Brian Tyree Henry stars in "The Outside Story," a road movie "with the smallest possible mileage"

Director Casimir Nozkowski spoke to Salon about getting outside of the psychological boxes we lock ourselves in

Published April 30, 2021 5:00PM (EDT)

Brian Tyree Henry in "The Outside Story" (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Brian Tyree Henry in "The Outside Story" (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Casimir Nozkowski's sweet feature film debut, "The Outside Story," was supposed to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival back in 2020. Then the pandemic happened. Now, belatedly getting a release on digital and on demand, this film, about Charles (Brian Tyree Henry), a shut-in forced to spend a day outside and interact with his neighbors, seems timelier than ever. 

"The Outside Story" is a road movie that never really leaves its block. Charles is brokenhearted after his girlfriend Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green) admits to cheating on him. He is also under pressure at work — he makes memorial videos for TCM — as a legendary actor is expected to die. Then he gets locked out of his apartment. Without money or shoes (he has great Modo Mio polka dotted socks). Now Charles has to rely on the kindness of his neighbors, but he doesn't really know (m)any of them. As Charles fights a cop (Sunita Mani), kids with water balloons, and even the need to use the bathroom, he also makes some new friends, and gets life lessons about jealousy, forgiveness, and relationships. 

Nozkowski, who has made a several great short documentaries, including "70 Hester Street," about the old synagogue that became the apartment he grew up in, and "Idac," about a distant relative he didn't know, gave Salon his side of the story about making "The Outside Story." 

Obviously, your film was made before the pandemic, and it was delayed because of the pandemic, and now it is a perfect film for the pandemic. What are your thoughts on this cockeyed timing?

It's my first feature, so everything is unknown. Even as I was cutting it, I was thinking it feels like the world is changing. You write a film, you shoot it, and when it's done you think it's going to be a whole different world — but never in your dreams do you think it was going to be a whole different world than the one we're in. Tribeca didn't cancel until April 3 [2020], so we were moving forward into the pandemic. I feel really lucky that the film had a festival run and that people wrote about and thought about the film, and that it is coming out. A film's life in a pandemic is low on the priority list. I was bracing myself for this film never coming out or coming out years from now. I feel like I get extra luck points because it's coming out in such a crazy world. The film has weird themes that connect to the pandemic and quarantine. We tested out a tagline, "Before we were locked down, he was locked out." Movies help you process life in some ways — both watching them and making them, so that it's paralleling the universe in a weird way, is helping me process. I'm curious what it is going to do to folks who see it? Will people embrace life and get back out there or is it going to annoy people? 

Your film is very much about how people behave in public and private. Can you talk about this theme in your film? 

I have a kind of fascination — and I don't know if it's the documentary side of me — that wants to know what everyone's life is. I walk down the street and see someone and I'm dying to ask them big questions. What do you regret? Who was your great love? I just want to know these core questions. I wanted to create a situation where someone could ask those questions or have some of them answered for him. And a character who is uncomfortable in life and have kindnesses thrust upon him so he can to absorb the details of the world around him. As his neighbors open up to him, and show him the world he'd been avoiding, he would be a great absorber of those details. Making him an editor and a filmmaker was connected to my own background and looking at how an artist, even one in a rut, looks at the world. I thought he would be an interesting person to tour the world with. I grew up in New York and lived here all my life. For the first half of my life, I avoided getting to know the people in my neighborhood. I was social, but I took where I lived for granted. You're not supposed to talk to people. So that was in here to. So, I was trying to develop Charles into someone who explores the world, not avoids it. I think I'm social but there's this detrimental tendency in me to go with the flow almost in a negative way. Some folks might argue that it's odd you don't get to know your neighbors. I'm interested in that mechanism in us — why don't we seek out the people around us? 

What observations do you have about the use of indoor and outdoor space? So much of "The Outside Story" is location-based, from a cozy apartment to a fire escape and a rooftop to a park or inside a car. Can you talk about creating a sense of claustrophobia?

My production team — my cinematographer and designers — all wanted bigger apartments. I understand that makes filming so much easier. I didn't try to find a small apartment, but I thought there was something necessary about Charles living in a small, claustrophobic New York apartment that matched his rut and the depressive nature he had. The rooftop scene where Charles and Elena (Olivia Edward) look at the world around him is a big moment, and it is more freeing when he runs across the rooftops. I wanted to earn that scene by visiting and moving through all these small spaces until then. New York is parks and streets, but it is primarily big boxes with lots of little boxes inside of them. Most folks live in modest apartments. I wasn't trying to make a major point of it, but you often see Upper West Side spacious apartments and penthouses, and they are portrayed as everyday average New Yorkers, so it was appealing for me to see all these small boxes with all these people who live in them. In the scene in Elena's apartment, with her mom, Juliet (Maria Dizzia), all the posters and signs are packed together very tightly and hung close together. It matched Juliet's energy in an interesting way. It felt very New York to me.

Likewise, Charles is metaphorically stuck. He only, slowly finds relief when he relies on others. Can you talk about this concept for your film? I'm curious how you came up with the various people and episodes Charles encounters on his journey. This road movie where he doesn't leave his block.

That is the New York thing and maybe it's an everywhere thing. You take for granted how much life is being lived around you on your block. The block I live on, I don't know a lot of people on my block but I am positive if you met the spectrum that live on my block, you would have the whole world there in front of you in terms of emotional temperament, and background, from people who killed someone to people who have been desperately in love or have never been in love. I've always been fascinated by how much life is on one city block in New York City. That's what I was going for — a road movie, an odyssey, and journey, with the smallest possible mileage.

I am interested in depressed characters and ruts and what gets them out of it. I'm pretty optimistic, but I'm so deeply familiar with the rut, and the stuck feeling of depression that comes out nowhere. Feeling like you slip into this valley, and that things are hopeless and how you climb your way out of that. The things that bring you out of it are so random. Sometimes you do the right self-help things, but sometimes you lose your keys, and lock yourself out, and knock on your neighbor's door, and climb out on their fire escape, and they don't know you and say, "Climb out on our window." Those little gestures pop you out of the weird fog you're in. When you encounter kindness, it kind of snaps you out of it. It can really be inspiring. 

Throughout the film Charles gets advice about relationship, jealousy, and forgiveness among other things. What can you say about depicting the various relationships in the film? Characters are gay, straight, bi-curious, and poly. Women want to be friends with men. There is a widow, there is a pregnant woman who is a DC with a Marvel husband, so opposites attract. There's barely a single straight white man in the film. Can you talk about the film's diversity?

Hearing you say that, I'm like, is it too much? I tried to capture that blocks are really like that in New York City, or a road in a small town. The world is actually that diverse. Writing this film, once I knew what Charles was going to be, I was searching for balance. Once I had Charles and the plot, I was going to throw characters at him. I could bring 20 speaking roles and populate them with some of my absolute favorite actors and give them space to improvise and flesh out their characters with screen time. I looked for balance. I wrote Elena with the troubled mom, that's a hard apartment to be in, so then make the next one a kind one, so Sara (Lynda Gravatt), the old woman next to him is mysterious and unfazed. A film I love a lot is "After Hours."  That movie was a touchstone with me for this film. In that film, the [protagonist] crashes into different people, and they are mostly insane. That was something I was inspired by and emulating. It was such a beautiful setup. The hardest thing for me was to make them make sense in a framework. Having all these vignettes add up to something. I wanted Charles to be the center but reacting to all the people around him and not just be a foil constantly watching everything. 

The film has various kinds of humor — frustration comedy, deadpan/sarcasm, sight gags, like the art in his neighbors' apartments. Can you talk about how you created the film's tone? It's funny, and poignant, and there are topical references to Black Lives Matter.

I wanted to make a life-affirming comedy and have a cheerful feeling. But I love when genres mix, and when a film is neck-snapping. It's funny and charming then horrifying or moving the next minute. But I fear a movie that is too sentimental. And I know my film has sentimental moments, but I tried hard to hold the sentiment at bay. With tonal shifts, that's what it's like to walk into a dozen people's apartments. People at a feedback screening said the Juliet and Elena scene was too intense. I thought that was important. If you walked up three flights, it would be bizarre to have three different levels of kindness. One has to be intense and scary and shocking. There's a [tension] in the film between comedy and naturalism, and when the film is really working when they are in harmony, but there are times when either the comedy or naturalism takes over. Real life is kind of subtle. 

Brian Tyree Henry is in every scene. It's a great starring role for him. What decisions did you make about casting him, and how much of the story was written for him?

He was someone I thought of early on. When you dream who is the right person for this role? I was in love with the show "Atlanta," and there's real naturalism and comedy and surrealism in that show. There's an episode where Brian Tyree Henry is lying on his couch and sees the ghost of his mother, and I said to my wife, "Do you think there is any world where Henry can be Charles?" She said, "No." My casting director said, "Go for it. He's blowing up. But what the heck?" When I wrote the film, I was daydreaming and fantasizing about him in the role. When he got involved, there was a lot of indie film life lessons. You think you're going to have two weeks of rehearsal and workshopping the character, but you get zero rehearsal on indie films, but having said that, a lot of the film is all him. He's in every scene. He's the guiding light and I wanted him interpreting the language of the script. I am so not precious about dialogue. I want the actors to make it their own in every way. I love it when they bring a background. We shot in 16 days. He was shooting "Child's Play," landed in New York then two days later shot "The Outside Story." and then two days later went to Hawaii to shoot "Godzilla vs. Kong." He really brought a calm, thoughtful presence and a lot of the film is his improv. He has some wonderful chemistry with Sunita Mari. And Sonequa Martin-Green shot all her scenes in three days on her Thanksgiving break in between shooting "Star Trek: Discovery." She had her whole character lined up in her head. 

There is a line in the film where several characters are asked if they think that everything happens for a reason. How would you answer that? 

[Laughs] I think my answer would be I'd like to think that everything happens for a reason, that you're in the place your supposed to be in, and that there is some kind of destiny guiding us. But, having said that, I strongly suspect that everything is actually random, and you have to make the best of it, and make your own life. Charles starts off the film as someone who is letting the world come to him, and as a result, he's missing the world. Because he's not steering into it, he's driving next to it. I have a tendency to do that too — that goes back to the go with the flow feeling. You'll going to live a better life if you try to grab control of your destiny. Not everyone can — some people are in terrible circumstances. But if you can, and sorry to sound cheesy, but meet people and talk to folks, and try learn from the person next to you. I think you are going to live a better life.

"The Outside Story" is available on digital and on demand Friday, April 30.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Brian Tyree Henry Casimir Nozkowski Interview Movies The Outside Story