Party Plan: Emergency’s Balancing Act

Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), Kunle (Donald Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night in Emergency. 
Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), Kunle (Donald Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night in Emergency

Director Carey Williams, writer KD Dávila, and the stars of Emergency discuss tonal tightropes, positive masculinity and that final gravity-defying Jenga move.

In the opening act of Emergency, two Black college seniors angle for their Superbad moment. On the cusp of graduation, Kunle (Donald Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) prepare to complete a legendary fraternity party tour, a feat that’ll earn them a spot in the tongue-in-cheek Hall of Firsts that lauds Black students’ accomplishments at their predominantly white institution. As party-minded Sean walks straight-laced Kunle through his perfected party plan, it’s nearly as if he’s pitching the movie he wants to star in: a one-crazy-night narrative full of hijinks, drunken misunderstandings, a framed photo on that wall and maybe a lesson or two learned along the way.

That is, until the script switches when they find a drunk, unconscious white girl on their living-room floor. Their Latino room-mate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), a sweet but spacey stoner who is content to spend his Friday playing Crusader Kings 3, hasn’t heard her stumble in. Idealistic Kunle thinks they should call 911. Sean thinks that’s a horrible idea, urging Kunle to think of how dangerous that could be. “She’s Goldilocks… and we’re the three bears,” an already-high Carlos moans in distress.

Sean and Kunle on the cusp of the Superbad-dest night of their lives. 
Sean and Kunle on the cusp of the Superbad-dest night of their lives. 

Follow the same movie premise with white protagonists, and a 911 call would likely prove awkward but inconsequential, if not lead to even more shenanigans with cops. But director Carey Williams and screenwriter KD Dávila subvert the familiar concept by considering how that carefree night might play out differently for young Black and brown men. “We yank them out of that ’90s college comedy,” Williams explains to me in a sit-down chat that Chacon, Cyler, Watkins and Dávila also join, such is their pride in their film. The latter agrees, adding, “The guys very much want to be in a teen party comedy, and they keep getting dragged into a horror movie.”

While they want to help the girl, they also want to protect themselves. Would the police believe them? Maybe a white friend could come over and call on their behalf? Eventually, they decide to drive her to the hospital, setting out on a Weekend at Bernie’s-esque trip across campus, unknowingly pursued by the young woman’s sister (Sabrina Carpenter). Her inclusion makes it clear how the trio unfairly shoulder the consequences of someone else’s recklessness. The threat of police involvement looms throughout, and the fearful situation escalates into a pit-of-the-stomach final act.

The thriller and comedy both stem from the creating and releasing of tension, and that comes from the fact that these guys are so aware of how they’re being perceived at all times.

—⁠KD Dávila

Premiering and earning a screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Emergency first appeared as a 2018 short with a different cast. After an award-scooping festival run, people started asking whether a feature film was in the works. “I willed it into the universe, and said, ‘We are doing it!’ And KD was like, ‘What? We are?’,” Williams laughs. The action stays within the living room in the short. The crisis gets resolved when Carlos’s white-passing cousin arrives and can safely interact with cops on their behalf, leaving Kunle to linger in the ambiguity over what might’ve happened otherwise. The feature pushes that inner questioning further, ultimately offering a conclusive answer. But despite how dark things get, it also delivers consistent laughs, even beyond the initial genre shift.

Carefully walking that tonal tightrope sets Emergency apart. Humor punctuates the pressure-cooker situation, offering brief reprieve, but never enough that the tension dissipates completely. Connor B calls the film “an endurance test of blistering tension that rises and rises and rises… and rises,” while Willow observes, “The back [and] forth between humor and drama made so much sense to me and is what really subverts what this film could’ve been had it been about white men.” Williams and Dávila maintain a deep awareness that as absurd as the situation gets, as hilarious as the characters can be, this is a deeply traumatic event.

Sean laying out the plan, the perfect setup for any classic college comedy.
Sean laying out the plan, the perfect setup for any classic college comedy.

“You have to know where your comedy is coming from, you got to know what is the thing that’s driving the tone of your movie,” Dávila stresses. “The thriller and comedy both stem from the creating and releasing of tension, and that comes from the fact that these guys are so aware of how they’re being perceived at all times. I’m Mexican-American, and I’m one of the pale people in my family, but I realized growing up that a lot of the men in my family, especially the darker-skinned men, were always doing this calculus of like, how am I being perceived? Am I being perceived as a threat right now? What can I do to try to not be perceived as a threat? That’s where a lot of the absurdity comes from. How far will they go to try to not be seen as a threat?”

“For me, the thing was to just honor the relationship between the characters, and the stakes were very real for them,” Williams says, noting the character-focused comedy of Dávila’s script. “If I just played that as straight and honest in the way [the actors] played it with their performances, it was going to be humorous.” The pair haven’t worried too much about the humor coming off the wrong way, especially as more people of color have watched the film. Dávila recalls, “It was always really interesting that whenever we screened for audiences that were more diverse, they immediately got it. They immediately understood it was a comedy, they immediately understood where the absurdity of the situation was coming from. There was a little bit more nervousness when we screened for whiter audiences.”

Williams immediately turns to her: “Were you at that Palm Springs screening?” He laughs. “Never mind.”

Director Carey Williams on set.
Director Carey Williams on set.

Fresh off his feature debut R#J (also starring Cyler) and back-to-back Sundance premieres, Williams’ blunt and stylish direction suits the material. Take the opening moments when a white British professor relishes saying the n-word repeatedly during a lecture on hate speech. Like clockwork, the other students turn to Sean and Kunle, the only two Black students in the class. The intentionally provocative scene swiftly pokes holes in the faux-progressive setting. Afterward, Sean and Kunle unpack their teacher’s racism, revealing differing worldviews, but their riffs just as quickly segue into Kunle’s woeful attempts at flirting with a crush.

The original cut had a more subdued, softer introduction. “We had a test screening, and we realized, along with the producers, that we needed to give people permission to laugh. We changed the opening to make it more like, ‘Hey, this is gonna be a comedy. Go along with this.’ And then we flip it on you,” Williams says. “But I think that’s a little bit of the special sauce of it, is that it does change, and people don’t expect that, which is nice. Because I think people have a little bit of fatigue of knowing where every movie is gonna go, you know?”

“Gotta see those Kunle eyes,” says Carey Williams.
“Gotta see those Kunle eyes,” says Carey Williams.

The arc of Sean and Kunle’s friendship proves central to Emergency’s themes. The son of Nigerian immigrants, Princeton-bound Kunle subscribes to the myth of American exceptionalism, believing that he can overcome intrinsically racist structures through hard work and success. He wants to buy into the façade of performative white allyship. From experience, Sean knows better. “We set it up very clearly this is also where Sean grew up,” Dávila notes. “This is his neighborhood, his family’s here. I feel like that’s one of the weird things about college towns is [that] a lot of times college towns are so socioeconomically divided.”

“We wanted to make sure we had validity to both sides,” Williams explains. Sean understands the realities of living in a white-supremacist country and doesn’t understand why his friend increasingly risks their safety over a white stranger. But it’s also hard to fault Kunle for wanting to make sure a stranger’s okay and for wanting to believe in a better world. Williams also likes the idea that some people might sit down and initially wonder why the guys don’t just call 911, but unpack their reaction after finishing the film. “Hopefully we open questions by the end of this movie, that people will think about how they perceive this threat for these guys that they have the privilege of not really having to think about.”

The experience of two Black men got a bond, that’s really how it is. We fight with each other to let each other know like, I ain’t gonna let nobody else fight you.

—⁠RJ Cyler

Smartly though, the core friendship never feels didactic or limited to just this one debate. The dynamic feels lived-in, thanks in large part to how Cyler and Watkins play off each other so naturally. As Cameron Hennings writes, “We need more films like this that feature intimate bro-talks. It’s honestly powerful to see two dudes who love each other as friends talk about the future, gassing each other up, crescendoing into a tight-as-fuck hug.” Honing in on Sean and Kunle’s heartfelt relationship forms a large part of why Williams wanted to return to the story, “to explore some themes of fear and anxiety and masculinity for young Black men.”

“The experience of two Black men got a bond, that’s really how it is. We fight with each other to let each other know like, I ain’t gonna let nobody else fight you. You know? If anybody, you talk to me about it,” Cyler adds.

As the boys panic, Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) is trying to find her missing sister.
As the boys panic, Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) is trying to find her missing sister.

To hear it from Cyler and Watkins, their chemistry came with ease. “It’s down and back to what it is to have a Black friend, to be honest,” Cyler says. “I don’t feel like we had to stretch too far because both of us being, you know, young chocolate kings and shit, like we know. The situation is realistic so we ain’t have to walk too far to grasp it. Donald got best friends, I got best friends. We both got brothers that we look up to. Caucasian kids, that would be a little stretch. You know what I’m saying?” He muses for a second before grinning. “I could probably do it.”

Watkins adds: “It’s easy when you have that comfortability with the other as well. You really care about this person.” While the film was shot out of order, Watkins says it helped to film the tender confessional with Cyler after the film’s most traumatic scene where the two friends are separated. “I genuinely missed having him there. It was really hard to do, and even looking across and seeing [Sebastian] at one point, I was like, you know, we haven’t done anything wrong. That’s my room-mate over there. I couldn’t stop because I had such an affinity for these guys. Oh, it’s heartbreaking!”

Writer KD Dávila.
Writer KD Dávila.

As Kunle, Watkins brims with pathos, grounding and nuancing his naïveté as he navigates the frenetic dramatic turns. (“Gotta see those Kunle eyes,” Williams affirms.) Charismatic as always, Cyler snaps with precision on comedic beats, carrying a boisterous demeanor that also deftly belies Sean’s emotional vulnerability and fears for the future. Fanny-pack proponent Carlos plays third wheel to the other two, which means he often ends up monitoring their charge the closest. When she briefly regains consciousness, each reveal about her identity finds life in Chacon’s lost-puppy reactions. As Benton Tarantella puts it: “Carlos might be my ideal type, he just wants to talk about Mars and hand out granola bars.”

The three actors strived to make their group dynamic feel organic by truly bonding before shooting. “That’s the first order of business,” Chacon says. “By the time we get to set, it’s [about] being comfortable with one another, because so much of it is off the cuff, like we’re messing around. Also it’s a bunch of late nights. If we’re not comfortable with one another, it’s gonna be miserable.” Like true college room-mates, they formed a group chat and started hanging out. Two magical words instantly bring back especially fond memories: “Atlanta brunch.” (Or, as Cyler summarizes, “Biscuits and butt-cheeks.”)

Aladdin (1992) opened up a whole new world for Donald Watkins at a young age.
Aladdin (1992) opened up a whole new world for Donald Watkins at a young age.

Such camaraderie comes across in person too. When I first arrive for our interview, Cyler’s walking a rapt room through the high-concept sci-fi show Altered Carbon. And when I poll the group on the films that first inspired them to get into the business of making movies, everyone’s keen to learn more about one another’s picks. Cyler holds no horses, selecting Midnight Cowboy (“That shit knocks heavy”), while Williams praises Do the Right Thing and Spike Lee’s “tour-de-force” directing. “He took some chances in that film, very cinematic, artistic chances.” Chacon goes for La Haine: “I saw that scene in the gallery where they’re fucking things up [like] I’m just gonna base my whole personality on this film.” Dávila chooses Shaun of the Dead, “a mashing of genres that I had never seen before at that age.”

Watkins cites his realization that Robin Williams starred both in Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire as formative. “I was like, ‘Wait, you can do that? Oh, this is awesome.’ Aladdin is one of my all-time favorite movies, like people got so sick of me singing it. That was the first time I saw someone who kind of looked like me or the kids in my neighborhood on Disney. I was like, ‘Wait, he’s brown!’ And Jasmine was bad, whew. Like, wait a minute. I have a chance. Maybe I can be a Disney prince at some point.” (Someone put this man in a rom-com!)

Three guys just lost in the woods with no clue what to do.
Three guys just lost in the woods with no clue what to do.

The “one crazy night turned nightmare” eventually sees the sun rise and the boys of Emergency finally get a reprieve, playing Jenga with their friends. I confess to Watkins that I instantly scribbled “JENGA?” in my notes during the screening. Did he really pull off that impossible move without the tower toppling? How many takes did it take to get right? He laughs. “Nah, you know what… movie magic! We can’t give that away! You know what’s gonna have to happen is we’re gonna have to do this [interview] again, but with a video and see if I can repeat it. He lost his innocence, but he has his Jenga superpower now.”

A game that consists of an increasingly incomprehensible balancing act where you always risk everything crashing down? It makes for an apt metaphor. While the ending starts with a light-hearted touch, Williams and Dávila still never pull focus from the fact that the night’s trauma will linger. One last look from Sean to Kunle crystalizes the sentiment with painful intimacy.

“He understands Kunle, like he understands Kunle is never quite going to be the same because of what happened, even though everyone survived,” Dávila says. “On Sean’s behalf, I feel like he’s glad that Kunle has changed,” Williams continues. “But it’s also sad to see that his friend’s lost that innocence. It’s both sides. Because he wants his eyes to be open more to how the world is…” Dávila finishes the thought. “But it’s a lesson that he never wanted anybody to have to learn.”


Emergency’ is out now in select theaters via Amazon Studios and streaming on Amazon Prime from May 27.

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