Cord Jefferson didn’t always know he wanted to be a director. While working on Netflix’s comedy series “Master of None,” actor/writer/creator Aziz Ansari asked Jefferson out of the blue if he ever wanted to direct. Jefferson recalls, “I said, ‘No, I’ve never been to film school, I don’t know anything about cameras or lighting. I don’t think that’s for me.”
But Jefferson says Ansari’s response “planted the seed” for what would be a catalyst for him to tackle his directorial debut, “American Fiction,” based on the novel “Erasure.” “He said, ‘Dude, I went to NYU for business. I never went to film school. I’ve just been on sets and paid attention. All you need to do is hire people who understand the technical stuff and then be able to articulate what’s in your head.”
On this episode of the award-winning Variety Awards Circuit Podcast, we speak with the debut feature writer and director about his MGM film “American Fiction” and what it was like to win the TIFF Audience Award. Also, the roundtable discusses the SAG-AFTRA strike, including what it means for the Oscars and next year’s Emmy season. Listen below:
Based on the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett, the film follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a frustrated novelist who becomes fed up with the establishment profiting from “Black” entertainment that relies on tired and offensive tropes. To prove his point, Monk writes an outlandish “Black” book that propels him to the heart of hypocrisy and madness. It is quite a timely topic as Black content continues to face challenges in the entertainment world. The film also stars Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz and Leslie Uggams.
Jefferson has worked on multiple shows throughout the last decade. In addition to “Master of None,” he’s been a writer for the HBO drama series “Succession” and the limited series “Watchmen.” He won two WGA Awards for both shows in 2020 and an Emmy for co-writing the “Watchmen” episode “This Extraordinary Being” with Damon Lindelof. However, Jefferson had never been convinced he could write or direct anything.
Then, in 2020, Jefferson, like many, was feeling depressed during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was reading a book review for “Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu, which received a 10-episode order for Hulu in Oct. 2022. He paraphrases the review: “It said, ‘this novel has a satire reminiscent of Percival Everett’s “Erasure.”‘ So, I bought it and devoured it over a week during Christmas break, and within 20 pages, I knew I wanted to write the script. Within 50 pages, I was reading the character of Monk in Jeffrey Wright’s voice.”
It’s dangerous to be fixated on an actor before you’ve written a page or pitched it to a company. Still, the filmmaker was both determined and “terrified” to pitch it to the Emmy and Tony-winning actor. They met in the most unlikely of places: a beach in Malibu.
That may sound surprising, but Wright is an avid surfer, and at the first meeting, the two spoke for hours, breaking down character motivations and sharing Jefferson’s vision for what the movie could be. About a month later, Wright signed on. “Many people talk about wanting to help underrepresented, marginalized voices, but I think Jeffrey lives that,” Jefferson says. He didn’t have to do this movie. He’s the guy who works with Wes Anderson; he’s in Batman. Once he signed on, everything got easier.”
Jefferson still had to pitch the movie to find financiers. After an exhaustive search of having meetings with multiple producers and production companies who shared they “wish they could make a movie like this,” it was Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman’s T Street Productions that was willing to take a chance. When they said yes, the debut filmmaker cried.
“I’ve never gotten something on the air,” he shares. “I’ve had things in development and had things very close to getting greenlit, but I had convinced myself this will never happen for me.”
It finally did.