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Jim McKay on Directing ‘Realist Films About People of Color’ For 20 Years

The director of "En el Séptimo Día" explains how he wound up making movies about underrepresented communities, and why it took so long for him to make a new one.

“En el Septimo Dia”

At first blush, Jim McKay may not seem like the poster child for diverse filmmaking: He’s a white guy who has spent the bulk of his career directing other people’s TV shows, from “Law & Order” to “The Good Wife.” But the New York filmmaker has consistently delivered astute dramas about the daily lives of underrepresented Americans long before widespread calls for inclusivity hit Hollywood. His new feature, the low budget crowdpleaser “En El Séptimo Día,” is just the latest example.

After his 1996 debut “Girls Town,” McKay won acclaim at Sundance for 2000’s “Our Song,” a Brooklyn-set coming-of-age story starring a young Kerry Washington and others as members of a community marching band in a low-income neighborhood. For his next projects, McKay went straight to television long before the era of Netflix Originals, directing the working class ensemble piece “Everyday People” and the social worker drama “Angel Rodriguez” for HBO. McKay spent the next several years in television, before making his way back to feature filmmaking with the self-funded “En El Séptimo Día,” which is now playing in limited release a year after it premiered under the radar at New York’s BAMcinemaFEST.

Read More: ‘En El Séptimo Dia’ Review: Jim McKay’s First Movie in a Decade is the Summer’s Surprise Crowdpleaser

The movie follows deliveryman José (newcomer Fernando Cardona), a Mexican immigrant who’s torn between playing in his group soccer tournament and working his job when the two schedules conflict. As with much of McKay’s work, the movie features a cast of non-professionals riffing on their real lives, but it manages to turn José’s dilemma into a riveting neorealist snapshot of immigrant life in New York.

McKay’s circuitous route back to this kind of material relates to his early decision to direct movies for television, where he found a more hospitable platform for the kind of stories he wanted to tell. He spoke to IndieWire about how that path led him back to making another acclaimed movie.

“Our Song” was a big hit out of Sundance. Then you made two HBO movies, “Everyday People” and “Angel Rodriguez.” Even now, most filmmakers who have success with one movie out of the gate don’t turn to making movies for television. How did that relationship come about?

“Angel Rodriguez” was 2005, which was funny because someone wrote the other day that this was my first film since “Our Song.” But both films I made were original scripts. They weren’t movies for hire. They were my projects, but they weren’t theatrical. I think when that happens now, the convergence is finally accepted. I remember saying to HBO, “Can you get some film critics to review these along with TV critics?” They played some film festivals, but they got TV critic reviews, which is great and the writers were excellent, but they don’t exist in people’s minds as movies.

“Everyday People”

Did you wish they had theatrical releases instead?

HBO was making good movies. At that point, they had done “Real Women Have Curves,” “Maria Full of Grace,” stuff like that like. I just felt like, “Look, I get it. My movie has no stars. I don’t know who will go see it in theaters. But HBO will make it into something and make money off it.”

How did you wind up making movies for HBO?

Nelson George put it into development. Every time he was on the radio, he would say to people, “Here’s my P.O. box., if you have any stories about race — whether you’re black, white, or Latino, or whatever, send them to me because I want to collect them into a project.” So he told HBO’s Colin Callender, “I’ve got these things.” Colin’s a big Mike Leigh fan, and he thought, “Maybe we’ll take these and do some kind of improvisational workshop with actors.” He knew that I had done something similar with “Girls Town,” so they approached me.

Then I came in and read all these stories. There were 50 or 60 of them. I thought it was amazing what they were doing. Basically, it was this massive entertainment company making buttloads of money from boxing, and they wanted to create a library of independent film.

So you could just pick any story to make into a movie?

I said, “I think these are fascinating, but I don’t want to fictionalize these stories.” HBO had also done that Subway Stories project, with Jonathan Demme, which were basically a bunch of connected shorts with different directors intertwined with the subway system. I said, “If you want to do a workshop, let me write the outline for a story that’s completely made up and outside of these things.” I had done that with “Girls Town.” Then, I cast the characters, keeping these stories in mind. Nelson and I went through the stories, picked the ones we felt strongly about and assigned each one to a character. We used them as backstories.

In the end, “Everyday People” was really more about my fictional outline and the stories receded to the background. It became my movie. Then I did “Angel Rodriguez,” which I think has a directorial command my other films didn’t have. But ironically, most people associated me only with “Our Song.”

“Our Song”

Why do you think that is?

I think at the time it came out, people felt really attached to it, and it felt special. For me, I’m very critical of the writing. I feel like it’s a little coy and clunky at times.

After “Angel Rodriguez,” you became a full-time television director.

When I came out of “Angel,” “Homicide: Life on the Streets” had happened, “Oz” had happened, and all these independent filmmakers — mostly men — were getting work on these TV shows because they had producers interested in their skills. I was always like, “I wanna get on that.” I wanted to get paid. The HBO films had been great. They were bigger movies, but I wanted to actually get paid.

“Everyday People” and “Angel” didn’t register on a scale with Hollywood people who actually financed films because they were not seen as theatrical films. They were realist films about people of color who weren’t box office names. Most people make small films so they can make bigger films. I really didn’t want that, and I think I projected that. So I got to make two things that people saw as TV movies and was even more in that realm. After “Angel” was finished, the people from “The Wire” called and asked if I wanted to direct an episode of the fourth season. Of course I did.

Had you been considering making another movie?

I actually had written a draft of “En El Séptimo Día,” ut I kind of got sidetracked by TV. The money is great, especially for a filmmaker like me. I’d worked on a lot of small-scale stuff, and all of a sudden, I had a crane and super-skilled professional actors.

How much did you think about returning to movies during this time?

I always kept thinking, “When am I going to do it? How?” But I’m not a good multitasker. I’m not one of those people who, between takes on a TV show, gets out my laptop and rewrites a script. I do what I’m doing. So I would do an episode of TV for four weeks and then I’d get three to five weeks off. The more TV shows I did, the more I was offered.

A couple of years ago, I had a script about a 45-year-old female singer-songwriter. Typically, I don’t like to cast name actors, but I thought because this character is famous, a star, I could actually cast someone famous and it’d make sense. I set about it for a year. It was tricky because whoever I got would have to be able to bring financing in, but they’d also need to sing and play guitar. It just didn’t come together. After a certain time I said, “You know what? I’m going to pull this other project out of the closet. I know I can actually make it small.” I’d been saving up money for 10 years. And we didn’t raise our full budget until we were in prep.

“Angel Rodriguez”

Most of the budget came out of your own pocket?

A lot of it. My kids’ college funds. I’m kidding. Partly. We also had a couple people who threw some in.

How did you find the kind of non-actors you needed?

The casting process started in May 2015, and we finished in December 2015, so that’s basically six or seven months. I figured we’d shoot in the summer, so we had six months to just do soft prep, which was me just doing own little scouting and having soccer practice with the actors. It gave me time to get to know them, and for them to get to know each other. I gave them some DVDs of my earlier films. I created an early poster that listed my credits on “Breaking Bad.” They were like, “Ooh, you worked on ‘Breaking Bad’?” So I think they knew it was real. At the same time, we had a crew of like three people, and we were meeting in these dingy places. We got this apartment in Sunset Park as our production office. But each step of the way, things got a little bit more legit. Then there was a crew of about 15 or 20 people on set.

How closely did your lead actor, Fernando, relate to the dilemma of the deliveryman at the center of the story?

He’s never done a bike job, but he works mostly in trucks. He’s done a lot of construction. He is from Puebla, from Guerrero, specifically. Nobody in the cast had done any acting before. One of the guys is in a band, so he knows about performance. Some of them have family here, others have family still in Mexico.

At this point, you must be used to dealing with questions about being a white person making movies about people of color.

I don’t know how this is going to sound, but for all of these films, there’s a tremendous amount of meat in terms of these characters. Jose’s traits as a person, his ethics, his sense of morality, his personality, that comes from me on a lot of levels. I’m writing myself, and I’m putting that into another person’s body who’s different from me, who has completely different experiences from me. You just have to make sure it makes sense. I just think this is a universal story. It has all its specificity in terms of the Mexican community here, in terms of males, in terms of immigrants, and labor.

But ultimately there is a universality in the fact that it’s a story about pride and dignity, the choices we make in our lives regarding what our lives actually are. I really did think for a minute, “I could make this in Minnesota and the protagonist could be a white guy who works at Walmart and has a big ice finishing competition coming up on the weekend where he has to work.” This film isn’t as much about class and labor as it is about other things.

You were in pre-production with Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists. How did that impact your relationship to this story?

We all come from immigrants. If your relatives did it “the right way,” it’s only because they were a privileged group given that opportunity. They got their special treatment. People refusing to relate to a story like Jose don’t realize that it’s everybody’s story. There’s just a bias in immigration law against the less-monied, darker-skinned countries. So I hope people see some of themselves in this guy, and can also look and him and say, “Isn’t this the kind of America we want to be neighbors with?” He’s hard-working, respects his family and his friends. He’s a doer, a hustler. He’s got dreams.

“En el Séptimo Día” is now playing in New York at the IFC Center and BAM.

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