Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Kasi Lemmons

A 'Talk' with Kasi

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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The warm, lovely Kasi Lemmons, 46, started out as an actress in small parts in a handful of cult films, like Vampire's Kiss (1989), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Candyman (1992) and Hard Target (1993), as well as working with several major African-American directors like Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, Rusty Cundieff and her husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall. In 1997, she advanced to a whole new level by writing and directing her first feature film, Eve's Bayou, which has become something of a classic in the history of African-American cinema. Her follow-up, The Caveman's Valentine (2001), was a misunderstood flop, but now she's back with a wonderful new movie, Talk to Me, that at the very least deserves accolades for its great performances. Don Cheadle plays the real-life Washington DC radio DJ Petey Greene, who captured the hearts and minds of the city during the turbulent 1960s and 70s. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Petey's reluctant friend and manager, and Taraji P. Henson plays Petey's saucy girlfriend. Other cast members include Cedric the Entertainer, Martin Sheen, Mike Epps and Curtis-Hall.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: Normally I have a problem with movies that take place over a long period of time. You kind of lose the sense of life, but this one has it.

Kasi Lemmons: It's hard. It's challenging to keep the cohesion. Instead of trying to tell a life story, it helps to focus it on what your movie's about thematically. In this case it's a friendship. So because I was focused on the relationship and the dynamics of the relationship, it allowed me to contain the years in the drama. The best movies to me are the ones that are contained. In some ways, Walk the Line is one of my favorite examples. These two people meet, and it lasts until he asks her to marry him. I think that structure really helps. If you tell a cradle-to-grave, it's very hard.

JMA: Talk to Me starts in 1966, and you make reference to In the Heat of the Night and the catchphrase "They call me Mr. Tibbs," but the movie hadn't come out yet...

KL: By the time Petey gets out of prison, the movie came out that summer. I tried not to make any of those kind of mistakes. Once or twice we took license, like the song came out six months after the time that we used it.

JMA: Ah. But to show the year every time you changed, would have been...

KL: That would have been exhausting. We had a lot of fun with the passage of time. We have these clips of "The Tonight Show" that start in '66 and go to '82, with different points of Johnny. He's so familiar, you can kind of tell where you are. And the other thing we had was Vernell's wigs.

JMA: I loved her Pam Grier wig.

KL: Yeah, she said, "I feel like I've got a lamb on my head."

JMA: [laughs] There's a scene I wanted to ask you about: It's after the big fight between Petey and Vernell. He goes back to her place and she's holding a gun. The rule is when you see a gun, that sometime later in the movie somebody's going to use it. So I was waiting...

KL: No. That had to do with her fear. It had to do with the riots. It had to do with the type of woman she was. If somebody came to her door, she was ready. If it was the wrong person at her door, she was going to blow them away, but it was Petey. We were like, 'is it distracting? How do we handle it?' But there's so much going on, she's looking out the window, and it's going on right at her house.

JMA: Then there's another scene where Vernell is filming people with a home movie camera. I wondered if that was your little ode to yourself?

KL: No. It felt like the right thing to do at the right moment. It's what I saw in my head. I saw 8mm.

JMA: I was curious about your husband Vondie Curtis-Hall. You cast him as Sunny Jim, who at first seems kind of pathetic, but he turns out to be cool. But weren't you thinking of putting him in the much cooler Nighthawk role?

KL: I was. He wanted to play Sunny Jim, and I said, 'You're too cool to play Sunny Jim.' Vondie's very cool. Everybody, if you asked a hundred people to describe him in five words, the word 'cool' would come up over and over. But he's so funny and he's so cranky, and that's Sunny Jim. Cedric was made to play the part [of the Nighthawk]. I felt that I should be able to close my eyes and cast it. I wanted the voices to be very important the way they are in radio. But Cedric fulfills it in so many ways. He's this larger-than-life personality, but he also had this voice. That was Nighthawk. He had two dogs; he wore capes. He was very theatrical.

JMA: You're not old enough to remember this stuff...

KL: No. I did research, but our greatest resource was Dewey Hughes, the real man. I have an incredible love for him. We got to be friends on the set. He met with al the actors, he met with Vondie and said, 'This is what Sunny Jim was like.' He was always available for our set designer and our wardrobe person. He really was able to help us with authenticity. But I was more interested in emotional authenticity than in facts.

JMA: I showed up at the press screening not knowing what the movie was about, and I didn't even know it was a true story until the end.

KL: To me that's great. That's great if you just think it's a movie. 'Cause it is. If you overthink it, it's terrifying. You worry about getting something wrong.

JMA: There's something really romantic about radio. There's something visually interesting, even though it's just people sitting in a booth.

KL: It was intimidating. It wasn't the riot or the James Brown concert or the Johnny Carson show that was intimidating. It was the radio booth. How do you shoot a radio booth? Reflections became very important, but it's challenging, because you're in a tight space and you have several scenes and you don't want to shoot them the exact same way. But the confines are challenges that make you stronger. I feel like it makes you a better artist when you have confines. Vondie did a film called Redemption, and the guy's on Death Row. He's in prison. So most of the movie he's in prison, in confined spaces, and so it makes you creative.

But there is something romantic about radio. Isn't that interesting? When you're with a really great radio personality and you walk into their booth -- because I've been a guest on some shows -- and you walk in, and you feel the aliveness and the immediacy of your voice. One of the most amazing things I ever did is wear the headphones and talk at the same time, and I was horrified! That was one of the scariest experiences. Another time I did it over the phone, but it was live. It was really terrifying. I think that that excitement is what we were trying to capture. Here's this guy who's utterly unpredictable, and you don't know what's going to come out of his mouth, and they're putting him on the radio. His voice is going out to thousands of people!

JMA: The MLK sequence was astonishing. I knew what the situation was, but the way you did it was chilling.

KL: I love it. But of course it was challenging. For me, I had a very vivid memory of my mother screaming when I was a little girl. This sound came out of her and it horrified me. I thought she said, 'The King is dead.' And I was trying to think, 'What king?' I didn't realize what it meant. But that sound that came out of my mother is something I never heard before or since. And that's the story I told to all the actors. And we had to talk about it a lot, what I wanted it to feel like. We had British actors and Canadian actors, and many of them are younger than me, so we had to talk them through what I wanted that to feel like. I wanted it to be absolutely devastating, a personal devastation and a global devastation. Just like the world is ending, that's the sound that my mother made, like the world is ending. Martin Sheen actually had a memory of being in King's presence, so it reverberated. It was important for him. He remembered King, personally.

JMA: One of my favorite moments is during the riot sequence, it's a close up of Petey as he realizes he has to get back to the booth. It's this moment of stillness amongst chaos, and it has a dreamlike quality. It's amazing.

KL: It was fun. It was kind of intimidating. We had two nights to shoot a riot. We had a small budget when you're trying to re-create a period. It's tricky. You have to be tricky. Everything is different. Even the quality of light in the streetlights is different. You have to control what you can control, and the rest is sleight of hand.

JMA: It took you a long time to follow up The Caveman's Valentine. Is it because Hollywood doesn't know where to put you, what category to place you in?

KL: Films take many years to make. That's just the way it is. I got involved in a film that I spent four years on, with a big star attached, that fell apart. Four years of my life. It was my favorite script that I had written. When people ask me, 'what have you been doing?' the answer is 'I've been trying to get movies made.' It's just hard. You have to be willing to... it's very difficult to say, 'I will do one of these five movies, whichever one comes together.' It eventually becomes the way that a lot of people have to function if they want to do one after another after another. But often what you'll find is a filmmaker gets passionate about a project and it takes years. And eventually, if the film has any luck, you'll see them up on the podium saying, 'It took years!' There was a party once at my house and a bunch of independent filmmakers were there, and it was like, 'How many years for you?' It was like AA. 'Four years for me, seven for you.'

JMA: Will that script ever see the light of day?

KL: It's still a sharp pain. It was a beautiful script. This one I just don't know if it's going to happen. It would have been a great movie.

June 5, 2007

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