Thirty-four-year-old Houstonian Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. didn’t grow up fantasizing about making horror movies. His first short films were quiet coming-of-age stories—a far cry from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But when Blumhouse Productions reached out about a thriller series they were planning called “Welcome to the Blumhouse,” Osei-Kuffour was intrigued, and he began thinking of ways to apply his sensibility to the horror genre. The result, his first feature-length film, Black Box, was released on Amazon Prime Video earlier this month. The science-fiction thriller follows Nolan, a single father who experiences severe memory loss after a car crash. Nolan, played by Mamoudou Athie, tries to piece together his past by submitting to experimental brain therapy under the care of a cutting-edge neurologist named Lillian, played by Phylicia Rashad.
Black Box, the first in the four-film “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series, is as thoughtful as it is unsettling. Texas Monthly spoke with the director about his debut feature, his wide-ranging cinematic influences, and the challenges of blending family drama with horror in Black Box.
Texas Monthly: I loved this movie and I’m really excited to talk to you about it. But first, I’m curious: When did you first start making films?
Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.: I started making films in college. I went to undergrad at Stanford, majoring in film studies and computer science, and then I went to grad school at NYU Tisch Asia, which has its campus in Singapore.
TM: What drew you there?
EOK: Studying abroad in Kyoto and Tokyo while I was an undergrad at Stanford, I fell in love with contemporary Japanese cinema—stories about characters that just felt like they weren’t good enough and were trying to find a place that they belonged. I love the aesthetic that a lot of Japanese directors had: the way they leaned into silence and subtlety. The stories are just told in a more sensitive way than I had seen in America. And so I had an internship in animation with a director, and I fell in love with the craft of directing and decided that not only did I want to become a director, but it would be great to direct in Asia and have an opportunity to go back to Japan and live in the culture and understand why the films were the way they were. And so that’s kind of the reason why I chose to study in Singapore.
TM: How long were you there?
EOK: The program was three years, but I lived there for four years.
TM: And is that where you made some of these first short films?
EOK: Yeah. So the black-and-white film, which was called When Doors Open, was made in Singapore, The First Time was made in Japan, and Born With It was my thesis film, which I made in Tokyo while actually living there.
TM: I could feel the influence of Japanese film in your short films. They’re beautiful.
EOK: Thank you.
TM: But Black Box is a psychological thriller. Could talk about that transition? What drew you to this story?
EOK: I didn’t write the original draft of the script. The original Black Box was written by a wonderful writer named Steve Herman. And Blumhouse found me through that film Born With It. And they thought that my sensitivity would lend itself to horror or a thriller. Before that, as you can see from my previous films, I didn’t really do genre films. I was scared of horror films, to be honest. But I had a great meeting with one of the Blumhouse execs. And I am a huge fan of Jordan Peele, of M. Night Shyamalan. I’m a huge fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. And the idea of merging a family drama and a horror–slash–thriller started to appeal to me.
TM: Did it take a while for you to convince yourself?
EOK: I could see why they thought I would be a good fit to take on the story. And for me, I wanted to tell a story that was smart but also personal. And I wanted to use the horror elements to say something. So when I was reading it, I began making some changes. I mean, the film was released so I guess you could spoil it.
TM: I’m going to spoil it! Reader, be warned!
EOK: So, in the original, Thomas [Donald Watkins, whose consciousness Lillian uploads into Nolan’s unconscious body] was a better human being. He was more benevolent and he was a good father. In my version, I thought that there was an opportunity to tell the story of a man who is forced to come to terms with his past. And he gets the second chance to rewrite his future or who he could be as a father, so that started to appeal to me.
And then I thought about the power of the child—how love for a child can push you, as a parent, to be the best version of yourself. That was a theme that was really interesting to me, because I saw that happen. A lot of my friends and family had deep flaws, and suddenly they become parents and they’re changing, you know? There’s something magical about becoming a parent that shifts you. And then: how much are you willing to sacrifice for your child? There would be an opportunity to really touch on that parent-child dynamic in multiple ways. That’s how I got on board.
I wrote the first draft in a month and then developed it over the course of three months while renting a guest house near Rice. I would be on the Rice campus writing every single day. It was the quietest place to write. And then I went to New Orleans, shot it over January and February.
TM: That’s pretty quick.
EOK: Very, very quick. Yeah.
TM: And Phylicia Rashad—who is amazing—can you talk about how you developed her character?
EOK: So, I really admire filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki because there’s no real bad guy. Everybody has a justification for doing what they’re doing. And that was kind of an ambition that I had—which makes things hard. It’s always easier to write a story with a clear-cut villain, and it would have been easy to make Lillian just a mad scientist who wanted her son back. But when I was rethinking Lillian, I knew that I wanted somebody who was doing this for the right reasons. And she was doing it because she thought Nolan was dead. She’s thinking: why not just use this body to get her son back? That was part of the initial conversations I had with Ms. Rashad. What was driving her was the opportunity to have a second chance, to allow her son to be the man he was supposed to be. She knew he was supposed to be a doctor, a good father. She didn’t want to live with the idea that the son she raised was not the person she had intended him to be. She wanted to be right. She wants to be right about who her son was.
TM: Were there other movies or books that you thought of as reference points when you were preparing to direct Black Box?
EOK: My film is not exactly like the two films that I’m going to give right now. But conceptually, from the very beginning, I said to Blumhouse and Amazon that I wanted this film to feel like Black Swan and The Pursuit of Happyness. Black Swan, mainly because of the sense of paranoia and the sense of discomfort in your own skin that Natalie Portman’s character has in that film. And The Pursuit of Happyness because it hinges on Will Smith’s love for his son. The character will do anything to make things right and to give his son a better life.
But in terms of just style and pacing and tone, another film that I reference when talking about this film is Unbreakable because it is very patient. It uses silence—it sits in the silence—the way a lot of Japanese films that I like do. And just sitting in that silence makes every statement, every word, and every action from a character feel a little bit more intentional and purposeful. And a lot is said when nothing is said. There’s a lot of long takes in that film that build tension. So that was a heavy influence, as well as Kurosawa’s Cure and a little bit of Peele’s Us.
TM: And of course, your own shorts probably factored into the way you approach each scene.
EOK: Yeah, for sure. Like, one thing I do with all my films is that I like for characters to study the other person and I like to sit on that.
TM: So what have you got brewing now?
EOK: I am working with the producer right now to make my short film Born With It into a feature. I’m doing an episode of television in a few weeks.
And then I’m pitching a supernatural horror miniseries set in Houston. That’s tough because, like I said at the beginning, I don’t do horror. But this one also had a message and it had a purpose. I’m drawn to stories that use genre to get you to think about issues. I think the power of cinema is to get you to care about issues that you might not have ever cared about. I use the medium to share my experience of the world.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.