Long gone are the days when celebrity and an air of mystery went hand in hand. In today’s always on world, opening up the intricacies of their private lives to feed our voracious entertainment appetites is pretty much par for the course for anyone wanting to reap the rewards of fame and fortune. You’d think such access would cultivate empathy among fans and casual followers alike. However, as we see with increasing regularity, wrong turns are more likely to be met with the hyperbolic wrath of keyboard warriors, stoking the fires of pitiless Twitterstorms which revel in the collapse of those previously enviable careers. It’s at this stage that Denzel Whitaker drops us into the world of 5150, a film which delves into the power of modern celebrity in our culture and the complexities of race and mental health in America. More typically known as an actor for his roles in projects such as Black Panther and The Great Debaters, Whitaker talks to DN about mining his experiences to showcase his talents behind the camera for this charged series proof of concept short.
Where did you draw your inspiration from for 5150 and how did you and co-writer/producer John Trefry come together?
5150 is a proof of concept short for an upcoming series where we really wanted to explore the public’s fascination with the controversy of celebrities who were once beloved. It was borne from a strong desire to look at our obsession with celebrities and cancel culture relating to the larger challenges of racial justice in America.
John and I met when we did Will ‘The Machine’ in 2018. So I had 5150 in me but it was much longer, notes and ideas all over the place. When I met John as the lead producer we just really hit it off and had similar mindsets. I had put 5150 on so many other people’s desks and finally, John just got it. Even though we do come from different backgrounds he really wanted to champion young unheard voices and particularly speak about the issues that both he and I were passionate about. So, to be honest, he’s just been this phenomenal partner to work with as we balance each other culturally and art wise, and we kind of push each other.
It’s always challenging talking about a big topic such as mental health, why did you guys feel compelled to broach that alongside the equally weighty topics of race and cancel culture?
When I started the first draft in 2016 I was just coming out of a film that was tackling mental health and actually did two short films around that very same time broaching the topic and personally, as an actor I started seeing a therapist around 2015 so all of these paths confluenced. I realised there are things that maybe I experienced as a child or maybe different traumas which have always been within my work but I wouldn’t really know why. Therapy provided me with this cathartic moment where I was figuring it out on my own, but I didn’t realise the benefit of speaking to somebody who might be trained to actually understand those emotions. That was a major breakthrough for me and other friends were experiencing similar breaks within the acting world.
It was borne from a strong desire to look at our obsession with celebrities and cancel culture relating to the larger challenges of racial justice in America.
As you can tell, 5150 is very much rooted within the landscape of entertainment where I have seen friends have these immense climbs and then these declines. I’ve seen instability on all sorts of levels and then when you read the publications we see how it’s sensationalised in the news and in the media. So John and I thought, let’s figure out how to tailor this. Let’s figure out how to really say something and be nuanced.
Mental health is so important, it’s not spoken about enough and especially within the black community. We also wanted to broach toxic masculinity. There’s this expectation that we have to be tough and strong, and I don’t even think that’s segregated to the black community. That’s just men across the board. We’ve seen these iconic heroes within the media in films or television. We are finally moving forward from that and I think there are a lot of different things going on and the conversations are becoming more open, which is great.
Do you think creating 5150 during the pandemic and the upsurge of interest in the Black Lives Matter movement influenced the film at all?
A lot of people when they watch it they’re like, oh man, you shot during the BLM movement, you must have been influenced by that or with the recent Kanye events or the Britney Spears events. No, it was simply written many years ago. Now, I will say this much, the pandemic didn’t make it easier. Especially as we were crafting a character who was supposedly a world-known celebrity. We had this whole piece with the confrontation with the paparazzi built to be much bigger with many more people but of course, with the pandemic, we had to get creative. So we were like, okay, how can we switch this up? What would be the vantage point, the location where this would be sensationalised by the media and be just as threatening, so we moved it from outside of a club venue to his home. That’s why the paparazzi perspective is so tight, we wanted to work within the confinement of the pandemic. We had to hire our extras three to four weeks earlier just so we could get them tested and start quarantining which is unheard of. So the pandemic didn’t make it easier but it made us more mindful about every story nuance.
What did you shoot on and how did you go about the staging the scenes?
We met Canon at Sundance and John happened to know one of the reps so we were able to partner with them which opened the floodgates for us. They had a new Canon C500 Mark II which was their new debut package that they were rolling out and they wanted us to use it. The lenses were beautiful, particularly when they were wide open.
We pretty much shot a vast majority of everything on stage. We built out a custom room and the entire hospital was built from scratch by our incredible production designer, Francesca Palombo. All of that was four walls with a room on the side and then removable glass in case we wanted to do that last shot where we went through it. Everything could be torn down and rearranged and the photo shoot was shot within the same space. For four days we really maximised that entire space until we had to move out and go shoot the house stuff which we shot at a good buddy’s of mine. Thankfully, this is where your resources, your friends come right for any indie filmmaker. Call your friends, call your resources, and then finally, everything else was self-submission.
We had certain people who either didn’t make the cut including our Kickstarter backers. We added incentives to be in the film and that’s where we got a lot of the beginning montage pieces. A lot of those are self-submitted clips and we would either use the voice or tailor it in because it’s supposed to be a global thing where everybody’s commenting from all over and we felt that was perfect. If we can’t bring them to the set, let them do it in their home as we watch, YouTube videos and Instagram clips, just like the rest of the world does.
So did you find the Kickstarter campaign process to be a positive experience?
Absolutely! If I’m being honest I was nervous about it because we were in the middle of the pandemic and we started our Kickstarter the beginning of May. I decided to reach out to people I know to see if they were interested and thankfully so many were willing. They were gracious with their time and I was able to get them on the phone. We made things happen and then all of a sudden it was off to the races.
John was really the champion and pioneer of our Kickstarter campaign. We were worried that because of the pandemic people were holding onto their money but we had some wonderful private investors on the back end where we got our first $15,000. Then we got $10,000 and at the same exact time all that was happening, we launched the Kickstarter. We really just primed the pump, reaching out to everybody. This was the one time where I was calling all favours, I had nothing to lose.
I remember Spike Lee once did a Kickstarter and people were looking at him thinking dude, you got money, why are you doing a Kickstarter? I felt the same sort of way. There was this inside guilt where people see me in Black Panther and wonder why I need to start a Kickstarter but honestly we genuinely needed help. I did put some of my money into it and we had privatised investors, but we really needed to raise at least 25,000 and we raised 33,000 by the end of the Kickstarter. It was an incredible learning lesson and it was a very humbling lesson too. It was the strength of people believing in something and also believing in you. When you step out on faith and declare that I’m passionate about this and me and the team will put our all into it, our passion spoke volumes to so many.
What about building the film’s sonic landscape, how was that process?
Sound is super important to us and I think sometimes it can get overlooked. From the gate, we had a wonderful sound recorder who was on set with us, she was just fantastic. By the time we got into post, we worked with Trevor Gates and Jason Dotts who worked on Atlanta and Get Out, who were wonderful and again just graciously gave their time well below their rates as they were such fans of the material.
We were always thinking the sound notes within our script were gonna be incredibly important, especially playing with Celeb’s mental health. I sent it to the editor who spliced it and made it a little bit tighter and that was everything for me. Coming from the music video world I love the correlation between music, sound and visuals so it was putting all of that together.
What do you want people to take from 5150?
Number one, we place a great deal upon physical health. We place a great deal upon external wealth and I don’t think we check in enough on mental health. One of the things about this story that we really wanted to show, and that we’re going to continue to show within the series, is all the money in the world cannot fulfil you if you’re not good. One of the things that I’ve realised quickly within my lifetime is that everybody’s problems are relative. We’ll look at people who have the fame or the success and the money and we wonder why they’re crying about that. But you don’t know that person’s trauma. You don’t know their story either. You don’t know what they’re dealing with. Everybody’s problems are relative. It’s just being mindful rather than making snap judgements or being critical.
There’s this divide between what actually happens, what the public perceives and then what gets lost in between.
I’ve always seen this divide and I guess this is something from me being a public figure. There’s this divide between what actually happens, what the public perceives and then what gets lost in between. I wanted to create a healthier relationship where we can stop and share some empathy, especially with cancel culture. So just be more mindful of each other, mindful of each other’s mental health and stability. I really wanted to do something for the culture. I think that’s what I infused within Celeb that speaks to a young black American. A young minority who might feel like they’re trying to ‘climb the system’ of America.
What’s happening with the series, can you share anything with us at this point?
We’re in the mix, we had a wonderful time at the Tribeca film festival as part of their creators market. We were sharing that with the different production houses, anywhere from HBO to Disney to AMC which was met with a great response. So John and I have been diligently working on the pilot and the series deck and everything in between. We always knew the conversation could be bigger but we didn’t necessarily have the resources so this was a proof of concept, showcasing what we could do as filmmakers and build something much bigger. We felt like a series gave us more runway than just the film.
And finally, what’s next for you?
5150 has eaten up a lot of my time and in front of the camera I think things are starting to pick back up. I’ve got a couple things that I’m working on right now. I’ve got to learn boxing and piano and there’s a film that’s been on my heart probably even longer than 5150, I just need to write it.