It’s an unusually chilly and overcast Sunday in Los Angeles when the San Francisco filmmaking team and longtime friends Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot meet for a rooftop brunch a few days after their hometown premiere of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
“It’s like it knew we were coming,” Fails laughed. Despite the knit cap on his head, the T-shirt clad writer and star clearly wasn’t expecting the gloomy weather. Thankfully Talbot was there to save the day, offering his friend his grandmother’s houndstooth jacket off his back, which Fails ended up wearing as a blanket after attempting to squeeze his arms into the small coat.
But the Northern California chill was perhaps the ideal setting. After all, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” isn’t exactly a 72 and sunny kind of movie.
It’s a beautiful, poetic story about family, gentrification and the meaning of home and ownership from the minds of two total newcomers that has captivated the film world. Now playing in limited release, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is expanding this weekend and next.
The film is the culmination of over five years of work for Fails, 24, and Talbot, 28, who met as teens in the public park that separated their neighborhood, discovered a shared love of film and filmmaking and “haven’t stopped talking since.”
But while both knew they wanted to make films, they didn’t have any useful or current connections (Talbot’s grandfather, Lyle Talbot, was a B-movie actor in the ’30s and ’40s, and, later the films of Ed Wood). Neither went to film school. Fails left college after his first year, Talbot dropped out of high school and the San Francisco filmmaking scene wasn’t as vibrant or accommodating to indie newcomers as it had been in the past. In an attempt to get some sort of advice, Talbot cold-emailed filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who at the time had only made “Medicine for Melancholy,” asking for advice on how to start.
Jenkins told them what he knew — yes, you need a script — and even gave them notes before he headed off to make “some movie in Florida” that would turn out to be best picture winner “Moonlight.”
So Fails wrote a script based on his own experiences with losing his grandfather’s Victorian home in The Fillmore district, which he would continue to visit frequently even though it no longer belonged to his family. They made a concept trailer, did a Kickstarter campaign and even got a short film directed by Talbot into the Sundance Film Festival. That’s where things started to get real. It was in Park City, Utah, that they met with Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B, who wanted to make “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” Plan B also got the support of A24, who would help finance and distribute, and suddenly it was go-time with the very people who made “Moonlight” leading the way.
“For years and years we’re working on it and refining it like, ‘Someone give us a chance! Someone give us a chance!’ And then they go, OK, and we’re like, ‘Wait are we ready? I don’t know if we’re ready yet,'” Talbot said. “It’s the hardest city in the country to film in. It used to be a very film friendly city, but it’s just gotten hard, especially for an ambitious indie like ours.”
But they were more ready than they realized. Talbot would direct, and Fails would star as his own alter-ego, also named Jimmie Fails. They had most of their crew in place too: A lot of San Francisco friends they’d worked with before who knew the city and were ready to commit as fully as Talbot and Fails to this passion project. For Jimmie’s best friend, Mont, they found actor Jonathan Majors — another revelation who is just starting to make a name for himself in the business.
“I was the last piece to kind of come in,” Majors said, who was still able to weigh in on and tweak his character. “The collaboration was beautiful. We’re rallying behind humanity in this piece, you know, and it’s deep…This is man versus society and it’s a heavy role to play.”
They also got San Francisco-native Danny Glover to the role of Mont’s blind grandfather.
“It was important to get as many San Franciscans as we could,” Fails said. “We’re doing this for the city. We don’t want it to feel inauthentic.”
The response from the local community has already been more than they could have imagined. They’ve also already made quite an impact in Hollywood, with both having signed with power agency CAA. But at the moment, they’re just thinking about this film they made together. And both are still riding high from the San Francisco premiere at The Castro.
“That was one of the best nights ever in San Francisco,” Fails said. “They say it’s 6% natives left and I feel like they were all at the premiere.”
Talbot added: “We talk a lot about our fears of what San Francisco is becoming. And to have that event at this old cinema palace that we all grew up going to and see packed to the brim with almost entirely natives all in one space felt like a celebration of San Francisco in a way that left us both feeling inspired for the future of the city.”q