“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
This is what the soulful San Franciscan Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), the central character of debut director Joe Talbot’s lyrical The Last Black Man In San Francisco, says to two strangers who bicker about their intense hatred of the town. Jimmie doesn’t know them, and yet he interjects with uncompromising civic pride all the same, with the comparable entitlement of someone coming to the defense of his family against badmouthing strangers. To Jimmie, San Francisco is his roots and identity. And in more ways than one, San Francisco is the family that raised him—he can praise and condemn it from the inside, but outsiders better check their unearned judgment at the Golden Gate. “That's the sentiment of a lot of San Franciscans,” Fails says when he briefly joined Talbot and me in a New York café. “We are so proud of where we're from. How dare you come here and complain or say that about our city? We don't love it all the time; there are mixed feelings. Sometimes you wake up and you hate it. But we get to hate it, because we've been here. We helped build it.”
And this is the kind of pride that informs The Last Black Man In San Francisco, which premiered in Sundance last January, earning Talbot both a Directing Award and a Special Jury Prize for creative collaboration. Through a nostalgic blend of surrealism and emotional urgency, the film tackles San Francisco’s savage gentrification problem that continues to displace its communities of color. At the heart of the story is Jimmie’s singular life aim: reclaim the house in Fillmore (“Harlem of the West,” as it’s often referred to) he grew up in. It’s a graceful Victorian built by Jimmie’s grandfather and occupied by white owners puzzled about the young man’s insistence to drop in uninvited every few weeks to fix up and maintain the house’s grounds and exterior. With his closest ally and best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring actor who lives with his ailing father (Danny Glover), Jimmie pursues his dream against the odds stacked up against him, while holding onto Mont’s helping hand, living in his home, and sleeping on his floor.
Fails shares a “Story by” credit with Talbot, who jointly wrote the script with Rob Richert based on Fails’ true life story. While the movie Jimmie is a fictionalized version of Fails, “emotionally, everything is true,” he explains. “But it took a while to get there. The early drafts were definitely angrier and more resentful. [We tried to] get it to that place where you felt like you weren't aggressively fighting back.” Fails lived in the Fillmore District until he was 6, but then was driven out alongside his family, living in housing projects and shelters across the city. It was during this time that he met Talbot—the duo has been friends since childhood, witnessing the city’s vanishing character side by side. But making a feature film hasn’t always been their official end goal. “We were always creating things anyway, so it kind of just happened naturally,” Fails reminisces. Talbot agrees, recalling the informal conversations they had half of their lives. There was never a “Let’s do it!” moment. It was an organic project that grew and grew, getting its first break when the duo shot a concept trailer. “Jimmie was skating through the city telling the story that inspired the film, and I was hanging out at my brother's car filming it,” Talbot recalls. “We put it online, and people started reaching out to us. Some of them were from far away, like Paris, London, New York, telling us the same thing was happening in their cities. But then there was a group of people in the Bay who said, ‘How can we help make this happen?’ And they became like a film family.”
“If I looked at the movie and I saw my face, I would wonder why it's this person making this movie,” says Talbot, when asked about being a white filmmaker telling a predominantly black story in an African-American community. “But this one came out of the collaborations we've been doing since we were teenagers.” In this regard, Fails speaks in unyielding favor of Talbot. “[It would have been different] if Joe was an actual outsider, but we grew up in the same neighborhood. And he's my best friend. So he's telling his friend's story, and I just happen to be black. I wouldn't rather have anyone else tell my story. I don't think I could've had anyone else do it.”
Director/co-writer Talbot and I spoke about his film’s inspired mix of tones, getting costuming and music right, and San Francisco’s specific gentrification.
NOTEBOOK: The story in some sense plays on two levels. There’s obviously Jimmie's tale, personal, intimate. And there's this great canvas of the city at the back. You're bouncing back and forth between the two seamlessly.
JOE TALBOT: When we developed the script, we tried to show going back and forth from one emotion to another in quick succession. I was just talking about [Ken Russell’s] Women in Love yesterday; that movie, in three minutes, feels erotic and then scary and funny, all at once.And that [is almost like] being a part of San Francisco. We've had a lot of walks where we're talking about something very emotional, and then we start laughing because we see a naked man. So you're constantly having these different emotions up against each other. As the script got more and more refined, moments like that were very important to us—not just the individual moments, but what they come before and after. So the city and those experiences inform the experience of watching the movie. We made it for the city. If the city didn't like it, we couldn't live with it, we couldn't show our faces anymore.
NOTEBOOK: While the film has a very dreamy, surreal look, reality bleeds through it constantly.
TALBOT: There are contradictions and complex feelings that we feel about our city. We love [San Francisco], but we're also very critical of it. We wanted to depict it in a way that felt real and authentic to people that we grew up with. Jimmie and I both came from San Francisco, but we [still] wanted to make it feel like a dream in some ways—baked into everything that Jimmie is feeling is nostalgia and yearning. Those emotions often make reality feel more dreamlike, in some ways.
And so building [the city’s character] from this feeling was important. We felt it was an Odyssey-like story: this deposed prince, trying to get back home and reclaim the family throne. San Francisco was an interesting backdrop for that, with the Victorian [houses] that feel regal, and of course, with the one particular Victorian that Jimmie loves; a castle of sorts. All those themes and growing up loving movies that straddle the line between feeling emotionally very relatable and atmospherically bizarre and escapist—that was something we wanted to find a way to combine.
NOTEBOOK: As part of that combination, you alternate between the dreaminess of indoors and outdoors; panning through the shipyards and streets when the duo is on skateboards and following them inside this majestic house, just as surreal. Was that challenging to establish that feeling indoors?
TALBOT: It was, if anything, harder outdoors. Our schedule was so crazy that [our cinematographer] Adam [Newport-Berra] had 10 days of prep, if that is any indication. Usually he'd have like three weeks. [To speed things up,] we knew we were going to be stuck shooting some exteriors during these hours in the middle of the day when you have the harshest sun around 12 to 2, when ugly light beats down on you. And Adam found a brilliant way to embrace the harsh light by using mirrors and reflectors, even during the daytime exteriors. And so that actually became part of the language in the movie that we tried to emulate in other sequences. [The scenes] where Montgomery’s on the dock rehearsing, and when a fish flops onto his boat, shouldn't look that good.
NOTEBOOK: And yet they do.
TALBOT: Adam knew how to [make it happen]. For the interiors, we wanted to [make the house] feel almost church-like, and so Adam was constantly pumping dust into the air. He wanted the air itself to feel textural. I don't know that you can ever fully capture that house on film, but walking into it for the first time when we found it on a very busy street in San Francisco, the whole world outside faded away. It feels like you're walking into another time. We were trying to find ways to translate that feeling onto the screen.
NOTEBOOK: The house you filmed in is not in Fillmore, right? Even though it’s set there?
TALBOT: No, it's in the Mission District. So it's actually very close to where Jimmie and I grew up. We were sort of following [the tradition] of geographically inaccurate San Francisco movies, like Bullitt.
NOTEBOOK: The casting of the house must have been a process then, to find somewhere that Jimmie would feel comfortable with.
TALBOT: We took over a year trying to find that house. Oftentimes all these great Victorians that have these beautiful facades have been gutted, and all the detail has been removed. We'd go in and have this heartbreaking experience. Also [it had to look] like one man could have built this. But it was like you said, the most important part of it, beyond the all-engrossing and enchanting feeling, was that Jimmie felt that way. I watched him walk around: he was very quiet, he just kind of looked around and he opened that pope's hole, that secret passageway. And one man actually did do all the work on this house. He's still alive and his name's Jim, as well. He became one of our godfathers on this movie. And Jimmie played the organ, and sat in the parlor. My producer Khaliah [Neal], a fellow Bay Area native, said watching him walk around the house, just his existence there, felt like a political act. And it was really interesting when she said that. Growing up in San Francisco, I think a lot of white people there associate those big Victorians with upper middle class white people. And in truth, when you look at the city's and Fillmore’s history, many of them were owned by African-Americans, even as late as when I was growing up in the Mission. So there are large black and brown populations that own claims to San Francisco's history. Some of that has been erased. And we're afraid it's going to be further erased. So to see Jimmie in that house... and then to see Jonathan and Kofi [Jamal Trulove] in that house…it's such a big part of San Francisco's history.
NOTEBOOK: It’s almost like a brotherly love story between Jimmie and his friend Montgomery. Is any part of your friendship with Jimmie deposited into that camaraderie, or was it entirely fictional?
TALBOT: People are curious about that, because our real-life friendship is a big part of how this movie got made. But in truth, Montgomery's character is based on someone we were friends with in San Francisco, named Prentice. And Prentice just felt like this great San Franciscan, very different from Jimmie, but I imagine them as this odd couple of sorts. We grew up with a lot of people that feel like different shades of Montgomery. And so I think it was always much more about them. After developing [Montgomery] for years and trying to base him on people that we knew, we met Jonathan.
NOTEBOOK: Their on-screen friendship was almost tangible, in a way.
TALBOT: He and Jimmie became that way in real life. Jimmie slept on his floor when they were rehearsing every night during prep. He became our third brother. He also took Jimmie under his wing—Jonathan is a Yale-trained actor, and this is Jimmie's first time. And Jonathan, in a way like Mont, helped Jimmie, sort of guided him. As a director and as a friend to Jimmie, it was really beautiful to watch. That's always the fear when you make a film that has a buddy element, “What if we don't find someone where this friendship feels real?” Jonathan was an angel.
NOTEBOOK: I also love the way they carry themselves so differently. Jonathan was very dressed up and suited compared to Jimmie. Costuming was clearly top of mind for that character.
TALBOT: Yeah. Jonathan is so fit and built, he felt like an old dancer or something. So we [thought of] Gene Kelly when dressing him. He wears his pants high like that; he tucks in. Amanda Ramirez, our costume designer, has Gene Kelly pictures all over her desktop. She's in love with him. When I said “Gene Kelly,” she said, "Are you kidding me? That's my boyfriend! We're in love." And of course, the contrast, like you said, with Jimmie (who essentially wears one shirt the entire film) [was important]. We wanted his character [to be] like Marlon Brando, like Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, that feeling of history in San Francisco, of longshoremen. We wanted him to feel like out of the working class of yesteryear. With the Greek chorus [scenes], costumes were really important too, because the film's also about identity. We wanted to capture the style of San Francisco, which is very particular, but also to push it to a more poetic place than a literal one.
NOTEBOOK: And that poetry is very much embedded in the score, too.
TALBOT: I feel like [I have found] a lifelong collaborator in [our composer] Emile [Mosseri]. In some ways, I'm the worst person to collaborate with because I'm very particular about music, down to the note in a chord. I can be on the verge of tears if it goes to the wrong chord. It pulls me out. If you love music, you know that feeling when you're very sensitive to it.
NOTEBOOK: Oh I hear you! If a note doesn't resolve to the correct place in my mind, then that drives me crazy.
TALBOT: Yes! Right! Every time it comes back around, you're cringing. And yet I don't write. Really I write a little bit by ear, but I can't possibly write anything like Emile can. So he was very kind, because he both humored me and allowed me in there. I would sing melodies to him, some of which appear in the film, but oftentimes, it was just me listening to him create a fusion of all these things we wanted, kind of hymnal in some moments and regal in others: brass and woodwinds and using almost like foghorn or tubas.
There’s this [film score] movement in the last decade or so, towards restrained scores that feel less intrusive, more atmospheric, and very subtle. But I grew up in the wrong era for that. I grew up on The Last of the Mohicans. And Danny Elfman. When I was writing this movie, I'm playing The Last of the Mohicans, and I'm going, "This will never [work]... Too big!" But as a kid, I always dreamt of big melodic beautiful scores that are their own works of art outside the film. Emile understood that. One of the first things he said to me was, "I want to make a score for this that you can hum or sing. Something that feels big and out of Jimmie's big heart.”
NOTEBOOK: And now I can completely hear the merging of those two worlds where the score feels big and old-fashioned, as well as new, like the works of a Jonny Greenwood or a Jóhann Jóhannsson. That contrast thematically echoes the film.
TALBOT: Yeah, that was a thing. We talked about Old Hollywood. We would play Alfred Newman and Georges Delerue…mostly a lot of European composers. We wanted shades of that eternal [feeling]. But then, like you said, people like Greenwood cause it feels so fresh and different. He also, in his own way, has both a classic feeling—I mean, he scored for The Master—and something very perverse and strange. So Greenwood was one we talked about, and Michael Nyman. What Emile did was better than I could have dreamed. And I think you're right, that [classic vs. modern] contrast is so important to the film. If it feels just too classic, then it’s like an homage and not a creation.
NOTEBOOK: I almost want to talk about the "You don't get to hate it unless you love it" line again.
TALBOT: I can tell you one other thing about that scene. That's Thora Birch, one of the girls saying that. When we first talked to Thora about it, we sort of joked that it was like her character from Ghost World, if it was 15 years later and she got a job in tech in San Francisco, if she never got off the bus, and she left in that movie. So that's sort of what she brought to it. She has the Ghost World glasses in her pocket, actually, in that scene.
NOTEBOOK: Wow, I did not notice the glasses. I love that movie!
TALBOT: It was an honor for me, because we shot that by my old high school, where I saw Ghost World as a teenager, and I fell in love with that movie. It changed my life. It was surreal. We're driving by that high school with Thora on this mini bus...very bizarre.
NOTEBOOK: Between Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, and even Fruitvale Station, there seems to be a lot of stories coming out of the Bay Area in recent years.
TALBOT: There's a long history, political history, in the Bay Area. I will say, though, those are all Oakland movies. And I think there is a real difference, even though it's so close, and even though we love our friends across the Bay, San Francisco has a very specific relation to what's happening with gentrification. The Mission, where we grew up, is ground zero for maybe the entire country for gentrification. It's like the blueprint for how to change a neighborhood, you know? With the influx of tech money, it's going to destroy the Latino neighborhood. So while there are similarities, Oakland and the East Bay have a different history and a different modern-day relationship to gentrification. We've been hit very hard. I don't want to say the hardest, but it kind of seems that way.