A Bigger View With Blindspotting

How Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs on making the small screen bigger

Change your perspective: Creators Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal move to the side to put Jasmine Cephas Jones in the middle of the picture for the TV version of Blindspotting, streaming now on Starz (Image Courtesy of Starz)

How did Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs end up turning their movie, Blindspotting, into a TV series? Basically, they talked themselves out of rejecting the idea out-of-hand, even though they headed to the pitch meeting firmly against it. Casal recalled, "We walked in there ready to say no."

The new series, currently screening on Starz, spins out of their 2018 under-the-radar festival favorite and critical success. Blindspotting the movie was the culmination of years of writing, development, and friendship between Daveed Diggs and Casel as Collin and Miles, two Oakland natives trying to make their way in the gentrifying Bay Area.

The film was built around their relationship - and that's exactly why the duo pulled back from appearing on-screen as much as possible for the TV series. When the show opens, Collin is out-of-state, and Miles, well, Miles is in trouble as always, but this time it's not something he can laugh off. At the same time, this isn't just Miles being Miles, with much more at play, Casal explained. "Hold on to the feeling you have about Miles, and get ready for it to be subverted a few times.

So the camera has turned instead to Ashley, Miles' partner, played by Jasmine Cephas Jones. Now she has to raise their son while Miles is in jail: worse, she's had to move in with his high-times-in-Haight-Ashbury-era mother, Rainey (Helen Hunt), and his half-sister, Trish (Jaylen Barron), and her coterie of sex worker friends who drift through Rainey's rambling period home.

“If I’m bringing in writers, it’s not to serve my vision. The whole point is to bring in their expertise.” - Daveed Diggs
The idea of a TV show came from Lionsgate, who distributed the movie, and Casal recalled bristling at the suggestion. "It's this thing that the industry does now," he said. "It tries to take their IP and flip it into something else. I think a lot of writers are really grossed out by the idea, because it goes against the creative process.

But the more Casal and Diggs thought about it, the more they realized that there were ideas from the development process that they couldn't fit into the film. "It started with that void," Casal said, "knowing there were stories we didn't get to because there really wasn't enough time in this 90 minute feature about these three days in the friendship between these two guys who are essentially siblings."

So the question became: if there was a show to be made, what would it be? Diggs looked back at what had been discarded in the making of the movie. "What we discovered during editing was that, in order to have the audience really be able to root for the convicted felon waving a gun in a police officer's face, you had to really be inside his head." That meant clearing a space for Collin and Miles in the movie: and when it came to making the series, that meant pushing Collin and Miles to the side to make a space for Ashley, "and make space to be in this character's head, and see what this opened up."

Sidelining Collin and Miles took Diggs and Casal back to their childhoods, of houses filled with kids, and proxy mother figures looking after whoever was sat on the couch that day. Casal said, "Our world is populated by a ton of really brilliant and interesting women. That's probably the show." Case in point, Jones, who he called "brilliant" and lamented that she had so little to do in the film. "We've got her for three scenes, and we wish it was ten scenes. God, I wonder who Ashley's friends are, and Miles' mom, and Ashley's best friend, and the neighbor next door, and where did Ashley go to high school? We started going down this rabbit hole, and the more we did the more we wished that that existed, and then we realized that someone was potentially offering us the chance to make it."

With the show finally greenlit, the duo became executive producers and Casal took on the role of showrunner. This left him asking another very important question: What the hell is a showrunner, anyway? Turns out, there is no industry standard definition (nor, he noted, another check), so "it can mean whatever you want it to mean." In this instance, it spun out of the duo's credited role as executive producers, "making sure the creative ideas made it to the finish line."

That meant hiring the right people, starting with the writers' room. Diggs said, "There are certain things about being a woman that are outside of our realm of experience, so let's bring in writers, women of color mostly, and help us build that." The early phases were mostly about sitting, talking, listening, as the team share their own experiences, "and calling out bullshit," said Diggs. "If I'm bringing in writers, it's not to serve my vision. The whole point is to bring in their expertise."

The easy part, in a way, was making it feel like Blindspotting. Having spent a decade in their dreamlike and dramatic version of Oakland, they had an instinctual feel for what Blindspotting is, with or without Collin and Miles. In the 30-minute episode model, Diggs said, "That kind of worldbuilding becomes very important, because that's really what you're revisiting in this structure. It's not really about the events, it's about the characters and the place. ... And we had a good head start, because we were so clear about this particular Blindspotting lens on the Bay Area."

“We’d get up a song and go, ‘Wait, when does our show take place? January, 2018? Nah, this song came out March 2018, we can’t play it.’” - Rafael Casal
"The world is very transferable," said Casal. "The kind of humor, the jump between the comedy and drama of people's lives, the interaction and patchwork of different kinds of friends who live in the same circle, all that felt very site-specific, and we could just lift that and move it over and introduce a new cast of characters."

The movie was of a time and place - Oakland, summer of 2017 - and the series picks up six months later. The pair treated it as a very precise period piece, down to hiring Bay Area music historian (and Diggs' bandmate from his musical project, Clipping) Bill Hutson to keep them straight. Casal said, "We'd get up a song and go, 'Wait, when does our show take place? January, 2018? Nah, this song came out March 2018, we can't play it.'" He laughed. "It doesn't matter to anyone but us. ... The nerdiness of the details over which we obsess is really about the tiny group of people that really care about those kind of things, because we're those people."

Geographically, the series the focus pulls out a little, for a more expansive view of the region and the culture. "We are celebrating things about the Bay that we find beautiful," said Diggs. The show's stylized delivery and visuals, he said, are "less exaggerated than a lot of people think" but more about expressing how they see their home town. "The only way that it gets people who aren't from there to understand what it's like is to make it in verse, to make it obviously heightened, and then you get the same feeling." Same with the use of dance in certain sequences: "For me the way to reference the way it feels to watch people move through space is to turn it into a dance piece, and then everyone gets to experience what it is for me to watch people walk around. It has its own particular rhythms and codes, and it's beautiful."

So after doing it for a season, what does Casal think a showrunner is now? "My job was to take the hit if it breaks, but if it's a success then the credit goes to a lot of other people before it goes to me or Daveed, and that's exciting."

New episodes of Blindspotting debut on Starz, Sundays.

Read our review of the film here, and our original 2018 interview with Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, "A Fresh Look at Gentrification in SXSW Feature Blindspotting," March 9, 2018.

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Blindspotting, Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal

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