TALK TO ME: An Interview with Director Kasi Lemmons
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TALK TO ME:
An Interview with Director Kasi Lemmons
Aside from Angela Robinson, who had two films out in 2005 (D.E.B.S and Herbie: Fully Loaded), there aren’t that many female directors who get a lot of projects off the ground, let alone Black females. They are few and far between. Even the established ones who have critical success don’t always the work when looking. Kasi Lemmons, who started as an actress and played opposite Jodie Foster in “Silence of the Lambs”, made her directorial debut in 1997 with “Eve’s Bayou”. The film starred Samuel L. Jackson and Debbie Morgan and was reviewed favorably by critics earning Ms. Lemmons the Best Directorial Debut award by the National Board of Review that year. Her second film, “The Caveman’s Valentine” came out four years later in 2001 and didn’t achieve the level of success as the first but Lemmons was still respected for her efforts in bringing a new story to light. Now, six years later in 2007, Lemmons is back again with a new film, “Talk to Me”, the story of Ralph “Petey” Greene. Greene was an ex-con who, with the help of his friend and manager Dewey Hughes, became a HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_D.C." \o "Washington D.C." Washington D.C. HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio" \o "Radio" radio personality, then a popular talk show host and community activist. The film also stars Martin Sheen, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer and Mike Epps. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Ms. Lemmons talks about what drew this to this project, casting Don Cheadle, and being a female director in the business.
It’s been some time since you directed your last feature, “The Caveman’s Valentine”. What drew you to this particular project?
Kasi Lemmons: Keep in mind that between films, I’m trying to get films made, so I spent a lot of time and energy trying to get a film made and at the last minute, we couldn’t put it together. I wrote some scripts and then in that process, I read several drafts of “Talk to Me”. It kept coming to me, the project. I’m not even sure why. I read a Michael Genet draft. I read a Rick Famuyiwa draft and one day I read it really closely. I read it with my director vision and I started to realize what I would do with it and how I would shape it; what I thought was the essential story was. I started to here Petey talking to me. He was like, “You need to direct this.”
Did you have a hand in casting and what made Don Cheadle the perfect choice to play Petey Green?
KL: The first thing I had to do was take a meeting. I had to make them realize that I would be the perfect director for this, which is a big step. But one thing that I did when I came into the meeting, I said, “Don Cheadle”. I knew that I wanted him to be in the movie. Obviously, it’s a good idea. But then we found that Don might be interested in playing Petey. He might sit down and have a conversation. So he and I sat down and we had a long lunch. He’s at a time in his career right after “Hotel Rwanda” just trying to figure out what he wanted to do and was very cautious about what would be his next step. He was very thoughtful and Don’s very intellectual and told me he would about it and quickly I heard he was in. From the day he was in, he never wavered. That was it. He was going to do the movie. The movie cam together, fell apart, then cam together again.
Now the film evolves into two storylines, the story of Petey Greene and also the evolution of Radio One. Was that part of the script?
KL: Right. It was always part of the script because we had looked at many different stories but one was definitely the beginning of Radio One. WOL was the cornerstone for Radio One. What happened was that Dewey Hughes and Cathy Hughes got married. This happens essentially after our movie is over and quickly realized that they were better friends and co-workers than a married couple. They divorced and stayed best friends. He walked away from the business and Cathy built it into the massive media giant that it is.
Taraji Henson’s character is actually a composite of women you assume Petey may have been with. What was the decision in doing this as opposed to finding someone who was with him?
KL: There may have been a lot of reasons. It may have been legal reasons. I’m not sure. I think. There were many women that had his back; that much we know. There was always a Black woman back there that had his back and she is all of those people. She represents that woman that has his back and will stand by him. It’s much interesting to have one character.
What were the challenging aspects of this and did you feel more pressured as a female director in doing this? Did you feel many eyes behind your head watching you?
KL: I only felt it during the first meeting. The first meeting where I had to go in and take a meeting as a director because I had to wait to get a meeting because they were offering the script around and my agent would call and tell me who passed on it and I would be like, “Yes”. Then one day he said, “I’ve got a meeting for you”. So I went in and that was the only moment that I was self-conscious about it thinking that it was not a no-brainer that they would have a female director directing “Talk to Me”. Neither is it a no-brainer that it would be me based on my past two movies. I wanted to go in prepared and describe what this movie would feel like and what I would bring to it as director. Once I wanted to be the director, it took two meetings to convince them. I never thought about it again.
You have done three films thus far with years in between them. Why is it that we don’t see a regular occurrence of female directors in the business?
KL: Well, there might be a lot of reasons and it might have to do with children and families and also America is very backward where women are concerned. In France, one-third of the directors are female. In America, it’s a very, very low number. It might just sensibility, the types of films you want to make, not necessarily the dumb popcorn $100 million dollar no-brainers. I would say that it’s a combination of a lot of things; Hollywood esthetic, 25-45 and what a director should look like. It’s still a boy’s club in Hollywood. It could be that a lot of us are raising families. It could also be an esthetic of choice of material; choosing material that is slightly difficult to get made.
What do you want people to get out of the Petey Greene story of the film itself?
KL: Well, certainly outspokenness. Bravery. It took a lot of courage to speak out. It takes courage to be spontaneous. Petey had courage and not just a grandiose courage like a hero in a tough situation, but also a day-to-day courage. The courage that it takes to say, “I’m sorry” or “I love you”. To be yourself is very moving to me. I want people to come out of it with that place in time as if they have lived it for a couple of hours; like they really have been in D.C in that period of time. To bring it home because we forget.
Mike Epps and Cedric the Entertainer have relatively small roles, yet they are dramatic roles. Was there any hesitation in bringing them in? With their names alone, one could assume that there’s some comedic element to the film. Did any of them have to prove that they could leave their persona home and play it straight?
KL: I think it’s part of the appeal of being able to bring in someone like Mike Epps to do a role like that; a role that was very important to me. Cedric was a no-brainer. He has the voice. To me, the beauty and joy is taking dramatic actors and letting them be funny and taking comedic actors and letting them be serious. I think that’s an interesting thing to do. In fact, what you see is that actors are actors. They can all be funny and serious if they are good enough.
How forthcoming was Petey’s family in allowing you to tell his story?
KL: We had the rights to Dewey Hughes’s story. Petey’s nephew saw the film and the most of them will be seeing it later on, and I’m excited to show it to them.
I see that you have some upcoming projects lined up including “The Battle of Cloverfield”.
KL: “The Battle of Cloverfield” is what I want to do with Lawrence Fishburne. I’d really love to do it. I want to work with Fish. It’s something we want to do together, but sometimes movies take time and years unfortunately. They don’t happen as fast or it’s not the right moment for whatever reason. You can’t quite get it together yet, but we’ll get it at some point.
What’s that film about?
KL: It’s about a mayor in a small town in the South called Cloverfield, a tobacco town. Something has happened in tobacco legislation that is really devastating for tobacco reelers. This is their main source of income and so the mayor tries the save the town and gets involved in a big real estate venture; and then has to make a decision when it look like the real estate will take over the history of this town. It becomes a very polarizing issue. It divides the town and they realize how painful their roots are. Things they haven’t thought about recently come back to haunt them, literally.
Is this a ghost story?
KL: It’s a ghost story.
Regardless if “Talk to Me” does well at the box office or not, are you in a better position to get things done?
KL: I think I’ll be in a better position after the film comes out. I’m hoping I will but at the same time, having made three films, the more you make the better position you’re in; especially if people like your movies and they start to add up to your career. People start to think of you as a body of work. I’m still relatively anonymous. I still don’t think I’m on the big list and I’m hoping to change that, but basically I just want to be able to get my films made.
When it becomes difficult to get films made, what motivates you to stay in the game?
KL: I’m writing more. I write a lot. I definitely get involved in other people’s careers. Basically my own career keeps me busy. I’m usually trying to get films made. That’s what most directors are doing. It’s so difficult and challenging and sometimes you get to the other side and sometimes not.
Are there any thoughts of doing something with your husband (Vondie Curtis-Hall)? Are we ever going to see you act again?
KL: Maybe in his movies. We’ve talked about doing the writing-directing thing together or maybe even co-directing, which would be interesting. We wrote a script together and had a good time and thought about producing the other one. I’m sure we’ll something like that.
What’s the selling point of luring folks to see “Talk to Me”?
KL: It’s really a good story. It’s funny and it’s sad and it’s got fantastic music; and it’s very vibrant and warm. We have Sly Stone, James Brown, Al Green and so many people on the soundtrack.
How much of the story is accurate? How much research went into the film?
KL: The writers did a lot of research. The first writer is Dewey Hughes’s son, Michael Genet. A lot of information came from articles. I didn’t read any books myself. I had a lot of articles, a documentary, and clips of Petey’s show. I was really interested in the narrowing of the story; the relationship between these two men, Dewey and Petey. You can get lost in telling a life story and get muddled and not feel as crispy or sharp. When you narrow the focus, it makes more profound.
TALK TO ME opens on July 13, 2007
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