Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Kasi Lemmons

Exploring Eve's Bayou

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Kasi Lemmons changed hotels at the last minute to the Mansions hotel on Sacramento Street, which, after seeing her debut film as a writer and director, seemed more suitable to her. The place is filled with odd trinkets and strange chotchkes -- it seems like a voodoo palace.

You may recognize Kasi (pronounced KAY-see) from various films, but she's not exactly a household name. Not yet. She was in Spike Lee's School Daze Jackie in Vampire's Kiss, Cookie in The Five Heartbeats, Jodie Foster's FBI pal Ardelia in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, Bernadette Walsh in Candyman, Nina Blackburn in Fear of a Black Hat, and Louisiana cop Carmen who gives Jean-Claude Van Damme a hand in John Woo's Hard Target. In 1997, she was directed by her husband Vondie Curtis-Hall in Gridlock'd; (with Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth), but it wasn't until 'Til There Was You that she started following the director around, learning everything she could about setting up shots, and directing a film.

Eve's Bayou became the most financially successful independent film of 1997, and was critic Roger Ebert's choice for the year's best film. It's a beautiful, spiritual film about family, past, trust, and magic. Ebert compared it to work by Ingmar Bergman, but I think it's more original than that. I don't think there's ever been a film quite like Eve's Bayou. I spoke to Kasi Lemmons last November before the film opened. I told her I thought it was an easy, effortless, relaxed looking film. "Yeah, right," she said, sarcastically. "[You may] get that effect on the screen, but on a low budget film, there's a great sense of adrenaline. It's scary. It's always, 'are you going to make the day? Are you going to make the shots?' And if I didn't get it, I was never gonna get it. It was gone from the movie. It's not like we could just carry over days and days. So, there were some really exciting days where I really thought I wasn't going to get a scene."

The story of Eve's Bayou seems so personal and real that many people assume it's from Lemmons' real life. "Very little of it [was from my life]. The story itself? I totally made it up. There are moments between the two girls that I stole from my sister and I." The screenplay is actually based on two short stories that are unrelated except that they are both about members of the Batiste family.

There's a brilliant, magical scene in the movie in which Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) tells a story to Eve (Jurnee Smollett) while looking into a mirror and we see the story being played out behind her in the mirror's reflection. But Lemmons was on the verge of cutting it out. "It's a great scene, but it's not connected to the rest of the pieces of the movie. I could have lifted that scene and nobody would have known. So that was a really, really difficult one. I guess in deciding to pull scenes, you say... 'Will it hurt the rest of the plot?' I mean, can I tell the plot without the scene? And then, if you can tell the plot without the scene, then you have to weigh what it adds to the movie. [But] what I'm trying to say is, who Mozelle is, definitely, but also who I am as a filmmaker. We finally decided that we needed it in the movie. And we thought of all kinds of ways, of devious ways of saying that it was important. But everybody basically knew that it was this little moment outside of the plot."

Unlike a lot of actor-turned directors, Kasi actually went to film school, but it took a while to convince everyone, including herself, that she was the woman for the job. "When I wrote Eve's Bayou, it was really a creative experiment. I thought, 'put it away until I'm much smarter.' But Vondie made me show it to other people. [We brought it to] Cotty Chubb [the producer of Eve's Bayou], and we were talking about directors." They approached Morgan Freeman as a director, who was interested, but passed. "One day I just woke up and said, 'this is stupid. I went to film school, I wrote the script, why don't I direct it?' The point in looking for a movie star to be a first time director is kind of a (deep voice) sexy idea. It gives a little cache. But I thought, well, I can be a sexy idea, too. I'm a woman, that's rare. I've actually been to film school, and I've studied, and I wrote it, and isn't that great to have a product that you wrote and directed?"

"I used to not understand this as an actress, but coming from my experience in the past 4 years, I think it's a miracle any time a film gets made. People always say they're looking for something off-beat, but they're not, really. They're looking for the same old thing that made money last week. And so, how do you sell a film like Eve's Bayou? You have to put it into their language. You have to kind of... 'well, it's Waiting to Exhale, and it's kind of like The Piano."

When Academy Award nominee Samuel L. Jackson was cast and signed on as co-producer, the film became a go-project. I asked Lemmons if the film ever could have been made without Jackson's name attached. "No," she said, point blank. "I think it's really hard for independent filmmakers. I'm hoping that I'm making it a little easier. If the film makes money, it'll make it a little easier. If it doesn't make money, it'll make it a little harder. And they'll use me as an example as why they can't make your film."

Lemmons is now working on a screenplay with her husband that he will direct. It's based on a novel by Diane Hammond called The Impersonator. "Really we got involved in it because it's a really cool book and it would make a great movie, and we needed to spend some time together. Because we both work all the time, and we're pulled in different directions."

"I feel, going back to our roots, we're storytellers, we're folklorists. And yet, in cinema, we've been reduced to nitty-gritty, down-to-earth, action kind of movies, and we're folklorists. We're supposed to be spinning tales. I have nothing against those movies. I like those movies. But we need variety." It looks like we can expect just that.

November 3, 1997

Movies Unlimtied