Morris from America director: "I humped my pillow a lot"

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 04 Jan 2017

We spoke to American director Chad Hartigan about his new indie Morris from America (coming to DVD this month), autobiographical filmmaking, working with perennial comic scene-stealer Craig Robinson, and, uh, pillow stimulation

“The movie started from the pillow humping scene.” This isn’t the exact line that started The Skinny’s chat with director Chad Hartigan, but it began one of the more memorable anecdotes about the creation of his new film, Morris from America. In the sequence Hartigan refers to, his eponymous teenage protagonist (newcomer Markees Christmas), a sweet lad who’s fallen hard for a local girl, decides to act out his confusing feelings upon his bedroom pillow.

“So I really went through a phase that I assume is not uncommon in boys, where I humped my pillow a lot, but at some point got bored with just humping it, so I dressed it up in clothes and danced with it and made a night out of humping it. And that was always a story that, when I told people, got a reaction. I felt like it could be a good scene in a movie if you can capture what’s awkward and funny but also innocent and tender about it. So that was the very first scene in my head and I started to build a coming-of-age story from there.”

In 2013, Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner was a small-scale festival hit, particularly notable for how its story of two older men trying to find a fresh start in life felt filtered through their specific points of view, rather than detached and commenting on their aspirations and interests from a distance. A similar quality is carried over to his follow-up film, though the POV is different in focusing on two African-Americans, 13-year-old Morris and his widowed father (Craig Robinson), adjusting to a new life in Heidelberg, Germany after the patriarch is hired to coach professional football there.

As a coming-of-age tale, Hartigan pulls off the difficult task of finding compelling drama in a basically good kid just trying to find new bearings. Morris's chief struggles stem from the prejudiced perception of his new home's local kids that, based on his race and nationality, he should be some rapping, drug-dealing basketball ace (with a giant penis).

Hartigan managed to insert other personal details into his story, though, being a white man, acknowledges that the film’s characters and contexts are obviously not autobiographical: “Other things [in the film] from my own life are getting squirted in the pants when I thought I was gonna get kissed, and the rap lyrics – ‘Fucking all the bitches, two at a time’ – I really wrote when I was young and got in trouble for it. So a lot of the specifics are autobiographical, and it’s more just the broad circumstances and who the character actually is and where he is that’s different.”

Christmas shines as Morris, as does rising star Carla Juri as his German tutor, but the film’s greatest asset is Robinson, who's been a regular scene-stealer in comedies like The Office and Pineapple Express. “The way he [Robinson] tells it,” Hartigan says, “he just really responded to the language, and he read it and felt like it was how he talked and he could really just see himself saying the lines. But also, he was excited by the fact that he hasn’t had a chance to show people this side of him. Not just in the fact that it’s slightly more dramatic, but playing a parent.

“I would joke with my friends once we cast him,” he continues, “I was very excited but also nervous, and I felt like now I had a responsibility to give the best showcase for him. And I would tell my friends, ‘This could be his Punch-Drunk Love’, because I think the similarity there is that Adam Sandler was playing, in that movie, essentially what he always plays, but just a tiny dial to the left or to the right that just gives the impression of something wildly different. And I felt like that would be the case here – Craig could basically do what he has done, but just dial it a little to the left and to the right.”

We ask Hartigan what he’d think if Robinson were to ever comment on this film within another film, akin to his work in meta apocalypse comedy This Is the End:  “Oh man, that’d be great. I have these dumb dreams of, one day, a hip-hop song referencing Morris from America. Then I’ll really know that we made it.”

Morris from America is release on DVD 16 Jan