I read that you got the idea for “The Land” from two kids in L.A. who became involved with drugs to support their dreams. What about that story made you want to create this film?
Steven Caple Jr.: Well MGK and I are from Cleveland, and I know Erykah probably has experienced this herself.
Erykah Badu: Clearly.
Steven: I mentor a lot, and I’m with kids a lot so it really hit home. Growing up, or even now, we’ve seen people who’ve lost their dreams – whether it was to drugs, to the system or to the decisions they made. I just wanted to tell a story that really captured why some of these people make these kinds of decisions. I can see why I related to it growing up. I understand why it was easy for my father to become a drug addict or our kids to get caught up in selling drugs. In high school I played basketball, and a lot of our friends who had more talent didn’t make it past high school. I got to go to college and play, and they got caught up. I just really wanted to tell the stories from The Land and show how easy it is for someone to be captured in their environment.
How else has Cleveland shaped you guys?
Machine Gun Kelly: I parallel it with how the movie was made. You basically make something out of nothing. I think that’s a big thing coming from a steel belt town like Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Detroit. I’ve watched the movie go from an idea, to the actual script, to a new version of the script, to people signing on to do a movie. And then I watched it come to life within five weeks. I had a chance to see the movie before the premiere and, I mean, we’re all here at Sundance because it was an independent effort, but it didn’t look like that. It looked like a $10 million budget film.
What about the final product was different from the original script?
Steven: A lot. We did a short film that ignited the whole thing. It had voiceover, it has stand-still portrait shots, and it’s very stylized. So I moved away from some of that because I didn’t want it to overpower the message of the film. Even though some of my favorite directors do it all the time, I thought I could tell this story with no voiceover and keep it clear. Even from being on set in Cleveland there were weather issues, so it would just rain out of nowhere. I’m surprised it didn’t snow in June, because Cleveland’s crazy.
MGK: Neighborhood issues.
Steven: Neighborhood issues! We had park locals trying to fight some of the people on set. You would have to have someone on set who, in a way, represents that neighborhood in order to get the go-ahead. We slowly accommodated to that. We also had gun shootings on set that we had to stop production for. There were times where it got real; people really got to experience The Land, and so those [circumstances] just required me to adjust. I had to sort of surrender to Cleveland, because it was just whatever happened that day, happened. One of our most intense scenes was shot in one shot. As a director you get those moments where you’re like, “This is amazing.” You have everyone in this environment on the east side of Cleveland in this beat-up apartment – hot as hell – in this little room, and it’s probably 4 a.m. or something like that, and we just say, “Let’s go, let’s get it.” They’re just in their zone. We had to adapt and whatever we captured, we captured. When you’re working with artists, you know they’re able to do that. They’re able to improv and be on the spot. Everything becomes more natural and spontaneous. That’s where you capture the magic. That’s what Cleveland is all about.
Explain the moments surrounding your acceptance into Sundance? Who was the first person you told?
Steven: It was tough for us because we were still finishing the movie and Sundance said, “Do you guys think you can finish the film in time?” So, I’m calling everybody saying, “We gotta finish this movie; we don’t have any time. We have a month to do the rest of the editing, the music…” These guys came through at the last minute for music and stuff for the film. So I called my fiancé and we had a moment to just sit down and to be like, “Alright, cool. We got in.” That was the goal when I was here last year. Pitching a movie and being here with an amazing cast and crew is incredible.
How would you describe your journey to Sundance?
Erykah: I love Sundance. I’ve come a couple of years before for short films or indie films, and I love it. I like the whole experience, especially this time around because I got to see it from its inception. [Steven] knew what story he wanted to tell. He’s such an actor’s director because he gives us the opportunity to put everything we have into that character, and he doesn’t make us pull back.
Do you get the same sort of high as you do on stage performing music? Or is it a totally different experience?
Erykah: It’s a different world, same place inside, but it’s a different world outside. Performing is creating a moment and there’s improvisation, and it’s just you. With a film, it’s an ensemble, a cast, we’re all in this design, look and relationship, and every single person has to do his or her part to make it happen.
Is there anything you guys want to ask each other before the premiere tonight?
Steven: Erykah hasn’t seen the film yet. So she’s in for a treat tonight.
MGK: I think the audience is in for a treat because there’s nothing better than watching a movie where an artist – especially a superstar like Ms. [Erykah] Badu – is completely believable. When you see it, you don’t know it’s her at all, and there’s nothing better than seeing an artist become an actor. That was really a cool part.
Erykah: That’s good to know.
Do you get nervous when you’re in the theatre watching with an audience? Can you feel the energy?
Erykah: Yeah, absolutely.
Steven: I don’t watch my films; I actually sit outside or in the green room.
Erykah: Are you serious? You don’t watch anything?
MGK: You’re not going to watch it tonight?
Steven: I’m not going to watch it tonight. I love my cast and crew, but I’m going to just be in the green room cheering.
Erykah: That’s wild.
Steven: I’ve seen it so many times. I can’t watch it again. Right now I just want to watch the audience. I want to hear them. I want to see their reactions.
Erykah: When you watch it so many times of course they’re things that you may have wanted to say or an edit that you wanted to make that couldn’t happen. Do you get really self-conscious about it?
Steven: Yeah, that’s a two-fold question. I had this one moment that we ended up taking out, but now I feel like the audience is going to miss something. I have those moments a lot, so when we go to that scene, I get this cringe in my stomach. Or if there’s a shot that’s too long, I always think about whether the audience will sit and feel emotion for that long. But then the best moments for me are when I think something’s funny and then people don’t laugh and I’m like, “Noooo, I just totally failed.” Then there are moments in the film that I think are so serious and then people laugh. Now I realize that comedy actually comes from real-life experiences. It’s from pain. This is my second film where I’m going towards a really emotional ending, and so I haven’t seen it yet with regular people to see if they’re going to get emotional at certain parts.
I laughed and cried. I also loved the music, especially the montages.
MGK: Those are my favorite parts too.
Steven: That took some time. I have a question for Erykah. We did a song together for the movie, and she provided us with the lyrics the day we had to mix. JB (the composer) and I were listening to the song. We gave notes, and you [Erykah] were like, “Sit on this for a day, baby. Just sit on this for a day and let me know what’s up.” And we did. We sat on it, and it was perfect. JB and I looked at each other like, “Why did we even have notes?” So, I want to know, what in the studio made you think this was perfect? What gave you that vibe?
Erykah: Well, it wasn’t so much that it was perfect. It was complicated to write a melody over a score and to fit the right lyrics in for the story you wanted to tell. So, it was such a difficult time, and I was so proud to have finished it in a day, because it’s like a week’s worth of work for someone who doesn’t read charts. When I turned it in I was like, “Okay, they’re going to really love this,” but then when I heard the notes I was offended in an artist kind of way, because I’m sensitive about my stuff. I know my stuff. I was so confident about it, because just living the film and living your vision for a while, I really felt like it was right. I’m glad that you did give it a chance.
MGK: You know something funny about that? The first comment that I made to her after she got off stage yesterday [in the Acura Studio] was, “The lyrics from that song were amazing,” because when you hear them live it just cuts through in a different way. It’s funny that you weren’t feeling it at first because that was literally what turned me on the most about that song… how beautiful those lyrics were.
Steven: It wasn’t until the moment when we saw the whole playback with the music mixed I was like, “Dang, this is awesome. Damn, how did Erykah know?”
Erykah, I had heard you say in another interview that you consciously try to be more present. That’s something that I’m personally trying to work on. Does it just come with time?
Erykah: Yeah, it’s like practicing any other muscle. I think we’re conditioned to worry about the future or be embarrassed. But we breathe so much easier when we’re just… see what my watch says? Guess what time it is. It’s now.
Steven: On point. She has this intuition and she just knows. She knew that was going to be brought up!
MGK: That’s so fire.
I also love what Machine Gun Kelly said about turning a grain of sand into a diamond. Can you give an example of when you did that in your career?
MGK: I think my whole career is like that. I always remain the underdog, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because the base that I have will never leave me. They’re just always rooting for me. When I win, they feel like they win. I didn’t have the easy single that came out that everyone loved. I also didn’t have the personality that came out and everyone loved. I walk into an office and people are mad that I’m opinionated or feel a certain way about things. I’m not saying I’m a diamond in the rough, but I like that you have to discover me to know me. You can’t just dwell on all the bad or think about how you’re not as great as you want to be. You have to think, “Dude, you’re great. You’re sitting in this chair right now.”
Erykah: You’re ill.
Do you have to pinch yourself when you see your music video “Till I Die” has over 20 million views?
MGK: Well, that one’s from the movie. Yeah, that’s pretty cool.
Steven: That’s the Cleveland anthem.
Erykah: That’s a lot. I’ve never had 20 million views on anything.
Steven: These two other guys, Ezzy and of course, Nas, who’s on the soundtrack, inspired me. Their music connects to people. It’s not just a radio hit. They have groups and followings that are way beyond that. It just touched me. That’s what I wanted to do with the movie.
Erykah: I can’t wait to see it. I really want to see it.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
MGK: That’s a good question.
Steven: I think I know mine.
Erykah: Jesus. You’re gonna say, Jesus.
Steven: No, I talk to him every night.
MGK: There’s a Steven Caple answer right there.
Steven: Honestly, it would probably be Tupac. I know it’s a cliché answer, but I had problems with my pops growing up, and in general we needed a male role model. It’s weird to say, but I learned things from cats like Tupac or music that I listened to – things about life, society. It was through his music that he touched me. I’m inspired by them and the whole aspect of film. I would love to talk to him one day and have him in a sober state of mind – just have him spit out any and everything from his experience in the film industry, the rap game, his life, growing up, the activist movement. The one core thing is his love for people, no matter what he was talking. I’ve watched so many of his interviews. I feel like I did almost have a drink with Tupac, but I would like to have an actual sit-down and ask him a few questions about today and now.
What about you guys?
Erykah: I would want to have a little roundtable with Bruce Lee and Nikola Tesla. And probably Manson, the mass murderer… just to figure out how they think and what’s on their mind.
What would you ask?
Erykah: How are we all alike or how are we all different?
Steven: That’s interesting.
MGK: Tesla and Bruce Lee? That’s a hard one to follow. I’m going to change my answer away from a musician. I’m a music head. I like whole vinyls, I like to keep things. If Erykah gave me a napkin, I’d keep it. It’s kind of a dying thing, but it’s really cool. When people come to my house I’m able to say, “Oh this is from this.” But [I’d say] Salvador Dali because he was a great socialite, and I’m kind of bad socially. Everyone loved this guy. Every actor and actress wanted to be around him. I don’t know how he found the time to be such a socialite, because his paintings were so intense that he had to have locked himself in a room and just spent so many hundreds of hours painting. There are just a lot of things that are interesting about that guy, even his mustache. I learned that the longer your mustache was, the more prestigious you were considered, back in the day.
My girlfriends are going to kill me if I don’t ask where you get your hats.
Erykah: I collaborate with this awesome milliner in Los Angeles. My hat box is really big.
Steven: It’s a big box. I thought it was a drum kit.
Erykah: It was a drum kit! A bass drum kit, but we just put hats in it now.
KIRSTEN MICCOLI PHOTOGRAPHY / A DRINK WITH in the Acura Studio
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