‘Neptune Frost’ Directors on the Visionary Sci-Fi Musical Being “An Expression of How Revolution Starts”

Neptune Frost, the celebrated science-fiction film from musician, poet, actor and artist Saul Williams (Slam) and filmmaker, actor and DP Anisia Uzeyman (Tey), is a fever dream of revolution and an attempt to change today’s cultural algorithm, set in an otherworldly e-waste camp made of recycled computer parts with Williams’ original music as a soundtrack — offering much more than white noise. Executive produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stephen Hendel (Finding Fela), The Hollywood Reporter’s review described Neptune Frost as “an unapologetically queer film…utilizing everything the medium of film has to offer — visually, sonically, emotionally.”

The film, which premiered at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight and also screened TIFF, NYFF and BFI London in 2021 and Sundance in 2022 before being rolled out in select theaters across the country earlier this summer, was released to home platforms Tuesday. In celebration of a larger audience, Williams and Uzeyman spoke to THR about how their experimental offering developed over several years, and how they hope to add to the canon that brought audiences cult classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

In the framework of African cosmology, the concept of time is not exactly linear or rigid, but instead intuitively follows the natural rhythm of the day; much like how sunrise and sunset can vary slightly each day, so too can people’s schedules. With this in mind, what was your process for writing, producing and shooting this film? Did the timeline feel non-Western in ways?

SAUL WILLIAMS I don’t believe that our timeline was rigid; we gave ourselves time to do this. It took us seven years to get this into the public sector, and that is the amount of time that we carved out for it to get there. We were very clear on the time that it would take to raise the money, to build the vision, to write the music, to make the costumes, to figure all these things out. There were a lot of moving parts. So for the most part, I would say that we were operating not necessarily rigidly, even though we did have it mapped out. There is a time when deadlines become helpful.

ANISIA UZEYMAN And then, I think, when it was rigid, it was also more so a question of instinct. We kind of felt that we had to shoot the film in February 2020. That was a crazy thing in retrospect. [Editor’s note: Filming wrapped in Rwanda on March 4, 2020, just before the COVID-19 lockdown.] We were really fighting against a push.

WILLIAMS I love the time that we took. Because the research process — the books that we read, the conversations that we had — there was time to insert some of these ideas that would pop up into the script. There was time for some things to arrive kind of organically.

When thinking about the audience of Hollywood, I’m a little critical of some of the images the industry has disseminated through film; I think Hollywood often holds onto old tropes and archetypes of Blackness — we’ve seen countless slavery films, for instance. How does Afrofuturism as a genre potentially subvert this trend, by imagining different futures instead of dwelling in the past?

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UZEYMAN I think that with science fiction — and we’ve seen it with horror movies recently, too — there’s that possibility of putting our own imagination into play, to give our own visions to the outside. Whereas I think the constraint of historical films (even though I think it should be possible to be able to tell those stories in interesting ways) is that the genre is already framed by Hollywood and by the industry.

WILLIAMS I don’t think you necessarily need Afrofuturism to escape tired tropes that we see projected through the media in terms of Blackness. I just simply yearn to see the imagination utilized in a way that transcends. To be clear, Anisia and I never thought in terms of, “We’re making an Afrofuturistic film.” We were doing a science fiction film that’s a musical. But we had the technology and the costumes and saw what people were talking about. So it’s true that [the film] fits that sort of idea. But at the end of the day, when I look at a lot of science fiction that comes out of Hollywood, I go, ‘Okay, I get it. You’re afraid that aliens are going to come and colonize or enslave you, it’s projection of your fears based on history.’

I’ve always questioned the scope of the imagination in science fiction when it’s like, aliens are supposed to be higher intelligence, but you associate that with just making better or faster guns. Like, if it’s higher intelligence, why is there violence?

I think that happens because we fall into this exploitable realm commercially — of expectations of what people consider entertainment or escape. And it’s that that I think Anisia and I were excited about, being a part of a community and part of an exchange between artists. We just really wanted to make a film that spoke to us, and also speaks beyond us.

UZEYMAN [And also speaks] presently. This film is very much a portrait of a community of young people that are talking like that, that are thinking about those things. It’s also very much a portrait of how we are.

WILLIAMS For example, you think of the languages spoken in the film. And some might think we went out of our way to make it Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, French, English, Swahili. But no: In fact, the film reflects how the actors that are in the film communicate, how people in that region of the continent communicate utilizing all of those languages, which is a reflection of migration as much as it is a reflection of technology. And for us, that’s exciting. To me, that’s more exciting than hearing everybody in a fake accent speaking in English because it’ll sell better.

Neptune Frost

I was thinking about language — especially as we understand it now on the Internet through computers. Memes are a nonverbal language, and we have emojis, which are symbolic pictures. Different forms of communication do feel like a thread in the film.

UZEYMAN I was excited to film conversations. I don’t think we have a lot of opportunity to see on-screen conversations, how they happen, what people are really talking about and telling each other. We really loved that possibility in the film to be able to capture actual dialogue.

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How would you say this project is an extension of your individual creative journeys? As multidisciplinary artists, do you feel at home with the film’s themes of living between identities?

WILLIAMS For me, as someone who has written poetry, my dream has been to connect these things into a narrative, to tell the story. I’ve tried it with books of poetry before, to have some element of a through line to create a sense of character and to be able to move into the next phase of storytelling. Another thing is that since I was a teenager, I’ve been dreaming of composing a musical. And that is very much based on the sense of questioning why a musical can only sound one way.

The African drum is a rhythm — a frequency, if you will, throughout. Why did this story feel like it demanded a musical telling?

WILLIAMS Honestly it was born of the music and that rhythm. Anisia and I had our first conversation surrounding this story when we were in Dakar, Senegal, watching kids build drums after school, preparing for a dance or drum competition in their neighborhood. But they had their smartphones beside them with Beats headphones on. And the observation was like, “Holy shit, the old technology and the new technology together.” That’s how the whole thing started. So yeah, it was born of the drum.

UZEYMAN The drum also as a primary means of communication.

WILLIAMS The drum is the first form of wireless communication.

Neptune Frost

Rwanda is such a rich chosen setting [and Anisia‘s native country]. What was the experience like filming there? Were you conscious of American audiences while in the midst of it, or did you feel a bit outside of it?

UZEYMAN As a lover of cinema, I don’t think you can not think through those lenses. I think those lenses are so present and so oppressive in ways that when you build a film like this, you have to think about it because you’re just trying to free that gaze — to get over it, to re-question it, to reposition it. But then it’s a film, right? It’s a format. And it talks a lot about how we see ourselves and how the other sees us. And the idea here was really to show something that would reflect entirely what we think is beautiful, that would engage others to get into that beauty through the door of love.

WILLIAMS As the only American on set, I’d watch Anisia film and see the stuff that we’re capturing through her eyes, and just be excited…like I can’t wait for people to see this. I really think of the film in many ways as an offering. And I don’t mean to sound pretentious, it’s simply that…I am a dude from New York, who grew up with a bunch of people who may not have as many stamps on their passport or may not even have a passport, who dream of that connection to the continent, who dream of hearing those languages, of seeing those people, of hearing these stories, of seeing something that reflects them.

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UZEYMAN That was one side, and then on the other side, [it was] for people to see themselves in Rwanda, in Burundi, in East Africa or on the continent at large, to see something different than the Western gaze on them, which is often the case actually. We access very few films really made by Africans, of Africans on the continent.

WILLIAMS This responds to your other question, too, about Afrofuturism, but I think one of the things about the film that is perhaps unexpected, which may have been problematic for us with some gatekeepers, is that yes, the film was from the continent, but it’s by no means miserabilist. It’s not talking about somebody’s hunger or somebody’s need. I think that there are some people that don’t know how to relate to that because the relationship that a lot of people have to the continent, filmically, is documentarian. It’s National Geographic-like.

UZEYMAN The desire was to explore art, to reflect the beautiful vibrant art scene that is happening on the continent now.

Starting today, audiences will be able to watch Neptune Frost on Apple TV, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play and Kino Now, and there are still some upcoming theatrical playdates around the country. How will the VOD rollout change the viewing experience on laptops or television screens, versus in theaters?

WILLIAMS It’s a mixed bag for us because Neptune Frost is an immersive experience, and it should be experienced on the largest screen possible. When the images and music surround you, to be enveloped by that, it can touch, and it can heal. But what VOD does is give more people an opportunity to see it, so we are excited about eyes being on it. But we dream of theatrical revivals in the U.S. We dream of things like what happens with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where people watch it every year and dress up. It’s time to add to that canon, and Neptune Frost is built for that canon.

UZEYMAN It’s exciting because people can watch it and rewatch it. And people have said that that’s what they do.

I have to acknowledge the love story between you two, and the one that drives the film. So much of the story is led by this feeling of connection, which is fascinating in a time of technology and so many parasocial relationships thanks to social media. What were you commenting on about where we are as a culture and how we’re connected?

UZEYMAN I think it was an expression of how revolution starts. I think between the illegal ways of connecting dots, hacking into things and realizing that all of this is part of one. And that one, when connected to that other one, sparks something: an energy, a knowledge, a potentiality that is so much bigger than that one. The story is really about that — that power that we create when we are connecting.