Elegance Bratton is ready to be known. He's clear about that on-screen, where the first-time feature film director has laid bare his life story in the military drama, The Inspection, about his time in the Marines, but also about his relationship with his mother, and his relationship with himself. But it's there in the way he speaks with you, too, leaning in close to the computer's camera so that he fills the frame, effectively creating a sense of having an intimate chat despite being separated by nearly three thousand miles.
Bratton wasn't sure if the feeling was mutual, though. The writer-director penned the first draft of The Inspection while he was getting his MFA at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, basing the script on his real-life experience as a young gay man kicked out of the house by his mother at the age of 16, and who enlisted in the Marine Corps during the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in order to win her back. Bratton sent the screenplay to a former classmate and friend who was working at A24, and was promptly yet politely rebuffed.
"I had to deal with the fact that my friend wasn't going to bring it up the ladder just yet, so I started applying to labs," he tells A.frame. "I got rejected to every lab. Every lab. All of them. Multiple times! I got to a point where I just gave up. I just was like, 'This system is not built for me.'"
Unbeknownst to Bratton, his creative and life partner, the producer Chester Algernal Gordon, submitted one final application to Tribeca Film Festival's All Access program, and The Inspection was accepted. Soon after that, Algernal Gordon got into Film Independent's Producing Lab. And, soon after that, Bratton was chosen for their Fast Track program. After years of rejection, he not only found himself in the room with studio executives, but they wanted to make his movie.
"I sent my buddy at A24 a GIF of Harry Potter on the train to Hogwarts, and I was like, 'Bro, train's leaving the station! You want to get on, get on now. If you don't, it's going to be somebody else's movie,'" Bratton recalls with a delighted cackle. "And A24 jumped on."
Bratton discovered filmmaking while serving as a combat videographer. Before The Inspection, he had directed a number of short films that he had written himself, produced himself, and funded himself. "Basically, your budget is what's on your credit card until you max it out, and that's it. Then, whatever you've got, you've got." He estimates his most expensive film, the documentary Pier Kids, cost in the ballpark of $150,000. "I remember when we were casting [The Inspection], my producer, Effie Brown, told me whenever I was talking to a big actor, to apologize to them for inviting them to be a part of a $3 million film," he recalls. "And it took me a while to get the words out of my mouth, because, to me, this is the most money I've had to make anything ever!"
Emmy and Tony-nominated actor Jeremy Pope plays Ellis French (the movie's stand-in for Bratton), and recalls of reading the screenplay for the first time: "I wanted to protect him. That was my feeling after reading the script; 'I want to protect you.' I can only imagine how scary it must feel to put yourself out there in this way. And, once you give it away, you can't get it back."
Gabrielle Union signed on to co-star as Ellis' mother, Inez, a flinty New Jersey corrections officer who refuses to accept her son's sexuality. (Union is also an executive producer on the film.) Bokeem Woodbine and Raúl Castillo play boot camp drill masters, with McCaul Lombardi, Eman Esfandi, and Aaron Dominguez as fellow recruits. It wasn't just, however, the caliber of the cast; Bratton found himself working with a proper movie crew for the first time.
"I'm always trying to create a really loose and collaborative energy on set, where people can trust that I'm hearing out what they have to say," the director says, launching into a story: "On maybe like the third day of production, we were shooting at a rifle range, and I was there with Jeremy. And, when I give actors notes, I like to huddle with the actors. I like to be very quiet and it's just me and the actor talking, and no one else can hear it. So, I huddled with Jeremy and I remember him saying it back to me. And I'm like, 'That's it. I did it. I know how to do it. I'm great. This is going to go great.' And I walk back to the video village and I hear, 'Hey, Elegance... Hey, Elegance... Hey, Elegance...' And I turn around and the rest of my ensemble has their hands up, and I'm like, 'Oh man, I have to do this with every actor on set! I have to have this much clarity with everybody!'"
"I was like, 'Wow. This white guy isn't from where I'm from, he's not my race, he's not my sexuality, and he sees my story as his story.'"
"I went around, gave my notes, we're good, I got this, I know what I'm doing, who says doc'ers can't make features? And then, I get to the video village and I see the cinematographer has their hand up, and the producer has their hand up, and the costume designer has their hand up. And I'm like, 'I have to have this relationship with the crew too. They have to be as clear on what's going on as the actors have to be clear what's going on.' And together we figured it out," he says. "I've never had the kind of support I had on this."
Bratton felt held in the crew's care, but he made sure to hold them, too. He is "really big on consent," he says, a tenant of his filmmaking he took from his time making Pier Kids, the documentary about homeless queer and trans youth of color living around New York City's Chelsea Pier. The stakes weren't as dire on The Inspection, but sensitivity was no less important.
"We shot this in Mississippi in the summer. It was Biblically hot. It was like Old Testament hot. And then the stuff that we're filming is highly traumatic," Bratton says. "We had a very diverse cast, very queer cast and crew, and I would just be open with people, like, 'Listen, I know this is hard for you to do. I know this is painful. If it's painful, just stop. I know we don't have a lot of money, we don't have a lot of time, but stop. Take a minute, take a breath, talk to somebody, and then, let's figure out how to move forward together.'"
Pope recalls watching as his director "guided us to the promised land, if you will," he says, "but having his own moment of healing and therapy. Kind of putting it all out there, crying it all out, yelling it all out, and then knowing we can leave it in that space. It's always a part of him, but it doesn't have to feel so heavy. I'm very grateful that I was a part of that process, and offering healing to him and support and love. I received my own dose of healing and affirmation with what this project was, and how emotionally and physically demanding it required us to be. But we made it out alive. We made it out on top."
Bratton always knew that The Inspection would be his narrative debut. Algernal Gordon, his husband, validated that belief when they told Bratton, "'The thing I think you do best as an artist is take the audience to a place they can't ever go without you. And your first feature should be intensely personal,'" quotes the filmmaker. "And The Inspection was it."
The film premiered during this year's Toronto International Film Festival and was chosen as the closing night selection at the New York Film Festival. Now, five years after he first wrote the movie, it's in theaters across the country, and Bratton isn't just feeling known, but seen.
He recently got a message on Instagram. "This straight white dude who was in the Navy," he says, "He was like, 'Hey, I just want to let you know, I had a really hard relationship with my dad, and I had to go get my birth certificate from my dad, and it was so awkward. Thank you so much for telling our story,'" recounts the filmmaker. "I was like, 'Wow. This white guy isn't from where I'm from, he's not my race, he's not my sexuality, and he sees my story as his story.' That just really meant a lot to me."
Likewise, The Inspection's three Film Independent Spirit Award nominations — for Best First Feature, Best Lead Performance (Pope), and Best Supporting Performance (Union) — were moving in ways that Bratton could never have anticipated. It's not lost on him that it might not have been made had Film Independent not seen something in him all those years ago.
"I feel really, really happy that I get to prove those people right," he says. "There's something really, really gratifying for me — as someone who's been lifted up by the festival circuit. People had repeatedly said, 'Hey, look at what this guy is doing. Support what this guy is doing.' Especially the types of films that I make, sometimes I would be in these crowds and there were four people there, and these programmers would still have my back — so, I'm happy to have made them proud."
"On an emotional level, I think every artist is hungry for some form of validation of their worldview. The shorthand of that is fame, but that's not really, for me, what it's about," Bratton muses. "It's highly gratifying and satisfying, yes. And I'm very grateful. I'm also tremendously hungry, and I want to do it again."
By John Boone