A Thousand and One, the directorial debut of A.V. Rockwell, is a survival story of a single mother protecting her son as gentrification pushes them from Harlem. It’s also a story of New York City losing its identity.
Rockwell’s film, which she also wrote, follows Inez de la Paz (Teyana Taylor) as she rescues her son Terry (played by three actors in each act) from New York City’s foster care system. Together they create a family that’s not going to be broken up by anyone.
“This is not a ‘woe is me’ story. This is a story celebrating a woman’s heroism, especially a woman who has so much less than other people,” says Rockwell. “Inez is carrying everything on her back for the family that she’s fighting to create amidst all the things that try to pull them apart.”
A Thousand and One earned Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for best U.S. dramatic film in January with a solid $1.8 million opening in art house theaters in its first weekend.
MovieMaker spoke with Rockwell about her characters being uprooted, how love finds a way amidst tragedy, and her philosophy for Inez, Terry, and everyone who watches A Thousand and One.
Joshua Encinias: What happens to New York City in the 11 years it is depicted in A Thousand and One?
A.V. Rockwell: I think along the journey New York took to become a lot more like everywhere else, to become a lot more palatable, it lost what made it such a unique place, and that’s a spiritual loss. New York’s an ever-evolving city, it’s never quite been finished. But what happened at the turn of the century, during which the story takes place, is that we saw a shift.
It felt like New York was reinventing itself in a way that rejected everything that gave it that continuity in the first place. It felt like it was the first time that New York City was losing its sense of self.
Joshua Encinias: What practical changes took place?
A.V. Rockwell: When you first meet these characters in this world in ’94, you see the vitality of what was, you see those elements of continuity. Yes, part of it is that iconic architecture that people have known and grown to love over the past century of cinema.
You also see that it was a city that, for all its rough edges, it was accessible to everybody. It had a vibrance to it. It had so many colorful personalities within it. And it was a city that was full of individuality, not only in terms of people, but in terms of places. It was a city where mom-and-pop shops were everywhere.
But over time, as you see it evolves in the movie, it sheds a lot of those layers. It’s not a city that’s as diverse. It’s definitely not as accessible. It’s being redesigned in a way that’s more antisocial. A lot of these new buildings are designed with theaters and game rooms so you don’t have to leave your building. New York is a city of the people, but that’s going away.
Joshua Encinias: Gentrification creeps into Inez and Terry’s lives in Harlem. Their new superintendent at first appears to kind and disarming, but he’s strategically pushing the family out.
A.V. Rockwell: Gentrification is quiet and a huge part of the experience of New York in the film. People have a certain personal responsibility to decide whether or not they’re going to come into an environment and totally uproot the existing culture, but it doesn’t stop there. I think from the very beginning of the movie, all the signs are there.
From the conversation Inez has with Terry, where she’s talking about Giuliani coming into office and says, “Do you want to see New York become the suburbs?”
She was joking and didn’t fully understand the gravity of what it would mean for them. But she’s tying it into this idea that there was a bigger vision beyond just changing the look and feel and experience of New York. And then from that point on, you see it play out.
Joshua Encinias: Can you talk about how it plays out in the movie?
A.V. Rockwell: At first they believe it’s something that they’ll benefit from. But over time, we realized that actually no, it’s not. What should have made the city better for a neighborhood like Harlem, for a family like this to enjoy stability and take care of your kid, became a city that was way more threatening.
Ironically, New York should have been way rougher and harder for them to live in then before gentrification, but now you have them being targeted by way of police brutality, by way of petty offenses like jaywalking, and stop and frisk. They went after all people who were most vulnerable and people that they wanted to get out.
Why A Thousand and One Leaves Out 9/11
Joshua Encinias: The second half of the movie begins in 2001 but there’s no mention of 9/11, and I think students of the city will wonder why. Will you talk about the decision to leave it out?
A.V. Rockwell: 2001 was a turning point because it bookends Giuliani’s era and begins the new era with Bloomberg, and I think that 9/11 was also a part of it. But to me, it played a bigger role in the spiritual change of the city more than it literally played into the events that would have impacted Terry and Inez. I actually wrote a 9/11 sequence that didn’t make it into the movie.
Joshua Encinias: Why didn’t it?
A.V. Rockwell: When I wrote it, I remember being at the Sundance Labs and people trying to tell me I shouldn’t write the scene, almost as if, even though I’m a native New Yorker, I had no right to speak on 9/11. So it’s ironic now that people seem to be longing for it. I fought very hard to keep it, but I didn’t have the resources to do it the right way.
I think in hindsight, as much as I would have loved to keep it in the movie in a way that it would have been a part of my character’s experience, I think we’re okay without it. I think that the story is tighter without it because it really focuses your attention fully on Harlem and how all the city’s policies directly impacted Inez and Terry.
Joshua Encinias: A Thousand and One is cased in tragedy, but at its core, there’s a real human victory for Inez and Terry as a family. Will you talk about the philosophy at the core?
A.V. Rockwell: There’s a scene where Inez tells Terry, “There’s more to life than f—ed up beginnings.” It’s ironic because Inez feels like she doesn’t have the wisdom she needs, but she ends up saying exactly the right thing.
I think it was really important for her and for Terry — and really anybody watching the movie who’s had a rough journey in life — to realize there is so much more to life than the way you started out. That if you keep an open and optimistic lens on life, you can gain a lot from it.
I think that’s what Inez is tapping into: regardless of where you came from, it doesn’t define what your life has to be and how far you can go. It doesn’t have to define your future at all. Regardless of how heartbreaking and challenging and traumatic our experiences have been, the possibilities are still endless for our future.
Joshua Encinias: Will you talk about creating Inez as a person with a heart of gold, but who is far from perfect? How you develop one side without overshadowing the other?
A.V. Rockwell: I think it’s really about the nucleus of the character. To me, Inez was a for-real criminal, but with a heart of gold. I think if that is the heart of who she is, that duality is already baked into her worldview.
It was really fun for me to craft Inez because not only does she honor a lot of the women that I would have been surrounded by growing up, but also she was a fun movie character to craft. All those complicated aspects of her and all these different layers of her took a lot of time and thoughtfulness.
Joshua Encinias: Will you talk about Gary Gunn’s soundtrack for A Thousand and One? It’s sweeping and iconic.
A.V. Rockwell: It was challenging in terms of the journey we took to figure out the sound of the movie, but I loved going through that process with him. The sound we found depicts an iconic city with music that felt classical, but also the soulful version of it.
I asked, “What does Inez’s version of this world sound like?” And “What kind of sound celebrates and dignifies a woman who is often made to feel anything but that?” I think Gary’s score did that and so much more to humanize Inez and honor the women in the world who look like her.
Joshua Encinias: What was the most challenging thing you had to overcome in making One Thousand and One?
A.V. Rockwell: It was a very challenging movie to make because it’s a period piece and I had a first-time filmmaker’s budget — and the pandemic made it feel astronomically worse.
I could not have predicted the pandemic and the way it was going to tear into our budget, the way it was gonna create so many restrictions around how you could even film in New York City, let alone just dealing with how the culture of the city changed and what it felt like to shoot on the street when everybody has a mask on.
I had to fight tooth and nail for every piece of it that you see on screen. I can say that I’m proud of how we’ve overcome, and I’m proud about how we rose to the occasion for everything that we experienced. It made me a stronger filmmaker.
Joshua Encinias: How did you film exteriors in Brooklyn and Harlem to accurately show them age over several decades?
A.V. Rockwell: I’m a student of the city, to use your phrase. So I think knowing the city very well and being very thoughtful of how to portray it helped. A lot of old New York is being knocked down as we speak, but in the ways it’s still there. I made visual through line through the decades by focusing on architecture that hasn’t changed.
That’s the beauty about living in a city that has a historical heritage to it. But that’s part of what’s so unfortunate about the aggressive changes it’s undergoing. I don’t know how people are going to be able to shoot New York City 10, 20 years from now, because the iconic city that people have fallen in love with in a century of cinema is becoming less like itself.
There’s value to New York’s classical architecture that made the city special. I was talking to somebody from Upper East Side, and it’s one of the rare places in the city that actually hasn’t changed that much. All the people with money clearly want to protect it.
One Thousand and One is now in theaters.
Main image: Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola in A Thousand and One