SXSW Interview: Director Jay Dockendorf and Actors Curtiss Cook Jr. & Kerwin Johnson Jr. Talk ‘Naz and Maalik’

Naz and Maalik Interview

Directed by Jay Dockendorf, Naz and Maalik tells the story of two closeted Muslim teens who have their day ruined by the FBI when their small-time scheming puts an agent on their trail. The film takes place an a single afternoon, and even though it’s set against the FBI story, the real beauty of the film is the relationship between the two main characters. A lot of the scenes have Curtiss Cook Jr (Maalik) and Kerwin Johnson Jr (Naz) just walking and talking, having seemingly random conversations and it’s just really nice to watch.

Dockendorf wanted an atmosphere where the young actors could grow, create and play and he did a fantastic job. Watching the film is well worth your time. I’m anxious to see what he has up his sleeve for his next project.

I talked to Dockendorf and both Cook and Johnson at SXSW about the film and how the idea came about, auditioning and the long production process.

How did you come up with the story?

Jay Dockendorf: Well, first of all it came out of a lot of different things that have happened to me over the past five years. Especially in terms of their dialogue. The things are talking about are things that I’ve talked with my friends about. A particular fight with my best friend, the fight about whether or not it’s right to be altruistic or whether or not it’s a waste of time. So, I wanted to get them riled up with a couple of good arguments that I’ve had.

But, the essence of the story and who the characters are and what their struggles are, that came from the experience of subletting a room from a Muslim man who was in the closet to his family at the time but not to me. And he and I and his partner talked a great deal about the experience of being a closeted Muslim and his ability to reconcile those two conflicting identities.

I interviewed that guy and I asked his permission to put the story into the movie and got it. I don’t think I would’ve made the movie without his permission.

Obviously there was a script but it seems like it was improved. And I mean this is the best way. Did you guy rehearse this?

Curtiss Cook Jr.: The thing that I enjoyed a lot I enjoyed a lot was that Jay wanted to rehearse this movie as if it was a play. So we did about 2 to 3 weeks of rehearsal before we started filming. It was very, very helpful. It helped us to build up our chemistry. It helped us to build up our chemistry with the director and it helped us to build up our chemistry with the neighborhood that we were in. We rehearsed on location which was dope.

Kerwin Johnson Jr.: I remember one time, it was so funny, Curtiss, Jay and I went out and he’s like, “You know, I just want to film with the three of us. Let’s forget everybody else. We just do this with us.” And when we were rehearsing, it was so intimate and fun. Just going out walking and talking. He asked us what we thought about things. He gave us this freedom to add certain little things to the character.

Jay Dockendorf: Once we’d done that for those three weeks or so, I got really comfortable with the idea of them going slightly off book and adding things here and there. I realized that was really kind of the mood that I wanted.

In certain scenes, I wanted to have scenes that brought the feeling of menace, that brought the feeling of tension and suspense. Those need to be more controlled and scripted.

But they earned my full trust and they delivered in a big way. But going completely into improvisation wasn’t really in our scale because that actually would’ve taken more patience, more time and we would’ve need more money.

How did you two get involved?

Kerwin Johnson Jr.: I auditioned. It was actually one of the craziest days. I remember when I was going to the audition, it was raining and I spilled tomato sauce on my leg. Jay really calmed me though. He was waiting for somebody else but we just started talking, and he was like, “Hey, you know what, I want to try something.” And before we got to the actual script, we kind of played around with personality. Testing to see if it fit. I guess I worked in my favor.

Curtiss Cook Jr: Similar story man. I walked into the room. I felt good that day. I walked in the room, I felt the material and I did what I had to do. I walked out, they called me back and said they wanted to try some other stuff. I tried it and it worked out my favor.

Jay Dockendorf: I was really looking more for personality types than like specific looks.

How long did it take you to film?

Jay Dockendorf: We made the film over the course of the year. But we only shot for about 30 days. We started hanging out in June 2013. We filmed in August, September. We filmed a little more November. And then we filmed another seven days that following June. So that all added up to about 30 days.

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