It can be difficult to find the comedy in subjects like racial tension, addiction, and alcoholism, but that gray area is where directors like Mike Binder thrive. Known for his “dramedy”-filled body of work (Reign Over Me, The Upside of Anger), the comedian-turned-filmmaker’s latest is Black or White, the story of Elliot (played by Kevin Costner), a grieving widow who lost his wife in a car accident.
Elliot has raised his granddaughter Eloise since his daughter died in childbirth. But when the child’s African-American grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), demands that Eloise be taken care of by her father Reggie—a “recovering” drug addict whom Elliot blames for the death of his own daughter—Elliot is drawn into a custody battle to keep his granddaughter. The battle over who will win custody is fierce—and Elliot’s alcoholic tendencies aren’t helping his case.
With a diverse cast full of Oscar-winners (Costner, Spencer), comedians (Bull Burr), sitcom stars (Gillian Jacobs), thespians (Anthony Mackie) and total newcomers (Jillian Estell, who plays Eloise), Binder brings actors from very diverse backgrounds together with skill and sensitivity. MovieMaker sat down with the writer/director at the 2014 Austin Film Festival to talk about walking the tonal tightrope, working with a variety of acting styles, and what lies ahead for both him and filmmaking in general.
Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Where did the idea for Black or White initially come from?
Mike Binder (MB): Well, the idea was inspired by the fact that I helped my wife and her brother raise their nephew when their sister died, so we were really involved in [the boy’s] life, while his father wasn’t. But his father’s family—grandmother, cousins, aunts—was. And he had a big life down there. Everybody made a much bigger deal that he was half-white and half-black than he did; to him he was just a kid. And I thought there’d be a good story there someday.
MM: You come from the stand-up comedy world. Does that affect your writing process?
MB: It sometimes gets in the way because even when I’m doing drama, I like to go for laughs, and then sometimes actors like the jokes and I’m stuck with them. I love drama, but I like it to break up with laughter. I don’t like just one thing, so everything I’m doing ultimately has a bit of comedy. Not too much, but when you get the blend right, it’s great. Those are the movies I love.
MM: There’s about a five-year gap between this and your last film, Reign Over Me. Was that all put towards Black or White, or did you have other things too?
MB: I was working on other things. I had some films that were about to get made but financing fell out or stars fell out. I wrote a novel that comes out in the spring, but it’s just hard sometimes; you wanna make a movie every year, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
MM: You have such a great variety of actors in Black or White, and really all your films. Do you have a specific directing style for each type of actor, or is it universal?
MB: I just try to relate to them as artists, and just talk and listen. I don’t have a lot of technique myself; I go with my gut, we’ll try it my way and we’ll try it their way. It’s just instincts and trying to get an actor comfortable with telling me what they wanna do and listening to what I wanna do.
MM: What about Jillian Estell, who’s a fantastic young actress? Was it difficult both finding the right child actor and being able to get her to pull off emotional scenes?
MB: It’s trial-and-error, asking for a little less or a little more, asking her to think about what’s going on in the character’s life. Forget the lines, what’s she feeling? It’s a little more work, but not a lot more.
MM: You can really feel the chemistry between the actors in this film. Does that come from rehearsals, or bonding on set?
MB: You really see it when they don’t have it [Laughs]. I like rehearsal; for this film we had two weeks and we got a big hall where we taped off the courtroom and different scenes. And when you’re in that rehearsal process, you know if you’re gonna have a real chemistry problem. You can tell when you go for dinners and stuff as a group. But you could just see it was gonna work with Kevin and Octavia. And Kevin and Jillian had a real bond of affection that was amazing, and you know it in the rehearsal process.
MM: Kevin Costner’s an Oscar-winning director in his own right and not only is he your lead actor, he’s one of your producers. Did that ever pose a problem?
MB: It’s another set of challenges. But on set, he’s not a director. On set he’s too busy being an actor, and he’s such a hard-working actor that comes so prepared. In the editing room his director or producer hat’ll come back on, but he trusts me on set.
MM: I noticed a lot of production design choices that seemed to involve the colors black and white (cars, clothes, Costner even seems to lose saturation in a pivotal scene). Or am I reading too much into this?
MB: Yes [Laughs]
MM: But are you thinking about little things like this as a director that dorks like me look for?
MB: Sometimes. Or it’ll come up in production meetings. What’s he wearing, is it new or worn, what color is it, what color will the wallpaper be… But I don’t think there was a conscious choice to make things “black or white.”
MM: You have to balance who the audience is rooting for in this film. You essentially have two protagonists, not necessarily lionizing or villianizing either of them, but showing both their strengths and flaws at different times. Is this a difficult balance to pull off in editing?
MB: That’s something we did work very hard on, especially in the script, because that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a movie and have the audience go, “Oh, she should definitely be with her grandfather. Wait, no, she should be with her grandmother! Well…”
MM: She should be with both and neither.
MB: Yes! And I wanna ping-pong you back and forth throughout the movie, because in real life there isn’t a black and white answer, it isn’t just yes or no. The truth is, these people need to figure out how to raise this child together. She needs pieces of both of their worlds.
MM: I want to talk about distribution: Your attitude about the future of filmmaking seemed to be a little pessimistic at the post-screening Q&A. What do you envision being a home for this film ?
MB: I think this particular one is very commercial. Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer have followings and the movie plays really well with audiences. As far as my future, I’ve never been the flavor of the month or the cool kid in the class. Actors like me and my movies, but I’m not a big director.
MM: True, but you can’t deny the length of your career and the number of movies you’ve been able to make.
MB: But it’s not easy, like I just decide to make a movie and actors jump on board, you know? So I’m pessimistic about my movies unless I make them more of an action thing. My upcoming novel’s about an American framed for a bomb that goes off and he’s on the run through England. It’s got an Eye of the Needle feeling, so I’d love to do it as a movie, but for a guy like me, making movies is getting tougher. Nowadays movies come out in your living room the same day they do in theaters. But I just love making movies, working with actors and telling stories. It’s when I’m the happiest—when I make movies like The Upside of Anger and Reign Over Me that play really well over the years on Netflix and HBO, and it doesn’t bother me if people don’t see them in theaters. They’re like books to me, you can pick them up whenever. So if I can make a movie with a big actor, put it out, and have it everywhere at once, I’m excited about that.
MM: For filmmakers that are coming up as everything continues to change, do you have any advice?
MB: I think the biggest issue is work ethic. You need a really strong work ethic to make it. The people who are the most successful in this business are the hardest workers. Woody Allen works his ass off; I’m sure Richard Linklater does too… I worked with Spielberg, borderline workaholic! Tom Cruise, too. You can say, yes, they’re the biggest stars, but that’s how they got there. You put in a lot of hours, a lot of time, and it has to be something you absolutely have to do. MM
Black or White opens in theaters January 22, 2015, courtesy of Relativity Media. All images courtesy of Relativity Media.