Q&A with SAVE ME director Lena Waithe
We sat down with director Lena Waithe to gain insight on her short film, Save Me, a film that follows a nine-year-old boy on a journey to find the man that saved his life.
AF: What would you say Save Me is about?
LW: Save Me is actually about the question of, “Why am I here?” The young man in the film is going to find the man that saved his life. His life was spared for some reason so he’s asking the literal question, “Why did you save me?”, whichIi think can be deeper defined as “Why am I here?” Everyone asks that: “Why am I here?” “Why was I put on this planet?” “Why did I survive and others didn’t?” So it definitely has a very literal meaning for a child but I think it has a deeper meaning for adults and that’s just another layer and the substance of the film.
AF: What inspired this story?
LW: I sort of got the idea when I was watching a documentary on HBO. I believe it was called Lottery. It was on an HBO documentary series and it was really awesome because it basically follows these four people who have won the lottery and where they were a year later. One family gets the money and saves and is living well, another guy bought a bunch of stuff and now he lives at home with his mother, and another guy, this older man, is actually worse off after having won. Because before the lottery he was this small town hero who had saved a kid. I was wondering about this older gentleman whose life became so bad after he won the lottery, what if that kid whose life he saved, who sort of made him beloved and this hometown hero, what if he went out to find him and he was this decrepit old man. That’s really what sparked the idea. Just watching that old man and somebody saying he had saved a little boy’s life years ago. That’s where it began because I wondered about that kid.
AF: When the little kid finally encounters this old man saved him. There just seems to be a world of difference between the two of them both physically and socially. Was that a deliberate or organic occurrence?
LW: I always knew that this boy wouldn’t get the answer he wanted or needed. I’m a person that’s very heavily influenced by the film Wizard of Oz. So there’s something to the idea of wizard behind the curtain and once they finally discover him it’s this old white man behind the curtain. You have four characters who are wanting things that are not tangible and so it’s definitely influenced by that. There’s this little boy asking “Why am I alive? Why am I here? That’s what I want to know before I can go home.” But the truth is this guy, unlike the wizard, doesn’t give him a sense of security. He doesn’t give him something to make him feel better. It’s sort of what we get when we ask the universe, “Why am I here?” We don’t get an answer. So I wanted there to be a drastic difference between this young black boy going to ask some old white man for an answer and the truth is that old white man gives him no answers and that little boy has to answer those questions for himself. They’re physically different and they’re also different in a lot of other ways.
AF: The old man doesn’t give him any answers but the little boy (Kenya) comes to a sense of resolve on his own. Can you talk about the decision to make that a personal resolution?
LW: I think that came to me in one of the rewrites. I wanted there to be some resolve for the audience and for the character and I thought that he realizes in this short period of time that he has something to live for and I wanted to put that in a very poetic way. I actually tried to be poetic with the way I wrote it so people could try and lose themselves in it. So, I wanted the wrap up to be this revelation which most kids today wouldn’t have that. But I wanted the audience to get that we’re here because some divine power wanted us to be here; and we have a reason to be here. We don’t know exactly what that reason is but we have a reason. And I definitely wanted him to come to that conclusion for himself And I think that was really cool and it speaks to his character. That he would figure it out on his own. Because throughout the film he’s very resourceful. They say, “The children will lead them.” so it was cool for him to have the realization on his own- even though it’s not what happened. He sort of creates his own reality, which I think is cool.
AF: How’d you find your actor?
LW: He’s amazing. Initially I wanted the kid to be 18, freed from the system. So I was gonna have a very young boy and then have him morph into an adult. Somehow I decided, “What if it’s a kid throughout?” It sort of became a thing of, “Can I find a kid who can carry this film?”, and trust me it was a long process. We had about three casting sessions. It was not easy because it’s a lot of weight on the kid. We saw a lot of great little black boys: some very precocious, some very shy, some not ready, some that were too ready. The lead’s name is Jaheem, he has two of the greatest parents in the world and he just literally walked in and we knew he was it by the way he walked in the room- before he even said a word. He has little ‘fro and the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen. He’s like this chocolate drop- he’s really like a Hershey’s bar. And then when he started reading: he got it. And I think it’s because there’s a lot of Kenya in Jaheem. He’s very smart, intuitive and observant. He was magic. I’ve become very close friends with his parents. He’s a great kid. I’m just blown away by him and happy to even be in his orbit.
AF: Tell me about any artistic liberties that you might have taken on set.
LW: Sure, I think sometimes when you’re on set, and I tell a lot of directors this, when they’re like, “My film has to be at this time, when it’s raining and they have to be surrounded by white silk…” I always say, “Look, you gotta make due. If it’s sunny outside and you gotta shoot that day, roll with it.” A big thing for us was the skateboarding portions. Obviously Jaheem is not the most athletic kid in the world and he couldn’t skate board. I thought I could teach him but it was not happening. So we sort of changed things on set where we played that up. Where he couldn’t skateboard and we made that a story point and it worked. We also did re-shoots where we show him in the room with the two boys to show that he’s in a foster home to make things clearer. Because you don’t have that time in a film to explain every little thing that’s going on so you have to sort of trust your audience but at the same time there are incidents on set where you have to say, you know this wasn’t in the script but i think we should do this so that way it’ll be easier for the audience to understand where we’re going.
AF: What was the movie shot on? How many days and how big was your crew?
LW: We shot on a Canon 7D. We shot overall four days. Three days and a day of re-shoots. The crew was pretty skeletal because folks don’t have money. So we had to keep it really small: about five to six people.
AF: Tell me about the funniest moment on set.
LW: There are a lot of funny moments of Jaheem trying to skate board, all of us trying to teach him and none of us being that good at it ourselves. It was ridiculous. It was so crazy, it was funny. It was a crew of mostly women; we’d tell him to skateboard in the street go and then scream for him to stop whenever a car came. So us preventing him from getting hit, yet telling him to go as fast as he could on a skateboard.
AF: Biggest challenge making this movie?
LW: Money, it being the first time I’d directed a kid and dealing with those arguments with the DP. I’m very non-confrontational but the truth is that’s one of the things they don’t teach you in film school. You’re gonna be arguing with your director of photography and it’s not fun and you have to maintain a level of professionalism because it’s like the parents are arguing.
AF: Most gratifying moment on set?
LW: The first day of wrap. I can remember driving home at the end of the first day. Nothing can compare to that feeling of accomplishment.
Save Me screens at New Voices in Black Cinema festival on Monday, February 20 at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn, NY.
The screening, titled ‘Growing Pains,’ includes four short films focused on black youth, and will be followed by a panel discussion with filmmakers Lena Waithe, Kristina Thomas, Nicole Franklin, Kobie Brown, and youth advocates Rev. Alfonso Wyatt and Marcus Littles. Find tickets here: bam.org/actnow