Source: Netflix Media Center
Elvire Emanuelle and Olivia Newman Speak On Netflix’s ‘First Match,’ Gentrifying Brooklyn and Wrestling [Interview]
Source: Netflix Media Center
Netflix's First Match, written and directed by Olivia Newman, and starring Elvira Emanuelle is a new women-led film that's changing the game.
In hindsight, First Match’s name holds a weight of irony, considering this is not the first time director-writer Olivia Newman tackled this story. The story started off as a short film in 2011 that Newman showed at New York Film Festival. It was transformed and revamped into this film distributed by Netflix.
WATCH: Elvire Emanuelle Star In Olivia Newman's Netflix Feature Film 'First Match'
The film’s home base is in Brownsville, Brooklyn: a neighborhood and culture that’s been known to breed tough people who’ve gotten through tough times. Our protagonist Monique (played wonderfully by Elvire Emanuelle) is no exception. She is hardened by years in foster care and decides that joining the all-boys wrestling team is the only way back to her estranged father.
@Okayplayer got the opportunity to get on the mat with Emanuelle and Newman, where we talked to them about the process from short to feature film, investing in the borough they filmed in, and how to make the world of wrestling come to life in an authentic way.
Source: Netflix Media Center
Okayplayer: Olivia, as the writer-director, how did the story for First Match come together? Was it inspired by true events that happened within your familiar circle? Or was it a case of the creative forces swirling around sparked by a good idea or concept?
Olivia Newman: I made a short film that premiered in 2011 that was about a girl who was on a boy's wrestling team, who was preparing for her first match and trying to connect with her single dad. When I was making this short film I was really focused on the experience of being a girl on a boy's wrestling team. I interviewed a lot of wrestlers, girl wrestlers who were from New York City who were on boy’s teams. Their stories informed the short film and when I made that short [film], I cast a wrestler from New York who played the lead role. [That wrestler] happened to be from Brownsville and in making this film together, and travelling the festival circuit, we became good friends and stayed in touch. She is still a big part of my life. Through Nyasa (the wrestler) and the community where she grew up, I became interested in Brownsville as a context of this feature film.
There was another girl on Nyasa's team that the character of Mo in the feature is really based on (Ed. note: She has been referred to as “Nyasa” to protect her privacy). She was a young woman who was living in foster care that was on the boy's wrestling team. [She] was beautiful and very flirtatious, but would get on the mat and wrestle with boys and be very aggressive. And I found that dichotomy really interesting. Then I happened to be at her wrestling practice the day she was hoping [her grandparents in another state] would adopt her and decided not to. It was then that I saw another side come out, where she was angry and would snap at people.
For me, that was the genesis of the feature film story. I really wanted to tell a story about a young woman who was desperately craving family and that kind of family love. Chasing after the family she thought were her real family and sort of inadvertently discovering a family on this boy’s wrestling team, it kind of organically grew out of this experience I had making the short film. Getting to know [“Nyasa”], her wrestling peers and learning about the neighborhood that she grew up in helped to make all of those things come together. For me, this was a story kind of swirling around in my head as I was becoming friends and getting to know her and her friends.
OKP: Elvire, this is your first feature-length project, and it is being heralded as one of Netflix’s strongest new original films. How does that feel so early on in your career? Also, can you talk about how the screenplay for First Match came your way and what were your first experiences like in front of the camera when production began?
Elvire Emanuelle: First of all, it feels absolutely insane. It sounds cheesy but it’s a dream come true. When you have this dream, an idea and everybody tells you "you're crazy" and when it actually happens it feels unreal and like an outer body experience, almost. The way I found the script was on Actor’s Access (https://www.actorsaccess.com/). I saw it on there and I didn’t submit for it the first time, but then I saw it again. Then I sent in a tape and after I sent in the tape I didn't hear anything for I don't know how long, maybe a couple of days. Then I got a call back and didn't hear anything for I think almost like three weeks. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh they probably moved on.’
This one day I was taking a nap—it was a crazy day for me—and I woke up to an email to come back in for an audition and a physical test. So I went in for that and then maybe the following week casting wanted to meet me for brunch. I remember at the end [of that meeting] they said, ‘You'd be good in this role,’ and in my head I'm like, ‘Does that mean I got it?’ The next day I got the official email and was so excited.
OKP: After screening First Match and noticing that it was filmed in Brownsville, Brooklyn, I wanted to ask how did the community accept you all being in the neighborhood where it is also beginning to become gentrified as the whole of Brooklyn is?
ON: Shooting in Brownsville was a really wonderful experience. We shot there in the summer of 2016. The gentrification was already happening but not to the extent that it is in some of the other surrounding neighborhoods where we also shot. We shot a little bit in Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy and out in Midwood as well but the bulk of it was in Brownsville. In order to make sure that we weren’t rolling up and just shooting a movie and taking from the community, we found office space in Brownsville for our production office and then we tried to engage as many organizations and people who are working within the community in the making of the film.
One of our really big helpers on the film was this guy who ran security for 50 buildings in Brownsville. He has a company where he runs and manages all the security guards in all these buildings. So he was really aware of where we could shoot things, who we needed to talk to make sure it was cool for us to be in these spaces and really did it out of this place of respect. By saying, ‘We want to shoot in this housing projects so who do we need to talk to,’ we made sure that everybody knows we're coming and was fine with us being there.
And then, we put up signs around the neighborhood looking for background extras in the movie and hired our caterers from within the community. So as much as possible, [we made] sure that we were putting money from the film back into the community and that we were also including whoever wanted to film and finding opportunities to include them in the making of the film.
That was always a priority for us and the producers as well. That we make this a film that Brownsville was apart of, not just go in there and shoot in Brownsville. And I think that that is what makes the film so special, is that we were able to capture Brownsville in this very authentic light and to shine a light on the wonderful people and families and kids and everyday life of the community. I found it to be more stressful when we were filming in Crown Heights and when we were blocking off a sidewalk to shoot stuff outside the restaurant where Darrel works. For example, we got a lot more pushback from people who had fears of their neighborhood being taken over because that's a neighborhood where gentrification is at a peak right now. So that's where we felt a little bit more tension, actually, than we did in Brownsville.
OKP: Elvire, what methods did you have to train for wrestling and later on boxing during the filming process?
Source: Netflix Media Center
EE: What's funny is all the boxing stuff was choreographed stunts. But the wrestling, I really had to train to be a wrestler for five weeks. With a couple of people like [trainer] Mike [Torriero] and other people he paired me with. Even the DP (Ashley Connor) sparred with me in wrestling a couple of times. So it was intense because you’re using different muscles that you don't normally use. I don’t normally stand in that position and it might be OK for a couple of seconds, but you're like that for 45 minutes to an hour and your legs are killing you the first time. I’m using my arms more than I did so it was definitely a challenge because it's different muscles and different ways of using your body that I wasn't used to. But it's kind of an adrenaline rush too and I enjoyed learning something new. But it was definitely tough.
OKP: In addition to having the actors learn how to grapple and wrestle for First Match, you also included actual student-wrestlers for the film. What was your process in directing not only actors but athletes who weren't trained actors? What was the camaraderie like on set between the two?
ON: It was in having actual wrestlers in the movie where I knew it would be essential for making the world of wrestling really read authentically. I've seen wrestling faked in movies and it's terrible. The first few wrestling matches that I went to made me squirm in my seat, it's very uncomfortable to watch. And I didn't know much about wrestling before I made the short film and so trying to follow the action is hard when you don’t know the sport. Having made the short film, and the short film I used wrestlers, I didn’t book many actors in that film. There were a few in key roles but it was mostly just bringing in wrestlers to play the wrestling roles. So I knew that it was going to be important to capture that world and also to sell Elvire as the wrestler.
I had some meetings before I even started casting the film with a couple of guys, wrestling coaches who were former wrestlers who had helped train Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher. And I said, ‘I really want to cast an actress to play this role. Is it possible to train someone in a short amount of time?’ They said the key is to pair her with a real wrestler because the wrestler can do a lot of the heavy lifting. So all of the people that Elvire wrestled with in big matches, those are wrestlers. And they really helped carry the choreography. However, those guys didn't know they were going to end up with an actress that was as athletic as Elvire. She really mastered the basic wrestling techniques and movements to actually be able to perform it to the point that some of the wrestlers who were in the big matches, who didn’t know who Elvire was, assumed that she was actually a wrestler. Because that's how well she pulled it [off].
From making the short film, I worked with this organization called Beat The Streets (https://btsny.org/about/mission) that supports wrestling in the NYC public schools, provides coaches and pays their salaries, provides all the equipment, etc. Because I had this relationship already with them and had become friends with some coaches, those people ended up being really important in helping us recruit wrestlers for the movie. The Beat The Streets coaches helped identify who would be a good sparring partner for Elvire in the film. They were essential part of making the movie and our trainer who trained Elvire and helped choreograph all of the wrestling scenes is a guy named Mike Torriero, who was a coach for Beat The Streets. And we kind of pulled him out of retirement and made him get back into coaching just for this movie.
OKP:First Match has a strong representation of women of color. Elvire, I’d like to ask a two-part question if I could: 1) What were your initial thoughts coming to set and seeing women of color in front of and behind the camera for your first feature-length film? 2) Do you believe that we’re in the midst of a black cinematic renaissance? If so, what do you see as the future for actors and creatives of color that haven’t been mentioned before?
EE: I kind of feel like the peak of equality is not even noticing the differences. For me, being on set, all I noticed was a bunch of great, amazing people that were working hard. [They were] so supportive, there from the beginning, from having rehearsals to shooting. I didn't even know the numbers of the percentage of women we had there (Ed. note: Women made up 60% of the crew, more than average 23% on a film set. All key creative roles in production were women and 75% of department heads were women). For some reason I didn't notice. It wasn't like it was told to me but I saw a bunch of people working hard and making things happen. So it felt like any other set I've been on. It was a project that we loved and we all worked hard.
For the second question, right now [this film] is showing that you can put a black girl as a lead in an all-black cast and people will watch it. I feel like more and more films with POC leading in it are coming out and some people are expecting it to not be watched but it is being watched.
Source: Netflix Media Center
OKP: The meat-and-potatoes for me in watching First Match is the dynamic between Monique and her pops, Darrel, played by Yahya Abdul-Matten II. What was the dynamic like between you two during script-reading and what personal flourishes did you two add to build such a dynamic chemistry?
EE: Olivia actually played a really good role in that. We talked about the script and character development before we even started shooting. [We] asked questions like: What happened to the mom? How did she die? Little things like that, having those layers in your mind throughout the story of all the questions you've asked about the role since Mo was a child till now, [it] adds layers when you're on set and reacting and communicating, you think of those little things. Almost like you think of all those things that you go through in your life when you're going through something. So that definitely helped.
[Abdul-Matten II] made choices for Darrel that made Darrel who he is and rationalized what he did. And I made sub-stories. While I was doing what I was doing and fighting for this relationship, one of the scenes in the end where [Mo] finally explains how [Darrel] got arrested, she was blaming herself all this time. So part of why she fights so hard is trying to make it up.
OKP: Olivia, how did Yahya Abdul-Mateen II fill that role of Darrel and provide you with what you needed for the character?
ON: The character of Darrel, for me, always through all of the script stages was the most challenging. Because [he was] most challenging to relate to being a young father and understanding what that experience was like. And then, what is really important to me is that he has shortcomings and he doesn't make great choices but it's clear that he loves his daughter. I really wanted to try to understand this guy who thought he was doing the right thing by dropping out of high school to take on that responsibility and doing that thing you're supposed to do to be a man and be a father to provide for your kid. So I wanted him to be this guy who was trying to do the right thing but because of the lack of resources and education, his own childhood and maybe not having a father figure/role model in his life, makes choices based on quick fixes and not on well-thought out big picture plans.
So it was a super important to me that I find an actor who could capture all the shades of who Darrel is. Yes, he is a guy who dreams bigger than is attainable and make choices that sometimes have really negative repercussions. But he's not a heartless person. He loves his daughter and he wants so badly to be on top and to be somebody that she can admire that tries to shapes her into the mold of who he thought he could be. I hope that's something people can relate to. I'm a parent myself and I know I have to be careful about wanting my kids to be something that I think they are instead of just letting them grow into who they are. When I saw [Yahya's] very first audition tape, I saw that he could capture all of those different shades. And he really helped embody that character.
And for [Yahya], it was really important as well that he understands and sympathizes with and relate to Darrel. So he and I had a lot of conversations about his motivations and about his history. On set, if something wasn't feeling right we would talk about where he was at and what his thinking was. [Darrel] carried a lot of shame and a lot of guilt but he doesn't like living in those spaces so he wants to feel good about himself and not fester in those places. Working with someone like Yahya who could really dig in deep into the character with me and make sure to fill out all of who he is really brought to life the way I always intended him to in the writing. Casting the right actor is absolutely essential for actually making that all come together.
OKP: Finally, what’s next down the pipeline for both of you?
EE: Right now, I'm taking meetings now.
ON: I'm finishing up a new script which I just took through the Sundance Institute's FilmTwo Initiative for second feature films. I am also reading a ton of material to potentially direct.
Netflix’s First Match drops today on March 30.
Joi Childs is a brand marketer, sarcasm enthusiast, and film critic. You can find her on Twitter (@jumpedforjoi) tweeting about the intersection of marketing, nerd, and tech.