Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s English-language debut “Drift” world premieres Jan. 22 in the premiere section of the Sundance Film Festival. Chen, the producer, and Cynthia Erivo, the film’s lead actor and one of the producers, spoke diversity about the movie
The film, starring Erivo (“Harriet”) and Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”), is from the production team of “Call Me by Your Name” – Peter Spears, Emily Georges and Naima Abed. Erivo, Salome Williams and Greece’s Heretic are also producers. Spears won the best picture Oscar for Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland.”
“Drift” is based on the 2013 novel “A Marker to Measure Drift” by Alexander Maksik. It was a New York Times Notable Book, and a finalist for the William Saroyan Prize and Le Prix du Mailleur Livre Etranger. The screenplay was co-written by Maksik and Suzanne Farrell.
Erivo plays immigrant Jacqueline, who lives a marginal existence on the shores of a Greek island, traumatized from war-torn Liberia, where her father was a government minister. His life changes when he meets Callie (Shaukat), an American tour guide.
The sea is a constant backdrop – underlined by the opening shot, where we see a woman’s footprints being washed away by the waves – highlighting the fragile existence of Jacqueline, who drifts into existence.
Georges produced Chen’s first two feature films: “Ilo Ilo” (2013), which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and “Wet Season” (2019), which was nominated for the Platform Award at the Toronto Film Festival.
Chen, Spears, Georges, Abed, Williams and Erivo speak diversity About the movie.
Anthony, how did you get involved in this project?
Chen: Peter, Emily and Naima approached me about this project in late 2018 with a very early draft of the script written by Aleksandr Maksic. The first time I read it I thought it was based on a real character: the protagonist Jacqueline and the political and historical context was so vivid. I was deeply inspired but at the same time haunted by it. I have known Emily since 2010; He was the sales agent for both my first and second films. I think they know my movies and my sensibilities very well. Jacqueline’s character and story became almost an obsession for me. We brought in another screenwriter, Susie Farrell, and I worked with her to develop it, mostly during the pandemic. We just started shooting last March.
How did you bring your own vision to the project?
Chen: I was very lucky to work with Susie on the script. During the pandemic we talked on Skype almost every day. It was a visual film, but all the details were on the page. And like all my films, it was important to bring the same integrity to the characters and content in all aspects of the film. You see in the script, the camerawork, the mise-en-scene. I have always been interested in these intricate and complex bonds and human connections between strangers. In “Ilo Ilo” it was a Filipino maid between the ages of 10 and 10. In “Wet Season,” it was between a teacher and a student. Here, in “Drift,” you have a Liberian refugee and an American tour guide. Subconsciously, I think I’m drawn to these kinds of stories and these kinds of characters, perhaps because I’m an outsider myself. I have lived in the UK for 17 years, since I came here as a student. I still see myself as an immigrant and I think that gives me perspective and objectivity when looking at a lot of things. When I go back and look at my work, it’s always about the outsider.
How would you describe the main character Jacqueline?
Chen: He is a refugee but he comes from a place of privilege. I think both his mind and body are constantly lazy. He is struggling to belong. He is trying to define his existence. This juxtaposition between privilege and chaos was evident in the novel and we tried to capture it on screen. He’s like a ghost, floating around. He’s there, but doesn’t really belong. We read all these articles about immigrants and refugees, but it’s really hard to understand the real human experience of what that really means. This is why the film is so deeply moving. I’m always a little wary of film when there’s so much design on the back; Everything counts. You think that people are squeamish about social issues or political views. I find those films sometimes very manipulative or somehow exploitative.
Peter, can you explain a little about the genesis of the project?
Spear: The book was originally optioned by Bill Paxton, a few years before his death. He was working with the novelist Alexander Maksik. Bill realized that this could make a beautiful and universal adaptation. My husband was Bill’s longtime agent and best friend. We were all at dinner after “Call Me By Your Name,” which she had just seen and really liked. He recently met Cynthia and asked if I could help him make it. He appreciated the work that Emily, Naima and I had done together. He died a few weeks later after heart surgery. I sometimes look back and wonder if he was doing things right, knowing this was going to be a serious operation. In honor of the bill, we have been keeping it ever since.
Immediately, I reached out to Emily and Naima to see if we could put it together as a European co-production. The first person they thought of was Anthony. So, we met him and he met Cynthia and they hit it off immediately. Hence this type of global village is created. Then we teamed up with our great manufacturing partners from Greece, Heretic. Antony was now the shepherd, to whom we could go with a stick.
Can you talk a little bit about what Cynthia brings to the project as Jacqueline and as a producer?
A bed: You don’t know until you’re on the set, but she really embodied Jacqueline. He is a central element of this strange glue that unites us all.
Williams: I think we all had our own idea of what the movie would be, what the character would be. Cynthia and I started our journey as a production company two years ago, but it was in the back of her mind even before coming to “Harriet.” So, when we joined forces and gave our mandate to normalize the experience of “the other,” this film resonated with that mission, both professionally and personally. Cynthia is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants to the UK. I am an immigrant, born in the height of war in Ethiopia in the 1990s; Displacement is central to my own story. For us it was really about how you give layers and textures to a character, for an experience beyond the titles. He is inattentive, he is so lazy, unable to connect with other people. And you feel that he really starts to find his voice by the end of the film.
Chen: I think it wasn’t just Cynthia. I think every actor brings their own experiences and I think that’s how this film should have been made. I’m constantly amazed at the decisions Cynthia makes on set and I’m like wow – I didn’t see that on the page. I’ve always worked on films where I wrote the script and I saw it on the page. But when an actor comes in and fully inhabits a character and takes over, and you just see him blossom, you’re so moved. There have been a few times where I’ve been in tears on set, because I think it’s a very brave, very generous, a very naked performance. I always believe less is more and I try to pull back. There were moments where Peter had to remind me: ‘I think we need more passion here.’ I think it was a very organic process – from the development of the script to how we shot and edited and finished the film. The film had a life of its own. I’m really proud that we were very faithful to the spirit and sensuality of the book.
Emily, can you tell us more about this organic process of making this film?
Georges: I think it’s clearly a post-pandemic film. It feels very relatable as part of a healing process in general. It is quite exceptional to maintain a process of understanding and compromise from people from so many different places, all with different perspectives.
Cynthia, in summary, why is this project so special to you?
Erivo: What first attracted me was the screenplay and the humanity of the characters. It came to me when I was on Broadway and moved me. When it came back a few years later, I was much older and felt that I might have the ability to help build the project. I honestly had two brains, the hyper creative brain, connected to the character and his experiences…and the pragmatic, organizational, problem-solving brain, whose purpose is to help create the environment in which the story can be told. I was lucky to be part of a team of producers who held the reins of it just as tightly, because sometimes it was almost impossible to be both. But there’s a quiet thrill in knowing you have more to offer, which is heard and acknowledged. You get to be a part of the process. That’s what I want – a holistic experience of the film and TV making process. It was definitely this experience!
“Drift” is a co-production with France’s Paradise City Films (Georges and Abed), Greece’s Heretic (Georgos Karnavas and Konstantinos Kontovrakis) and UK’s Fortyninesixty, Cordium (Spears), Edith’s Daughter and Williamsory (U). Photo of Giraffe (Chen). It is funded by Sunak Culture and Aim Media, Ages LLC, UK Global Screen Fund and Greek Film Center with support from Creative Europe. Memento International is handling the sale.