Chad Hartigan on his Heidelberg-set coming-of-age comedy Morris from America.
The American indie director’s third feature depicts the growing pains of Morris (Markees Christmas), a 13-year-old African American wannabe rapper living with his father in Germany. It starts November 3.
What inspired you to set the film in Germany?
I grew up in Cyprus, and I wanted to make a film about an American kid in Europe. Germany was fresh in my mind, as I’d recently spent some time in Dresden. I was surprised how excited Germans were about this particular story, because in some ways the German characters are the bad guys. But German people seem very interested in exploring their faults through their art, perhaps because of their past. And they’re happy to admit that they have faults in the first place, which is not something that Americans typically do.
I gather that some of the more awkward moments are based on your own experiences.
The movie started as a collection of anecdotes from my own life. The dynamic between Morris and Katrin (Lina Keller) is based on the first girl that I fell in love with, who never loved me back in the same way. The scene where he dresses up his pillow and humps it is something I did. And I even wrote the rap that Morris performs – “fucking all the bitches, two at a time”. My teacher found my lyrics and gave them to my mom. I got in big trouble!
Did you have any concerns about adopting the perspective of an African-American boy?
I thought that using a character who was different from me would test out the universality of my own stories. When I was compiling scenes, using the voice that became Morris made me very excited. It began to feel like a movie I hadn’t seen before. There was a little trepidation, mainly because I knew that I’d have to talk about it, as I have to now! But to me it’s no different from writing the German or female characters. I just tried to make everybody feel like a real, specific person. That’s your only defence against it feeling like you’re generalising or stereotyping.
Was it always the plan that Morris and his father would have to contend with subtle racism, rather than anything more extreme?
When I started writing, I naively thought that overt racism was kind of over, that it had been replaced by a certain obliviousness. Little did I know that by the time the movie came out, overt racism would be making a huge comeback! But I was interested in exploring subconscious prejudices. It’s easy to sit in a movie theatre watching someone else behave insensitively and judge them, but these are things that everybody is capable of.
Were the film’s fantastical visual flourishes influenced by anything in particular?
Moonrise Kingdom, which I did not like at all! I felt that Wes Anderson’s style in that film was so stifling and rigid, for what’s meant to be a story about first love. I remembered that my feelings at that age were so unpredictable and spontaneous, and I wanted to make this movie reflect that, so that as an audience member you feel like you have to stay on your toes.
How did Markees Christmas land the role of Morris?
A friend introduced me to his Youtube show, Markees vs. I could immediately tell that he was comfortable in front of the camera and willing to be silly, so I reached out, but had to make sure I didn’t seem like a creep asking for this kid’s contact details! We got him to come in and audition. It actually wasn’t amazing, because he’d never really acted before. But there was something about him.
Morris From America opens in Berlin cinemas on November 3. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.