Jake Yuzna Prioritizes Human Connection in the Making of His Film, “After America”

With After America, Jake Yuzna set out to rethink how we make independent films. Researching different radical theater practices, he used an open casting call to begin personal conversations with potential actors from the Minneapolis region, focusing on their struggles and desires in their actual lives. Then, Yuzna introduced cameras to make a film about seven characters based on the actors themselves, painting a documentary-like portrait of the underlying tensions in everyday life in his hometown of Minneapolis. The film was completed the same week that George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, leading to protests around the world—Yuzna sees the film as a time capsule of the tension leading up to the explosion of that moment. After America, Yuzna’s Creative Capital Project, premieres at Slamdance on February 15-25.

We discussed the plot of the film, Yuzna’s unique workshop practice to collaborate with the actors who play versions of themselves, and how a new cinematic language is needed to capture today’s reality.

Alex Teplitzky—There are a lot of ways to approach the project, but to start off, tell me about the story of the film in a nutshell.

Jake Yuzna—After America is a collaborative, process-based film that tells the story of seven people from diverse backgrounds that are all living in Minneapolis that in different ways are trying to escape the anxieties and pressures of life in America now. It starts off with a group of criminal justice de-escalation workers, one of which has a personal crisis during a session, and chooses to radically abandon their life, and run off. Then we see the effects of that play out, as well as how these interconnected stories are linked by these people who are trying to, I like to say, escape the American dream.

If we’re going to be able to reflect our experiences in America and in our world now, we’re going to need a different language that can articulate what we know.

The film was made using a workshop process that I’ve started calling “devised cinema,” inspired by “devised theater.” This approach is accessible to all, including those dubbed “trained” and “nontrained” actors. In this case, everyone was from the Twin Cities. We begin with a workshop period that guides and informs what will be filmed. In the end, the film’s stories are based on or connected to their real-life experiences in some way. For instance, those people who play criminal de-escalation workers in the film are also criminal deescalation workers in real life. This process tends to blur, or step around our traditional filmmaking genre. What is documentary and isn’t, is blurred. It is harder to pin down, which seems more like the world we experience today. When older ideas of what is true and false can almost seem quaint.

Alex—Like you said, it starts off with this really intense scene with the criminal justice workers, and I expected it to go off in that direction, but it doesn’t. Every character has this endearing story as we learn more about their struggles. How did the story lines of each character develop?

Jake—Well, I kind of did everything I have been trained not to do in film school. A big focus for me with the film was trying to discover how can we make independent films differently. After experiencing graduate training in Hollywood, and the film industry in Los Angeles in general, I saw first-hand a lot of the exploitative practices baked into so much of how American films are made. I kept finding myself asking, “why do we make films this way?” Why is everyone approaching this like we are shooting on 35mm film? Why are we using Hollywood studio models for making films, which seem not to prioritize the human connections we have with one other, even if we’re not working for them? I missed being in a collaborative environment with people willing to open up and leap into the unknown—the kind of processes I found in fine arts or performance or theater world. I wanted to bring that into the filmmaking process and, hopefully, break it apart.

Film still from After America by Jake Yuzna.

We had no script and I never had a clear picture of what was going on. It was lovely and I really hoped I had no knowledge of what I was doing. All of this was to leap into the void and trust it—trust instincts, trust one another, and see where that trust leads you. It made the production of the film incredibly independent. Often it was just me, and the sound person, and the performers. I wouldn’t know what we were shooting the next week, day, or moment.

For instance, while filming, we realized we had to go to the character Dan’s workplace, where he’s a pizza delivery guy. After we’re finishing filming one scene, we’d call Dan’s boss in real life to see if we could film there. He said yes, and we hopped in the car to head over there and film the next scene. So much of the film was dictated by the process itself. It was like driving in a fog. You can only see a few feet in front of you at any given time, but you still know you are headed towards someplace. I just had to trust the process, the stories, and emotions that were coming out each day at a time. I was discovering the stories along the way just like the performers. Once we finished filming, I realized we had something like 90 hours of footage. All I could do was take a deep breath and say, “I really hope there are some stories in here.” Over time we trimmed down the footage and discovered the stories that make up the final two-hour film.

There were little instinctual pieces where I thought we might end up. For example, I knew that once Theresa ran off, she would end up in a mall. During the workshop process before we started filming, I realized Chindogu would come into the film in some way, but I didn’t know how. It was always just instincts.  The exciting and relaxing part was that I had no idea what we were doing and where it was going. It can be kind of nerve-wracking, but it’s also gleefully delightful, at least for me, to know that we’re doing everything we’re not supposed to, and just trusting it’ll work out.

Alex—The movie is two hours long, and I felt like in the first hour, it set up some problems, and resolved them in the second hour. Is that just me or was it conscious through your workshop or editing process?

Jake—I suppose that is true, which is a little funny because that is classic storytelling. No matter how far I wanted to push the process of making narrative films, the end result was always intended to be a narrative film. With narrative storytelling, there are fundamentals of story structure that are the foundation of the language. We’re a bit more conservative when it comes to filmmaking though. Our expectations of story structure are more rigid in the US, whereas in literature and even performance, audiences can be a little bit more open to other ways of communicating or telling a story. This conservative rise in America storytelling is a more recent thing. During the 1990s, independent American films had much more adventurous, progressive story structures. They were even popular back then to a mass audience. Films that pushed boundaries were given bigger releases and people went to see them. There was a greater diversity in cinema back then. Over the last two decades, this has all slid back. We’ve gone backward, sadly.

If we’re going to be able to reflect our experiences in America and in our world now, we’re going to need a different language that can articulate what we know. The language of cinema that was developed in the 20th century was great, but it’s very nostalgic, and I don’t know if it reflects the time in which we try to use it. In the same way, the traditions of filmmaking in the ’30s wouldn’t reflect what was going on in France when the New Wave happened—they had to build their own language. Part of the reason for making After America, for me, was to never forget that there is still so much to be discovered when it comes to cinema. There are countless kinds of films yet to be realized. They lay dormant and untapped.

That has always been a streak in my work: how do we move narrative cinema forward in its structure and language so that it actually reflects the world as we experience it now? That hopefully opens up what film can even be, too.

Alex—I was looking at your project description which starts off, “Although it has not been widely publicized, on May 30th, 2018, America ended.” I didn’t even realize, watching it, that that was part of the story. Is it still relevant, that this is basically a dystopian post-America situation?

Jake—That definitely came out of our workshop process. I don’t know how much it’s in the forefront of the film by the time it was finished. The film is about the end of America, but while we are living in a period when we don’t know what will come next. A kind of limbo. Will it be dystopian? Utopian? Or just the same thing again, but in new packaging? We can feel something new is heading around the corner at us, but we don’t know what it is yet. It is a strange, and unsettling time to live in. I’m not the least surprised that there is so much anxiety in America right now. We’re deeply afraid of our unknown future.

The first paragraph of my original application for the Creative Capital Award started with the phrase, “My work starts where anthropology ends.” That is still true. I’m interested in what comes after. What comes after gender, after race, after nations, after humanity. I’m curious about what comes next, and discovering where that next thing is already forming. Trying to track down what will ultimately overtake the world as we know it. It is already around us, but we just haven’t recognized yet.

During the process of making the movie, one of the questions that came up was, what comes after America? For the last forty years of so, there has been a shift to having most depictions of what comes next be dystopian. But that was just a backlash to the previous three decades of visions of the future. The ones formed after WWII where everything was a utopia of flying cars and miracles of science. Today we have zombie apocalypses and plagues. The reality is really neither of these grand changes.  Historically when nations have fallen, it didn’t seem like much changed to the farmer or the day-to-day worker. There was a new king or prince, but life went on more or less like before. Those grand changes happen very slowly, incrementally. Perhaps we’ve been taught by movies and the like to expect a big bombastic change.  Aliens will blow up the Whitehouse, zombie hordes have ravished the lands, and that sort of thing. The reality is usually closer to your passport being in a new color and turning around to realize everything has changed without you catching on until it was too late.

Even in 2020, which had some strong dystopian undertones, many of the big anxieties were fairly mundane. Will we have enough toilet paper? And that sort of thing. Even when many people were rightly terrified that American democracy was ending, we didn’t see it happen in this big explosion—it feels like it was already happening. Little by little. Cut by cut. Meanwhile, people are still going to work and going about their day-to-day lives. So that was one of the concepts we looked at. When things change, it’s actually much more subtle than we expect it would be.

For the character of Theresa, who probably has the most radical break of anyone in the film, that big change is not clean and simple. It doesn’t turn out how she thought it would. Everyone in the film has discoveries and breaks from their pasts, but it doesn’t affect their lives in the way they had anticipated. I think that is true of life. In our daily lives, we have big changes: move across the country, break up with our spouses, we lose loved ones, or we have revelations that we want to live our lives differently. It tends not to be in one dramatic moment, it’s a process. The film captured that process. It captured the desire for something to change, and the anxiety inherent in that change. America is in that same place right now. The American dream isn’t working. We’re all stuck knowing that and struggling to get past it.

In the history of film there’s this bad habit of concentrating on the film, and allowing the way you make it to be exploitative and destructive to those involved. If you concentrate on the process and the people, the end result will be great no matter what.

The timing of the film was bizarre. It was completed the same week that George Floyd was murdered. Looking back, even from a short time away, the film seems like a kind of a time capsule of the two years leading up to when everything shifted dramatically. Most of my work for the past twenty years has centered on Minneapolis, my hometown. For all of that time, most people didn’t seem to really care about Minneapolis. It wasn’t well known. It wasn’t exciting. Maybe people had heard of Minneapolis, but chances were they couldn’t find it on a map. It was strange for that to suddenly switch, and for my hometown to become the focal point of global attention. A whole flood of people  came in to document the protests, or make films, art, and journalistic pieces. All trying to understand it. But I don’t think we’ll ever totally understand it. After America was made out of that environment, in that tension we felt in the air before this final crack, and a lot of what was repressed came bubbling up to the surface.

It was the same for characters of After America—they all had something repressed that was bubbling within them, fighting to burst out.

Alex—And on the surface, I noticed that a lot of it had to do with the weird things people do to make money. There’s Dan, the aspiring actor, who you mentioned delivers pizzas, the bullwhip expert who gives lessons, and the deaf queer model who has different jobs. You mentioned coronavirus when everything is topsy-turvy—at the same time we’re all still just trying to make money, but there is, like you said, this underlying tension that continues through our mundane activities. 

The thing that struck me as a theme of the work, is what the bullwhip says, to have your left hand teach your right hand, or dominant hand, new tricks so you can begin to move through the world in new ways.

Jake—In a way, Robert, the bullwhip expert, is the philosophical locus of the film. A lot of what Robert talks about came from our very first conversations. To cast the film, I put out a completely open casting call to the Twin Cities area. No experience needed. Just interest. Instead of a traditional audition, I had coffee with each person and got to know them. I met over 250 people, and from that it boiled down to seven. Robert was one of the seven. We clicked in different ways, but how he talked about people’s expectations really resonated with me. Robert gives the film’s most important themes a voice. Allowing ourselves to be what we know we already are, even though it’s so hard.

Film still from After America by Jake Yuzna.

We have these expectations of what we’re supposed to be, whether it’s professional pressure, or the way you structure your life with 2.5 kids and a house, or if you don’t go to college you’re a failure. At least in this new millennium, these pressures to live out the American dream feel particularly potent. Escaping that, and letting yourself be what you truly are, is one of the biggest challenges for anyone living in America. This experience came up naturally with everyone who starred in the film as he workshopped together, because we’re all feeling it—people from different ages and backgrounds. We are feeling the same thing.

Alex—It’s interesting to hear about your experience with Robert. Can you choose one character, and give some insight into your process of how you worked with them?

Jake—I can give only a little bit of insight. This workshop process comes from “workshop” or “devised” theater. Since the 1960s, the Twin Cities has been a major center for education and training in devised theater. Beginning in K-12 classrooms all the way up to the professional level. I didn’t realize that until I was much older. Not until I met people from outside of Minneapolis and discovered not everybody did workshop theater when they were in third grade like I did.

I felt compelled to return to that process. Part of what took me so long to make this movie (which, thank you Creative Capital for supporting me!) was to figure that out, and further develop this type of workshop process. I had done pieces of it, like for my first feature, Open, but I really wanted to rethink how we made independent films by capturing the human connection and emotion between all of us. The process starts with me and the performer getting to know each other as people through a series of conversations. We then moved into different workshop exercises I have developed, but it’s different from person to person. I don’t like to give too much of the specifics away. It’s as unique as sitting down with a stranger and having a conversation. It can never be the same, partially because of who we are in that moment. That is always in flux. Always changing. If we were to do the same thing a year from now, it would be an entirely different experience.

Depending on the people, we tend to talk about very personal and deep things with each other—it’s almost like a confessional. Part of the reason I don’t talk about too many of the details is out of a respect for what has been shared. What is shared helps guide where the stories go and who the characters are. When we begin filming we just add cameras into the mix—it’s not like we rehearse and then film. It’s all one long process that then leads to the making of the film.

I have the Smokey the Bear rule: instead of leaving the campground better off than when you found it, I work to leave my collaborators better than when I first met them. It’s a process, of—I don’t want to say catharsis—but one of discovery and growth. In the history of film there’s this bad habit of concentrating on the film, and allowing the way you make it to be exploitative and destructive to those involved. If you concentrate on the process and the people, the end result will be great no matter what. Even if the result goes nowhere, and it’s a lost film that ends up on a shelf, the time we spent together has enriched us as human beings, and has led to personal growth. If we work this way, the film is a success no matter what.

That’s what was so great about Creative Capital. It gave me the support, not just monetarily, but by connecting me to advisors as well as the time to focus on that process. I spent years researching, pulling everything from radical theater training from the 1960s in Eastern Europe and South America. I pulled from experimental and traditional therapy approaches, as well as more traditional acting methods. Through the research I discovered that Scientology is very similar to this, and even some religious, or what we think of as cult practices—that there are these ways of letting go of what we’re struggling with, and trying to build a healthy and supportive space for that, even if it’s only for one project. Creative Capital was able to give me the years that it took to research all of that, and build this way of working that became the process through which I made After America.

Read more about After America on Jake Yuzna’s film website.