One might not think that a movie about an African-American teenager living in Germany with his widower father would be a particularly compelling story, and yet, Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America was one of the nicer surprises out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
It stars newcomer Markees Christmas as Morris and Craig Robinson as his father Curtis while they’re trying to make a life for themselves in the town of Heidelberg, Germany. Morris is urged to try and make friends by his father and his German teacher (Carla Juri from Wetlands), but he has trouble connecting with the older white kids who barely speak English until he meets the pretty Katrin, in whom he develops his first crush.
Hartigan takes such a simple premise and makes you really like and root for Morris. It’s also a terrific debut by the young Christmas—who had only done a small YouTube series previously—it likewise includes a surprising dramatic turn from the generally funny Robinson. Having been so popular at Sundance, Morris from America is likely to be one of the most enjoyable and original coming-of-age films you should try to see this year (and that’s in a year where we already have Sing Street, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and the upcoming Kicks).
Den of Geek spoke to Chad Hartigan and his two main actors, Craig Robinson and Markees Christmas, in separate interviews, starting with this sit-down interview with Hartigan and Christmas when they were in town for the film’s screening at BAMCinemafest.
Den of Geek: Chad, this seems different from your earlier movie, My Name is Martin Bonner. What got you started writing about this kid in Germany living with his single father?
Chad Hartigan: It started from an autobiographical place. I had some experiences in my own adolescence that I always thought would [make] good scenes in movies. One of them is him slow-dancing with the pillow. That’s something that I really did, so I just started compiling little things from my own life. I really got squirted in the pants by a girl when I thought I was going to get a kiss from her, and it built off from there and became something that was different from my own personal experiences.
Markees, how did you find out about the movie? I’m guessing you didn’t have an agent when the movie was being made since it’s your first movie. What made you want to be in a movie like this where you literally have to carry it?
Markees Christmas: When I got the news that I got the audition, I think I was at home. Matt [Hill, Markees’ big brother who made those YouTube videos] called me and told me I had an audition, and of course I’m going to do it since it was the first audition I had, so I just kinda’ went for it.
Hartigan: He had done some skits.
Christmas: YouTube stuff. So, I was doing that before and a little bit after I got the offer, and we just actually self-cancelled that show, so my career can take a front seat. That stuff I was doing wasn’t for money. I was actually doing that stuff because that’s what I wanted to do—I had fun making shows, then I actually got an offer to make some money, so I just kinda’ hopped on. Any movie just really had me excited.
Was Craig already attached? How did you pair them up?
Hartigan: No, Markees was onboard before Craig was. When I was writing it, I was thinking about Questlove from the Roots. That’s who I was picturing, so I think we first offered it to him. I don’t know if he even read it but his team was like, “He doesn’t do movies.” I was stuck on this train of thought on someone from the music world would be the best, so there would be some authenticity with the music stuff in it. Eventually, I realized that was probably not the right direction and Craig had always been on lists, and he was willing to meet with me, which is rare for famous people to do. You typically just have to offer it to them. He seemed really cool, and he just wanted to meet and hang out and talk, so we did that.
I was like everybody where I was a big fan of what he does in his comedies, but I was also a little bit nervous. I didn’t know he could do the German lines and this big monologue? I eventually knew that he was going to be so good in the scenes with Markees, and that he’d probably bring the best out of Markees, which was something that I was looking for in that part, too, because I knew that he was going to be working on his first movie. Anyone that would make him feel really comfortable was an asset, so that made me decide to cast Craig, and then he was great at that stuff but then also great at the German lines and the monologue.
Markees, did you know any of Craig’s work beforehand? He’s done everything from The Office and R-rated movies that you probably shouldn’t have seen but probably did anyway.
Christmas: Yeah, when Hot Tub came out, I wasn’t supposed to be watching it at all, but yeah, when I first found out that Craig was gonna’ be in the movie… I basically turned into a fanboy. I started watching every movie that I didn’t watch. I had already watched both Hot Tubs, I watched Pineapple Express. What else did I watch? I watched This is the End and Meet the Peebles, the Tyler Perry movie. I just started watching Craig’s stuff. I became a fanboy and then I just had to throw that stuff in the backseat once we started shooting the movie.
What was your first meeting with Craig like?
Christmas: I met him at his management office and we kind of clicked there. Me and Craig just hit it off as soon as we met each other.
Hartigan: Yeah, he’s very approachable and fun guy, so he’s easy to get along with right away.
Christmas: Yeah, he’s cool. Craig’s not your cliché movie star.
He’s not an actor you’d expect to play a father either and this might be his first time. Did you guys have a lot of time to rehears together?
Hartigan: Not really at all ‘cause he showed up in Germany, and we’d already been shooting three weeks, so he showed up and there was a weekend I think in between when he got there and his first day, so we went to his hotel room and we read through some of the scenes. I do remember Markees and I laughing a lot. When we first heard him deliver some of the lines, it was hard not to laugh.
Markees: Of course it’s going to be hard, you watch any of Craig’s movies and you meet him in person, you’re gonna’ be like, “Yo, you’re just like you are in the movies.” He’s exactly how he is. He’s so funny.
Hartigan: It was very encouraging. We only had to read through the scenes two or three times, and I was like, “Yeah, we don’t need to rehearse this at all. This is gonna be great!” They just had the rapport down. I think the script was good enough that they didn’t have to improvise anything. They could just say what was written, and it came out being really good, natural banter.
Okay, okay… We’ve been hearing a lot about Craig from his director and co-star, so this seems like a good time to interject with the man himself, as we were able to get on the phone with Robinson a short time later…
Den of Geek: What was your first meeting with Chad like? Was this just another script that showed up or something you had to pursue?
Craig Robinson: Well, we had the same agency, and my agent got wind of the script, read it and loved it, so he got word to Chad that I was interested. In turn, Chad did some research ‘cause he had someone else cast for the role, but it went away for other reasons. When they were looking again, he reached out to David Gordon Green, who directed me in Pineapple Express, and David vouched for me, pretty much, so Chad and I met. I loved him instantly. He didn’t think I loved him. He didn’t even think the meeting went well, but we ended up doing it.
I think Chad mentioned that some of the stuff that happened to Morris came from his real life. Did the script change a lot when you came on board? He even mentioned that he used to write bad rap.
He wrote the bad stuff, and some of the stuff, you could easily ask “How did this happen?” or he’ll share, “When I was a kid, this is what went on…” Even the reason we shot it in Germany was ‘cause he grew up in another country.
What was your impression of the script?
The first thing that stuck out to me was the way the character talked was like I talked. There was a certain rhythm and vernacular, and I was like, “This is how I talk. This is natural for me to say these words.” And then the relationship between Morris and Curtis, I thought was something I hadn’t seen. It was special and him toeing the line between father and friendship, which is kind of taboo. It’s like, “Hey, I’m your parent,” and he knows that he has a son here in Germany and his son is not a man yet and he’s not ready for these experiences. I just thought there were levels to this Curtis character that I felt were challenging and that I ultimately could service.
Morris seems to get a lot of leeway and is left alone more than you might expected. Is that just because his father is so busy working?
He’s busy and they just have different schedules, so he’s busy and he has to go away. He’s encouraging Morris to go out and figure out Germany, and what these girls are like and make some friends. It’s the situation they find themselves in. One part of the movie where they kind of had an argument and then didn’t see each other for a while, and Curtis came back with a peace offering.
We learn a little about their past and their backstory, so did you three sit down and figure out more about their past together?
Everything came from the script. We followed the script to a T. I think we improvised one scene about the ice cream, but there wasn’t a ton of improvisation on there, at all.
That’s interesting because even though you’ve done a lot of scripted movies, I’ve felt most of them have had room to do some improv naturally to make the dialogue more natural.
Nah, nah, because it was all about getting those words out. I’ve been mostly in comedies, so usually, improvising because you need that fresh moment, that fresh joke or whatever, but this was all laid-out.
What was your first meeting with Markees like? He seems like a pretty smart kid.
It was cool. It was like, “This is my little brother right here.” We met and we both were fans of each other ‘cause I like his YouTube videos and stuff, so we met and we were like, “Alright, what’s up?” We had to meet, just to make sure we met before he went off to Germany, and next time I saw him was in Germany at the Burgfest, which was a middle-of-the-shoot party and then we were on set. So we were fast homies.
Was it really evident that he was a fan of yours or was it pretty mutual?
Definitely mutual, ‘cause when I saw his videos, I said, “This dude’s funny, I like it.” Then I met him and he was definitely a fan, but on the set, it was all business. We cool and stuff, but he was a little pro by the third week in.
Did you have any downtime once you got to Germany to look around?
I had a little bit of downtime. I went to the Heidelburg Castle, a 1200-year-old castle, looked around. It was pretty awesome, but you know, they’ve got a coffee shop in there, and they have some sections closed off. I wanted to see the part where they tortured people but it was cool, though.
Had you been to Germany before that? I assume a lot of the movies that you did with Seth had gotten over there, but would they know you from The Office over there?
That was my first time in Germany, and The Office is very popular, so people in Germany were always saying “hello” and getting pictures.
You also had to learn German for this, not a lot of it but enough. Was that hard to do? Not sure how you are with languages.
I’m pretty good. They sent over a recording of one of the producers, and I just studied that, and I had a friend who came help me, she’s from Lichtenstein. She helped me out with the pronunciation, and then I just practiced all the time.
You do a little rapping in this, too, so do you feel like you’re a pretty good rapper?
Me? No. Not even a little bit. If I do it, it’s because we’re joking.
You also have a scene on the football pitch as a coach, so was that an easy environment to get into?
I was shouting at the players in German, “Get the ball” or whatever. I wanted to say, “Get the ball” but all I knew was my dialogue from the movie, so I really was saying, “Hey, my wife is dead.” No, we didn’t spend too much time out there, and was just to establish that is what I did.
And now here’s the rest of our interview with Chad and Christmas…
Obviously, you set it in Germany and decided to shoot it there, so what were some of the challenges making a movie there. Had you been there before?
Hartigan: I had only been there once as a tourist for five days, and then started to go a lot after I finished the script and was trying to put the movie together. Obviously, there were little challenges that came along the way, but generally speaking, it was so easy to put together and get the financing, because the government finances films there, and I just happened to connect with producers that were already in that system.
I felt very spoiled, and trying to make the same movie for the same price in the U.S. would be impossible. It was challenging in minor ways like, “This crew member doesn’t speak great English but good enough,” so there’s one or two missed lines of communication, and then flying some people over—I flew my DP over—and that’s a small expense, but really, it was very smooth.
How were your experiences in Germany, Markees? I assume that was your first time there.
Christmas: Yeah, it was my first time there, my first time on a plane. It was great. There’s always that bad feeling you get after you hop off the plane and your ears stop popping. When I first got there, I didn’t like it. I was like, “This place gives me bad vibes.”
Hartigan: First thing you did was get to your hotel room and go, “None of these channels are in English.”
Christmas: That was just me because I didn’t get a lot of sleep on the flight, so I was kind of irritable. After that day, I just had fun for the rest of the summer. The weekends, I just didn’t want to stop working, that’s just where it was at. That’s what I like to do for fun.
Let’s talk about the rest of the cast. How about casting Katrin as Morris’ love interest? Was she already an actor?
Hartigan: She’s been in a few things, and we had a German casting director who put together a bunch of tapes that I could watch while I was still in the U.S. I went to Germany like two and a half months before shooting, but we wanted to get that process started. So I watched a bunch of videos and Lina [Keller], who plays Katrin—these are self-tapes so you can do them at any time and under any circumstances—but she had all these things written on her arms in marker as if she literally just spent all night at a club and got a bunch of phone numbers and then went straight home and filmed this tape. There was something about that—she just stuck out in that way, so at callbacks, when I did get to Germany, I felt as soon as I saw her in person that she’s going to be the one.
Can you talk about your female co-stars? You have a lot of scenes with Carla Juri, who is great, and also very different from her role in Wetlands, too. Did you get to spend time with them beforehand rehearsing?
Christmas: The only actor that I didn’t really have a lot of time to hang out with was Lina. We couldn’t communicate as well as we should have been, ‘cause her accent was kind of thick. She doesn’t speak a lot of English, but once we started hanging out, we started to understand each other.
Her problem listening to me was I kept using slang, so it was kind of throwing her off. She was like, “What? What did you say?” I just didn’t know what to say, but when we left Heidelburg, we started hanging out the night before we left. We hunt out a lot more in Berlin.
Hartigan: I think you got rehearse one time with Carla.
Christmas: Oh, yeah. We got to rehearse with Carla.
Hartigan: Carla’s very cool and she has a very child-like spirit, so it was easy for her to get on the same page as Markees and do their scenes together.
It would seem like all those factors would help the movie. You couldn’t talk to Lina so that added to that relationship. Is that just luck that you were able to find actors that sort of had similar relationships as the characters?
Hartigan: I think a successful movie has a large portion of luck. When I cast Markees, and I cast Lina separately, in my mind I thought that Markees was really going to have a crush on her, and thought that art might imitate life in that way—that can serve my purposes. Because it was so difficult for them to communicate, that didn’t really happen, but it did still work into the dynamic of the movie in a nice way.
Christmas: I mean, Lina was kind of hot but not my type of hot. She’s pretty. Carla is hot.
Morris from America is now playing in select cities and on DirecTV.