Writer and director Shatara Michelle Ford had to work hard to make their first film, Test Pattern, by overcoming institutional and structural hurdles to get it funded. Audiences can count themselves lucky that Ford was able to do so when it releases this Friday.
The film focuses on a couple, Brittany S. Hall as Renesha and Will Brill as Evan, who must grapple with the fallout of a sexual assault. It follows their journey as they attempt to navigate an uncaring bureaucratic medical system and exposes the underlying dynamics of power buried in their relationship to each other.
I got the chance to talk with Ford about getting their film made, being emotionally truthful, and the absurdity of navigating a system not built to provide justice.
HUTCHINSON: How long was the process to make this film, and what drew you to this story?
FORD: That is a very complicated, windy question, mainly because of how I ended up here. I actually was trying to get another movie made. I had a script on the Black List in 2017 called Queen Elizabeth that was just a classic coming of age story. I thought to myself this should be easy to get made. [Laughs] I think I underestimated where Hollywood was at when it comes to actually wanting to support first-time filmmakers. It was a script that was well-liked, and the protagonist was a 24-year-old Black woman. If you kind of tried to think about a famous early 20-year-old Black woman in Hollywood, you kind of can't. So much of what funding comes from is casting and so even though the business recognizes that there's an issue that there aren't that many meaningful names, especially for Black actresses, you're kind of in a chicken and egg situation because no one was willing to take the risk to create one either.
So I just couldn't get the movie made. And you know, another thing that people were saying a lot, and this is in the aftermath of #OscarsSoWhite, everyone was just kind of like, 'Oh, well, we need more Black filmmakers, we need more women like Black women, let's support that!' Then I would be in these rooms and say, 'Hey, I want to make a movie.' And they're like, 'Oh, wait, but no, not you.'
I had simultaneously been doing a lot of research about rape kits, because before 2017, I didn't know they existed. It was after learning about the backlog, which was also a new thing to me, and I just kind of went down this rabbit hole of constantly trying to learn about this stuff.
I kept finding stories of people who wanted a rape kit but couldn't get one, needed a rape kit but didn't know they could have access to it, or were charged for it, which they're not allowed to do, or folks who had just terrible experiences with the forensic testing of it because they weren't being tested by a professional who also is sensitive and knowledgeable about these experiences or were turned away because that individual wasn't even available.
It's just like God, like, you know, something that is really important to me as an artist is to be able to interrogate and analyze the kind of systemic institutions that dictate our lives. I was just kind of looking at these highly complex structures that were running into each other and the people who are falling through the cracks, which tend to be marginalized folks, especially people of color and women of color. I wanted to make a movie about that. We finally locked in October 2018 and have been trying to find a home for it ever since.
I'm glad it found a home because it is quite striking. There's the initial incident, a horrible event, but then there's everything that follows it. The bureaucracy is banal but no less damaging. How did you work to capture that?
I wish I had a more intellectual answer for that, but the truth is that it's my lived experience. The system does not work for me in so many ways. It's not hard to replicate that into the world if you are given the tools to do so. I think that what I will say is that it was all a deliberate choice on my part. I think sometimes when you experience disappointment, constantly, when you have an opportunity to do make believe, you go into the world of wish fulfillment and fantasy. I think that happens a lot in commercial films.
For me, even though it doesn't feel good, it's important to be emotionally truthful. If we spend too much time in fantasy and wish fulfillment, we're never confronted with the reality of somebody else's experience. I think there's value in that. I think emotional truth in cinema is really important.
I'm not as caught up on making sure that the set that I have is completely accurate for the time and place that we're in. It's much more about: Are these human beings behaving consistently with what we can understand and engage with when it comes to issues of identity and experience.
I want to ask a more straightforward question about the tattoos. You use tattooing to indicate the passage of time, with characters getting more tattoos as the film goes on. How many of those were the actors' tattoos, or did you choose and design the tattoos?
Yeah, all of Renesha's tattoos are Brittany's. They're just there. I was kind of grateful for it because I was like, 'Oh, now this is something I don't have to think about.' I didn't want to cover them up, so how do you integrate them into the story? I was like, 'We'll keep reducing the makeup to kind of reveal what was already there for the actress to begin with.'
With Will, he didn't have any tattoos at the time. I think something that's really important to me is giving actors as much ownership over their characters as I can. Will and I'd spent a lot of time talking about Evan and further developing Evan as a person. One of the other things that he got to do was decide what tattoos Evan had and where they went. So yeah, they're all fake, but I believe him getting a tattoo a few months after we wrapped was influenced by wearing fake ones for a while. [Laughs]
That's remarkable that all of his were fake. I was so into what was going on, with him being a tattoo artist, that I was like, 'Oh, he just has so many tattoos.'
Our makeup artist Lian Uritsky is really good. She did a great job of that.
There's a flashback scene during the crisis, where Evan is talking about tattoos for Renesha. He uses the word "brand" in a way that marks a shift in his character as he's becoming more possessive and controlling in the relationship. What were you hoping to convey with that shift? He seemed like this nice, understanding, caring, compassionate person, who was trying to do all these things to be supportive, but then it becomes much more about the control he has?
Well, first of all, you just answered your own question, my friend. That makes me happy because it means that I did my job right.
The two areas where we have these flashbacks, it was there in the backyard with the tattoos and then again with the barbecue scene. That was me trying to signal that Renesha is processing or seeing the relationship in a different light after being dragged around from hospital to hospital for an entire day and not being listened to. If we think about that particular tattoo scene, that's a conversation I'm also having about possession in relation to bodily autonomy. There are a lot of people out there who think possession is a love language and find that very sweet, the concept of being owned by the person who cares about you. I personally don't really agree with that. I don't think it jives very well with bodily autonomy and personal freedom, especially when that comes to marginalized folks, women, patriarchy, all that kind of stuff.
So that scene without any of the music, without the slow zoom, without the grade that I put on it, felt creepy as hell anyway. Renesha maybe didn't pay attention to it when he said it the first time, but he kind of had already told her that he feels slightly possessive of her. It's also just a dumb thing to say. I think even using the word "brand," even bringing up this connotation shows his ignorance to the fact that this is a Black body. The idea of being owned in those ways evokes a lot of dark history.
The last question I wanted to ask is about a few very distinct choices: First, with lighting used as a memory cue when Evan puts his hand on Renesha's leg, and second, with the music choice in one scene where you utilize Tchaikovsky's Waltz of the Flowers when they're at the hospital. It initially seems incongruous, but then when you reflect and look at what they have to go through, what is essentially this dance of jumping through all these hoops, it enriches the scene. What were you hoping to inject into these moments?
Well on the Waltz of the Flowers, again, you're spot on. There is a dance. By the time they get to that final hospital, they've done it so much that it's with precision, and there's a whole beat and structure to it. On the other hand, it's absurd. Completely absurd. I do find that kind of stuff humorous, I found the scene very funny when I wrote it.
When I experience stuff like that, there's a lunacy to participating in something that doesn't work. Therefore it's performative. That was the kind of idea of evoking a waltz, that there is a ceremony to what you're doing that is slightly in vain.
In terms of the lighting choice, I'm really influenced by German Expressionism. I'm definitely a filmmaker that believes I should use all the tools I got to communicate an idea before I use dialogue. I kept thinking, 'How do I express the thought that Renesha is feeling pretty violated and out of control when it comes to her body right now?' It's not personal, it's not really about Evan, but he can't see that. The audience doesn't fully know that either; only Renesha knows that. In Renesha's head, she's still there. If we blend the two worlds, that explains where that comes from.