‘The Sun is also a Star’ opens today nationwide.
Starting with Yara Shahidi, talk about how you found your two leads—was the casting of this film a long process for you?
The casting actually clicked into place quickly, which is rare. Literally, the first person I thought of for Natasha was Yara Shahidi. I knew her mainly from her work on “Black-ish,” but also as a person in the world who’s very much a force of nature. She’s incredible, thoughtful, an aspirational kind of person, who is wise beyond her years. She seemed completely capable and absolutely brilliant at pulling off what Natasha has to do in the film, which is actually quite tricky—she’s dealing with her family in crisis and she’s falling in love, and those two things couldn’t be further apart.
And what about Charles Melton as Daniel?
I wasn’t familiar with him and his work on “Riverdale,” but [author] Nicola Yoon put a post on Instagram asking, “Who should play Daniel?” All these names popped up and Charles was one of them. I did deep dives on all the people mentioned, as well as a whole other list of actors. Charles instantly rose to the top as the person who is absolutely right for the part—charming, thoughtful, a big heart. When we chemistry-read Yara and Daniel together, the magic was there.
When I spoke to Charles, he mentioned the scene with his brother in the family store, and that he was just crying the whole time. Do you remember that?
That was early in the shoot, so I was still learning a lot about everybody’s process. I remember being quite moved by Charles’ ability to access his own emotions, it’s unexpected because he can look like such a tough guy. He has incredible vulnerability that’s easily accessible, and that’s really delicious for a director. Charles made the character of Daniel sensitive and truthful in a way that’s untraditional within the confines of gender dynamics.
Though the film’s themes of love and destiny could easily play out in any big city in the world, the story takes place in New York City. I understand you were a firm believer in shooting the film there?
Absolutely. New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. I’m from New York—I grew up there, I was a teenager there. It was really important to me that we get it right and that we embrace the idiosyncratic locations and character the city has to offer. We’ve seen New York in many movies but I don’t always feel we see the real New York and I wanted to show it, from the Roosevelt Island tram to the immigrant communities…the scope, the history and the diversity of it. The film is, in many ways, a love letter to diversity.
I understand the author, Nicola Yoon, was very involved.
Oh, yes, I met her very early on, after I came onboard. I also met David, her husband. The book is loosely based on their story—she’s Jamaican-American and he’s Korean-American. It was a wonderful experience and they were an amazing resource, because I could hear it from the source. What does the book mean to both of them? And in the film adaptation, what would be the best version that she could imagine? It’s also a timely story so we all felt an urgency as to why this had to be made now.
You have a wonderful team of filmmakers with you, like production designer Wynn Thomas, who has an impressive body of work.
He’s been such a gift to this movie. It was a case where I could just let Wynn go, and he works his magic. I would say no one knows the story as well as Wynn and myself. He remembers the little pieces, little connections. He really understands the story, the characters and the motivations, and he knows how to express all of it in an incredible visual language.
And cinematographer Autumn Durald—she was shooting widescreen, giving you a bigger canvas to paint on?
Yes. A lot of the movies we’re referencing— West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass, Manhattan—are in that format, and for a love story, the wider frame holds two people so well. And it goes back to shooting in a big city like New York, and how to capture the scope, that epic feeling of falling in love.
Do you enjoy the post-production process as much as the shooting?
I enjoy both processes in totally different ways. They each require different kinds of muscles even though it’s all storytelling. I love the editor that I work with, Joe Landauer. He edited my last film, Before I Fall, and we have a warm and trusting relationship. I respect and admire everything that he brings to the movie. He’s a huge creative partner in the process.
Does the rhythm of it come together within that process, or do you already have it in your mind how you want it to feel?
It’s a little bit of both. I prep hard and extensively. I prep everything from shots to music to the feeling of each scene. All is thought through prior to shooting. That’s part of my process, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t change on set or in the edit room. I prep hard so that I can then be open to the moment in terms of something changing. Filmmaking is messy and prep allows me to understand the material in an intuitive way so that I can be prepared for the unexpected. In the edit room, Joe and I then improve on what we have, we continue to make it better all the time.
What do you hope audiences experience from this film?
I hope to provide an emotional experience above all else. Perhaps a reconnection to love through this story, especially given what we’re subjected to every day in the news. A reminder of our togetherness, perhaps. It’s interesting… in these times, what people choose to watch. How much does one want to engage in what’s happening and how much are we looking for vehicles that provide escape? Perhaps it’s a balancing of the two? In the end, I think the film reminds us that when we find someone we love, we should go after them and hold on forever, because it’s rare and it’s beautiful.