Prentice Penny has already made his mark on the world of television with shows like Happy Endings and Insecure, and now he’s making his feature film debut with Uncorked. Though the heartfelt drama was meant to premiere at South by Southwest, the current pandemic meant it had to forego a theatrical release. Instead, its grand entrance will be on Netflix later this week.
The story revolves around a couple (played by the brilliant Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash) whose barbeque business hits a snag when their son Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) turns out to prefer the taste of wine. On a thematic level, it’s actually quite a personal tale for Penny, who directed the film as well as wrote the screenplay. In an interview with Screen Rant, he unveiled the inspiration behind the work as well as the journey of pulling off his double duty.
How did you get the idea for this story?
Prentice Penny: I work in television, and people were always like, “What do you want to do, movie-wise?” I was getting offered to write remakes and sequels and reboots of movies. In TV, you really get a chance to write in your own voice, and I was afraid that if I was writing a reboot or a sequel, I’d be writing in somebody else’s voice and I was afraid that I would never discover my own. And so I wanted to hold off to write something until I felt very personally about it, and as I discovered my voice.
At the same time, I was becoming a father, with my own three kids. And it made me examine my father’s relationship with me in a very different way, and just kind of understand him less as quote-unquote my father, but as just a man trying to figure things out the same way I’m trying to figure it out.
I wanted to explore what it was like for me, and also to see more father-son stories. I love them, especially movies like Good Will Hunting and Manchester by the Sea, but I often felt like the people of color, slice of life, father-son dynamic movies are always about the father being absent. As opposed to just being about their existence, and I didn’t like that. That wasn’t my story. I feel like you’ve seen that; that wasn’t my relationship with my father.
So, I wanted to write a movie that felt the same way that a Gus Van Sant movie would feel. That became sort of the drive. I grew up in a family business, where my family ran a furniture store that my grandfather started and my dad took over when he had a stroke and dropped out if college. I was sort of being groomed to be next up, and I didn’t want to do that. It became kind of a big indictment. What I realized in hindsight was my father was sort of taking it as a, “Why don’t you love me the way I love my father” slight, even though that wasn’t how I perceived it. That’s what he couldn’t articulate to me, but that’s what he was feeling.
I wanted to write about that, and I knew I wanted the father in my story that have a family business that felt sort of blue collar. I had friends of mine that ran family restaurants, and also it was very visual. But restaurants feel like, if you have a family restaurant, everybody works in the restaurant. That was a big thing.
And then I knew that I wanted the son’s thing to have a little more rarefied air, like quote-unquote white collar or whatever; more creative. And I knew I didn’t want that to be writing, because nobody wants to watch a movie about a guy writing. I was like, “Well, what could he want to do?” I couldn’t really figure it out, and then I went to Paris for a cousin’s wedding. I had never been to Europe before, and I was not even a wine drinker. But if I’m going to like wine, it has to happen in Paris, that’s the place where it is. I took a wine 101 class, and the guy made it super interesting and super easy to understand. He kind of demystified it for me, and I just got super into it the whole trip. I was watching things about wine and about somms, and I was like, “This is should be what the son wants to do. He should want to do this.”
Obviously, looking back, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, food and wine. That’s a natural pairing.” And the son and the dad aren’t. It became very visual; it became very interesting. I feel like we hadn’t really seen that with people of color. People of color drink wine all the time and are all in that world, but I hadn’t really seen that on film. It’s just interesting to set the movie in Paris, and to see an African-American man try wine through Paris. I’ve never seen that in an American movie. We travel, but you never see us internationally. The most you see us go to is Atlanta or Miami? So, I was like, “How do we give this movie some scope and make it feel as true as we are?” All these things became more interesting, so that’s kind of the genesis of all those things converging at the same time.
How much did you learn about sommeliers during the writing process?
Prentice Penny: That became the hardest thing. I knew the wine stuff was always gonna be in flux, I just needed the dramatics of it to be right. The lingo, I knew was like, “This needs work.” One of our producers that read the movie, his brother’s this very famous African American sommelier. Dlynn Proctor, he’s in the documentary Somm and is very much a rock star in that way. Dlynn read it and just gave me notes. I mean, all the stuff that’s in there is all Dlynn; what the wine should be, how they should say it, what they would be doing, why this wine is important versus this one… We would be constantly changing it to some degree, but all that stuff was all Dlynn. It was great.
The only thing that was the original thing was we always had Auberge Michaud as the winery. That was one of the first wines I had when I was in Paris, and I just liked it. I just had it as a placeholder because I was like, “I’m not gonna get this place,” and then we ended up getting the place. That was a huge blessing.
There’s an element of class identification given Louis’ barbecue business in contrast to Elijah’s passion for wine culture. Can you talk to me about that aspect of the film?
Prentice Penny: Yeah, I mean, obviously we’re trying to juxtapose these two worlds. Even though Louis has a successful barbecue business, it has a limit to some degree on what it will be. The idea that a wine license is a little bit more of a rarefied air and a little bit more sophisticated, for lack of a better choice of words. in that way. Again, that’s just how the father perceives that world – kind of unattainable. Because he doesn’t believe that, but it’s just hard to comprehend because it’s not so like just laid out or easy to get. You’re just like – it’s almost like, “Where did you get this idea from, as his son?”
To me, the ironic part is that it’s the same things that make the dad character super into barbeque – like, the way the dad talks about the wood is almost the way Elijah talks about wine. I often think with parents, a lot of times you go, “How did this kid get this way?” Then you’re like, “That’s all me.” He doesn’t see the gifts he’s giving his son, right? In the same way that he’s super into barbecue, his son’s super into wine. He just sees the flaws of that world as opposed to, “I gave him these gifts that will make them successful in this world.”
I think a lot of times we don’t realize it, and I’m this way too. My kid who’s the most like me frustrates me the most. That’s what I wanted to draw on; that his character doesn’t realize the things that make Elijah good in this world and stubborn are the same things that make the dad stubborn and great too. They don’t realize they’re very similar. And the mom is a lot of the bridge that translates their language to each other; they’re kind of unaware that they’re speaking the same language the whole time.
I talked to the cast this week, and they said that you had a very exact vision of this film. Can you talk to me about the challenges of being both director and writer on a project like this?
Prentice Penny: To me, the biggest challenge was translating something that, in my mind, was the way it was written. Even though I wrote it, now I’m getting it up on its feet as a director and being free to throw away the things that don’t work as a director, right? For example, one of the biggest things was that movie was always going to take place in the summer. Well, we made the movie in the dead of winter. So, there are locations, scenes, and dynamics that I thought, “Visually, this will be really cool,” that I had to be free to throw away because they weren’t going to make sense now.
How do you translate that to a director? It’s a such a small change seasonally, but it does a lot of different things to the shots I was gonna do, and the sequences I was gonna have. You have to rewrite those things. Also, now that I’m in Memphis, I’m actually seeing it as opposed to looking at pictures. I’m in the three dimensional places that we have to film. The restaurant looked a certain way in my mind, but that’s not what exists here. We have to build this new restaurant. From the directing standpoint, I had to change those things.
I sort of feel that after the first week, I just wanted to keep capturing the spirit of the movie, not like it has to still be as it was here. I still have to three dimensional-ize these characters and these parts; it may have seemed right on the page, but when we put it up on its feet, something’s not clicking about it. That was the other thing that was challenging, but very freeing for me. I wanted to come in very prepared. Obviously, it’s my first movie and you want to be super prepared. But what it really taught me was, “Hey, if you don’t have a parachute, how do you land?” And you have to figure it out and be free on the fly.
And that just came with the confidence of having great people to work with, having an amazing VP, doing a lot of prep ahead of time so that I understood, “Even though it’s not playing out this way, how do I still achieve this feeling?” The whole movie was shot very handheld. We shot anamorphic; we wanted to give a lot of scope for a movie that’s really kind of small in Memphis. But one of the scenes in my head that was handheld was the scene where he comes to take the wine test. When I saw the frames, I was like, “Something’s not right. This needs to feel different than the rest of the movie.”
So I was like, “Let’s put the camera on sticks.” Everything is perfectly symmetrical for the first time in the movie; the first frame is him walking into focus, and the wine glasses are perfectly symmetrical. And then we perfectly frame the teachers on one side and him on the other; then we’re exactly behind the teachers and then we’re exactly behind Elijah; just to give it a more formal feel. And I was really just in the moment of trusting. This was supposed to be on the page, but it’s not translating, so how do I translate it as a director?
Those were the moments that I felt the proudest of, because it was just me gut-sensing the feeling and just going back to that. It’s good to be super prepared, and you want to be that. But you also want to be so prepared that if it doesn’t feel right, you’re okay to throw it away and figure it out.
I loved the music in the film.
Prentice Penny: Thank you. Our whole thing there was that the whole sound just had to be Memphis. It’s all Memphis artists. That was just very important; that we just lean into the sound of the city. Obviously, when he goes to Paris, we’re hearing French hip-hop. We really wanted to lean into where he was regionally, and what that character would expose himself to. That was very important, the sonics of the movie.
Courtney, Niecy and Mamoudou have such perfect chemistry together. Did you have them in mind specifically when you started writing the film?
Prentice Penny: That’s a great question. Niecy was the only person I had [in mind]. I didn’t know Mamoudou. I had seen him in Patti Cake$ and The Get Down, but I had written the movie 2014, so I only knew the type of character I wanted. Niecy was the only one that I actually wrote the part for. I had worked with Niecy on a short-lived Fox sitcom in 2008. I remember her telling me this story, and I could be butchering it. But either her mom or her grandmother was sick in the hospital, and that’s how she kind of got into stand up. She was just trying to entertain her mom or grandma.
And that story just never left me. As I kept thinking about the mom, I just kept thinking, “Who is this woman?” The dad, I was writing with my father in mind, so that was easy. Even with the son, it’s a lot of my energy in that part. But the mom is not like my mom. I was just like, “Who is this?” The story just kept sticking in my head, so when I was developing the character, I just developed it around Niecy.
A lot of times, when you see Niecy, she’s very glammed up. But I wanted to see a character that was more stripped down. And when she did the show for HBO, Getting On, I was like, “Oh, yes. That’s close to what this character should be.” I would write with her in mind, and I would tell her, “Hey, I’m writing this movie. I wrote this part for you.” She was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And then she read it, and she was like, “100%, I’ll do it. Let me know when you get the money.” It took two or three years from that point to get the money. But to her credit, when we got the money, she was in.
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