“Create Characters That Lean In.” Matthew Newton Discusses His Immigration Film, ‘From Nowhere’

[This Interview originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.]

From Nowhere follows three undocumented Bronx teenagers, who are on the cusp of graduating high school while also trying to earn their papers that will keep them in the United States.

Based on the play by co-writer Kate Ballen, the film is directed and written by Matthew Newton. The Australian actor-writer-director fell in love with the script after reading Ballen’s play, and the film is bringing awareness to similar, true stories.

Creative Screenwriting spoke with Matthew about going home with your characters, the importance of the “leaning forwards” moment, and the constant process of revelation in childhood

Octavia Chavez-Richmond as Sophie, J. Mallory McCree as Moussa, and Raquel Castro as Alyssa in From Nowhere. Courtesy of FilmRise.

Tell us about your background and how you got into filmmaking.

I was born in Melbourne, Australia. I started as an actor, and went to the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, which is our biggest acting school. I studied there for three years. It’s a classical conservatory course, so there was a lot of theater, a lot of theater history, and a lot of productions. We did film and television acting as well, but certainly the emphasis was mainly on theater.

I worked as an actor, but always wanted to write and direct. I started watching old movies when I was very young, and as the actor was the person I could see, I just thought, “Well, I want to be a part of that, so I guess I’ll do that.” But really, I always wanted to write and direct.

How did you get involved with the script for From Nowhere?

I was in New York, and connected with Kate [Ballen] through a mutual friend. I’d done a little theater production in New York, and a friend of hers saw it and introduced us.

She had a script that she’d written about three undocumented kids in the Bronx, based on experiences that she’d had as a teacher. That became a play that was in the New York Fringe Festival, and I directed that play. It was the very bare bones of what became From Nowhere.

The play got invited to do an encore presentation, and in the period between the initial New York Fringe Festival and the encore presentation, Kate and I worked a lot on it. It was watching that second iteration of the play that I realized that this should be a film, and we should go home with the characters, and learn a lot more about them, and introduce a whole bunch of other characters that weren’t in the play.

So we wrote the screenplay and raised a little bit of money, and went into the Bronx and shot the movie.

Octavia Chavez-Richmond as Sofie and J. Mallory McCree as Moussa in From Nowhere. Courtesy of FilmRise.

Was the point-of-view in the play the same as that in the film?

No, the play was a little bit more polemic. There was a lot of speaking, and the kids spoke to the audience a lot. It was very different to the film. As a matter of fact, it was very much the bare bones: the idea of the three kids being from the Bronx, being an African boy, a Dominican girl, and a Peruvian girl, that was the central kernel that we then took into the film and wrote the screenplay.

And then, through shooting our work with a lot of improvisation — and I do a rewrite once I’ve cast the actors, and I’m very influenced by the actors that I’m working with — it slowly deepened, and became richer, more complex, and more ambiguous. It became its own thing.

Was there any outside research involved for writing this film?

Yes. Through working on the play, I met a lot of undocumented, and formerly undocumented, young people, many of whom are from the Bronx. I was actually taken through the Bronx by a couple of them when I was writing the screenplay, and one of them in particular told me a lot of stories about his life. So while it’s a fictional piece, there are elements from a lot of different stories we were told. But it’s not based on one person’s experience exclusively. We talked a lot about the experiences and the nuances.

What I was really interested in was how it felt to be undocumented, and how it made people react, and how I could place that in the lives of my characters.

The thing that became most interesting to me when I was writing the screenplay, was the idea that these characters were right on the cusp of becoming adults and finding their own voices. But right at the time when they were finding their own voices, they were told they have no voice, told to keep quiet, not speak, not be seen, don’t exist. And that tension was the most interesting thing, for me, to explore.

Octavia Chavez-Richmond as Sofie in From Nowhere. Courtesy of FilmRise.

Are things improving at all for these kids in limbo, both in real life and in the story?

It’s shifting all the time. Five or six months ago, the answer would have been different. On the left-hand things improve, and on the right-hand they get worse. So it really is a shifting situation, and it depends on the individuals and on their individual situations, and on their own narratives in their lives. So to be honest I would never speak for any of them, or make a judgment on whether it’s better or worse, because I think until you’re actually been living through that…

It’s difficult to speak for them, because you never know how difficult or how easy things are until you’re walking in those shoes. And it’s the things that we often might not think about…

I was walking along with one boy — and he’s got papers now, but some of his family still haven’t — and I asked him about the “stopping and frisking” scene. I was asking him about that, and he was very matter-of-fact about it, as he sort of went, “Yeah, that’s just part of the deal.” I was really struck by that. And then, of course, as I was going home, I thought, “Oh, absolutely, he’s going to be like that, because his only other choice is to walk around terrified all the time.”

So I think that whether or not things are better or worse, things become liveable, I guess, just through our sense of survival. But I don’t know what it actually is like for anybody in the quiet of their own bedroom when they’re falling asleep at night.

In the film, it seems that Denis O’Hare’s character, the lawyer, is their best shot, but he seems preoccupied with other things.

I really wanted to make him someone who had never done this before, and was doing this as a favour. So it was something that he had to learn about as the film progressed, so that we could learn about it at the same time.

So, the idea was that he was a corporate immigration lawyer, and he dealt with companies, and forms, and very simple hearings. He’d never really represented kids in this situation, and had to learn about it. I thought that was a great ‘fish out of water’ experience for him, and we would get to watch him, eventually, swim.

But that was actually secondary. Primarily, I really wanted a change to occur within him, a moment with Sophie when he decides to get involved, to “lean forward”.

I’m always very moved by moments in film when people lean into something to help someone, or to be heroic. I love that quote; “Being brave is not not being scared, it’s being scared shitless and doing it anyway.” Those moments when people lean into things are incredibly moving, and I knew I wanted that moment with Denis.

Denis O’Hare as Isaac in From Nowhere. Courtesy of FilmRise.

The film is very relevant in terms of today’s politics. When did you start writing it?

At the end of 2014. We shot the film in 2015, and we premiered it last year at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2016. So, around about 2015.

What’s happening feels absolutely urgent and acute, but I’ve been thinking about the issue now for a couple of years. In fact, I don’t think a day has gone by in the last few years when I haven’t thought about this issue, and the people that face it. Because I was working on this film, but also because I got to know them, they became friends. So the importance of the issue doesn’t feel different to me at all, because I’ve been thinking about it and living with it for a couple years.

Were there certain unanswered questions that you wanted to bring to light by making this film?

One of the things that fascinated me about this story, was the idea that your situation back in your country of origin really affects your ability to get asylum. As Denis’s character very matter-of-factly says, “Genocide, general mutilation, and dictators.” If your country of origin is dangerous, and it’s dangerous for you to go home, you can get asylum.

So, the idea that the tragedy of your story can affect whether or not you can stay in the country, was something I thought that people might not know

One of the other interesting things, for me, was the fact that there are kids — like the kids in the film — who were brought to the US at such a young age that America is the only place they’ve ever known as home. Some of them don’t even speak the language of their country of origin. They only speak English.

So, the idea of them being sent back to a country that they were only in for a few months or years at the beginning of their lives, is a scary prospect for them. Because this is their home, this is their language. They don’t know anyone back there. And the idea that somewhere else should be more their home than America, for me, was something very contradictory and very powerful.

Octavia Chavez-Richmond as Sofie and J. Mallory McCree as Moussa in From Nowhere. Courtesy of FilmRise.

One of the main characters, Moussa, suddenly realizes everything is different to how he thought it was. And this could happen to anyone.

I think we all go through a version of that in our lives, to a lesser or greater degree. You know, it’s like when the curtain gets pulled up. It’s like in The Wizard of Oz. “Ignore the little man behind the curtain” — when you see everything for how it is.

And it’s funny because every time it happens, you think, “Oh! That’s the real world.” And then it happens again, and you go, “Oh! That was just another layer. This is actually the real world.” And then, as you go on with your life, there’s another layer, you go, “Oh! Well, this is actually…” Every time it happens, you think, “Oh, well, now I’m actually seeing how things are.” And it’s this constant process of revelation that happens when we’re children growing into adulthood.

It’s overwhelming that these 17-year-olds are dealing with problems so much more adult than anything a lot of adults are dealing with. And they’re dealing it with courage and even positivity at times, which is incredibly moving.

Finally, is there anything else you wanted to share about this film?

Just that I had a wonderful time writing it with Kate. It was a great experience. And it’s been great talking to you. It’s lovely to talk about the film in these terms.

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