Conversation with “Gracie” Filmmaker Matthew Jacobs Morgan

| June 20, 2016

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The following is a guest post from Occidental College Media Arts and Culture student Hyerin Emma Lee.

Matthew Jacobs Morgan is a quadruple threat. The 22-year-old British filmmaker wrote, directed, produced, and co-starred in his award-winning short film Gracie, which was featured in the Cannes Court Metrage. (You can read about Matthew’s trip to the French festival here.) Based on his real life experiences with his own grandmother, Gracie tells the story of an elderly woman with dementia who longs to return to her childhood in Jamaica. It co-stars Rakie Ayola (Dredd), Kate Dickie (Game of ThronesThe Witch), and Angela Wynter as Gracie.

Gracie screens at the San Francisco Black Film Festival on June 19 at Yoshi’s in San Francisco.

Filmmaker Matthe J. Morgan (Credit: Wolf Marloh)

Filmmaker Matthe J. Morgan (Credit: Wolf Marloh)

Tell us about yourself!

I was born and raised in London, England.  I started making films in 2013 at the age of 19 after I saved up money from a supermarket job and bought myself a Canon 550D. Since then I have worked with some awesome filmmakers in London to make two short films, Happy Birthday and Gracie, both of which have been on the international festival circuit. I started out as an actor, and continue to do so, and have worked in TV on shows like Cuffs, Love Nina, and Wasted, which gave me invaluable training in how to work with actors.

You started out as an actor. When or how did you know you wanted to work behind the camera as well?

Initially I started working behind the camera because I was frustrated by the lack of roles for someone who looks like me, so I started writing roles for myself. In doing so, I found that I absolutely loved the process and have continued to make films without myself at the forefront. I mainly liked the control of being a filmmaker, as you don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission and if you want to make a film, you can do so very easily. Whereas with acting there is no control at all!

What other works of art inspired you in making this film?

I love the work of Xavier Dolan. His films Mommy and J’ai Tue Ma Mere were very inspiring to me. They were fantastic character studies with a real lightness of touch.

How did you direct Angel Wynter? Did you ask her to perform those subtleties or to improvise? Her performance was phenomenal.

Angela was a dream to work with. Most of those subtleties came from her. She completely got the character and she had done her research. There were moments where the dialogue finished but she carried on, in character, and a lot of those moments made it into the film. My favorite shot of the film is the final shot, and for that, I asked Angela to do something really out of the ordinary and fully expected her to tell me it was ridiculous. I asked her to cry out of her left eye when we hit a certain mark, and she did it in one take. Phenomenal.

Angela Wynter plays the eponymous character

Angela Wynter plays the eponymous character

I’ve read that Gracie was inspired by your experiences with your grandmother. Why did you want to capture this particular stage in her life and what did you wish to convey with it cinematically?

I wanted to explore this stage of her life because it was the time when I felt like I had only just started to get to know her. When you’re young you take your grandparents for granted, thinking they will always be there, and it was only in my teenage years that I had started to make a conscious effort to take advantage of the time I had left with her, by which point she had started to suffer from dementia.

There is a moment of racial hostility in the film. Does this relate to the nostalgia and longing Gracie has towards Jamaica? As somewhere she belongs?

Yes, totally. The film was initially called Home, and when the neighbor is hostile toward Gracie, telling her to “go home,” it is a comment on why she never felt a sense of belonging in London and why Jamaica had always been home to her.

In the film, what Aaron does in the end seems to be playing along with his grandmother’s world instead of correcting her and trying to pull her out to the “real world.” Could you expand on why you made this particular choice? Is there a bigger social commentary in this?

There are many schools of thought on ways to approach dementia, but the way I approached my grandmother’s dementia was to try see things from her perspective and imagine what would comfort me. She would always mention things from her past, like her mother, or Jamaica, or Jamaican food and music, and it was clear to me that those things would bring some sort of comfort to her. So my family did our best to facilitate that. Although we were unable to take my Granny to Jamaica, we did our best to bring Jamaica to her.

At times, there seems to be a focus on Gracie’s feet (when she’s dancing by herself and when she takes off her shoes in the end). Does this emphasis has to do with her wanting to be free or other reasons?

That’s a very interesting point, and one I hadn’t thought of before! It could definitely be seen as her sense of freedom once she takes her shoes off. In the scene where Aaron walks in and finds Gracie dancing by herself, the shot of their feet next to each other is to emphasize the generational difference between the two, Gracie with her wrinkled pop socks and Aaron with his shiny new trainers.

Angela Wynter and Matthew Jacobs Morgan in 'Gracie'

Angela Wynter and Matthew Jacobs Morgan in ‘Gracie’

What was the process like writing dialogue between the characters? There seems to be more conveyed subtly through emotions rather than explicitly through words.

First I over wrote it. I wrote dialogue where they said all the things they want and they’re feeling and after that, I stripped it back. Took out everything I thought they could convey non-verbally and even cut some lines in post. I think well-written characters always tend to say more with their eyes than they do with their words, and in life no one says what they actually mean, so I thought why would that be different on film! I was very lucky in that I had a great casting director who helped get fantastic actors on board, without whom this would have been a very different film.

What was the most difficult obstacle you had to overcome while filming Gracie?

We shot Gracie in an actual nursing home for dementia patients, so we had to be very careful not to disrupt the running of the nursing home or get in the way of any patients. The manager of the home was extremely helpful and supportive and completely got what we were trying to do, as their approach to dementia was very much in keeping with the film (they even had an actual beach in their garden!).

Rakie Ayola stars as Gracie's daughter

Rakie Ayola stars as Gracie’s daughter

What is the most memorable/influential lesson you’ve learned working as an actor/writer/director/filmmaker?

For me, the most influential lesson has been: Don’t try and make something which is completely beyond your means. I have in the past tried to make really ambitious projects with a £50 budget, and they have flopped. It’s sometimes best to start out small with a simple idea and work your way up rather than going in trying to make a large scale zombie apocalypse film with no budget, crew, or locations. Saying that, though, if you have a vision and you know how you’re going to execute it, don’t listen to me and go for it!!

How has studying at EICAR International Film School and participating in the B3 Media TalentLab and such help you grow as a filmmaker?

They have both been invaluable in that they have given me a deeper understanding of the ins and outs of the industry, and connected me with like minded filmmakers and artists who support and elevate each other.

Matthew Morgan is an award-winning 22-year-old writer and director from London who began his career in acting.  In 2013, he was selected for the National Theatre’s New Views Young Writer’s program, and in 2014, took part in B3 Media’s TalentLab program. In 2015, he received funding from Creative Skillset to attend EICAR International Film School in Paris to write his debut feature film Grit + Sass, a coming of age comedy-drama, which is now in development with Mini Productions.

Gracie screens at the San Francisco Black Film Festival on June 19 at Yoshi’s in San Francisco.

Hyerin Emma Lee’s guest post is part of our ongoing series of film school students interviewing aspiring filmmakers.

hyerin emma lee

Hyerin Emma Lee is studying Media Arts and Culture with an emphasis in Media Production at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Originally from Seoul, South Korea, she is currently a Production Coordinator at Macrograph, a South Korean film VFX/CG (visual effects) company.

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