A knee injury interrupted Travon Free’s college basketball career—and started his show business career. While rehabbing a torn meniscus at Long Beach State he told his teammates jokes. That led to stand-up work, which led to writing jobs at The Daily Show (both the Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah versions) and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.
Now Free, 36, finds himself with an Oscar nomination as the writer and codirector of the live-action film Two Distant Strangers. It tells the story of Carter James, a young Black graphic artist played by Joey Bada$$, who is confronted and murdered by the NYPD’s Officer Merk (Andrew Howard)—again and again and again. Two Distant Strangers would have been powerful regardless of when it premiered, but the timing of its April 9 Netflix debut turned out to be both perfect and awful. I spoke with Free about critics who say the film is exploiting Black pain, what he learned from Jon Stewart, and his own experiences being hassled by cops: “I’ll tell you about three,” he said. “I don’t want to take up all your time.”
Vanity Fair: Your film is a fictional take on the tragic, seemingly endless loop of Black Americans being killed by police. Two days after Two Distant Strangers was released, another name was added to the grim list: Daunte Wright.
Travon Free: Crazy enough, that Sunday night we were actually on a P.R. call for the movie—and Martin Desmond Roe, my codirector, tells everybody what just happened in Minnesota. It just…it just stopped the call in its tracks. I genuinely could not believe, when Martin said it. I didn’t necessarily think he was joking, because I knew he wouldn’t joke about something like that. But I just could not believe it happened. Again. In Minneapolis, during the Derek Chauvin trial.
Back up a bit. How did the idea for Two Distant Strangers first come to you?
Last summer we were all marching in protest, just about every day for a couple of weeks. Thinking about all the names—George and Breonna and all the other names you see on signs—I was thinking about how you internalize the emotions each time one of those stories happens. At least as a Black person, you cycle through being really angry, and then you’re sad, and then you feel a bit of hopelessness. Sometimes it starts up again before you can even finish talking about the last killing. It just feels like the worst version of Groundhog Day. I wanted to put that on the page and see if I could get people to feel what that feels like, even a little bit.
Was it difficult to write the script?
I wrote it in five days. It felt like I was exorcising something.
There’s a 2019 Jordan Peele–produced episode in the Twilight Zone reboot with a somewhat similar premise.
After I finished writing, I actually talked to Jordan about it. We both felt they were different enough that it wasn’t an issue between us.
Each time Carter is killed by the cop, Merk, it’s painful to watch—but I found it especially tough to watch when Merk pins Carter to the sidewalk and chokes him out. Everyone is acting, of course, but was it hard to shoot that scene?
As we were doing it, I didn’t even realize I had tears in my eyes. They’re such great actors, and it felt so real. You could hear a pin drop [on the set].
Even after the film’s conceit becomes clear, the audience—or at least white, liberal me—keeps thinking, Well, if only they knew each other better, maybe things would turn out better. And there’s a point where Carter’s girlfriend suggests that he try talking to Murphy, reaching out to him.
Can you think of any time you’ve seen the police go to a white neighborhood to play basketball with the white kids, in order to keep from having to shoot them? Yet that’s the solution they give to us—they’ll drive a bus around with a basketball hoop on the back in Black neighborhoods. Why do you need to even know me to see me as human? I wanted people to understand that even if Carter is talking to the officer, getting to know him, befriending him, the reality is what happens next. We’ve seen stories of people who were part of community policing programs—and still got killed by the cops in that community!
The core of the story is deadly serious, but there’s humor and playfulness in the movie too. Was it tricky to combine those things in a narrative that’s only about 28 minutes long?
The hardest part was balancing the tone leaving the apartment, where the scenes feel like a rom-com, to the street, when Carter first encounters the cop and goes into his own version of a horror film. How do we play that? For Black people, life can go from happy to very, very sad in the blink of an eye. Daunte Wright is going to the car wash, and all of a sudden the police lights come on. So we played it as real as possible, and Joey and Andrew are such great actors it made it a bit easier for us.
The film has been accused of using Black trauma for the sake of entertainment.
I think it’s a lazy criticism in a lot of ways. I would have never made something in that vein. As Black people, we approach art and entertainment through the lens of our experiences, and there is so much that we go through in our everyday lives that I understand how it can be difficult to watch certain aspects of our film. But to ignore the reality of how we got to this point would be cinematic malpractice. The traumatic events we show are important to understand why we are in this position, and why it is on all of us to break the cycle.
I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s fairly optimistic—it’s definitely not a happy ending, but it’s certainly a hopeful one. Why?
The last statement that Carter makes, I want you to feel like you want to be on his team. What I mean by that is, I want the audience, especially the white audience, to want to help real-life Black people get home to their families. What can I do in my life, as a person who might not be as affected by this, to help stop you from being affected by this? So I want people to feel like the last line is a rallying cry to go, “Yeah, fuck, yeah! After everything I just saw you go through, you deserve to go home.”
Did you consider ending it much darker?
Absolutely. I would have finished the script faster than five days—the only reason I didn’t was because I took about a day and a half to think about that last scene, to sit with the idea of, Is there a solution? But I didn’t want Black audiences, in particular, feeling like they were getting this hollow, prescriptive answer, something that we’ve tried time and time again that hasn’t worked. And in order to inspire people, in order for them to not feel like I just kicked them in the stomach and walked away, I knew Carter had to wake up one more time.
Do you always work fast?
No, but for this one, my Daily Show education definitely came into play—knowing how to run a team and do rewrites lightning fast. And one thing I definitely learned from Jon—he didn’t necessarily care who disagreed with him when it came to what he felt was the truth, or the right thing. That’s something I carry with me.
We knew we wanted to and needed to make the movie as soon as possible, but it was crazy to start filming in the middle of what would normally be awards season and then have it fall into line with that same season. The only festival we finished it in time to submit for, which was Sundance, rejected it. We thought, All right, we’ll keep moving and submit it for the Oscars. That turned out okay.
You always seem to have several interesting projects in play at the same time. What’s next?
I have the Idris Elba movie at Apple, and a project at Paramount where the deal just got wrapped today, actually. I’m also writing a film about John Donaldson, the great Negro Leagues pitcher. And there’s the script Martin and I interrupted to make Two Distant Strangers, a rom-com that’s kind of based on a tribe in Tanzania. We have a lot more interested parties now, with what’s happened to Two Distant Strangers.
Have you written a speech, should you win the Oscar?
A week ago, I was thinking that if we won, I would get to make a broad comment about the subject matter and then talk about filmmaking and creativity. And then Sunday, and Daunte Wright, changed all of that.
And then Derek Chauvin was convicted on all counts of murdering George Floyd.
Winning after this would be something I can’t even put into words.
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