Thursday, January 5, 2017

Kasi Lemmons on "Eve's Bayou"

What was going on in your life and your career before you came to write Eve's Bayou?

KASI LEMMONS: I had been an actor for a long time. I'd done a couple of plays with really good companies, Naked Angels and Steppenwolf, and then I went to film school. When I got out of film school I had a short film that was festivaling around, called Fall From Grace. And then I did Silence of the Lambs and moved to Los Angeles.

I'd written with other people, but Eve's Bayou was the first thing I wrote by myself. At that point in my life I was starting to think about the future. I'd been to film school, so it wasn't a completely foreign concept that I would start to marry all of these elements, the things that I'd been doing for years.

What I really wanted to do was to write the perfect role for myself. To write the perfect part. If you could write a perfect part for yourself, what would it be? So I wrote the character of Mozelle for me to play when I got a little bit older.

Also it was very much an experiment in a certain type of language and a certain type of writing style. It was very ambitious. I knew what I wanted to do, but it was more of an experiment. And then when I was finished with it, I showed it to Vondie Curtis-Hall, who was my boyfriend at the time, and he said, "You've got to show this to somebody else." He was the person who said, "You can't put it in a drawer. You have to show it to somebody."

Where did the idea for the story come from?

KASI LEMMONS: I remember the first time I told any story from Eve's Bayou was at an audition. The casting director didn't want to see a scene from the show. He wanted us to talk. So I started spinning Eve's Bayou stories. I talked about my aunt who had gotten married five times and all of her husbands had died. That was true. The more fantastical parts of the story are true.

I wrote it down as a short story and I wrote some other short stories. One was about two little kids, a brother and sister, who go and look in their grandmother's room and it talks about all of her medicines and the way in which her room was very evocative. And then another was about Eve and Jean Paul Batiste and how a bayou came to be named after this slave who saved her master's life with voodoo and witch-doctoring. So I had all these stories, but they weren't really connected. There was some connection in my mind, but I hadn't found it yet.

Then I invented the character of Louis Batiste for the stories to revolve around. Way before I wrote anything down I could tell you the entire story of Eve's Bayou, the entire thing complete with flashes of lightning. I could tell you the whole movie. I had it all in my head.

Where you thinking about budget at all while you wrote?

KASI LEMMONS: I wrote it as a literary experiment. So I wasn't thinking about anything other than wanting to get this story down on paper. As a matter of fact, when I first started writing it I thought it might be a book. And then I ended up writing it as a screenplay and I had the idea of the role of Mozelle, but I wasn't really sure if it was going to turn into a book or a screenplay or what was going to happen with it. I just let it come out.

I wasn't thinking about budget and I wasn't thinking about directing it at all. We took it to directors. So I really wasn't thinking about budget until I decided to direct it.

What was it that made you decide to direct it?

KASI LEMMONS: I took a bunch of meetings that were a little bit frightening to me and I started to realize that I'd written a very delicate piece of material that could be misinterpreted very easily. In fact, it was just as easy to misinterpret it as it was to interpret it the way I intended. I took some scary meetings where I thought, "Oh God, I'd rather keep it in the drawer than let people interpret it this way."

My producer kept saying, "What's a sexy idea of a director? Who's sexy?" And I was thinking, "Who's sexy? Who's sexy?" Literally I woke up on my birthday and it was an epiphany. I was like, "You know what? I'm going to direct it."

After that moment I never vacillated. I went to the producer and said, "I went to film school. My short film did really well and I've decided I'm going to direct this." He almost fell off his chair. But he was very supportive. The first thing he said when he recovered from shock was that he wanted to produce a short film for me to see what I could do. Something with a 35mm camera, real crew, the whole thing. And that's what he did. My agent put up half the money and he put up the other half. It was really amazing.

Once you decided to direct it, did you ever consider also acting in it?
KASI LEMMONS: No. I find directing to be a very, very voyeuristic art form. Almost a perversion. You're really watching other people's intimate moments and trying to get those moments out of them. But I don't think there was ever a question of me wanting to be in it once I decided to direct it.

Was it much of a struggle for you to get the tone you felt in the script up onto the screen?
KASI LEMMONS: Not really, once the actors nailed the language. The language to me, and I really haven't felt this way with other things that I've written, but that language in Eve's Bayou was like Shakespeare. That's because it started out as a language experiment, so I made them say it word for word. And the words were really important to me. So they had to say it as it was written.

Once they nailed the language, the language really helped them fall into the tone.

How tough was it for the actors to get that and make those speeches work? I'm thinking in particular of Mozelle's "Life is filled with good-byes, Eve" speech.

KASI LEMMONS: That's my favorite speech. Debbi Morgan's such a wonderful actress. She came in and her audition was wonderful. Wonderful. She really got it. And once she got the words exactly, like, "Well, you musta been thinking something right before you was thinking that, what led you to that particular thought?" Once you could nail the words and you're not improvising on the words, you're saying those exact words, the words help with the character. But she was so wonderful, she was wonderful from the beginning and she understood Mozelle. There was a part of her that was Mozelle.

Did you learn anything writing Eve's Bayou that you're still using today?

KASI LEMMONS: You know, there's an innocence when you write your first script. You don't know what the rules are. It's almost something that's really hard to reclaim. So that's what I'm always trying to get back to, the innocence, to try and be that pure. I don't know that I can ever do it again, but to try and remember to be that unleashed in a way.

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