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Interview: Filmmaker Clarence Williams on We Can't Breathe and I'm the Man

Director Clarence Williams IV, founder of Williams 4 Productions, established his unique filmmaking voice with the 2018 release of his debut feature, No Doubt, which premiered at the Silicon Beach Film Festival. 

His most recent feature, My Friend Tucker, earned the Best Actor Award for Mitchell Edwards' performance in the lead role at the Golden State Film Festival. Williams was also a recipient of the 2021 More than Music: Black Filmmaker Grant. 

But in our recent interview with Williams, we focused on two of his recent short films: We Can't Breathe and I'm the Man. 

We Can't Breathe, a hard-hitting drama about racist policing practices, was produced and released in the wake of the George Floyd murder. It has received multiple awards, including the Donald E. Lacy Jr. Social Justice Award at the 2020 Studio City Film Festival and the Best Social Justice Film Award from the 2020 Moving Parts Film Festival. 

clarence williams iv

Filmmaker Clarence Williams IV

The short I'm the Man carries a completely different tone. It's a comedy short about a man suggesting that he and his girlfriend try a threesome, betraying personal insecurities in the process. 

Williams shared behind-the-scenes details on both films, from the writing process all the way through production and release. Read on to learn more about this skilled filmmaker's work, inspirations, and upcoming projects. 

To get started, can you tell us about some of your biggest filmmaking influences?

Williams: There are five directors who have made the biggest impact on my filmmaking style. Those directors are Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, John Singleton, and Richard Linklater. 

I admire Spike Lee’s prolificness and his unapologetic approach to storytelling. I admire Kevin Smith’s ability to explore platonic and romantic relationships in all of their crude, verbose, and unexpectedly profound glory. I admire John Singleton’s raw and bold depictions of the black experience in America. 

I admire Quentin Tarantino’s ear for dialogue and his ability to leave his DNA all over every film he directs. He doesn’t make films for an audience, he makes films for himself. I admire Richard Linklater’s emphasis on compelling characterizations and mouth-watering dialogue over the traditional desire to tell plot-driven stories.

Would you say that your filmmaking motivations have evolved over time? 

Williams: I think my filmmaking motivations have definitely evolved over the years. I first realized that I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was 10. Initially, I had big plans to star in all of my films and only direct big blockbuster action films. As I developed my voice as a writer/director I discovered that I have no interest in being an actor-director. 

My home is behind the camera. I also discovered that I was more drawn to character-driven films than films that were heavy on the action and light on the story. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against action films but the action is always more enticing when there’s a strong character to root for or against. If you think about your favorite film or TV show, it’s not the plot that you fall in love with, it’s the characters. 

As a filmmaker, I put great emphasis on creating believable, interesting, and, hopefully, relatable characters that you don’t mind spending 90 minutes with.

Tell us about your film We Can't Breathe. What was the timeline for this project?

Williams: We Can’t Breathe was a film that we shot back in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The inciting incident that prompted me to write this film was the George Floyd murder. I was very upset and fired up by yet another senseless killing of an unarmed black man. I thought back to my own experience with racism at the hands of police officers. 

When I was 18, I vividly remember walking home from the drug store and, not even ten minutes later, there were five or six police officers surrounding my house and banging on my door violently. I almost didn’t want to open the door but I worried that they might kick it down. I opened the door and the police told me, with their guns drawn, that they received a call about “a black man breaking into a house.” 

I remained calm because I knew that any sudden movements could change my life forever. I told them that I didn’t break into my own house. I then proceeded to show them my house key. This was the house that I'd lived in my entire life. The police tried to downplay the situation, even telling me to “have a nice day” after putting their guns away. That incident really unsettled me to my core. George Floyd wasn’t the first or last person of color to be killed by police but the fact that his death was caught on camera and ignited a global cry to value black lives really impassioned me. 

I wrote the script for We Can’t Breathe in about an hour. I knew that I wanted to pit two opposing ideologies against one another to reflect the never-ending feud between those that support “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter/Blue Lives Matter'' respectively. 

We shot the film one month after I wrote the script. We filmed everything over the course of one day. I edited the film in a few days and we ended up releasing it a few weeks later. The response to We Can’t Breathe has been overwhelming, but I love the conversations and discussions that the film provoked. I also think the reason why We Can’t Breathe has struck such a nerve is because, two years later, innocent black men and women are still being killed by police officers with hate in their hearts.

Were there any particular challenges associated with this project?

Williams: Fortunately, I joined forces with a very talented cast and crew that understood the importance of a project like We Can’t Breathe. I wouldn’t have been able to complete this film without them, so I’m very grateful for the hard work and dedication that they put into bringing this story to life. 

The only challenge that we faced while filming was the external noises that are unavoidable when filming on-location in a real apartment. There were some guys trimming bushes directly outside our window. We lost a good hour of filming waiting for them to finish. We were tempted to go outside and slip them a few crisp $20 bills to go on an extended lunch break. Thankfully, we were able to complete the shoot without any major problems.

This film has also won multiple awards. What was your reaction to these acknowledgments?

Williams: It’s always a special feeling to win an award or receive accolades for something you worked hard to create. I was definitely happy to receive awards and award nominations for We Can’t Breathe but, truthfully, I didn’t create this film for praise. I created it to channel my frustrations and speak a truth that people from all walks of life can empathize with.

Next, we'd like to ask about your film I'm the Man. Can you break this one down for us? 

Williams: I’m the Man is a comedic short written by my wife, Christina Araujo-Williams. It’s about a guy who proposes the idea of a threesome to his girlfriend as a way to boost his self-confidence. 

This was a really fun project to shoot. I’ve made a lot of dramatic films but not a lot of comedies, even though I’m a huge fan of comedic films and sitcoms. This project allowed me to unleash my inner goofball. I’m definitely excited for people to see this one.

How did the production of this short differ from We Can't Breathe? 

Williams: I’m the Man was shot over the course of two days whereas We Can’t Breathe was shot in one day. The filming process was very similar to that of We Can’t Breathe. We strive to always create safe and fun working conditions for our cast and crew despite how serious or not serious the material is. 

I will say that we definitely had a harder time containing our laughter between takes because Christina wrote a hilarious script and our cast made what was on the page even more hilarious. It was very important when shooting I’m the Man for the cast to not take themselves too seriously.

Can you tell us anything about any of your upcoming film work? 

Williams: Absolutely. The next project that I’m filming is a dramatic piece that I wrote called Eyes On Me. It’s about an interracial couple that prepares for the harsh realities of raising a biracial child. This project can be interpreted as a companion piece to We Can’t Breathe. 

It was inspired by actual conversations that I’ve had with my wife, who is Latinx. We plan to have children in the future, so discussing what our child will face as a person of color is uncomfortable but ultimately necessary. 

After Eyes On Me, I’ll be directing a comedy that I co-wrote with my wife called Do for Love. It’s about a quirky guy who teams up with his even quirkier best friend to win back his girlfriend. Eyes On Me is going to be a pretty heavy project so Do for Love will be a much-needed change of pace. 

My goal is to continue creating content and learn from each experience. The best way to learn the craft of filmmaking is to make films and plenty of them. 

That's all we have time for. Thanks so much for joining us. 

Williams: Thank you for this opportunity.

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