Director Carey Williams and writer KD Dávila tell IndieWire how they subverted teenage party movie tropes for the entertaining comedy thriller.
“Emergency” begins with a fairly familiar college comedy premise – a party challenge.
Best friends and seniors, Kunle (Donald Elisa Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cuyler) decided to hit up every major Greek party on their college circuit, in what had long been dubbed a “legendary tour.” But being two young black men in a not-so-average college party flick, the fun is over before it begins. Their epic night is abruptly interrupted by the sudden appearance of a young white girl, whom the guys find passed out in their living room. Along with their friend and comedic sidekick Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), this trio faces an impossible dilemma: whether to call 911 or not.
What ensues is a dark and funny social satire that teeters on the edge of horror at every turn – a scathing reflection of everyday events that can all too quickly turn horrific for young black men.
This premise fueled the short film of the same name to a Sundance Jury Award as well as the Best Narrative Short Film award at SXSW in 2018. The film marked the first collaboration between director Carey Williams and writer KD Dávila, who are encountered during Film Independent’s flagship inclusivity programme. Project Involve, which includes alumni Jon M. Chu, Justin Simien and Lulu Wang.
With such interest in the short film at SXSW, Williams announced that they were working on a feature film before even discussing it with Dávila. “I got the idea basically on the spot that day as he started telling everyone I was writing it,” the screenwriter told IndieWire. “I was like, well, the only version I can see that makes sense is the one that takes place in one night. So that’s the constraint that I put on myself. … I like to take a concept that you’ve seen before and try to overthrow it somehow.
The short ends with what is essentially the feature’s inciting incident, the guys finding the girl and discussing their options. While innocent Kunle’s instinct is to call 911, resourceful Sean insists getting the cops involved definitely won’t go their way.
Functionality follows what happens then.
Quantrell Colbert/Amazon Studios
“[I knew we had to] get them out of the house and into the world, because a big part of it is these young men of color thinking about how they’re going to be perceived in the world,” Williams said. “We wanted to talk about the absurdity of these guys having to really think – how are we going to be perceived as we try to do the right thing and help this girl get to safety? So getting them out of the house was a great way to explore that fear that they have to think about, which is absurd, and there’s some humor that will hopefully come out of that.
Nominated for this year’s Oscars for her short film “Please Hold,” about a Latino man stuck in an automated prison after a wrongful arrest, Dávila carves out a signature style that subverts dark comedy and genre cinema to highlight the absurdity – and terror – of systemic racism. Williams says that although his tastes generally lean toward drama, the humor in Dávila’s screenplay both intrigued and challenged him.
“I was like, ‘I’m scared of this one because it’s a humorous take on something that’s just not funny,'” the director said of his first encounter with the script. . “We don’t want to shed light on this situation. I know not. But I was like, ‘I think the humorous angle is what’s the special sauce on this one.’
A true collaboration, the duo worked together to flesh out the story. Dávila is Mexican-American and grew up in Los Angeles and witnessed colorism affecting her family members firsthand, but she drew on Williams’ experiences to shed light on the details.
“I checked in with [Williams] a lot. I was pitching concepts for scenes and always directing them by him,” she said. “He’s a black guy from the south and he brought a lot of his experiences to me and…I put them into the film.”
Quantrell Colbert/Amazon Studios
One of Williams’ main sticking points from the start was basing the narrative on the friendship between Kunle and Sean. Although he laments the loss of some funny scenes, anything extraneous to this central relationship had to go.
“It’s really a love story for me. I wanted to show a complex relationship of young black men on screen that I feel like I don’t see a lot,” he said. “Because that we have to be so tough, we feel like we have to protect ourselves at all times. And that’s true, but it can be very detrimental to our mental health and psyche not being able to express our emotions. So I wanted to show to other young black men who see that it’s okay to be emotionally vulnerable to their friends, to their loved ones.
There was heat from the start: Dávila’s script made the 2020 blacklist of the most popular unproduced scripts by up-and-coming screenwriters, and Temple Hill Entertainment and Amazon Studios announced in April 2021 that they would be producing it. In January, the “Emergency” team returned to Sundance to present the feature film, where it received positive reviews and another win for Dávila in the form of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
Thanks to the script and the dynamic performances of three newcomers, “Emergency” draws a fine line between being very entertaining and offering a dose of reality. While the film doesn’t end in outright tragedy, the palpable change we see in Kunle speaks louder than any more dramatic ending. Whether comedy or drama, the film is the product of Williams’ and Dávila’s unique fusion of visions, achieved by expertly weaving vital real-world issues into an equally satisfying college comedy.
“It has to be something that’s really going to have an impact, make people not only feel seen, but also make them reflect and question things,” Williams said. “I don’t feel like my art ever needs to feel like an answer. It should sound like a question and spark a debate. Something that people are going to say, ‘Oh, I never really thought about that.’ Something that will last.
“Emergency” is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
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