Director Amman Abbasi Discusses his Debut Film, ‘Dayveon’

Devin Blackmon and Dontrell Bright, as seen in Amman Abbasi’s DAYVEON.
Courtesy of FilmRise.

Amman Abbasi is a man of many talents. Having already dipped into music and the restaurant business, he turns to filmmaking with Dayveon, the story of a young boy from Wrightsville, Arkansas who is slowly drawn into gang life. You can read our full review here, but, in short, the film is thoughtful, cinematic and an absolute achievement. We spoke with Abbasi (who also wrote, edited and scored the film) about why he turned to crowdfunding to finance the film, why he put his cast through four weeks of rehearsal prior to filming and how he approached telling a story that wasn’t necessarily his to tell.

So, to start, could you talk a little bit about the production history of this film? When the credits rolled, I was surprised to see it was funded by both Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

I basically needed to raise the money because no investor was going to give it to me. No one trusted me to make it. I’m a first-time director. I hadn’t had a body of work to just say, “Hey, this is the reason why this will work.” It was just me trying to convince folks and that was sort of fruitless. I knew that I was going to waste time and energy continuing to look for it.

I had saved up a bunch of money, over two years of working, working, working. So, I put all my money into it, essentially, and the Kickstarter was there to get us through it too. I thought that was a really great vehicle for getting funding and building a community around it. That kind of put us in production and that was the plan. I was like, let me at least shoot the movie. Let me just get there and then if it’s good enough, maybe I can cut something together and convince someone to invest. That was how we found a lot of great people to come on board very quickly. It’s so funny, it was almost a total turnaround.

Right, I assume that’s why the Indiegogo campaign was cut short?

Yeah, exactly.

When did the title change from “Loudmouth” and why?

For me, the creative process is always going until the last edit so you can pivot and do anything. That’s important, to give yourself that freedom. Giving that decision context was really Devin Blackmon, who plays Dayveon. Devin is such an introspective, interesting young boy who brought a lot to the character. It was sort of undeniable. I loved that aspect of him and that really changed my thought process on how to approach the lead character. For me, my process is always about trying to know if you need to pivot. Nothing’s sacred, you just have to be honest with that process and I felt as though that was more of an honest title.

His performance (and really all of the performances) feels unself-conscious, which is surprising considering they’re non-actors. You and the cast did daily rehearsals for four months. Can you talk about why you chose to do that and how things evolved as those rehearsals went on?

Well, I knew early on that I wanted non-actors because I needed people who had similar life experiences, who could breathe a sort of honesty into the characters. Rehearsing and having everyone in the same room every day for a long period of time, that’s not just for the script. That’s to gain chemistry, to gain trust with one another. That was honestly more important to me, knowing where we could go and how to achieve that.

Then, of course, we workshopped the script like a play. Every day, we would do it in certain ways and we’d all challenge each other. It’s such a rewarding process. I really enjoyed that. I hope to continue that. There’s so much juice in that.

Did everyone improve during that process? Did their line delivery become more natural? Because when you’re watching the film, it doesn’t feel like dialogue, it feels like improv.

That’s the number one thing people think about the movie: that it’s totally improvised. Maybe that’s good because then [that means the characters] feel natural and honest and lived in. That’s sort of the currency of the film. We wanted it to feel honest and real and totally authentic.

That’s part of why it was so surprising to learn that you had done so much rehearsal beforehand.

Another reason we did the rehearsals is that the ball and chain of production is kind of cumbersome. It’s not the most creative process. It’s a lot of people and a lot of lights and it’s very technically driven. [The work] to try to preserve that artistic spirit and that authentic spirit was really done in rehearsal so we could eliminate…

The awkwardness and the tedium of it all.

Exactly. We could erase that and be preserved in that artistic experience. In fact, I would give them internal motivations early on in the rehearsals. There are so many scenes within the film that don’t have dialogue, but there still needs to be some acting within that. I would give all the characters internal motivations so that when we were on set, reminding them of those internal motivations gets them back in that headspace and it still feels honest and raw and real.

I will say, it was a collaboration between all of our actors and myself. If Dontrell [Bright], who plays Brian was like, “I’m not feeling this turn of phrase, I don’t think it works,” we’d find a way so it works within his speech. So, it’s scripted, but it’s also still modified for everyone’s speech. Everyone’s speech is so different and you have to embrace that. That’s a really important aspect. And when I say “everyone,” I mean everyone in society has a very different way of talking. I think highlighting that is important, not to just square it off and say, “These are the words on the page.”

Still from Amman Abbasi’s DAYVEON featuring Devin Blackmon. Courtesy of FilmRise.

You grew up in Little Rock, but you were filming in a community that wasn’t necessarily your own. Were you concerned about telling a story that wasn’t your own? How did you embed yourself in the community and earn trust there? Were you worried about appropriation?

Of course. It’s absolutely a concern. You know, a few wrong moves and it can get to dangerous territory. I was very conscious of that. In fact, how I went about this in the early days was to really gain the trust of the community. And that’s without cameras. That’s without anything. That was similar to the documentary process of just gaining trust. I would sort of create workshops at a local boot camp with young kids who were in gangs. And every day, I would create worksheets with pretty simple, basic questions just to get what a kid in this situation, right here, right now, is feeling.

They were kind of general questions and I would sit and study those and just have a talk with them every day. It would be casual and not in any one direction and then, when the time was right, I gave them a copy [of the script]. And you know what was really fascinating? They read it so quickly. They were so excited and they tore it apart and I loved it. I think that was a really important part of [the process]. There were aspects that they loved and they felt were real and honest and needed to continue to be highlighted because, in many ways, this was based on a lot of the stories I was hearing from them. There were aspects that they would say, “No, that doesn’t work, I don’t know, maybe you should subtract this scene,” or whatever it may be. So, I felt as though this needed to be totally open to all of that.

To touch on the other aspect you asked about, “a story that’s not my own.” I’m not African-American, I’m not in the Bloods and by no means can I ever say that I know the black experience in the rural south. That’s not the objective. But growing up in Arkansas as a Pakistani, it’s kind of given me a perspective of the outsider, in a way. I’m always looking for the outsider perspective and outsider cultures and finding truth and affinity within that. Because in the news or even movies, people just assume what a gang is.

You know what’s really funny to me? Growing up in Little Rock, there was sort of a gang presence. I would have friends in middle school who were in gangs. Bloods, Crips, whatever. They’re just my friends, there’s no difference. But on the news or even movies, there’s such a nasty aspect that’s highlighted. And I’m not saying gangs are good. That’s not my point. My point is, let’s deconstruct this notion a little bit more and add to the complexity of this. What is it? Is it more a vehicle of social acceptance for some of these kids? Is that innocent? These are questions I’m asking. It’s kind of–to say it again–to start to deconstruct those ideas that we all have about gangs.

Sure, this is, technically, a story we’ve seen many times in films, but you avoid the usual beats. For instance, the decision to stay with Dayveon and Brayden in the car during the convenience store heist. Were you consciously trying to avoid conventions while making this?

Absolutely. That’s one aspect of it. The scene you’re talking about, we’re more concerned about their experience of this than creating tension in the conventional way of a robbery. And you’re right, there are stories like this because it happens often. Young kids get involved with gangs for various reasons, but to me, what’s really appealing to tell and how to tell this story is through the lens of a young kid and what they hope to achieve. If you’re able to sit through this journey with Dayveon and feel like him, you won’t necessarily think that Mook [a Blood played by one of the film’s producers, Lachion Buckingham] is all that bad of a character. Brian is not that great of a character. It’s always this blurring of the lines and there’s no good or bad, I suppose, is what I was hoping for.

Another thing to touch upon, there’s obviously no Crips [in the film]. Oftentimes in gang movies, it’s [about] gang wars. You fight against one. No, I’m more looking at this as the structure of the community, finding acceptance in the community.

Devin Blackmon, as seen in Amman Abbasi’s DAYVEON. Courtesy of FilmRise.

This is a story about growing up, but it’s also a story about young men finding their own ways of expressing masculinity. What were you hoping to say through these characters and this story about what it means to be a man?

I think in the beginning, [Dayveon] is [lifting] weights, trying to push himself to be stronger and I think that’s something within all of us. For this young kid especially, he felt tremendous trauma and there’s not really a good way for him to release that. For him to achieve this more masculine figure is a way to protect himself from these things that he feels. I do think there’s an aspect of masculinity that’s within there and it’s nuanced because you want to try to be a protector and impervious to emotions. It can kind of bend the moral compass some if you know it’s helpful to others. I think that’s an interesting burden of responsibility.

So you originally wanted to shoot some of the film on 35mm, were you able to?

No, I wish. No one’s given me any money to do that. We tested on 35mm, but nobody wants to give me frickin’ film. But I’m going to shoot my next one on it.

Why did you choose to film the movie in a 4:3 aspect ratio?

I wish I could have shot it in 9:16, the vertical aspect ratio of a phone. It works on a few levels. On its most basic, I like that aspect ratio. I like the square, boxier format. Coming from medium format photography, it’s very similar to how you approach portraits and this is a portrait of a young man. But there are two other levels that it works on for me. The second is more conceptual. You’re locked in on this boy’s story and you cut off the periphery of the town.

There’s a lot of absence in this story. There’s no cops. There’s no white people. There’s no Crips. There’s no city. This is a way to achieve this artistically, in my way, to just cut that off. And then on the third level, it’s the form of how young kids approach media today. This is very similar to how Day or Brayden [Dayveon’s friend, played by Kordell “KD” Johnson] would watch media–whether it’s on Facebook or Instragram–it’s sort of this square format. So, basically, I thought it worked on many levels within the context of the story.

Davyeon
Devin Blackmon and Kordell “KD” Johnson, as seen in Amman Abbasi’s DAYVEON. Courtesy of FilmRise.

That’s certainly how it comes across, but that aspect ratio is also associated with older films and it almost emphasizes how cinematic the movie feels. You make a lot of interesting visual choices. Like when Dayveon and Brayden are driving with the Bloods to the heist. Every time someone talks, they’re lit very briefly like they’re under a street lamp and then they’re in the dark again. It was sort of dreamlike—both that scene and the rest of the film.

That was a sequence that was difficult to do, in terms of production. It was really freaking difficult to do because it’s a balance of how to get those lights to hit exactly on the words. We stayed out very late that night to try to achieve that. But once we found the rhythm, we knew that it worked.

Also, for me, context is key all the time. So, visual tricks and all that sort of stuff, they all fall apart if there’s nothing for it to say. And I’m never interested in that. But that’s why I love moviemaking, because it is more of a visual language. If you can tell a story through your visual language, then I think that’s a great achievement.

Specifically with that scene, you’re not totally aware of what’s going on. These kids are a little bit in the dark. So, there’s these gaps of information. Even the audience member is not fully aware. I just wanted to create those gaps in the presence of the scene.

You wrote a lot of the music for this, much of it before filming, but I’m curious why you chose instrumental music over, say, popular music that would be part of the characters’ real lives? Was it a money thing?

No, it was never a money thing. I think I just wanted to allow the audience–and this goes with this idea of deconstructing what gang life is like–I wanted to create more universal emotion that anyone from anywhere can relate to. I think sound and color operate on a certain subconscious level to me. In terms of the actual production, it’s hard to delineate emotional mood from story for me. Oftentimes, when I would think about the characters while writing the script, I’d be sitting at the piano just doodling away. And sometimes there’s a special moment when the idea in your head and the few notes that you may have hit on the piano link and there’s a sort of symbiosis between the two. To try to preserve that is really important. I wanted to really capture that and play that during rehearsals for some of our cast to put them in that emotional state and for our cinematographer in some scenes.

But what’s really interesting about that, the movie actually then informed the music in post-production. Sometimes, I felt as though the pieces of music that I created were no longer needed. It sort of did what it needed to do in the rehearsals and in production, so, it never made the final movie. Even though I made it specifically for the movie, I think it sort of achieved it without those pieces of music. So they’re only so interdependent on each other.

Do you have another project lined up? Are you working on anything currently?

I’m writing something and I’m writing some music. But I never feel totally comfortable talking about it because, I don’t know, it’s a nice, little, delicious thought that I can keep in my head and kind of go there anytime I want without the pressures of talking about it. But I am.

 

By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.