Spike Lee Hated This Director’s Short, But Produced His Netflix Feature Film

We spoke to Stefon Bristol, the director of the sci-fi drama 'See You Yesterday', about how Spike Lee taught him to be more than a cliché.

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May 15 2019, 7:38pm

Images courtesy of Netflix / Stefon Bristol

In the stylish sci-fi-drama See You Yesterday, Calvin Walker (Brian Bradley), a Brooklynite from Flatbush and his friend Dennis Owens (Wavyy Jonez), find themselves standing in front of a lone squad car. Calvin, stopped in the middle of a New York street, locks eyes with two trigger happy officers who demand that he identify himself. As he makes a move for his wallet, the sadly predictable happens: Both officers pull their triggers and Calvin is shot to death. His sister, Claudette 'CJ' Walker, subsequently attempts to cope with the wrongful murder of her brother. It’s only moments after when her own purpose becomes clear. She’ll go back in time and save Calvin.

Up until the sci-fi portion of that synopsis, director Stefon Bristol’s See You Yesterday reads like a standard examination of police brutality. Over the years, we’ve become so desensitized to police violence after being inundated with the sheer scale of it, that yet another story of a cop shooting a black person can feel less like a provocative story and more like exploitation.

Director Stefon Bristol was painfully close to the latter when his mentor Spike Lee viewed his earliest work.

“He reviewed them as unoriginal and trash,” he told VICE. “I won’t lie, I cried a lot.”

As a tough professor and mentor, Lee forced the young NYU student to think outside the box in order to avoid the trappings of becoming a stereotypical filmmaker. And the results are obvious in his feature film debut See You Yesterday.

As one of the more unique films to weave a North American problem within a classic genre device, Bristol adds a youthful energy to a conversation that’s grown old from a lack of action. A few days before the May 17th release of See You Yesterday on Netflix, VICE had a chance to chat with the young Black up-and-comer about his influences and how Spike Lee became such a driving force for his film career.

VICE: As a former student who attempted to make a film, I can’t imagine what it must feel like for you to have your first feature set to be delivered on this scale.
Stefon Bristol: I'm all over the place man. It's like I'm happy and nervous at the same time. As a fresh filmmaker, it’s hard to describe but obviously, it's a dream come true. But at the same time, it’s happening right now and I’m like, what is going on? So I have no way to describe it. To be honest with you, I'm just, I'm just happy.

You chose a subject that’s, on its face, pretty sensitive and liable to go wrong. When did the idea of police brutality strike you as an important route to take?
It was a discovery process as I was in graduate film school. I needed a feature to direct and I needed a niche. I happened to love sci-fi, and I love Black people. This was also during the summer of 2014, when Mike Brown and Eric Garner were murdered, which bled into my script. A professor of mine later suggested that it be a large part of my story. And it’s one of those things that everyone like myself knew would continue to happen. It happened in the 90s, 2014, and it's still happening today. I just saw a video of young man with his face being slammed to the floor by an officer for picking up a cell phone, which is ridiculous. Anyway, it was a ton of trial and error, but I made the short, and it premiered in over 35 film festivals, and hit HBO. Spike Lee later came to me and said, ‘Hey, want me to be your producer?’ And I didn’t even have to think about it.

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Image courtesy of Netflix.

One thing we both have in common is that Spike Lee is someone who [we] idolize. I gotta know what it was like to work with him.
Spike Lee is my hero, and no one like me ever imagines that they’ll be able to work with someone like him. Never in a million years, let alone have him be a mentor. Just having him as a producer was a total godsend. I actually have an eight-year relationship with Spike, and that began at a screening of his doc Kobe Doin' Work, where I bum rushed him and just asked for an internship at his 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production company.

So he told me to send my resume, and it took two semesters for him to finally respond. Got the internship, went to NYU, made a ton of films, and with many of them, he reviewed them as unoriginal and trash, because he considered them the same hood films we’d already seen before. I mean, I won’t lie, I cried a lot. I was using all the images many of us have seen in movies like Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood, and Strapped. And one time, I left a meeting almost in tears, but it moved me to really think about the kind of films I was making, particularly for Black people. That lead to this, which thanks to my co-writer Fredrica Bailey, who brought a Black woman’s voice, helped me with some killer dialogue.

And I see that instead of going straight, you blended elements of Back to the Future with this story. Even got that Michael J. Fox cameo. I know you came from the hood, but how did everything else inform this story?
Well, pop culture has always been around me and my friends. You’d be on the street playing handball, football or whatever, and mom would call you in. We all grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, and TV shows like Static Shock, Power Rangers, Pokémon, Digimon, what have you. It was just a part of my life. And I’ve always wanted to make content that wouldn’t ignore that side of me, but naturally, with more of a focus on characters that look like me, with a reflection of my culture.

One thing I noticed, being of Caribbean descent, is that a lot of the dialogue and interactions felt on point compared to most of the stuff that I see. Why was Flatbush such an important location?
I am of Guyanese heritage, and I've never seen Caribbean people in Brooklyn on screen portrayed too accurately before. Every time we’ve had a movie about Brooklyn, it was always in Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg, or Bushwick with the hipsters. I grew up in Coney Island and my mother would take me to Flatbush to go to stores with names like Bobby’s, VIMs, and Jimmy Jazz to get school clothes. I would get the knock-off Sean Johns, bootleg Fubu’s, and fake-ass Jordans, and I would be teased at school for not having official gear. We would also go to some of the shops to get curry chicken and roti, black pudding, oxtail, beef patties, pine tarts, all that shit.

I’ve always wanted to make this neighbourhood and its people shine on screen. You’ve got movies about the Black American experience, but rarely about the Black immigrant experience. I wanted to make that happen in this film. Caribbean people are amazing. We’re cool as shit with a great culture. And we’re funny to boot. (laughs) So… GT stand up!

I have my doubts that a movie like this would make it to a theater, which would be a shame. What does an outlet like Netflix do for someone like you?
I’ll say that any filmmaker, especially a first-time filmmaker, who won’t at least consider Netflix as a platform to get their movie off the ground is missing out on some great possibilities for themselves. There are so many more eyes on my movie because of this outlet alone. Look at how Bird Box did for example. There’s around 80 million accounts that viewed that film. I’m not saying that I’m guaranteed to reach that number, but just the possibility that it might do more for me than the traditional route is enough. By having this film in limited theaters across the country like Fast Colour, compared to a streaming giant where there’s a possibility of a very global audience, it’s worth the consideration, and it’s worth the sit down with executives.

Time travel is one of those story elements that people pick apart. But I can tell that this was less important for you compared to getting to tell this Black-focused story in your way. How important was that?
There’s an influx in the need to tell our stories, because as creatives, we all strongly desire to tell them right. I often feel, and many other Black creatives express this, that when our stories are spoken in the lens of other people outside of our culture and communities, they don’t get it right. They’re not taking it seriously, and no matter what they try, anyone can tell. There’s an ongoing push from all creatives to make sure that our stories are told in ways that are true to ourselves. These themes are just as much a part of me as the pop culture I’ve consumed. I’m talking about inspirations like Back to the Future, 12 Monkeys, Run Lola Run, you name it. Add in the Caribbean culture, and it makes it a message that [feels] authentically about more than just time travel. It’s about a family, a tragedy and how audiences feel it all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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