The new short film Tribes is the story of three men, an African American named Jamar (DeStorm Power, Punk’d), an Arab-American named Amed (Adam Waheed, Pitch Please), and a white man named Kevin (Jake Hunter, Class Act) who attempt to rob a subway train full of passengers. Sounds simple enough, right? However, when they decide not to rob people of their own race, it sets them (and everyone else) off to a series of arguments over self-identity resulting in comically depicted scenarios where the three men spend the entire ride dividing the passengers into various ethnic, cultural and economic subgroups to decide whom exactly they should rob before the train reaches the next station.
Tribes, written by award-winning writer Andy Marlatt was a project director Nino Aldi (Stillwater, Producer for 17 seasons of The Voice) and former pro baseball player turned actor/producer, Jake Hunter, wanted to make as soon as they read it. Both men talk to us about why this piece resonated so strongly with them, the logistics of building and filming in a closed space while addressing broad topics such as race and class warfare, the raves Tribes has received since its January debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and how it feels that their comedic short is now competing for Oscar qualification.
Jason: Can you briefly describe what Tribes is about and what appealed to you about it?
Nino Aldi: Tribes is about an African American, a white man and an Arab American who decide to rob a train, however, no one wants to rob their own race. Essentially, what drew me to the project is when you have a premise, there’s always an obstacle. The obstacle here, the factor that’s stopping them from robbing the train is themselves, and that was very intriguing to me. It’s a more of an ideology, as opposed to an actual force that’s stopping them. That’s what drew me to the story.
Jason: Is the finished result very close to the script? Did you allow much for, or encourage much in the way of improvisation? Or was it page to screen?
Nino Aldi: We cut some stuff out just for production reasons, but it was basically page to screen because of the nature of the story. It was an award-winning script, and we had the writer, Andy Marlatt on set, and we didn’t want to step on his toes because we wanted to keep the script as true to his vision as we could. There’s some stuff that wasn’t working we cut out, but we shot it as is. We wanted to keep it as closely knit to the script as possible because it’s very poignant and clear. And there’s a lot of subtext in a lot of the lines we wanted to make sure rang true.
Jake Hunter: I would agree with what Nino said, it’s an award-winning script so Andy made our job pretty easy. When you get to work with great material like that the work is more of just translating what he’s already created, as opposed to having to find and discover more things that aren’t necessarily there to punch it up when you’re on set. We didn’t have to do that as much here.
Jason: You just mentioned that there was some stuff cut out. Was it a longer script than what you wound up filming?
Nino Aldi: It was a little longer because there was a train stop, and there was a longer exchange with the character of the Dutch henchmen. And some other plot we wanted to explore which broke up the flow. We lost that because it felt a little like grandstanding and soap-boxing to a certain specific point which I felt took away from the overarching principle, which is everyone can choose to find something we don’t like about someone, or find something that we do. That’s the overarching principle. And I felt like some stuff where we went into depth about certain topics, went a little too far and ruined the flow for me.
Jason: How long was the overall shoot?
Nino Aldi: We shot for two days. We shot some exteriors at a real train station to hit it home but building the train set was probably the most challenging part of the whole process. We had to build the thing in a week, with probably less than an experienced crew building a set like that. So everyone put their A-game on. It was a lot of work and a lot of hours to get this thing up and running to light and all that stuff. That took way longer than the shoot itself.
Jason: The script seems to have come from someone who’s observed quite a bit in his life and takes these broad issues and confines the exploration of them in this one small space. Can you tell me a bit about approaching Andy when you wanted to do his story? How did you convince him that you were the guys to do it?
Nino Aldi: Jake approached me about potentially directing a good concept piece of work for a festival because he was trying to piece things together because Jake’s also a producer on this. Because my writing style is more thriller-ish, I don’t think I could write something as politically inspired. So I reached out to a few screenplay competitions and read a bunch of scripts and some I sent to Jake, and everyone just resonated with this one. When I reached out to Andy, I basically showed him my body of work. Again, I have a thriller background. And I told him we’ll shoot it like a thriller, even though it’s a comedy, and keep it really specific to the words.
Jason: Jake, can you just tell me how you responded to the project and did the actors know each other beforehand?
Jake Hunter: Adam Waheed, another actor-producer on this and I made a deal with each other. He’s a big social media guy, and he was going to help me with that, and I was going to help him with a TV and film project. Then I immediately messaged Nino because he’s one of my favorite people to work with and someone that I trust very much. He sent us Tribes and I shared it with Adam who loved it, and he knew DeStorm, (who plays Jamar and was also a producer on this), and brought him into the project and that’s how we all came together. The script was one of the few I read where I was actually laughing while reading it, like really laughing not ‘oh, that’s clever’ in my head. I knew that there was something there with a great message. It’s very rare that you can find that combination.
Jason: This year has been important in terms of racial conflict issues and awareness in our world. Did you feel Tribes is a way to address that issue in a way which might be more accessible to viewers?
Jake Hunter: My thoughts are that it’s one of the few films that I’ve seen that addresses race, but does it in an out-of-the-box, lighter way. I feel when you address issues so on the nose, people don’t necessarily respond to it. But if you can show it to them in a way that makes them stop and ask themselves, ‘wait, what did I just watch?’ and they think about it then it can really resonate with people more. I resonated with it, a lot of people that I’ve spoken to have resonated with it and that makes me feel good that people are able to feel this film can make a difference. A lot of people don’t like to be told what to do, what to think, but Andy did it in such an interesting way it makes the message even stronger.
Nino Aldi: We shot this in 2019, so we didn’t even know really where these issues were going, but I think it sort of segued into the premise that no one wants to rob their own race. It says we see ourselves as different as other people. The message is, even though we’re different on the surface, it’s almost impossible to find a way where we aren’t the same. That’s the point of self-identity and geopolitical politics essentially. You can identify as African American or as an Arab American or you could just look at it as we’re all American, or we’re all from Chicago and you can identify with that commonality because we will ultimately have something in common with everyone we meet. We can all identify with that aspect of ourselves. Then ultimately, on an individual level, one can actually enforce change. And that’s something that I wanted to put it in there because that’s something that I really believe. I don’t enjoy grandstanding or people that grandstand themselves, so if you can put something out there that makes people be like, ‘oh, I get it, we are all the same, really, and we all want the same things’, that understanding can go way beyond race. It can go with anything. So many people look at everyone and see the ways we’re not alike, instead of looking at ways we are like each other.
Jason: You have the three leads who are entertaining and compelling and terrific to watch, but then you have some great supporting players in this and just the reaction expressions on some of them are pure gold. Can you talk about that aspect?
Jake Hunter: I had never cast a film before, but I cast this one. We all ended up doing a lot of jobs on this. I was able to find a lot of people that were really talented actors who had worked on TV series and come out of The Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and prestigious schools like that to come in for one line, or two lines or a reaction, like you said and to make it feel like a real New York subway. I’m super appreciative of all those people who were a part of it because they’re all super-talented. That’s why those reactions and little bits were funny because they’re all legit actors. It worked out for us because it would have been bad if the viewer was not buying it. So I’m glad that came across.
Nino Aldi: We had some people that we’ve worked with before like the great Jason Stewart, a very good character actor that we had worked with before. And to add to what Jake said, it was the supporting cast that was the most concerning for me because you need continuity, it’s another character, right? It has to be the same people in two ten-hour days when no one’s really getting paid for these shorts. Our pitch was, ‘listen, I know, you probably want a little more, but you are all going to be in this, we need your reactions.’ If you’re just putting random people in it, then it doesn’t work because you need a lot of cutaways. We needed everyone to want to be there and to want to come back, and I thought they did a great job, and we used really their best stuff. So they stayed after their one line, which typically they wouldn’t do normally.
Jason: Nino, can you give an example where shooting in one space offers a positive way to film, and one drawback ?
Nino: Well I guess it’s a catch-22. The positive thing is that you can control it. We would spend most of the time and even on our shoot day getting it lit properly. The big positive is that we could do 360-degree lighting, and then once it was lit perfectly you can move a little quicker. The drawback was that because you’re on the one location you really have to make it work, you can’t really cheat it, so it has to work, and it has to feel real. You put all your eggs in this basket that this is going to look right and work out because if it doesn’t, you don’t have anything, and you just wasted a tremendous amount of money, effort and time. It was a pressure cooker for sure. We’re not in the moving train, yet we had to have that effect. We had to get tracers, we had to get 60 or 90 feet of tube, we had to get a bunch of duvetyne fabric and all that stuff while people are building and trying to make this thing look as accurate as possible to be a New York-ish train. It was tricky because it had to work. Then if it does work, that is the positive because you’re just there. You put the lights on, you turn it on, and then you get moving.
Jason: I read that you did a lot of pre-planning, and it definitely shows, it looks like you had six cameras in there.
Nino Aldi: We had one camera. That’s it. Basically what I typically do is I’ll plot it, so I know the space, you have to create the illusion of depth, so you tell the actors where they’re going to be in relation to what they’re doing. And then basically, I would break down the script, and then have it be partitioned and we’d shoot it that way with one camera. But again, because we had to do single 360-degree lighting, you can move around a lot quicker, as opposed to lighting for each specific shot. That is why we were able to do it quite frankly, with a single cam, despite the fact that we have a lot of shots.
Jason: Is there a trick to making it not look pre-planned?
Nino Aldi: You do the handheld to keep something organic. It’s an old Hollywood trick—you’re playing with people’s minds, and directing to me is all a magician’s trick, it’s the illusion of what you’re seeing. So you start with a real train thinking we’re in an actual place, so then the audience will look away from production design flaws, because they want to believe this is an actual spot. You start from there, and you let it organically happen. I will say that the actors did a few reads in advance, and they worked on their stuff, so they knew it. They just worked on the characters and when they have that ability, we can move very quickly and that’s how you make it feel real.
Jake Hunter: I agree with that 100%. As an actor when you know the material so well, and you’re so prepared as a character you can show up to the set and let it go, just let it feel as real as possible and not think in your head what your next line is. Just trust that it’s there, and you can react and find it. I think on a bunch of different levels, there’s being organic, not feeling pre-planned as an actor, that’s kind of where I see it.
Jason: What has the reaction to Tribes been? I know it’s gotten some great notices, and now you’re in the mix with the Oscar qualification process. What does that mean to you guys?
Nino Aldi: It means a lot because that’s the ultimate goal as a filmmaker. We’re artists first but at the end of the day you want to be recognized for things on a professional level. To be in the mix for the Oscars would mean that something you created is actually resonating well with the audience. Which means we did our jobs. You have to do a lot of work, and it can take years and a lot of effort and ultimately to be doing well is our intention. It’s just surreal and humbling to see it actually happen to fruition. I’m very grateful for everything and for everyone that supported our film and everyone that worked on it from beginning to the end.
Jake Hunter: When you make pieces you feel can actually make a difference, like something such as this, you want it to be seen and to be shared with the world, so the Oscar campaign is great because we’re just able to share it with so many more people. Hopefully it brings more awareness to the film and more awareness to the overall message we’re going for here.
Nino Aldi: We definitely appreciate you taking the time to talk to us, and we’re always grateful to talk about the film and, hopefully we can talk again after we get shortlisted.