It’s a good thing that Prentice Penny took the plunge and ventured into the feature film realm. He’s been busy racking up accomplishments in the series sphere for years now, with a major highlight being his work on HBO’s Insecure. But Penny wound up feeling the itch to spearhead his very own project with a singular vision and now we’re getting his first feature Uncorked, a film about achieving dreams, personal growth and open communication with family.
Mamoudou Athie leads as Elijah, a young man with a deep passion for wine who’s feeling the pressure to go into business with his father Louis (Courtney B. Vance) and help him run the family’s very popular Memphis barbecue restaurant. When Elijah is accepted into a coveted program that would put him on the path to potentially becoming a sommelier, he struggles between giving everything he’s got to the challenging schoolwork and also trying to manage his father’s expectations of committing to the family business.
You think you can just grab any old bottle of wine to pair with dinner? Think again. As a colleague amusingly put it, Uncorked is nerdy for wine. A sommelier needs to be able to identify a wine’s grape variety, the country of origin, the region, the quality and the vintage all by sight, nose, palate and a whole lot of studying, and Uncorked digs into it all.
When chatting on the phone with Penny about his experience making the movie, I was shocked to learn that this whole idea didn’t come from a personal love of wine. “I didn’t drink wine at all.” In fact, Penny once considered making his movie about a different topic entirely; “Originally I was circling the subject that the son might want to sing opera because I was reading at the time all these articles about young black opera singers who had grown up listening to hiphop.” But then, Penny took a trip to Paris:
“I had never been to Paris before, and I went for a cousin’s wedding, and I was not a wine drinker. I didn’t understand wine, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m in the place where wine is everything, and if I don’t like it here, I’m never gonna like it.’ And I just took a wine 101 learning class at this wine bar, and the guy was like, ‘It’s super simple to understand,’ and I just got super into it that trip. And then off that trip is sort of where I said, ‘Oh, this is what the son should do.’”
In addition to story development hurdles, Penny also faced the challenge of working in the feature format for the very first time. “I think what surprised me the most was the feeling of, you really have one chance to get it right, you know?” There’s some flexibility in that sense when working on a television show. As Penny put it, if you haven’t figured a certain something out, “you have multiple bites at the apple.” For example, if you’re not thrilled with how a particular scene looks, next time, you have the opportunity to light it a different way. He didn’t have that luxury making Uncorked:
“You’re just like, ‘Look, we’re going to be here at this place for three hours and we’ve got to make it work in three hours and what’s gonna be the best thing?’ It’s collaborative, but much less than it is I think in television so to me the biggest shift I felt like I had to make was just being like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to push this rock up this hill. You’re either helping me push it or move aside.’ That to me was the biggest difference.”
When did Penny feel the on-set time crunch the most? It was actually while shooting a pretty pivotal scene of the movie, the scene in the garage when Elijah and Louis are arguing just before Elijah goes to Paris.
“You obviously thought we’re gonna have more time, but we had less time to do that scene, so a big chunk of that scene is just me in the back of the car, and I was just like, ‘What are the most interesting frames,’ and kind of let the performances just play and they just delivered. I was like, ‘Guys, we have like two hours,’ and this is a big crux of the movie, which is their feelings finally coming out, and I think that pressure and that tension kind of helped add to the stuff that actually had to play.”
In that moment for Penny, it was all about leaning into what the time and the space gives you. “Making a movie is like trying to swim upstream, you know? It’s just so hard, and it was a good exercise. Don’t fight the stream. Go with what you have that’s working for you in this moment.” And it turns out, that approach to that particular scene led to some very effective results.
Even though there were moments like that when Penny had to throw his plan out the window, one visual element that was meticulously and beautifully mapped out with his cinematographer, Elliot Davis, was how they’d capture wine and someone’s love and understanding of it in the movie. Penny explained, “We’re always trying to use wine as a way that’s symbolically representing the character’s journey.”
For example, the movie opens with shots of a vineyard, and those shots are crafted from the workers’ perspective, capturing the greatness and also the hardness of a vineyard. Then, when the movie shifts to Elijah browsing the aisles of a wine fair, the visuals become more magical. Later on in the movie, that awe Elijah has for wine gives way to the rigidity of the sommelier test. Penny explained, “Most of the movie was handheld, but that part of the movie we couldn’t. It’s the only part of the movie that we actually have a tripod, and we create more formality around the world of wine.”
Based on the conversation we had thus far, it was abundantly clear that Penny was deeply excited about the new opportunities feature filmmaking affords him, so it didn’t come as a surprise whatsoever when Penny revealed that he’d like to continue working in the feature realm:
“I’m reading scripts now, and that’s the beautiful thing is getting the opportunity to step out more in that capacity. I’ve been in a writer’s room for a while now, and [this] is new to me. I love it. I love the challenge of it.”
He further explained that television does give one the opportunity to evolve and grow, but he also noted, “What I love about the movie is that it kind of gets to be singularly yours in the way.” He also pointed out how the experience came with unique challenges that made him want to try new things creatively. Whether it was shooting anamorphic, playing with silhouettes, or manipulating sound and music, Penny explained, “I can do things creatively that I would not have been able to do on a television story I worked on because that’s not the tone of what we’re trying to do, but it was so freeing in so many ways to be able to do that. I definitely want to do it again for sure.”
While Penny has yet to settle on a favorite bottle of wine, he did have one very special wine memory to share:
“Weirdly it fits in the movie! One of my favorite bottles is a Cab called Austin Hope, and it was really nice when I finished the movie. It was really late, and I was staying in an apartment and it was like 2:00 in the morning, and I was doing a play the next day at like 7:00am. I was just sitting there. I had been away from my family for almost three months. I remember just feeling like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this.’ It took four or five years to make the movie, and I remember cracking that bottle, and pouring it into – I think I had a Dixie cup. It was the most bootleg looking stuff I had!
I just sat and had a glass of wine while it rained outside my window, thinking about how this is really just special. You know what I mean? All the sacrifice that went in there, and I think that’s certainly the most recent time where I was having a glass of wine and it just felt special.”
Penny is preparing to share that special achievement very soon with Uncorked arriving on Netflix on March 27th. While one might not assume a movie about wine and barbecue can connect to what the world is struggling through right now, the core of the film – the importance of family and listening to one another – is most certainly something that can warm hearts and help us power through this tough situation.
“We’re living in such a crazy time that I think what the movie is trying to force these characters to do, this father and son, is to talk and connect and kind of be more honest and open, and it’s playing right now … time is short, and being more open and more communicative and sharing, and being more vulnerable with the people we love in our lives is probably more important than ever.”
Clearly I’ve already given Uncorked a watch, but I’ll be thrilled to watch it again with my family come March 27th. (And as someone who regularly drinks wine out of Dixie cups – yes, that’s the truth – you can bet I’ll be doing just that while rewatching the film.)