Filmmakers Talk About R#J Ahead of the Sundance Premiere
Told entirely through social media and smartphone screens, this bold adaptation of Romeo and Juliet reinvents the world’s most enduring love story with style and lyricism, with black and brown youth at the heart of it all. Blending text messages and Shakespearean dialogue, R#J takes us into the subversive love language of the moment, where GIFs, Spotify playlist exchanges, and Instagram profiles kindle romance and unexpected windows of vulnerability.
“Romeo & Juliet” is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and well-known works. Have you been a lifelong fan of the play? Why adapt this story?
PRODUCER IGOR TSAY: Without even knowing or remembering the details of the story, I dreamed of becoming a Romeo one day for my Juliet. Doesn’t matter the form or language, some stories like this deserve to be retold for every generation.
PRODUCER TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: Each generation has its own signature adaptation of the greatest love story by the Bard. The latest one was shot 25 years ago by Baz Luhrmann for the MTV generation when music videos, pop and rock stars defined the culture code and identities for teenagers. Things changed: a whole new generation grew up, who follow different role models and express themselves on social media. This is the time when a sneak peek at the screen of your phone can say more about you than your family and friends. Love stories no longer play out the way we used to see in movies. In fact, traditional cinematography no longer speaks the same language as its audience. But Instagram and TikTok do. This is where this new culture, new language and new narratives emerge. We have a crush on pictures on Tinder, fall in love through texts, get jealous by being ghosted on social media. Putting the greatest love story of all time on the screens of the gadgets of modern Romeo and Juliet makes it relatable for the social-savvy and screen-addicted generation. Just as Luhrman’s version was the only way to address the MTV generation, Instagram and Screenlife make R#J a true Gen Z movie.
DIRECTOR CAREY WILLIAMS: I can’t say I was a lifelong fan of the play but I remember absolutely loving the Baz Luhrman version of the story. It was unlike anything that I had seen before.
BEKMAMBETOV: Our interpretation is inspired by Shakespeare himself. The Bard was a pioneer of an exciting new artistic medium, when permanent theaters had become established in England. He was a hardcore entertainer and a brave innovator for his time, bringing contemporary music and setting to his plays, as well as intensity of action. In that context, it seems only right to approach adaptation of his work with a modern mindset. Screenlife is the closest thing to directing live theater, it is the same as a play. Everyone is stuck in a box.
How does R#J add to the legacy of the Shakespearean classic?
WILLIAMS: R#J is new and unique and a fresh take that’s especially relevant for today. In a time where the status quo is rightfully being challenged and things are upside down in the world, we are taking a classic story and flipping almost everything on its head. I think the story needed that.
BEKMAMBETOV: It’s up to a storyteller to reveal a myth anew or afresh. The stories don’t change. But the storytelling does, the language that can communicate it. Carey and Screenlife were able to make that happen with this timeless story.
TSAY: I don’t think there is anything to add to the legacy of the classic, what I think R#J does is explore the bottomless poem from different angles. Our main angle is to see how this story works for modern society.
Why is “Romeo and Juliet” relevant today?
BEKMAMBETOV: It is not just the love story that makes “Romeo and Juliet” so relatable. This is also a story about present-day hate. The tale of “Romeo and Juliet” continues to thrive because our world is constantly overrun by hate, leading to violence and tragic deaths—especially now, in times when social media and the Internet allow hate speech, bullying, fake news, etc. The Montagues and Capulets of Generation Z stoke their rivalry using their smartphones. Their rivalry itself is none other than a social media feud. With the story put into the world of social media and unfolding on smartphone screens, R#J brings the Bard’s story back to where it originally started by making social media hate and manhunt a digital equivalent of the medieval mob whose prejudice doomed the young lovers to destruction.
Also despite its literary brilliance, it’s important to remember that “Romeo and Juliet” is above all a tale of two hopelessly devoted teenagers who fall in love. It is canonic in portraying a love story; it basically set up the entire iconography of what we know today as romantic or tragic.
TSAY: Love stories will always be relevant, and those that tell the love story “in spite of” are even more relevant to each of us today.
Carey, when did you realize you wanted to make this film your directorial debut?
WILLIAMS: This film posed a great opportunity to be bold in my choices, challenge myself creatively, and put something fresh and unique into the world.
What about Carey made him a fit for this material and storytelling style?
TSAY: First, I fell in love with his short in the French language “The Lovers” (2016). Second, when I met him in a room I felt that this guy really understands the idea. His vision can definitely bring to the table even more than we planned and we should definitely give him a try. After his rewrite and the test we shot, I never regretted anything.
BEKMAMBETOV: I noticed him in 2018 during the Sundance Film Festival, while there with our film “Searching.” Our film won the Audience Award, while Carey won a Jury prize for his short film “Emergency”. He has a keen cinematic eye for exploring the perplexity of human emotions and conditions, and that’s what we needed for R#J.
How did the “Screenlife” filmmaking style inform filmmaking decisions?
BEKMAMBETOV: This new storytelling language demanded a whole new set of tools that made us design specialized screen-capture software that not only records video, but codes as well. A filmmaker can record a performance, then tweak it for timing, or even alter on-screen images and text.
WILLIAMS: One great thing about the Screenlife format is that it’s very intimate. That’s a plus, especially for a film like this. Being able to watch the characters’ phones and get a glimpse into their private moments and conversations, all the while showcasing the emotion on their faces, is a great way to foster empathy.
Did this unique perspective pose any technical challenges during filming?
TSAY: We created a special setup of mics and headphones so the actors could actually speak and sometimes even see each other during a Facetime call scene, while holding a handle connected to the camera.
WILLIAMS: One challenge was figuring out how to film the scenes with bigger film cameras but have them feel like it’s a cell phone. Those cameras aren’t light, so we had a system of an operator holding the camera and moving with the actors while the actors held on to a handle. The actors and our operators were able to get into a groove quickly and make it look natural.
What were you looking for when searching for actors to play each iconic character?
WILLIAMS: We were super fortunate to find the brave and talented cast that we have. Shoutout to Amanda Lenker-Doyle and Chrissy Fiorelli Ellington at Doyle Fiorelli Casting. We actually did our chemistry reads for the leads through videoconferencing. We thought it would be relevant based on the format of the story. Who would have known that would basically become the norm a year later because of COVID-19?
BEKMAMBETOV: It’s a unique cast for a story like this. But most importantly, each of these artists brought their own skills, perspectives, and life experiences to the story, and that is what was needed to create a fresh and unexpected update.
WILLIAMS: Our cast really took a leap of faith and I can’t thank them enough for putting their trust in me.
What were some of the biggest surprises you came across while making R#J?
WILLIAMS: One of the biggest surprises was the amount of revision my editor Lam T. Nguyen and I made in post. The amount of discovery in that process was truly rewarding.
BEKMAMBETOV: Retaining Shakespeare’s language and embellishing it and not destroying it. I think we managed to do that, although not from the first attempt. After the first pre-shoot, we understood that many things did not work or worked not in the way we would like them to, and sometimes there was no balance. Therefore, we corrected those moments and shot the film again. To some degree, it is even easier to correct Screenlife than an ordinary film. You can change the position of parts, remove something, and we can fundamentally change the story without having to film everything again: by adding in some new lines and some new messages, the story can develop in a completely different way.
TSAY: For me, the music was the biggest surprise. We were prepared for any and all production and postproduction surprises, but Carey’s vision of the music and how it changed the perspective of the movie and fit just PERFECTLY—this was a huge discovery for me. I’m starting to think about a Screenlife musical now!
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the creation of R#J?
WILLIAMS: We were lucky to finish production just before lockdowns started. We were a couple of weeks into the edit when we had to transition to editing at home. We were really fortunate.
TSAY: We were a little scared of how relevant our story and form are to teenagers who are experiencing something that never happened to their parents. Something that forces you to have 10-11 hours of screen time every day. I’m pretty sure all those circumstances influenced every creative decision, even unconsciously, because this is the life we live right now.
What inspired R#J’s very distinct aesthetic?
WILLIAMS: Music. There’s a flow to the film that comes from music. There are edits with the texting that match the music. Camera moves that are motivated by the music. This film is like a mashup mixtape. For the visual aesthetic, I wanted the film to be grounded but still feel like its own world. To have just a touch of almost fairy tale quality mixed in. I felt this would help me with my intention to mashup Screenlife with traditional cinema.
TSAY: When Shakespearean language meets modern social media life, the aesthetic just can’t not be unique. It is a different world, more beautiful, more violent, more stylish, but so close and relevant.
BEKMAMBETOV: Social media and Instagram (specifically Instagram) created its own distinctive aesthetics: carefully staged, artfully arranged, color-corrected, glossy looking. This look became synonymous with the platform itself. Even if you don’t use the app, you’ve undoubtedly encountered something that is “Instagramable,” meaning just made to be photographed and posted on Instagram to get likes, admiration, and engagement. The film goes deep into this visual aesthetic in search of what is true beauty and what is fake and generic, where curated content and filtered pictures on social media meet unfiltered vibes and real life. Romeo first falls in love with Juliet’s Instagram, and then with her person. We see what would really happen if this tragedy took place in the age of social media. The aesthetics revolve around the generation who struggle to be who they are under the pressure of social media personas they’ve created, and their followers.
What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
BEKMAMBETOV: The Internet, technologies, social media, privacy of information stored in our phones— all this seriously challenges the rules which have been relevant for us in the physical world. On social media, people say and do such things which they would never do in real life. The goal of the Screenlife movement is to reflect on what is happening, humanize the Internet and the virtual space, and fill it with the right narratives. If we do not show and explain that chats can be used not only for hate, but also for declaring love for someone, or, for instance, saving somebody by telling the truth, people will not know about this. Otherwise, the Internet will remain a dump where only impunity, irresponsibility, hypocrisy and malice exist. This is our message to the film viewers. R#J is not a warning against spontaneous young love, but against the culture of false morality, hate and prejudice that social media, the Internet and technologies help to spiral. This is our duty, to humanize this new digital world in which we live.
TSAY: I’m pretty sure the audience will take away only those things that they are ready for. For me, after making the movie the biggest takeaway was this: Communication is the key in any relationship with your beloved one, with parents, with friends, colleagues. We could be so much happier if we knew how to better communicate with words, texts, voicemails…people used to do it better before creating language as a barrier between the feelings exchanged.
WILLIAMS: I want people to be entertained and visually wowed, but I really hope that there’s some takeaway from the commentary that’s in there: Don’t let others dictate who you are and your path. There’s value in the teachings and guidance of parents and community but it can also be detrimental and limit growth. It’s your life. Live it. Be bold.