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Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal offer ode to Oakland

Daveed Diggs, left, and Rafael Casal are cast members, co-producers and co-writers of the film "Blindspotting."

CHRIS PIZZELLO, INVISION/AP

By RICK BENTLEY | Tribune News Service | Published: July 20, 2018

LOS ANGELES -- Sometimes, it all comes down to a matter of trust.

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have known each other since they were in high school. That kind of longevity made a big difference when sitting down to write the script for "Blindspotting." They respected each other’s talents so much that they were willing to experiment with their tale of two friends dealing with life in a rapidly changing Oakland.

They meshed together elements of theater, verse and rap to create a story that at a casual glance looks like an examination of social and economic change from different points of view, but goes deeper when the most private thoughts and feelings of the main characters get expressed in a lyrical poetic meter.

"These are stories adapted from our immediate surroundings to tell the stories we wanted to tell," Diggs says.

At the heart of the story are best friends Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal). The past few years have been difficult for them as Miles spent time in prison and is trying to get through the last three days of his probation without an incident. That seems doubtful when he witnesses a police shooting. Miles has been trying to support his best friend while taking care of his family in a gentrifying world.

"We look at the film as a love letter to Oakland," Diggs says. "What we think is that this movie is an honest reflection of the transition that is going on in Oakland right now. Your perspective on that will determine whether you think that is an indictment or a celebration.

"We are seeing the film from Collin’s and Miles’ perspective. Of the perspectives we get in the film, they are the most anti-change."

The elements they bring to the film are based on what they have observed since meeting at Berkeley High School. After graduation, the pair lost touch for a few years as Casal was busy pursuing a career as a spoken-word artist, educator and playwright while Diggs became a stage sensation playing Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway phenomenon, "Hamilton."

As their creative successes grew, Diggs and Casal continued collaborating whenever they could.

Casal explains that he and Diggs have a huge passion for verse-driven work and as soon as they would get together, there was a natural creative chemistry because of a shared love for poetry and music. Once they started putting all their loves together, "Blindspotting" emerged.

They trust each other so much that even when pressed to talk about what the other brings to the collaboration, there is an endless supply of sidestepping.

"When it comes to the writing process, it’s less about the practical execution and more about the Rubik’s Cube of a story we are trying to tell and trying to get all the pieces to line up the way we wanted them to," Diggs says. "A big part of our process is about solving the riddle of the story together. Making sure that the characters feel fully three-dimensional and realized. That the plot feels like it is worth of the audience’s attention.

"And, that we are clearly begging the questions or making the points to accurately portray the lives that we want to. So much of that is about asking each other questions about suggestions we make to slowly build a framework for the story together. That’s 90 percent of the process."

As for the other 10 percent, that came from director Carlos Lopez Estrada who makes his feature film debut with "Blindspotting." He didn’t bring a long resume of movie work to the project but both Diggs and Casal had worked with Estrada enough in the past on smaller projects to know he would be able to bring their shared vision to the big screen.

They had faith the final product would be different because Estrada has shown he loves to think outside the cinematic box by using techniques from music videos, theater and his own imagination to give the final product a design that matched the poetic meter of the script.

"Through the projects we worked on with Carlos, I think we have all really aligned our vision about why we think filmmaking is exciting and how to capture verse in a cinematic and narrative way," Diggs says. "In attempting to utilize verse as a spine of a film, which we had never seen done in this capacity, we knew we needed someone who was experimenting with form as a contemporary in the same way we were.

"We wanted someone young and hungry and unafraid. A first-time director who is a risk-taker is our favorite type of fearless."

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