This week, Amazon Prime Video welcomed two of the first installments of their Welcome to the Blumhouse film series, The Lie and Black Box. The latter, which was co-written and directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, is centered around a father (Mamoudou Athie) struggling with amnesia who undergoes a radical medical treatment being overseen by the ambitious Doctor Brooks (Phylicia Rashad) that will hopefully help restore his memories, but his experiences inside the titular contraption leave him questioning his identity and more.
During the recent press day for Black Box, Daily Dead spoke with Osei-Kuffour about how this project initially came together, as well as his experiences collaborating with Rashad and his approach to Black Box’s unique visual style.
Congratulations on the film, Emmanuel. Was this project brought to you, or was this something that you sought out? I'm just curious how Black Box initially came together.
Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour: I did a film called Born With It, which was a short film. It was my thesis film from NYU and it was about a half black, half Japanese boy that is dealing with issues regarding his identity in rural Japan. And so that film did really well on the festival circuit. My manager passed it to Blumhouse and they really loved it and they thought that my sensibility would lend itself well to horror films and thrillers in general. So, a few months later, after my first meeting with them, they sent me Black Box. I remember reading Black Box at night, and really being a little disturbed by the Backwards Man. But I was also really drawn to Nolan's devotion to his daughter, the whole concept of the Black Box and in general, just the whole concept of this story.
I began thinking about how I was going to rewrite it and how I would further elevate it, as I felt that there was an opportunity in this film to tell a story about a deeply flawed man that is forced to confront mistakes he made in his past as a father and as a man in order to become a better person for his daughter. So for me, the idea of a father getting a second chance at being a good father was one of the central themes that guided me. I have friends and loved ones that I've seen this happen to. And for whatever reason, I think that when you have a child, you suddenly become a better version of yourself or at least you push yourself to become a better version of yourself. So that was the push for me in this film and that was what I focused on, and luckily, Blumhouse loved that approach.
What was your writing process with the script then? Did you adhere to a lot of Stephen’s script or work with him at all?
Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour: I didn't work with Stephen Herman. I just simply took his early draft and rewrote it from there. But for me, though, I think his script was a really good jumping-off point for the story that eventually we see in the film. I felt that the thriller elements definitely needed to be fine-tuned because I think in a thriller, you always need to make sure you're either creating questions in the audience or you're surprising the audience, so you're creating tension. That was definitely at the forefront. But at the heart of it, I'm used to doing stories about family and relationships, and so that was at the heart of everything. Being able to lean on the tropes of science fiction, horror, and thrillers really just helped me explore the themes of fatherhood and the second chance to be a better parent.
The journey of Phylicia's character in this movie is interesting because her character goes to some dark places, yet ultimately, she's really not a villain here. I just feel like a lot of times in movies, stories can sometimes reduce their characters down to these absolutes and there are no absolutes, and I think you side-stepped that really well here.
Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour: I agree, and I think Ms. Rashad just gave a three dimensionality to the role in a way that could easily come across differently. If she didn't have those maternal, kind, trustworthy aspects to mix with that desperation her character is feeling, I don’t know if this would have worked as well as it does. But with her, I remember just trying to figure out her arc in her story and really work out these beats with Ms. Rashad. I remember that we would talk about what her objective is in every single scene, so we would walk through every single scene together, coming to a consensus as to how it all adds up at the end. So that was the way I worked with her. We had a lot of conversations with her when we got on set, and from there, it was just really all about executing what we talked about during those conversations.
Before we go, can you discuss the visual aspects of Black Box and being able to establish the subconscious state, which is really unnerving at times to watch?
Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour: I guess it boils down to just two or three things. As far as the real world goes, I really wanted it to feel slice of life—just very, very grounded. But at the same time, Nolan is wrestling with his amnesia. He doesn't feel comfortable in his own skin. He's constantly questioning his identity in the real world and in order to really help put viewers in his state of mind, all of the camerawork is handheld in the real world. We also used sound design and music to accentuate moments where he's very specifically just connecting with people and that puts you right into his own head. I also really wanted to include a lot of reflection in mirrors. It acts as a motif. Sometimes he looks at the mirror, sometimes he doesn't. But it really starts highlighting his growing concerns about who he really is, especially after that first session or that second session in the Black Box.
As far as the memories go, we used stable camera. And for me, it is because he's familiar with this world, so it's all flowy, it's all smooth. It's all stable because the things that he's experiencing in this reality are things that are gradually becoming more and more familiar to him. So that was the way I differentiated the two spaces. We also used wide lenses as well.
In case you missed it, check out Heather Wixson's interview with Black Box co-star Phylicia Rashad!