Malik Vitthal Interview: Body Cam | Screen Rant
Malik Vitthal's sophomore feature, Body Cam, reimagines the current police violence crisis - only this time, it is police officers of color who are the victims. The film is part-supernatural thriller and part-current affairs commentary, but wholly elevated by its capable cast – including Mary J. Blige and relative newcomer Nat Wolff.
The young director, who previously wowed the Netflix world with Imperial Dreams (starring John Boyega), had a chat with Screen Rant about the process of filming Body Cam. He explained why his stars were perfect for their roles, how he combined the supernatural with the all-too-realistic, and what film he’d like to reimagine in his own style.
With all the cop on black crime that we see tragically reported on, Body Cam makes an interesting statement with officers of color being seemingly picked off. Can you talk to me about how your story gets its message and themes across?
Malik Vitthal: Well, a friend of mine said something about giving an audience something in a different form. We click on things, and we just want to be entertained. But sometimes it's nice to be to have a little bit of both. So, we call it a complete meal. People can go and be entertained, and also kind of remember some of the other stuff that's happening in our world that is still a conversation.
There are things that we still kind of need to be aware of and work on. There's all these different communities that we have out there that still need to kind of bond together. This is just a reflection of one of those communities in our society.
Did you guys shoot this in New Orleans?
Malik Vitthal: Yes, we shot in New Orleans. It was ultra hot out there while we were shooting it, all night pretty much. A fun production.
Can you tell me how the local vibe and flair of that city contributed to the film?
Malik Vitthal: I wanted to go to New Orleans because my father was from New Orleans. He's still living there, so it was just a chance to hang out with him. I've been there a lot.
I made this film originally because of my mother, and I hadn't seen many characters like her on screen that just basically did everything. My mom worked full-time; she raised me. She was a disciplinarian; she was also my best friend. I wanted to see some strong characters like her, but shooting in New Orleans allowed me to hang out my father and all of his friends. My dad's kind of well known there, so it was like all the doors opened up for us there, for everything we wanted to do. It was a perfect storm.
I want to talk a little bit about Mary J. Blige. She's an Oscar-nominated actress, but she's still relatively new to acting. What was it about her that got her cast is as Renee?
Malik Vitthal: Yeah, Mary was the perfect person for this. The execution is kind of a fine line. You want to have a person that is loved by the culture, and so for me Mary was always the top choice. There's something really mysterious about her - no one really knows that much about her right, and we've never really gotten to get our claws into her. And I was curious. I was like, "What's behind that?"
She was also so giving and allowed us into her emotionally. I think that was one of the things that we really haven't seen from her before, because she's just such a mysterious icon. I've been a fan of her since I was younger, and it was like a dream to actually work with her. And then to see that she's such a sweet, giving, loyal, honest person that just wanted to hang out.
She loves films. When I met her, she was just talking about all these different horror films. And it was embarrassing; I didn't really like know any of the films, because I don't watch horror films. I hate horror films. It was pretty funny to talk to her about all these things and know that she really knew the genre, which was really exciting to me. She just likes to go to the theater and get scared, so it's fun.
What surprised you the most about her performance? Was it the mystique she brought to the role?
Malik Vitthal: Oh, yeah, definitely. It's also been allowing the audience into herself more, because no one really knows Mary too much. It's a new side of Mary that we don't normally get to see, so I think it's pretty exciting.
I really want to talk about Nat Wolff also, because he's a young up-and-comer. Talk to me about what he brought to the role.
Malik Vitthal: Nat was perfect for the role, because he came in was the one that really got Mary to open up. In terms of getting her to bullshit around, and almost creating that brotherhood and sisterhood within the police force. He's gonna keep it light; he's keeping everyone in the present moment. That's the thing that was so special about Nat. He's just such a gifted storyteller, like Mary. So, between the two of them, they were a good counterbalance. It's a little entertaining; it's a little thought-provoking. They know how to kind of do everything, and they felt like family right away when we put them in a police car together.
There's an element of a thriller in Body Cam as well. Can you talk to me about that aspect of the story?
Malik Vitthal: Mary's character is actively searching for something the whole movie. She's actually working out her own personal stuff, but she's also searching for something, and I think that kind of creates the suspense in the film between her inner struggle and the actual struggle that she's going through at work trying to figure something out.
So, you're not sure the whole time if she's actually creating this in her head or if there's something that is really out there. And I think that helps create the tension of what the audience gets to experience during the film, and hopefully in a couple moments makes it a little spooky for them.
Can you talk to me the most challenging scenes you shot, especially since you were on location and mostly filming at night?
Malik Vitthal: Yeah, I mean, that finale was in a water plant in New Orleans. I think it was around 110 degrees during the day and super humid. What ended up happening was we were shooting inside that that water plant, and it was just ultra humid and hot at night. I think it was just hard on the crew, and some people were getting dehydrated. It kind of affected us that next week too, where some people would almost pass out. It was just a lot to take; you were sweating through clothes every 10 minutes. I remember this one night I changed shirts, like, six times.
What do you think the scariest element of body cams are? Because they can be used for good or ill.
Malik Vitthal: It's a reflection of mankind. There's so many different ways that we can go about using this life; for good things or bad things. It's a tool. If we don't get to see the lead up or the aftermath, you can cut it any way you want. It's like this interview - you can choose to use whatever you want and add things, or who knows?
It's complicated. Imagine at other people's regular jobs; if someone gave them this body cam. Police officers have a lot of responsibility with their jobs, but I think what's going on there is also a larger reflection of what's going on with our culture.
You filmed a movie with John Boyega before he became a big Star Wars icon. Which supporting actor in Body Cam should we look out for in the future?
Malik Vitthal: I'm still in touch with all the supporting actors; I love them. So, I would say all of them, if I can answer that way.
I mean, my friend Naima Ramos-Chapman - I put her in the role as one of the officers just because I wanted to be with her in New Orleans. She's one of my close friends, and she's also a director and writer. She directed some of the episodes of Random Acts of Flyness on HBO. She's another storyteller that could be with me on set that I just want to be around. That's typically the type of performers I like to work with. You're going to be on set with them all day, so you might as well make best friends.
I'm a big fan of your directing style. Has there any big franchises that you feel you want to revitalize or reimagine under your eye?
Malik Vitthal: I used to always watch James Cameron films. Last night, I watched Cast Away. Did you ever see Maximum Overdrive? Maximum Overdrive with Emilio Estevez.
Yeah, I think it would probably be Maximum Overdrive, because I think we're in a perfect time for it, knowing that technology has moved ahead so much further. Probably, I'll say that and you'll print it, and someone else will make it. Or maybe someone will find me and say, "Yes, we want to remake that." But it seems like a fun movie to make. I remember watching it over and over and over as a kid, going like, "Wow, this is the worst that could happen," but it probably could happen now.
I'm starting the campaign for you to direct that film. With all that's been going on this year, have you given much thought on your next project or started writing it yet?
Malik Vitthal: Yeah, I'm writing now on a couple of different things. I think with the reality of what's happening in the world right now, you want to be mindful of still making things that you're really passionate about. But also being realistic and knowing that you should probably have a couple of that you can make with a more compact crew and team of people around you, just so you can actually shoot in the next 6 or 12 months.
Body Cam is now available on-demand