Following on from our previous post on Sundance:London, we bring you the next instalment of interviews from our time at the festival. We were lucky enough to spend time chatting to the hilarious pair that is Jessica Williams, starring as Jessica James and Jim Strouse, Director of The Incredible Jessica James.
S: Jessica Williams, welcome to London!
Jessica Williams: Thank you so much! I’m glad that you’re speaking on behalf of London. I appreciate that
S: (laughs) I really am. Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying London and I hope you’re enjoying Sundance: London.
JW: Oh yeah, it’s great! This is the second part of my Sundance adventure so it’s really nice.
S: What was it like at Sundance Utah?
JW: So much snow! It was so freeking cold and so much snow! Even for people that lived in Park City they were like ‘No this is a shit tonne of snow!’ So there was a lot of snow, a lot of hills and personally I’m not like a hill person, I’m not a hill climber and I’m not a nature person so it was different for me. I had to walk up a lot of steep hills! But it was really incredible to Premiere the movie there, especially as this is my first movie that I’m starring in, to kind of watch people watch my movie. And my Mom came! And she had to watch me making out
S: You do a bit more than making out as well!
JW: I know!! So just imagine I’m just clenching both ends of my seat, just looking over to my Mom like ‘Hi…alright…here we are!’.
S: This is happening…
JW: Yeah, exactly! This is happening.
S: So, you’ve mentioned that this is the first film you’ve starred in. I read a review saying this is your breakthrough role, how does that make you feel?
JW: (shrieks) Very excited obviously, I did that weird sound, I’m very excited for people to see it. I worked really hard on it. Being an actor, it’s weird because sometimes it seems really difficult and sometimes it seems that people make life easy for you because you’re an actor, so it’s both. But also, being in every scene in the movie, I really felt like I was working hard and so it’s really nice in this situation to just work on something and work on something for a while and then have people say that I did a nice job, that’s a dream come true.
S: You are amazing in it and I’m not just saying that.
JW: Thank you, thank you so much! Taking compliments is weird for me so I really appreciate that.
S: No, honestly, I think it’s the funniest film of the festival.
JW: Ah, that’s really nice. Thank you so much!
S: It’s true! And the cast as well, Chris O’Dowd…
JW: So funny. He’s so good!
S: He is! What was it like working opposite him?
JW: Oh, just a treat! We had him for about eleven days and he was just a delight from when he first got to set to when he left and he’s just really funny and I think everybody that meets him says he’s really funny. But also, he’s also just a really good actor! And I feel that I was very lucky to work with him and Keith Stanfield and Noël Wells because they’re all just really good actors, especially for my first movie it just really helped make me better by working with these great actors.
S: Without sounding patronising, did you learn a lot from Chris O’Dowd?
JW: I did! I learned a lot from Chris, from Keith and I learned a lot from Noël too, I really did. And from Jim too, it’s not patronising at all! We all learn stuff from other people and it was cool to see all of their different processes and how they get to where they need to get to for the scene and how they make room and carve out space for them to just work. And I got to see how I could carve out my own space to work. And I think that as a woman and as a black woman, you’re conditioned to be apologetic or subservient for needing to carve about space to work or needing to carve out space for yourself. So it was cool to see that from other actors and then apply that to myself.
S: I think one of the reasons why this film is going to go down well with young people especially is because it deals with a lot of issues that young people are facing at the moment. There is a lot of rejection in this film and also social media.
JW: Ahh, socsh-meeds.
S: (laughs) Socsh-meeds? Yeah, totes.
JW: (laughs) Yeah…
S: Well, that plays a big part of the film. Do you think that the way that young people especially seem to be living their life on social media is a good thing?
JW: Sometimes. Sometimes I think that the internet is one of the most beautiful things ever created and then sometimes I think it is literal trash where faeces exists to be set on fire. It’s a full dumpster of baby shit. So, I don’t think it’s black and white, I think its capable of the most beautiful things and some of the ugliest things. There are some awesome parts of social media, like there’s a way for me to connect on social media with a Trans person immediately and see what their day to day life is like which is awesome, whereas if it was back in the day, it would be kind of a stretch! You’d have to walk around like boots on the ground but now you can just connect and you can talk to a Muslim woman and you can now really connect which is just incredible. But then the other part of it as that it’s also a forum for hate speech a lot of the time! So you know, it’s a couple of different things, which is kind of human existence I guess! I don’t wanna sound like a douche!
S: Yeah, I totally agree. I experienced my first troll the other day. That wasn’t very fun.
JW: Are you OK? What did they say?
S: They called me a ‘thought police Nazi’.
JW: A thought police Nazi??
JW: Wow!! That is so crazy!!
S: Yeah, it was ironic too because I was referencing Hitler and his terminology in my tweet, so it was kind of like…
JW: You’re the Nazi!
S: Yeah! Exactly!
JW: Wow, that is crazy! The other day somebody trolled me. I do this podcast called 2 Dope Queens and Spotify posted it on their account and somebody tweeted Spotify that it looked like I ate my friend! And I was like ‘Ok, I’m done with the internet today, I am done!’ because then as soon as you start engaging…did you engage the thought police guy at all?
S: Yeah, I did, I retweeted them!
JW: Yeah, see that is a rookie move. Sometimes I just click the like button so its like ‘I see you’ but then sometimes I’ll engage and that’s such a rookie move because it doesn’t make you feel better it just gets you lit, when you really should just be watching Netflix or something.
S: Exactly. Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll be watching on Netflix soon, The Incredible Jessica James!
JW: Nice! Full circle! I walked right into that!
S: So, how are you finding Sundance: London, Jim?
Jim Strouse: So far, so good! I’m not a traveller, I’m jet-lagged and so I’m not fully aware of my presence in time and space right now! I’m a little bit out of it but what I have experienced in my short time here already has been lovely. Sundance has been a huge part of my life and career so to be here with them in this capacity, I’m really honoured.
S: You do seem very happy, if a little spaced out! I’ll be honest, I’ve asked that question to everyone I’ve interviewed and that’s the best answer I’ve had! I can go and get you a coffee if you’d like? So, The Incredible Jessica James, in my opinion the funniest film of the festival, the cast, the direction, the story, it’s very appropriate for this day and age. It’s brilliant!
JS: Oh, thank you!
S: What was it like working with cast? Jessica does an incredible job and Chris O’Dowd, who Jessica said you only had for like eleven days??
JS: Yeah! Well that’s the funny part of independent filmmaking, just how fast everything goes but it was a good time! It was a good time making the movie. The whole process actually, writing it and then it was fun to put these people together and then just actually having Chris and Jessica on set was just non-stop laughs. They’re both like Olympic level comedic actors and their skills are honed to just making you laugh! And when you get them together, it was just so fun to watch them make each other laugh and it didn’t really stop.
S: Was there a lot of ad-libbing? I’ve always wanted to know, how does it make you feel as the writer when the actors just go off on their own tangent?
JS: You know, it was encouraged. It was encouraged. Before we started filming, I told Jessica and she knew because we’d made a film together before that and it’s funny because she says I have a face, that tells her when she’s gone too far. She goes ‘Oh, you want me to go back to the script that you wrote?’ you know and I’ll be like ‘Yeah, just to be safe!’ But yeah, I enjoy it. Without fail, every time I’ve ever made anything funny, the funniest part for me is always something that an actor comes up with. I love it.
S: It is amazing to watch, they way they all bounce off each other and everyone in the cast is so funny. I wanted to know how you managed to film the piano drop scene?
JS: That was green screen! And then we had a piano that was free on Craigslist and the guy was like you can have it for free if you come get it!
S: Who knew Craigslist would be a good place to source props?
JS: Yeah! But yeah, it was just CGI and sound effects!
S: Was it written in the script?
JS: Oh yeah.
S: Because I love the idea of you just going ‘and a piano will drop!’
JS: (laughs) Well originally it was an anvil!
S: Like in cartoons??
JS: Yeah! And then the DP brought up the good point that it happens so quickly that it might not register as an anvil but I did want a Wile E. Coyote type reference.
S: I was saying to Jessica that I think one of the reasons why this film will do so well with a younger audience is because it deals with a lot of the issues that young people are facing today. In particular social media and rejection. I’m interested to know, because you reference it in the film, do you think it’s possible in this day and age to cut all ties with someone who hurt you or someone you had a relationship with if you’re still friends on social media?
JS: Well… no! I think if you’ve been hurt by that person or if you want to avoid that person you need to cut all ties! I think it’s unhealthy to check in. That’s not good for anybody.
S: Do you think it’s healthy how a lot of young people seem to be living their life on social media? Whether that’s for approval or to even stalk an ex on Facebook?
JS: I don’t know, I’m a little nervous about it. I spend a lot of time on Twitter and Instagram just checking in. I follow a lot of entertainers and comedians and so I’m looking at jokes a lot. But then I have a 13 year old daughter who I’m witnessing first hand growing up with Instagram and witnessing how important it is for her to be liked and to get likes. It’s weird! But I also think it’s happening regardless of my feelings about it and I’m striving to find a healthy way through it for myself and my kids. I think that resistance is futile and that it should be embraced for what is good about it but limits are important.
S: I want to ask you about the writing process, how long did it take you to write this film?
JS: I was writing it for Jessica. Jessica and I had worked on a film before and I had never really written anything with a specific person in mind and in a lot of ways it made it a lot easier and I had an idea of what the story would be, but I wasn’t writing it towards a deadline. So it was about three months. And then I sent it to my agent and then I sent to the Producers of the other film I had worked on with Jessica People Places Things, they were immediately like ‘Yeah, OK lets make this!’ because they had the same experience as I had with Jessica. So it was a fun, easy experience. I’m sorry aspiring writers and filmmakers are probably going to want to kill me but something in the movie that is important to me is how big a part failure plays in the life of a creative person.
S: Well I think you tackle it head on and its really well handled. I know personally that there is a lot of rejection in the creative industry and I know a lot of young people feel paranoid about whether they’re going to make it or not and I think you address that perfectly in the film.
JS: Thank you! It’s a struggle!
S: It is but when you produce films like you do mate, I think you’re all good!
JS: (laughs) Thank you!
Check out our guide to Sundance: London here!