Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Director Malik Vitthal (Body Cam)

Neil Middlemiss

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Malik Vitthal is a talented writer and director who made a splash with his first feature, 2014’s Imperial Dreams, starting a pre-Star Wars John Boyega. For Body Cam, his second feature film, Vitthal embraced an intriguing story that aims to tackle the subject of police brutality and subsequent miscarriages of justice that are as pervasive as ever. As of this writing, America is reeling from yet another instance of an unarmed black man being killed by police. That heinous act, and the resulting protests sweeping cities across American, give Vitthal’s Body Cam a different feeling as this film explores police corruption through an unexpected lens of the supernatural. It feels both of this moment and outside of it.

Vitthal spoke to us from his home in California about what drew him to making the film – a film in this instance he did not have a hand in writing – and how the indirect genre approach to the film’s subject can perhaps help expand the conversation or reach.

Body Cam is available now from Paramount Home Entertainment on HD and UHD Digital and will make its way to DVD on July 14, 2020.

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HTF: Thanks for talking with Home Theater Forum today. I didn't know about the film going into it and so was expecting one thing based on the opening few moments, but the film went way off in a direction I was not expecting. I was fully bought into the story based on what I thought I was going to get but found myself equally bought into the story when you ran me off in a different direction. When I think back on the film to me there's a through-line of grief and anger, the grief of losing a son, which both the Renee and the Taneesha characters share, and the grief in the community for yet another instance of the police being acquitted for the killing of an unarmed black man, which we sense in the diner owner at the beginning of the film. Is that the through line of the film that you saw in Body Cam, grief, and anger?

Malik Vitthal: Yeah, I mean, it's this character (Officer Renee Lomito-Smith played by Mary J. Blige) dealing with her own path and how she's going to move through her grief, and it's also a reflection of so many other characters in the film dealing with something And it's these people that are kind of left with the pieces and trying to pull them together. We often don't get a chance to see the people that are pulling together the pieces, which we wanted to do that in a little bit of an entertaining way. But, as you said, everyone gets to come in watching a certain movie and then also get a little bit more entertainment as it moves forward.

HTF: You open the film with an emotionally potent and rather heavy sequence. From the diner to the initial traffic stop and then what happens at that traffic stop. Was it important for you to open the film that way to set the tone rather than more expected approach of easing into the story and meeting the characters we’ll follow?

Malik Vitthal: Yeah, we wanted to heighten the mood of what's actually happening in the world of the film and raise the stakes right out the beginning. We wanted everyone to know what type of movie it is and what could potentially happen, and that creates suspense right away. So, immediately for the rest of the film, you know that there's something out there and that something is taking control of this film that no one really even understands what it is.

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HTF: You really start the film at a 9 on a 10 scale because of how tense it is, then you hit 10 within the first 5 minutes and you don't really come down from that much. I found that really worked in the telling of the story. What initially drew you to this story? You didn't write this and you've directed pieces that you yourself have had a hand in writing, so, what was it that drew you to Body Cam as a piece that you did not have your hand in writing?

Malik Vitthal: You know, more than anything, it was the character of Renee. [A] strong character who is trying to do a little bit of everything. She's kind of a reflection to me of my mother, who I'd love to see on screen as just a strong, smart, driven person whose working a full-time job and raising a family and doing a little bit of everything. So, she was definitely the inspiration behind making this film.

HTF: At its core, Body Cam is built on how police who kill unarmed black and brown boys and girls are almost always acquitted, which is still a deep and painful wound of this country? Did you feel any pressure or recognize any risk in telling this type of story with a supernatural horror story approach? I think it was a fascinating way to examine this very ‘of the moment’ societal issue, because it doesn't always have to be a head-on examination through straight drama – that its could help people better understand some of the depth of those pains by finding another way in. Was there any pressure in doing it this way?

“Just finding another way into the conversation because it's clear that we need to keep the conversation going and continue to do our part to build on lack of finalizing the conversation.”

Malik Vitthal
: Well, I mean, I think you said it perfectly. Just finding another way into the conversation because it's clear that we need to keep the conversation going and continue to do our part to build on lack of finalizing the conversation. It'd be nice if that film wasn't relevant and was like, "Oh, remember when that--," but I think more than anything this is more about being mindful to the journey that the mothers who are on all sides of this [are on]. And those are the people I wanted to make sure I was being respectful to, the mothers of police officers, the mothers who are police officers, the mothers who have lost and what do they deal with [that loss]. Then you take that and throw that into a supernatural film, it allows for you to kind of - as you said - look at this in a different way. Not everyone's going to go watch some of these great documentaries out there on this subject. Sometimes people want to escape but we can do a little bit of both at the same time, have a complete meal and talk about some things while we're still getting introduced into the conversation in a different way.

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HTF: On the cast, I love seeing Mary J. Blige in anything, and you also had Nat Wolff, David Zayas and Anika Noni Rose, who was almost unrecognizable in that role [laughter].

Malik Vitthal: Yeah. Yeah.

HTF: She is just amazing.

“Mary J. Blige was a perfect person for this role because we don't know much about Mary. She's got this mysterious side and she's such a great storyteller and performer and actor. But more than anything, she could really transform herself into the role…”

Malik Vitthal
: Yeah. Anika was perfect for that role and was so giving to transform herself into something that we kind of haven't seen before. But it was also a product of the narrative where, you know, we don't figure out what's going on with her until the end. And Mary J. Blige was a perfect person for this role because we don't know much about Mary. She's got this mysterious side and she's such a great storyteller and performer and actor. But more than anything, she could really transform herself into [the role of Officer Renee Lomito-Smith] whose gone through some troubles and is putting together the pieces. And then Nat and everybody else just made for a real police force around her, so [Mary] and Nat are like the perfect couple. You just believe their chemistry right away and buy they're officers. I'm just huge fans of everybody we ended up bringing on board. Working with all the people that you really love and that you're fans of was pretty cool.

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HTF: And you also worked with Joseph Bishara, who scored the film.

Malik Vitthal: Oh yes!

HTF: I'm a huge fan of film scores and Bishara has done things like Insidious and The Conjuring. I loved the music in this film because it supports the mood that you've got. You've got wonderful cinematography, the way that you stage the shots, it’s really a beautifully shot film with striking contrasts in the colors - police lights going off against deep shadows - it's a great looking film. Then, to that, you add Bishara's score. I won't call it sound design-based, but it keeps a uniform sense through the whole thing that pushes you into a slight discomfort. Was that important to you that the score for this film support the film in that way?

“The look created by [Cinematographer] Pedro Luque, who shot ‘Don't Breathe’, along with the score by Joe were two things we wanted to have reflect the lead character Renee's perspective of that dark, gloomy world.”

Malik Vitthal
: Yeah. You know the look created by [Cinematographer] Pedro Luque, who shot Don't Breathe, along with the score by Joe were two things we wanted to have reflect the lead character Renee's perspective of that dark, gloomy world. But also, with Joe's music, he was on board with us before we even went into production. He made some stuff and sent it over and really helped make it into the headspace of where Renee was. More than anything [for her character] it's fractured but still kind of coming together. So, it is a little sound design-y, but it is a little melodic. [The score is] a little bit of all of it at once, which is where she's at. She's got to put on a composed face for her job, but in her personal life, she's having a hard time and trying to put together this mystery. So, we needed to capture a little bit of all of it but still hold the suspense and the thrills that are going on in the film.

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HTF: What's next for you because I love your directorial eye. I hope you'll be back in the director's chair and am curious if you writing your next piece? Are you looking for other people's stories that you can direct or are you going to write things for other people to direct? Has the pandemic and the lockdown given you space to create at all?

“On this film, and I am one of the people that doesn't like horror films at all [laughter], so we assembled a great horror team just to kind of protect me so I can learn from them. And that was satisfying to learn how to do different scares and all that stuff. It was fun.”

Malik Vitthal
: You know I think it's a little bit of everything you mentioned. I'm writing, I'm also pitching out a couple things, and then I'm also working with some other friends on what they're doing. I just love being on set, I love making stuff, I love community and being able to work with people that you adore, and Body Cam is the perfect example of it. Everyone was so invested, and I'd love to be able to do it again. I think with the pandemic it's probably going to change for the next year or so. I'll probably end up doing something more contained within the next six months that we can actually make [laughter]. Then, after that, just try to grow. I think each time I try to grow and learn something new. That's always been my approach. On this film, and I am one of the people that doesn't like horror films at all [laughter], so we assembled a great horror team just to kind of protect me so I can learn from them. And that was satisfying to learn how to do different scares and all that stuff. It was fun.

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HTF: Well, Malik, thank you so much for talking with me today. Congratulations on Body Cam. It was not what I was expecting but enjoyed it just the same. Thank you!

Malik Vitthal: Oh, thank you so much for supporting us. We really appreciate it.
 

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