Four characters on the 4th of July, each with their own insecurities and desires. College professor and family man Joe (Wendell Pierce) hooks up with June (Emory Cohen), a young man he has met on the internet. Meanwhile, Joe’s daughter Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) – stifled by life with her parents – grapples with her feelings for local basketball player Dexter (EJ Bonilla). Their four-way drama plays out on a humid midsummer evening in Texan-born director Joshua Sanchez’s feature debut, a subtly modulated drama set against the liminal night-time spaces of urban America.
When did you first discover the play Four is based on?
I had seen another play by the same writer, Christopher Shinn, and I was really impressed and wanted to meet him, so I called him up. We’re around the same age and of the same generation of young, gay writers who were living in New York at that time. So we became friends and colleagues, and I read a bunch of his other plays in the process of becoming friends with him – and this was one of those plays. It was the first play that he wrote that got him any kind of attention; it was first done at the Royal Court in London. It really spoke to me. It felt like a world that I had seen and experienced when I was a young person. The characters felt very real and vibrant to me, something that I could really picture being around me when I was kid, the same kind of family dynamics. Living in a small American city or a suburb of a bigger town, it can feel very isolating.
Neil LaBute is executive producer. How did he get involved?
He is a fan of Chris’s work. Neil works in the theatre a lot, and is around New York a lot. We were trying to raise money for the movie on Kickstarter; we did a very early Kickstarter campaign. It wasn’t raising a ton of money, but Neil found out we were working on the project and wanted to be a part of it.
How did you go about transferring the story from stage to film?
It was a fairly organic process for me. I don’t think any of us working on the film – Chris included – were interested in making a filmed stage play. The first challenge was thinking what needed to change to make it a cinematic experience. We tried to flush out some of the more open-ended parts of the story, so that people would have a fuller experience of what these characters were going through on the one night that we’re privy to their lives.
Second was to open up the environment that we’d set it in. The play is set in Hartford, Connecticut, and we’d thought about doing it there, but we decided to make it a more general location so that it would be more accessible to people. Also to make it more character-driven, so that it becomes a film that’s less about the location and more about what’s happening with these people and in their lives. A lot of films based on plays are really brilliant, but there are a lot that don’t work. I think this play had a sense of movement, a visual sense to it – it was already inherent in the play but we just tried to heighten all of that.
How did you find the experience of directing a feature for the first time?
I was always somewhat nervous about taking on a feature film as it’s such a huge undertaking. I started making short films in my teen years, then I went to film school. And I made shorts after that. I’m in my mid-thirties now, and it was all really good practice for the time when I actually got to be on a set for a month and be the person that was steering the ship. You can’t really be in a situation like that and be confident with what you’re doing if you haven’t failed in the past or had ups and downs – and I’ve had plenty of those.
It was surprisingly more comfortable than I thought it would be. I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to do things, and I had really good people around me to support my vision. I remember having tunnel-vision the whole time: there wasn’t really anything I could absorb outside of this one task. I think I surprised myself as I’m not really the most outgoing person in the world.
That’s really interesting. I’m not sure those films had any influence on Christopher Shinn when he was writing this piece, but to me it felt very much like those films in the sense that it’s about – like you were saying – conservative suburban repression. But a very modern take on those. We weren’t trying to make anything as stylised as Douglas Sirk has done, or an academic remake of melodrama. It was more that the aspects of melodrama that are in the film, in the sense that it’s a tragedy about a family, felt very real to me; it didn’t feel over the top. I think that’s what was somewhat great about all those Douglas Sirk films: as gloriously stylised as they are, at the heart of them they’re very progressive and real. I do feel a kinship with Douglas Sirk: subject matter-wise that’s really where I come from. I think there’s something quite subversive about that too, still, even to this day.
I think it’s even more along the lines of what Fassbinder tried to do with that kind of material, which is to take it into post-war Germany and his own contemporary times. They feel very contemporary but you can see where the strain comes from. His work is a big influence on me too. Not particularly with this film, but in my youth.
I always tend to think of things in terms of visual reference. For me [this film] was more about a kind of heightened American surrealism and the way that American cities look at night: neon-y, a lot of car dealerships and fast food restaurants. It has an eerie beauty to it.