They admit it looks bad: with plans to indulge in a legendary night of partying, college buddies Sean and Kunle (RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins) briefly stop in at their apartment and come across an unconscious white girl passed out on their living room floor. Either extremely drunk or maliciously roofied, the girl suddenly regains semi-consciousness, only to vomit everywhere and pass out again. Along with their other roommate, video-game obsessed stoner Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), Sean and Kunle panic as they weigh the pros and cons of helping a person they do not know in such a compromised position. Of course, these men are now compromised too, even if they have done nothing wrong. If the cops are called to their home and observe three male minorities surrounding a pretty white girl three sheets to the wind, good luck.
As serious as all this sounds (and, in its third act, how serious things actually get), Carey Williams’s Emergency, based on the 2018 short film birthed out of Film Independent’s Project Involve program, is primarily a comedy, and a very funny one at that. Aided by two excellent lead performances and a screenplay that hones in on the similarities and differences inherent in Sean and Kunle’s relationship (Sean wants to party and vape constantly; Kunle, under intense pressure to please his Nigerian parents, plans to transfer to Stanford next semester to receive his doctorate), Emergency isn’t afraid to hone in on the humor and horror apparent in a university setting that fancies itself progressive while being more than 95% white.
I’ve interviewed Williams twice before—first in 2018 for his 25 New Faces of Film profile, then last year when his feature debut, R#J, premiered at Sundance. I caught up with Williams a few days after Emergency made its world premiere in this year’s Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition. Emergency will be available on Amazon Prime later this year.
Filmmaker: Was Emergency something you always wanted to revisit as a feature? The screenwriter you collaborated with on the short, K.D. Dávila, returns for the feature as well.
Williams: Going back to 2018: Emergency, the short, was accepted into Sundance and won a Special Jury Award there. We then took it to SXSW in March of that year (where it won the Grand Jury Award). I believe it was at SXSW where I was asked in an interview what I was going to do next and if I was going to turn the short into a feature. I told them “Yes, for sure,” but I truthfully hadn’t talked to K.D. about it at that time. Once I put it on blast, K.D. and I had to talk about it, and for her, it was like, “Well, what’s the expansion of this story?”
I was personally most excited about expanding the friendship between our two leads, Sean and Kunle, on a bigger canvas, while for K.D., it was more about, “How do we make this feel like it needs to be longer? How can we tell a longer story?” It was K.D. who decided on setting the feature over the course of one evening. From there, we discussed how to expand on the characters we wanted to carry over from the short. We asked ourselves questions like: in what ways would Sean and Kunle’s friendship be tested throughout the events of one evening? How can we delve into the nuances inherent in the fear and anxiety Sean and Kunle experience toward authority and toward the unfortunate situation they find themselves in? That was our impetus for the feature and K.D. began writing from there [the feature version of the script was subsequently placed on the 2020 edition of The Black List].
After having a few meetings, we were able to get a production company, Temple Hill Entertainment, attached to the project, that then took it to Amazon Studios [who signed on as financiers]. Amazon loved the script and were very supportive in the vision we were going for. However, getting production off the ground took some time, as this was when COVID was really popping, and everyone in the industry was in that weird state of not knowing if productions could begin or resume. It wasn’t until almost a year later that we were finally able to begin.
Filmmaker: Whenever I see large party gatherings in movies shot over the last two years, I think about all the restrictions that must’ve come with filming those scenes.
Williams: Dude, there was so much talk about how we were going to film those party scenes [with protocols in place], so here I was trying to devise schemes with the aid of visual effects to make it work. But after about a year of development and following the trends of the pandemic, we were able to get them done.
Filmmaker: You shot in 2021?
Williams: God, the years are all blurred—Yes, it was April of 2021.
Filmmaker: So, essentially right after R#J premiered you were off to the races to shoot your second feature. Where did production take place?
Williams: In Georgia, right outside the Atlanta area. I wanted to set the film somewhere in the southeast, as that’s where I grew up and wanted a similar feeling for this story. I wanted the texture of what it feels like to be a young Black man attending a university in that area, even if the film isn’t replicating the exact university experience I had. Nonetheless, I knew the area well, so I wanted to set the story at a PWI [Primarily White Institution] in the southeast region. Thinking back, I believe K.D. wrote the script envisioning it as more of an Upper East Coast setting, so we tried to mesh what she had wanted in her vision with what I wanted in mine.
Filmmaker: Hadn’t you originally wanted to shoot R#J in the South as well, in New Orleans, before having to relocate?
Williams: That’s right, I wanted similar textures to where I had grown up, but in retrospect, I’m actually glad R#J ended up being filmed in Los Angeles, as it became an L.A. story in a way.
Filmmaker: I read that your personal relationship with your own brother affected how Sean and Kunle are portrayed in the film. You’ve described your brother and yourself as being “oil and water” pertaining to certain political issues, but that you still can have a healthy debate. In what ways does that relationship manifest in your film?
Williams: As pre-production progressed—with K.D. writing the screenplay and me doing my own research into Nigerians and African-Americans. and the differences between the two cultures—I began thinking about my relationship with my brother. It’s true that we have very different opinions about social and political issues, but I think that’s OK. There’s room for discourse within communities and there should honestly be more of that. That was something in the back of my mind whenever I would talk to my brother and I’d get so frustrated with him about some things and he would get so frustrated with me.
Sean and Kunle are very similar in that regard. Sean can’t fathom how Kunle doesn’t see their situation how he sees it and Kunle feels the same. Even so, at the end of the day, they still share that love and complement each other in different ways. I think that’s what draws them together, as they see things in each other that they themselves want to be. When a conflict or situation like the one in our film occurs, there’s usually a bit of disappointment in a “Wow, so that’s how you see it?” kind of way, but, since they love each other, it becomes more of a “I want to make you understand where I’m coming from” thing. I definitely used my relationship with my brother as something that drove my getting more into Sean and Kunle as characters and how they ultimately view each other.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked with RJ Cyler before (he played Benvolio in R#J), so it makes sense that you would cast him as Sean, but I believe this was your first time working with Donald Elise Watkins [who plays Kunle]. Were you able to hold chemistry reads while you were casting?
Williams: We did have chemistry reads, for sure, but all held over Zoom. RJ was already cast at this point, so we arranged a chemistry read between him and Don, particularly since RJ has an energy about him that we wanted to make sure someone would be able to match (which Don did beautifully). We then had Sebastian Chacon read for the role of Carlos, and after he had a chemistry read with RJ and Don, I asked them privately, “He’s it, right?” They responded, “hell yeah, that’s the guy.”
Everyone clicked together nicely, and that was a relief, as it’s a very tricky process. You cast these guys over Zoom, then they come to rehearsal and they’re so much taller than you thought. You’re like, “Wait, what the hell?” Since this was all done over Zoom, we didn’t meet them in person until well after they had been cast. Our great casting director, Kim Coleman [who also cast another 2022 Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition entry, Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny], brought together some wonderful talent though. I couldn’t have asked for a better cast.
Filmmaker: One of the recurring themes of the film is how Sean and Kunle find themselves as outsiders on their college campus. The opening scene puts the viewer in their shoes, as a white English professor discusses the topic of hate speech and, in a very uncomfortable moment, cites one racist slur in particular. Sean and Kunle don’t know how to react to this and neither do we. Were those types of experiences something you personally drew from?
Williams: I’ve often felt like I was “the Other,” yeah. I’ve been in many situations where I became very aware of my being the only person in the room who looks like me. In that opening scene you mentioned, it’s a predominantly white classroom, with Sean and Kunle being the only two Black men in the room. It’s an example of, no matter what you do in a university situation like theirs, you’re always going to stick out. Yes, I drew on my own personal experiences for that scene, but I think it’s a very relatable feeling, and one that isn’t going to stop them from living their lives and trying to have a good night.
Filmmaker: The plan for that night is for Kunle and Sean to take the “Legendary Tour,” an all-out sampling of the wildly extravagant parties taking place at various Houses on campus. In a very funny montage laying out their plans, you use incredibly lush and sensual lighting that makes each House feel extremely unique. You then contrast the allure of these parties with the colder, dimly lit living room that places us with an unconscious woman, Emma (played by Maddie Nichols), lying on the floor. I found that your lighting continuously reflected the stakes at hand. Is that a result of your cinematographer and production designer working hand-in-hand? What went into those decisions?
Williams: That Legendary Tour fantasy sequence had to represent their goal for the night, right? That’s the night that they’ve been promised, that’s the night they want. That’s why we wanted the sequence to appear as fun and as beautiful as possible, and by making it look that way, it then becomes even more heartbreaking once they don’t get to receive it. They should have had fun that night, but it’s taken from them by, in a lot of ways, the irresponsibility of someone else.
Lighting wise, when we got to the house [where Sean and Kunle encounter Emma], I wanted the setting to be dark. I wanted it to feel like a thriller, like a horror film, because for these characters, it almost is. There’s no lightness for them, it’s serious business. The visual look of the scene had to reflect that and so, as the film progresses, the lighting gradually gets darker.
I talked a lot with my DP, Michael Dallatorre, and production designer, Jeremy Woodward, about that and we went all in on the desired look. Sometimes we were like, “Is this too dark?” But I love the lighting, the darkness, of that scene. The color and the design brings the audience to a place of “Oh shit, the rug is being pulled out from under the night they’re about to have and now we’re clearly in a very different space.”
Filmmaker: Were those lighting and color shifts something you were always hyper aware of while filming? We meet Emma’s sister, Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter), at one of the campus parties scared sick about her sister. Her environment feels much brighter, and that too is a bit of a shift.
Williams: It’s funny, because in the scene where we first meet Maddie, I wanted that to be dark as well. I don’t know how your screening went, but when I watched the first public screening of the film using the Sundance app, the image was a bit brighter than I remembered it being. Anyway, I actually wanted that scene to be darker, to stay visually darker than any of the previous party scenes. But to answer your question, we were always thinking about how the lighting would be used in each scene. We wanted it to grow more natural the further you get into the narrative, in part so that you feel more connected to the guys once it’s toned down and we pull away from the crazier lighting setups. To continue using more extravagant lighting would take you out of the story a bit, so we went for a more natural feel. If you notice, the Legendary Tour sequence has numerous spotlights and other fantastical kinds of lighting setups, and that’s something we remove throughout the rest of the film.
Filmmaker: In the sequence midway through where all of the characters are brought together in a dark forest, was that a set built on a soundstage?
Williams: No, we actually shot that in a forest.
Filmmaker: How did you find that location? Were you just looking for a certain amount of open space?
Williams: It was definitely a bit of a process. We drove down these long roads in Georgia that were surrounded by deep woods and we’d pull over at different spots, get out and look around a bit. We also needed to locate a certain kind of tree that would fit for the character of Emma [in a moment of confusion and panic, she runs from the men and passes out atop a tree branch], and finding that was a bit of a process. But we were out there, in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night for many evenings for that shoot.
Filmmaker: Toward the end of the film Kunle lets out all of his frustrations to Sean, and it’s a very big, dramatic monologue for Donald to perform. You film it almost uninterrupted, with a fixed camera on his face and, outside of a few cuts to RJ’s reaction, it’s primarily an extended moment that allows Donald the space to build up to this moment as an actor. Is that how you prepped it?
Williams: That’s the scene I was looking forward to shooting the most. For me, the north star of this film is the relationship between those two guys, and I couldn’t wait to capture that moment of catharsis between them, with everything building to that moment in the campus science lab where they express the love they have for one another.
We didn’t do many takes of that scene. I remember saying to Don, “Don’t worry about the script right now. Just talk to your brother, man.” And after that, the waterworks came pouring on and he embodied the moment beautifully. I was incredibly moved by Don’s performance and, honestly, by RJ’s too. A lot of people obviously think of RJ as more of the energetic, humorous type, but he has an emotional vulnerability to him, and he really gets to show that off in that scene.
Filmmaker: You brought your editor on R#J, Lam T. Nguyen, back to edit this film. While R#J was a very specific kind of animal that had you confined to the pre-established ScreenLife format, Emergency frees you and Lam up a bit. What was the editing process like on this film? Were you working remotely?
Williams: We were able to edit together in a shared space, always going through COVID testing multiple times a week. There was one point though where we had to split up between rooms, where one person would be working on the edit bay in one room and the other person would be situated in the room next to it, but for the most part, Lam and I were able to work together. That was really key, man. There’s such an immediacy to being in a room with your editor as you try out new stuff and I don’t know how that process would work if we were both remote and screen-sharing between laptops. I’m so happy we were able to do it together.
Filmmaker: Has continuing that working relationship, where you’re more attuned to the other’s personality and artistic likes and dislikes, made the post-production process simpler?
Williams: I think so. This is only our second time working together, so Lam and I are still learning each other out a bit. It’s not like myself and Michael Dallatorre, whom I’ve worked with 15 or 16 times by now, but Lam’s instincts are great. There’s a small sequence in the movie Lam assembled on his own, the part that takes place right after the altercation with the police by the hospital, as Carlos and Kunle head back to the lab. There’s a brief montage there Lam created completely on his own and without my influence. When I saw it, I was like, “Dude, this is beautiful.” To me, that sequence serves as a mirror of the night these guys were supposed to have, only now it’s a fucked up version of that mirror. It’s retracing each of the steps from that night, only now there’s much more melancholy. It’s a big contrast to the earlier montage in the film where the night is expected to be a ton of fun.
That’s the kind of surprise I think you need to look for in a collaborator, a person who will bring the extra sauce you didn’t ask for but who will go for it anyway. Lam does that, and he also challenges me on some of my choices and I challenge him on his. That’s the great thing about physically working in the same room together. You can immediately ask questions and make choices right then and there. There’s a bit of a dance and a jazz to the process that I love. We’re still learning each other, but the dance is starting to feel good.
Filmmaker: Both of your features have premiered at Sundance in virtual settings. With your now having put two films out into the world this way (which I’m sure was not something you could’ve planned for), do you consider yourself a very online person? Do you keep track of audience and social media responses and trade reviews? Or do you prefer to remove yourself from all of that noise?
Williams: I mean, I have to be an online person. That’s where all my films are being shown! As far as reading responses from people, honestly, I try to avoid that. It’s somewhat inevitable, I realize, as it’s like taking a bite from the apple and then you’re like, “Now I want more of that. Now I have to see.” But I try to avoid it, because we made a film that we felt good about and now it’s out in the world for people to do with it what they will. I’ve been fortunate to hear some great feedback, which I’m thankful for, but at some point maybe I’ll sit down and read the reviews all at once and get it over with, maybe with a little sip of something [laughs].
We knew we might have a polarizing film on our hands. Some people might not go for the premise or find some of the plot elements triggering. It might bother some people and we have to be OK with that. You can’t worry if your work is going to hit with everybody. You just have to try to say something and hope that it resonates with people. But I do want to see this movie, in a theater with a large audience, at some point down the line.
Filmmaker: Hopefully the Omicron variant calms down in the coming weeks and that can become a reality. Maybe your third feature, whatever it is, premieres next year in-person at Sundance and you can finally have that experience of walking down Main Street in Park City right after the world premiere of a feature of yours.
Williams: I like that [laughs]. Yes. I like that you put that out into the universe, man.