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‘Blindspotting’ Producer Jess Wu Calder Discusses Long Journey to Big Screen

Producer Jess Wu Calder has managed to cover the waterfront of genres over the past decade with a wide-ranging slate of projects (“You’re Next,”  “Thunder Soul,” “The Guest,” “Anomalisa”) through her Snoot Entertainment shingle, which she runs with her husband, Keith.  Her next film, Abe Forsythe’s “Little Monsters,” is headed to Sundance in the new year. But none of her various projects experienced the long gestation of this year’s Sundance smash “Blindspotting,” which had been in various stages of development ever since she first met Bay Area poet Rafael Casal and his childhood friend Daveed Diggs — who wrote and star in the film — nearly 10 years ago.

What changed most about the “Blindspotting” screenplay through all those years of different drafts?

I really wanted to do a musical, but instead of characters breaking into song, they break into verse. And what we were struggling with from the beginning was just how much verse there should be. We had drafts in the beginning that were almost completely in verse, there were drafts where we pared it back a lot, and what we learned was that there needed to be scenes in the film that transitioned you into this, to train the audience to accept verse where, by the time you’re at that climactic scene where Collin [Diggs] is in the garage with a gun, you don’t say, “Wait, he’s going to rap to him?”

I’m sure it didn’t hurt that midway through development, Diggs took a little detour onto Broadway to make a hip-hop musical.

It definitely helped raise the profile of the film, because it went from people being like, “This is an insane idea to cast these two unknowns, one a rapper, one a poet who’s never acted before, as the stars,” to “Of course you should make it, it’s Daveed Diggs from ‘Hamilton!’ ”

“Blindspotting” was one of several films set in Oakland this year — what was the most important thing about the city to get right?

The thing that I really love about Oakland is its diversity, and the way that everything there is larger than life. I hope we got that across in the film, because it was important that every aspect of Oakland was represented. The character of Val [Janina Gavankar] was a super important character for me, and it was important that she not be black or white, but be someone who could bring a different voice into the story. If you’ve ever been to Oakland, it’s very evident that there’s a large Asian community, and it was very important to represent that through her. … Because yes, we are telling this specific story of Miles [Casal] and Collin, but it was important that we represented Oakland as a whole.

How do you maintain faith in a project that takes an entire decade to get to the screen?

I think we’re all a little crazy to be involved in film. It’s like the worst business, when you think about it. Most independent films lose everything, and are rarely ever seen by an audience. But I think that we were so passionate about Rafa and Diggs as people, and believed in them so much, that for us it was an easy [call]. When you have faith in talent, it will eventually be seen through, and that’s kind of how I think about life in general.

My mom came from a tiny village in Taiwan where she worked the rice paddies and then paid for nursing school to come here. And when she came here, she ended up going to grad school, got her master’s, got her Ph.D., and she did this all while she was raising me, and I feel like just seeing her journey and her faith in herself, to me there was never a question that we would figure everything out in life. She works in health care, which — not to say that film isn’t important — but I mean, she worked at a veterans hospital. So no matter how bad my day is, I always think about what she went through to give me the opportunity to pursue the craziest dream of making independent films.

 

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