We spoke with screenwriter Marcus Guillory about his new film Gully, the response the film got from critics, Travis Scott’s acting chops, and more.
With a run time of only 82 minutes, Gully is a rollercoaster of a movie that will leave you with an influx of emotions. The movie follows Jesse (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) Calvin (Jacob Latimore), and Nicky (Charlie Plummer), three South Central, Los Angeles teenagers who embark on the most violent 48 hours of their lives.
Throughout all of the trauma, one thing remains true: the bond between the three friends. The movie is driven by the strong performances from the young leads but they also get help from an all-star cast that includes Jonathan Majors, Amber Heard, and Terrence Howard and the vision of director Nabil Elderkin, who provides a stylized look at one of Los Angeles’ most infamous neighborhoods.
Just as wild as the movie is the journey it took to get it here. Veteran screenwriter Marcus Guillory wrote the script 15 years ago, and, for years, tried and failed to get it produced. Eventually Elderkin, who has a background as a music video director, was the one able to get Gully to the finish line. The movie made its debut at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Only now — two years later — is Gully in the theaters and, as of this week, available on-demand.
A true polymath if there ever was one, Guillory is a former lawyer, musician, writer, producer, and composer, best known for writing and producing VH1’s The Breaks. In Gully, Guillory — who was inspired by his own experiences living in South Central — gives a voice to the voiceless, displaying the harsh realities for young Black teenagers growing up in these circumstances.
We caught up with Guillory via FaceTime to discuss how the script came about, what inspired the film, his message to the critics, how Nabil came on board, the all-star cast, Travis Scott’s acting chops, and more.
First off, it’s crazy you wrote the script for Gully 15 years ago.
Marcus Guillory: That’s what trips everybody out, particularly with the pill shit. I was way ahead of stuff. Everybody says “how did you know all that then?” I wrote it in ‘06. It made my career. I found my voice as a writer. I was primarily a feature screenwriter then, this was the one script where I took the gloves off, at the suggestion of my older sister, who’s a fellow playwright in New York. I’d done a couple pieces that I was starting to get paid to write. I knew the rules and once you know the rules, you go break them. Then Gully happened, the script started moving around. I started getting rewrite work, but nobody would buy it from me or option it. It was weird.
Why was that?
The original script… yo. [laughs] There were people in town who’s scripts had been around for a while. It got me invited to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2016. We finally got it shopped at Tribeca. People knew, folks were just scared. I remember Marilyn Manson read it, he wouldn’t touch it. This was too way out. He’s looking for something to direct at the time, this was years ago. I’d met with a variety of different directors. I was going to direct it, I didn’t have the chops for that. It was pretty ambitious and way out there, but the writing worked.
Finally after a variety of different producers and folks getting interested in it, it happened. What’s crazy was by the time I actually made the movie, my career had been poppin’ for a while. All of a sudden, stuff had happened. This was my third movie. I hate when journalists are lazy, I read somewhere: “making his feature debut.” No, this is not my first feature. You didn’t do your research. Having written TV for a while, having a book published, short stories published, all this happened and then we finally make it. I’m a different writer now.
I couldn’t have written my novel [Red Now and Laters] without having written Gully first. When I’d eventually put literature to house music, create a whole genre of house years ago — putting prose into it with the whole Trinidad-Senolia thing and Yoruba Records, Gully gave me that voice and confidence. There’s a part of seeing it come to audiences now, that’s a completion of the first stage of my artistic career as a writer. That sense of completion is very satisfying.
Where did the word Gully come from?
Gully is hood shit, it’s the low-end gutter. That’s slang, Jamaicans use that as well in the same respect. It was in that vein, really on the low end of a spectrum socioeconomically. The despised and the forgotten.
What moved you to write such a vulnerable film? Did something spark the idea?
The kids I was around interviewing. I was living in Morningside Heights in South Central. I’d listen. It was a very active gang neighborhood. What I realized was most of the “hood” urban films with young Black men in it was either a gang story, a drug story — cops and robbers — or these tropes we fit these kids into and figure out how they’ll get out. The whole majority of kids in impoverished communities, that’s not what’s going on with them. None of the movies spoke to that, they didn’t have a special thing they did.
Wassup Rockers isn’t a good example but when they did that, they’re headed in the right direction, in terms of giving a different perspective from kids in communities that are mired in the poverty of low expectations. That was certainly to give those kids a voice: they have issues they’re dealing with and how they deal with it. That’s the tricky part: getting people to believe it. Me and Nabil were talking about that, the feedback and reviews. We did it to watch it. The people reviewing it, it’s not for you. We don’t care!
I haven’t seen anything about the critics.
Oh it’s crazy, and it’s exactly what we expected. I worked at a group home for a year in Seattle. I taught eighth grade at Magnolia Projects in New Orleans. I’ve always worked with at-risk kids, and I write about that. To tell a story from that perspective is going to feel different. Nabil and I get hit up all over the country from different theaters, and those kids are showing up man. They’re getting into it, sneaking in the movie theaters. Before we put it out, we low key screened it to kids and young adults who’d been in juvenile rehabilitation in some form of foster care, group home, and it resonated. What we realized as filmmakers: hell we won, because that’s who we’re aiming for. Nothing else matters.
The film is directly inspired by your time in South Central LA, how so?
I’m from Houston originally, but I lived there for a long time. I grew up in a neighborhood called South Park in Houston, where lean and screw music comes from. I grew up in the hood hood. My first novel was set in that hood, about kids growing up and the shit you gotta deal with. Not nefarious stuff, but how do you hold onto your childhood when everyone’s pressing you to be an adult so quick? That happens certainly with little Black boys and girls with adultification, particularly with the girls. They get all this pressure, they’re in these environments where some people have these expectations for them to understand grown up shit. They’re exposed to things they have no business being exposed to.
It’s not always parents. I had the best parents, but I saw shit I wasn’t supposed to see in my community. That’s what it was, then how you react to that. If it happens over and over, what becomes normalized to you? You throw in mental health, child abduction and all kinds of extra shit, wow. All that happens to folks. It’s all real. I worked in that group home for a year. I’ve been writing hood stuff for Hollywood for years, normally shit they want me to write. I said “OK, I can do that. I understand that.” Gully goes super deeper, but I worked in social services for a year and a half. The stuff really going on that doesn’t make the news or the headlines, particularly with people of color or marginalized folks, you’d be amazed. I read a review [that] says, “this isn’t real.” The fuck you talking about this isn’t real? Are you kidding me right now dude? That shit happens all the time. You don’t know about it and we don’t hang a light on it.
How was the writing process for you?
I wrote the script in eight days. It was a very weird process. It’s interesting because my career hadn’t done anything. Nobody knew who I was. It started off initially as a group of anecdotes I saw as weird dark humor, to be honest. I’ve never talked about this publicly, I met with a filmmaker named Dennis Dortch. He did A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy. I met him at the Magic Johnson Starbucks here in LA. I let him read what I was putting together. It was weird anecdotes, like Kentucky Fried movie. Little bits and chunks of things. Not so much of a thread, a little bit of weird humor. He looked at me and said “is this really what you want to say?” Shit, I was living in Morningside Heights in South Central right at the border of South Central and Inglewood, in a very, very active gang area. I interviewed a lot of gangbangers, the kids around their families. You hear what people are saying when you go to the check cashing place to pay the cable bill, send somebody money to go to the grocery store. You’re picking up language left and right, hearing bits and pieces of what people say. I’m walking around this community, I’m hearing this stuff too.
I did the blackouts on the windows, lit candles, and started writing. “Today I’m gonna pray to God and as usual, he ain’t looking.” I went from there. Eight days later, I had a screenplay. I was hip-pocketed by an agency at the time. I told the agent carrying me: “Hey man, this is something different. Don’t send it out, let me know what you think.” That’s a Thursday. Monday, I had a meeting at Sony and the word started spreading around. I heard everything from [Quentin] Tarantino to Harmony [Korine] to all different comparisons, because a lot of Black cats weren’t writing like this.
I started getting rewrite work, started to get me some real estate in the screenwriting game but nobody would make it. Nobody would touch it, it was crazy. I remembered Adrian Brody was looking to direct something, he got caught up in this movie in Brazil. The agent said “Hey, Mike Rappaport’s looking to direct something.” He had that Tribe Called Quest doc about to come out, oh he’s hot right now.
I met with Mike, who immediately brought in this dude named Corey Smith, who’s Dave Chappelle’s manager, Vince Staples, a bunch of folks. For five or six years, they kept optioning it. We’re trying to put it together, then Corey brought in these British producers. First thing they said was, “Hey, heard about this director named Nabil?” They didn’t know the dude. Here’s the weird part, Nabil was in the Bowery Bar in New York and one of those producers happened to see him, which was serendipitous as hell. Gave him the script, it’s a wrap. Boom, done.
What is it about Nabil that could help bring this film to life?
It was his combat photography, that’s what did it for me. When I saw the stuff that he had shot in Syria, the Congo, this dude had been up close on some shit. Damn, anybody got the fortitude to hold a shot like that in that situation… Nabil’s emphasis was primarily with children in conflict areas. That’s important to him. His [music] videos were dope, but to find somebody that’s going to put their life on the line to capture that thing? That’s what made sense for me.
How was it having Kelvin Harrison Jr., Charlie Plummer, and Jacob Latimore bring your story to life?
The casting part was easy because the actors all responded to the script. That came about pretty good. It just so happens we’re casting some of the hottest young Hollywood dudes at the time, who are huge stars now. It meant something to the actors, they understood what we were trying to convey in the story. They understood we weren’t telling the story in a traditional way, but from the perspective of kids in their late teens in marginalized environments.
What’s cool for Nabil — he’s doing music videos for the same demographic. Both of us were working, creating content toward the same demographic. He and I spoke the same youth language, he understood I needed to go back in. They don’t do it like that anymore, that’s important.
I overheard you say you picked out kids from a foster home to play in the film, how was that process?
We’d talked to and screened some of the stuff to kids and young adults with that experience, and it resonated with them. We realized if it resonates with them, then we won. We did what we’re supposed to do, nothing else matters. I’m getting reports now: theaters all over the country, kids sneaking in going to see it. If it speaks to them, they find some solace or they find some similarity — they find something that makes them feel or acknowledges they have value, from Nabil and I’s perspective, fuck everybody else. This is for them.
Was it hard to pack all your sentiments into a film less than an hour and 30 minutes long?
They cut a lot of stuff out of the script. You have to trust interpretations that the director is going to have on your work. There’s a lot more to be said, but the shorthand of it covered it. The actors did a great job because the actors saw different iterations of the script, they tracked it. They knew what had to happen, and Nabil was there to support it, capture it, and even add.
I’ll give you an example: the helicopters. That wasn’t a big thing in the script. We’re shooting around 43rd and Avalon, which is not East LA but the East side. What would happen is the helicopters kept coming, we can’t keep shutting down every time they come. That scene with Jacob Lattimore where he takes off his shirt, he cued in and said “OK, react to that helicopter.” We wrote that thing, but said “let’s shoot it now.”
We have an environmental obstacle, let’s incorporate that into the ethos of the movie. When I wrote it, there was always helicopters. It’s funny, I’m living in a much better part of town and doing better now, I don’t hear helicopters. When I wrote it, I constantly heard helicopters. How’s anybody supposed to think, grow, pray, make love, do anything, if you constantly hear some helicopters. What’s that about?
What’d it mean to have Vince Staples and Travis Scott in Gully?
Travis man, both of us are from Houston. That was Nabil’s dude, they worked together. I ended up writing some of it. Nabil and I ended up doing a lot of stuff together during the course of us meeting. We worked on videos and commercials together, started to develop a more intensified creative relationship. As we’re prepping and trying to raise money, I knew it was Travis’ first picture. I’d written stuff for rappers or non-trained actors before. I made the last changes the night before. He showed up on set the next day, was off book and killed it. I told his manager, “yo that dude’s got a career in film if he wants to go there.”
And Vince is all-around talent. I’ve known Vince from Corey. Vince the same way. One of the things if you notice, we’ve had different sets of producers that wanted to give the music talent more of a larger role, that can go any way on a picture. If the guy’s going to show up for the role, you want to give him a role that’s worth his time and meaningful. Both of them are really talented. The trip was nobody’s ever seen Travis do anything like that.
What do you want fans to take away from Gully?
Sometimes the people that you ignore in society as we go about our day to day, can offer you so much. More importantly that everybody, regardless of how you see them, their condition or station in life, they’re human just like you. The stamp of a lot of my work is a homeless person. Almost everything I have has a homeless person in it. Having been homeless before prior to jumping off as a writer, I was always fascinated, inspired by, felt sad for people who have to spend a majority of their day being ignored.
Any last words?
Go see the movie. Buy the merch because the proceeds go to this project called Surf Bus. In the film towards the end, they’re constantly talking about going to the beach. This is important. Over the years I’ve been interviewing kids in South Central and different parts of Los Angeles, I noticed a good number of them had never been to the beach. Never seen the ocean, that blew my mind so I incorporated that into the script as a goal.
Nabil surfs, so we got to talking about it. He found this great group that’s called Children of Immigrants that makes apparel. They’d do the merchandise with the proceeds to go to Surf Bus, which takes inner city kids who don’t have the economic reason and certain access to beachfront and ocean, teach them how to surf and create surf teams. In Los Angeles, and that’s a real thing. We said “OK, that’s congruent with what’s going on with our characters. Let the merch money go to that.” Go get some of the merch so some kids can get in the water. [laughs]
Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up in the Bay Area. She lives, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, and is literally on top of new music the moment it is released. If there’s a show in LA, you can find her there. Follow the latest on her at fomoblog.com and on Instagram and on Twitter.