The overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision last year immediately saw devastating consequences for so many and ignited British born, California based filmmaker Nazrin Choudhury to write a script which examined the fallout of this regressive and harmful decision on the very individuals who have been most affected. Oscar nominated drama short Red, White and Blue follows a young mother, struggling to keep her head above water while lovingly caring for her two children and in dire need of help. The previously available solution to her immediate problem has however been ripped away from her, forcing her to go on a literal and metaphorical journey of reflection, hardship and struggle to access medical assistance which should be a given. Choudhury fastidiously built a lived-in, relatable world which doesn’t aim to shock or disturb but rather depict the perverse hurdles this backwards erosion of rights forces the most vulnerable in American society to overcome. While it’s clear that Red, White and Blue is pertinent to current times, we spoke to the candid filmmaker about the unfortunately timeless nature of her story, as well as the benefits she found in bringing her editor onto the production from an early stage and how the imagery in the film alongside its title invoke the supposed ideals of the distinctive Star-Spangled Banner.
[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]
Can you tell us a little bit about Red, White and Blue and why you wanted to talk about the encroaching erosion of reproductive rights in the US with this film?
I’m a woman and this is an issue that predominantly affects women. I’m the mother of two young daughters and when I was in the UK, I was pregnant for the third time and the pregnancy was not viable so I ended up needing a procedure, which actually ended up becoming an eight-hour life-saving procedure. Having that save my life in order to be around for my two daughters who are now older and living with me in America and understanding that this is the legacy they are set to inherit, it felt like it behoved me to write for the people across this nation who cannot tell their stories for themselves and to represent them on the screen. Not in a preachy or didactic way, just to tell a story in a slice-of-life way about one family who might be undergoing a situation in which it’s so necessary and to highlight the obstacles that have been placed in their way in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade back in 2022.
If we as filmmakers and storytellers can somehow engage in this intangible element of empathy through our work, then maybe we open some eyes, hearts and minds and then crack open a conversation that has to be had.
There’s no judgment or criticism in your film. You’re following what this young woman is having to go through and the steps she is forced to take which is something I really took away from it.
I really appreciate you saying that because I think there are two ways in which we were trying to apply that non-judgmental nature of the storytelling that we aspired to do. Firstly, with our characters, and for all the reasons that someone might want or need this procedure, which are valid. Our story takes a turn that I won’t go into, but I want our audience to live and feel what’s been happening. Secondly, a non-judgmental nature in terms of us as artists and filmmakers who are telling a story and using this medium to bring an audience, who might otherwise dismiss these characters, into their real lives through storytelling. If we as filmmakers and storytellers can somehow engage in this intangible element of empathy through our work, then maybe we open some eyes, hearts and minds and then crack open a conversation that has to be had. We wanted to do this in this very non-judgmental way that is conflict-free and is just about evolving our points of view in any direction.
I’m a big believer in the power of film to open up conversations and to get people to perhaps look at things from another point of view.
Which they have, it’s been such a joy, to see the resounding impact it’s been having across the board. We’ve had posts on our socials with people saying, “Oh, I was being very judgmental until I realised what the story was, and then it caused me to reevaluate everything I was thinking.” and that’s all we want you to do. I’m sure there are going to be people who have a strong visceral reaction, both in a positive and negative way depending on what their personal belief systems are but we ask you to please just watch the film, and afterwards, maybe engage with us then about what you might be feeling. You don’t want to be talking about news without reading it, right? You don’t wanna be talking about a film that deals with this issue without watching the film. We welcome the conversation and the debate.
The title Red, White and Blue evokes the freedoms and assumed good life American is supposed to enable but the topic of the film is very much the opposite.
Langston Hughes’ poem, Let America Be America Again is phenomenal and I think it speaks to this idea of everything America aspires to be, everything that America can be, and the ideals that it is built upon that we ourselves fall down on. Our title, Red, White and Blue was this allusion to the banner and the flag that we all live under and I wanted to utilise that to show how it affects all of us. This is not just a conversation to be had for people with reproductive rights, but everyone’s involved. We need those allies, people in power, even if you don’t have reproductive rights per se, you are voting in such a way that it affects us. This is a national conversation, as well as a conversation that needs to be had around our dinner tables. Red, White, and Blue is also saying, look at this great nation we could be if we only allowed ourselves to see every person who might need to be seen and who are actually invisible to us.
There were other things that I wanted to do with it and play with image systems I had in my mind. I, as a storyteller, want to tell a story that feels like it has that beginning, middle, end and character arcs. I feel like our film stands every bit in the same space as a longer feature film in the respect that it has the same profound impact. It is told in 20 minutes but only feels like five minutes in the watching because of its transportive nature. So, going back to the image systems of it all, from those two red bars of the pregnancy at the start, propelling us forward to the road trip and the bright white daylight of it all and the joyous lights of the carousel scene, into the sterile blue of the clinic. I would urge anyone to go and look up what the red, and the white, and the blue in the American flag stands for, because it’s all to do with these American ideals that we aspire to, but we have yet to fully live up to.
This is a national conversation, as well as a conversation that needs to be had around our dinner tables.
I read that the writing process was very instinctive for you, how did that then flow into the production and edit?
I had an amazing cast and crew and I was able to protect the vision that was on the page in every single aspect of the filmmaking. I wrote it very quickly. Over two/three hours the story was fully formed in my head and it’s probably the fastest I’ve ever written a script. And then, when we went into production we had to adjust a few elements for practical considerations and there are a few things that you find as a filmmaker that you wanna do that are additive, and so you find those in the shoot itself.
Then moving into the edit. I have a brilliant editor, Phillip J. McLaughlin who I worked with on Fear the Walking Dead and I told him that he’s a writer’s and director’s dream. We brought Phil into the conversation early on and he intuitively understood the story, in particular an aspect ratio shift which happens, which we knew that we wanted to edit in a particular way so that it kept the purity of the script through production and into editing. Phil knew what we were doing from the get-go, and we were getting ideas from him about what would help him in the edit afterwards. It’s very unusual to do that, but I do think it’s actually an excellent way of working. And it meant that when we got into the editing suite, he had had those conversations, been part of prep and understood what the goal was so that he could get in and make his initial cut close to what I needed it to be, which then only needed some fine-tuning.
That shows in the film’s pacing which feels spot on.
There’s the old page per minute rule and the script was 10 and a half pages. I knew it was going to grow because of the road trip and montage scenes which I knew would take up time on the screen. So we were looking at maybe adding five minutes on, but then when we got to it, the first cut he delivered to me was just over 22 minutes. In my head I imagined it to be around 15 minutes but once we got into it, we understood the realities of what we needed to do and that pacing. I’m so glad that you feel that it is worthy of that timeframe of 22 minutes. I think we both understood that we needed to let it breathe, and we needed to live with these characters. I now feel like if we didn’t have those moments, we would end up losing the emotional punch of the story that’s coming. We needed to really live and feel like we’re a fly on the wall watching these characters in their world. But if I’ve done my job, we’re actually more than that. We’re right there with them in their home as a family member, as if they have just given us a peek behind the curtains of their world.
I’m not going to try and make my film into something to fit something else. It has to be dictated by what the story deserves.
There are film festivals that we didn’t end up getting into or being able to submit to because we were over the 20-minute mark. It’s so tricky but to me story is queen. So I couldn’t let that influence what I had to do. I’m not going to try and make my film into something to fit something else. It has to be dictated by what the story deserves. What an audience deserves in terms of going on this journey with us and us delivering the impact in the way that we need to deliver it. If we were to make this shorter, I really do believe we would lose the emotional impact that I hope is delivered.
You don’t want to rush all of the beautiful little nuggets of information that we pick up throughout that really flesh out the story and enable us to walk in her shoes. We understand her poverty, we understand her car’s impounded, we understand the minutiae of saving every single dollar.
That is all intentional. She’s a mom who works hard, she’s living from paycheck to paycheck. She is in a socioeconomic class where they don’t have as much, but she’s a good mom. You can see it in the bedroom decor. You don’t have to have wealth to be a good mom. One might argue that those moms are doing the hardest job in the world and should be applauded for it. She’s made that environment into a very family environment for her kids. You go into the bedroom and there’s those fairy lights and a comfort of the home that she’s providing. She’s doing the best that she can and maybe they’re gonna be fine, maybe they’re gonna get by but something happens.
I think it probably applies to Britain too and almost anywhere in the world, that a much larger percentage of the population unfortunately does not have a rainy day fund. So if something happens, even a few hundred dollars worth of an unexpected expense can really throw someone into a whole spiral of not being able to get out of a hole that they have not necessarily dug themselves into.
I was impressed by the production design and all of the locations as they do feel so lived in and a part of this world. Was that a challenge to achieve?
Yes, because of the limited amount of resources we had it was an absolute challenge. And I love that you’re calling these things out because I have really tried to champion the cast and crew that came on board and did so much to help me tell this story. It was challenging in terms of the schedule, and the resources that we had, but the credit goes to, you know, everybody who worked on this. It speaks to the level of craft that we had on this film and the quality of filmmaking and the fact that we had real artists on this.
My director of photography, Adam Suschitzky, a fellow Brit flew over. He was busy when I first approached him but I managed to secure him and his brilliant cinematography. The production designer, Emma Koh was brilliant. Neil Napier, who is one of the locations team and actually plays the diner owner, had this bike and his iPhone and has such a cinematic eye. That’s what makes a film, there’s every little different element, the writing, the production, the cameras, the shooting – it’s all of these things that come together and build the world for the audience.
It’s about letting the story breathe and allowing the stillness to be a juxtaposition against the frantic inner turmoil of a character who is an ordinary American facing extraordinary circumstances.
We’re focusing on this young woman and everything she’s going through and you manage to centralise her whilst also dealing with a huge far reaching subject.
That was always very deliberate. I really wanted a stillness to this and Adam and I talked about that from the outset. This is about showing and not telling and letting our very smart and capable audience understand and read things from the visual cues. We really wanted to lean into that whole cinematic storytelling style. I’ve worked extensively in TV and it’s very dialogue driven so I really wanted to move away from that because I started in film then transitioned into TV.
For me, this was a return to film and being in the director’s chair and I really wanted to lean into this muscular storytelling where we are holding on Brittany Snow, who really is just a magnificent performer, and who has these eyes that can convey so much – why would you not want to hold on her? Why wouldn’t you want the frames to be still so that your eye is always with the characters, even as we’re populating those scenes with the little details. It’s about letting the story breathe and allowing the stillness to be a juxtaposition against the frantic inner turmoil of a character who is an ordinary American facing extraordinary circumstances.
You’ve touched on it briefly, but congratulations on your Oscar nomination.
Thank you so much, it’s two days old and I don’t know if it will ever get old, I can’t believe it. We knew we had a film that we believed in and we were telling it not to necessarily gain an Oscar nomination, but because we had to tell this story. The fact that the Academy sees us and recognizes us out of 187 qualified films this year is such a privilege and an honour. I know our entire cast and crew also feels that way. We are also so thankful to have a very dedicated and passionate audience who are constantly championing us. The biggest gift that it has given us, and will continue to give us, is Academy members recognizing the artistry and feeling the impact of the story and what we set out to do. The knock-on effect it’s having on them is maybe reflective of the knock-on effect it’s having on a wider audience that doesn’t belong to the filmmaking community.
Are you planning to continue to sit in the director’s chair going forward?
I’m a writer and I had to write this story because it was eating me up. A lot of people talk about this being a timely story, but actually whilst we tell these stories and they have a timely nature, they sadly feel like stories that are timeless because we seem to keep having to tell them. We need to keep speaking about issues of reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. In our case, we just wanted to tell it in the most characterful way possible without hitting people over the head. This is just a pure story about what it looks like for a character like Rachel Johnson and her family.
I have features that I’ve written that I have thought about directing and maybe one of those becomes my next project. I have also started to think about what else this could be. I wrote it as a story and a film that could live in its own right and be a piece of art that is complete, but there is a bigger story to tell here. It’s important to say that as much as we’re featuring the characters in this story, historically, for women of colour or people who have historically had an assault on their reproductive rights and ability to get healthcare, Roe v. Wade was not necessarily something new to them in terms of the obstacles that they were facing. There is a need to tell the larger story of many people who might need this procedure for some reason.
This isn’t just a subject-led film. It’s about human beings. It’s about us seeing one another and understanding those who are powerless to speak up for themselves or to act for themselves, and how those of us in power can level that out by becoming the allies that we need to become. This is an important election year and I continue to see reports of how many people are affected by it. I don’t know that we ever need to stop telling this story and reminding people how important it is to have self-determination and human dignity.