Jennifer Hudson Breath Stefon Bristol

Breathe director Stefon Bristol’s love for sci-fi began with Jurassic Park. As he grew up and thought about how, as a Black man, he fit into society, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing spoke to him and helped him decide to become a filmmaker. 

With Breathe and his last sci-fi film, the time travel heartbreaker See You Yesterday, Bristol tries to combine the influences of both Spielberg and Lee — the latter of whom has become a mentor. 

“We’ve already seen every sci-fi movie that’s out there so how do you make it fresh and different?” Bristol says. “Through characters and the culture that they represent to make it very specific and unique.”

Breathe, his second feature, is about a woman named Maya (Jennifer Hudson) and her daughter, Zora (Quvenzhané Wallis), who are forced to an underground bunker when Earth runs out of oxygen. Soon a mystery couple arrive, claiming to know the fate of Maya’s husband. She tentatively lets them in. The cast also includes Common, Milla Jovovich, and Sam Worthington.

Bristol, a Brooklyn native, attended community college for a while before going to Morehouse College, where he studied English Literature. Then he moved home to New York to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Lee is a professor. 

As an undergrad and graduate student, he devoured the work of the Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X mastermind. One of his key lessons from Lee was to shoot economically.

“I use a lot of his technique and a lot of his storytelling sensibilities, especially regarding Black people in history, and I apply that to the subject matter of my films. I try to have that influence but in the sci-fi genre, thriller setting because that’s the lane I like to go to,” he says.

“I look at what Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee have done and try to connect that together.” 

Stefon Bristol on Breathe and Jennifer Hudson Fans

Stefon Bristol on the set of Breathe. Courtesy of Breathe Productions Inc.

Bristol’s co-wrote his first film, Netflix’s See You Yesterday, with Frederica Bailey, whom he met at NYU. Breathe was written by Doug Simon, whose past credits include Demonic (2015) and Brotherhood (2010). Bristol found the script on The Black List and provided some input — starting with the setting.

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The story was initially centered around a white family on a farm in upstate New York. But Bristol suggested moving it to Brooklyn. 

“I thought it would be cool if it was set in Brooklyn with a Black household. They all loved the idea, but we all agreed upon one thing…how can we elevate it to really say something?” Bristol says. 

After reading the script multiple times, he decided the theme was children/family. His agent at the time said it adhered to the Native American proverb, “We don’t inherit the land from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” 

Milla Jovavich in Breathe, directed by Stefon Bristol. Courtesy of Breathe Productions Inc.

Simon had left the spec script open for interpretation and welcomed Bristol’s input. “Doug was very warm and welcoming, and I hope to work with him again,” Bristol says.

The film was backed by Thunder Road Pictures, which thrives in the action-thriller genre — “so it was just a matter of blending our artistic pursuits,” says Bristol.

Breathe shot in Chester, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, where a few fans were so passionate that they tried to pretend to be crew to get closer to Hudson, the film’s EGOT-winning lead. Bristol had to curb the local enthusiasm, though, because they had a limited amount of time to shoot and there were also COVID restrictions.

What’s next for Bristol? 

“God willing and the creek don’t rise,” he says, his next project will be Gordon Hemingway and the Realm of Cthulhu

“It’s a movie about an American gunslinger who teams up with an Ethiopian princess to rescue an important Ethiopian figure from the hands of Italy’s fascist army,” he explains. 

Beatriz and Lloyd Levin and Spike Lee are attached to this Netflix production. 

Breathe, a Capstone Global/Warner Bros. release, arrives in theaters and digital Friday.

Main image: Breathe, courtesy of Breathe Productions Inc.