Watch CBS News

"American Fiction" director Cord Jefferson talks directorial debut, filming in Massachusetts

Golden Globe nominated movie "American Fiction" filmed in Massachusetts
Golden Globe nominated movie "American Fiction" filmed in Massachusetts 06:24

UPDATE - March 10, 2024: Cord Jefferson won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for "American Fiction"

BOSTON - It is cleaning up on the film festival circuit, reigniting the conversation around the boundaries often put on Black and underrepresented artists, all while getting Oscar buzz!

We're talking about "American Fiction."

The movie just hit select theaters on Dec. 15 and was filmed right here in Massachusetts in Boston, the Greater Boston Area, the South Shore and more.

Cord Jefferson is making his mark on the industry with his directorial debut of American Fiction. 

Jefferson has worked on "Master of None," "Watchmen" and "Succession." He is an Emmy-award winning writer and story editor.

"American Fiction" is a satirical comedy that, despite its name, is exploring the very real issue of the Black experience, which often gets watered down to just stereotypes in books, TV and film. 

The body of work is based on "Erasure," a novel by Percival Everett. It was published more than 20 years ago, but after reading it, Jefferson said he felt like the book was written specifically for him.

WBZ's Courtney Cole sat down for a one-on-one with the director.

Extended interview with Cord Jefferson, "American Fiction" director 17:30

Cord Jefferson: "This is a movie about a writer who is frustrated with the constraints people are putting on him because of his race. And I have experienced that both as a journalist, I was a journalist for about eight years before I started working in film and TV and then when I started working in film and TV, I experienced it there, as well. It was very recently that I had an executive come up to me and tell me that they wanted a character that I wrote to be, 'Blacker.' I asked them what it means to be 'Blacker' and sort of like if they could explain to me and they didn't want to answer that question. There's a lot of my own personal experience put into the film." 

Cord Jefferson: "All of us, everybody in the world. I think it's particularly acute for people of color and women and queer people, of course, but everybody in the world can empathize with the idea that you know that you're a unique individual with your own passions, ideas and hopes and dreams. At some point, the world tries to box you in and say that you are not a unique individual and in fact we'd rather think of you as being sort of like part of this monolithic culture and we can understand you based on stereotypes." 

It's an experience one actress in her 70s told Jefferson she had come up against many times in her career.

Cord Jefferson: "And before the audition they said, 'Do you have any questions you'd like to ask the director?' And she said, 'No, I just want to say something to you.' And I said, 'What's that?' And she said, 'I can't believe they're letting you make this movie and I said, 'Well why is that?' and she said, ' 'Cause I've been working in this industry for over half a century and these are conversations we've been having for half a century, about why do Black actors always have to play slaves and drug dealers and gang members?" 

The movie's main character, Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a respected author and professor is played by Tony and Emmy award-winning actor, Jeffrey Wright.

Monk has his novel rejected by publishers for not being "Black enough." He becomes frustrated and takes that failure as a challenge, and that challenge ends up taking on a mind of its own.

Courtney Cole: "And I think the cast really makes it relatable, because not only do you love some of these characters because you've seen them in other things, but you relate to them in the way that they are written and the way that they perform. What was it like working with the cast?" 

Cord Jefferson: "Incredibly intimidating. Because they're all such accomplished actors—especially the lead, Jeffrey Wright. But, you know, all of them have done such amazing work. And so, you know, I liken it to, a little bit, to like –showing up to a basketball arena and trying to teach LeBron James how to take a jump shot. Like, who am I to tell LeBron James how to take a jump shot, right? That's how I felt initially, working with Jeffrey. I was so intimidated by this guy, who I'd seen literally, since I was a kid. I'd been following his work since I was a boy. But the great thing I realized quickly was that Jeffrey and Sterling [K. Brown] and Tracee [Ellis Ross] and Leslie [Uggams] all of these people who are in the film, they were so collaborative, so gracious and warm and inviting to me..." 

Courtney Cole: "Now there's Oscar Buzz. You've gotta be on Cloud 9 right now. How does that feel to be a part of that conversation?" 

Cord Jefferson: "I essentially feel overwhelmed every day with emotion, but I just try to take it day by day and relax and enjoy myself while I do this. It really gives me a lot of pleasure to see people enjoying the film." 

The movie was filmed right here in Boston.

Cord Jefferson: "We were looking for a place that you could believe that there would be, you know, he's an author and so his literary agent is here, his book agent, sort of a place where you find a lot of intellectuals and sort of like academics, it sort of makes sense here obviously. And then beyond that, you know, that there would be an upper middle class Black family – has been upper middle class for a few generations and so you know – the access to Martha's Vineyard, where there's Oak Bluffs, the history of Oak Bluffs, that community there, you know? All of that stuff kind of made sense for this part of the world." 

Even with its edginess, the film still made room for familial love and a little drama.

Cord Jefferson: "It was important to me to make a film that reflected the reality that our lives are as broad and deep and interesting and fulfilling and layered and complex as everybody else's life. There are nuances to our lives and we have interiority, but everybody has those things."

Equally as important to Jefferson? You enjoy yourself while you watch the movie.

Cord Jefferson: "This isn't a persuasive essay, you know? This is a film that I want people to come in and have a blast at. That's it. I want them to leave with a smile on their face and then go talk to their friends about it. Call their friends and say, 'Listen, you need to come see this movie!'"

As for how it ends?

Courtney Cole: "OK, so we can't really talk about this, but we're going to talk about this. No spoilers! But the end, I was like, I was like what?!"

Cord Jefferson: "I think it's one of my favorite parts of the film. Yeah! I don't want to spoil it, but the ending is one of my favorite parts of the film. I really love to see the audience reaction at the end."

As for his favorite part of making the film? The ups-and-downs of the process itself and all of the collaboration.

The film is nominated for two Golden Globes, one for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy Film, and another for Best Musical or Comedy Motion Picture.

"American Fiction" is already in select theaters, but hits movie theaters everywhere Dec. 22

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.