Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails met when they were kids. Legend has it that it happened in a fight, and Fails watched his soon-to-be best friend clash with some teens by the San Francisco projects he’d recently relocated to. Talbot was 15, Fails 11. They became friends, of the inseparable-soulmates variety, and spent their adolescence roaming the streets of the city they’d been born and raised in, fumbling after stories of what the home turf looked like before waves of techies flooded into the Bay. Fails used to live in the Fillmore district; his grandfather owned an old, glorious Victorian – think of Gene Hackman’s Archer Ave mansion in The Royal Tenenbaums – up until rampant gentrification forced them out, the house was sold, and the family fell apart with it, forcing Jimmie to hop in and out of group homes. But the house remained – an ancient, scintillating relic of a lost time, which Fails would keep returning to and marvel at through the years.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is “a love story between me and a house”, Fails tells me, sitting next to Talbot a few steps away from Locarno’s Piazza Grande, where the film bowed the night before. The first leg of their European tour, the Locarno Film Festival welcomed Talbot and Fails some months after The Last Black Man world premiered at Sundance, where the two walked away with a directing award and a special jury prize for creative collaboration. Directed by Talbot (as his feature debut) and co-written with Rob Richert, this is a nostalgic, heart-wrenching tribute to a city that’s losing its soul, and two best friends trying to rekindle it. It’s a real-life story that sees Fails play himself, a twenty-something living with his philosophical pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), and dreaming of returning to that Fillmore’s Victorian house and its cone-shaped rooftop his own grandpa reputedly built sometime in the 1940s. It conjures San Francisco as some living creature, beckoning you into its pantheon of eccentrics, an ensemble graced with performances by Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan and Mike Epps.
And it ultimately transcends the very city it celebrates. You do not need to have stepped foot in the Bay to bask in the overwhelming affection Talbot and Fails pour into their Valentine to the city. This is a welcoming picture, a little miracle of a film that can aspire to say something universal because of the way it understands and empathises with its characters and their struggles. Late in the afternoon of a blistering hot mid-August day, I find a seat next to Fails and Talbot, and we begin to chat.
I remember reading a Rolling Stone interview where you said that The Last Black Man in San Francisco was “more than twenty percent autobiographical”, and being quite struck by that odd stat.
TALBOT: That is an odd stat! You really said that?
FAILS: I actually don’t recall, but hey, it’s Rolling Stones, so… [laughs] But yeah, it’s definitely more than twenty percent. After all, the film is based on my life, the scenes are based on events that actually happened, the characters are based on real people, and so on. Of course, there’s fictional elements in it too. But what ties me to the house is real – the feeling that the house was rightfully mine, and that’s what ultimately drives my character.
TALBOT: As Jimmie likes to say, everything in the film is emotionally true.
And yet apparently the first few drafts you two worked on were a lot angrier, and somewhat less nuanced than the final cut.
TALBOT: You’ve done your research, man [laughs].
FAILS: I think everything was a lot fresher at that time, you know, we were younger…
TALBOT: The wounds were fresher.
FAILS: Exactly, the wounds felt a lot fresher. You see, I came back to the city after a year of college in New York, and I got punched in the face from gentrification. So, I had to fight back. I was angry, I was like: “fuck techies and all their shit!” But the minute you get a little older, and pause to reflect on what your core values are, and all the things San Francisco taught you – the importance of understanding each other, of being empathetic – you approach it in a different way. You find a way to tell that story in gentler terms. Even though gentrification is far from gentle.
TALBOT: You lose your house. You lose your friends. Your family. Your homes. You’re told you can’t exist in that place anymore. It’s an infuriating feeling, and yet the spirit of San Francisco is one of empathy, and love, and compassion. It’s the city of Saint Francis! It’s a place that’s welcomed people who couldn’t really be themselves anywhere else. Which is why we wanted to make something that would invite people in as opposed to just yell at them. [to Fails] You always say that, right? If you scream at someone, they’re going to shut down, or fight back. But if you try to lead with love…
FAILS: A big reason why natives feel strongly about gentrification is because these newcomers don’t even see you. People who’ve spent all their lives in the city don’t feel acknowledged by new residents. And we wanted to make sure that the audience would understand how we used to see people growing up. And that’s what helps fostering a sense of community. You can’t have a community unless you acknowledge all others around you. And I feel that’s something we’re losing.
TALBOT: That was our ultimate hope, really. To make a movie where native San Franciscans would see a little bit of themselves portrayed on screen, and people who are flooding in would understand the costs of the displacement they’re causing.
You both worked on the story, but it was Rob Richert who helped you write it in the end. How did that collaboration come about?
FAILS: Well, Rob is a writer, and we’d never really written a script before, so [laughs]… We were trying to learn how to do that, and it was very much a collaborative effort, but he was responsible for putting it on the page. He’s also just a great writer, and understood our story, and gave it a structure.
TALBOT: And the truth is, while those [Talbot, Fails, and Richert’s] are the three names that ended up being credited, the whole writing process was a lot more complex and unusual. Jimmie and I developed the story, but then Rob, and the producers, and so many other people in the cast and crew ended up adding their own bits to the plot. We wrote it out loud, really. We’d sit in a room, and we would just hash out story beats all together. And that’s what I loved about it, as a group: we all chimed in with different ideas, and the movie ended up being a very cooperative process, especially in the writing room.
You were also blessed with an outstanding cast, and I was wondering how you went about choosing your actors. How did you get Jonathan Majors on board, for instance?
FAILS: He just auditioned, man. And that’s so big of him, to even just show some interest in a project like this. You know, at a point like he was at in his career, he could have just passed it for some bigger Hollywood project, and I’m sure he took a pay cut, considering how small an indie film this is. We’d been trying to cast people to play Montgomery for a while, you know. We actually came up with that name after he auditioned. He just fit. He brought something nobody else had. And he was even more amazing in person. He was collaborative, very smart and intellectual. Very literary. He understood the story and he brought new elements to it. He was just amazing.
TALBOT: He’s an honorary San Franciscan now.
FAILS: A Dallas boy. A Cowboys fan [shakes his head]. Horrible. I still love him though.
The chemistry between you two was just amazing to watch. It felt as though you genuinely had so much fun together, on set.
TALBOT: They still talk every day!
I remember reading some interviews where he described the whole set experience as very gentle.
FAILS: That’s a word Jonathan coined. We definitely wanted to get a friendship across, and that’s just how we were to each other, you know. We just thought that we could be honest and open. And we brought that on the screen.
How did you guys get Danny Glover on board?
FAILS: Well, he’s from San Francisco…
TALBOT: …and we’d been chasing him for a while, and then one day, well, he just called Jimmie.
Out of the blue?
FAILS: Out of the blue. He was like: “hello, this is Danny!” And I was like: “what’s up, this is Jimmie!” And then we started talking about the movie, the history of the film, and how we both grew up in San Francisco. And he went on to paint a picture of what Fillmore was back in the day, when the place was still vibrant. And that was hella cool. I mean, picture that: Danny Glover just calling you out of nowhere to chat about the city you grew up in. We didn’t even get to talk about the movie. But after that conversation, he told us he got a sense of how much we loved the city, and that’s what made him want to join the project.
Ownership takes on a prominent role in The Last Black Man. Everywhere we turn there are people struggling to hold on to their belongings – whether it’s a house, a car, old furniture… But there’s also another, non-material sense of ownership at stake, epitomised in Jimmie’s struggle to defend his own story, his own narrative of the house’s genesis against other people’s versions thereof.
TALBOT: This reminds me of something. I didn’t realise the extent of this until the movie came out, but we had a few very nice people working in tech who came up to us and said they really loved the movie. And we were curious to know how exactly the story resonated with them. We just don’t talk, you see, newcomers don’t talk to old-time san Franciscans. So, we became friends with them, and sometimes we’d walk through their neighbourhoods, and I would offer a certain story as to how gentrification affected those streets. But they’ll chime in with their own version of it, about how their tech companies are trying to save the neighbourhood. That’s the story that’s been told to them. So, you have these competing narratives hovering above the city.
But how do you feel about that schism? As in, that clash of narratives on gentrification, with the newcomers offering one that effectively sanitises the whole process?
TALBOT: To be honest, I’m still just learning about it. I didn’t know they’d have their own version of the story. I thought that they just politely tried not to engage with the whole gentrification conversation. Or, you know, that they would feel guilty enough that they would just nod and acknowledge it, without doing much to change it. But it’s far more complex than that. They’ve got their own stories about how gentrification is not actually a bad thing. Like it’s not displacing cultures or people. Now that is fascinating to me. And of course, hey, not everyone is like that! There are people who come there, and acknowledge their impact, and want to do something about it.
I’m still struck by how inclusive your film feels. It’s a strange paradox: the more specific a story is, the more it is universal. And you truly do get a sense of that here: this is a tale anchored in a very specific city and its very specific people, and yet I can see this speaking to folks who’ve never stepped foot in the Bay.
TALBOT: That’s something that we’re really realising here, to be honest. I mean, we had no idea as to how it would resonate outside the United States. It’s so very specific to San Francisco, and yet being here and talking to people to whom this movie resonates, and who seem to be able to grasp all the details… it’s endlessly fascinating. And yeah, you’re right, we always say “the specific is universal,” but I only began to get a sense of that here.
There’s also an almost unspeakable sense of longing and melancholia simmering throughout. I’m thinking about that very first moment when Jimmie returns to the old house and lies down on the wooden floor, and watches with this wide-eyed, child-like wonder as the curtains billow with the wind.
FAILS: I hope this doesn’t come off as too pretentious, but I think I just kind of have that child-like spirit in me. Plus, there’s definitely plenty of naïveté in my character, too. The sheer fact that he would skateboard so much adds another youthful layer to him. It’s part of his daydreaming persona.
TALBOT: Also, [to Fails] this guy’s face is just so fucking versatile! Mike Epps added that line when he glides past you in the car, he says: “you young old-looking ass.” But it’s true! Sometimes to me this guy looks way older than he is, and there are other times when he just looks so youthful, and that’s just a talent that he has.
FAILS: I don’t think it’s a talent, just a weird-ass face I was created with!
TALBOT: And Jonathan too, there’s moments when he looks so ancient, depending on the angle of his face…
Who came up with the idea of having him constantly wear a pencil behind his ear?
TALBOT: That was Jonathan’s idea. He took whatever shade the character had on the page and made it so much bigger. But I wanted to go back to that point you raised, the child-like wonder… That sense of awe for the house came through the ways Jimmie would talk about it, long before we made the movie, as we were growing up. And those were things that kept going through my mind: “oh, we have to capture that!” We started shooting this movie when he was eighteen, and year by year we were like: “fuck, he’s getting older!” See, when we first started shooting, he had this baby face, and it was funny because as he got older, the script started changing in all these subtle ways, too. When he was still eighteen the script had one key difference. When Montgomery tells Jimmie he knows his grandfather didn’t build the house, Jimmie genuinely thought he did, so the revelation was delivered as this huge blow to him. And it was actually Jonathan Majors, as we were getting closer and closer to filming, who said we should change that, and make it look as if Jimmie always knew. He knew his grandfather didn’t build the place, but that’s what you tell yourself. And it was such an epiphany! It made perfect sense, especially now that he was older. And we were so close to shooting so I was like: “fuck, is this going to change the whole script?” But as I went back to look through it, oddly enough it did not change any of the writing. Only the way Jimmie played it, because there was something more to what he knew now, maybe not a lie, but a hidden truth.
This is also such a music-rich film. But I never felt as though the score telegraphed this or that feeling – that nostalgic, engrossing mood it conjures emerges very much organically.
TALBOT: Well I’ll pass that on to our composer, Emile [Mosseri]. He’ll be happy to hear that, because that’s always the risk when you have a big score. You may push beyond what the images are providing. And so, the question is, can the images justify this big music? But I think that thanks to Jimmie’s acting, Adam [Newport-Berra’s] cinematography, and the overall atmosphere, it worked. I actually wrote some music before we began to write the script, to help me sort of fill up the world and start to develop it. I shared some of that with Emile, but he always said that he wanted to create a score that would be out to Jimmie’s heart. And we wanted to go back to the scores we grew up on, like Danny Elfman and The Last of the Mohicans: big melodic scores that you can sing, because I think when you have one big melody like that then you have a story to tell. It may sound corny, but that’s movies, man. Or at any rate, that’s why I got into movies. I wanted a big experience, and Emile definitely got that to a visceral level. The funniest thing is, sometimes people come up to us, looking all emotional, and we ask them what part moved them the most. And oddly enough, one part that seems to resonate with people is the first sequence, with the big orchestra piece.
The opening montage, when you and Majors skate all the way to Fillmore?
FAILS: That’s right.
It’s a stunning section.
TALBOT: But it’s funny because you’d think they would get emotional later in the film, when you get to know the characters, and you begin to really empathise with them. Obviously, those sections do affect people as well. But sometimes it’s just the power of music that’s impossible to explain. One chord could align with the image, and create something unexpected.
I remember watching your Kickstarter video a while back, with you two riding a tandem bike. And there was something you said that spoke to me: “there’s a hunger for this type of storytelling, but there’s also the audience for it.” How do you feel about that in light of the terrific reception you’ve received so far?
FAILS: I’m still stunned. I would have never thought anyone would care. I mean, I didn’t think this whole story would be relatable in any sort of way. Especially not across the water. No way on earth I would have thought my struggle would be universal, and the way the film has been received came as a huge confirmation for me.
TALBOT: Honestly, this one we’re having is the kind of conversation that you hold on to in your heart, and when you’re feeling insecure, when you’re feeling down while working on your next film, you remind yourself that there were people who were able to connect to those feelings. And sure, filmmaking can be very scary, and anxiety inducing, and you don’t always know how and whether people will respond to your work. But when they do – that’s what keeps you going.