Detroit is a compelling film that depicts the story of the Detroit Riots, more specifically on the Algiers Motel Incident. The film stars John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, Laz Alonzo and Tyler Williams. After a prank goes wrong during the time of the riots, the Detroit police department raid a section of the hotel. They believed a sniper was in the hotel, after hours of interrogation three black teenagers were killed. The police officers were found not guilty of murder and the weapon they thought was in the hotel was never found.
FilmStruck, a film streaming service for film lovers, by film lovers that offers instant streaming access to critically acclaimed classic movies, hard-to-find gems and cult favorites from Turner Classic Movies and The Criterion Collection hosted a special screening of Detroit. They partnered with Variety Screening Series to showcase the most anticipated films of the year, each campaigning for the most coveted awards for cinematic achievement.
Check out what stars John Boyega and Will Poulter had to say post screening.
There’s many reasons to want to do this film but was working with Kathryn Bigelow at the top of your list? And how did this project come to you and what drew you to your respective roles?
Will: I think like a lot of us this initially came across the desk when it was under the inconspicuous but very exciting title of untitled Kathryn Bigelow project. It actually peaked a lot of our interest I think. Kathryn’s name now, particularly in recent history is synonymous with vital work. I think all the creative elements were there certainly, but the opportunity to be a part of something that made such an unfortunately accurate comment on the times that we find ourselves in. It was just very exciting to be a part of that. I think as unfortunate as the relevance that this project bears, with everything that’s going on in the world, it was also very exciting to be doing something about it. And I suppose creating something that will hopefully go in a small way to causing change.
It’s funny she does have a very calming presence which is interesting because her movies stress me out so much; and she’s so good at capturing that in the moment action. Then you meet her, and she’s just this very calm and soothing personality, which I have to imagine came in handy on set.
John: Yeah, it’s nice to have a level of balance. She always had her head screwed on her and she always wanted to do good work, stay concentrated and that’s always helpful.
Will, the first time you encountered Krauss was it on the page (table read)?
Will: Yeah, I suppose so. I’d done a stage of the audition process just prior to the table read. I think there were moments during that table read; we were looking up at each other, sharing the surprise, the shock, and the embarrassment as Tyler said, that we didn’t know this story. Krauss as an entity in it’s almost finished form was yeah, at that table read. And the power and potential of the project wasn’t lost on any of us I think even then when it was just words on a page.
John I was thinking, with movies like “Attack the Block” and “Star Wars” to a certain extent, they have sort of this social message, is that something you’re attracted too or are you just looking for good stories?
John: I mean yeah definitely that’s part of it, it just so happens that a lot of these good stories tend to have a social message as well. I think the best sci-fi has the same, slight commentary by the way in which we live and relate to each other and that’s something I just like. It just so happens to appear in a lot of the scripts I go for but it doesn’t necessarily have to be there. It could be another unique story. It just depends.
What appealed to you about doing Detroit?
John: I just wanted to do something I was used to, I’m not use to the bigger scale stuff I’m used to the smaller scale stuff and I wanted to do something that was important. Plus, hearing about the cast and Kathryn, it just felt like a great opportunity for me.
And you were able to meet and talk to Dismuke. Have you ever played a real person before?
John: Yeah I did in ‘Imperial Dreams’ but with this man I got to speak to him in depth about what he went through, also just about him growing up, and who he was as a person. It’s not everyday you get the opportunity to get the blueprint essentially to your character. So I took full advantage of that.
What about the rest of you, were you able to talk to anyone who knew your characters?
Will: My character is a composite of three of the police officers who were responsible for the murders of the Algiers Motel, one of those officers is still alive and the other two are deceased. I didn’t come into contact with the individual who’s still alive.
Was there any other research you did to prepare?
Will: That character belongs to I would hope a small minority that represents the worse amongst law enforcement. Its certainly important to stress there was never an intention to make an anti-police film. But certainly one of the greatest intentions with this was to expose the racist individual and to hold up my sort of character as the sort of person we can’t allow for in any walk of society, much less in positions of power. Unfortunately there is all too much inspiration to draw from when you’re looking to construct a racist character that comes into many ugly ways that racism is real. Recently, with fascist groups literally walking the streets and being able to freely demonstrate. So, I looked to some of those ugly things and took things from them because that was necessary and I wanted to expose the person unapologetically. But, one of the greatest challenges lied in embracing ignorance because effectively that’s what it is to be racist. It’s a self-righteous ignorance in my opinion. I’ve played less than likeable characters in the past but to play someone who you can’t identify with in any respect and someone who you don’t have any respect for, made the research tough.
One of the women from the incident was on set with you guys, did you turn to her for consulting?
Will: I think Julie’s consultation in the film was integral to its success and she exercised an unbelievable amount of bravery just to be there. I can’t imagine for a second what it’s like to first of all, go through something like that, survive it and then step back on set to where it’s being recreated; and being brave enough to provide comment, and actually help support the process. She was an inspiration as well as all of the survivors of the Detroit rebellion who helped us make this story.
When you were shooting the movie, did you sort of have this feeling that times have changed a lot and did you feel differently by the time the movie came out?
John: No, I remember being on set and saying that if we just allowed the cause of 2017 to be here, we didn’t change the script, we’d probably be a story that we probably heard about. We haven’t come far at all; racism is also a global issue, so looking out of the States you see that it is the same all around the world. And that’s the feeling that I felt and that’s why there was a unity between all of us. For Will, to do what he was doing on set it required a certain level of respect from his fellow men around him. We understood that he needed to go to a dark place so we would check in and he would do the same for us. It was that mutual respect and unity on set that took us through those moments. But to stand there and realize that, you know what, it seems as if we’re doing something that was back in the day but at the same time this is still a touchy subject, we haven’t cleaned up this mess, was something that we realized every day on set.
How long did it take you to shoot the scene against the wall?
Will: 3 weeks.
Will, what was it like for you? You’re working with this amazing cast of people, you probably love and admire and you’re not always being kind to them on screen. How did you break that?
I appreciate what John said and I think I can speak to the fact that as a cast we were united by the bigger goal that was to be achieved with this movie. It was to do justice of the facts and to tell this story as accurately as we possibly could. That required us to develop a sense of respect and trust with one another before we embarked on the journey together. It was very intense for everybody. You hear actors talk a lot about the generosity of fellow actors. Personally I hadn’t learned exactly what that generosity meant until I worked on Detroit and I was relying on immense bravery from the people opposite me to endure what my character inflicted. I think a motivating factor for all of us was whatever difficulty we’re facing as actors, is going to pale in comparison to the victims. There’s no better reminder of that than when someone like Julie is on set and being so brave as to watch it unfold in front of her. We always had the bigger picture in mind, which was to create something that could be applicable to society and hopefully benefit it. As oppose to just being a form of entertainment.
Larry was at the Premiere wasn’t he?
Will: Yes, Larry and Julie were there, so there was kind of a crazy moment where we were watching the film in which the Fox theatre features while sat in the Fox theatre. And then to have the real Julie and the real Larry walk on stage and speak a few words was unreal.
Which scene was the hardest part about making the film? Was there a scene or a day that you struggled with most?
Will: The whole 3 and a half weeks personally.
John: I would say the interrogation scene with the two detectives and Dismuke. That was a tricky scene to film. That day actually was the first week of filming for me, I wasn’t supposed to film that but there was a technical difficulty and that was the only one that we could film. I didn’t have the beginning stages of Dismuke’s character and the scenes to warm up to that moment. I remember Kathryn just looking at me saying “yeah John we’re going to have to do the interrogation scene because the bloody ACs are making a whole lot of noise and this is the only room that we can use.” I just remember thinking about in that very moment- it reminded me about why we are here and why we are storytellers and what is necessary especially in terms of all of our different characters- what is necessary; the work that we have to do internally. I just remembered the names like Sandra Bland, and Mike brown come to your head and it influences the intention and the motivation for the scene and that’s the moment where I looked at Kathryn and I was like ok cool, this is obviously important.
Your hope was that this film would bring about change? I don’t want to misquote but I believe that the Detroit Police Department is making it required viewing?
Will: Which has been amazing. I think a big stamp of achievement for us with this film was to get police approve ultimately. We want this film to encourage good policing and contributing the ousting of bad policing. Meeting with James Craig, the chief of police in Detroit, he had a wonderfully warm reception to it and he has considered making the film required viewing for new recruits, which is fantastic. I think also one of the great things about Detroit now is that it’s now representatively, one of the most diverse police forces in the country – highest number of people of color and greatest number of women in the U.S. That’s integral to communities feeling like they’re being represented by the people who are responsible for taking care of them.
Is that more than you could’ve dreamed of? The great reviews are nice, but you hear something like that and that’s got to be extra special.
Will: I think if we’re going to talk about the metric of the film’s success; for me, it’s characterized by things like that, where through real world application, the film is succeeding.
I think about Kathryn’s work overall and how influential this film is in actually making a difference. I’m just curious for each of you- what was a film or performance that really influenced you when you were becoming an actor?
Will: A big one for me growing up was Hook, Robin Williams in Hook. I just can’t tell you how many times I put that VHS tape in the machine and watched that movie. But to see someone tell a story that you feel so attached to and you feel a sense of ownership over as a kid, with such heart and comedic nuance was crazy. I think that’s what was special about him in a sense that he was as talented from a comedic perspective as he was dramatically and made you feel a full range of emotions in a single performance. So, that would be mine.
John: I don’t remember a movie, but I remember a moment when I was in university and during lectures we had a crazy sound from downstairs in the courtyard area and everybody rushed down to see; and I saw Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow filming on set on the university campus. And after that, I dropped out of university because I was like ‘ok cool this is my motivation to want to take this seriously’ – and then I flew to LA, just because of that one moment. For me it was crazy to see that live and say yeah this is what I want to do.