Filmmaker Q&A: Elegance Bratton

Elegance Bratton is the writer-director of “The Inspection,” a military drama that was filmed mainly in Pearl, Miss. Bratton based the film on his own experiences as a young, gay black man who joined the Marines after his mother kicked him out of their home. It stars Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union and Bokeem Woodbine. The film was recently nominated for three Film Independent Spirits Awards for Best First Feature, Best Lead Performance for Pope and Best Supporting Performance for Union.

Elegance Bratton. Photo by Erik Umphery.

What initially drew you to Mississippi to film “The Inspection”?

It was a combination of things. First, the practical answer. Our senior producer, Effie Brown, she was very adamant that, at our budget level, it was most important that we got a good rebate. Mississippi offers an incredible incentive in the form of a cash rebate. And additionally, with me being a veteran—and we had a very significant number of veterans on set as well in different capacities—Mississippi offers an extra 5% rebate bonus on payroll for veterans. So that was the first thing that made us want to see if it could work in Mississippi.

But then, we found the location, the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers’ Training Academy in Pearl, which was run by Lt. Col. Thomas Tuggle at the time. He’s just a really incredible leader to be around in general, right? The form that he’s set forth in the Mississippi state trooper ranks is really, really impressive, very bold leadership. And he’s also a retired Marine that went to boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, and graduated in 1987. I graduated from boot camp in 2005, from Parris Island, too.

So, it was just the alignment of it all, the alignment between the script and the location. It really felt like some sort of divine intervention because the police academy itself was transformed by Lt. Col. Tuggle to physically resemble and reflect Parris Island based on his time and memories there. And additionally, the leadership style and training that’s available at the academy for recruits is very similar to Parris Island. So, I was able to fly actors in for their training two weeks early and were able to fold them into the police academy’s training and let them get a taste of what it was like to be at boot camp.

In what ways did filming here help you tell your story?

Wow, in so many ways. The landscape of Mississippi itself, it’s really God’s country. You start to understand politics in America much better by experiencing the red soil and the open sky in Mississippi.

My other producer, Chester Algernal Gordon, is also my husband and life partner. Chester exposed me to this book by William Eggleston of all these cloud photographs. Ultimately, boot camp isn’t all that different over the last hundred years, what changed significantly is who is allowed to go, right? So that book, as well as the photography of Sally Mann, helped me understand how to use the landscape as a story device. In that regard, Mississippi was really like a character in the film, even though it’s not technically set in Mississippi.

And then I think the other thing about Mississippi is that we had some really great crew. You know, people showed up. And they were diverse. There were veterans, men, women, queer people, people with disabilities, elderly people. We drew a lot of our crew from Mississippi and New Orleans and we had enough talent around us to be able to execute our vision.

What was the most surprising thing about filming in Mississippi for you?

The heat. (laughs) We were shooting in some 100-plus degree days there.  And the landscape itself, really. We had some wildlife experts on set to help keep us safe. We were learning things like which caterpillars that could bite you that are poisonous. I never knew all the things that could possibly kill me in nature. (laughs) Which I learned were all over the place in our location!

I was also surprised by how much Jackson adopted us. That was really a pleasant surprise. The town really opened its arms. And once they found out that we were working at the police academy and Lt. Col. Tuggle was looking out for us, people just opened their hearts and were just super kind to the production.

You know, the recruits in the film come from the South. The character of Harvey is from Kentucky, Rosales is from Texas. And in that way, what this film is really looking to do is to interrogate masculinity. We stayed at a hotel in the Fondren neighborhood in Jackson where we sometimes saw protestors for locally-charged reasons. And the harrowing nature of that environment we saw provided a nice kind of backdrop, a force, against which our actors were able to transform themselves into the characters that are in the film.

What was your favorite location that you used and why?

The academy for sure because most of the film was shot there. We also used a senior living apartment complex in Jackson. We filmed the apartment scenes that are meant to take place in New Jersey there but filmed the exteriors in New York and New Jersey.

And it’s not a location we used, but I want to say we went and ate at Bully’s Soul Food Restaurant twice a week. Oh, my God. The food was so good. We also went to Walker’s almost every other night, and it was great.

Shooting during Covid, it forced us to be more centrally located. For instance, we rarely left the hotel, and so everything started to resemble the military. You know, regimented. The director is here, the sound guy is here, the actors are here, you know what I’m saying? It was great that Mississippi was so cozy because it allowed us to build the kind of camaraderie that makes it to the screen.

What was the most memorable moment for you working on the film?

The one that left the most lasting imprint on me was recreating my mother’s apartment that I was kicked out of when I was 16. I had never really returned to that apartment. It all kind of hit me when I got on set. I was like, “Oh, wow.” The only way I got back to my mother’s home, truly, was by recreating it 20 years later as a film director. It all kind of swirled in on me. At first, it made me feel kind of sad, you know, the reality of it, but then it made me feel really hopeful and proud. That was really a great moment.

What’s it mean to you to get the Best First Feature nomination from the Film Independent Spirit Awards?

Film Independent is a really special place for Chester, Effie and myself because we’re all Film Independent fellows in some way. Specifically, we submitted this script to the Film Independent producing lab and fast-track lab. And we got into both.

I wrote the first draft of the script in 2017, and I brought it to a friend of mine at A24, and it was a first draft, and he was like, hey you’ve got to do some work on this. We can’t make it right now. And then I applied to every film lab you could possibly imagine, and got rejected by every lab you can imagine, went out into the business, took meetings, went to festivals, met with executives, met agents, tried my very best to get this made. And Chester ended up applying to the Tribeca All Access lab, and got in. So, we had more meetings, but got no offers.

After having to pitch this thing about 50 times, I was starting to fix things in the story, after saying it out loud so much. So that inspired another draft that Chester applied to the Film Independent producing lab and got into, and then we got great notes from emerging producers and their mentors, and that led to another new draft.

And then I got into the fast-track lab. We ended up walking out of there with like 12 different offers. I then texted my friends with a photo of Harry Potter riding the train going to Hogwarts, and said, “Hey, the train is leaving the station, jump on.” And after that Effie jumped on. So, while it took five years for the whole movie to come together, a lot came together in like a week.

The Spirit Award nominations are really meaningful to me because Film Independent was the most enthusiastic institution who placed a bet on us and said this creative duo, Chester and Elegance, they have something here and we believe in them. They put this incredible organization behind us and taught us and guided us.

So, for them to acknowledge this work, when so many great first features were made this year, I’m incredibly grateful and it lets me know I’m doing the right work and I’m going in the right direction.

“The Inspection” opens Friday, Dec. 2, at the Grandview Cinema and IMAX in Madison and the Desoto Cinema Grill in Southaven.