American Fiction
Features, Movies

A Conversation with ‘American Fiction’ Director Cord Jefferson — TIFF 2023

American Fiction came onto the Toronto International Film Festival scene with no trailer buzz and a first-time director in Cord Jefferson. However, this adaptation of Percival Everett’s Erasure did have a star-studded cast of comedic actors to bolster its reputation, including Jeffrey Wright, Sterling K. Brown, and Tracee Ellis Ross.

Soon enough, the film’s sharp wit and elevated commentary won over moviegoers, earning the longest standby lines of the festival and an influential People’s Choice Award win.

Jefferson, who has written for The Good Place, Succession, and Master of None, met with audience members after a public screening of American Fiction to answer questions about the film that will be on everyone’s watch list this December.

The Grande Finale(s)
American Fiction
American Fiction (Photo source: MGM Studios)

American Fiction’s finale presents the audience with multiple endings. As the director explains, it was his way of paying homage to the source material while imagining the ending on a more cinematic scale.

“So the ending of the novel is that first ending where he just walks up to the microphone, and you have no idea what he’s going to say. That’s how the novel ends — and to me, I think it’s fine for a novel. There’s a lot of interiority in the novel. It allows you to draw your own conclusions about what you’re reading,” Jefferson explained.

“But I think that that would have been an incredibly unsatisfying way to end the movie. But I didn’t want it to end with him giving some long rant either.”

Then, a producer on the film suggested writing something that felt as “audacious” as the rest of the film.

“Something that feels like it’s a big swing as the movie is,” Jefferson recalled. “And I was really inspired by the meta ending to The Player, directed by Robert Altman. I’m a big Altman fan, and it is one of my favorite of his. So I wanted it to feel really meta; it wasn’t just because I was indecisive.”

Casting a Ferrari
American Fiction starring Jeffrey Wright
American Fiction starring Jeffrey Wright (Photo courtesy of TIFF)

Jefferson wrote Monk’s sharp wit and simmering moral-driven temper with Wright in mind.

“I started with Jeffrey Wright. I love Jeff — I think he is one of our greatest living actors, and yet he is so underutilized. He’s in these big movies, but he’s never the center of them. You know, he’s in Batman, and he’s in the 007 movies — he’s in these major things. But I always loved him as a leading man,” he said.

“When I was reading the novel, I started reading Monk’s lines in Jeffrey’s voice. I was imagining Jeffrey in the scenes, and so as soon as I was done with the script, I came to him first.”

And he was understandably terrified to pop the question. “I was intimidated by him and felt like I was going to Michael Jordan and asking him for tips on jump shots.”

“Who am I to go to Jeffrey? Right? He’s working with all these incredible directors. But I think that there are a lot of people who talk about helping underappreciated, marginalized voices. So Jeffrey, looking at me, having never directed anything, and putting faith in me really helped the project get off the ground. Until he signed on, people were apprehensive, but the minute he agreed to do it, everything became easier.”

American Fiction
American Fiction starring Sterling K. Brown (Photo source: MGM Studios)

“It became very easy to get other actors because once you say, Jeffrey Wright is in, people’s ears perk up,” the director laughed.

And this film’s star-studded cast speaks to that, with Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander, Lucretia Taylor, and Anthony Thomas all playing crucial roles in the story’s success.

“All of these people are amazing at their jobs. It is so disappointing that these actors don’t get these kinds of roles all the time. I grew up watching Living Single, loving Erika Alexander, and thinking this woman is wonderful. Why don’t I see her in more stuff?”

“There’s a lack of imagination when it comes to what people think Black actors can do and what parts they are qualified for — and I think that’s incredibly disappointing,” Jefferson explained. “Like, these people should be in more movies, and they’re not. So that was something that I’m hoping to achieve with the movie.”

“Hopefully, people watch it and rethink the decision to put Jeffrey in a movie for five minutes. It’s like keeping a Ferrari in the garage — you gotta let the Ferrari out.”

Becoming a Director
American Fiction
American Fiction starring Issa Rae (Photo source: MGM Studios)

So, how did this long-time writer decide to move into directing?

“I was working on Master of None, and my boss was Aziz Ansari,” Jefferson recalled. “We were talking about directing an episode, and he said, “Have you ever thought about directing?” I said, “No, of course not.” I’ve never been to film school. I know nothing about cameras. I am not a student of cinema. And he was like, “Dude, I went to NYU for business school. I got nominated for a Golden Globe for directing.”

“He said all you need to do is have a vision for what you want and then be able to articulate that vision to people who do know the technical aspects.”

That planted the seed for Jefferson, and it would take years of mulling the idea over before the right project came along.

“I didn’t want to try directing until I came across a piece of material that I knew deep in my bones. So when I read this book, I realized that I felt this deeply at the core of my being. I could direct this movie as well as anybody else in the world because this was a core part of my identity. So that was the first thing that gave me the courage to do it; that feeling like I understood the material in a deep way.”

American Fiction
American Fiction (Photo source: MGM Studios)

As fate would have it, Jefferson would meet little resistance as he created his dream project. “As soon as I was finished reading the book, I reached out to the author, Percival Everett, and I asked for his blessing to have the rights to the novel, and he gave them to me for free,” he said in astonishment.

Everett agreed to give Jefferson the rights for three months so he could write the script, and then they would have a longer conversation about adapting. “When I was done with the script, it was a mandate of mine that if he wanted this script, then I had to direct it. I wasn’t gonna let it out on my grips.”

Ultimately, Jefferson was grateful to everyone for putting their faith in a first-time director “without any data to prove it would work.”

“I really wanted to try my hand at it, and fortunately, people let me. This industry can be run so much by algorithms and data these days. And there’s no data about my directing that suggests that I’d be a good director. So a lot of people needed to put trust and faith in my ability to do this, from Jeffrey, to the financiers, to the producers, to everybody who worked on it.”

So, with a successful debut in the books, what is next for Cord Jefferson?

“I’ve got four movies that I’m writing right now. But the one I’m probably most excited for is a NEO noir Western set in the present-day about two black brothers who go looking for their missing brother in the American Southwest,” Jefferson revealed.

Watch the Trailer for American Fiction:

American Fiction will hit theaters on December 15. You can read our review of the film right here!

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Alicia is a writer from Canada. She credits her passion for TV and film to superheroes, workplace comedies, cheesy holiday movies, and coming-of-age stories.

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