Breathe – Interview with Film Director Stefon Bristol

Variance Films / Warner Brothers
Breathe is a 2024 American sci-fi thriller starring Jennifer Hudson, Sam Worthington, Common, Milla Jovovich, and Quvenzhane Wallis. The following interview is with the director of Breathe, Stefon Bristol, who discussed the significance of representations in the film, his experience directing the film, working with the cast, and his filmmaking inspirations. Breathe was released on 26th April 2024, is showing in select theaters, and is also available to watch on VOD.

Listen to the interview and read the transcript below — edited and condensed for clarity:

Hi, I'm Connor Winterton of Borrowing Tape. I'm here today with Stefon Bristol, the director of the sci-fi film Breathe. Thanks for joining us today. So I'd like to start off by talking about representation and representations in Breathe. So Breathe features two women of color as the protagonists, which is unfortunately quite rare in sci-fi films or thriller films. How important is representation and visibility for you as a filmmaker?

I grew up watching, some of my favorite movies growing up watching Jurassic Park and Back of the Future [and]Indiana Jones, like really amazing films. But, as a boy from Brooklyn, West Indian, African Caribbean household, I don't get to see that on screen. I don't get to see that representation, ever. Until recently, in a way, Black Panther really obviously made a big hit.

And as a kid, very, very few, we got the static shock, the cartoon that was really big for me. And of course, Blade, it came out. But the most interesting image I ever saw in a horror or sci-fi space of a black woman lead one time, I thought it was very interesting, was somehow blatant in Alien vs Predator. I was like, wow, that's really cool. I've never seen something like that before. And then, and then left. And, I'm just like, oh, when I started doing, See You Yesterday I never thought, thought about having the lead be a young black woman.

And, I decided to go off from there. it's very important because I have a lot of actress friends, a lot of black women who act, who are actors. And they tell me all the time — when we audition for roles, they're very limited. They've always been limited. And it's not anything inspiring, honestly for them. So, I took that as an interest as well. When I started writing movies that centered around black women protagonists in this space. I've always loved the sci-fi action-adventure genre, but throughout my life, I've always been surrounded by amazing black women — obviously, my mom, is an amazing black woman. One of the most amazing things she always does for me is anytime I go through something we pray with each other. Always. Anything I have to do, every time I have to pitch, about to shoot a movie, about to do something, I go to a big meeting, we will pray together. Also, which is only a slither of the amazing thing my mom would do for me is that for my thesis for NYU, she had refinanced her home so that could help pay for my thesis film, which is a beautiful thing she['s] done. And, she['s] done three things before and after that. She carried me for nine months, she got me in and out of church, all of that.


Yeah, not to take up all your time on the thing, but also a black woman who told me to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Jordan. So very important.

So, it's those kinds of early classic sci-fi films that really inspired you and then also a strong black woman in your life and wanting to offer more representations of those identities within film and cinema, which is what we need broadly in cinema within American cinema, isn't it? This greater visibility and representations for a range of different identities and it's fantastic that you're doing that.

So Breathe features a great cast. It has a great cast, including Jennifer Hudson, Common, Milla Jovovich, and Sam Worthington. What was the casting process like?

Let me finish the script to where me and the producers who really loved it then we went out to try to find actors to attach the film to see if we can get financing, So one of the first people to be cast was actually Mila. Mila was...I mean I was like wow. The folks from Mila's camp meet with me which is very very nice. I met with her and she was a wonderful wonderful person. She even drove me to the mall after our meeting, it was really cool. We were still trying to look for our lead actress but someone who's having a hard time finding the lead actress for Maya. And one of my producers was like "Hey what do you think about Jennifer Hudson?" At first, I was skeptical but it took a while and I imagined Jennifer with a shotgun, I was like you know what... [laughs]

I mean, well very different for her isn't it? From supporting actress Oscar for Dream Girls to kicking ass in Breathe. Amazing.

Yeah yeah yeah. I was like "Wow this is gonna be something wildly different." Never ever thought of Jennifer Hudson being in an action movie, and she was wonderful to work with. I mean, I really love that she was very into it and always asked questions. Had this huge curiosity about her for the role because she knows a lot about acting and being a musician, but very little about science and or being a scientist on screen or action, so she was asking questions out of the wazoo and I just did all I can to help her out.

Great. just sounds like you had a really positive experience working with all of these stars, could you share some memorable or unexpected moments from the filming process?

Spoiler alert, spoiler alert — this is a spoiler, I don't want to spoil it for anybody, but it was a big scene between Sam and Quvenzhané, It was a very emotional scene so she had to cry. I was trying to figure out how to prepare, of course how to cry on cue and whatnot, which is great but I needed more than just a cry on cue, and I want to make sure she feels, really 'be' in the moment, the present moment, feel it out, anything I can help her to get there. So, I was really nervous. But luckily, that day, her boyfriend broke up with her unexpectedly.

Okay, so that's obviously sad but great for you.

Sad for her, but it was like, it was heaven for me. [laughs]

Something to work with.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, she used the unfortunate event that day to help her get to that scene and work.

Yeah, and it did. So yeah, great. I was also interested in, so obviously[we] talked a bit about the cast, your memorable moments. I was also thinking about where the movie was filmed. I was really interested in that while I was watching it. So, some of the logistics behind that — could you tell us a bit about how it was filmed? How long was principal photography?

The principal photography was really quick. It was only five weeks and only six weeks of prep. Very, very quick for a movie like this. And we shot it outside of Philadelphia in a wonderful small small city called Chester.

And they've already known what production is like because I think Creed II or Creed III already shot in Chester before. But the community was really great. They really came together and helped us out. They actually helped us clear the playground. Some of the artists there allowed us to use their murals for the film. But the multiple murals for the film on that street, we just shut down the whole street and we didn't allow anybody to come in.

We used some of the locals to be our security guard, it was security guards, which is really nice. And then of course, you had some people trying to sneak in, acting as if they were the crew because they know like this is a post-apocalyptic film. So, there's no background actress that we can use. But we had to shut it down because we didn't want anybody to leak any footage. But of course, there were drones almost every day flying up and down the road. Because people were very curious about what was going on.

So, people were trying to get an insight into what was going on.

Yeah, of course. Once you have Jennifer Hudson's, Common['s] name, once those two names, everybody was like, Oh my god. So, I was trying to get Jennifer to come and meet the locals, but the producers hated that because of the COVID restriction during that time. But Jennifer and Tommy still did it. They still went around and met in the local. and whatnot. And sometimes they took pictures with the community with their costumes on. It was like, no, no, you're going to leak it.

I was going to say spoilers. Yeah.

Yeah, brilliant. Yeah, it was fine, it was fine.

So, just another aspect of the kind of film. So music and sound design played a significant role in Breathe. How did you collaborate with composers and sound designers to kind of create the desired atmosphere in the film?

Isabella Summers is a great collaborator. I gave her hell because she had a great imagination for what the sound was going to be. And, I felt like me, that I was a little strict to her. But, she had a great imagination. She wanted this vaporwave sound to it, but still made it very ominous. during the scenes, but there was a lot of talking back and forth with it. But once we finally found the sound, we'd be able to land it, because my principle of music, and the sound of the music, right, is for my principle, it's let's set a theme, they're very classic, let's set a theme, and then we play that theme slow or sad, whatever it is, to evoke the emotion. But if you have something that you're familiar with, and you use that music repeatedly throughout the film, but use it in different ways to evoke motion. Hopefully, that familiarity will grab the audience, because the whole thing is about being familiar, right?

I want the characters and the cast in themselves as familiar. You have Jennifer, [who] is like somebody's auntie from around the way or cousin from down the block. Mila is like your high school teacher that used to go to or your professor you went to in college, and so on and so forth. So that familiarity, rather, being familiar with the music is very important to me, very, very important.

Great, thank you for that, That's interesting, actually, just to hear a bit more about the connections between, so how you're developing character there, the sound, the familiarity that you wanted to have with spectators as well, so thank you for talking to us today. I appreciate your time, so thank you very much.

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