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Writer/director Edson Oda's feature film debut, Nine Days, is a hard story to encapsulate. That may be why it's becoming one of the more buzzed-about films at the Sundance Film Festival this year. It's also a gorgeous fantasy film with a strong emotional impact, which may just put Winston Duke (Black Panther, Us) into Oscar contention next year.
Oda's concept is that there is another plane of existence, where souls are given temporary form, where they must then be interviewed and tested over the course of nine days in order to earn the right to be born into a human body in our world. Duke stars as Will, a soft-spoken, reclusive man who once lived in that world, and who now conducts these tests in an isolated house upon a desert plain. With the help of his colleague Kyo (Doctor Strange's Benedict Wong), he attempts to determine whether the qualities necessary to flourish in the human world can be found within these new contestants — including Bill Skarsgård (It, Castle Rock), Tony Hale (Veep, Arrested Development), Arianna Ortiz (This Is Us), and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2, Joker) — all while Will reels from the unexpected loss of one of his previous choices.
Oda explained to the Sundance audience, which included SYFY WIRE, that the film comes from a deeply personal place. "The main character Will is actually based on an uncle of mine, a very artistic person, sensitive and kind human being. But when he was 50, I was 12, and he committed suicide. It was weird because after he did, I saw him as this figure of failure, somewhat distant from me, like an example not to be followed. But as the years went by, I started growing up and feeling pretty similar feelings that he felt, struggling against like similar problems, and I felt like I had more empathy towards him. This empathy in my connection and my old lack of connection with my uncle were the seeds in order to write the story."
For his part, Duke told the screening audience that he immediately connected with the role of Will.
"I met Edson, and our meeting was supposed to last 45 minutes, but we ended up speaking for four hours," he said. "And it wasn't just about the script, it was everything. We spoke about our love for animation and anime, spoke about a love for Star Wars. I'm always a little bit reluctant to mention my own battle with depression, but as a teen I went through a bit of depression where things didn't look right, colors and feel the same way. I don't know how it happened, why it happened, I just remember being in a period of funk, and really unhappy and had some weird thoughts, and eventually coming out of it, maybe four or five months later, and my family was there for me. So we talked about all these things, and I left, then I found out about a day later that he chose me. It was really important for me, especially after I heard that he originally wanted an Asian actor to really reflect the experiences of his uncle more closely, but after we met, he changed his mind."
Duke is also keenly aware of what a man like him in a role like this really means.
"For me to be seen as this universal medium of storytelling meant a lot for me, because I didn't always grow up seeing that, and I still don't see that every day in film. I still don't interact with myself or bodies that look like myself. So also after reading the script, I knew there was a lot of opportunity for what my body would mean, in this context. It's a film that deals with psychology, but if I add my 6'5" 285-pound body into it, it becomes a story of black psychology, masculine psychology, which, again, you don't always see because masculinity in film and TV and media is always so one-dimensional. It created so much opportunity for us, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of the conversation. What's really beautiful about this story is that it doesn't ever try to spoon-feed you. It's not very didactic in any way. It just presents itself and asks you to have a reaction."
People are definitely having reactions to Nine Days, as Duke himself related.
"The other day, a man who looked exactly like me — a little bigger, if you can believe it — came up to me crying after this screening and saying, 'I'm Will. People think that I'm smiling sometimes, but I'm an Iraq vet and I'm Will. People don't see it. It's in the eyes. I'm Will. I'm in pain always and no one knows and I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry for feeling like this.' I hugged him and said, 'It's okay to feel. It's okay to have these emotions. It's all right.' That was important. Those are the reasons I loved this film just from reading it and after meeting Edson and having him trust me. It means everything."
Here is a look behind the scenes courtesy of the Utah Film Commission, representing the state where the film was shot.
Nine Days is currently screening at the Sundance Film Festival.