Until 1997, Kasi Lemmons was best known for her small roles in The Silence Of The Lambs, School Daze, and Candyman. But her writing and directing debut, Eve's Bayou—one of the most auspicious first features in some time and 1997's highest-grossing independent film—turned her career around. The Caveman's Valentine, an adaptation of George Dawes Green's novel starring Samuel L. Jackson, marks Lemmons' return to the director's chair. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Lemmons about the state of black filmmaking, her dedication to ambitious material, and the importance of film school.
The Onion: Not to badmouth your former boss, but seeing your new film, you would have been the perfect person to direct Beloved. [The film was ultimately directed by Jonathan Demme. —ed.]
Kasi Lemmons: [Smiles.] That's a very hard subject for me to talk about, obviously. I felt very strongly about Beloved, because I was just happy to see an African-American art film. I am always pulling for them. I think at some point, they had asked me to do a pass at the script, or something like that, but I had just stopped shooting Eve's Bayou, and it was something that at the time I didn't feel able to do. But I love Toni Morrison, and I would love to do one of her books.
O: The new DVD of Do The Right Thing features the 1989 Cannes Film Festival press conference, where Spike Lee predicted that in 10 years, a new generation of black filmmakers would make movies inspired by people like himself, Robert Townsend, and even Eddie Murphy. But that renaissance never really seemed to arrive, let alone at the hands of most of those directors.
KL: It's very interesting that you should bring that up, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I'm always saying that. I feel like I'm at the brink of a huge wave, and that we have to look at progress as incremental. For instance, I'm out there saying one of my earliest influences was Spike, you know what I mean? There are more of us directing, even African-American women, so progress keeps getting made. But it's never as dramatic as you think it's going to be. It's never a loud trumpeting, followed by a big huge wave of folks. But it's interesting, because I say the same thing, and I think, "Oh, no, people might say, 'In 2001, Kasi Lemmons said there would be a huge wave of African-American filmmakers!'" I also feel that sometimes we have no choice but optimism. How can you go on if you don't believe you're changing things? Or that there's even a possibility? I absolutely think there may be more of us directing than there were in '88.
O: But you've got directors like the Hughes Brothers, who are obviously very talented, making movies about pimps, and John Singleton doing a remake of Shaft. There aren't a lot of art films. But there's a lot of movies like Waiting To Exhale.
KL: All of those films are really, really important. The pressure of being an artist is that you feel you have to be brilliant. Every single thing that comes out of black film is not going to be brilliant, but the more variety there is in the marketplace, the better it is for the industry, and the better it is for the future of African-Americans in film trying to make different kinds of movies. And every once in a while, you'll get something great or truly successful. I think that in the movie industry, you always have to look at success as being a good thing, whether or not you or I might like the film, you know? You have to look at success as being a good thing, especially for an African-American director, unless it's reprehensible.
O: Eve's Bayou was certainly successful.
KL: Yeah, Eve's Bayou is a successful art film, but Scary Movie is a successful movie, and I think all of those things are important. You don't want to downplay the significance of, say, Soul Food. Soul Food was a tremendous movie, a tremendous accomplishment for African-American filmmakers. I think it takes all of those films. We can't all be making Gothic art films. [Laughs.]
O: A film like George Washington is interesting: Many would consider it a black-themed film, but its director is white. And One True Thing, one of the whitest films in recent memory, was directed by Carl Franklin. At a certain point, the distinction between black and white means less than whether the movie is good or bad.
KL: It's the only way. I think there is a human dilemma, human pain and angst, and that it is very universal. I think that all movies… When I was making Eve's Bayou, I thought that everyone should be able to understand it and relate to the story. They're people that you're looking at. I'm going to go out on a limb, because it's not necessarily the most popular point of view, but I think crossover is very, very important. It's very important that while we count Carl Franklin as a successful African-American director, he can make whatever he wants. Look at Ang Lee. Sense And Sensibility to The Ice Storm to Ride With The Devil to Crouching Tiger. He's just incredibly prolific at describing humanity. I think as an artist, that's really your job in a lot of ways. Some people like their niche, and that can be important, too. But I don't think there's anything wrong with going outside of the niche, or outside your race or culture, and making a movie.
O: You have a unique vantage, since you're a successful actor, writer, and director, sometimes separately. Despite those things in your favor, is it still hard to get an African-American-themed film off the ground?
KL: There are a couple of things I can say about this. I heard somebody speak a couple years ago, and he was making a point that African-American movies would only attract a certain amount of box-office. But what he seemed to be saying about talent in general was that once you achieved a certain talent, you ceased being a black person and you became an entertainer. And that really pissed me off, because you have to quantify achievement at some point. You know, Carl Franklin, we can count him as an African-American director even though he is just a director or filmmaker, and he can present a variety of subject matter. Where Ang Lee comes from is important, his background, even though he can make a variety of different movies. I think Oprah specifically is someone he mentioned as kind of no longer black. As if when you get to be Eddie Murphy you're just a comedian; you're no longer African-American. That notion pisses me off. It's ridiculous and racist. I certainly think that I would have had an easier time if I weren't choosing such extreme kinds of subject matter. I think there are successful ways to get an African-American movie made these days. I've got kind of extreme tastes. I think television is just such an institution, whereas in film, especially independent film and cable, there are a lot of opportunities. Cable has been an amazing place for expression, for African-Americans and for non-whites in general. But it's still really hard. It was hard to get these two films made, but I can't say that's strictly because I'm African-American. It's the subject matter. I think certainly if you've got an African-American schizophrenic homeless lead, you're going to have more challenges.
O: Why did you decide to use someone else's script for The Caveman's Valentine? Eve's Bayou was all you.
KL: Oh, I absolutely want to do it again. The Caveman's Valentine was a script already. The author had written a script, and it was presented to me. It was very hard to get me to read it, because I was certain I didn't want to do a script that had already been written, especially not from a book. Too much history. My agent made me read it; he said, "Trust me, this is you." I had not gotten very far, you know, the first third of the script, and I knew I wanted to do it. It spoke to me. George Dawes Green wrote the novel, and George and I could not be more different, but we have a lot of the same obsessions. His work spoke to me in a very personal way, and I felt as if I had written it, even though it's distinctly written by somebody else.
O: Do you have a backlog of scripts that you've been waiting to push?
KL: I have three projects now. Two of them are pretty far out there. One of them is really far out there. And the other one is just a relationship between two people. I'm not going to pull back if I want to go there.
O: I actually found the more conventional—some might say accessible—elements of The Caveman's Valentine distracting. Was it difficult to balance the two different sides of the film?
KL: You have to deliver the mystery, to a certain extent. That's Caveman's Valentine. You can't dismiss it. What we chose to do is not make that the sole subject of the film, which is also a character piece with a father-daughter relationship and a visual depiction of insanity. It was very hard. On the one hand, you have a character piece, and on the other hand, you have a mystery. Then you have the opportunity for high art, getting inside insanity. But it's a mystery book. It won the Edgar award and everything, so you have to go with it. But it was a lot of fun, frankly, to pull it all off.
O: How much did film school affect your approach to filmmaking? You didn't make Eve's Bayou until you were well out of school.
KL: No, I didn't. I went to film school to study cinematography, so I've always been very involved with images. Also, I really believe in film school. I feel very strongly about it, and I'm always telling people, when they ask for words of advice, to go to film school. It was some of the most fun I ever had in my life, and most people who go to film school will tell you that. It's a fun place to experiment, and you get to crew all your classmates' movies, which I think is really important. You get to experience different jobs—you know, "Hold that boom up!"—and when you get to the professional side, you won't dismiss that person. It's really important to know how a crew works, and all the different jobs and everything, so you don't dismiss them. I've known some unfortunate things to happen, particularly with writers who have never been on a set. That's not what they do; they're used to the way their own mind works, and they really don't know that those people are there to make the movie. You can't make a movie without your crew, so you'd better be nice to them. They don't have to be there, and they're making your movie, you know? It's a big responsibility being at the top of that, being the one in charge. You have to know what goes into it, and film school teaches you that.
O: When you write, do you ever think about the challenge you or someone else will have bringing your script to the screen?
KL: I pretty much just write for myself. Nowadays, I write for myself to direct, but I've done a lot of studio writing, writing for hire. So I write for myself first, because it's bullshit to try to second-guess what other people might think of something. The interesting thing—and the compelling thing, the reason people go into show business and are so passionate about it—is that it's a gamble. It's a very emotionally driven business. There's no formula, and no one can figure it out. They never have, and they never will. I mean, could you have guessed that Being John Malkovich would be so successful? What a weird idea! You can put the two biggest stars in the world together in a movie and it'll flop. You just don't know, and it's important not to know. It makes it exciting, and it's no fun to try to figure it out.
O: But there is that balance between the creative and the financial. I bet the studio executives don't find the process fun or exciting.
KL: They think they should try to figure it out.
O: Have you ever had to compromise to fit your vision into someone else's perhaps more practical vision?
KL: Not yet. [Knocks on the table.] Well, I've made very big compromises in one way, but I've never compromised the intention of a film. I made a big compromise on Eve's Bayou. I cut out a character I adored. Purely pressure from above.
O: Do you think the film would be better if that character were back in?
KL: Not necessarily. I so far haven't made the kind of mistakes that really jeopardize the intention of the film. I've been lucky to have good producers, and I've been basically left alone. A lot of that is because I've chosen the kind of material that's so specific that no one knows what I'm doing anyway, you know? When I finally put it together, they ultimately support it. I've been really lucky, and I would say the producer-director relationship is very important. It's important to pick your producer very carefully, because you don't want someone who will turn around and stab you in the back. On the other hand, like my agent said to me, "It's not a painting, Kasi." And that's very important, too. It's not a painting. You need your audience. It's a collaborative medium, and you have to be open to suggestions. Everybody counts on the director to make sure the intention of the movie stays intact. People hate a wishy-washy director. They want you to tell them what's important. Sometimes they want you to passionately say it, or scream it. But they want to make sure you know what you're doing, that you know what's important to the movie. And the worst thing you can be is wishy-washy. Then you can be walked over. Also, I think the bigger the movie, the more money you spend, the more people have an influence over the final product.
O: Would that ever influence you to turn down a higher-budgeted movie?
KL: Absolutely, unless I had final cut. Especially if I felt that the film was delicate. I mean, Eve's Bayou and Caveman's Valentine are very delicate. It could easily go wrong, or go wrong in the wrong hands, or be a mess or a catastrophe, and unless it was a film that I thought was foolproof—and I can't think of one—I would probably be afraid. As a filmmaker, I have yet to make money, so I'm always working for the equivalent of minimum wage. There's freedom, absolutely, but for me that's the only way. I want to make as much money as the next guy, but I'm not going to sell my soul for it. Art is hard enough. It's so hard that you might as well love it and believe in it passionately. Just doing it for the money… there's not enough money in the world. I know that not everybody feels that way, but let them go direct popcorn movies.