One of ten films that will advance in the Live Action Short Film category for the 93rd Academy Awards.
Heads up Hollywood. The production company —Six Feet Over—started by three savvy, creative African-American men, all of whom are over 6’feet tall, is experiencing the warm glow of the entertainment industry’s spotlight which is firmly fixed on their first short film “Two Distant Strangers.” This taunt thriller that tetters on the border of a psychological, modern horror story, is one of ten films that will advance in the Live Action Short Film category for the 93rd Academy Awards. https://www.oscars.org/oscars/93rd-oscars-shortlists.
I love the visual of the three founders of Six Feet Over —Travon Free (6’8), Van Lathan (6’5), and Nicholas Maye (6’3) —walking in uber-slow motion through the formerly guarded, and closed gates of “White Hollywood.” For some ignorant, misguided, prejudiced, and angry people that image might cause them great despair.
But for me, it’s inspiring. Perhaps you’ve heard the rumble in the Hollywood jungle about their first short film “Two Distant Strangers” written and co-directed by Travon Free and co-directed by Martin Desmond Roe, starring Joey Bada$$, Andrew Howard, and Zaria? If so, then you know that type of word-of-mouth isn’t orchestrated; it’s organic.
Allow me to paint the scene. Hollywood isn’t an easy place to get anyone talking about your work—especially a short film. No disrespect to short filmmakers but industry movers-and-shakers are talking contracts, money, back-end points, and perks. So, for “Two Distant Strangers” to be getting the type of attention from industry titans that it’s getting, makes you lean in, to examine what makes “Two Distant Strangers” so unique and worthy of chatter.
During the horrific and emotional days after the 2020 murder of George Floyd (Rest in Power), when the world went on the streets shouting, protesting, holding up signs with broken hearts and pounding rage, many of us wanted to do more to help White people understand that this, sadly, isn’t new for our community. What’s new is that it was recorded.
What happened to Mr. Floyd, in part, is the inspiration for “Two Distant Strangers” which is essentially an African-American man’s worst nightmare.
We begin with our protagonist Carter James (Joey Bada$$), a cartoonist that, after spending the night romantically with a young woman named Perri (Zaria) heads home to feed his pit bull when he gets stopped by a White police officer (Andrew Howard).
What happens next is all-too-familiar: Carter, an innocent man just walking on the street, is brutally murdered by a police officer. A dream? A nightmare? Here’s the thing, every time Carter wakes up, he realizes he can’t escape his death because he’s in a twisted, horrible, terrifying time-loop. What the viewer is left with besides range is an understanding that this short film is what it feels like to be a non-White person in America. It’s that’s simple. When your White friends want you to explain what it feels like to be “you” I strongly suggest, that you send them to the link for “Two Distant Strangers.” Where the film “Russian Dolls” (Netflix) is just a film, and a good one, what’s making people talk about “Two Distant Strangers” is that the film captured the feeling of this collective trauma; in short they caught lighting-in-a-bottle. If you don’t feel the hopelessness and injustice that Carter experiences in this film, I’d suggest that you check your pulse.
When I push into learning more about Six Feet Over’s team, now the quality of “Two Distant Strangers” makes sense. Writer and co-director and partner of Six Feet Over, Travon Free is a two-time Emmy-winning and Peabody-winning television writer, actor-director, and comedian from Compton, California. He’s been a writer/producer for many shows including Adam McKay’s upcoming Laker’s drama, “Showtime” on HBO, “Black Monday” starring Don Cheadle on Showtime and Lena Dunham’s “Camping” on HBO and was co-head writer for “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” on TBS. Free is also the creator of the HBO pilot “Him or Her.” His other writing and producing credits include “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” (Comedy Central), “Any Given Wednesday With Bill Simmons” (HBO), Larry Wilmore’s “White House Correspondent’s Dinner,” “Hood Adjacent with James Davis” (Comedy Central), to name a few.
Currently, Free has projects in development with CBS All Access, Morgan Freeman’s Revelations Productions, and most recently sold an Africa-based spy film with Idris Elba and Simon Kinberg that was acquired by Apple after a heated bidding war among the top studios.
Executive producer and partner of Six Feet Over, Nicholas Maye is a television, film, and podcast producer from Los Angeles, California. Maye has worked behind the scenes for years as a consultant in entertainment, politics, and business development. He has also worked closely with AAFCA (African American Film Critics Association), where he has held several titles, most recently being director of programs. He most recently executive-produced, “UPPITY: THE WILLY T. RIBBS STORY.”
Producer and partner of Six Feet Over, Van Lathan is an established host and media personality proudly from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Lathan’s passion for topics such as sports, entertainment, news, and pop culture come across in his insightful conversations on his podcast series at “The Ringer.” He hosts “Higher Learning” alongside Rachel Lindsay which highlights Black culture, politics, and sports, as well as “The Wire: Way Down the Hole” with Jemele Hill, which breaks down every episode of the HBO classic. With an incredibly powerful influence across social media, he also expresses his daily opinions on these topics to his dedicated followers. Van resides in Los Angeles and is developing both film and television projects while writing his debut book (“Hachette,” Jan. 2021) that hilariously documents his weight loss journey and offers practical advice on how to get yourself in shape.
Here is what Travon Free and Nicholas Maye had to share about creating Six Feet Over with Van Lathan and what it was like making “Two Distant Strangers” come to life.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: Gentleman, wow and wow. ‘Two Distant Strangers’ shocked me but in the best way. Let’s start at the beginning. I love the name of your production company. What’s Six Feet Over’s goal?
NICHOLAS MAYE: Our aim is to create and produce bold, fresh, thought-provoking, and revolutionary Black-centric content and usher in a new generation of creatives and filmmakers of color.
LAS: Let’s tick that box with the powerful first [short] film ‘Two Distant Strangers.’ I’m curious, what’s the impulse behind it the name —Six Feet Over?
NM: (laughing). Well, we are all over 6’feet tall.
NM: Travon [Free] is 6’8. Van [Lathan] is 6’5 and I’m 6’3.
LAS: For some silly, racist people, the sight of three, over six-foot-African American men existing in this world and combining forces to get things done, can seem scary.
TRAVON FREE: (laughing) That’s true. For so many of us, Black men in America, we end up six-feet-under. Here we are six-feet above ground and over, living here and doing our work.
LAS: Exactly. Oh, I love the frog that’s part of your logo. Personally—I am terrified by that animal but I have so much respect for their versatility and the purpose they serve in nature. Some frogs can regenerate their organs and limbs.
NM: (laughing) I didn’t know that.
TF: In our movie — ‘Two Distant Strangers’ — Joey Bada$$’s character [Carter James] is wearing a hoodie with the same logo on it. I designed that logo specifically for his jacket, in the film, and it’s a little bit of a nod, to his character being the frog and [actor] Andrew’s character [Police officer] being the scorpion.
LAS: Got it. Love it. Please, send my hoodie (wink). Let’s talk about all the love ‘Two Distant Strangers’ is receiving. I’m so proud, I feel like I am a cousin or something.
Where are you going in the industry?
TF: I think for us, it’s trying to figure out how to carve a new lane, not just for Black people in Hollywood but Black men, especially given our perception, in the world, and this country. Also, from my perspective how we can also rebrand and reshape our partnerships and our alliances with Black women in this world and in this industry, as well. And given that we are a company with three very different partners. All of us bring something so different to the table but all of us have so many great skills and abilities and great connections to various people across this industry. Van’s ability to be prolific in the podcast and media space, Nicholas ability in the promotion space, and his creativity in forming ideas on projects, and me, just being a writer and director, and performer, it’s from what I experience, from a Black perspective, there’s just not a lot of any companies like us, that start with that kind of diversity. It allows us to not only build things of our own, but to also partner with other people who are more disadvantaged and don’t have opportunities and just need that one person to read their script or see their movie, and help them find their way in this business.
LAS: You seem to have your collective priorities, right.
TF: Thank you. I care more about who comes up after me than anything that I am doing, right now. If I can get 100 more of me, Nick, and Vans by the time I am dead and gone, I will feel that I accomplished more than I ever set out to.
LAS: AMEN. I was speaking with a television writer, now director, Felica Pride (https://lasentinel.net/tag/felica-pride ) about the power of giving back. Making opportunities for those that don’t have real access. I call it — doing an AVA after the great, Ava DuVernay. In my humble opinion, Ava is doing God’s work, meaning, that every time she’s made it possible, for people who have traditionally been blocked from progress, to get into the game, she’s turning back time; remedying wrongs. She’s correcting injustice by allowing people to plant and then water their seeds. That’s game-changing on a universal level
NM: Ava [DuVernay] is my older sister.
LAS: OK. Well, a nod of respect to the ancestors, you have a powerful bloodline. Please tell your parents, and their parents — well done.
NM: I will and thank you. She was in full support of us coming together. Thinking that it was a dope idea, and it’s even crazier because my grandfather worked for the Los Angeles Sentinel.
LAS: What? We have a —
NM: Full circle moment.
LAS: Now, can we talk about the level of industry love that ‘Two Distant Strangers’ is receiving? Details. Thoughts. Let me in, spill the good ‘T’, please.
TF: The moment that I conceived of this film, to the moment of having a cut, that I can show people, it’s one of those journeys where you are dipping your toe into a pool where a lot of people have very strong feelings and opinions about. This subject matter even amongst Black people, how to deal with [police aggression] it, how it’s dealt with in art form, all I wanted to do, I hoped to make something that resonated with people and that people could connect with in some way. And understand the message …. I would not have imagined that it’s been as big, as it is now.
LAS: I feel you.
TF: You only hope that you create something and it has this effect on people to the point you get yourself in line with the Academy [The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences].
LAS: Amazing, you are one of ten films that will advance in the Live Action Short Film category for the 93rd Academy Awards. One hundred seventy-four films qualified in the category. Members of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch vote to determine the shortlist and the nominees. https://www.oscars.org/oscars/93rd-oscars-shortlists. Nervous?
TF: Grateful. We’ve received letters, and calls, and texts from some of the biggest names in the [entertainment] industry, the biggest filmmakers in the industry telling you how much they loved your film, or that they saw your film, [how it] organically made its way to them. It’s just all stuff that we could have never even imagined.
LAS: Care to share a few of those that are industry fans of ‘Two Distant Strangers’ that made you go, wow?
TF: There has been a lot of amazing messages and we are grateful for them all.
LAS: No doubt. I hear you and I am listening, but maybe share a few.
TF: Peter Ramsey. [Academy Awards, USA 2019 Winner Oscar · BAFTA Awards 2019 Winner BAFTA Film — “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”)
LAS: I LOVE Peter Ramsey, sorry. I hear his name and I automatically cheer. Please, continue.
TF: (laughing) Also, from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who started DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg, and Matthew Cherry [Oscar winner for the animated short ‘Hair Love’}.
LAS: Wow. Got it. Hey, I think that I figured out why ‘Two Distant Strangers’ is causing such a stir. Want to hear?
LAS: It makes you feel. Deep down inside. It tugs at your insides and does not let you go, much like the premise of ‘Two Distant Strangers,’ it catches you and tosses you inside a loop of self-examination.
TwoDistantStrangers (@TwoDistantFilm) | Twitter
YouTube Trailer: https://youtu.be/xPgf-JaWNh8
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.