Interview: Writer/Director Jacob Estes Talks ‘Don’t Let Go’

The Blumhouse thriller Don’t Let Go (starring David Oyelowo and Storm Reid), about an uncle that must solve the murder of his family and potentially have the chance to bring them back, opened in theaters on August 30. I had the pleasure of sitting down with the writer and director of the film, Jacob Estes, to talk about the inspiration for the film and what it was like working with the star, David Oyelowo.

Nerds and Beyond: So to start off, this was something that particularly interested me, because Blumhouse has a reputation for gore and horror and Don’t Let Go is more of a classic thriller — did you pitch Don’t Let Go to Blumhouse or did you develop it for/with them? What was that process like?

Jacob Estes: There is this children’s writer named Drew Daywalt who wrote this book called The Day the Crayons Quit that I used to read to my children. And whenever I get a script from somebody I always look the writer up and see what else they did, and so I got this script and looked him up and was like “Oh! This guy wrote the book that I read to my kids.” So I was reading his script, and within the first five to seven pages there’s this farm out in Ohio, and there’s an uncle and his troubled brother, and the troubled brother appeared to have killed everybody. So the uncle is grieving and then his phone rings and it’s his niece. There was something about that scenario, and the writing of it, that lit me up and I felt really hopeful for something, even in this tragic situation.

So then the craziest thing that ever happened in Hollywood happened. I wrote my agent a note saying “Hey I think this script might be really good” and then I went to yoga. By the time I got back from yoga, Jason Blum had called me saying “Dude, it’s yours if you want it buddy.” So I read the rest of the script, and it turns out that that was just the MacGuffin and the majority of the story had nothing to do with phone calls or the uncle and his niece. It was just a MacGuffin to get a cop to a house, and that house was like a house of demented horrors. Like little ghost kids in wheelchairs and scurrying monsters and stuff. And I just couldn’t conceive of making that movie. So I called Jason and said “I can’t. I don’t want to do that but I loved the first five to seven pages.” And so he asked if I could fix it and I said, “No, I think you want to make a horror movie about monsters in a basement and I just don’t.” Later, his partner at the company called me and was like “No really, just fix it” and I literally said “Well if you pay me to think about it, I will.” Because I wasn’t willing to develop a speculative pitch at that point in my life, which might take me a month and they might say no. And they said yes to that, which was wonderful. So I started walking around, thinking for hire, and decided that this wonderful, hopeful idea of “maybe he can save her, maybe she’s somewhere” — because at this point I didn’t know if she was a ghost or in some other time or if he was hallucinating it. I thought maybe even he killed her. So all of those ideas became nestled into the narrative as I developed the story.

Nerds and Beyond: What was the name of the story that originally sparked this idea?

Jacob Estes: “The Hurting Man.”

Nerds and Beyond: So, when you wrote this, did you have a black family in mind or did it come out of casting and what was the process like of shifting and adapting it?

Jacob Estes: I actually did not have a black family in mind, I originally pictured a white family. Because it was set on a farm in the Midwest. And one of the reasons it needed to be set on a farm in the midwest was because there are these gunshots that go off on the farm and nobody hears them, or if they do, they don’t call the police. That was a primary, needed plot point, and usually when you think of farmers in the midwest you think of white people. And Blumhouse was willing to make the movie whoever I cast in it, so they had me out scouting in Ohio. And I had asked the casting director to submit it to David Oyelowo just because I thought he was a phenomenal actor and I felt this movie had everything to do with family and nothing to do with racial identity and that I could figure out some plot device to make it work for whichever actor would say yes.

So we were thinking about all kinds of people, but I asked to have the script sent to David, and that seemed like a long shot to everybody because he’s very picky. But he read the script the day he got it and said he wanted to meet me while I was in Ohio. So Blumhouse called me and said “we think you should fly to LA and meet David” and abandon the scouting. So I flew to LA and went to David’s house and sat down with him and he asked a few questions. He had already watched both of my other movies and we really hit it off. We decided together that the reason there might be gunshots and nobody calls the police is that there might be because of the socio-economic environment. So we started looking at neighborhoods where a guy that looks like David might be from where gunshots might go off. That led us to Watts and South Central LA.

Nerds and Beyond: And how did Storm Reid become attached? She came on board after David?

Jacob Estes: So we had to cast the family around David. And we knew that, among other things, this little girl was going to be under extreme stress and, because she has so many scenes with David Oyelowo, had to be truly excellent. And I had a lot of experience casting kids because of my first movie, Mean Creek, and I knew that it wasn’t about looking at like Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon but about casting a really wide net and seeing who shows up. So we just started looking. And my casting director auditioned hundreds of people. (She even sent me a video of Shahadi Wright Joseph, which is how she ended up being cast by Jordan Peele in Us.) Eventually Storm came in and read and I wasn’t sure she was young enough, but she just oozed confidence and passion and it was obvious she could do this part in a real way. I asked her to come meet David for a chemistry reading, which included 20 minutes without me just sitting by the pool at his house just reading the script and talking, and at the end of that reading I turned to my casting director and she was crying. We knew we had the right person.

Nerds and Beyond: Yeah their on screen rapport and chemistry is so great, that was one of my favorite parts. Their little moments, like their little add on to the drawing game that they play at the diner is something that my family used to do.

Jacob Estes: Yeah that’s something that my family used to do as well and it wasn’t originally in the script. I think at the very last moment I stuck it in because I always like to give the actors something to do when there is a bunch of dialogue and they are stuck at a table.

Nerds and Beyond: So, without getting too spoiler-y, what was the decision behind never explaining the mystery/sci-fi/supernatural element? Because I really enjoyed that it just is, and they roll with it. And there wasn’t that need to explain how it was possible.

Jacob Estes: I’m a fan of the genre, and so I’ve seen how attempting to explain something that’s impossible can go terribly wrong and that sometimes seeing a movie where they just embrace the uncanny weirdness is a stronger decision than to truly understand the technicalities of how something works. But, when I originally conceived the story there was a moment of “the why” that had to do with the character Jack Radcliff’s grief and love and need for his family to get pulled back into the fabric of the universe and be his again. Which is a very universal need. And in that script, the way that character expresses it is that he cursed God. And somehow through cursing God, he was given a second chance. And that seemed very appropriate to me. But the cast, David and Mykelti and everyone, they pulled me aside and said “Our community wouldn’t do that.” But I wanted this idea of wish fulfillment to still be in the story so David decided that his character would pray. That he would pray that somehow he would get a second chance. Even though we’re not going to say anything, or show the “hands of God” coming in to rearrange everything, that that would be the sort of like — you know it’s like in Liar Liar. The son wishes his dad would stop lying and then you get to see what happens, but in a thriller/horror/uncanny weird context.

Nerds and Beyond: Were there any other insights or adjustments to the story that they gave you while you were filming and developing the story, like in regards to their community or family dynamics and things like that?

Jacob Estes: So everyone has their own point of view on what’s “real” and what’s their community. But two of the actors are from the community where we shot, Mykelti Williamson and the mother, Shinelle. So they had a unique perspective but also different ideas about what the community was. You know, we’re not talking about a monolithic culture, we’re talking about a huge part of LA that is everything from the hills overlooking these giant houses to also the “ghetto” and Western Avenue where there’s drug dealers and child trafficking and things like that. And so it’s everything, it’s not one thing. We tried to look at that fact and tried to represent all the different sides of South Central Los Angeles.

But David, specifically, he’s a Nigerian born English guy, and he takes his work of representing his characters very seriously. So he went to the LAPD and he met a homicide detective whose own father was a captain in the LAPD and he shadowed this guy for weeks. He studied the way he talked and the way he code switched around different people. He would record him and play his voice for me. He also studied another guy, younger, and showed me that guy’s voice. And then we chose together which voice to use. And he studied the way the guy walked. He really wanted to get that stuff right. He wanted to study the way a cop handled his gun and so we hired a guy to work with us on that as well.

Mykelti also took us around for a day with another LAPD officer, who had been — he was an extremely violent guy. He was on a list called “The Gang of 45” or something 45, but he had had a lot of… “incidents” and I think he specifically chose that guy because he wanted to get to know a guy that had some anger issues. It was a learning experience, but not unlike anything I’ve ever done. When I went to rural Oregon for Mean Creek, I didn’t know rural Oregon. I hadn’t ever seen that river. Or known what it was like to be in that small town that we shot in, but we had to get to know it. That’s part of the culture of filmmaking, is getting to know something that you don’t know.

Nerds and Beyond: That’s something that I’ve been thinking about recently. Whether it’s because of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or these other LA based stories, what sort of character does the city itself — specifically South Central LA play in the story? What does it represent for you?

Jacob Estes: I think what it represents is us. All of us. Because getting really specific and clear and talking about people in their given circumstances, what you’re doing is you’re exposing them as people and recognizing them as people. And so we can recognize ourselves in them. And I don’t think the movie is trying to rub your face in it like “THIS is LA.” In fact, I recoiled from ever having hip hop in the movie or glamorizing South Central LA as if it were anything other than what it is, which is just a neighborhood.

Nerds and Beyond: Right. It doesn’t feel fetishized at all.

Jacob Estes: Yeah that was very important to me.

Nerds and Beyond: And so how did you get Alfred Molina on board? His appearance was such a fun treat.

Jacob Estes: The pleasure of having an actor like David Oyelowo is that people want to work with him. And he has friends, friends like Alfred Molina. And so figuring out the cast, he said, “What do you think about Alfred Molina?” and I said “Well, that would be great” and the next thing I knew, Alfred was coming over to David’s house and we all sat around drinking coffee and talked about the script and he said he would love to do it and I thanked my lucky stars.

Nerds and Beyond: So you touched on this a little bit earlier, and again without being too spoiler-y, there is something very hopeful about this story, and even though it doesn’t fully — not all of the violence gets undone — but there is still that optimism at the end. And I thought there was something so interesting about what it was saying about processing grief and trying to get closure as you deal with violence and trauma, and how to move forward, especially in 2019. And I was wondering if you could talk about that and why this story feels very relevant to now?

Jacob Estes: Well I hope that’s what you write about in your review! I think that right now, we, as a people, are traumatized. And there’s a creeping sense of fear and grief. And that’s coming at us from all sorts of angles. The idea that the environment is going to turn against us. The idea that our president is possibly unhinged and thinks it’s okay to nuke hurricanes. The idea that we can’t trust our press that’s being perpetuated by the establishment. And so I think it’s important for us as a culture to recognize that there’s a way out of that. Or to change that, or to get past it to something less stressful and less traumatizing for ourselves and for our children. And so, to make a story where there’s a young woman at the center of it, and she has to save herself to save her family, felt like a potent and important story. Without delivering any “spinach” or “vitamins” because it’s a popcorn action flick. But it does have that part of it.

Nerds and Beyond: It felt like a throwback, in a way, to those nineties thrillers that were kind of their own little composed worlds, but there is that undercurrent that touches on how we’re all feeling now that gives us that sense of “Well we can’t actually change the past, but maybe we can move forward and still save ourselves.”

Jacob Estes: Well we can change the past, in the sense that if we change our future we can understand the past differently. For instance, as we were moving through this cultural revolution that peaked with Obama as president, I think a lot of people felt that we had made huge significant process as a people, and on some level we had. But, a coalition of racists, nazis, and hateful people were gathering in that time to change the future. And we didn’t necessarily all recognize what was happening and what we really were as a people — and now we know. There are people marching and chanting “Jews will not replace us” and our president is calling them “very fine people.” And so now we are looking at our past, and our trauma, differently. And so, if you have a murder of a family and you presume that because the gun is in the father’s hand, and because he’s got mental health problems, that he did it. That maybe you need to dig deeper and look underneath it and see why he did it. Maybe, when you start to look at why he did it, you discover that he didn’t do it. That there’s another explanation.

Don’t Let Go is currently in theaters Nationwide. Read our review of it here!

Britt

Britt is a Los Angeles based writer, burlesque performer, and life long nerd. A former drama kid turned playwright and classic ambivert, (shout out fellow ambiverts! There are dozens of us! Dozens!) her love of books, snacks, and cats makes her a Ravenclaw with Hufflepuff leanings. She is a voracious reader, writer, and unapologetic binge-watcher. Her lifelong obsessions include Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Arrested Development, Neil Gaiman, and Frank Herbert's Dune series. Her current obsessions include: Sherlock, Black Mirror, The Great British Baking Show, RuPaul's Drag Race, and Counterpart. She will also gladly talk people's ears off about graphic novels if they let her, which they usually don't. Find Britt on Twitter @MsGeorgiaOQueef

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