years old.
So exploring this with, you know, Kunle, who is in his twenties and hasn’t experienced any of that. So me and Carrie and RJ, I remember we were talking about black children and what that would look like if you never had to experience it, like, what can you accomplish if this thing never happened? If you never had to think about this? So I got really emotional about that while doing all of my prep work. I was like this is just a privilege that isn’t afforded to most of the people that I know, because I grew up more like Sean’s character. But yeah, so absolutely. Absolutely.
RJ Cyler: I don’t think it was a thing of fuel, it was more of a thing of, now I get to react as if I would have in the moment, like in the moment of these things happen, you kind of got so much to worry about and contemplate. So your reaction has to be parsed, you know, a lot of people can say, well, why didn’t you do anything? It’s because I definitely thought about my life. That’s why I didn’t do anything.
But in this film it was like,even the ending with Kunle and me being ripped away from him in his time of trauma. I’ve been there before, every homie that I got done called me on some “RJ, I’m scared stiff right now, and I’m driving across town”, Hey boy, you good? Its just young black men stuff. That’s so tumultious to the thought process of a young African American man, but we all done walked through through it, and it’s, it’s a blessing to be able to make it through it.
So I feel like it wasn’t even too far to go, you know what I’m saying? It was like, “Ooh, finally, I can get this off”. It was kind of like therapy. It definitely gave me an outlet in a way, to finally cry in that moment. Cause in the moment of the altercations or whatever, you can’t cry, cuz that might end up having you messed up a little bit. It’sthat sensitive, you know what I’m saying? So yeah, it was more of an outlet that I got to do with my brothers and my sisters.
My question is about the ending. I love that you have a happy ending, but it comes at a cost to the protagonists. Was that always the ending or did you possibly explore other options while you were writing or possibly filming?
Carey Williams: Yeah, that always in the script for it to go that way. There was actually a little bit more in the end at the house, that we did not include. But it was always intended to end the way it did.
Dan Tabor: Can I ask what what didn’t you include with the house?
Carey Williams: It was a little little talk with Sean that just wasn’t wasn’t quite needed. You know, it was just a little bit of a back and forth that we just decided to, to, to let go.
Finally, a quick point of clarification were any granola bars actually consumed on set?
Madison Thompson: I think so. (Laughs)
Sebastian Chacon: Those Nature Valley dry powder granola. Yeah, I think at any point it had like seven or, or so of them in the Fanny pack
RJ Cyler: Don’t they come in crumb form.
Sebastian Chacon: You open it and it just falls to dust.