Q&A: Kasi Lemmons

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When Kasi Lemmons' Eve's Bayou came out in 1997, I was fifteen. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert called it the best film of the year; in my journal, I called it "one for the see-with-the-girlfriend-I-will-someday-God-willing-have file." I had no higher praise. I've seen it eight or nine times since (not always with girlfriends, I should clarify) and it remains among my favorite films. The gothic story of an affluent black family in the pre-civil-rights South, Eve's Bayou is warm, funny and heartwrenching, and it features one of Samuel L. Jackson's finest performances. This strikingly assured film seemed to come out of nowhere, but Lemmons had been working on the other side of the camera for years, with supporting roles in School Daze, Candyman, The Silence of the Lambs and the cult classic Fear of a Black Hat.

In 2001, Lemmons directed her second film, The Caveman's Valentine, which starred Jackson as a schizophrenic homeless man who finds a body outside his cave in Central Park. The ambitious film had a mixed reception, but a lot of it works, and Jackson is surely the most endearing protagonist who ever thought he was being shot with "Z-rays" from the Chrysler Building.

Lemmons disappeared for several years after Valentine, but she's back with Talk to Me, starring Don Cheadle as legendary Washington D.C. personality Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, an ex-con and radio DJ who made an indelible impact on black culture in the '60s and '70s. Covering a large swath of history and a range of tones (from high comedy to genuine anguish, as when Petey calms the city following the assassination of Martin Luther King), Talk to Me is anchored by spectacular performances; Cheadle and costar Chiwetel Ejiofor are sure Oscar candidates. And if Lemmons gets the nomination she deserves for directing, maybe we won't have to wait so long for her next movie. — Peter Smith

Where have you been?
I wish I could say, "I took time off to raise my children," but I've really been trying to get movies made. I wrote a project that I was going to direct, and it really looked like it was going to come together. It came very very close to getting a green light, and it didn't work out. I spent four years on that.

What was that?
It was an adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's The Passion. And Gwyneth Paltrow was attached. It was Miramax, and it was really loved by many people, but Miramax was changing, Harvey was leaving. It was very painful, but it's a very, very common story.

So how far along was Talk to Me when you got attached? It wasn't a pet project of yours.
No, but I've been on it about four years. I went through a lot. I brought in Don Cheadle, even though I found out later that he'd been quasi-attached when Ted Demme was going to do it. Until much later, I thought he was my brilliant idea. There were a couple names being bandied about — Martin Lawrence was one.

Your other two movies had a very strong focus on Samuel L. Jackson — was it weird to direct without having him around?
No, Sam's always around me! [laughs] I've carried Sam with me, you know? He was a huge education for me as a filmmaker and as an artist. I always make jokes that I went to the Sam Jackson school of filmmaking. He taught me a lot about actors and directing.

I wish he did more movies like yours — you so often see him caricaturing his own bad-motherfucker persona.
Yeah — Sam is pretty interesting, though, 'cause he will do an interesting script if it comes his way. Unlike some actors. I'd like to work with him again. We'll cook up something interesting.

What's your approach to directing actors?
It's a very intimate conversation. It has to be one on one, and you must approach every person differently. Or at least I do. Actors need different things. Some need just a look across the set, and some really need a long conversation.

This movie's mostly about a male friendship, but there's this wonderful female character in Petey's girlfriend, Vernell. How did you develop her?
Vernell was very important to me because in some ways she represents all women — that side of a woman that's behind a man, pushing him to be his best self, and telling him he can do it. That was a very important statement for me. I loved her. She starts off as this wildly exuberant firebrand. And then she cools a bit as she becomes wiser and more world-weary, and yet inside that the flame still burns. That character's about how we take disappointment as women, and still manage to turn it into sweetness. To me it made a lot of statements about womanhood.

Are there things you would change about either of your first two movies in retrospect? Critics loved Eve's Bayou and were generally a little harder on The Caveman's Valentine.
The Caveman's Valentine was one of those films I knew would be difficult from the very beginning. When I first got the offer, I was like, "People are going to hate this." I wish that it had found the audience that would like it, 'cause I meet Caveman's Valentine fans all the time. There are probably things I would change about it, but, I love that film too, you know? The first film, I'm pretty damn happy with it. I can't really think of anything I would change. There was a time when I really missed my director's cut, but as time went on, I came to like the released cut more than my director's cut. There was a major character in the movie we cut out entirely.

It's funny to hear you say that, because Eve's Bayou feels so complete.
I just wasn't sure for a long time if I'd done the right thing. I'll tell you an interesting story: my editor and I got invited to teach one class in a series on editing and directing. And we said, well, since these students are serious filmmakers — these were professionals, not college kids — we'll show them the director's cut of Eve's Bayou, and the finished cut of Eve's Bayou. And it was an amazing experience. I had a student say — he was irate — "How could you have done that to your movie?" I said, "Well, come on, man! You loved the movie!" But by the time we taught that class, we were over it. It's pretty interesting, if you want to study a real hard edit. I mean, most of the time when I watch director's cut DVDs, I'm like, "Yeah, that's interesting, but I know why they took that out." But this one might make you go, "Hmm. . . "

Why are so few indie movies made about black people?
It's really complicated. What's commercial is often comedies or action films, and Hollywood is used to looking for commerce in African-American films. Of course, with art films and indie films, the commerce isn't necessarily the main thing you're going for. . . In some ways it's the expectation of what the black audience wants and what they will go for.

That's a bummer!
It's a bummer. But what would we have done without Spike Lee? Spike Lee came in and made a series of indie and arthouse black films. I think that precedent is everything. So if I make this film and this film becomes successful, you can use it as an opening statement for the next time somebody wants to make an independent film. But it's tricky. I remember when I was trying to get Eve's Bayou made, I didn't know how to talk up a movie yet. 'Cause I was new. And so I would say, I went into one studio and said, it's like Daughters of the Dust. And they went, "Huh?" And so I learned to say, "It's like Waiting to Exhale." You know what I mean? "It's like such-and-such meets such-and-such."

What moved you away from acting?
I'm much more valuable as a writer-director than I ever was as an actor. There are so many fabulous, beautiful actresses that are much more than I could ever have been. But there aren't so many artistic, African-American female directors. There are a handful of us, but I just went where I was needed.

Once I made Eve's Bayou, I had a feeling that, if I die tomorrow, I did this. If I had something to prove, I proved it. It lasted maybe a year. And then I started to think, maybe I'm a director! I never thought of myself as having to be ultra-prolific, but I thought, I will do it again. And then I did it a second time and I thought, you know what? I think I'll do it again. I knew I would after the second one. And now after the third time, I think I'll do it again really soon.

©2007 Peter Malamud Smith & Nerve.com