On the bright Sunday morning of the festival's weekend one, the four collaborators and friends chatted about the project while lounging in a hotel near the fest, relishing in a rare moment of calm -- and riffing off one another like the oldest of friends. "None of us have slept," Ake says to raucous laughter from the room; adds Udeorji, "I'm the only one who's really working!"
Below, they discuss Guava Island's political undercurrents, how Rihanna got involved, and what it was like when word of the secret project almost got out last summer.
How did the idea for Guava Island first come to you?
Swank: The idea came together after we did a project called Clapping for the Wrong Reasons [in 2013], which came off of Donald’s project, Because the Internet. We talked for years about putting the same energy that we did with that into another project, and it seemed like the right time.
Fam: Clapping for the Wrong Reasons was self-funded. Being able to do something like that was just proof of concept. To make something like Atlanta, and like “This Is America,” you’re able to [then] get people like Rihanna, who probably wouldn’t have entertained the project three years ago.
Stephen: It felt like we were more powerful than we have been. We were able to have connections to be able to do all of these things. Even five years ago, I don’t know if we’d be able to get Rihanna.
So how did you get Rihanna on board?
Fam: I think Rihanna just really fucks with what the group is doing, and what Donald is doing. [Her team] reached out about Donald performing at her Diamond Ball last year, kind of letting me know that she was a fan of his music. On her side, to go to Cuba, that’s kind of an act of love. It’s not a big budget movie. There’s no internet. You’re really in it. So I think she was just a fan of the work that all of us were doing.
Remember when photos of Rihanna and Donald in Cuba sent the internet into a frenzy last summer?
Ibra: [Laughs.] How could we not? That caused a lot of problems. One of the appeals of [Cuba] was the privacy aspect. It was day one when that happened, and we were like, "this is the first day!" Hiro normally doesn’t shoot in order like that. He likes to start with a big group shot to start a production, so that everybody gets to know each other. But we ended up starting with that kitchen scene. We were like, "All right, this is not great," but overall we knew this was our best shot for privacy, based on the way Cuba is set up.
Why did you want to keep the project under wraps for so long, anyway?
Ibra: We don’t want people to come in with expectations or baggage to the stories we’re telling. We try to underpromise, overdeliver -- that’s our motto. People come in to consume things with an ego, and we like to let people reset and relax. It’s important to come in with an open mind.
Stephen: A week ago, I saw somebody put out the tracklist for Guava Island. [Laughs.] They had some names already. People don’t realize they’re ruining stuff by doing that. It’d be like if we all sat around trying to come up with the plot for Star Wars before it came out.
Stephen, how did you conceptualize the script?
Stephen: All of us got together in Hawaii. Some of the songs that are in the movie, [Glover] was working on. He pitched us the idea, and we tried to get a cohesive story together. We like texture: little details and iconic imagery. We talked about movies that we felt like were our mood board: Black Orpheus, Purple Rain, The Sound of Music and these musical movies...
Ibra: Also just weird stuff that stuck with us for whatever reason. Even like, Sarafina!, or Michael Jackson’s weird one-off movies.
What kind of notes or direction was Donald giving you?
Stephen: This was my first time writing a musical. Donald had a very good idea of what he wanted to do. He talked about Purple Rain, and even though it’s not like, a great movie -- it’s kind of cheesy and campy -- you are getting a feeling that you can relate to the artist.
Fam: And in terms of musicals in general, Donald and Hiro spoke about how much they actually hate musicals. Just because of how disruptive it is when, mid-conversation, somebody breaks out into a song. We wanted to have a lot of the music be diegetic and come from a natural place. We were talking about, with the “Summertime Magic” scene, having steel drums, and making it feel like part of the world and less like it pulled you away from the moment, because that’s what a lot of musicals do.
Stephen: Donald also really likes dark things. I think most musicals are very childlike. City of God is another reference. He wanted to make sure that the world felt real and kind of gritty. There was a darkness to it, but at the same time, there’s a cartoon in the beginning, so we lightened it up a little.
What real-life inspirations informed the fictional place Guava Island?
Swank: We wanted create a place [that reflects] the concepts of capitalism, and how things are still run by money. We also wanted to have "blue silk" as something that this island produces for mass consumption. It's supposed to be something that helps the island, and makes it better, but it almost makes it worse.
That can speak to countries now. A bunch of us are Nigerian, and in Nigeria, there's a lot of oil, so it should be a whole booming economy, but that actually makes the economy worse because the people at the top keep all of the money and keep the people at the bottom extremely poor. Also, the selling of hope [in America]. A lot of people on that island are like, "One day, I'll be able to get off this island and go to America." But in America we have this "American dream" that we've been selling since the founding of this country, but the dark side of that is everybody can't have the American dream. For one person to be rich, somebody else has to be poor.
In that sense, how does the film tie in with "This Is America"?
Stephen: What's funny is Donald's been working on this song for... what, three or four years?
Fam: Since 2015. The video really just popped up based off of his being able to have that moment [to perform it] on Saturday Night Live and do it while it was this communal moment. Sometimes you have to sit on ideas.
Ibra: They were separate ideas, but when the schedule was convenient, it just made sense to mold the two ideas together that we'd been playing around with for a really long time.
Swank: The explosion of "This is America," we didn't expect. I think a lot of that came with Trump being president. But when we started working on all this, we didn't know that was going to happen.
What were the logistical challenges of filming in Cuba?
Ibra: A lot of this project, in a weird way, felt like an indie project. We planned ahead, but a lot of it, we knew had to be a real-time dance.
Fam: Everything is a challenge. There's a lot of issues with bringing equipment in. If you bring in a radio, the government wants to make sure you're not a spy -- just to bring in a basic radio that you might need for communication.
Ibra: They literally took our radios one day.
Fam: On the ground, it really makes you tap into the local resources. The guy in the movie with the frying pan, he's the leader of a local band that we were able to connect with. But that didn't happen until we got there. The only other big movie in the last couple years that was filmed there was The Fast and the Furious. So that was the only reference point that we had. Any problems we had, we had to refer to people who worked on that movie.
Ibra: We'd be literally running around for like, speakers, and [locals would] be like, "this person knows this person knows this person," and it was like a Zelda quest.
What's Donald like on set?
Ibra: [Sarcastically] Horrible. Alright, fine -- someone give Donald a compliment.
Stephen: He's very visually oriented, so he knows how he wants things to look and that makes him and Hiro work better -- they're able to finish each other's visual sentences. And he's into every part of the production -- somebody who understands every aspect of it.
Ibra: He had an issue about the timeline. Donald was like, "Make it shorter, and tell the story in less time." We're like, "We're in Cuba! We want to have fun, baby!" [Laughs.] But he made that decision, because he's produced more than we have. And I'm glad we edited ourselves, because he had a hunch, and he's great at knowing that from experience.
Fam: And he's naturally extremely funny. He's really good at getting people around him very comfortable very fast. He's able to bring out the best in people.