Joe Talbot grew up in a family of storytellers. His parents were journalists who met in a newsroom in San Francisco, sparking what he described as a His Girl Friday romance. Films and music were prevalent growing up at home. As writers, his parents saw and deeply appreciated how acting, music and filmmaking could bring words and stories to life. A love of movies was instilled in Talbot at an early age, so much so that he started to make little films with his friends and whomever he could convince to join him.
One friendship, though, loomed large as in middle school he met Jimmie Fails. The kids--one white, one black--bonded, finding common ground on varied fronts, including being from multi-generation San Francisco families. They talked about their hopes and dreams, and eventually from those informal conversations came a stirring cinematic triumph for them in adulthood, The Last Black Man in San Francisco (A24).
Adapted from Fails’ life story, the film stars him as a character sharing his actual name, working as a nursing home attendant who wants to return to the Victorian house he grew up in but it’s out of his price range as the neighborhood, San Francisco’s Fillmore District--once a bastion of African American culture referred to in some circles as the “Harlem of the West”--has been gentrified. The home, which his grandfather built, now is valued at $4 million.
Directed by Talbot in his feature filmmaking debut, The Last Black Man in San Francisco--which he wrote with Rob Reichert from a story co-authored by Fails--plays in some respects as a poetic lament for those who are displaced, a love story yearning for an America that for many is beyond their reach. Certainly the story extends well beyond the Bay Area.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Directing Award for A Dramatic Feature as well as a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Creative Collaboration. Earlier this year Talbot was nominated for a DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a First-Time Feature Film. Among its many other plaudits, The Last Black Man in San Francisco garnered Film Independent Spirit Awards noms for Best First Feature, Someone To Watch distinction (for Talbot) and Best Supporting Actor (Jonathan Majors).
“When we set out to make the movie, we didn’t have much formal experience,” said Talbot. “I had dropped out of high school. Jimmie had never acted. But the process of getting it made became our film school. We started in my parents’ basement to eventually getting to work with A24 and Brad Pitt’s Plan B. It’s been a dream come true.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge the movie posed to him and Fails was to adhere to what Talbot described as “their ambitious vision. We didn’t want to sacrifice any of that. We had a limited budget but the story called for a ton of locations, a ton of speaking roles, a highly stylized aesthetic....We wanted this big orchestral score. We wanted to create a world on screen that you could escape into. We wanted to tell a story that felt more symphonic.”
Realizing this vision required “finding ways to cheat the devil,” quipped Talbot who cited “a specific form of location scouting we developed for the movie and going to Budapest to record with an orchestra there. It was a constant challenge of how do we make sure that nothing falls from what we envisioned and that we honor Jimmie’s story. The way he described it growing up felt big, bold, odyssey-esque. If it doesn’t hit that profound high note, then we haven’t done it justice. That was the biggest struggle and challenge.”
As for his biggest takeaway or lessons learned from The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Talbot reflected, “You go through so much over the course of making a feature. You become family with people you’ve been working with for years. Jimmie and I lived together for a long time, have been best friends even longer. And then there were all these other people who came on board and helped us to make this film. The biggest lesson for me is that I want to work with people whom I connect with on a human level. My experience is that leads to the best work.”
Talbot added that all the projects that follow “might not come from the same place such as a childhood friendship. But I want those collaborations, like this one, to feel familial.”
Another lesson Talbot learned from The Last Black Man in San Francisco came from his cinematographer, Adam Newport-Berra, whose work on the film garnered a Camerimage Golden Frog nomination. Talbot looked to Newport-Berra to help deliver the aforementioned “highly stylized aesthetic” needed for the film. The director noted that the DP comes from the commercialmaking world. “He was one of the first people to teach me about that world. He honed much of his craft in commercials. That was part of the appeal interesting me in that space.”
That interest in turn translated into Talbot recently coming aboard the roster of production house m ss ng p eces for commercials and branded content. He connected with the company initially through Sara’o Bery who was involved in the publicity/marketing campaign developed at A24 to promote The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Bery had worked with m ss ng p eces as a producer and introduced him to the company’s founder/managing partner Ari Kuschnir and managing partners Kate Oppenheim and Brian Latt. Talbot struck up a rapport with the m ss ng p eces trio, bonded by what the director described as “a strong desire to tell important stories.”
Talbot has already demonstrated short-form dexterity. His film American Paradise, in which Fails starred, was nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize and the Short Film Jury Award in U.S. Fiction at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the SXSW Grand Jury Award for a Narrative Short, also in 2017.
Talbot added that “like most kids my first work was in short form growing up, including trailers for movies we wanted to make but couldn’t afford to make.” In fact that scenario applied to The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Talbot explained, “We thought ‘how do we convince anyone to back us?’” The answer was a glossy five-minute concept trailer that Talbot shot, edited and scored. It showed Fails speeding through the city telling the story of his grandfather. What wound up as the opening sequence to the feature The Last Black Man in San Francisco is, said Talbot, “the much more elaborate, expensive version of what we shot five years ago” for the concept trailer.
As for what’s next, Talbot hopes to be afforded opportunities in commercialmaking and branded content. He’s also in the midst of writing a noir-ish feature that taps into San Francisco’s long history in the detective story genre. Plus he’s involved in development of a TV series project. Talbot is also enthused over inroads made by his ongoing collaborator Fails who’s in the cast of a film that was in production prior to the pandemic, director Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman.