Writer-Director Julius Onah on Adapting 'Luce' for the Big Screen
August 1, 2019
A provocative character drama centered around pertinent notions of race in modern America, Julius Onah's new film Luce generates a lot of questions, but stops well short of ever telling the audience what to think.
Luce (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a former child soldier from an unnamed African country, who was adopted by an American couple played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. When he meet him, Luce is a 17-year-old model student, the pride of his American high school, succeeding both academically and athletically.
But when Luce writes a paper celebrating a historical radical, it raises the concern of a teacher (played by Octativa Spencer). Subsequently when fireworks are found in his locker, nobody around Luce, including his mom and dad, is able to look past their own ideas about race in assessing the situation.
The film is adapted from the play of the same name by J.C. Lee, who co-wrote the screenplay with Onah. What Lee and Onah do well is never seemingly settle on one point of view.
“The movie is about perception, and the way that perception informs how we view each other; how we view certain issues. I feel like in order to tell that kind of story successfully, it's important that the film doesn't turn didactic or prescriptive or try to boil things down into a simple easy moral for the audience to digest,” Onah states about the film’s ambiguity.
“Much like in life, we're dealing with complex issues with multiple points of view—and no easy answer. What we consider to be the truth depends on your own perceptions and the baggage you bring to the table. So in that regard, ambiguity: yes. But moreover, how perceptions can shift depending on who we are,” he continues.
Different perceptions eventually played into the process of adapting the play into a film, as well. While Onah tackled the first draft solo with Lee’s blessing, Lee was also the screenplay’s first real audience.
“He read it and he had no idea what to expect. And likewise—he went to go write a second draft, and then I become the first audience. We also just did that with another play of his that he adapted, and I find it's a very fun process, because there're things that you think the story's about, and then when you work with a partner you really trust, they put another layer into it, and vice versa,” Onah says. “There's a way that you end up with something that, especially again if it's somebody you trust, that is the best of what both of you have to offer.”
That didn’t mean there weren’t rough patches in the process. Onah admits that one of the toughest parts was ensuring the thematic integrity of the original story was maintained.
“I had been thinking about it for quite a few years, and had had conversations with J.C., not exactly about what was going to happen in the film, but about thematically where we felt it should land as a movie. It doesn't undermine the core of the play, but it just shifts it to make sure it can work in a cinematic space. So that really was the big part of the process. And I love to outline.”
The outline served Onah and Lee with the crucial architecture of the story ahead of time, allowing freedom while writing. “When you decide to deviate from the map or come back to it, you always have something to guide you. And that became the bible in the beginning, and then he went off and did his process. What we found in the third pass when we're both writing and trading back and forth, is a merging of some of the things I did alone, and some of the things he did alone, and then also discarding some of those things.”
The finished product compared to the imagined story when the idea first hit is, as Onah puts it, “Pretty damn close. We were fortunate to more or less make the film ourselves. I worked with J.C., and on the producing end, I worked with two close friends and a third person who's become a good friend. So it really became a team of people I know and admire and respect making a film together. We had a great investor who came on board, we have a great distributor now that we're working with who has honored the integrity of what we wanted this movie to be, and allowed that to also inform the marketing of the film. So across the board it's the movie we wanted to make, and it's such a rare opportunity to have in this kind of industry to have a vision of what you want something to be, and just go out and make it. I certainly have never had that opportunity before, so I'm incredibly thankful for that.”
Onah’s previous work was the large-scale genre film The Cloverfield Paradox. A project he doesn’t feel is all that different when it comes to the thought process behind creating an intimate, character-based drama, because that’s what it always starts with: character.
“That's what I think an audience is looking for in any good movie. If the spectacle is not rooted in character and psychology and a set of themes that an audience can invest in, it usually ends up either feeling frivolous or just not working. Now it's not to say that you can't have a lighter film or a film that is just about the joy and the playfulness of whatever that story is—it still needs the character dynamics to have an engine that propels the story. Even if it's something as solitary as Sandra Bullock floating around in space in Gravity, that bucks many of the conventions of what you think a film narrative might be, it still has a core of character that's driving it. So those things don't change, it's just the machinery and expectations around the making of it that really changes.”
Onah’s expectations when it comes to Luce are in stride. “When you make a movie like this, you never know what you're gonna get. Sometimes you hope people can stand outside of their perspective or stand outside of their biases and realize that you don't always have a truth. But there are certain segments of the audience who want to believe a certain thing, who want to prescribe an expectation on a character. It's the reason to make this movie, because certain people are stuck in the way they expect something to be,” Onah reasons.
“There have also been so many people who’ve been open to [thinking] maybe it is worthwhile to stand outside of their own perspective. Typically with stories like this, they do operate in that more prescriptive lane. They do tell you: well this is the answer to a major social issue. If we're all just nicer to each other, that's how we'll solve this. To my taste and to my experience in life, that tends not to be true. I think it’s often disrespectful of the genuine trauma and struggle that people of so many different backgrounds and identities deal with. If there was a one-size-fits-all answer to these kinds of issues, we would solve a lot of the issues that are at the forefront of the culture right now. But that is why you tell a story like this, to create that kind of conversation. From it, hopefully some people will choose to stand outside of their comfort zones, and some people are gonna dig in. But hopefully, if enough people are talking, they need to move the needle in the right direction that creates some progress.”
Onah reiterates that Luce is simply trying to respond truthfully to where the culture is.
“If it's doing that, then that means people are going to react truthfully to where the culture is as well. If there are certain people who don't want to see the reality of the world we live in right now, they'll blind themselves from it. It’s evident in how polarized our country is.”
There’s never been a time in America’s history where race hasn’t been a hot-button issue. But there is a narrative currently around the idea that we’re addressing it more—something Onah somewhat agrees with.
“There’s a level on which the conversation is happening that I would not call superficial, but it exists on a more symbolic level. And that's what this movie is exploring. You have a character like Luce, and the symbol of what he represents: progress.”
He explains, “People want to be able to look at a symbol like that and say, ‘Well, we did it. We elected the first black president.’ If it had been Hilary, ‘We elected the first female president. We're post-racial, we're post-gender, we did it.’ But I think there's a big difference between living life on a symbolic level and making or doing the kind of action that creates real systemic change. I don't think symbols disrupt systems. I think true, real action and intentionality that requires work is what moves the needle. And ultimately, that means sacrifices. So while we are starting to have more of these conversations, there's a deeper level which we need to get to where we create a society where people have a larger access to the full spectrum of humanity.”
“I think it's proof that we haven't quite gotten there,” Onah says, “just in the shift you see from one president to another. If we had solved all of these problems and had addressed those issues, we wouldn't see the headlines that are on the front of the New York Times right now. You have a huge swath of the population in this country who want to be able to say: we did the symbolic thing. But we don't want to do the systemic and structural work we need to do.”
Getting stories like Luce out there is a start. The film will be in theaters August 2nd.
Written by: Dominic CorryDominic Corry is a Los Angeles-based film critic, writer, journalist and broadcaster. Raised in New Zealand, he is also the West Coast editor of Letterboxd, the social network for movie lovers. For more of his film writing, see his website www.TheGoodInMovies.com