‘American Fiction’ Star Jeffrey Wright On Owning The “Rhythms” Of Monk: “This Is Probably The Most Personal Character That I’ve Played” — Contenders Film L.A.

‘American Fiction’ Star Jeffrey Wright On Owning The “Rhythms” Of Monk: “This Is Probably The Most Personal Character That I’ve Played” — Contenders Film L.A.

“This was three years ago, that I had a note from an executive on a script that I wrote that I needed to make a character ‘Blacker’,” director Cord Jefferson said at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles panel for American Fiction. “A lot of this is taken directly from my personal experience having worked in entertainment.”

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Jeffrey Wright, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross and Skyler Wright star in this scathing satire on the publishing industry and its treatment of serious works by Black writers. One of those writers is Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Wright). He travels back to his hometown of Boston to attend a book festival, but the turnout is low in favor of another book seminar with author Sinatra Golden’s (Rae) bestseller We Lives In Da Ghetto.

After finding Percival Everett’s Erasure in 2020, Jefferson quickly knew he needed to write and direct the film and he found that casting the lead came easy to him. “This is not a lie, Jeffrey, I started reading the novel in his voice,” he says. “I’ve been a fan of Jeffrey since I first saw him in Angels in America… then I saw him in Basquiat, and I was just obsessed with him.”

RELATED: ‘American Fiction’ Review: Cord Jefferson Satire Navigates The Nuances Of Black Narratives – Toronto Film Festival

“They’re not a lot of roles that are written for me,” says Wright. “I’m not that kind of archetype for many stories within our culture, which is one of the reasons that I think my flexibility serves me… But with this role, the rhythms were mine. This is probably the most personal character that I’ve played, the character that’s kind of most in line, not entirely, but with many of my sensibilities, observations and circumstances. The only other film that approaches this in terms of that alignment was probably Basquiat, which I also felt a very intimate understanding of because I knew that life, it was partly my life.”

“Eventually I wrote a theme for Monk that was jagged… performed like [Thelonious Monk] would,” says composer Laura Karpman. Monk’s theme and his family’s theme “were the two kind of major thematic thrusts throughout the movie, and I think one of the things that I related so much to what you said Jeffrey is I’m sort of musically gymnastic too out of necessity, but I think the score required that because you have to switch so quickly between comedy and this very, very touching family story.”

RELATED: ‘American Fiction’ Composer Laura Karpman Jazzed Up Score For TIFF’s People’s Choice Award Winner – Sound & Screen Film

Setting the tone between comedy and the family dynamic “was the biggest challenge in editing,” says editor Hilda Rasula, “tone and rhythm. On the surface this movie is a satire, but underneath it there is this major family drama, it’s also a romance, it’s also an artist journey, a writer finding himself and his voice… it’s many movies in one, and that was a real challenge.”

RELATED: ‘American Fiction’ Trailer Sees Jeffrey Wright Confront An Offensive World Of Publishing

“Being the director and the writer, so much of the visual language [Jefferson] put into the script whether he realized it or not,” says cinematographer Cristina Dunlap. “Keeping that rhythm with the camera was very important to us, it was often moving and flowing through characters which is why we decided to shoot in the 235 anamorphic aspect ratio. There’s an incredible ensemble cast and we wanted to be able to hold a lot of them in the frame at the same time.”

RELATED: Deadline Contenders Film Los Angeles Arrivals and Panels Gallery: Cillian Murphy, Taraji P. Henson, Annette Bening, Bradley Cooper and More

Check out the panel video above.

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