After writing and producing for television shows like Sons of Anarchy, Castle, and Criminal Minds, Charles Murray makes his feature directorial debut with Things Never Said. The romantic drama stars Shanola Hampton (Shameless) as Kalindra, an aspiring spoken word artist using poetry to escape the pain of a violent marriage and a troubled past.
I recently spoke with Murray and Hampton about the inspiration behind the film and how they stayed true to the story and the culture of spoken word.
SHADOW & ACT: This movie has very specific aesthetics of blackness and beauty and what love looks like on screen. Tell me about creating the look and feel of the film.
CHARLES MURRAY: I come from Gary, Indiana, which was nearly 90% Black from the time I was born. I went to an all-Black high school. And so the way I look at us as a people, I look at the full scale in terms of colors, hues, fashion, and how we perceive ourselves. There’s a subtlety to our culture, a style and flair that we have that most movies don’t pay attention to. So when we started making this film I thought, how can we get a look that is true to who we are but also has some sort of elegance to it. We’re also dealing with such a tough subject matter that if we made it as grimy as the subject matter, then it might be a turnoff to people. So it was about strategizing a way to allow people to be consumed by the story without having to make judgment calls based on the actual visuals.
S&A: Tell me about the poetry in the film, not only writing it but also working with Shanola to evoke the emotion you were looking for.
CM: That was just us rolling the dice. When I wrote it, I wrote with the intention of having a really strong poet come behind me and take it up a notch. But then when I took a step back and looked at it from a character perspective, I realized she’s not supposed to be this fabulous poet. She’s a year into writing poetry openly, and there’s a certain level realistically where she’s going to be. So I realized that I didn’t have to have super, ultra-dynamic, brilliant poems – except for the last one. Like every great sports movie, the last fight has to go the way of your protagonist. But other than that I wrote what I felt was true to character. When we started working on it, Shanola had never done spoken word at all.
SHANOLA HAMPTON: At first it frightened me because people who are in spoken word really know their stuff. But what attracted me to the script as a whole was the writing and when I reached the spoken word, I wasn’t intimidated by it was because I understood everything she was saying. The way he wrote was more about the emotion than being a poetess, so I really just tapped into the emotion of it.
CM: I gave her videos to watch, of poets I knew so that if she needed to talk to them she could. You see a lot of those guys that I know in the film. So we just decided to attack it, no different than any actor having to box for a movie or learn a craft they’ve never really focused on.
SH: And then Omari is a poet. He’s a genius, a professional. The last poem where he’s talking about his daughter and Kalindra, he wrote that in about 30 minutes on the set. I think it’s one of the most powerful pieces in the film and his delivery of it was so raw. So I also got to learn from watching him.
S&A: This was your first time working together, correct?
SH: Very first time. It was a wonderful experience and I was so happy to bring his work to life. He’s just a bitchin’ writer, really. And it’s rare for you to find someone who can write for the female voice. If you know Charles, he’s this big, tall, manly man, so the fact that he has this side of him that could tap into the female sensibility is really amazing.
S&A: Charles, the movie is partially based on the life of your mother. Tell me about how you came up with the story.
CM: A lot of it is definitely inspired by the relationship between my mom and my pops, how they had to navigate their ups and downs and how there was domestic abuse in the relationship. My father died when I was 12 and having conversations with my mother about her life as I got older, I always thought there was a story there and if I could ever make a movie about her I would. The thing was, as a writer I wanted to have this character do what my mother never had the chance to do, and that’s eventually move on. So it’s a combination of questions that I had about the relationship as I saw it and what I learned about her later in life.
S&A: Some of the domestic abuse scenes in the film are very intense. How hard was it for you, Shanola, to turn off the emotions after he called cut?
SH: It was really rough. I’m very good about doing the work and then I go home and have a life. But for this particular part, I opened myself up more than I ever have before. I did that because this is the story of Charles’ mother, and also because there are so many women who are struggling with domestic violence. So I knew that I couldn’t approach this as just being an “actor” because then I wouldn’t be telling the true story. I had to really open myself up to be vulnerable.
So when I did those scenes – and this is not something that I’d recommend, this is just what my process was – I wanted to feel the pressure. Not get punched in the face, but feel the real pressure of the choke or actually being dragged, and I trusted Elimu not to hurt me. So when we did those scenes a lot of it was real – choreographed, but still very real. Up until the moment when we were in rehearsals with our big fight scene, I had only seen Elimu my brother who’d taken care of me, and I never saw the switch flip. When I saw it for the first time in rehearsal I had a reaction and had to leave the set because it was really too much for me. I wasn’t able, in that particular moment, to turn off the emotions. And if I’m being quite honest I wasn’t able to turn off the emotions from this role well after we stopped shooting because I left everything on the screen. I just put it all out there and it was really difficult to come back to Shanola. It was a transition. And I couldn’t be the same after doing this film.
S&A: What were the most personal or powerful scenes for each of you to film?
SH: I’ll never forget the final poem, ever. It was the last thing that I shot, the last scene in the movie, and it was such a journey to get there. I was so ready to just vomit out all these emotions on the stage, and so was this character. We were at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York and I’ll never forget doing take after take. It’s that moment where you can feel it in your stomach and after you’re finished your stomach has this pain – that’s what it was for me. It was like being a preacher in church.
CM: It’s funny, but I would have to say the whole film is imbued with my mother. It’s by no means fully biographical, it’s just driven by bits and pieces of her life. Before I started writing the script I interviewed her and I had two or three cassettes of us just talking about where she came from and how she was raised. She was cagey on a lot of stuff but when she got to something that charged her emotionally there was this resonance in her tone that made me think, “Okay, this question that I asked has sparked something inside of her.” So instead of following a particular moment, I wrote to those emotions. I think in doing that the whole movie became an explanation of her from my perspective.
S&A: When we were on a panel together earlier this year, Charles, you talked a bit about your choice to make the film independently. Tell me more about that.
CM: I’m 48 years old. When She’s Gotta Have It came out I was in my 20s, and I watched that whole revolution of independent Black films being made and thought that those movies were more in line with studio films being made about white folks. You could watch Ordinary People or Kramer vs. Kramer, but you didn’t see those kinds of films about us when they were being made by the studio system. But independently, you saw Killer of Sheep. You saw Nothing But a Man. And so I always thought it would be best to follow the direction of the independent filmmakers, because that’s where I would be able to tell the stories the way I felt they needed to be told. I never thought I would be able to take this film to a studio and still hold on to the realism that I thought it should have. So it was always my intention to make it independently.
S&A: What are both of you working next?
SH: I’m going into season four of Shameless, which starts airing again in January. And I just finished doing a family-friendly movie called Christmas in the City with Ashanti. I get to sing, which is really nice. To go from Shameless, which is raw in its own way, to Things Never Said which is a whole different kind of raw, now I get to do something happy and light and fun.
CM: I’m on Sons of Anarchy now as a writer-producer. And I’m waiting to see what’s next, waiting to see if the next film will be independent or if someone will see this film and approach me to make a film for them. I wrote this script in 2003 and I don’t plan on waiting another ten years to make a film. But I don’t know where the next opportunity’s going to come from. I keep all avenues open.
Things Never Said opens in theaters starting today, Friday, September 6. For more info and screening schedule, visit the film’s website HERE.