Hip-Hop Abroad: An Interview With Chad Hartigan and Markees Christmas
Chad Hartigan and Markees Christmas break down their new cross-cultural, coming-of-age movie, Morris From America.
You’re not likely to find a movie this year quite like Morris From America, a culture-clash, coming-of-age movie by Chad Hartigan (This is Martin Bonner). Poignant but wholly entertaining, it follows a black teen named Morris (Markees Christmas) whose widowed father Curtis’s (Craig Robinson) job has forced them to live in Germany, where their American roots relegate them to outsider status.
Morris loves gangsta rap and even writes his own, totally inappropriate songs, but he’s got no black or American friends to share them with. Curtis can’t seem to keep their relationship steady (for typical adolescent reasons), and Morris’s tutor (Carla Juri) struggles to help him out of his lonely rut. A pretty, friendly girl at school catches his eye and gives his non-existent social life a spark, but school bullies and peer pressure close in on him quickly.
Hartigan weaves his tale in an interesting, complex way without sacrificing the film’s accessibility. The setting and protagonist are singular, the characters’ motivations are unpredictable, and the story steers clear of convention throughout. Morris From America is easy to follow, cleanly plotted, and feels like a movie you’d be comfortable showing to kids Morris’ age. It’s an easy, engaging watch with a refreshing cross-cultural angle.
During their visit to the San Francisco International Film Festival in April, I caught up with Chad Hartigan and Markees Christmas to talk about Craig Robinson’s rapping ability, the movie’s infamous pillow-humping scene, Hartigan’s approach to humor, and more.
The movie’s premise is pretty unique. Where did the idea come from?
Chad: I wanted to come up with an idea I could shoot in Europe. It was my excuse to spend time there.
On my last film, I remember telling this story from my childhood where I’d hump my pillow a lot and one day dressed it up in clothes and slow danced with it. Then, humped it again. It always got a reaction from people when I told it and I thought, that would be a good scene in a movie if I could really capture what’s so awkward and innocent about that. It all kind of started from there. I thought, what’s that movie? It’s probably a coming-of-age film. And it has to be in Europe.
What was it like shooting that scene with the pillow?
Markees: It was actually a closed set, and I didn’t learn it was a closed set until that day. I was nervous about it. I didn’t want to shoot it at all. I tried to talk Chad out of it. After a little while, I got kind of comfortable. But when I see it on the screen I’m just like, “Nope!” The person sitting behind me is probably thinking, “What a pig.” I just didn’t like that scene.
Chad: I’m looking forward to it becoming an internet meme.
Markees: The second we started shooting the scene, Chad said, “I can’t wait to make a meme out of this scene.” It’s just the situation. He’s in love with the girl whose jacket he has, so he puts it on a pillow and humps it. I mean, I’ve had my fair share of humping a pillow just to be funny when it’s just me and my friends around, but humping a pillow by yourself is just not me.
Was this your first movie role, Markees? How was it?
Markees: Yes. I’m used to working with little cameras, cameras you’re supposed to take pictures with but they also have a "record" button. We had a camera test, and I went into the room and saw this big thing standing there. It looked like this huge contraption and I was like, “Where’s the camera?” and they said, “You’re standing in front of it.” Everything is just bigger. Making the movie was awesome. We all just became so close to each other.
Chad: I found Markees through these Youtube videos he made with his brother. They’re skits, Saturday Night Live stuff. You can tell that he’s comfortable in front of a camera. We had him audition, and his audition wasn’t amazing, but he was different from the other kids. There was something about him. I felt that if I could capture what’s unique about him, it’s easier to help him with the technical side of acting than it is to take a kid who thinks he knows how to do all of this stuff but is actually bad at it.
Markees had a great attitude, he was willing to learn, he hated the weekend when we weren’t shooting. Overall, it was a fun experience. Some days were harder than others with the acting or the scenes we were doing, but he was always diving in head-first. We asked him to do some pretty tough stuff.
When Morris plays the cassette tape of his dad rapping “Juicy”, I don’t think I could have laughed any harder.
Chad: It’s funny that you bring up that scene because it’s one of the few instances where we weren’t necessarily going for a laugh. One of the first things Craig did was record that song. He did his best. I wasn’t like, “Do it bad, Craig! Do it bad!” We just wanted him to do it how he would do it. It sounds fine, but when you put it in the context of that scene, people just laugh every time. It’s also Markees’ face when he first hears it.
Markees: When I finally heard his voice rapping “Juicy” when we were at the premiere in Utah, that was the only part I laughed out-loud at.
Chad: I wanted the humor to not be built around jokes but around the characters. You just get to know them and they become people you want to hang around with because you like the way they talk and interact.
When I laughed during the “Juicy” moment, I think the laugh came from a place of recognition. I grew up with hip-hop in the ‘90s and I think I recorded myself rapping that very song on an old boombox.
Chad: So many people say, “You had me at Jeru the Damaja”, who does the opening song of the movie. From the opening scene, people are like, “I’m going to like this movie.”
Markees: I’ve got a pretty good sound system in my room, and when I play Jeru, the whole house just jumps!
A lot of movies about teenage boys focus more on the perverse, mischievous, reckless aspects of adolescence. I was never that wild as a teenager, so I found Morris to be more relatable. He’s quite reasonable and intelligent.
Chad: I thought it was important that, for all his enjoyment of hip-hop and the violent lyrics he writes, it’s kind of a front. It’s posturing. He’s a good kid. I was a good kid, too. But that doesn’t mean Morris can’t have drama in his life.
At one point, his dad looks him in the face and says, “Do I need to be worried about you?” Morris says no, and the dad says, “Okay. I believe you. I trust you.” There are too many movies where the kid lies to the parent and does whatever they want.
Markees, what was it like acting opposite Craig?
Markees: We had cool chemistry. We didn’t get to hang out outside of work too much, but when we were on set, it was a genuine father-son situation going on. Craig is funny. He doesn’t know when to stop. I really didn’t think I was going to be able to keep a straight face. I’m a huge fan of his, so that probably gets in the way. I was like, “I get to meet this guy? I get to sit in the same car as this guy?” Way too cool.