Playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker Stephen Karam’s feature directorial debut The Humans is garnering critical acclaim internationally for its portrayal of anxieties that smear the dining tables of an average American household. Though set in a dingy apartment in Lower Manhattan, the universality of the concept has resonated with audiences globally.
Starring a fantastic cast with the likes of Jayne Houdyshell, Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun and June Squibb, the narrative takes place over the course of one night, when the Blake family comes together for Thanksgiving at Brigid and her partner Richard’s lower Manhattan apartment. As the evening unfolds, the family member’s frustrations and insecurities are exposed as home truths and long-hidden secrets rise to the surface.
The Tony Award winner sat down for an exclusive interview with The Hindu to draw the curtains, and reveal the vision he had for his first film, and how it materialised on the screen.
Karam shot the one hour 48-minute film in 28 days and he attributes this feat to immaculate planning, preparation and the six actors he seems to never run out of praise for. He says that it was difficult to keep the budget small, but using creative ways to solve problems that arose concerning the issue of budget is what helped the movie transcend the stage and bring him joy. “The whole texture and feel of the movie was influenced by the budget in a good way. If someone gave me 40 million dollars to make this film, it would definitely be a different film, but I don’t think it would be a better film.”
He laughs as he mentions the likes of The Gray Man – the kind of movie he will not back to watch a second time. “Unlimited budgets and explosions don’t buy you the best movies,” he exclaims.
An unique relationship with the audience
The Humans is unique when it comes to its relationship with the audience. From the initial scenes, it informs the viewer on how to go about watching the film. It makes the viewer a part of the story where the viewer plays the role of a voyeur. Karam credits his low budget for this directorial decision. In the film, characters are seen spilling in and out of the frame, and the camera is often stationary; it is locked off. Karam remarks that this was because they did not have the budget to take multiple takes and could not be liberal with their time. In an era where we are accustomed to excessive camera motion, he says he wanted the movement of the camera to be very motivated. “I wanted to make sure we knew why we were zooming in.”
This gives one the impression that not only is The Humans a valiant effort at adapting a Tony award-winning play to the screen, but also that the stylistic choices we’re exposed to as an audience arise most often out of necessity, making the financial anxieties of the characters in the film even more pronounced.
According to Karam, through his experience on the sets of The Humans, it was really hard to do an adaptation justice. He says that sticking to the vision he had for his film was the difficult part. In his vision, the movie was to look like a genre collision; that seems to have been realised as what starts out as a simple comedy movie slowly shape-shifts to become a psychological thriller. “The hardest part was sticking to my guns and how non-traditional I wanted the movie to be, even though it is a very traditional subject matter; a family having dinner.”
When asked the reason behind his specialisation in painful comedies, Karam notes that he is not aware of it while writing. “I often think I’m writing a comedy and things tend to get very serious,” he laughs. “I am mostly interested in what others say. I have learnt about myself by letting other people observe and talk about it.” The Humans, for him, felt like spending a week with his family which he adds is funny and occasionally painful.
Politics comes from the personal
Politics often leaks through the cracks of the Lower Manhattan apartment The Humans is set in, and Karam believes that politics comes from the personal. He says he is focused on writing about what it feels like to be alive in a given moment and it is inevitable for politics to trickle in. “All my plays are political.” The father’s anxieties about 9/11 in the movie stem from Karam’s anxieties about living in New York City post 9/11, a city which he believes has not fully processed the tragedy. These residual anxieties he adds, spill into other things, “from 9/11 to the financial crises to some other anxiety.”
A lot has changed about America since The Humans was first penned down in 2014. It survived a pandemic and a Trump government that ended with a riot of its Capitol. However, a story about an American family’s Thanksgiving dinner seems to have resonated with people across the globe. “I have watched people’s response to the story shift.” During the 2016 Presidential Elections, Karam had a member of the audience walk up to him wondering aloud if this was a commentary on the characters and their Presidential Candidate preferences. “He asked if the dad would vote from Biden, and the children for Bernie. My jaw dropped. I didn’t even know it could be perceived this way.”
He adds that this experience taught him that a story about family and love holds together to weather the storm.
Finally, he says that Stephan, the playwright, is happy with Stephan, the director. “Making the first film is such an entry point... the learning curve is so high! Once you have finished it, you learn so much that you cannot wait to make another film to apply that knowledge.” Enraptured by the medium, Karam says he hopes to write scripts exclusively for the screen in the future.
“For the hardest thing I have done in my life, it was also fun.”
The Humans streams on MUBI from August 12