Saturday, December 4

Quick in the draw: Jeymes Samuel on remaking the western | Westerns

IIf you want to know who’s hot in Hollywood, check out the lineup for the new fair and loud western The Harder They Fall. It is produced by Jay-Z and features seven magnificent: Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo, and RJ Cyler. Among those talents is the film’s screenwriter and director, Jeymes Samuel, who has the lowest profile. But the 42-year-old Londoner is not a low-key guy. Even through a video call, Samuel makes an entry. He frequently refers to himself in the third person (“That Jeymes is an interesting guy!”), And launches into detailed reviews of classic films at the slightest provocation; his thoughts on Breakfast at Tiffany’s (“Holly Golightly is actually a really horrible character”), for example, culminate in a a cappella performance of Moon River. And that’s it within the first five minutes.

He’s a personality to match the size of the vast New Mexico desert views where The Harder They Fall was filmed, on a budget of $ 90 million (£ 65 million). The plot is a simple cowboy revenge story: Nat Love (Majors) learns that the man who killed his parents (Elba) escaped from jail and then reunites his former gang to seek justice, but unfolds on the widescreen: a confrontation with a steam train, gangs galloping across the open prairie, and many daring shootouts in dusty border towns.

The Harder They Fall director Jeymes Samuel on set with Idris Elba.
The Harder They Fall director Jeymes Samuel on set with Idris Elba. Photograph: David Lee / Netflix

While Samuel may be new to making movies on such a scale, he is not new to the game. He has been making music since the turn of the millennium, producing and collaborating with an eclectic range of artists, including Damon Albarn, Mos Def, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. In 2013, he worked with Jay-Z and Baz Luhrmann on the music for The Great Gatsby and released his own album, They Die By Dawn, under his musical moniker of Bullitts (moviegoers will notice the nod to the 1968 car chase classic) . starring Steve McQueen).

That album, which featured guests from Lucy Liu and Rosario Dawson, was his stepping stone to filmmaking, accompanied by a 51-minute western of the same name, starring Dawson alongside Erykah Badu and Michael K Williams. Samuel became particularly close friends with Williams, who died suddenly last month. “It’s weird, man, talking about him in the past tense,” Samuel says. “As for being a filmmaker that people wanted to work with, it started with Michael K. Williams. This man had no proof that he could shoot anything and he said, ‘I’m in!’ ”.

In addition to writing, directing and co-producing, Samuel has created the soundtrack for The Harder They Fall which, as the title reference to the influential 1972 Jamaican crime film suggests, combines reggae rhythms with Ennio Morricone-style melodies. So is Samuel a musician turned filmmaker? Or a filmmaker who makes music? Nor does it say, “They come from exactly the same place. When I’m writing and these words come out, so do the melodies, the songs, and the score. “

This mix began on Mozart’s estate in North West London, where he grew up, the second youngest of five children, born to a Nigerian mother and an Afro-Brazilian father. It was a creative family. His older brother is Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel, better known as the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Seal. However, it is his cinephile mother who Jeymes credits having put him in his path: “He said that his relationship with the Western world came from the cinema. It was like taking the plane every time I saw a movie. “

After Samuel was expelled from his first high school, he spent a few formative months at home in front of the television. “Charles Laughton, John Mills, Jack Hawkins, Alastair Sim, Alec Guinness, David Lean – I’d know all about these actors and directors from my mother.” There were always musical instruments in the house, and by age 13, he had gotten hold of a 16mm Bolex camera. “From there, I was always filming, always making music, and they influenced each other.”

Despite the fact that he now spends much of his time in the US and makes films in the most archetypal of American genres, Samuel insists that he is still British to the core. “You can literally walk down Portobello Road at any time and you’ll see me with a bunch of my uncles, ‘uncles’, that is, boys and girls.” He’s so British, he says, that he has Jacob’s Cream Crackers Fed-Exed on his sets. “I can eat a whole dry package, as long as there is a drink near me.” Neither bourbon nor sarsaparilla, remember: “I wash that shit with Ribena!”

It was Hollywood Westerns that really captured his imagination as a movie-obsessed young man, and it was what the genre lacked that inspired the most. “It’s almost like [130-minute-long] Tombstone was too short a movie. I wanted more! So I would go find more information on these characters and then I would like to know, where are the blacks? And where are the women ?! “Young Samuel began to read about the real historical people who would eventually become characters in his movies: the outlaw gang leader Rufus Buck, the armed postman Stagecoach Mary, the aforementioned cowboy hero Nat Love. He soon discovered that the western classic, mostly white, was not based on historical facts, but on a choice made by mostly white filmmakers; Smithsonian Institution estimates that about one in four cowboys in the Old West were of African descent.

In part, The Harder They Fall is an attempt to correct that. “Just on a superficial level, look at how much style is missing when you erase blacks from the narrative,” says Samuel. “Look what happened when Lando Calrissian was put on [The] The Empire Strikes Back! “- here, an impression of Princess Leia and Chewbacca swooning before the softly speaking smuggler -” Billy Dee Williams was amazing. “

Zazie Beetz and Jonathan Majors in The Harder They Fall.
Zazie Beetz and Jonathan Majors in The Harder They Fall. Photograph: David Lee / Netflix

To that end, Samuel has released his films with the most boastful stars on this side of the Mississippi. How do you bring all these big names together? It’s simple: “For me, great artists always want to make great art.” He doesn’t need to pitch, he says, he just talks about his own projects, and in Samuel’s presence, it’s easy to understand how that enthusiasm can be contagious. “When I do something, I do it because I think it’s wicked, and The Harder They Fall is a wicked movie!”

As for the opening introductions, Samuel does them for himself, in the style of the old west: “I literally throw The. Better. Parties. Upon. The. Planet. “These gatherings, known as The Saloon, are legendary in Hollywood, he says.” I met Al Pacino at Soho House and he said, ‘You must be Jeymes Samuel. When are you going to launch another one?’ … Leonardo DiCaprio will be there. right there with Jay-Z and the girl who served me a sandwich at Starbucks, and they’re all stuck. “

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However, to answer Pacino’s question, the doors to The Saloon will open again next month after a two-year hiatus, as the official after-party for The Harder They Fall premiere in Los Angeles. It will be a momentous occasion, and one that hardly happened: Samuel’s galvanizing spirit was put to the test in March 2020, when Elba hired Covid and Netflix shut down production. “We were one day before filming started… And a lot of people thought we were closed for good. I was getting all these emails from people saying, ‘I’m so sorry!’ “

Whoever sent those messages obviously didn’t know Samuel very well. When production finally got back on track, one of the first to do so during the pandemic, Samuel had to direct with a mask and goggles, at a distance of six feet. Rather than admit defeat, he took advantage of his inexperience. “It was like learning to drive in a Bugatti; Mini Cooper, Bugatti, who cares? Just tell me where I have to sit and brrrrrrm! I’m making this movie! I come from Kilburn Lane! Nothing will stop The Harder They Fall from being made! “

The harder they fall premieres in select theaters and on Netflix on November 3.

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