Late in 2016, Jamel Davall and Anna Jones connected with Sophia Jennings because they knew they wanted to create a web series that reflected the political climate of the nation. So they did. With My America, they explored the tense atmosphere of pre-election America by following one Uber driver and the conversations he has the day before Election Day.
The series is, in hindsight, eerie in its accuracy. We caught up with them to talk about its impact and making below.
[D]: Let’s start with how ya’ll met and what ya’ll did before embarking on this series.
[JD]: Anna & I met back in 2005 in Connecticut when we were studying at the Yale School of Drama, Anna as a director and me as an actor. Upon graduating, our creative lives led us to work in theatre in New York and London. We moved out to LA a couple years ago with a keen interest to cut our teeth in film.
[AJ]: We fortunately met Sophia at Picrow, a production company, when we went in to talk to its owner Peter Lang about providing some logistical support for My America. She became one of our producers, along with Lily Campbell and Roweena Mackay. Roweena is a friend and long-time collaborator from Yale Drama. She was a key part in encouraging us to move forward and make the series when we took it to her in September.
The rest of the cast and crew were drawn from friends and other connections in LA. We were lucky in being able to draw together such a great group of people in such a short time period.
[D]: How did the idea for My America come about?
[JD]: We wanted to share how the experiences of recent world events were affecting ordinary people on a daily basis. Then it was about finding the storytelling potential in that.
[AJ]: Yes, it was above all a chance to articulate some of the anxieties and preoccupations we were experiencing ourselves and try to make some sense of them in doing so.
[D]: Why choose Uber rides as the main arena for these conversations?
[JD]: I moonlight as an Uber driver in LA, and have found it to be a great resource for character studies. As they say: write what you know!
[AJ]: Alongside Jamel telling me his stories about his encounters as a driver, I was having political conversations with Uber drivers that were frequently confounding my assumptions. They made me think about how complicated most people’s political point of views are.
I think it’s fascinating how Uber can be a space for conversations between strangers of different points of view — perhaps because you are riding in someone’s actual car, there’s more of a host element than in a traditional cab.
[SJ]: I moved to LA without a car. So for me, it was the perfect project as I’ve spent way too much time in Uber and seen how the space can work as a performative vessel.
[D]: The series originally ran right up to the election.
What was your intent with such a close release schedule?
[AJ]: It was exciting to be able to set the episodes on the same day we released them and participate in the conversation as it was happening. We also enjoyed making something specifically for the web. It’s something that couldn’t be done in quite the same way on TV or film because of the speed with which we could write, shoot, edit and release, and the lack of any gatekeepers.
Peter Macon, who plays Derek in Episode 3, said he wanted to take part in the project because it provided a time capsule of this moment in time; and I think because we filmed them more or less when they were set, they have a feeling perhaps more similar to documentary filmmaking than narrative fiction. The way in which our DP Mike Rossetti and I decided to shoot them, with a handheld camera and the camera following the action, also aimed to emphasize their immediacy and rawness.
[SJ]: As a producer, it was like boot camp. I met Anna and Jamel on October 6th and we released our first episode on November 3rd. There would be moments where we were editing the script in one room, filming outside and meeting with potential funders inside. Total insanity! But the best month ever.
[D]: Did you hope to change people’s views?
Or something less herculean?
[JD]: If anything, for me, it’s not necessarily to change people’s views, but more about it acting as a mirror. So that they might recognize their own tendencies or inclinations in someone they may or may not normally identify with.
[AJ]: I love how James Baldwin expresses this in his essay ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’, “in overlooking, denying, evading his complexity – which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves – we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves.”
[D]: The bulk of My America revolves around these in-car conversations.
How did ya’ll go about making them feel real without making them overly rhetorical?
[AJ]: It’s a great question — it was interesting working out this balance with the actors and Asaad, our director for Episodes 4 & 5. Sometimes, it was a question of tempo and finding the right speed for an exchange and other times, we adjusted dialogue to make it less “talky” depending on how it sounded in the actor’s mouth and their thoughts/improv.
We both really enjoyed how much the collaborations added to the script and found there was no hard or fast rule. Across the edit, we found we were re-writing again as, along with the editors, we saw the episodes anew and we made cuts, adjusted focus and re-structured parts to more concisely tell the story.
[D]: With each episode being its own capsule, how did you choose who to present
and what conversations to showcase?
[JD]: As it’s a story with a double-pronged protagonist, Lucian and Carmine, each of the other characters serve a specific function in relation to each of their journeys and the overall arc of the material.
[AJ]: Along with that, we wanted to represent a range of different cultures, ages and political beliefs, reflecting the moment as widely as we could manage within the six episodes. We also thought about actors we wanted to work with, and largely wrote with specific people in mind, which was awesome when they by and large agreed to make it with us!
[D]: Carmine is the main pro-Trump voice in the series.
How did you construct his character and story?
[AJ]: He started off as a structural contrast to Lucian. We wanted to follow a driver and a passenger across those six days, and thought it’d be interesting to look at a Democrat and a Republican, both of whom had slight reservations about those points of view as that felt real.
Once we decided on that, we did a lot of research into why people were considering voting for Trump, and then thought it’d be interesting to create a sense of resistance to that within his family and built out the role of Jess, his daughter-in-law and Adam, his absent son, from there along with the sense of his wife being ready to move on.
[JD]: No matter how different someone is on a social level, it’s about trying to work out what makes that person tick, what their happiness is. The art is seeing how you can create empathy through creative judgement, i.e. using your judgement to create something for what it is on a surface level and yet by going deeper, be able to empathize with it.
[D]: Conversely, the episode covering the intersection of different black voices revealed a lot.
How did that scene come about?
[JD]: Part of it was inspired by an actual encounter I had when driving for Uber. I get a sense of relief when someone who “is the same as me” expresses similar opinions, which makes me feel I’m not being “extra sensitive”, but that those feelings and points of view are real.
[D]: For all the tension, there’s an undercurrent of hope in My America. Looking back now, in light of everything that’s happened during and after the election, do you still feel that hope? As creators? As just regular folks?
[JD]: I still feel hope because when all is said and done, whoever is running the government won’t solve all our problems, we all must go on and continue to grow…or not. That choice lies with each of us.
[AJ]: I’m worried by the rifts within the country and larger international scene, and the idea that there aren’t many issues where consensus can be found. Even, for instance, on issues like climate change and environmental damage which is fundamental to our future on the planet. Or on healthcare rights and how that is fundamentally linked to the lack of a fair playing field from birth. Also by how we’re getting our information from different sources and how that’s strengthening the lines of division.
I agree with Jamel, however, that there’s room for hope in talking to one another, finding common ground, and shared problem solving… that has to begin from empathy and recognition of one another’s fundamental similarities. As Obama said during his farewell speech, we don’t want to self-insulate along cultural, religious, ethnic, political lines…we need to combat the “great sorting” of social isolation in order to get anywhere.
[D]: The new administration’s inauguration is about a week away.
How do you hope to see My America affect people in 2017 and beyond?
[JD]: Hopefully it’ll suggest self-sufficiency to those who see it i.e. that the problems start with us. If we recognize those problems and start trying to address them on a personal level, things will improve on a wider level. Whoever is the President won’t be able to fix or destroy everything.
[D]: What’s next for ya’ll?
[JD]: We want to continue to document the human, or every day, response to events going forward so that we can see how we continue standing.
[AJ]: We’re looking to create partnerships to make the next three projects center on the 100 day mark of the Trump presidency…to join in the traditional media assessment of the President’s first 100 days in office from an ordinary level, and take a narrative point of view on that.
[JD]: We have some other ideas cooking too.
[SJ]: I think we’ll know more in a week. Or maybe two.
All photos by Lilly Campbell and provided courtesy of
Sophia Jennings, Jamel Davall and Anna Jones.