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I just like to stir it up a little


Kasi Lemmons laughs warmly and often. Witty, passionate, and gracious, she’s also comfortable with contradictions, chatting easily in New York’s Regency Hotel, wearing her signature blond dreadlocks and a business suit; after the interview, she puts her arm around you to say good-bye and thank you, like she means it.


Born in 1961 in St. Louis, Missouri, Lemmons decided early that she wanted to act, and took up dancing as a means to improve her acting. She began her movie career early: at 18 she played a “Hostage” in 11th Victim, a TV movie directed by Jonathan Kaplan. From there, she appeared in a series of memorable movies (School Daze, Silence of the Lambs, Fear of a Black Hat) and TV series (Cosby, Walker, Texas Ranger [!]). All the while, she was also writing scripts—she calls writing her “straight job.” Currently, Lemmons and her husband, actor-director Vondie Curtis-Hall (Gridlock’d), split their time between making films and raising their 4-year-old son and 16-month-old daughter, but it wasn’t so long ago that Lemmons was a new talent. In 1997, she wrote and directed the lovely and innovative Eve’s Bayou.


In Lemmons’ highly anticipated second film, The Caveman’s Valentine, written by George Dawes Green and based on his Edgar Award-winning novel, Samuel Jackson plays Romulus Ledbetter, a homeless man and former piano prodigy who solves a murder mystery.



Cynthia Fuchs:

The Caveman’s Valentine is populated with characters who don’t get much play in mainstream movies—the homeless, a crazy man, sexualized middle-aged characters, interracial sex, a black woman with a gun, gay men, and an upscale art scene, all in a film that’s considerably bigger than your first one. Was it difficult to put all these elements together?



Kasi Lemmons:

Well, it’s a bigger film than Eve’s Bayou, but still in a medium-to-small budget range. It is a very ambitious movie, though, very dense. And even though you’re dealing with some difficult things—homelessness, junkies, homosexuality, and marginally, the s&m avant-garde art scene—there’s this Alice Through the Looking Glass quality, like you just fell into a world, that made me think it was very beautiful. I thought that the fact that the Caveman was a voice for a disenfranchised population, a fringe-dweller, was really moving.



CF:

The multiple layers come in part from the novel on which it’s based, which takes place mostly inside Rom’s head. How do you translate that kind of subjectivity to film?



KL:

That’s sort of the fun of it. It’s something that appeals to me. And it’s a big question to answer, for me. When I was in film school in New York in 1987, I made a short film called “Fall from Grace,” 7 minutes long, about homeless people. And I didn’t know any better, I didn’t know the rules, how you make documentaries or anything like that. So I would make sandwiches for some people and ask, “Do you mind if I sit here this afternoon and film you?” Some of them minded and some didn’t and the ones that didn’t, I would take my camera with a long lens across the street and kind of spy on them, wait until they forgot I was there. Part of the reason I wanted to make the film then was that the White House had recently decided to release a lot of people from mental institutions, and they ended up on the streets of New York, suddenly. What I captured in this short film was this extraordinarily dynamic life that was going on with these people, that you could photograph, but you couldn’t get inside. It was so compelling, and in a sense it was so much not what I expected, because what I wanted (and I got that too) was this one-step-over-the-line, slipping into darkness, you just made a single mistake and things get out of control for a second, and you’re homeless. But there was something else—I got a lot of people talking to themselves, talking to the sky, screaming at the sky. And as you’re watching you know, obviously, something is going on that is big for this person, and I wanted to know what that thing was. So, cut forward to years later, and I get this script for The Caveman’s Valentine and I have the opportunity to imagine and express what somebody like this is seeing and thinking and feeling. George [Dawes Green] had written this from his book, and the character is so beautifully drawn in the book, he’s a mythic character, a millennium mythic character, something you haven’t seen before. I fell in love with Romulus Ledbetter.



CF:

How did you come to the final script, between you and George?



KL:

He wrote the first two drafts, I wrote the next three, and he wrote the last one and I rewrote it, so we worked on it together, but it’s George’s script. Even when I was working on it, it was as a director, shaping the visual language.



CF:

As you write, even your own original scripts, do you think in terms of images?



KL:

Yes, absolutely. I am a screenwriter for a living, it’s my straight job. But unless you’re writing for yourself, it’s not great form to write that way, because you want to leave it blank for the director, but that’s the way it presented itself to me. So people would say, “Can you pull that back?” Now that I write for myself, I put it all in, because it’s like directing it.



CF:

Clearly, the directing is working out for you—do you pursue directing projects?



KL:

No, it’s almost like the ones that I’m involved in, I found a long time ago or they found me, and it’s something that I’ve just attached to. Somebody will say, “Have you read that book?” and I’ll say, “Oh, I love that book!” I haven’t reached out for anything new in a long time. One of the other things I’m involved with is a story I’ve been following for 15 years, and another is a script I wrote a long time ago when I was writing for a living, that has now come back to me with an offer to direct it. If I could only do the projects that I’m interested in now, and then retire [laughs], that’d be okay too.



CF:

Can you talk some about the women characters in The Caveman’s Valentine? Though Romulus is so huge as a presence, the women, especially, to me, his daughter Lulu [played by Aunjanue Ellis], are so carefully delineated. How different are they from the novel?



KL:

The relationship between Romulus and Lulu is a big difference actually. It’s something that George and I went back and forth on, and now we agree. I felt very strongly about it—the relationship in the book is much sweeter. I thought it would be interesting and appropriate if she was really embarrassed. She’s trying to make a living, and to toe the line—she’s a black woman cop in New York, you talk about being in a man’s world, and the shit she has to hear, about her dad and everything else. I felt it was such a great opportunity for dramatic tension. In the book, it’s very beautiful. I gave it an arc, which I felt was realistic and could be painful in a good way. I have a father-daughter thing, and it can be such a beautiful relationship. It’s so primary, and is so great to write about.



CF:

You never see Sheila [played in the film by Tamara Tunie] except from the back, on the edge of the frame, or as a projection from Romulus.



KL:

She’s his version of Sheila. That was a big question, and not in the book. But I thought about it a long time, and realized that I would be driving down the streets of Los Angeles and seeing people I knew from high school, and then realizing it wasn’t them, but people who looked like how I remembered them. When you picture somebody you haven’t seen in 17 years, you don’t age them conspicuously, the way that they would have aged. You imagine them the way that they were, but less realistic version, because memory is subjective. So he remembers her as what we called “Sheila Fabulous,” the best part of him, the sanest voice of his. She challenges him but she also encourages him.



CF:

One her most striking visitations comes when he’s having sex with Moira [Ann Magnuson].



KL:

And that was a gas to direct! She sits on the bed, his ex-wife, and his reaction is just perfect, the way he played it. He was like “Go away!” [laughs]



CF:

How were you thinking about that relationship between Moira and Romulus?



KL:

I love Moira. She went through a lot of changes from the book, along the lines of, how not to kitschify her? And yet, she’s this free spirit, living on the fringe of her brother’s fame and that whole world, but she’s this earthy, sexy person. She’s kind of rock’n'roll, she’s got a bit of an edge and she’s sexy, she doesn’t give a fuck. She has a lot of humanity, marching to her own drummer, and I love that in a person, and in a woman.



CF:

Did you give any thought to the recent controversies over interracial relationships on screens, say, over Eriq LaSalle’s [as Peter Benton] brief liaison with Alex Kingston [as Elizabeth Corday] on ER?



KL:

Well, you know, television is very interesting, there’s a built-in conservatism, and you’re bound to represent because there’s so few characters [of color]. But for me, it’s wonderful. Anything provocative is good, to a certain extent. And all kinds of people sleep together—it’s very human. My parents are interracial, my mother married my stepfather when I was nine, so it’s life to me. I would never shy away from it. But it’s amazingly provocative. I knew it was, but when we tested this movie, people went nuts, especially because Rom’s homeless, so there’s this whole “sullying” thing. But to me, that’s really, really fun. I just like to stir it up a little.



CF:

Did you have that in mind when you began directing, that you could stir things up?



KL:

Yeah, not in the way that other people might mean it. To me, Eve’s Bayou is very edgy and radical and had never been done, a bold frontier. But you could easily look at it and say, “Oh, it’s a quirky little film.” It was very important that it was 100% African American, because these are the people of Eve’s life. People asked me to put in white characters, and I would say, “Well, there aren’t any. It’s my bayou.” To me that had its own power and stirred things up, but not in the way that The Caveman’s Valentine might. That was an opportunity in so many ways—I designed the photographs: s&m, me? It was a great playground. At the same time, I knew I was pushing a lot of buttons and I tried to be a little classy about it, I didn’t want to drive people screaming from theaters. But at the same time it was a great opportunity to explore life.



CF:

Were you expecting controversy?



KL:

Sure. There haven’t been as many as I expected. Early on I decided that the only way to do this was to have a lot of heart. I thought, “If you’re going to go direct The Caveman’s Valentine, you’ve gotta go for it.” At this point, I haven’t seen anything that surprised me. Sundance is a wonderful place to show a movie like this, because you get a mixed audience, film buffs and film people and also people from the area, which is very Mormon. So I was pleasantly surprised at that reaction. It did well.



CF:

You like the festival business?



KL:

Oh I love it. It’s a little bit of a panic, you can’t relax, you’re scared. But I’ve had great experiences, you meet people you wouldn’t normally. At Telluride, when we took Eve’s Bayou, there I was, walking around with John Sayles. And I went to Sundance, and Joan Chen became my pal, and Darren Aronofsky. It’s cool. You get to talk about film with people you admire.



CF:

So do you imagine that in the future, you’ll be sticking with these smallish, festivalish films?



KL:

Yes. But you never know. Some people might say that Caveman’s Valentine is already too slick, you know what I mean? It has a polishedness that I like in my filmmaking. I tend to keep doing movies that are challenging stories and have a certain degree of not-your-average-movieness, because that’s my taste.



CF:

Part of the challenge is how you represent what’s real and what’s not, or how these blend together, for individuals. This film gave you a chance to focus closely on that slippage. Can you talk about the ways you decided to represent that, across varying visual registers?



KL:

Yes, that’s a big part of the fun. I get a certain idea when I’m going through the script and doing my director’s version, so I put it in then, which is in black and white and whatever else. And that organizes the material visually. And then my DP [Amelia Vincent, with whom Lemmons also worked on Eve’s Bayou] and I go through and refine that. So, at one point in the script, Rom refers to the Z-ray as being a “pernicious shade of green,” and we had to decide what was pernicious enough. The most fun and the most challenging and the most heartache that I got in all of that was in Rom’s skull. You know it’s dark in there, it’s spooky and like a basilica, it says in the book, but you have to figure out what it feels like. That was fun and painful, on our budget, and my production designer [Robin Standefer] pulled it out of her hat. It was a saga, of the wings and the space. It was an opportunity, because you don’t often see black angels, but it was also new territory—I decided the seraphs were sort of Rom’s ancestors and his furies. The black and white, we used that for his flashes of instinct and insight, and Amelia came up with this stock that’s very high contrast and difficult to work with, ASA 6, because you have to use such bright lights to make it work. The actors were literally squinting under those lights. But it has a beautiful and shocking look. Amelia and I get far into it—like, “What does instinct feel like? What does it look like?”—and then, we come back from it. We’re so far into the visual thing, analyze it, storyboard it, know it thoroughly, and then, we think, “The actors are coming!” And then we can work with the actors.



CF:

And what happens in that next step?



KL:

You never know. That’s filmmaking. You’ve got to be a little light on your feet, or you’ll die. A good example in this film is, we were introducing Sheila on the street—Tom’s looking at the poster wall and she comes up behind him. We were going to have her walk out of a background at the wrong speed, so the background would go into slow motion, and she’d come towards him in 24 [fps, normal speed]. We’d have to bluescreen it, it was complicated, but we knew what we were doing, we were all set up. Well, there’s a blizzard. And we can’t bring Sheila in a blizzard. She’s Sheila Fabulous and she’s a vision, she can’t have her hair a mess and snow in her eyes. So we had to think fast. We walked her down a ladder in the library. It would have been great to have her on the street, but there you have to adjust. It’s the whole adrenalin-jumping-off-a-cliff thing.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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