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By Meredith Alloway · September 5, 2013
The Filmmakers Talk Gangster Culture, Miley, Tupac and Their Motto for Filmmaking: Just Do It!
Jolie (Tyler Ross) wants to be a gangster. He’s a white boy stuck at a high school where being black and thug is what’s cool. He’s set on fitting in by adopting the African American culture and making the basketball team. Although American Milkshake intricately explores the complexity of race and gender, it also manages to be hilarious and heart warming. It premiered this year at Sundance and is being released this September 6th.
Co-writers and directors David Andalman and Mariko Munro dished some serious dirt on how they constructed such complex characters and their own experience growing up when Tupac and Biggie were cultures’ biggest idols. We can’t help but draw parallels between Jolie and Miley Cyrus. Yes, I said Miley. We’re going there folks-so get ready.
ATW: The film centers on Jolie, a white high school kid who wants to fit into his primarily minority populated school. Was this the way one of you grew up?
M: I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii. It wasn’t’ about fitting in with African American kids but there were very charged racial issues that happened there centered around Asians. I’m half Japanese. Its something I’ve experienced from a different angle.
D: Mine was pretty direct. The school in the movie was heavily based on my high school. In the middle of the 90s there was this paradigm when you had Snoop and Dre and all this was sweeping the nation. Within our school the gangster crowd was cool on some level.
ATW: After the Miley Cyrus incident, I can’t help but draw parallels between that and Jolie in your film. Everyone’s saying she’s a white girl adopting this African American culture for her own benefit.
D: Personally, I really think that stuff is really cool. When it’s straight up stolen or exploited that’s not so good. But there is this huge mixing and sharing of cultures. You had Pharrell bring skater culture into hip-hop. It goes both ways; with Jay Z doing his latest video in an art gallery. Everyone’s borrowing from each other.
ATW: Why do you think Jolie and culture alike glamorize being a gangster?
D: I think it’s the American way to take what you want. It’s like Scarface; The Godfather. It’s the all-American dream in some ways. It’s a little bit of Jolie’s fantasy; it existed entirely in his head. It comes from art and music.
ATW: Jolie talks about his great grandfather being Jewish and how Jews and blacks have been oppressed since biblical times. Is Jolie trying to, even if subconsciously, support these two cultures that so many others have shunned?
M: I think he’s an outsider and it’s a mixed environment at the school and he wants to badly to be part of the cool crowd. If he were in Texas maybe he’d want to be a football player. In the 90s this culture was in the forefront, I think that’s why he looks towards the minority side of his identity because he wants to make it work in whatever way he can. He uses this as his entry point to be able to commiserate with their plight.
ATW: I love the character of Henrietta (Shareeka Epps) because she’s incredibly complex. She’s black and so set on breaking free of her white, rich family and flunking out of school. It’s hard not to view her as sort of a brat who doesn’t appreciate her circumstances. At the same time, we see she’s fighting for her own voice in a way. How did you build her?
D: Real people are super complex. In some ways everyone has their identity molded in their own ways. We looked at her from the family side, the political, school, adolescent.
M: When we were working on the movie I was reading excerpts from bell hooks [who purposely made her name lower case], all these feminist writers who were speaking about how African American women couldn’t identity with the feminist movement. The black power movement is very masculine and it leaves African American women in this place where they don’t have a group that’s fighting for them. Henrietta is raised by middle class
white people. She’s in this situation where it’s very difficult to figure out who you are.
ATW: Before “American Milkshake”, there was the similar short “Takoma Park” in 2008. How was the journey working as an editor before making the feature?
D: That journey was really great. I worked with a lot of great people and learned a lot. Editing, I saw so many problems to overcome. You have a greater understanding of how to put together a movie. When Mariko read the script she was really into it. She had so many ideas on how to strengthen it, especially the female characters.
ATW: How did you guys work together on the film juggling your co-directing and writing roles?
M: I can’t imagine a better writing partner or collaborator. We come from such different schools of thoughts and all of that lends itself to a really special collaborating. I could never think from the perspective of a man as easily as I could just ask David, ‘What would a dude do here?’ With Milkshake I never felt like I had to ask him what he thought of something. We were always on the same page. It felt so natural and we made such a great team in that way.
D: I would add to that, there comes a time where the movie begins to dictate its own decisions; it’s a puzzle you’re putting together. The general vibe of the movie, the tone starts to find itself. It’s easy to sync up in that regard. As directors we are pushing the project in a certain direction for a long time, certain aesthetics. As you go down that road it becomes more apparent what’s working; it comes alive.
ATW: What’s your advice to filmmakers when making a film on a touchy subject matter? For American Milkshake, it’s most prominently race, which is explored in a very brave, honest manner.
D: I have a lot of advice there.
M: My largest bit of advice is the Nike slogan: Just Do It! When we were on pre-production of the movie, I was like ‘We are going to do this,’ despite what anyone said!
D: There were a number of producers who said ‘It can’t be done.’At times I got a little nervous here and there.
M: I think we both had faith in each other.
D: I do think one thing that an indie filmmakers should be psyched about it VOD. It’s not going to be in the theaters so much, but you’re seeing it.
ATW: What’s up next for you two?
M: we’re writing the next movie. It’s coming along. In some ways it’s, if Milkshake was a high school experience, this is the 30 yr old experience. It touches on race and class but its not fully centered on that anymore. It has its own issues about growing up. We have a couple working titles, Libby at the door and Door Girl. It’s about a nightclub door girl.
American Milkshake is out Sept 6th on demand, itunes and in limited theatrical release.