Stefon Bristol’s See You Yesterday Melds Time Travel and the Harsh Realities of African-American Life Seamlessly

Stefon Bristol’s See You Yesterday is full of surprises.

Produced by Spike Lee, Bristol’s film takes a whimsical premise—a pair of science geek high school students from East Flatbush invent a time machine—and sends it in a boldly unexpected direction. Bronx Science classmates CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) are thinking of nothing more serious than their bright futures at MIT and beyond, when the sometimes harsh realities of African-American life intercede. CJ’s older brother, Calvin (Astro), is shot and killed by the police, and the grief-stricken teens spend the remainder of the movie attempting to use their device—and their wits—to right that wrong. 

The film’s tonal shifts would be challenging for even the most experienced filmmaker to handle, but Bristol, making his feature debut, manages to balance a moving coming-of-age drama about racial injustice with an engaging urban fantasy involving time travel. 

Eden Duncan-Smith (L) and Danté Crichlow (R) in See You Yesterday. Photograph by Linda Kallerüs

Josh Ralske, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you first become interested in filmmaking? Was there a particular film or filmmaker that inspired you?

Stefon Bristol (SB): No [laughs]. I mean, of course. When I was a kid I watched Jurassic Park, Back to the Future… so I had an inkling. It was in me but I didn’t know what it was until I was about 18, ready to go to college, when I saw Do the Right Thing for the first time. I was from Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island, so when I saw it Do the Right Thing, I thought, “That’s me. That’s my childhood.” I wanted to express myself like that. I knew that film; I knew what I wanted to do. I never imagined I’d work with the director of that film until now [laughs].

MM: You went to Morehouse for undergrad and then you ended up going to NYU Film School?

SB: Yes, I went to Suffolk County Community College, graduated from there and transferred my credits to Morehouse. And then NYU Graduate Film School. See You Yesterday started as a thesis film at NYU grad school. My mother gave me some money by refinancing her home, and then Spike Lee came along with the Spike Lee Production Grant. He knew the script since its inception. He read the first draft of the short.  He said I’ve never seen anything like this before, and he supported me doing the short. And then the short got successful through winning at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival HBO Short Film Competition and was a finalist in the HBO Short Film Competition at the American Black Film Festival.  He knew it was gold, and I knew it was gold. He hit me up a couple of nights before Christmas to say, “Stefon, if you want me to be your producer I’d be happy to. Think about it.” I was like, “There’s nothing to think about. Let’s go.”

MM: So you envisioned it as a feature film right from the beginning? 

SB: Yes, but Spike and other professors at NYU believed I needed to make the short first. Because other films I made through NYU weren’t something substantial I could raise the money off to make the feature. And I’m very happy I did that. I learned how to write better. I know my voice as a filmmaker, and I know how to direct actors much better. And I’m still learning. But that was building my craft. I felt more confident doing the feature.

MM: And at what point was it sold to Netflix?

SB: Spike pitched it to Ted Sarandos, out of the blue, and the following Christmas, he said, “Stefan, you’ve got a deal with Netflix. Congratulations.”

MM: You didn’t know that he was doing that?

SB: I knew that he was going around to the studios, pitching it, and then letting me know, once he was ready to let me know. And I was surprised. I was like, “Oh shit”. So I flew out to L.A. to meet Ian Bricke and Wayne Horton at Netflix, to discuss the film and get script notes. And their notes were great.

MM: Really?

SB: Yes. As a first-time filmmaker, you come in with a script that’s very thin, like 85-88 pages, because you want to make it as low-budget as possible. Show them your skills with a low budget. And they said I can do more. So it went from 88 pages to 110. 

MM: So they gave you a bigger budget than you were anticipating?

SB: A lot bigger [laughs]. It’s still a low-budget feature, but not low budget like a student film. 

Eden Duncan-Smith in a scene from See You Yesterday. Photograph by Linda Kallerüs

MM: What was it like shooting in your old neighborhood?

SB: I grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island, so it’s weird. When I came back, I had to relearn the neighborhood I grew up in [East Flatbush]. I didn’t know anybody anymore. I live in Crown Heights now, which is also a Caribbean neighborhood. From the very first year at NYU, I just knew I wanted to shoot in that neighborhood. I just didn’t know what story to put in it. I was researching, going to the neighborhood. Shopping at VIM, shopping at Jimmy Jazz, getting curry chicken, roti, curry goat, black pudding, oxtail—all I needed to get my island fix. So by the time I thought of doing the feature, I already knew this neighborhood. I thought, this is the appropriate place to set it. And we’ve never seen the black immigrant experience before on film.

MM: And there was never any thought about shooting it somewhere else, maybe to save money?

SB: Nah. It’s easy for me in New York, because 1) I know it, and 2) I’m not far from it, so if there’s anything we need to change, I have a location manager who knows the neighborhood as well, so that was easy.

MM: Can you talk about casting the film? You have those two young actors, Eden Duncan-Smith and Dante Crichlow.

SB: I had a casting director, Winter Coleman, for my short. She worked for free. She’s the daughter of Kim Coleman, Spike’s regular casting director. She’s a good friend of mine. I just needed help, and I knew she had the experience, under her mother. She knew these two young actors already, and their auditions were absolutely amazing. They knew how to feed off each other because they knew each other since infancy, since they were little babies coming out the womb.

MM: That comes across.

SB: Exactly, so when they finished their audition, I said, [calm voice] “Thank you very much; good to see you; have a nice day.” As soon as they leave, I say, “Yo Winter, I have to have them.” But to bring them to the feature was scary. Spike already agreed to bring them to the feature, but we weren’t sure what Netflix wanted. But Spike said, “No no no, we’re gonna get them.

MM: I was surprised at how dark the film got. It opens sort of peppy and light with a time travel discussion. It’s very fun, but then it gets so grim. Did Netflix or anyone suggest that maybe it shouldn’t be so dark?

SB: No, they were onboard with it. That was by design. My co-writer, Fredrica Bailey, and I wanted to ensure we expressed that for young black people—when they’re trying to have a great life, just trying to be successful, be passionate and be light—there’s always some kind of darkness coming that interrupts. That’s what police brutality is. It interrupts, abruptly, and will devastate a whole family. I want the audience to feel that. Their life was interrupted. So that was by design. But to have the tone shift throughout involved a lot of trial and error, on-set and in the edit room as well.

MM: It’s just very interesting to me how you subvert the viewer’s expectations for this kind of film, about kids inventing a time machine, and where it goes.

SB: I don’t want to make films just for jollies. I like danger. That’s why I appreciate what Attack the Block did. It was fun, but you could feel the danger. It opens your eyes a little more, and makes you more aware of what the filmmaker’s trying to say. That makes it more engaging than like a superhero movie where you don’t take anything away; you just leave. 

Danté Crichlow (L) and Eden Duncan-Smith (R) in See You Yesterday. Courtesy of Netflix

MM: How did you shoot the film?

SB: We shot it on a RED Gemini. My go-to camera is always the RED, because they’re durable and quick instead of the ARRI, which are very bulky. I like to go, because we never have time. I don’t like to linger, even though I did on some parts of this movie. The shoot was 25 days with nine months of post. 

MM: Was it a big crew? Did you hire people that you knew from school? 

SB: No, the only person I could bring from school, and from the short, was Felipe Vara de Rey, the cinematographer. I had to fight for him to be on the movie.

We surrounded ourselves with heavyweight industry professionals. [Costume designer] Charlese Antoinette Jones did Shaka King’s Newlyweeds. Charlese recently did Raising Dion. She came in under budget, and she designed the film beautifully. We also had Jimena Azula, the production designer. [Producers] Matthew Myers and Jason Sokoloff—they’re pros and also from NYU. I knew Jason already but had never worked with him. And he brought in Matthew Myers. They taught me everything—from how to talk to the union, what’s in the budget, and some ways to help the filmmaking. They had great notes. I didn’t take all of them [laughs] but without them and their care for this film, it never would have been as successful. I give my whole team credit more than myself, because I’m very much a collaborator. I allow them to just do their thing. Come back to me, let me know what you’ve got, and make sure we’re making the same story. And that was dangerous, because sometimes I felt like more of a supervisor than a director [laughs].

MM: Was Spike Lee on the set at all?

SB: He was on set the first day, to yell at me for being late. And it wasn’t our fault. There was trash on the floor, and that ruins continuity, so we had to wait. But he gave us well wishes. Actually he ruined our shot [laughs]. His car was driving into the shot. Oh, my God. I was like, “Thanks, Spike.” But no, he was shooting She’s Gotta Have It, season two, but even when he was finished with that, he still didn’t come because he wanted me to do my own thing. And I appreciate that. MM

See You Yesterday is available now to stream on Netflix. Featured image photograph of Stefon Bristol by Cara Howe. All images courtesy of Netflix.

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