Joe Talbot is the writer-director behind Sundance winner The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which stars his childhood best friend Jimmie Fails. These nuggets of advice, filtered through personal experience, come from the director’s speech in March during the 2020 Miami Film Festival’s Knight Heroes presentation, which highlights prominent new voices in cinema — as well as from an interview with MovieMaker ahead of the event.
Joe Talbot on Not Going to Film School
At 16, Joe Talbot dropped out of high school with no clear plan. He spent his days hanging out with best friend and collaborator Jimmie Fails, hoping one day they could make a movie.
“When I was younger I dreamed of going to film school, and saw all my friends go off, not just to film school, but to college in general. They would come back home and I would feel stilted and I’d be embarrassed by how much they’d grown and how much I’d stayed the same, ” he said.
But eventually, when he and Jimmie put out a concept trailer for The Last Black Man in San Francisco — made very roughly among friends between work shifts — the response was surprising. Now they had a calling card. People started emailing them about getting involved, and the pair began getting serious about working in film.
“We learned how to make a movie together. That became our film school, learning how to finance it, how to cast it, and how to build the materials that would make anyone trusts us,” Talbot said.
Following the journey of his debut feature, Talbot has come to terms with how his filmmaking career unfolded.
“Now I don’t regret not going. Now I feel lucky. A lot of my friends, unfortunately, who did go to film school, are in debt,” he said. “It’s about whatever path works for you and that it ultimately introduces you to the people you want to work with and the way you want to work. We were lucky to find that.”
Joe Talbot on the Fear of Writing His First Screenplay
Prior to working on his debut, Talbot had never written a screenplay, and the process of learning the fundamentals of the craft came with its own set of anxieties.
“It was a strange experience. Everything Jimmie and I had done until that point was ad-libbing and riffing. We’d film things with a loose premise and then we’d just riff. This is embarrassing to recall, but when we first started there was a filmmaker in San Francisco, who was from Miami — who had made one feature in San Francisco — named Barry Jenkins. A friend of mine introduced us and the first thing I asked him was, ‘Hey, do you really think we need a script to get this movie made?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, definitely need a script,’” Talbot said.
“I had been fighting it, because it felt so scary and intimating, like, ‘How do you write a feature script?’ Also because you read about what a good script looks like. But there was also something helpful in being naïve and not knowing certain things. Maybe there’s something in the script that came out more personally as a result of that, I’m not entirely sure. The first drafts were bad, the next few drafts were less bad, and then finally, after years of developing it and us growing up and maturing, the script came of age as we came of age. Then, eventually, it got to the script that we shot, and that changes again in the edit. You are always grateful for all the different stages where you can keep refining and tweaking.
“It’s funny now writing our next script, because you have some of the same anxieties and fears: ‘I hope this will be good. I hope this will connect with people.’ We tend to write things that are a little strange and different. That question of whether people can connect is always there, but at least having been through it with the same group of people that I’m working with now on this next one, you feel like you can call on certain things you learned in that previous process,” Talbot said.
Joe Talbot on the Confidence He Believed Directors Were Supposed to Have
Finding the right working rhythm for his team was key for Talbot as a first-time director, especially because what he wanted to achieve was very ambitious. The pressure pushed him to adopt a determined persona that could project stability to everyone. But he soon realized he needed to open up emotionally.
“At first I probably feigned a certain kind of confidence that I felt I was supposed to have, because you listen to talks with directors and they seem to be so sure of themselves,” he said. “And some of that’s probably true when you are very experienced and have done it a lot. But some of it is also performative, especially with certain men because they feel they have to perform that masculinity like, ‘I’m the leader and I can get shit done.’
“I don’t tend to be that kind of person, and I’m sure I wasn’t anything to that extreme, but that still comes out in small ways when you don’t want the actors to see you are afraid. I was working with actors I’ve watched my whole life, some of them are San Francisco icons who mean even more than movies to me, like Danny Glover for all of his activism. So there’s a part of you, insecurity, that says, ‘What right do I have to direct Danny Glover?’
“But eventually Jonathan [Majors] pulled me aside one day and said, ‘Don’t be afraid to show me what you are feeling.’ It was chaos and I thought, ‘I should be a source of calm.’ He wasn’t saying, ‘Freak me out and tell me al the fear happening behind the camera, ‘ but he did want to see me be a little more vulnerable. When I started to feel okay enough to do that, all the communication got better.”
The photo above, by Peter Prato/A24, is of Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors in The Last Black Man In San Francisco, directed by Joe Talbot.