Hi Jahmil, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Firstly, can you explain the premise of Heartland for our readers?
“Heartland” is about a woman and her dying grandfather, who disagree about the best way to spend his final days. She wants to immortalize him with Virtual Reality technology. He just wants them to live in the moment.
Where did the idea behind the film come from?
I always took my camera with me when I visited family in Charleston, South Carolina. I dubbed myself the family historian. I’d interview the older folks about family history and record archival footage. When I interviewed him, my granddad didn’t speak much. He would grunt and, if he was in a really good mood, offer one-word answers. When I found out he had cancer, I got even more obsessive about curating and recording our time together. One day he snapped at me to “put that damn machine away!”
I was in his hospice room watching him fade away when I suddenly remembered that moment—my granddad fussing and grumbling. The memory made me laugh and it sparked something. At the time I was brainstorming film ideas to pitch at my upcoming UCLA interview. I ended up writing the first draft there in his room.
The film deals with grief in a complex and nuanced way – how often do you think film accurately portrays the grieving process, particularly when it is grief for something that has yet to happen rather than something that has happened?
There are a number of powerful films about anticipatory grief. I think the first film I ever saw about grief was “Stepmom” with Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts. I was in the second grade. Spoiler alert: Susan Sarandon’s character is grieving for so many things: her future; her children’s future; her marriage; her identity; and her position in the family.
I love that film, but it has to be said, it is thoroughly white. I’m glad to offer something new: a short film that shows a Black family working through this stage of grief.
The question of life and death in an age of digital media is central to Heartland’s appeal. Was it important that the way the film dealt with this subject matter be as sensitive as possible?
No, while working on “Heartland” I didn’t think about approaching the subject matter with sensitivity. I think it naturally happened because I’d recently lost my grandfather and then my uncle. I was more focused on telling an honest story that would honor them.
How do you think coronavirus has impacted the film industry?
Coronavirus has been terrible—so much loss and fear. It has definitely impacted the industry in some of the most unexpected ways. Production has slowed down, crews are smaller and much more expensive, but there are some positives. For example, film festivals are a big part of an emerging and indie filmmaker’s career. Now that they’ve gone online or hybrid, festivals are more accessible to a broader audience. The quarantine also sped up the streaming platform boom which created a high demand for new content. In many ways, there has never been more opportunity for new and diverse voices.
What was the writing process for the film like?
Like they say, “writing is rewriting”! I went through a lot of drafts and feedback sessions.
What was the casting process for the film like?
It was wild. Maxine and Haskell only met a couple of days before we started to film! The actor who was originally cast to play Jackie couldn’t film, and there was a mad dash to find someone. I brought in Maxine and a couple of other actors to chemistry read with Haskell. I immediately knew that she was the one. I’m grateful that Maxine agreed to be our Jackie. She had one day to learn her lines, and she had just lost her own father. It was a lot.
How does this project compare to other films you’ve worked on?
It’s the first short film I wrote, directed, funded, and sent out into the world. It is my first film and nothing compares to that.
How influential do you think other directors have been on your style of filmmaking or do you feel that your approach hasn’t been influenced by other directors?
Of course other screenwriters and directors influence me! I study them. There’s no other way to learn the craft. For example, I’m working to find a good balance between beautiful prose and streamlined action, so I’ve been reading a lot of Barry Jenkins recently.
What has the reception to the film been like?
It’s been a great experience! It’s the first film I’ve sent out into the world, and we’ve been accepted into eleven film festivals so far. It’s an affirming experience.
What future projects have you got planned?
My next film, “The Bond,” follows an incarcerated pregnant woman as she gives birth and fights to stay connected to her baby. It stars Ashley Wilkerson, Yolonda Ross, and Kathryn Erbe.
With thanks to Jahmil. Make sure to check out Heartland wherever you can.