Interview: Maxwell Addae

'Outdooring' is a tense drama set within Los Angeles' Ghanaian community. The Iris Blogger spoke to the film's writer-director, Maxwell Addae, about culture, costume and the crime genre.
There are picture descriptions for the visually impaired at the end of this post. IRIS BLOGGER: What prompted you to choose the setting, and this situation for the film? MAXWELL ADDAE: The two communal events that felt most traditionally Ghanaian to me were how we mark births and deaths. They were a normal part of my upbringing. It took me a while before I realized they were not traditional American customs. IB: And how did the story come about? MA: I first tried having it take place during a funeral – that felt like an environment where a confession could naturally occur, but the celebration of a birth sparked a tension that instantly drew me in. On one side, there's a ceremony that's about letting someone know they’re protected and a welcomed part of the community. On the other, there's a coming out story with the risk of being expelled, isolated, or rejected from that community. Having the two play on top of each other was compelling.
Keith Machekanyanga (Kobby) and Malik Cason (Don) in Outdooring.
Another thing I needed to do was find the right genre. I think I used to shy away from genre because it felt like something was being forced onto what I needed to say, but actually genre is flexible enough to accommodate any type of story. I knew there was a genre for this specific story and I found it in the heist movie. Heist films are all about subterfuge, making your target believe you are something you're not, and having an audience that’s empathetic towards that goal -- which is usually a criminal act! I'm already a huge crime genre fan. There are so many ways to critique ideas of victim vs perpetrator, power dynamics, morality, and social taboos in entertaining ways. The rest of the story filled out quite easily. IB: The Outdooring ceremony is specific to Ghanaian culture, but much of the film feels universal, especially for an LGBT+ audience. Was finding that balance, of cultural specificity and broader relevance, important to you? MA: It was important, but I had to trust that managing that balance on film was an inherent part of the wisdom I had from being a first-generation Ghanaian. Actually, I was probably more worried about finding that balance through my adolescence. That's when identity can become weaponized against you if you don't handle it in a socially acceptable way. Now as an adult, I have a clearer understanding about where my American culture and Ghanaian culture overlap. Conveying some of those specifics is my second language, at this point. The rest was me trusting my audience. For example, an Outdooring is similar to a baptism. Not exactly, but it gives just enough context to carry you through the story.
Cassandra Blair as Annette and Naviah Nichol Vernon as Junior.
My greater priority was getting the Ghanaian specifics correct. There are a couple of words in the Twi language I had to have in there, because everything else was in English, and something felt missing without it. Also, since moving away from where I grew up, the social gatherings I've been to have decreased tremendously. In some ways, this film is a Bat-Signal to my Ghanaian community. Watching it now, I can see how I was missing my family back in Texas and feeling desperately unsure about how to reconcile that with the equally loving environment I've created for myself in Los Angeles. I couldn't stand as tall as I do without both of these communities raising me. IB: Costume seems a part of the film’s visual storytelling and characterization, with differences in dress denoting differences in age and attitude, so for example Kobby’s parents are dressed traditionally and so is Uncle Red, Kobby's gay uncle, but Uncle Red’s clothes are more brightly coloured. MA: Something that fascinates me about narrative filmmaking is how it works on the conscious and subconscious simultaneously. Part of the joy of re-watching my favourite films is discovering and deepening the playful dance between those two. When it comes to colour, it's an incredibly powerful tool. It's why I chose to shoot one of my early short films, The Man in the Glass Case, in black and white. Then, in the sci-fi short I did, called Descry, I used very muted colours; almost black and white. I needed to first get a rough handle on the other aspects of visual storytelling before I could even think of working with colour. IB: How closely were you involved in the process of selecting costumes?
Theodore Mark Martinez as Uncle Red.
MA: Our costume designer, Hazelle Gobert, and I had many discussions about who we wanted the audience to make connections between. We prioritized linking Kobby to his Uncle Red and baby Junior because it’s those two who Kobby projects onto the most. We achieved this by having them wear similar maroon colors. Kobby with his shirt, the baby with his shoes, and Uncle Red with his entire outfit. IB: And there’s a contrast between Kobby’s shirt and trousers, and the traditional clothes worn by his parents, and his sister's clothes seem like a halfway point between the two. MA: With the style of clothes, it wasn't about linking but about highlighting differences. Growing up I wore what a typical American teenager would wear to a formal family event, while the adults wore traditional outfits. As I got older, I saw how the cousins who were just a few years ahead of me, starting wearing more traditional clothes. Some of that might have been because they wanted to be seen as adults within the community. Another part had to have been there was more pride in our heritage. As we got older, the fear of not feeling "American" was no longer an issue. Kobby needed to represent that age of feeling way more comfortable in the culture he was growing up in than the culture he came from. His sister Annette was in that transition point of learning how to hold both cultures at once. Leaving the older adults as the representatives of the culture from back home. Being able to play with all of these distinctions and similarities without a line of dialog is one of the things I love about filmmaking. IB: Many short films are a springboard for features, and with Outdooring there's a lot of potentially dramatic stuff that happens off-screen, such as Don’s conflict with his brother and – without giving anything away – whatever happens after the credits roll. Can you see yourself expanding the story, or do you feel it’s perfectly self-contained as it is? MA: I wrote it as a self-contained story first. I'm not a fan of making a film that is more of a preview than a complete story. Those feel more like exercises than something you make to share with audiences. Once we shot and were in post, I allowed myself to think about other aspects of the narrative that felt suffocated in the short. If the short is a complete thought, then what else did I have to say about this idea? Don's arc definitely had room to grow. Kobby's entire motivation throughout the film also had more room to explore.
Cassandra Blair, Maxwell Addae and Keith Machekanyanga.
The thing that I still needed to ask in the film was: what other things would Kobby have to consider as a young black man in America with immigrant parents? I don't think he gets to only have a coming out story. The trick is not laying an obvious political weight to this delicate journey. I feel like I've found a way to weave a complicated family narrative with those larger ideas alongside it. Since then, I've written a feature version that I'm really excited about. I'm just starting to talk to producers and production companies. I'm also applying to things like the Sundance Development lab because they have a great track record of nurturing bold films from start to finish. IB: Have you shown the film to many people in the Ghanaian community, or to family? And if so, what was the reaction like? MA: I've had non-blood family Ghanaians watch the film. Iddris Sandu, a young brother doing great work with technology and Ghanaian investment, checked me out at my South by Southwest premiere and had some beautiful words about it. There have been lots of other young folks, mostly from other parts of Africa, who reached out about how affected they've been by this story. It's left me with a lot of hope. A few people from my immediate family have watched it. They've responded well. I like making films that are bolder and more vocal than I am, so I'm hoping to have more conversations with other family members as the life of the film continues and hopefully expands into a feature film. Programme 7 | This is America | Cineworld Screen 15 | Fri 11 Oct 10am Buy tickets for Programme 7 / Buy festival passes Picture Descriptions
  1. Screenshot of the title 'Outdooring'. Behind it, the film's protagonist, Kobby, a young Ghanaian-American, is walking away from us across a sprawling car park, wearing a maroon shirt. It's late in the day, but sunny. Kobby is walking towards the venue for his nephew's 'Outdooring' ceremony.
  2. Picture of the director, Maxwell Addae, in quarter-profile. He's smiling and wearing glasses and a grey suit.
  3. Kobby, played by Keith Machekanyanga, and Don, played by Malik Cason, sit in the front seats of a car. Don is facing Kobby, Kobby has his back turned to us and is in the foreground. They are in the middle of a heated argument.
  4. Inside the venue, Kobby's sister Annette is approaching Kobby, who looks pensive. She is wearing a white vest and a headscarf, and carrying her baby son, Junior. Junior is wearing maroon baby sneakers.
  5. Outside the venue, in the car park, Kobby embraces his Uncle Red; an older man, bald-headed and cheerful, and wearing traditional Ghanaian clothes that almost match the colour of Kobby's shirt.
  6. Cassandra Blair, who plays Annette, and Keith Machekanyanga, who plays Kobby, stand either side of the film's director, Maxwell Addae. Addae has a pair of headphones around his neck and is talking to the actors. They are in the venue featured in the film. There is a grand piano visible in the background, orange bunting hanging on the wall, and a large terracotta bowl filled with banknotes.