From director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton and based on the award-winning nonfiction bestseller of the same name by Bryan Stevenson, the real-life drama Just Mercy follows a young lawyer and his inspiring pursuit of justice. After graduating from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan, also a producer on the film) headed to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned, and while there, he came across the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man sentenced to die for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence. Stevenson felt compelled to fight for McMillian against all odds and a justice system inherently stacked against them.
While in Los Angeles to promote the film, Cretton spoke to Collider for this 1-on-1 interview, where he talked about doing justice to Stevenson’s work, how beneficial it was to have him available as a resource throughout the shoot, why he wanted to work with Foxx, the strengths of Jordan as an actor and producer, and much, much more.
Collider: You’ve previously talked about how this was one of the most difficult and challenging projects that you’ve done, in large part because you wanted to stay true to Bryan Stevenson’s story. Were there touchstones that you always referred back to, to make sure you were on that right path? Were there things, throughout the shoot, that really kept you focused on that?
DESTIN DANIEL CRETTON: Bryan Stevenson’s work is almost entirely based on the strength of his empathy and the way that he sees the humanity in people, regardless of what they may or may not have done in their lives. He believes that each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done, and that’s the touchstone. Are we showing respect to these characters, through the writing process and while we’re shooting? Are we showing the humanity in them? And Bryan was really with us, throughout the whole process, to also help make sure that that was happening. Having him with us was not only beneficial, but necessary.
Was having him there more comforting or more nerve-wracking?
CRETTON: He’s working a ton, so he visited set a couple of times. It’s always nerve-wracking, for sure. If he was on set every day, that would have probably been extremely nerve-wracking, but he was present, throughout. As soon as we had a cut to show him, he was able to give his feedback to help us tweak the scenes that weren’t quite there yet.
You’ve also previously talked about how Jamie Foxx was someone you had wanted to work with forever. Why? What was it about him that made you want to work with him, and what was the first performance of his that stood out for you?
CRETTON: In Living Color. And then, of course, Ray. There was that year that Ray came out, and then Collateral. I just think he’s a phenomenal performer, in every way. To be able to work with him, I just felt like an audience member with a front row seat to his performance.
And you also had Michael B. Jordan, who’s not just an actor but a producer. As a filmmaker, what do you see as the strengths in him, as not just an actor but also as a producer who’s so involved with what he does now?
CRETTON: He’s a producer with a big heart. He helped implement the things that were really important to us on this movie and any movie, which was trying to create the most diverse crew possible. For any story, being able to have that many different cultural perspectives on something just really helps the end product. And he carries the heart of Bryan Stevenson, where he treats everybody with equal respect. Whether you are the director or a PA, when he talks to you, he talks to you like he talks to any human being. He’s a very kind soul, and that’s wonderful to have, both as an actor and a producer.
One of the things, with all of your films, is that you really get great performances from your actors. What do you enjoy about working with actors, watching them work, and feeding off of that, as a filmmaker?
CRETTON: My favorite part is watching actors do what they do. I have no idea how they do it. I would be so terrible at it. I think that they’re some of the most brave, reckless people, to be able to just put themselves out there with a camera on their face, and go to the places where they go. The dance that you get to do with them, through a scene, is a really fun and fulfilling part of the process.
It seems like that might also be a bit scary, especially in the beginning, until you figure out how to communicate that language, if you don’t have that background, yourself.
CRETTON: It’s always scary, on both sides. From an actor’s point of view, they don’t know me, and they don’t know if they can trust that I’m going to choose the take that’s going to make them look good, or the take that’s going to make them look not good. So, there definitely is a trust that needs to be built, usually over the first few days.
Which makes it understandable why a lot of filmmakers return to the same actors, and you’ve worked with Brie Larson a bunch. Do you feel like you have a shorthand and that you can understand each other because you have worked together so many times?
CRETTON: Yeah, with Brie, I barely even have to say anything. Usually, at the end of a take, sometimes it’s just a gesture or a look, and she knows. Or sometimes she just already knows. She’s like, “I know what you’re going to say,” and she just does another take. When you’ve worked with an actor that many times, it becomes very easy.
Movies go through test screening processes, but are there friends or family or colleagues that you liked to screen your movies for because you trust their opinion?
CRETTON: Yeah, I have a good group of friends and my family that I like to screen it for. With this film, we actually did a lot of test screenings. I think we did five. We were specifically testing with an audience that was primarily African American, and then we tested with a diverse mix, and then we tested with a primarily Caucasian audience in the Midwest. It was really interesting. Every screening was very informative.
Was there a scene or a moment that you were most nervous about, knowing that you’d eventually be screening the film for Bryan Stevenson?
CRETTON: There were a lot of them. The courtroom scenes were maybe the most nervous for me, and also for Michael B., just because we wanted to get that right. That’s Bryan’s domain, so we wanted to make sure that we did that right. But Michael B. was able to get together with Bryan, multiple times before shooting, to ask him specific questions about his body language, when you’re an young African American lawyer in an all white system in the South, and how much you can push it in a courtroom, what your demeanor would be like, how you would stand, and what is confident and what is too confident. It was really interesting, how much strategy goes into the performance of a lawyer, in coming across as passionate and convincing, but not pushing so hard that you’ll inevitably get resistance from a very sensitive white establishment. What you see is the final performance, but there was a lot of thought that went into the restraint that Michael B. had, in those scenes.
You really feel that, throughout the movie. There are so many times, in the film, that you can see that there’s so much more going on, emotionally, inside of him and Jamie Foxx, and it’s incredible how that gets conveyed. Were you ever worried about the emotions fully getting conveyed to the audience, or could you feel that internal struggle when they were on set?
CRETTON: You could really feel it. They’re both such emotional actors. What Jamie Foxx can do with a look is pretty extraordinary, and Michael B., too. When he holds his emotions back, you really feel it. To me, I feel it more. Bryan specifically said that, throughout his time working down there, there were many times where he felt like he could’ve exploded and gotten angry at somebody for doing what they did, but that would have only been satisfying for him, in that moment. But the inevitable repercussions of it would go back to his clients, and that was something he was always thinking about, what’s best for his clients. Typically, that would be restraint.
Just Mercy is now playing in theaters.