Oscar-nominated writer Kemp Powers (‘One Night in Miami’) on making his play cinematic [Complete Interview Transcript]

Kemp Powers adapted his own play “One Night in Miami” to the new film of the same name. His adaptation earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Powers recently spoke with Gold Derby’s Rob Licuria about what inspired him to write the play, the challenges of adapting it to film and what director Regina King brought to the project. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Kemp, you adapted your acclaimed play of the same name. What’s the most challenging part about translating your words into something cinematic?

Kemp Powers: Just not being precious about my own work. I mean, I tried to approach it as though the same way as a screenwriter, sometimes people approach you with books or plays or other materials, and they’re source material for you to tell a story. I tried to remember to treat my play as a piece of source material. So in adapting it, while I wanted the themes of the film to be the same as the play, other than that, I felt like everything else was up for grabs. So I was really willing to adjust and change the story as much as necessary to make it more something that was appropriate cinematically than for the stage. That being said, the heart of both pieces are still the private conversations they have in the room. So I knew that there would be a certain claustrophobic aspect to it, even in film, but that’s kind of the joy of it. Does the claustrophobic aspect of it prevent you from enjoying “12 Angry Men”? So I felt like I had the right to still have it be a somewhat restrained piece, even cinematically. Of course, Regina King did such a brilliant job, even in those confined moments of bringing so much auteur cinematography to it. So I’m really happy with the final result. 

GD: The film, as you say, was helmed by a first-time director, Regina King, herself an Oscar and four-time Emmy-winning actress. Obviously, she brings a lot to the table to try to elevate in some way the words on the page. What do you think ultimately was the greatest contribution she made to this piece of art? 

KP: I mean, there’s too many to name. Of course, the most obvious of her contributions is her work with the actors, the performances that she pulled out of our four leads, who are all ridiculously talented but still, Regina is a big component of the performances she pulled out and the entire team she assembled around her from her DP, Tami Reiker, to her editor, Tariq Anwar, to our score by Terence Blanchard. She assembled such a great team to execute a really singular vision for how she saw this story unfolding on the screen and I think calling her a first-time director is a bit misleading, of course, because yes, it’s her feature film debut, but she was already a very sought-after director in television and has directed countless TV episodes over the years and that combined with her 35+ years on set as an actor, I feel like if you were on set with us, the last thing you would think is, “This is a first-time director.” She was as seasoned as any director on any set anyone in the film had ever been on. 

GD: Yeah, absolutely. Even though with everything that you just said, I still think adapting a play would always be such a challenging proposition because you know audiences and critics will either be comparing it to the original, if they’ve seen it, or looking for ways in which it breaks free from feeling like you’re watching a play. So I would imagine, and correct me if I’m wrong, that it’s a constant struggle that when you’re writing the script, that even though Regina’s going to bring these big, bold cinematic elements to it when they’re in the room, what were you thinking when you were trying to make sure that it wasn’t too claustrophobic, but it was enough for us to be a fly on the wall to watch these giants talk? 

KP: Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about that as much as other people might, partly because not that many people have seen the play. I mean, yes, the play got some awards, but the play has only been produced maybe a dozen times total. It’s not like a play by August Wilson or a play by Christopher Hampton. Those are plays that have been around for decades and have been seen by so many people. My play, I think people are genuinely unfamiliar with it and honestly, I wish people were more familiar with the play because then they’d see how much of a difference the film is from that very play. So it wasn’t really something that I thought about that much, because, again, my focus was just making sure that I managed to preserve the central themes of the story and write it in a cinematic form. I mean, this isn’t the first screenplay I’ve written, obviously. I’ve written for television. I’ve written for film. But again, it was a conscious decision to still have it be confined.

The play, for those who don’t know, begins when the four men enter the room and it ends 90 minutes later in real-time when they exit the room. So it’s literally the four walk into the room, we spend 90 minutes in the room and then they leave, and it’s really a pressure cooker situation. The film, we don’t get to a single moment in the play until over 40 minutes into the film, and even what was them confined in the room we’ve turned to them moving throughout the hotel and we didn’t just add what happened before and what happened after. There’s also just very different elements, things that they talked about in the play that we show in the film because there are certain things that you can get away with in terms of exposition on a stage, in terms of long speeches on a stage, that in a film, it just wouldn’t work. So I made a huge effort to try to bring that to life and show it in a way that I wasn’t able to do with the stage play. And of course, there are a lot of moments in the stage play that don’t fit the story in the film, so they had to go. 

GD: Yeah, and that’s the burden of the writer to pick and choose what you think is best for the ultimate story that you’re trying to tell, and what you’ve done here is you’ve taken the idea of this one-act play and then just really expanded it and made it more cinematic but what I’d love to know is, where did this compelling and novel idea come from? Because on a personal level, we immerse ourselves in their private conversation but on a more macro level, the film reflects on issues that have been in the public discourse for decades. So what originally inspired you to write the story? 

KP: I was initially inspired because the night was real. When I first discovered that on this night, February 25th, 1964, Cassius Clay, when he beat Sonny Liston, went back to Malcolm [X]‘s hotel room in the still segregated Black section of Miami and spent a night in quiet conversation with Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke having bowls of vanilla ice cream and the next morning is when he announced that he was in the Nation of Islam, that was a mind-blowing revelation, and it was just something I came across in my former life as a journalist and a history buff, just in a thrown-off paragraph in something that I was reading on the intersection between sports and the civil rights movement in the ‘60s.

I initially, when I found out about it, was very interested in researching how those four men became friends with the intention of writing a book about their friendship. It’s just a book that I never got around to writing because I couldn’t fill in certain blanks. Namely, the substance of the conversation in the room was one of the big ones and it’s only as my journalism career was wrapping up and my creative writing career was picking up, I was writing short plays, doing 24-hour plays, and I was kind of searching for ideas for a full-length play to write and suddenly, that very thing that stymied me in writing the factual book provided the perfect opportunity for a dramatization onstage.

I had always been a big fan of a certain type of play where a set number of characters verbally joust, from Sam Shepard‘s “True West” to John Logan‘s “Red” to Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Topdog/Underdog.” There’s a certain type of play that I love, verbal jousting, and I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to allow these guys, these four men, the reason they’re icons is that they represent very specific ideas about Blackness, about manhood, about self-reliance. They’re all very, very specific and the ideas they represent, the ideas can have the debate and use that to have that, as you said, this discussion that I think is a discussion that’s been happening long before that night. It’s a discussion that goes back to W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, and it’s a discussion we’re still having today and it’s, “What’s the best way forward for Black people in this country?”

What I discovered in seeing the play produced, particularly when it went overseas and started being produced in other places was that it wasn’t even an issue that was specific to Black American culture. It was something that Black Brits discussed, something that Black Brazilians discussed, something that resonated with Black South Africans. It’s kind of like, how do we move forward in Western culture as Black people when the culture we’re a part of, the countries were a part of, we’re citizens and we’re of these countries but they also put so many stumbling blocks to our progress in front of us and that was really what got it all going. 

GD: Yeah, that universality really hit home for me. I’m so glad it’s out and people can now experience it. It’s such a great time for this film to come out. Isn’t it fascinating how prescient this story has become and the parallels that we can draw with the convulsive state of American society last year and most likely, this year? Are you proud of the way that the film’s deftly tapped into the zeitgeist with a sense of urgency? 

KP: Proud is the wrong word because you’re right, it’s fascinating, but at times it also fills me with a profound sense of sadness because you long for the day when this can be a time capsule and just represent a far-off time almost 60 years ago and not feel like it was written in response to something that’s happening right now. Because when the play was first produced in 2013, it was considered prescient. When it was produced in London in 2015, it was considered prescient. Now the film comes out and it’s considered prescient. And I’m kind of like, you know, I’m glad that that’s allowing people to be open to it but I also equally look forward to when it’s not so damn prescient.

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