Q & A: Director Kasi Lemmons (Avril ’11 at Paul Robeson Film Festival @ HU)

Director Kasi Lemmons in the SOB Auditorium for student film festival. (Foto Credit: Bree Grant)

If luck comes your way, be prepared.

Luck is the love child of preparedness and opportunity.

– KASI LEMMONS

Acting was director/screenwriter Kasi Lemmons’ first love. Her big break came before she even entered junior high. Lemmons’ membership with the Boston Children’s Theater opened the door to her first appearance in a local television show called “You’ve Got a Right”, a courtroom drama. And when she left the Bay State she headed to New York for film school at the New School for Social Research. While in New York, she also studied at the famous Lee Strasburg acting studio, the home of the Method acting embodied by Marlon Brando.

When Lemmons relocated to California, she began starring in her first major films, including Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of Lambs.”

While acting helped Lemmons pay the bills, her decision to step behind the camera would raise her profile in the movie industry even more. She wrote the screenplay for the sleeper indie, “Eve’s Bayou”, during a break from acting. ”Bayou” won numerous awards for Lemmons, including a an “Outstanding Directorial Debut” from the National Board of Review. “Talk to Me,” a 2007 biopic starring Don Cheadle and Martin Sheen, garnered further accolades for Lemmons and the ensemble cast.

Q1: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers and students?

Be prepared. Always bring your ‘A’ game. That’s really my motto. If luck comes your way, be prepared. Luck is the love child of preparedness and opportunity. You got to do your part and to be prepared.

Don’t give up. It’s very easy to just say after a couple of rejections: ‘It’s too hard. It’s just too hard.’ And you can’t. You’ve gotta be stronger.

I find that with women of color, they’re already discouraged before they start. You have to ignore conventional wisdom. Even voices that say you can’t have it all. That’s not true. You have to be able to ignore the noise and believe in yourself.

Q2: How was your experience with Autumn stories, a collaboration sponsored by the Ile de France Film Commission and SACEM’s Franco-American Cultural Fund?

It was an incredible opportunity. The whole group that was there with me had expectations. We thought, ‘Oh, We’re going to get a French producer, and we’ll be on our way to making our films. ‘ But that didn’t really happen.

Q3: Can you tell us what Strangers in Paris is about?

It’s about a young american woman, a Black woman who comes to Paris to scatter the ashes of her mother. And she meets a man, a graffiti artists whose kind of infamous and on the run from the police. He doesn’t speak any English and she doesn’t speak any French. And they have an affair. It’s about communicating without a shared language. It’s very sexy (light chuckle).

Q4: I read that you went to film school to be a documentarian. The conflict in Nicaragua involving the Contras and Sandinistas inspired you.

There’s so many subjects I’m interested in; any kind of story about oppression and human struggle. I’m definitely, definitely going to make one. I’m not sure exactly when, but it’s coming.

Q5: What can be done to lessen the number of stereotypes in films, especially involving people of color?

I think the key is variety. The key is a variety of images, a variety of different kinds of films. The problem with the Black films that get released, there are either this, that, or that (gesturing with her hands to illustrate the “boxed-in” options for green-lighted films targeting an African American audience)

We just don’t have a variety, the richness of characters. The key to having a diverse field of characters is having a diverse field of writers.

As a writer, I’m very interested in people that are imperfect, you know? That is a really important message that people are neither good or bad, they’re kind of in-between and they struggle with what they struggle with.

In some ways my answer to that is: Write better.

Q6 Why did you choose to direct ”Black Nativity” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)? :

Langston Hughes wrote it. It was his celebration of the Black church and what it means. When it came out in 1961, it was very controversial.

It’s a great time for it [now]. We’ve got a black president; let’s have a Black Nativity (light laughter).

We haven’t had a good Jesus story in awhile.

Side-note: This almost old enough to be called a throwback, but it would fit the season…and this is the first time this week I had an internet connection for the past week in half. So, I’m working through a backlog. Not too mention, I want to clear my “film slot” to get more “serious” such as random book list and science news I come across.

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