Shaka King will pace himself next time. He’s worn; his beard and hair are starting to grow uneven. He’s in the thick of promoting his first film, his graduate thesis, “Newlyweeds,” which opens Sept. 18 at the Film Forum in New York City for a two week run, and the process is taking a physical toll. “I should have chilled a little bit, rested a little bit,” he says, “worked a lot more on other projects. Probably taken a vacation.”
Instead, he’s been investing energy nonstop, for months on end. With little to no print and advertising budget, he’s carrying the brunt of the promotional efforts himself; spamming his 2,000 plus contacts about upcoming shows, handing out stickers in person at festivals, plotting new methods to spread the word. His Bushwick apartment acts as homebase, and on the day we meet, a recently hired intern named Kervin (whom he met while handing out stickers at last month’s Afro Punk) is sitting in a spare room, walls painted orange, boxes and spare furniture strewn about, helping to clear the filmmakers plate some. King wonders why he didn’t seek such help sooner.
In an adjacent room, his bedroom, King sits at a cluttered desk pointed toward the apartment’s street-facing windows. The t-shirt, gym shorts, and flip flops he wears could easily pass for lounge gear, but when asked to pose for a photo, he respectfully declines.
“I lost a lot of weight,” he says. “I look at myself in the mirror, I look like shit. It’s fucked me up, this part.”
A graduate of NYU’s Tisch film school, King, 33, is experiencing the growing pains that go with writing, directing, and pushing your first movie. He’s unsure how far along in the process he is, estimating 70 to 75 percent, saying that everything leading up to this, even editing, has been fun. Selling a movie to the public, though, is the most difficult thing he’s ever had to do.
Which is strange, because the film is damn good, and the first realistic, objective look at the effects and culture of one of America’s favorite illicit substances. King draws from his life experience as a weed smoker and Brooklynite to paint a humorous, dramatic, and full world that his characters traverse not always so smoothly. Lyle and Nina live together, smoke together, and dream of escaping their just-cutting-it life together. They struggle, though, to prioritize anything above getting high, at times at the expense of their relationship. They smoke to escape, smoking their real escape away in the process.
Amari Cheatom and Trae Harris turn in stellar performances as Lyle and Nina, demonstrating a keen fondness for each other and the drug that both wraps and unravels them. Fans of HBO’s “The Wire” will recognize two faces, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Hassan Johnson, who seize scenes with mere syllables. King’s terrific screenplay, full of subtlety and nuance, receives the cast it deserves, and he directs them with the experience of a tenured filmmaker.
And for all of King’s stress and frustration, “Newlyweeds” has acquired some impressive, albeit limited, publicity. The Wall St. Journal ran an interview where King speaks about filming in Brooklyn and dismisses concerns over the movie being used for pro- or anti- marijuana agendas. He also appeared on “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” in a strange segment about incarcerated black youths with a very thin and strained connection to the film. (In one scene Lyle ends up in a holding cell.) King wore a commemorative gold Allen Iverson jersey from the NBA’s 50th anniversary, and spoke eloquently about the Trayvon Martin case and the embedded racism in American culture and institutions.
“It was live so it was really scary,” King said of the appearance. “I told them during the pre-interview, I said ‘I can’t talk about the movie after this.’ ” It was the biggest outlet that King and the movie had been exposed via, and it had nothing to do with the movie at all.
But there was another look that had everything to do with the movie and its merit. “Newlyweeds” was featured in this year’s Sundance Film Festival as a part of this year’s “Next” series, which champions new independent film voices. That was in January, and apart from smoking Alaskan Thunderfuck with a man named Jeff, it was a stressful and busy period. A welcomed honor to be sure, but a disruption in a first time filmmakers ability to pace himself.
Many scenes in “Newlyweeds” involve smoking (the actors puffed on a kind of herbal tobacco that King says tasted gross) and even more speak to the culture of using. In a way, it’s a smoker’s guide, honest and cautionary, of what to do, what not to do, and the way simple bad luck or carelessness can ruin more than your buzz.
King says he started smoking in college, and that everything he’s written since 18 years old he’s done blazed. Lyle, the film’s protagonist, is more or less constantly high, and while the film isn’t advertised as autobiographical, it would have been impossible for King not to let his experiences seep into the screenplay. “He’s somebody I empathize with greatly,” King said. “My feelings about marijuana and black men in the legal system, I think if you read between the lines and just watch the movie, you’ll get a sense of who I am. The movie’s very much a part of who I am, so I think that comes across even though it’s not about that.”
Lyle is compassionate. He has a conscious and experiences guilt in a way non-smokers in the movie don’t. Weed is neither vilified nor glorified, and the humor isn’t based on stoner buffoonery, but rather situations that any connoisseur will identify with. “The weed humor isn’t what’s funniest to me, in terms of jokes being about weed,” he said, “as much as that moment that is totally ridiculous.”
Kervin references a scene where Lyle comes home from work, smokes, and collapses onto his bed. When Nina checks in on him, telling him it’s cool if he wants to be alone, he springs up, saying that he doesn’t, that he wants to hang with her. “I be doing the same shit,” Kervin said. “She’s OK. He’s getting himself in trouble.” Kervin, 23, says he’s watched the movie four times, bringing in new friends with each viewing. “This is school to me,” he said, later mentioning that King is helping him figure out where to go for grad school. “If he ever becomes a Hollywood guy, I’m gonna remind him he used to make me work in this fuckin’ closet.”
Hollywood seems an ocean away from the apartment we’re all sitting in. Milk crates full of records sit on the ground to the right of his desk. A giant red and silver “Gratification” sign lies next to his bed, which has no frame or headboard to rest on. A floral patterned couch sinks with wear, a stack of recent New Yorkers sitting on it before I do.
As King treads through the mud that is this promotions run, he knows that any success means more showings, which means more promo; more email blasts, more hand-to-hand interactions, more growing pains.
“I really hope to be doing this for months,” he said, “and then at the same time, it’s got to get easier. Soon. Soonish. Like, I expect it to get easier before the release. I expect it to get easier.”
Update: Starting today (12/17) “Newlyweeds” is available for download and stream via Amazon Instant Video, Comcast Cable, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, and more.