Ain't It Cool News (
Movie News

BREATHE Director Stefon Bristol Chats with Barbarella

Hey friends, Barbarella here. Breathe, coming to theaters and on digital April 26, occurs in 2039 in the once vibrant, now decimated East Flatbush neighborhood in New York. In this post-apocalyptic era, the earth’s oxygen level has reached a not-fit-for-life amount, yet one family has survived thanks to the engineering genius and survivalistic skills of Darius (Common). He, his wife, Maya (Jennifer Hudson), and their daughter, Zora (Quvenzhané Wallis) live in a DIY-tech dwelling amidst the ruins. When Darius ventures out and remains gone longer than expected, Zora, who has learned much from her dad, attempts to reach out, bringing unwanted consequences.  

(L-R) Quvenzhané Wallis as Zora and Jennifer Hudson as Maya in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, BREATHE, a Capstone Global / Warner Brothers release. Photo courtesy of Breathe Productions Inc.

I caught up with director Stefon Bristol to chat a bit about his personal journey, Breathe, and working with its cast. Check it out!

I feel a little sleep-deprived today. Do you find that as a director, you're more sleep-deprived than the average person?

“Definitely. When you're working on set, or you're doing pre-production, or you're in post, definitely. But this is what I love to do for my life, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

How did you get into directing? I know you worked with Spike Lee, but what interested you about it? 

“Directing? I grew up in Brooklyn. I grew up in Coney Island. When I was a kid, I was watching DVDs with director's commentary and special features, behind the scenes. I had the Jurassic Park DVD, and I would watch all the time the behind the scenes, because I was always fascinated on how they made Jurassic Park and whatnot. I was a kid, so I didn't think I wanted to be a film director until I was much older.

“When I was on Long Island, I went to a high school that's predominantly White, right? I was really feeling angst about knowing what it means to be Black, being a young Black man in America. I had no inkling of learning that until I saw Do the Right Thing for the first time when I was eighteen years old. That's when it struck me; I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I missed Brooklyn. I missed all my culture living in Brooklyn, and Do the Right Thing just sparked such a big thing for me. Actually, it sparked a lot of inspiration for a lot of young Black filmmakers. I rushed downstairs after I saw that movie. I told my mother, "Ma, I know what I want to do. I know what I want to study for college." She was, as a Caribbean immigrant parent, "I'm not paying your ass to study no flip in school." I was like, "Oh, boy." And I was like, "All right." I went to a community college at Long Island, just studying being a teacher. That wasn't it. Then, I went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and I woke up one day and said, "I got to pursue my dream." I was studying English Literature at Morehouse; I wasn't really into it. I got to pursue what I want to do. It was my own life, so I finished my degree at Morehouse, and I really worked hard to get into NYU to study film in grad school.”

(L-R) Sam Worthington as Lucas and Milla Jovovich as Tess in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, Very cool. How did you get involved with Breathe, and what attracted you to the project?

“After I did See You Yesterday, you know, I was going broke.”

As you do.

“Yeah. As we all do, right? As every artist do. I was shadowing Benny Boom on Black Lightning during that time. I was shadowing him trying to see if we could get into television, but I was like, "I need another project." I was looking at the Black List. The Black List came out that year, 2019, and Breathe by Doug Simon was on it. I was like, "This is interesting. Let me read that one." I asked my agent to get me that script. I read the script. I was like, "I can do this."

“And I was like, "Yo, I want to pitch my vision of it to Thunder Road," because Thunder Road had the rights to it. The script takes place upstate in New York on a farm. I was like, "Hell no. It's going to be with Black people in Brooklyn." Thunder Road got a kick out of it, but they say, "Hey, we definitely want to do that because the alternative was some A-list actor that wanted this cast, someone like Scarlett Johansson for it, and make it feel like Mad Max, and that's not what we wanted to do." I was like, "All right. Well, let me take a crack at trying to find how to elevate the script." Of course, I want to do Brooklyn with the Black cast, great. But how can I elevate the script, right?

“So I said, "All right. We'll read the script a couple of times, figure it out.” I noticed all the characters talked about their children. Everybody only cared about their children. I said, "That's the angle." I got the theme from a Native American proverb that goes something like, "We don't inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children." Once I pitched my vision for that to ground the script around that theme, to ground the script around the character of Zora and the protection of her, we got a movie. Doug Simon was very gracious enough to stay on to write my vision of his spec script to where it needs to be. I really appreciate Doug Simon for sticking around to do that.”

Cool. How involved was he once production began?

“To be honest with you, not as much, but he did come visit the set. And he was very useful during that day because Jennifer was like, "Yo, all this science jargon, I don't know what it is. I can't do this. Yo, we got to make changes." I was like, "No, just say it. Just say it. It has to be scientifically right. You can't do that." And then, Doug was like, "It's all right. It's all right. We can change it." And thank God for Doug. He saved my ass that day for me getting yelled at by Jennifer Hudson. She yelled at me a few times though, but it was all love.”

Jennifer Hudson as Maya in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, BREATHE, a Capstone Global / Warner Brothers release. Photo courtesy of Breathe Productions Inc.Speaking of, this was quite the cast that got assembled. How did the casting process work with you guys? And what qualities did the actors have that made them the best fit for your vision of their characters?

“I forgot who told me about Jennifer. I think it was Basil [Iwanyk] who told me about Jennifer. "So what do you think about Jennifer Hudson for the role?" I gave myself a pause, and was like uhhhh, and then I envisioned her with a shotgun, and I said, "This is going to be great." That’s exactly what I'm looking for. We could talk about Milla [Jovovich], Sam [Worthington], Common – they’ve all been relatively in the space. 

“Jennifer was perfect casting because in a movie like this, I wanted those who see this film and recognize Jennifer to feel like that's her own people. I want people to say, "That's my auntie protecting her daughter," "That's my cousin around the way, protecting her house." That's the kind of feeling I wanted from the film. We went after Jennifer to see if she would be interested. I didn't think she would, but I met her, and she was very sweet, very driven, and really wanted to do it, to my surprise. I was like, "Oh sweet!! This is great. This is crazy." And we got Milla early on because she's the golden standard for the genre. I wanted her to do something a lot different. I hope people see her doing something incredibly different in this film.

“Believe it or not, it's less of an action and more of a drama, especially between Jennifer and Milla. I just wanted to place the camera in front of Milla and let her rip like, "Milla, just do your thing." It's refreshing to see her be not like an action star, but to be a person that is trying to figure out how to get oxygen and bring that back home to the people that she loves. Every time I call "Cut," there's already chills. Remember, it's hot out there. We shot it during the summer, and I was getting chills watching Milla.”

That's saying something.

Milla Jovovich as Tess in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, BREATHE, a Capstone Global / Warner Brothers release. Photo courtesy of Breathe Productions Inc.

“I know. But I do want to talk about Quvenzhané though. Quvenzhané has been a dream come true to work with because... When I went into film school in 2011 – I'm aging myself now – and the movie that came out that everyone was hyping about was Beasts of the Southern Wild.

“Everybody loved Quvenzhané in that movie, and I said to myself, "I want to work with her one day." By the grace of God and the universe and the powers that be, I finally got my dream. She was the devil to work with! No, I'm joking. She was great. She was so great. I hope this movie really propels her career, that all her fans and people continue to see how much of a star she is.” 

How do you think you and the actors would fare in a post-apocalyptic world?

“I think we'll be all right. (Laughs) I think my ass would be dead. Milla already has it down pat. I'd already be dead.”

I think I'd be dead right off the bat.

“But the thing is, that's the whole point of the movie is to warn your audience. If we don't do something now, that's what you're going to see in the next few years. That's why the movie takes place not too long in the future, because an event like that can happen. The funny thing about apocalyptic film that's not zombies or whatnot, [the apocalypse could have been caused by anything. It could be] an environmental disaster, or a nuclear disaster, or just something miraculous just happened. I know what happened, but I'm not going to tell the audience what happened, because I want everybody to feel responsible for what the world can be if we do not take care of it. If we don't take care of it, we are the ones who are on the brink of extinction. The Earth has already survived five different apocalypses. The Earth is going to be fine. It is we who are living on it that are not.” 

Quvenzhané Wallis as Zora in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, BREATHE, a Capstone Global / Warner Brothers release. Photo courtesy of Breathe Productions Inc.What is one story from the set that best sums up the experience of working on this film? 

“That's when I called, "That's a wrap!" I'm happy that it’s over. No, I'm joking. There's a couple of experiences. I would say, day one, we were shooting a flashback, and it was Common and Jennifer, and we had two toddlers helping with the flashback for their daughter in the park. I wanted to make sure that on the screen Jennifer and Common really felt like a couple. I do a couple of takes, and it doesn't feel right; they feel a little distant. I wanted Jennifer and Common to kiss each other. It's like a peck, nothing crazy, you know? You just can't tell them during take or right before a take, "Can you kiss each other?" You can't do that. You pull the actress aside, and ask them if they're comfortable doing it. If they're not, it's cool. If they are, perfect.

“I asked, "Jennifer, just to help the scene a little bit to make you guys feel more like a couple, do you mind if you and Common kiss each other?" She said, "Yeah. [She’d do it.]" I was like, "All right. Okay, cool." I didn’t tell Common. When I call action, it was (makes kissing sounds), so that was fun. It caught Common off guard. He was like, "What's going on?"

Quvenzhané Wallis as Zora in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, BREATHE, a Capstone Global / Warner Brothers release. Photo courtesy of Breathe Productions Inc.

“And another scene, another day that really helped, really anchored the movie for us is when there was an emotional scene. Quvenzhané really needs to be very emotionally invested. I mean, water works, right? I'm tearing my head apart. How am I going to guide her to do it? How I'm going to guide her to get there while being sensitive and whatnot. By the grace of God, her boyfriend decided to break up with her that day. We used that unfortunate time for her to help anchor that scene. I have to use everything in my toolbox, hook by crook, to get good performances.”

Starring Jennifer Hudson, Quvenzhané Wallis, Common, Milla Jovovich, and Sam Worthington, Breathe will be in theaters and on digital, Friday, April 26, 2024. You could check out the trailer, but it's a little spoilery.

Readers Talkback
comments powered by Disqus