Filmmaker Crafts Film That Intersects Disability with Intersectionality on the Highway of Humanity
ALBANY – Disability advocate, filmmaker, and cinematographer, Cameron S. Mitchell just put out yet another short film. This time, his project Kryptonite focuses on the intersectionality between two flames from very different backgrounds: one is a deaf man and the other is a marginalized singer in an already at-times excruciating business. The struggles and hardships the two of them face together, however, are nothing unheard of, serving as a great way to normalize the concept of disabilities on the big screen.
I sat down with the filmmaker recently to discuss his new project. What follows is our conversation.
Lucas Garrett: Thank you, Cameron, it’s good to sit down and talk to you again! How’ve you been?
Cameron S. Mitchell: I’ve been good; I’ve been busy since our last interview. Thanks for having me back on.
LG: I hear you have something new you’re working on.
CM: Yeah! I have a new narrative short film called Kryptonite. It’s about two old flames who reconnect – Alex and Imani – at Imani’s concert two years down the line. Imani has a secret that will change both of their lives forever. It features the Grammy-nominated, R&B singer Shanice, and Ryan Lane from Switched at Birth, as well as iZombie and a few other things.
LG: How did the idea for the movie come to life?
CM That’s a good question. This film was done for the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. This is the third year I’ve done it. I did a presentation for the film challenge on disability and cinematography. Through that presentation, I met David Zimmerman and Penni Wilson, who are producers on the project. Penni’s an executive producer.
They approached me wanting to do a film. All we knew was that Shanice was attached and interested. They based that approach off my prior work for the film challenge, such as The Co-op, and my recent PBS short doc, Elsa. We didn’t really know what we were going to make when we sat down for the challenge.
I have a formula that I approach the challenge with: I like to get everybody in the room, including the talent, and talk to everybody about their experiences. We really want the stories to be grounded in lived experience. Once we had Shanice in the room, we talked to her a bit about her experience as a recording artist and musician. The details started falling into place. We talked to Ryan (Lane) after his audition and talked through some of the finer details. Interesting side note: originally, Russell Harvard of There Will Be Blood was attached. He couldn’t do the project, unfortunately, due to a death in the family.
We knew that one of the characters was deaf, and potentially, there were some details that had to be worked out. Ryan helped us and led us in the right direction. That’s what I love about the whole process; it’s a very collaborative and open process, and frankly, how these roles and films should be made. I like to use the example of Mat Fraser on American Horror Story: Freak Show. When the writers ended up bringing him into the writers’ room halfway through the show for his character, Seal Boy, the show got incrementally better. I also like to reference Gareth Edwards, who did Monsters, who says that non-actors can give Oscar-winning performances if you simply don’t ask them to act. That’s not the case, of course, with Kryptonite; Ryan Lane is a very talented actor; Shanice was dipping her toes in for the first or second time in the narrative realm. It was so great to work with both of them, they were consummate professionals.
LG: Where did you get the name for the film?
CM: Kryptonite is the title of the song Imani is singing when Alex enters the venue. It was a song written and released by Shanice. What I really like about the song is that it reframes what kryptonite is. If you look at the lyrics, she says, “I’m too weak to pull away, you’re my kryptonite.” It’s a statement of their love. Love can make you weak, and it can make you strong. There are a million other interpretations, and I’d like to leave it open to read what they think onto it.
LG: I feel that more awareness about inclusivity in Hollywood needs to be brought forth. What I really enjoyed about Kryptonite is that it involved a disability without making it all about it. At the core of the movie, the two main characters are going through something that many people have gone through, regarding disability or not. Speaking as someone with a disability, I believe if more people make movies that include disabled folks without making it about the disability, it can humanize people that are already human. What are your thoughts on this?
CM: I agree. Thanks for the high praise. It was a challenge to fit this into five minutes. That’s the limit of the Easterseals challenge. There’s going to be an extended festival cut that we’re going to do that’ll be ten minutes. Imagine the difference there! As I like to describe in the editing process, it was like trying to fit toothpaste back into the toothpaste bottle. We had to lose lines here and there. Some of the developments that we had with the characters had to be cut for time…
LG: When you had the original script, how over five minutes was the film?
CM: The original script was four-and-two-thirds pages, but with a lot of visual cues. There’s a whole scene where Alex comes in and orders a drink at the bar. Then, he dances over to the center of the floor, and there’s a prolonged period of time where Imani doesn’t know he’s there; she’s rehearsing for the concert. We lost all of that for time. We have these beautiful steady shots of Shanice performing in close-up and dancing, and Ryan dancing… we had to lose all of that. Hahaha. We didn’t have time, and it wasn’t necessarily essential to telling the story in five minutes.
LG: I’m not in the industry, but it was pretty amazing to me. I think that as a musician, we all do that in the recording studio, where we have a lot more information in the songs than we really need. It’s about making the right decisions: how can I tell that story and not, you know, lose any of its meaning, either musically or lyrically?
CM: Yeah. I think it’s key in the film when they sit on the couch, and they have that moment over Billie Holiday’s “All of Me.” That injected and kept music in the film, which was so key. Obviously, we’re featuring a famous R&B singer known for songs like “I Love Your Smile.” It was great to get that raw moment of Shanice singing “All of Me,” and Ryan Lane, who plays Alex, signing that with her. We got to understand the dynamic where a deaf man and an African American female musician were able to connect with each other by cueing off of each other. Ryan really just brought so much emotion into his role. We were really able to feel that connection, this very unique and intimate connection that’s even deeper than music, somehow.
LG: As a very strong proponent of having disabilities and people with disabilities being included in film, how do you think filmmakers should go about being more aware of people out there that are in that community and can very well act? How much of the onus is on them as filmmakers to include people like that, rather than people in the community fighting for the role themselves, and getting the role by saying, “Hey, I’m here?”
CM: That’s a great question. We’re inspired by disability. Films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. There’s a litany of films, and not all of them are accurate. But they’re inspired by ideas, and imaginings of what it’s like to be disabled. So, clearly, the disabled body and experience are interesting ones. It captures our imagination. I would just implore filmmakers to think about, for one, having the thought in the first place that disability is interesting and creative, and can add a lot to your project if it’s used and inspired intentionally. And two, to incorporate and include disabled people in the film itself as well as the making of the film.
We’ve seen when it goes wrong and disabled people aren’t consulted, whether it’s the film or a building. They’ve paid money to make the building accessible, but they didn’t ask any disabled people if the building is actually accessible or what they might need. It’s this whole “it takes a village” process that adds to the strength of this film; it’s a communal effort to make better stories. More detailed and intricate stories.
LG: Why don’t you talk about some people in the industry that you feel are already doing that? Is there anyone you think, “OK, they got it right?”
CM: It’s funny because I like to read disability onto things that may not have intended it to be there. When I think of films that do a good job of portraying disability, I don’t even think that some of the films considered doing that. Things like Little Miss Sunshine, for instance. Minority Report… I love when it’s conceptual. A more recent example is Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. As you said, when we’re not talking about the disability directly, but it’s ingrained in the world. The main character in Everything, Everywhere has undiagnosed ADHD. As they were writing the character, they realized they might have undiagnosed ADHD as well. The Daniels brothers are doing a great job. That’s been a great limelight for disabilities. Part of the problem, though, is people won’t even realize it’s a disability.
LG: Isn’t that the whole point? A lot of people think of disability to be this unheard-of thing. There’s a lot of fear about disability. I think so many people have something “wrong” with them. Disability doesn’t have to be feared; in my opinion, it’s just another attribute of the person.
CM: Right. It’s like saying the word “Voldemort.” Once we bring the word into the room, it’s no longer this story monolith or motif – it’s actual people! My goal with Kryptonite was to show three-dimensional characters at intersecting crossroads of society. Imani, played by Shanice, is a woman that’s been held down by the powers that be in the music industry; intersectionally as a black woman. That’s important to show how that intersects with Alex, who’s a deaf man that enjoys and appreciates music. I don’t think we see too much of that: deaf people being in the music scene. I was very excited about making a film that could show that.
One of my friends, Leonard Davis, is a disabilities scholar. He did a review of Coda where, paraphrasing, he said the film is good, but deaf families aren’t always happy-go-lucky families where everything goes right. There are real, lived experiences, and they’re not all great. Showing that, showing the depth of those experiences – the happiness and the sadness, and all those dynamics in between – was most exciting to me when we were making Kryptonite.
LG: There were a ton of emotions within those five minutes. It was really well done.
CM: Thank you!
LG: For musicians, if you can make a song and someone not involved in music loves the hell out of it, that’s when you know you have a good song. If only musicians are liking it, you might need to tweak your song a bit. I couldn’t do what you do – I’d have no idea where to begin. But in my opinion, if someone on the outside can understand what a filmmaker is going for in only five minutes, that’s a damn good show.
CM: Thank you. I’d say that applies to all art. We can be technical and difficult as artists all we want. But ultimately, you put a message out there, and the audience is going to make of it what they will, and then it becomes its own thing.
For disabilities, for the longest time, there’s been an outsider narrative or perspective portrayed where it is people imagining what living in a disabled body must be like, and how it must be terrible. Now, we’re seeing films in the 21st century that are taking ownership back and giving the actual lived perspective. It’s an exciting time right now for disability in film because of that.
LG: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about tonight that I may have missed?
CM: I want to say thanks to Nic Novicki, the founder of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. There’s nothing else like this. Right now, over one-hundred films came out on the internet this year as part of the challenge. It’s a beautiful moment in time where they’re all these different stories where they might not all be perfect or well-executed, but they’re real stories told from the perspective of people that want to be represented and seen. Kudos to Nic Novicki, and thanks to the Disability Film Challenge for giving me this outlet since 2017. This will be my third film for the challenge. It’s always so rewarding.
LG: Well, thanks again for chatting! Always good talking to you!
CM: Thanks for having me!