Heist movie 'No Sudden Move' makes sure Detroit's history not stolen
Screenwriter Ed Solomon worked with a team of Detroiters to ensure the accuracy of his 1950s-set story, which will be released Thursday on HBO Max.
When it was decided that "No Sudden Move" would be a Detroit story, screenwriter Ed Solomon wanted to make sure it was truly a Detroit story.
Initially the movie was discussed as a cross-country heist film, wrapping up in the Motor City. But as Solomon and director Steven Soderbergh talked it out — the pair previously teamed on the six-part 2018 HBO series "Mosaic" — Detroit's role in the film grew bigger and more significant, until it ultimately became the setting of the 1950s-era caper.
That's when Solomon got to work, learning about the city and the time period and the racial strife in the community during those years. His research quickly lead him to Jamon Jordan, Detroit historian and founder of the Black Scroll Network, who hosts walking tours of the city, and Emily Kutil, adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, who was just wrapping her Black Bottom Street View project at the Detroit Public Library.
So Solomon jumped on a plane.
"It was a Wednesday, and the exhibit was closing on Friday, and I contacted Jamon and was like, 'I'm flying out literally tomorrow, can we meet?'" says Solomon, who was back in town over the weekend to host a screening of "No Sudden Move" at the Ford-Wyoming Drive-In theater in Dearborn. "He was like, 'Yeah, I've got tours, but I'm finishing the tour at the exhibit.' And so we met up, and we wound up walking for hours."
That was in March 2018, and it marked the beginning of Solomon's deep dive into Detroit history, which colors the background of "No Sudden Move," the heist drama that starts on HBO Max on Thursday. And his work — along with Jordan's, who is credited as a historical consultant on the film, and a small network of Detroit historians and curators of the city's past — shows the care that was taken to ensure the film moves and breathes like Detroit in the 1950s, and that it wouldn't be a Hollywood drive-by, the type that has burned the city and its residents before.
Doing the homework
Solomon had spent time in Metro Detroit previously; his son, Evan, nearly attended University of Michigan, so he had joined him on campus visits, and Solomon had seen multiple Bruce Springsteen shows in town.
But "No Sudden Move" would plunge the screenwriter, who wrote the "Bill & Ted" films and "Men in Black," much further into Detroit history than he'd ever previously experienced.
To be fair, "No Sudden Move" is not expressly about the city's history. It's an old-school heist ensemble with a massive cast — it stars Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Brendan Fraser, Jon Hamm, Kieran Culkin, Bill Duke, David Harbour, Julia Fox, Ray Liotta and more — and it's full of the kind of double-crosses, triple-crosses, twists and turns one would expect from the filmmaker behind the "Ocean's" films.
But the movie's underlying story — the racial discord, the backdrop of segregation, the destruction of the city's Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods and the class wars, all under the looming shadows of the auto industry — is very much Detroit. The presence of Black organized crime gangs (and mentions of the Purple Gang) on-screen only scratches the surface of what lies beneath, as the movie has a lived-in quality which reverberates underneath the characters' feet and colors their every interaction. Even when it's not seen, it's felt.
"We didn't set out to make a social documentary, but we wanted it to be real," says Solomon, 60, over pizza and beers in the lobby of the Shinola hotel Sunday night. "We wanted it, at the end of the day, to be a fun story, a fun yarn that traverses this territory. But we wanted the territory to be accurate."
Solomon leaned heavily on Jordan during the screenwriting process, steadily texting him a stream of questions about everything from dialogue — "would they have said 'what the (expletive)' in Detroit in 1955?" (it was deemed that yes, they would have) — to the racial makeup of cab drivers in the city. A climactic scene in the film is set at the Gotham Hotel, a five-star Black-owned hotel that was in the Midtown area from 1943-1963, which was a direct result of Solomon's conversations with Jordan. (The Park Shelton stands in for the now-razed Gotham in the film.)
"To me, there had to be some kind of establishing that African Americans not only had a presence, but they had significance in the city of Detroit," says Jordan, who started the Black Scroll Network in 2013 and prior to that was a social studies teacher for 20 years, teaching students about Detroit's role in history that often didn't make it into textbooks. "They owned stuff. They were running stuff. They were successful at stuff. Not this idea of just Black folks being deviant, dysfunctional and dangerous. And not being at the bottom, the victims of things that don't have any agency of their own."
To PG Watkins, an organizer, facilitator and organizational strategist from Detroit, the proper representation of Detroit matters, even in a story that's not meant to be taken as a true historical document.
"Even when it is a heist movie, even when I don't know if anybody would actually care if it's historically accurate, to me, it matters, and I think to other people who care about this city, it matters," says Watkins, whom Solomon also consulted with while he was writing his script, and is thanked in the closing credits for their contribution to the film.
"That this is set in a controversial time period in a city that has dealt with so much during that time and since then, that every element of it that you are seeing and witnessing feels connected to the truth to some part of what we know and love about this city, that does matter," Watkins says. "And if we say, 'Oh, it's just a heist movie, it's just a fictional thing, that doesn't matter,' then that's when people get allowances to characterize our folks and our city in ways that are hurtful and harmful. To truly change all of this at a systemic level, it matters what we do in these really small interactions and these really small efforts."
Watkins didn't want what has happened with Detroit-set projects in the past — citing 2017's "Detroit" as an example where community members felt wronged by the city's depiction on screen — to happen this time around.
Solomon, for his part, did not take his role in characterizing the city lightly, and felt a personal responsibility to those with whom he worked.
"I gave them my word that we're going to do our best," says Solomon, who included photos from Kutil's exhibit in his script. "Obviously, we're perceived as people who could be coming in and doing a drive-by. But how do you trust us? Or you could have the best of intentions, and then the powers that be swoop in and take over. So I couldn't promise, but all I could say is I know the people involved, and I know that they're going to do everything they can to do it the right way."
The right filmmaker
Soderbergh had shot in Detroit on his 1998 film "Out of Sight," starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez and others, including a scene of live boxing inside the then-State Theatre on Woodward Avenue, before Comerica Park was across the street.
"No Sudden Move" gave the Oscar-winning director the opportunity to return, although the state's lack of tax credits — Michigan's film incentive program was done away with in 2015 — meant shooting in the city would be costly, and the production was encouraged to use Toronto or Cleveland as a stand-in for Detroit. (2018's "White Boy Rick" used Cleveland in the role of Detroit; Kathryn Bigelow's 2017 "Detroit" primarily filmed in Boston.)
“We show off a lot of the city, and it’s really woven into the fabric of the story,” Julie M. Anderson, an executive producer on the film, told The News last year. “Could you do it elsewhere? You could, and yes, there’s the cost of lost incentives. But (Soderbergh) definitely feels it was worth the tradeoff, and I think he was right.”
Solomon says filming elsewhere would have gone against the very fabric of the story.
"The last thing we want to do is shoot in a city and pretend another city is that city," he says. "You can't do a movie that involves how a huge swath of the city's denizens are being displaced and then displace your own movie. That just feels bad on all fronts."
Cameras were set to roll in March 2020 when the pandemic shut down the world, and Hollywood along with it; Solomon was packing his bag to leave for Detroit when he was called and told to unpack his things.
Soderbergh, who was the head of an industry task force on COVID-19 and leaned on the team of disease experts he consulted when making 2011's "Contagion," was ready to shoot by fall, and filming eventually commenced in October under tight COVID protocols: mask requirements, social distancing, the whole nine.
The 35-day shoot — filming wound up wrapping a week ahead of schedule — took place in Detroit, Hamtramck, Grosse Pointe, Pontiac and Bruce Township, utilizing a crew of approximately 260 workers, 180 of which were local hires. In addition to the Park Shelton standing in for the Gotham, locations included Rosedale Park, Detroit’s Masonic Temple, the Michigan Building, the Detroit Club and Wayne State University. An important showdown unfolds at the Roma Café.
Cast and crew members were holed up at the Element Detroit at the Metropolitan Building in downtown Detroit, where they had their own floor and a separate elevator to themselves, and the top floor was sectioned off so they could hang together out at the end of work days.
On set, period detail was exact, even beyond what ended up on film. Set decorator Merissa Lombardo filled drawers and cabinets with era-appropriate items (vintage silverware, '50s medicine bottles), 99.9% of which is never seen on screen. But she wanted it there in case an actor reached for a drawer and opened it up so a scene or a character moment wouldn't be broken, Solomon says.
Jordan was available as a consultant to the actors during shooting, and Cheadle — who plays the film's lead character, a small-time crook named Curt Goynes — would consult him about character beats and lines of dialogue.
Javon Anderson, a local actor who appears in the film as Lonnie, a middle-man who helps out Cheadle's character and puts him up in a local flop house, says he had discussions on set with Cheadle and Del Toro about character moments and Solomon would work with them, rewriting on the move while they were shooting.
The detail in the dialogue and the characters' backgrounds adds texture to the film, Anderson says.
"It's stuff that a lot of people wouldn't know about, and it's so good that they put that into a film that is going to be seen worldwide," says the 32-year-old from southwest Detroit, who attended Sunday night's "No Sudden Move" premiere in Dearborn. "They really included the history of our city. It's got kind a hybrid feel; it's got the heist aspect but also the historical feel as well, where they were able to add all these tidbits and rich history of our city and talk about the automotive history, the things that were going on with Black Bottom. That's what makes it so good. They dove deeply into our city."
Filming wrapped in mid-November, and Soderbergh — who in addition to shooting the film (he used wide-angle period lenses attached to a modern camera) also edited it — had a cut of the film ready to go by March. The film premiered earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival ahead of Thursday's release on HBO's streaming platform.
Solomon says he knows the feeling of being burned by movies, of promising somebody something and being let down by the end result. He was determined to not let that happen here.
"I was fortunate in that I knew I was working with people who had our back," Solomon says. "It was really important to me that everybody working on the movie maintained the attitude of, we're coming in to someone else's town and we're gonna treat it with the respect it deserves. We're a steward of the city at the moment, at least how it's going to be viewed by other people, and there's a responsibility to that. I knew I was going to have to look these guys in the eye."
When Jordan saw a rough cut of the film, he knew the story, the twists and the turns already; he went into it looking for something different, and when he found it, he says he felt listened to.
"I'm going in there and looking for the nuggets of Detroit, this part of history," he says. "Detroit is in this film. This is not just a film that could have been anywhere, it says Detroit. I'm looking for that, and when I saw that I said, 'This is what I signed up for.' I was there to make sure Detroit was in the film, and it's there."