Director Joe Talbot and actor Jimmie Fails grew up in San Francisco and have been friends since childhood. The Last Black Man in San Francisco marks both of their feature film debuts. It’s a personal story, not only as a love letter to their city but also because it’s based on Fails’ own life growing up. Jimmie Fails plays a version of himself who is trying to reclaim the Victorian house his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco while the city he grew up in is changing all around him. I sat down with Talbot and Fails, and they spoke to me about filming in the city they grew up in and how important it was to capture this unseen and unheard version of San Francisco.
I just want to say I loved the film. It’s beautiful. It’s powerful. Congratulations.
Jimmie Fails: Appreciate it!
Joe Talbot: Thank you, man.
Whenever we see San Francisco in movies it’s always the Golden Gate Bridge or its steep hills. Those are pretty much its defining qualities. How important was it for you to bring this relatively unseen version of San Francisco to life?
Talbot: It was critical. But it’s true. Growing up, the movies even we as San Franciscans always see, are the Golden Gate Bridge, and then now more recently it’s them blowing up the Golden Gate Bridge, right? So it’s either the beauty of San Francisco or it’s literally destroying San Francisco. So we wanted to show the side of the city that we spent more of our lives in; us and our other collaborators. That being The Mission, Fillmore, and Hunters Point. We wanted to give that side of the city the cinematic treatment that other, older San Francisco movies get.
And I think San Francisco lives in the cinematic consciousness throughout the country because going back to the 40’s a lot of film noir is set there. Then in the 60’s and 70’s like The Conversation, the Coppola film. There are some very strange films like Petulia that are set there and capture sort of the 60’s spirit of San Francisco. Then the reactionary stuff like Dirty Harry and The Laughing Policeman, which are about the city essentially going crazy, at least that’s what conservatives felt was happening. So these weird reactionary and violent movies coming out of San Francisco and then Mrs. Doubtfire in the 90’s with more family-spun movies like Doctor Dolittle. So each of those has a weird place in your heart when you grow up there, if only just cause the locations are so cool and it’s fun to see your city back in the day. This was our attempt to show our side of San Francisco.
Growing up there was it easy to see those locations in mind when you started production on the film?
Fails: Yeah, it was important to show all these different sides so you feel like you’re doing it for the whole city as opposed to just one region. You want everybody to feel like they can get behind it. We felt that burden a little bit. If we don’t hit all those places, we still got to show our face there, you know, [laughs] and deal with the people who feel like they weren’t represented, you know what I mean?
Talbot: We were chasing ghosts when we were looking for locations though because we’d find a location we loved, we’d come back a month later to prep and it would be bulldozed. And even since we shot the movie, some of the locations we were able to capture at the very last second in the film are no longer there. Where the candy house is seen in Hunters Point and Double Rock; those are very kinda famous projects in San Francisco that they bulldozed. Montgomery’s house has those two empty lots in the film; one of them now has a hideous new building erected on it. And where the Greek chorus stands across the street which had that great open view of the bay now has this hideous barbed wire fence that the city has put up. Those are just a few sites. It feels like even in the year since we’ve shot, parts of the film don’t even exist anymore.
Fails: It’s a period piece already.
That’s another theme I noticed too with gentrification and how everything is changing. You have these small scenes like when you’re on the balcony and the people on the Segway tours come by. They’re not big, but they have this big impact. How did you find that balance between showing these two different sides of the city?
Fails: Obviously it’s a modern piece, but we like to think of it as something grand. That’s why that balcony scene is shot that way to make it seem like a big, grand, princely or something. We wanted to tow the line.
Talbot: We saw his character as a deposed prince who has been banished to the outskirts of the city, literally the edge of the city, but he has this dream one day to come back, back to the family throne in the bleeding heart of San Francisco and reclaim it, take it back. We always saw that scene with Jello Biafra, he’s the Segway tour guide, Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys, going back and forth between the dissonance. It’s like, “This is not your throne; you are not the rightful heir.” Jimmie’s like, “No fuck you I am the rightful heir. This is my shit. We built this and this wall to keep you out.” He kinda wins that battle and wins over the rest of the tour from Jello. He wins over the other tourists as they ride away on their Segways.
We originally had a line in the script where the inventor of Segway died on a Segway. He was supposed to yell that at them, but we took that out. But yeah, we wanted to present San Francisco as being this beautiful dream that’s somewhat unobtainable. When you live there, you walk around and it feels like this very enchanting place. Of course, it also feels further and further out of reach.
The house in the film is absolutely beautiful and in a way is its own character. Was that reminiscent of your own house from your childhood?
Fails: We had a Victorian, but it was a different style for sure. It wasn’t as grand. For me, it was to be able to transfer that love that I had for my actual home into that one. You still have to fall back in love with it.
Talbot: We’d been looking for the house for over a year. It’s really hard to find a Victorian in that condition in San Francisco. They’ve either been modernized or they’re so incredibly posh and expensive that they don’t feel quite right for this movie. We want something that felt like Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations. Beautiful but also in a condition where it would make sense that he has to go fix it up because the owners aren’t. That’s a hard house to find in San Francisco. It didn’t used to be but it is now. We went around the city. My co-producer, Luis Alfonso De la Parra, and my production designer, Jona Tochet, and we knocked on doors and eventually we knocked on the door of this house and the owner came out. This older man welcomed us inside and he basically became one of the fairy godfathers of our production because he welcomed us in and allowed us to shoot there. It’s a pretty disruptive thing for a big film crew to come into your house when you’re 80-years-old. But he welcomed us in with open arms. We we lucky.
Were there any specific locations from your childhood where you like, “Okay, we 100% have to include this in our film.”
Talbot: Fillmore Heights, where they come up where they crest the hill in that opening montage as the preacher says, “Remember your truth in the city of facades.” We walked that hill a lot so we kinda know the different angles and how to shoot it. That felt fun because there’s something about that shot which feels like the movies that I made when I was really young. It’s a weird, completely undeveloped hill. Or mostly undeveloped. It has a cell tower at the top. It’s a hill where people take their dogs. It’s sorta like a little piece of nature in the middle of the city. When you’re a kid and you’re making movies up there it’s fun because you can try to turn it into some other worldly place when you can’t afford to do that elsewhere. So when they come up over the hill and you see the city, that was the shot I’ve been thinking about since I was young.
We took a lot of places that are lesser known, probably even to natives. There’s a place called Beach Chalet. That’s been turned into a restaurant but it had these beautiful WPA murals on the walls. Again, because this movie we needed every scene to reach a certain level of beauty so it was like okay with this bank scene we’re going to be in one with Jimmie for a long time. Banks tend to be ugly spaces so we used Beach Chalet because they had these beautiful murals that spoke to old San Francisco. It’s full of re-purposing certain places as well.
You two worked on the short film American Paradise as well, which shares a lot of similarities with this film. How did working on that help you prepare for moving on to a feature film?
Fails: Being on that set and working with those people, we never had a huge crew. It was always just core people. I think it helped a lot to just know what that felt like so that we could get a taste of that.
Talbot: Yeah, we’d never been on a proper set so that was in a way a chance for us all to be in the trenches together. A lot of people that worked on that then came back together to do Last Black Man. That was always the idea; that was part of why we did the short to begin with. My production designer, Jona Tochet, she did both. And many people on her team worked on both. Our sound team, Sage [Bilderback] and Corryn [Deegan], they worked on both films. My producer Khaliah [Neal], she produced both. Rob [Richert] and Luis [Alfonso De la Parra] were two of my co-producers on Last Black Man were my producers on the short. And of course Jimmie’s character bookends the short, even though it’s a completely different story.
So that was part of the idea. Up until that point I’d never been on a set. The PA’s are going to have more experience than me so let’s make sure that we all get a little bit of experience working together because the feature we knew was going to be really hard. 25 days in the most difficult city in the country to make a film in, and a ton of very ambitious things we wanted to do; a camera on a rock flying through the air, his character bombing one of the steeper hills in San Francisco…
Just the skateboard shots in general all seemed pretty complicated.
Talbot: Yeah, they were hard. Two guys on one board, and them pushing in unison. The athleticism and the skill it took for them to do that is pretty remarkable. Then on the logistically level, his character bombing California Street with the cable car. We had to shoot that on this crazy long lens from across the valley, and we had like three takes to get it before the city told us we couldn’t do it anymore because it was during rush hour. His double who did that fell the first two times he got halfway down set. And we’re like, “Shit. First is he okay?” and we’d see a tiny hand go like this [gives thumbs up]. It was hard but everyone brought the best of themselves to it, and that was the only way we were able to pull it off.
What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
Fails: I hope they get a better understanding of what it means to the people that you’re pushing out. I think specifically gentrifiers can see that you do need to educate yourself on what happens when somebody loses their home or when you push people out and that they need to know it’s happening. They also need to know about the environment and the people that came before you that were there before you.
Talbot: I hope that the people that are feeling this happen in their cities, which we felt. Obviously this is part of where this movie came from. We were frustrated watching our city change and out of that depression and anxiety and frustration came this movie. Hearing from people who are saying, “This movie inspired me. I’m going to go home and write.” And hearing from people that are saying how they want to make a movie like this for their city and just feel like they see themselves in Jimmie’s character. That feeling. For me, when I was growing up, when I saw a character that I could relate to it changes the way you walk out of a theater. If we’re able to do that, that means everything. Hopefully it can be inspiring for people. And also just knowing our crazy journey; that you don’t have to go to film school, that you can drop out, you can have difficult parts of your life. There’s not some perfect clear path into getting to be an artist. I hope that can be a source of inspiration for people.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco opens in Atlanta this Friday, June 14th.