Chat w/ Stefon Bristol, Director of 'See You Yesterday'

High school best friends and science prodigies C.J. and Sebastian spend every spare minute working on their latest homemade invention: backpacks that enable time travel. But when C.J.’s older brother Calvin dies after an encounter with police officers, the young duo decide to put their unfinished tech to use in a desperate bid to save Calvin. From director Stefon Bristol and producer Spike Lee comes See You Yesterday, a sci-fi adventure grounded in familial love, cultural divides and the universal urge to change the wrongs of the past.

SEE YOU YESTERDAY will launch globally on Netflix May 17th. We had an exclusive conversation with the director Stefon Bristol, you can listen to it below.

A Conversation Between Director and Co-Writer Stefon Bristol and Producer Spike Lee

Stefon Bristol graduated from Morehouse College and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, just like his Oscar-winning mentor, Spike Lee. Initially, it took the now-31-year-old a year-and-a-half to get Lee’s attention. The auteur responded with years of tough love as the New Yorkers became collaborators. Below, they reflect on growing up in Brooklyn, the hazard of chasing awards, and adapting Bristol’s 17-minute student thesis — which screened at 35 film festivals — into his feature debut, a magnetic celebration of Caribbean culture and everyday superheroes.

What was your first introduction to Spike’s work?

Stefon Bristol.jpeg

Stefon Bristol: My first Spike film was Do The Right Thing. I was 18 years old and I didn’t know what to do with my life. When I saw Do The Right Thing, I knew exactly what career I wanted. I told my mom that I wanted to be a film director, study filmmaking in college, and she was not having that [laughs].

She’s a Caribbean woman from Guyana. My family is conservative and it took a while to convince her that this is what I want to do.

What aspect of Spike’s films drew you in the most?
His visuals were very visceral and unique in the way he addresses how diverse black

people are. That’s something that informs me in my work.

How did the two of you meet?
We both went to the best college of these United States called Morehouse College in

Atlanta, Georgia [laughs]. The House.Spike Lee: The House.

SB: Obviously, he was one of the prestigious alumni from Morehouse. During my years at Morehouse, I wanted to study filmmaking. Unfortunately they didn’t offer that degree. One of my professors set me up to meet Spike during a screening of Kobe Doin’ Work. I bum rushed him after the Q&A.

SL: The Brooklyn bum rush.

SB: [Laughs] I was like, “Hey Spike, how are you doing? I know what I want to do for a living.” It was no holds barred. “Spike, I’d love to have an internship with you at 40 Acres and a Mule. Can you hook me up?” And he said, “All right, send me your résumé.” He gave me his email, I sent him my résumé, and heard nothing from him. I said to myself, I’ll try next time he’s back in town.

So I did it again. This was at Clark Atlanta University. He was showing Jesus Children of America and after that screening, I bum rushed him. I said, “Spike, hook a brother up. I would love to work with you.” “All right, here’s the email. Send it.” I sent the résumé, and still didn’t hear back from him [laughs].

My classmates and I wanted to start a film program, and the dean helped us meet with Spike one time to show him our work. And after that meeting, I bum rushed him again. I say, “Spike, this is my third time asking you for a meeting, third time asking you for an internship. Hook a brother up.” Spike said, “Third time, huh?” “Yes.” “All right, here’s my email.” And it was like, Oh God, this again! But luckily, I think he saw my film and liked it. I’m not sure. [laughs]

SL: You’re not sure? You’ve seen when I don’t like shit [laughs].

SB: [Laughs] He does rip people apart. He ripped me apart at NYU, but that’s a story for later.

SL: It’s not rip – it’s instructions [they laugh].

SB: Well, the instructions are brutal. Which I appreciate. Receiving them only makes you stronger.

SL: It’s not as brutal as some of those reviews might be [they laugh].SB: Sometimes it’s just as brutal.

One summer before I graduated from Morehouse, I worked with Spike at 40 Acres here in New York. Then I begged him to write me a letter of recommendation for NYU, where he’s a professor.

That’s amazing.
The rest is history.
How did your mentor/protégé relationship work and develop?

SB: On my first day of school at NYU, Spike was coming out the elevator and I just quickly asked, “Hey Spike, can you be my mentor?” He said, “Yeah, of course. I got you.” Afterwards, he saw all my movies at NYU, and he gave amazing critiques. And I sat down with him for my second year film. Once he saw it, he’s “Okay, Stefon, take out a pen and paper.” I thought, I’m going to get the master’s notes. This is going to be good.

He said, “Write down this first thing: ‘This is unoriginal.’” “Huh, this is un– what? [laughs] Excuse me?” Spike said, “Write the next one down: ‘This is trash,’ okay? ‘This is tr–’” [laughs] And he berated me about the storytelling, the dialogue, the creativity. He wanted me to dig deeper. He wanted me to find something more original. It was a ‘hood film.

SL: We have enough of those.
SB: Yeah, we have Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society –SL: Those were at the beginning. I’m talking about today.

SB: That lesson informed me. What I really wanted to do before I went to NYU was make sci-fi/action/adventure stories for black people. By the time I made the short film See You Yesterday, I never wanted to hear him say my work’s unoriginal, trash, “You can do better dialogue” ever again.

When he saw the short’s script, he said, “I’ve never seen this before.”

Spike, why is it so important for you to promote new artists and give people the opportunities to show you their works-in-progress?

SL: I went to NYU for graduate school. I always thought, If I get in, if they made the mistake, I’d crack the door open and bring as many people as I can with me. Back then, it wasn’t like things are today. When I was coming up, entertainment industry unions were specifically against people of color and women. So I’ve had to have many battles.

Do you see part of yourself in the filmmakers that you mentor?
No, everybody’s different. Everybody’s got their own stories to tell, their own experiences.

SB: Which I appreciated, working with him. He’s the best producer you can ask for. He fought for me in every way. He read the scripts, he gave me his feedback. There have been notes where he’s very adamant about what he expects, and my co-writer Fredrica Bailey and I disagreed. But he still respected our choices. We might disagree with each other, but he still fights for me, and that’s something I really needed.

What’s been your biggest challenge as a director?

SL: My biggest challenge from the beginning was finance – how are we going to get the money? We scraped tooth and nail to get the $175,000 for She’s Gotta Have It. Then you’ve got to make the movie, and that’s not easy, either. But it’s the money.

SB: I’m lucky he believes in me. The first step is believing in yourself; the next, which is the hardest, is to find other people to believe in you. There were times even when I had Spike with me, where you could tell based on people’s faces that they didn’t believe in me. They didn’t believe in the project, they didn’t believe I’d be able to pull it off.

It’s not until people finally saw the script and some dailies that they’re finally like, “Oh, okay, thankfully you’ve got something.” You can’t control that. You can only push forward and stay positive.

Spike, what’s some of the advice that you’ve passed along to Stefon and other aspiring filmmakers?

SL: Don’t fuck up [laughs] Nah. I’d say, honestly, it’s all in the work ethic. I’m stressing that very, very, very hard. This is not a joke. You can’t be shucking and jiving. It’s hard work and you’ve got to put the work in.

What’s the best piece of advice that he’s given you so far?
I remember there was this one film festival – I’m not going to name it, because I don’t

want to seem like I’m throwing shade.

SL: He is. But...

SB: No. Obviously, I didn’t win and it didn’t hurt me in the long run. I went there for business, networking, and to compete with my short. I was not even focused on winning. At first, I was focused on just making this film, getting people to see it. And after the screening, everybody’s chewing my ears off: “Stefon, you’ll win.” I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ll win” [laughs].

Then when I found out I didn’t win, I called Spike. I said, “Spike, I didn’t win.” And he was like, “Stefon, it’s not about the awards. It’s about the work.”

That brings me back to what I wanted all along. Originally, I wanted to just influence people with my work, influence people to see something new. Challenge them, and make them enjoy the film. So I don’t want an award to try to validate me and my work. I don’t want that urge driving me crazy to make my next film. I just want to make things that I love, and hope they will be well-received.

SL: I mean, if it was about winning awards, I would’ve stopped 30 years ago. This year was the first time I got nominated for Best Director. I got an honorary Oscar and I thought that’d be it [laughs].

What’s more important to you as a filmmaker: the narrative or visuals? SL: Filmmaking’s both. It’s not either/or.

SB: For me, the narrative drives the visuals. Everything starts from the script. If the story and the script is right, everything else falls into place.

Start from the heart of the story, what the story means, what it’s about, who the characters are and what message you’re trying to get across, if you have a message. It’s all about the script, the script, the script.

SL: Well, I disagree, because there’s no one way to make a film. Now, for you, story first – script first. But there are people who are more visually-oriented, so their emphasis for a script might come from images or a painting or photographs. That’s what I tell my students – I guess he was absent that day [both laugh]. One of the things I stress in the class is that there is not one way to do everything. You’ve got to find what works for you.

Again, I’m not disputing my brother. For example, some people are more creative in the morning, some people are more creative at night. Everybody’s different, and sometimes even I forget that.

Why was it so important to make See You Yesterday in your Brooklyn neighborhood, with real people?

SB: It’s so many reasons. As I mentioned, my family is from Guyana. I’m American-born, first generation. Both my parents are Guyanese. My older brother and my older sister are Guyanese. My cousins are Guyanese.

SL: Why wouldn’t your cousins be Guyanese?SB: [Laughing] True. Please cut that out.
SL: Keep it in [laughs].

SB: I grew up in Coney Island and my mother used to always used to take me to Flatbush to get chicken patties, beef patties, salara [red cake], curried chicken, curried goat, black pudding. She used to take me to Bobby’s Department Store [laughing], buy me some fake sneakers, knock-off clothes.

SL: We didn’t call them fake. We called them M.O.s. You know what that means?SB: No.

SL: Emmotations [they laugh]. That’s that old school shit. “Yo, man, you wearing them M.O.s.” That’s torture. Oh man, I’m telling you, you couldn’t come outside if your sneakers weren’t legit.

SB: Oh, I’m used to being made fun of for my gear all the time.

SL: How old were you when you got your first pair of Jordans?

SB: 25.
SL: Damn [laughs].

SB: [Laughs] And I appreciated it, ‘cause it put a lot of stuff into perspective. Like what is the value of a dollar? How do you define yourself? I don’t want to define myself with clothes. Now I have a whole bunch of Jordans, thanks to this man.

Anyway, I grew up going to East Flatbush all the time, and the one thing I’d never seen on film is Caribbean people, done right and done respectably.

SL: What, you didn’t like that Jamaican bobsled movie (they laugh)? What was that called?

SB: Cool Runnings.
SL: You didn’t like The Harder They Come? Jimmy Cliff.
SB: No, I’m talking about American films. That was a great movie.

SL: Yeah.
SB: Everytime you go see a movie about Brooklyn recently, it’s always about Williamsburg or

Bushwick or, or Bed-Stuy – which I respect.SL: Bed-Stuy, do or die.

SB: But I’ve never seen Caribbean people. There is the black American experience and there’s the black immigrant experience. I need to show my culture. Guyanese culture, it’s in the film. Jamaican culture is in the film, Trinidadian culture is in the film.

You began working on this project in 2014. A couple years later, you won –

SB: NYU’s Spike Lee Production Grant. So See You Yesterday started as a short film – my thesis film for NYU Grad School. The thesis showcases you as a director, and all you learned getting your MFA.

At that time, I told Spike I want to do a feature. He told me I was delusional. “Do a short” [laughs]. And all my other professors said the same thing.

Summer 2014, I saw Back to the Future on repeat. It was also the summer when Michael Brown and Eric Garner got murdered. I put all this together and I made a short film called See You Yesterday.

When I first wrote the draft, I sought out Spike’s help. He gave me the grant and luckily, my mother also refinanced her home to give me extra money to shoot the movie. So with Spike’s blessing and my mom’s blessing and a few other dollars –

SL: Wait. Say your mother first.
SB: With my mom’s blessing and then Spike’s blessing, I was able to get this short film made.

We shot it 2016.

Spike, why did you want to support and loan your name to See You Yesterday?

SL: I saw the short. It screened at the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival. I remember that year, every award went to an NYU film student. He came over to our house on Martha’s Vineyard, had a meal or two or three [laughs] and it was obvious to me that this could be a feature film.

The same thing happened with Dee Rees. Her NYU thesis was Pariah. And she turned it into a feature [which took home a Film Independent Spirit Award after winning a pair of Sundance prizes].

SB: That’s another special thing about turning the short into a feature for Netflix [the distributor of Rees’s post-Pariah films]. Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, and Ryan Coogler — these filmmakers, they struggled and opened the doors for me.

I often heard that this was a risky film to make. And I was like, “How?” As an artist, making this film made sense, especially during this time. Because it’s a genre-bending film – mixing time travel with a serious issue like police brutality – I hope people will feel that I treated the subject matter appropriately.

What motivated you to make a grounded sci-fi film?

SB: I’m a huge superhero fan. I go to a comic book shop called Bulletproof on Flatbush Avenue. Back when I started writing the script, all the superhero movies left me feeling empty. I understand people want escapism and spectacle and fun. The question I had for myself as a filmmaker was, How do I combine a Marvel film with a strong, political message?

There’s too much stuff happening right now in our country and around the world that escapism is not the best route. We have to face our problems head-on.

How involved were you, Spike, in the process of making the feature?
I was hands-off. [To Stefon] You don’t know what hands-on is. You had a good handle on

everything. I came to the motherfuckin’ set the first day and you never saw me after that.

SB: No, he was not on set every day, and I appreciate that.

SL: Every day? I came the first day.

SB: [To Spike] You was there for every single draft of the script. That’s what I’m trying to say. From draft one, two, three, all the way to the 13th draft.

SL: That’s part of being a producer. Hands-on, for me, that’s someone who’s on the set every day telling you, “You can’t cast this person;” “Do this, do that;” looking over your back; in the editing room; telling you what piece of music to use. I didn’t do that.

SB: Yeah.

SL: Didn’t want to do it. Shouldn’t do it [laughs].

SB: I really, I really appreciated that.

SL: In all honesty, some of that stuff you’ve got to learn yourself. You’re your own man, with your own feet. You’ve got to go through the fire.

Spike, why is it so important for you to stay connected to a younger generation of filmmakers?

SL: Well, it’s easy for me to stay connected to them since I’m only here ‘cause of people before me – Oscar Micheaux, Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, Michael Schultz. Everything is built to keep the succession of new voices going.