Perception is something on everyone’s minds, but, not to the same degree. And that notion becomes socially apparent in director Carey Williams and writer KD Davila’s feature, ‘Emergency.’
Based on the short film of the same name, Amazon Prime’s latest dark comedy/ thriller (and self-dubbed shortest road trip movie ever) stars RJ Cyler (Sean), Donald Elise Watkins (Kunle) and Sebastian Chacon (Carlos). Sean and Kunle are planning a wild night out on campus, a dream night of theirs for years, but it turns quickly to nightmare when they arrive home to find a girl (played by Maddy Nichols) passed out on their living room floor. They alert their roommate Carlos, who was home but stoned and had no idea, and the three must decide what to do—call the cops as three men of color and explain a white girl passed out at their home, or take her to a hospital anonymously.
What unfolds is a hilarious and insightful night, peppered with complications and nuanced relationships. To chat more about the story, Williams and Davila sat down to dive deeper.
How did the idea for ‘Emergency’ first come about? And how did it evolve to become a feature?
Williams: We made the short in a program called ‘Project Involve’, which is part of Film Independent. That program is basically to help underrepresented artists find community and make projects. I was in the directing track and KD was in the writing track, and that’s where we met. KD had written this really great short based on personal situations—
Davila:— [It] kind of happened to some of my friends. It actually happened a couple of times, but not quite in the same way it happens in the film. But, it’s based on real things that happened.
Williams: I thought, wow this is really well-written, and wow she’s doing a comedy about something very serious, you know? [When] they find the girl on the floor at the end of the first act… I was like, I don’t know if humor on such a situation is the right thing. But then I thought no, that’s actually what makes it special because it’s not making light of it, it’s getting some commentary through humor. So, my thing was how do I make sure I protect this so that it doesn’t feel like we’re making light of something very serious for a lot of young people of color in our country? I wanted the challenge, and I was going to focus on making sure this friendship and this relationship between them—the two guys—is honest. That was the short. We made that, and we had no idea if people were going to respond to it or not…and people did thankfully. We set it up at festivals and won some awards there, and then when I was asked if we were doing anything else with the short, I said yeah we’re doing a feature…just kind of blurted it out.
What was the short like compared to the feature?
Davila: The short story was almost like a play, it was contained. It almost all takes place in one room as they find her and they’re just discussing should we call 911 or not? [And] also discussing how they’re going to be perceived if they call 911. People really responded to it, I think, because [some of them] have been in the position of having to think about how they’re being perceived at all times. When we were expanding it to a feature film we realized we had an opportunity to dig into that more. If you think about the feature, it’s a dark comedy of error/thriller. It’s also the world’s shortest road-trip movie. But, we wanted to make sure at its core that it’s about a friendship, and about these guys all grappling with the fact that they have this burden of wondering how they’re going to be perceived. Every single development throughout the script is a choice they’re trying to make because they’re thinking about how this is going to look.
Since this is such a character driven film, what went into casting? Especially for the central friend group?
Davila: We cast RJ first because Carey had a relationship with him, and he’s obviously amazing. From the script to the casting process, I would definitely say he’s the one most unexpected for me. I though he brought a lot of things to the role that were great surprises—different but great energy. It [was] also very cool seeing Donald [in auditions] embodying Kunle for the first time. He was so obviously perfect, it was pretty incredible. And Sebastian was so lovely and weird—and it’s so funny because he’s probably the most different in real life from the character he plays. You meet him, and he feels like a rock star, but in the movie he’s like me…Carlos is me.
Williams: We had RJ early on, but what I was looking for in Kunle was this sort of sense of academia, but also a purity because I knew there was this point where we were going to see his loss of innocence…That was going to happen, you actually see it draining away from him in a moment. And Donald had that. But he also matched up with RJ because RJ has such a big personality, and Donald had that ability to not be overshadowed by RJ’s presence. So, it was just perfect. Then Sebastian comes in and he is this strange sort of foil to them with all these little ad-libs that are just gems.
What were you both looking to delve into when expanding the story for ‘Emergency?’
Davila: One of the things that was awesome in being able to expand was to dig more into these characters and why they have the point of view that they have.
Williams: The way the short ends, I always wondered: What is going to happen to that relationship between Shawn and Kunle now? There’s been something exposed about how each of them sees the world in this moment and that’s thrust upon them. So, in the expansion of the world, and the story, I was really focused on that relationship and expanding that out. The nuances of it and the complexities of that relationship were really important to me. Two young Black men who have very different world views about how to handle this situation, but they’re still really good friends and love each other. That excited me and was my fuel in the expansion, and also, getting the chance to touch on male masculinity and fear and anxiety with young people of color… that kind of thing.
Davila: It was exciting to tell a story that was, in many ways, intersectional about how race and gender influenced the way you move through the world—but also try not to hammer you over the head with a message. Also, trying to make sure that it’s cathartic for people to watch who have been in those positions before of having to think about how you’re being perceived.
‘Emergency’ opens in select theaters May 20 and will release on Amazon Prime May 27.