Tragic circumstances can ultimately lead to people making rash, careless decisions, no matter what their involvement in the harrowing situation is, that will further negatively impact their lives. That’s certainly the case for the multitude of diverse, distinct characters in the new ensemble crime drama, ‘Still Here.’
The movie focuses on how the devastating disappearance of an innocent pre-teen Black girl from her lower-class apartment complex in Brooklyn creates a dire environment that further extends the racial, class and political divide throughout all of New York City. After the girl goes missing, her family members aren’t the only people who are devastated over her disappearance; the mystery over where she is also begins to emotionally impact not only the reporter covering her case, but also one of the main detectives who’s searching for, and how they both subsequently view the racial divide in the city.
Vlad Feier made his feature film writing, directorial and producing debuts on ‘Still Here.’ The thriller, which the filmmaker co-scribed with Peter Gutter, is now playing in select theaters, as well as on VOD, courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment.
‘Still Here’ is set in the aftermath of the disappearance of twelve-year-old Monique Watson from her New York City apartment. After she goes missing, her father, Michael Watson (Maurice McRae), refuses to give up hope in his search for her, even as the media and police, including Detective Greg Spaulding (Jeremy Holm), make little effort in solving the case. The case also lands in the hands of journalist Christian Baker (Johnny Whitworth), who at first pursues a false lead, which turns the entire case upside down. Filled with guilt, Christian decides to continue helping Michael in the search for his daughter, even though he’s facing resistance from the community, the police and his own publication.
Feier, Whitworth and Holm generously took the time recently to talk about writing, directing, producing and starring in ‘Still Here’ during individual exclusive phone interviews. Among other things, the filmmaker and actors discussed how the drama highlights the racial divide that’s still prevalent in America, and the tensions that are happening in real life as a result. The trio also shared how they appreciated being able to shoot the movie on location in the story’s real settings of Manhattan and Brooklyn, as it helped provide the plot and its messages with an extra sense of authenticity.
The conversation with Feier began with the scribe explaining what inspired him to work on the script for ‘Still Here.’ “I’m originally from Romania, and I came across a story about a missing girl around 12 or 13 years ago, and it really inspired me,” he shared.
“When I later found myself here in the United States, I started working on a story about the missing child. From there, I also found the information about the social injustices that were going on here, and I thought that maybe I could adapt all of that into this one story…I basically wanted to write a story about a father who’s struggling to find his daughter, and at the same time, by the end of the story, he also found himself,” the filmmaker also shared.
Holm began his conversation by sharing how he was cast in the thriller, and what attracted him to the role of Detective Spaulding in the drama. “My agent sent me the script, and asked me if I wantedto read for the role. It’s a great script, and very raw. I’m surprised that it was written by someone from Romania, because it’s such an American story,” he admitted. “So then I auditioned for Vlad Feier, and he cast me.”
In the movie, Detective Spaulding readily believes Christian’s first article about the case, and wants the initial suspect to confess right away, despite the fact that his unit doesn’t have any hard evidence against him. When the suspect is ultimately cleared, the detective begins to question the way he approaches solving his cases, and his willingness to send an innocent person to jail, just to have a higher closure rate. Holm was drawn to emphasizing those feelings of reflection and guilt throughout the story.
“From my perspective, when you become a father, your world view starts to change. It continues to change as your children start to perceive how their parents are in the world,” the actor pointed out.
“So I think that if this crime happened before Spaulding was married and had kids, he wouldn’t have been able to change” his views on the way he worked on his cases, and see that what he was doing wasn’t right, Holm added. “But the fact that he had children softened his heart in some ways, and I leaned on that.”
Whitworth also began his conversation by explaining how he became attached to the film, and what interested him in playing Christian in the thriller. “I read the script, and thought it was wonderful; it made a clear statement. I thought the script was well executed,” he shared.
“As far as Christian goes, he takes a journey that would be good for all of us to take, and have the same realization as a result. We should all understand how our actions, as well as our inactions, affect everyone, and what might happen as a result of those decisions,” the performer also noted.
In the drama, Christian initially pursues a false lead, which turns the entire case upside down. He’s subsequently filled with guilt about his part in what subsequently happens to the innocent suspect. His grief leads the writer to help Michael in the search for his daughter, even though he’s facing resistance from the community, the police and his own publication. Whitworth embraced the experience of connecting with the guilt his character feels for his part in the case’s development, and his motivation for personally wanting to help Michael and his family.
Christian “starts off in one place, and then takes a full emotional journey throughout the film. There are a lot of elements (in that journey) that speak to what society is today. When he first starts writing the story, he’s excited to do something, and he kind of went with his investigative instincts, and his role” in the case, the actor noted.
Whitworth felt his character “should have double-checked his sources before he put them in the paper, because people believe what they read and see on the news. In this case, the unfortunate thing was that he took a shortcut, and wrote a piece that just presented an option. That decision catapulted him into the seriousness of what the results were, and the guilt he then felt for his actions, which were haphazard and a mistake,” he also stated.
So Christian’s journey “speaks to the responsibility that the media has in reporting things truthfully. The film has a lot of social commentary, which is subtle in some ways, and pretty obvious in others,” the performer added.
Like Feier previously mentioned, the movie showcases the social injustices and racial divide that’s still prevalent in America, and highlights the tensions that are happening in real life. The media and police make little effort in solving the case until Christian’s assigned to cover the case. He then explained why he feels it’s important to showcase that inequalities in the film’s story.
“I like movies that are meaningful and can star a conversation, if possible. At the same time, I like the underdogs, and I would like to share my voice for the people who may not be able to speak up,” the writer revealed. “But that wasn’t the case when I started to write the script; I was just making a fictional movie. But it slowly began to blend with reality.
“We were shooting in New York when the protests about racial injustice started happening. By the end, everything came together, but it wasn’t a point that I necessarily wanted to make in the beginning of the production,” Feier further noted.
Including those real-world social injustices and racial divides in ‘Still Here’ was also something that Whitworth appreciated about the scribe’s script, as it highlights “the world we’re living in. The news creates such a divide in so many ways. The world is in a weird transitional period, and being in a film that speaks to that” was an amazing experience for him.
The actor added that there’s no way the cast and crew could have know during the production that the story would reflect real life so much upon its release. “The commentary speaks about the (current) divide amongst people and injustices amongst the races. I think it’s powerful that we touch on that through so many angles and point-of-views. Hopefully, this story will awaken the audience. I think this film is powerful.”
Holm also applauded Feier’s decision to including those real-world social injustices and racial divides in the New York City-driven story. “I think New York City is the best example of people living in relative harmony. But I say relative because we still have a long way to go to make a more perfect union,” the performer shared.
“But in general, I think New York City is a great example. We need to do better, and I think right now in our country where things really are changing for the better,” Holm added. “It’s up to us artists to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we can do better.
“I don’t live in the New York area anymore; I now live in Vermont, but I still love New York City and its people. In general, they’re the most open-minded people in the world,” the actor also noted.
‘Still Here’ is set, and was shot, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, like Feier mentioned. The filmmaker then delved into what the process of deciding where he would film the thriller was like, as well as the overall process of shooting on location.
“Like I mentioned earlier, the script started to take shape in Europe, and I thought I may shoot the movie in Bucharest. At other points, I had in mind a city like São Paulo. But we then thought about a city like New York, which has millions of people living there,” Feier shared. “I believe that whenever someone’s overlooked, they can often feel alone, even when they’re surrounded by thousands of people, and they don’t know who to ask for help. That’s why in the end, New York became a character itself in the movie, and I think that played very nicely overall.”
Whitworth also shared that he “loved being on location. When you’re filming in an authentic location, there’s no other place like New York. There’s an energy that helps the work…I love shooting in New York, and have done it many times. Every time is different, and I’ve (made films there) on different budgets. I love the authenticity that New York brings, and appreciate that we were able to throw ourselves” into the production there.
Filming ‘Still Here’ on location in New York was also a process that Holm cherished. “The interesting thing is that I lived not far from where we were shooting about a year before the production. But my wife and I had just had our second baby, so we moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey,” he shared with a laugh.
“I love shooting in Brooklyn, as well as the city as a whole. I love exterior shots, and have done a lot of them. It’s fun to be out there on the streets, and it’s great people watching,” the performer noted.
“People in New York are very supportive of the film industry. Sometimes we block their style by blocking off the streets, but they’re still always supportive of a story that’s being told on their streets,” Holm shared.
“There were a few moments where it was a little uncomfortable because I used some racially charged verbage in the film, and I had to do that outside. So if I ever saw anyone watching those scenes, I would go up to them and apologize. I wanted them to know that that kind of language isn’t acceptable to me, personally, and it was a part of the character,” the performer solemnly also divulged.
Besides penning the screenplay for the thriller, Feier also embraced the process of helming the drama. He explained how working on the script influenced the way he approached directing the drama.
“It was an interesting process to go from working on the script to directing the movie. I co-wrote the script with Peter Gutter, and I came up with the first outline of the story. We then worked on the script, and finished it, together,” the helmer revealed.
“But like I mentioned, I spent several years working on the script, and then spent several years on production and editing. The movie was continuously changing, and I believe we were constantly learning from that. You think you have the final cut, and then after a month, you think, if I could back into the editing room, I would change this and that,” Feier admitted.
“If there wasn’t a deadline, we would keep going back into the editing room. I think having that deadline helped though, because it gave the movie a totally different shape. So it was interesting to go from writing to the directing and editing,” the filmmaker also divulged.
“Many writers have an ego, and don’t like for the actors and director to change things (in the script) on set. But when we got to the set, we allowed the actors to change things and go off from the script, and they brought something spectacular,” Feier shared. “I was very happy to allow them to do that.”
Further speaking of the actors, the director then delved how he went about casting the thriller. “I worked with the casting director, Adrienne Stern, and she understood what we were looking for, and she didn’t overwhelm us with options. In the end, everything came down to availability and, of course, budget.
“I believe we have a very good cast, many of whom weren’t known, like Maurice McRae. But I think he gave a great performance, and will have a great career. We also have Johnny Whitworth, Danny Johnson, Jeremy Holm and Zazie Beetz, who I think was just starting ‘Atlanta’ when we cast her,” Feier continued. “I have to thank Adrienne Stern for this great casting.”
Once the actors were cast, the filmmaker was able to collaborate with them to a small degree to build their characters’ arcs in the drama. “We had a reading, but I’m not a very big fan of rehearsals, because I feel that the actors need to feel the characters more than just learning the lines. I may write the lines in a certain way, but they may want to say them in a different way,” he explained. “If I say the actors need to say the lines in a certain way, I may be limiting them.
“So during the preparation for the movie, I took walks with Johnny throughout New York, and told him who I wanted his character of Christian Baker to be, and what he does on a daily basis,” Feier shared. “So for me, it was more about talking to the actors about who I wanted their characters to be, and what I was expecting from the characters, more than the lines” said in a particular way. He added that he “wanted to make a very human movie…that was a very important aspect in the preparation of the film.”
Whitworth also commented on the process of working with his co-stars throughout the production of the movie. “In the beginning, there was a little bit of rehearsal. I sat in a room with all of the other (actors), and we ran the major scenes. We didn’t necessarily work it to get it down, but we prepared enough so there wasn’t time wasted on set,” he explained. “That was a stellar, smart move.
“Every one of the actors came in and brought it in the delivery process…When I was working, everything was set up in a way that I was able to experience things as Christian. Whatever Christian’s intention was in each scene, whether he was just walking or interviewing people, everything was happening for real. Everything was laid out in rehearsals; we instead just hit bullet points” during the shoot, the actor further revealed.
Collaborating with the rest of the cast was also a process that Holm also enjoyed throughout the film’s production. “I purposely didn’t fraternize with a lot of the other castmates; I mainly worked with Danny (Johnson, who played Spaulding’s fellow detective and partner, Anthony Evans). I wanted him and I to have a language between our characters,” he divulged. “There’s one particular scene where Danny and I get breakfast, and it’s one of my favorite scenes, because it was born out of something that really happened between us.
“I did also have scenes with Maurice. My job on the set with him was to be supportive of him, because there was a big load to carry. Maurice had done a lot of film work, but this movie was the biggest one that he’s ever done,” the performer noted. “I was watching the monitors, and wanted him to know how good he was, and that he was on the right track.”
Whitworth also enjoyed his experience of collaborating with the writer-director on ‘Still Here.’ “I like the way that (Vlad) trusts his actors. I believe his style of doing things brings out an element of rawness and intimacy, which attracts me to a film of this nature. (This style of filmmaking) is exciting, because you don’t have much time to think and adjust; you just keep moving forward,” the actor shared.
But Whitworth also admitted that at times, Feier’s style of filmmaking “didn’t make sense to me. But after seeing the film, I totally appreciate his style. He has a good energy, and I like everything about him, and all the people involved (in the movie).” The performer added that he thinks “we pulled off something pretty unique. It was a big endeavor to shoot a movie like this on the budget we had in New York City…I commend Vlad for putting all the elements together,” and pulling the production off.
Holm also further gushed about his experience of collaborating with the director. Feier’s “a guerilla filmmaker…He was able to adjust to just about any situation, whether it was raining and we weren’t expecting rain, or we didn’t end up getting access to a particular apartment that we were supposed to have access to, and embraced those times,” the performer shared. “Within my first day on the set, he had my absolute trust.
With ‘Still Here’ now playing in select theaters and on VOD, the helmer felt the dual theatrical and digital release is beneficial for this type of independent movie. “I think the distributor (Blue Fox Entertainment) had a pretty hard decision to make when choosing the release method for the film, especially with the whole pandemic, and not knowing when theaters would reopen, and if they would stay open,” he pointed out.
“As filmmakers, we would love to have the movie just play in theaters. But we had to also think of the audience,” Feier stated. Some people aren’t able to go to theaters right now,” due to health concerns and theaters not yet being reopen in their area.
“So during this pandemic, many movies have been released on VOD, Premium VOD and Virtual Cinemas. So people staying home during the lockdown are still able to see movies that were finished before the pandemic started,” the filmmaker continued.
“The film industry is changing as the whole world is changing, so we have to pay attention, and be more careful of how we produce movies. I think the size of productions will change, as will budgets. We all have our own opinions, but in the end, we’ll just have to wait and see where we’re all going,” Feier concluded.