Director Miles Warren's recent eventful career stretch started on last year’s festival circuit when Bruiser, his proof-of-concept short for a feature, debuted at Sundance followed by an SXSW screening.
The short film resonated with audiences and critics, ultimately yielding the opportunity to create a feature of the same title, which made its world premiere earlier this month in the Discovery section of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Just prior to it being showcased at the Toronto fest, Bruiser became the first narrative feature acquired by Onyx Collective, a Disney content brand specializing in premium entertainment made by creators of color and underrepresented voices. The Onyx Collective deal carries great promise for Warren as reflected in the company’s first major acquisition, director Questlove’s Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), which gained worldwide exposure and acclaim, winning assorted honors including the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in March 2022.
Also in early 2022 Warren extended his directorial reach into the advertising arena as he connected with production house Team Bubbly for representation spanning commercials and branded content.
This flurry of career advancements for Warren smacks of the cliché overnight success story. But as is often the case in such a scenario, the reality is that the ascent was anything but quick. Warren and Ben Medina wrote the feature script over a five-year span, constantly revising, adapting and fine tuning. Warren first embarked on Bruiser at the age of 19, finally bringing it to fruition as a full-length motion picture at 25, marking his feature directorial debut. “I learned how incredibly slow the process is. It’s a discipline that gives no quick validation. You write, revise, send it to someone, write revise, you grow with it,” observed Warren. “Your brain develops as your script develops.”
Warren shared that he “grew up doing this in a way. I grew up with this script.” He added that it was like putting a tapestry together “one detail at a time” and that “the details accumulate into one wonderful big picture, one work of art.”
That meticulous crafting also included Warren and Medina culling down the feature script for the proof-of-concept short.
The feature film Bruiser introduces us to Darious (portrayed by Jalyn Hall) and his sometimes stern father, Malcolm (Shamier Anderson). Malcolm works hard to keep his car dealership afloat and put Darious through private school. Darious’ even-keeled mother Monica (Shinelle Azoroh) does her best to make sure her son always has someone to whom he can talk. But there are things Darious doesn’t know how to talk about. When a kid beats him up, humiliating him in front of his crush, Darious runs into the woods where he meets Porter (Trevante Rhodes), a charismatic man with a hulking physique who lives alone on a houseboat. They become fast friends, with Porter offering to teach Darious how to defend himself. What Darious doesn’t know is that Porter is his biological father and had abandoned Monica before Darious was born. Porter wants to make amends and be part of the boy’s life, but his return dredges up a secret history of brutality.
Warren and Medina’s script delves into the price of toxic masculinity, harboring hope that a boy will find his voice and a better, more compassionate path in life.
The film carries an important message, making Warren all the more inspired that Onyx Collective has gotten behind it. Citing the Disney brand’s work with Summer of Soul, Warren is enthused over the company's commitment to distribute Bruiser. He described Onyx Collective as “dedicated to telling exciting, useful Black stories that are going to in a sense create this Black new wave in cinema. They have been amazing in supporting me and this movie.”
Having the Onyx Collective deal in place prior to the multiple Toronto screenings relieved some of the pressure for Warren going into the festival. But there was still considerable angst as this marked the first time Warren had watched any film he made in a packed theater. That was a nerve-racking experience but gratifying as the film received an ovation. A panel discussion after that premiere screening was also an eye-opener as Warren heard from his cast as they shared tales he already knew as well as some surprises, including their personal connections to the film’s story which they had up to that point kept to themselves.
Warren noted that Steven Spielberg’s film, The Fabelmans, screened the day before Bruiser debuted. Later there was a screening of Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. Being in the midst of much anticipated work from marquee filmmakers contributed to some concern on Warren’s part as he wondered if Bruiser might get lost in the shuffle. Much to his delight, the positive response to and word of mouth on Bruiser was strong at the Toronto fest. He even got stopped on the street a few times, receiving praise for the work.
In retrospect, the COVID pandemic may have had the hint of a silver lining for Warren relative to his proof-of-concept short. While precautions over the coronavirus deprived him of seeing his short in front of an in-person theater audience at Sundance, the virtual screenings may have boosted viewership worldwide, thus helping the story to gain momentum in terms of its viability as a feature. And when that feature opportunity emerged, Warren had a thoroughly detailed script ready to go, enabling full-scale production to begin in a timely manner.
Whatever praise comes his way is shared, affirmed Warren, as the Bruiser feature was blessed with a stellar cast and crew. Among the latter is cinematographer Justin Derry who lensed prior shorts for Warren, including the proof-of-concept Bruiser project as well as Huntress. Good fortune brought Warren together with Derry initially on Huntress. The original DP slated for that film had to leave at the 11th hour but recommended Derry. “He immediately was the funniest person on set, a great collaborator, very easy going and quick to come up with ideas and fixes,” said Warren of Derry. Warren said it was a “no-brainer” to continue working with Derry on the short and long-form Bruiser.
Similarly, Warren gravitated to Team Bubbly as his commercialmaking roost based on the affinity he felt for its partners/producers/directors, Andres Rojas and Frank Siringo. “I’m good friends with both and love the freedom they provide,” said Warren, explaining that they look to draw work for him that appeals to his narrative sensibilities--and encourage him to apply his creativity to stories within the commercial space. Warren knows Team Bubbly well from within, having started there as an intern, his first work gig after graduating from Wesleyan University with a degree in film studies.