In Plain Sight

An interview with Blindspotting's Rafael Casal

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Rafael Casal is a poet, rapper, producer, writer, and actor. Over the last ten years, he and his longtime friend and collaborator, Daveed Diggs, wrote, produced, and starred in their first film, Blindspotting. The story revolves around best friends Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) during the last three days of Collin’s probation. As the days progress, their friendship is strained by Oakland’s gentrification and the community’s perception of Collin after his conviction for a violent crime. Throughout the film, heightened verse is infused to showcase Oakland, the city’s natural facility for language, and Casal and Digg’s background in poetry and music. I had the opportunity to speak with Casal about comedy as a vehicle to tell stories about trauma, toxic masculinity, unconscious bias, and the stories missing from Hollywood’s mainstream. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BW: I just wanna tell you that I’ve seen the movie twice; it’s fantastic, like it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. So congratulations.

RC: Oh my goodness, thank you so much.

BW: So, my first question is about the filming schedule. I know you only had 22 days to film this. What was it like to have to shoot such a complex film in such a short amount of time?

RC: Well, the reality is that we had to lean a lot on the community’s ability to help us out. ‘Cause we’re doing two locations a day. That’s sort of what a shoot like that requires, right? I think we have 38 locations within that time. So we’re doubling up a lot.

The beauty is that we were shooting at home. It’s like if you were gonna shoot a short film in your house, like you kind of know, you know all the best ways to go about things and the way to ask for things that are important. You have a shorthand with the community there. You’re not really fighting with the weather or the city permits or anything like that. California and Oakland were just like, “For you, it’s 22 days. We’re gonna make everything as easy as possible to make your movie.” And it was fucking phenomenal.

BW: Were there moments when you were filming and you thought, “Oh, this is a great scene, but it has to get cut?” or, “Oh, well we should add this in now, even though we only have 22 days to film this?”

RC: Yeah, there’s a few lines that got added last-minute. But, I mean, we’re not doing a ton of improv, but there’s a benefit of being the two leads and also being the writers.

If we feel like a phrasing of the line should change, we don’t really have to ask anyone and so we’ll just adjust it. Also, we were allowing actors to sort of, if they felt the words weren’t fitting right in their mouths, we would try to work with them to find another version of the line, or another way to get into the line that felt more intuitive for them.

As far as cutting scenes, I think you don’t really learn that until you get into the editing room and you start watching the footage and go, “Oh, this is really great, but we don’t need this.” Or “If we wanted this to play better, we could have shot it differently, I wish we had more time.”

BW: The film, despite having some really dark moments, is hilarious. And I know you guys have been calling it a “buddy comedy in a world that won’t let it be one.” Why did you go into this project knowing you wanted to talk about Oakland and police violence and create a comedy?

RC: We were approached by Jess Calder, one of our producers, who found me on YouTube doing like poetry and music videos, found some of my rabbit hole of content. And she fell in love with the way that I was writing a ton and proposed this idea of doing a film in verse, or that was inspired by verse-driven. And so I think I knew right away that it would probably be a hometown story, right, like it would be a Bay Area story. There’s so many stories that I could tell, but something that sort of originated there because that’s what I know best and that’s where my verse work started. That’s the theme that I know and that’s where the nuance is, right?

I brought Daveed on a year or two later and the same month that he sort of came aboard, that I introduced him to [producer Keith Calder] and we all agreed that we should do something together, where we would write it and be the leads in it, was when Oscar Grant was killed at Fruitvale. And so I think we were really excited to write a story that was about the town’s reaction to it and sort of the can of worms that moments like that open, so the energy of it. That these things don’t ever happen in silos, that police violence is not separate from gentrification. It’s not separate from systemic poverty.

Daveed and I have a natural inclination to go for the joke. We like to laugh. We like to write funny things. And for me, humor is very much a coping mechanism for the drama in our lives, the adversity in our lives. We release the valve of tension with a joke and the idea of pairing those two always seemed really exciting to us. And we didn’t know any better, ‘cause we’re not — we didn’t go to school for screenwriting and this idea of sticking to a genre felt outdated. The way that we consume content now, online especially, is like we can handle drama and comedy in the same minute just fine, so why couldn’t we do that in a film? That’s how we do it in our day-to-day lives anyway.

BW: What models were you looking at? I mean I don’t see a lot of films that are able to balance comedy and drama in a way where you can have a movie like this and, at the end, still be laughing.

RC: Yeah, I don’t know. I agree that, at this point, now that the film is done, I’m not really sure where to place it. This last time around, when I was doing this page-one rewrite that we had to do in March, I watched, on the comedy side was like Big Lebowski, Swingers, and Friday and stuff that would seem intuitive. Obviously, I watched Do the Right Thing. I watched Moonlight and Get Out. Things like that that were very contemporary references. And then, there are a lot of older films that are like dialogue references that I think tonally I tried to figure out where it could sit.

When we were writing it, we weren’t thinking so much about like, categorically, where is this gonna fit. I think it was more like, when we’re living our day-to-day lives, what movie tones have come up in these circumstances that feel authentic to those experiences? Certain themes that just feel a very particular way because we want to like fully immerse ourselves in the mood of that. And then I think that mood sometimes reminds people of another movie where that entire movie is shot in that mood. And I think we really just enjoyed this idea of letting the scene be what it’s supposed to be and not worrying about whether or not it fits into the genre of the film.

We figured our tone as writers would be genre enough.

BW: Yeah, I mean, that definitely stands out a lot, especially — there’s a scene where you’re in a really old house and Collin’s walking around and looking at family portraits. It feels, not out of place, but very tonally different than the scenes before and after it. So it is hard to place, but in a very good way.

RC: Yeah, I love that scene. Especially ‘cause it’s all one shot.

BW: It’s fantastic.

RC: It’s aesthetically, [director, Carlos López Estrada’s] jam, right? It’s just a long one-taker that’s this solid brick of verse in a down moment in the film. And I feel like the film just doesn’t work without that scene, which is great. Like, I think you’re exactly right, like that it’s tonally so different. It’s like adding like a little last seasoning to something.

BW: Yeah.

RC: And just like this is such a different flavor than everything else, but this is what ties it all together. There’s a lot of moments like that in the film for me. I’m just like, “Oh, man, I’m so glad we sprinkled this in here.”

BW: Are there a lot of long one-shots like that? Or is that the only one?

RC: A lot of one-takers like that?

BW: Yeah.

RC: We shot a lot. I don’t remember how many actually ended up in the film. But there’s a fair amount. That opening walk with them freestylin’ is all one take. When they come busting out of Ashley and Miles’s apartment after the scene with Sean to the corner store, that’s all one take. That one-taker in the house, we were just talking about. The original fight between Collin and Miles in the parking, towards the end of the film, was shot all in one take every time. We cut it up, but we always shot it all in one.

Yeah, I mean, that’s really Carlos’s style. Our backgrounds are mainly in theater and we feel like the best performance will come if you just let the scene happen. I think it was in our best interest to just perform it like a play and shoot around that.

BW: I want to talk a little bit more about the theme of comedy throughout it because this is a buddy comedy, but there’s a moment where you’re talking about the term “tough guy” with Sean (Miles’s son). Miles is having that conversation in a joking way and Collin is saying it more reflectively because he goes to jail for being a tough guy. And you’re handling masculinity in a buddy comedy that isn’t misogynistic. How do you balance that?

RC: Oh. That’s a great question. Well, I’m sure there’s something misogynistic in either one of those characters, first of all, because it’s just us trying to represent people accurately and we live in a very misogynistic society. So I’m sure somebody does something. But I think our desire to talk about the way in which men engage with each other is about watching two men try to speak to each other in a language neither one of them speaks, right?

BW: Yeah.

RC: Their most tangible emotions are humor and anger. And that’s how they deal with each other. The reality is that the only place for them to find understanding is outside of those two emotions. We have to stop joking and we have to stop yelling. And that’s really hard for, especially men, who grow up in rougher neighborhoods where violence and machismo have so much more social currency.

There’s less space for vulnerability. It requires this insane scenario of disbelief for those two to get vulnerable with each other and even then it’s for the briefest amount of time possible for the two of them to see each other and then make a joke. That’s how boxed-in men are, especially from those areas. So like, even for example, we were just talking about this sort of tough guy thing, Miles’s and Collin’s use of violence has functioned entirely the same up until very recently.

BW: Right.

RC: Right. Collin wields violence the same way Miles did. What Collin is suddenly having an epiphany about is that the consequences are different now, for the two of them. And Collin is afraid for Sean in a way that Miles isn’t fully aware. Miles is aware of the danger of the police, like he’s from the town, he knows the circumstances for black people in that town. But we’re always making the argument that if you’re not consciously always thinking about it, you’ll make mistakes because you don’t feel it all the time, like you’re not living that experience. Collin’s living that experience. It doesn’t ever slip his mind, or not factor into what he’s — how he’s functioning in the world.

So, Miles is trying to teach his son how to defend himself in a place that Miles views as a very violent place because Miles’s experience growing up was always being on the offense, ‘cause he’s a white dude in a black and brown place, where he’s had to fight for his space so much that someone’s questioning it at all times. So violence has really been his currency. And it has been for Collin too, except now, having gone to jail for the first time, having seen the degree of consequence, not only has that already happened, but the potential for consequence is so jarring to Collin that the idea of encouraging Miles’s black son to think of himself as a tough guy, seems like setting it up for tragedy in his future, right?

BW: Right.

RC: They say it in such a different way. And Collin’s response is more interesting: Miles is his sibling, basically. This is his sibling’s son. I mean, I’m sure Collin looks at Sean like his nephew. He’s trying to give him a different take on the function of violence away from Miles’s version of it as a joke.

BW: That makes a lot of sense that, for Miles, it just operates differently.

RC: He has to. He has to operate differently. He’s also scared all the time. Like Miles looks over his shoulder all the time. He’s just been there so long that he knows how to function there. But he’s afraid of people who try to check him all the time. Like, I can’t imagine how many times Miles has been jumped or checked or somebody’s tried to beat him up his entire life.

He walks around like the way . . . You ever been around a dog that’s been abused and it’s just like snappy? That’s Miles. He’s just snappy. So while he’s all freaked and he hates the police, he’s not afraid of them in the same way. Which is such an interesting space for him and Collin to be in.

BW: Yeah, and you realize that when Val (Janina Gavankar) brings up that Miles feels guilty ‘cause he wasn’t arrested because the police operate differently around hi, in a way maybe even he can’t see.

RC: And really, we don’t know what happened, you know? We didn’t say anything about that inciting incident. Val didn’t actually see it and neither did we. We didn’t see what happened after. We don’t know if Collin told Miles to run because that’s how Collin works, “You’re definitely gonna go to jail” and there’s no reason for Miles to go. Or did the police only arrest Collin? We really don’t know.

All we really know is how Miles sees it and how Val sees it based on their vantage points. But they’re all so certain. That’s what I find so interesting about their tension is they’re both so sure of themselves and neither one of them actually know what happened together.

Miles doesn’t know anything about Val and Collin’s conversation. They were a couple. The best friend doesn’t know what those conversations were like. Miles has no idea. And on the same degree, Val says that Miles started the fight. I can roll the tape back; Miles definitely didn’t start that fight. Collin definitely got pushed and then decked a dude. That sounds absurd.

BW: Super justified fight, up to a point.

RC: Yeah, yeah, I mean like he definitely got pushed. He had every right to hit that dude back. It just escalated and got absurd. The complexity of that moment is like one of the more fascinating things in the film.

It’s so interesting what people pay attention to. Like, I’ve had audience members at Q&A’s raise their hands and be like, “I just think, why wouldn’t Collin just listen to Val because Miles obviously kept pushing him into fights.” And I was like, “It’s so interesting you say that because all you’ve only heard is Val say that and then you watched footage that was different and you’re listening to Val and not watching what you saw.”

That’s actually, the entire premise of the film. You can watch a thing and hear a thing and decide that it’s different even though we just saw it for ourselves. Like, that’s so crazy to me. ‘Cause we want Miles to be guilty, right? Like we’re looking for the villain and we think it should be Miles.

BW: When the reality is that there isn’t a villain, which is great, narratively.

RC: Well, I mean, there just aren’t villains, you know? They’re just flawed people. I would say that Miles is also having the worst four days of his life, like Collin is — but the movie’s more about Collin — but so is Miles. This is the worst four days of his life, for sure.

BW: I know you have to go soon, can I ask like one more question real quick?

RC: Yeah, yeah, go ahead, go ahead.

BW: I said I’m a dark-skinned, like fat woman and I saw Nak, played by Rolanda Bell, and got super excited. Did you write her that way or was Rolanda just the best person who auditioned for it?

RC: I think Rolanda was just the best person who auditioned for it. Nak is named after a friend of ours, as are most of the characters in the film. But those characters are not supposed to be doing an impression of the people that they’re named after, we just sort of made that as a tribute. But I think, energetically, we were super interested in just making sure that all different kinds of people in the Bay were represented. Mostly just like in the way in which they talked and how they represented themselves, sort of as a community and a culture.

But Rolanda walked in and we were just like, “Damn, Rolanda’s awesome.” She’s an amazing actor. Then, on top of it, there’s just like no one who looked and felt like her in the film and we just thought it would be so insincere if she wasn’t represented the way we represented everybody else. We just thought it would be awesome. She was already so damn good. We’re looking at the whole package in somebody, you look at how they sort of show up on camera and how they deliver the lines and bring the character to life. And if it feels real, if it feels authentic to the place and authentic to the story, it’s sort of undeniable and you have to bring that person on. And I think she just commanded the space so well and it felt so representative of the Bay Area that we grow up in, that it was kind of a no-brainer for us.

BW: Yeah, she’s awesome. Do you think you’ll include more plus-size women or fat women in leading roles in your future films? Or that’s kind of based on who auditions?

RC: Yeah, I mean, I think it totally just depends on the story. Our future is sort of two-fold, the way we talk about it. There’s a lot of projects that we wanna make for us as actors to play off of our dynamic in different circumstances. That’ll be super fun and hopefully we’ll get to tell some really interesting stories in doing that.

The other side is we’re really excited to commission and produce other writers that we know who have other vantage points on stories that we’re really excited about, especially writers who don’t often get the opportunity to get their first thing made. That’s always the hardest thing. And right now, we’re in a period, like we have been for a long time, but at least we’ve had a little bit more reception to it now than we have at like one foot in, one foot out the door with Hollywood at the moment. For this brief moment in time, let’s see how long it lasts, where we have a little bit of credibility, at least enough to prop up some folks.

We come from a community where all of our peers are women, women of color, men of color, who are amazing writers and storytellers and can’t get anything fucking made, you know?

BW: Yeah.

RC: So, I think we’re really excited to try to develop those, lift up those voices that we feel like we can help. And I really hope that some of those projects continue to do the same thing that action of ours tried to do, which is help not only just telling stories, but telling stories using people as vessels for those stories that we just don’t see and hear from enough. I think that’s what’s most exciting to us as far as projects. And anything that feels too much like it’s sort of upholding the status quo, which, I think, we’re all a little exhausted from, like the same few stories told a few different ways over and over again, I think that’s just a big turn off for us. It’s played out. Like, I would totally watch the Nak movie.

BW: Same.

RC: I would totally watch the Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) movie and I would totally watch the Val movie. There’s so many characters in our movie like that. You know whose movie I hella want? I want Rin’s (Utkarsh Ambudkar) movie who does the retelling of the story.

BW: Same, I’m very interested in that movie.

RC: You know? But isn’t that the analogy for like where the industry needs to go? Like, look at some of the periphery characters that are so fascinating. They totally deserve their own movies. Whether it’s in the context of this story or just in another story, but they’re charismatic and fascinating and I think worthy of at least 90 minutes.

BW: At least.

All stills from Lionsgate embellished by Isabella Akhtarshenas.

Byshera Williams is a Junior English Major at Drexel University and the current Associate Editor for The Smart Set.

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