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HORROR BUSINESS: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr. on Welome to the Blumhouse Feature, BLACK BOX

Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr. is the director behind Black Box, a thriller feature from the Welcome to the Blumhouse series of films now streaming on Amazon Prime. As a collaboration between Blumhouse Productions and Amazon Studios, Welcome to the Blumhouse has released a slate of films showcasing diverse casts, female, and emerging filmmakers with a focus on family dramas. Black Box stars Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine and tells the story of a single father who awakens after a car accident with no long-term memory and a vacant memory of his past life. After undergoing an agonizing experimental treatment, he begins to unravel the truth behind who he really is and the implications that will have on his young daughter. 

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Black Box effortlessly interweaves elements of thriller, sci-fi, and horror with a compelling family drama at its core. All of which is complimented by deeply compelling performances by the cast.

In this interview we hear director Emmanuel discuss working for Blumhouse, lessons learned from his first feature and much more. Interview below. 

Dread Central:
Huge congratulations on Black Box. It straddled so much territory. In some cases, it felt like a Black Mirror episode. Also felt like a good old horror movie in certain cases, but also just had a lot of thriller elements. It was also a family drama. There is so much interwoven into so much else, but it still felt like a very cohesive whole. That’s a hell of a balancing act.

Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr.
Thank you!

DC:
This is your directorial feature debut, right?

EOK:
Yes, it is.

DC:
What was it like working within the Blumhouse system?

EOK:
It was incredible. I remember when I had my first meeting with Blumhouse, they met with me after they saw a short film of mine called Born With It, which was my thesis film at Tisch. They had this wall of directors and many of which had their first shot at Blumhouse. I imagined that I’d be on that wall and I dreamed of it. Didn’t realize that would actually be reality a few months later.

DC:
Wow!


EOK:
It was incredible working with them because they’re an artist first company and so they hired me for my vision and for my sensibility and they encouraged me to lean into that as much as possible.

DC:
I feel like that’s one of the great things about Blumhouse, following in the Roger Corman tradition of super low budgets, but with the low budgets comes a lot of ownership and responsibility. Personally, I think that’s why Corman bred so many of the best producers, directors, and even actors because he gave them so much freedom and responsibility and Jason Blum is doing the same thing by giving such creative control over to the directors along with final cut. And working with first-timers, it’s pretty exciting.

EOK:
It was really incredible.

DC:
How did you get involved to begin with? How did the film come together?

EOK:
They saw my thesis film, Born With It, and I had a general meeting and that’s what they do in LA when people meet you. Just shoot the breeze. I got along really well with the executive that I met with and she suggested that I might have a unique take on a horror film or a thriller film within me, just because of just the way I approached the dramas that I had made prior to that.

She sent me Black Box. I read it at 11:00 PM in Texas, back at home in Texas, and just felt like I shouldn’t have read it that night because the backwards creature that appears in it, it’s just really chilling and unsettling.

But I also remember just being really drawn to the family drama elements that Steven Herman put in his original script. As I was thinking about what my take as a writer would be and as a director, I always try to find my personal entry point. I thought Nolan’s devotion to his daughter was incredible and that’s what really drove the story. But I thought there was also an opportunity to tell a story about a man that just made deep mistakes.

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He gets a second chance to be a better father and a better man for the sake of his daughter. It’s something that I had seen happen to loved ones, family, friends, when they become parents, they suddenly become the best version of themselves. In many ways, having a child transforms you. They loved the take and they loved the idea and so we developed for a few months and then I went into production early this year.

DC:
How long did the movie take to shoot?

EOK:
We shot over 18 days.

DC:
Whoa. That is not a lot of time.

EOK:
18 days was really, really, really tough.

DC:
Wow.

EOK:
My script was an elevated character driven, sci-fi thriller, so you’re just doing two to three people in a room talking a very, very grounded story. There were worlds we were building. It was a lot of detail that was needed. It was challenging. Luckily I lived in Asia for a few years and I was used to doing short films.

All of my short films were really low budget and it was all on my own dime or friends’ dimes. Just being able to prioritize the shots that were essential to maximize the emotional impact of the film, it’s something that I was used to. That’s what guided me in getting the essentials and getting us through the days.

DC:
It sounds like shorts were very formidable for you as far as being budget conscious and being really resourceful and able to deliver high production value on low budget, which essentially is the formula at Blumhouse.

EOK:
Yeah. I would say prioritizing more than anything because at the end of the day, it’s not just about getting every direction. It’s about shooting the emotion, shooting relationships, and shooting characters. That was really important to me. I think it all adds up at the end because of that.

DC:
Well, considering how much emotional subject matter was in here and the fact that you have characters going through so many different intense emotional states and arcs, is there any strategic advice you have for other directors in working with actors, in getting them to those very, very emotional places in their performances?

EOK:
I think directing is 50% casting. If you cast the right person, then your movie is half done and you just sit back and whatever. I’m partially kidding, but it’s like a lot of your character comes to life in just who you choose. But I also think who you vibe with is also really important because that relationship, that camaraderie, and that chemistry is super important. I had it with Ms. Rashad. I had it with Mamoudou. I had it with Amanda, with Tosin, Charmaine, Donald, across the board. You could be great, but if we don’t have chemistry, then it will be hard for me to get the most vulnerable, the most truthful performances. You can, but it’s great to be able to also have those conversations early on.

EOK:
I spoke with every single one of these actors … Mamoudou, we spoke for months before he got to set. Ms. Rashad, we spoke on the phone numerous times in the weeks before she arrived, just scene by scene, trying to figure out, okay, what is the subtext here? What should your arc be? This is what I think your arc should be? What do you think about that? Just having a conversation about that. Because we liked each other, it was easy to have those conversations and they trust you when you get to set as well.

DC:
Yeah. I feel like that’s such an important element of casting; casting for chemistry because the person you see in the audition room is not necessarily going to be the same person you’re going to have on camera three weeks into shooting when set conditions are difficult and things are going south.

EOK:
Part of those conversations that I had before we got to set wasn’t just the character arcs and the points of these scenes, but also how they like to work. Just knowing that helped me get through days quicker. I asked each of them, so in what way do you like to work? Do you like objectives? Do you like me to just give you facts? Do you like us to speak intellectually and philosophically about what’s really going on in the scene? Each actor was very, very different.

DC:
I feel like that’s huge. It feels similar to how a teacher in a classroom will have students that will learn in different ways. If you’re a teacher who teaches one way, you’re not going to reach the entire class or similarly, if you’re a director, you have actors who all prefer to work in different ways and prefer to act in different ways, being adaptable to all their different styles feels like it’s the name of the game. Were there any keys or strategies to having such a robustly developed world in a low budget film? Like any sort of lessons and resourcefulness for being able to pull off something like this?

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EOK:
Prep. Prep. Prep is everything. I think when you’re working on an 18-day schedule, which also means that you have a very limited prep time as well, you can’t be picky. You have to be very specific. You have to be very clear. One thing I did learn is how much it’s worth it to come into prep with a very, very clear idea of what you want in locations, what you want in production design, what you want in props and wardrobe. That way, you’re not micromanaging all these departments, but you’re giving them ideas that helps put them in your head.

DC:
Right
.

EOK:
But you don’t have as much time to brainstorm or experiment or play. You have to just know exactly what you want from the get-go. The more time you put into prep to being able to articulate what that vision is with references, with examples, the quicker you’re going to get what you want. I think that’s essential when you’re working on an 18-day schedule.

I really do think that the arcs of your characters and the emotional subtext that’s happening in every scene is what dictates why you choose a location, why you choose certain elements that are going to be on camera, because at the end of the day, that’s all you care about is evoking the emotional experience that is needed to get people through this film. That’s why people are leaning in.

For me, that’s what I poured all my energy into when I wasn’t scouting for locations, wasn’t auditioning local actors, when I wasn’t building shots with my DP, when I wasn’t talking to visual effects. That was where I spent most of my time. I think at the end of the day, that’s all that matters because you’re always going to lose things. You’re going to lose locations. You’re not going to have time to do shots. If you don’t know the emotional core of every scene, then it doesn’t matter how much prep you do. On a technical level, you can’t adjust because you don’t know what you’re shooting.

DC:
All of the Welcome to the Blumhouse movies have social messages behind them. Were there any specific analogies or metaphors that were socially relevant to this story?

EOK:
This is about the second chance to be a better father. It’s about just how much will a parent do, how much will they sacrifice for the wellbeing of their child? That’s the message. That’s the metaphor. That’s the theme that is very relevant up until the last scene in the film. If there’s a thematic through line, that is it.

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DC:
You spent a lot of time in Japan and it seems like culturally, Japan is very meaningful to you. I was wondering if there were any specific artistic lessons that you observed from the Japanese culture that contribute to your directorial style or just your overall artistic sensibility? What does Japan mean to you as an artist?

EOK:
Wow. That’s a very deep question. It’s funny because most of my favorite films are Japanese films. Indirectly, my films have been influenced by the films that I love. I’m a huge fan of Hirokazu Kore-eda who did this film called Shoplifters that was nominated for an Academy Award a few years back. I’m also really, really influenced by Takashi Miike who did Audition. I’ve met him and I actually have met his composer a few times.

DC:
Oh, wow.

EOK:
The Audition soundtrack is incredible. Yeah, Cure was one of my favorite films. Creep is incredible. There’s something about like Japanese cinema and the filmmakers in Japan that they lean into silence to build tension… They allow things to be said in silence. Scenes feel very intentional, very subdued, and just very weighty. I think that’s something that I really lean into and it’s something that I’m drawn to as a filmmaker because I just think that more is said when you don’t say anything. In this film specifically, I really wanted to make use of quiet tension to really build the suspense, especially in those memories and so forth.

DC:
Last question, what is next for you?

EOK:
I’m working on a supernatural horror mini series, which hopefully I can talk about later at some point. But that’s what I’m writing now. I’m working on the feature version of Born With It, which is that short that I mentioned. Yeah, those are the two primary things at the moment.

DC:
Very cool. Can people see Born With It online? Is it easily accessed on YouTube?

EOK:
Yeah. You can Google it on YouTube or search for it on YouTube. Or you could go to my website as well. emmanuelok.com.

DC:
Okay. Okay, perfect. Thank you again and huge congratulations on Black Box.

EOK:
Thanks, Nick. Thanks for having me.

Black Box is now streaming on Amazon Prime, along with the rest of the Into the Blumhouse features: Nocturne, The Lie, and Evil Eye.

Written by Nick Taylor

Nick Taylor is a producer and journalist specializing in horror cinema. With a background in marketing and PR, in addition to writing for Dread Central Nick hosts a horror-filmmaking podcast called The Nick Taylor Horror Show. The interview-style podcast explores the techniques, strategies, and key pieces of advice for aspiring horror filmmakers, straight from the minds of some of the latest and greatest names in horror today (Joe Dante, Mick Garris, William Lustig, Joe Bob Briggs + more).

Nick is currently producing a documentary on Steve Johnson while working on Zombie Road, a feature-length immersive zombie movie on the Oculus Rift platform that integrates film & real actors into a cinematic video game platform in virtual reality.

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