Talk to Me Photo: Kasi Lemmons with Taraji P. Henson.
Born in St. Louis on February 24, 1961, Karen "Kasi" Lemmons is the daughter of a psychotherapist (her mom) and a biology teacher (her dad). The brainy beauty studied at UCLA and NYU before beginning her career as an actress, appearing in such movies as Spike Lee's "School Daze," "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Five Heartbeats." Then, she stepped behind the camera due to the dearth of decent roles then available for African-American females.
Her writing and directorial debut, "Eve's Bayou" (1997), starring Samuel L. Jackson, was met with critical acclaim, including an Independent Spirit Award. And she collaborated with Sam again four years later for her second film, "The Caveman's Valentine."
Kasi is married to Vondie Curtis-Hall, a multi-talented actor/writer/director in his own right. They have a couple of children, Zora, 8, and Henry, 11, who co-starred in his father's film "Waist Deep" opposite Meagan Good and Tyrese.
Here, Kasi talks about her latest offering, "Talk to Me," which was recently released on DVD. The bio-pic stars Don Cheadle as Petey Greene, the controversial and colorful Washington, DC radio personality. Also check out our December 2013 Interview with Kasi.
KL: Well, in terms of the characters, I wanted to make sure that they all were absolutely grounded in reality. I guess the biggest one to watch most carefully was certainly Petey, because Petey was a larger than life character. But in terms of [his girlfriend] Vernell [played by Taraji P. Henson] and [fellow DJ] Nighthawk [played by Cedric the Entertainer], you just want to make sure that those characters really had their feet planted firmly on the ground. With Vernell, she was a real woman feeling real pain, and so, though she's outrageous, she's not at all a caricature. She's a real woman. But in terms of capturing that era, I feel that if you get it right down to the details, down to the props, down to the cars in the background, down to the newspapers in the background, you somehow have a more seamless experience where you're able to enter it, almost as if it were contemporary.
For a while, it's in your face and you're very aware of the time that you're in. But if you get the details right, you're able to kind of enter that reality as if it were contemporary. And so that was what I was going for. It was to make a loud statement about the past. Because honestly I've got to tell you, when I was researching it, we would see things. It's like you couldn't go too far. you'd see clothes that you just could not believe people walked out of the house looking like that. Just outrageous!
KW: Were there aspects of Petey Greene's that you decided to leave out in order to portray him sympathetically?
KL: No, actually I didn't think about it in those terms at all. I thought about it in those terms only in the very beginning before I had decided that I wanted to direct it. Once I decided I wanted to direct it, I thought of it as a movie in which this person was a character and the story that I was trying to tell being essentially a story of a friendship between two people that I looked at almost as a love story or like a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-type buddy flick. A real friendship story. So, I let the character live and breathe fully, but according to the rules of the drama that I was trying to tell. In other words, I was not at all concerned with telling a bio-pic. That being said, Petey was so outrageous that it's embarrassing. But that's really the way he was. We can pull old radio shows and old TV shows and he would say things that you could never say on the air now. And he was so raw that that was really important to capture and Don just went for it. We knew we had to go for it. And so we went kind of full out for it. But I knew that I had to choose a sympathetic actor because Petey might not come off completely sympathetic. So part of the trick was casting Don Cheadle. I knew that you needed an actor that emanates a certain warmth or that you're drawn to. Don is one of those actors that you move towards when you see him on screen. There's something deeply angelic about him. Even if he's playing a killer, there's something deeply likeable about him. And so that was very important, I think, in capturing Petey, because that's the way Petey was. Everybody loved Petey.
KW: Did Don Cheadle arrive on the set with an idea of how he wanted to play Petey, or did he take his cues from you?
KL: Well I think I guided him. I mean, Don knew where he had to get. We knew when Petey was in the house, put it that way. You know what I mean?
KL: We knew when Petey had arrived. Sometimes you do rehearsal and Petey is not there yet, and Don would know it and I would know it, and we'd have to kind of get Petey to come or wait for Petey to arrive. But Don is such a magnificent actor. He really is one of these geniuses, even though he doesn't like to think of himself that way. He thinks of himself more as a technician. But he really is a person that can channel because sometimes something comes through him that even he doesn't recognize, and that's really a wonderful, extraordinary thing to watch an actor go through.
KW: What message do you want your audience to come away with from this film?
KL: I've got to say, I've never really made a film or any art, written a script or anything, for a message. I've never tried to deliver a message. I think that what we're all struggling with as artists is just being understood. I will say that what I was interested in was evolved over a period of time when we were going to war in Iraq and I felt the people were very timid about their point of view. There were a lot of people that I knew that were afraid of speaking out. Of course, there was a vibrant anti-war movement but there was also timidity. People feeling like, "Will I be labeled unpatriotic or anti-American? Is this not the right time too soon after 9/11 to be saying these things?" And there was something about Petey's completely spontaneous, uncensored, extemporaneous voice that takes no prisoners, let the chips fall where they may, which sometimes it of course was terrible. I mean he got in trouble for things that he said. But that registered to me.
So, not that I'm trying to deliver a message, but that was what registered to me in terms of the character, it being very important for me as an artist to express that loudly at that period of time.
KW: Another thing that came to me from watching the film is that it highlights a certain tension we find in the black community today between public intellectuals where you have those, on one side, who are championing the hip-hop generation, like Michael Eric Dyson, and then you have the Bill Cosby camp on the other side. And what's interesting for me in this film is that in these two lead characters you sort of have both sides represented and yet working together.
KL: That's really interesting that you said that, because I know both Michael and Bill and my first instinct is that they're not so far apart.
It's interesting because that really is what I'm saying about Petey and Dewey. The truth about them is they're not that far apart either. They’re kind of expressing and presenting in different ways, but they're not really that far apart. And I don't think that Mr. Cosby and Michael Dyson are that far apart either. ’ Not really. Bill Cosby loved the film by the way. He called me up after he saw it and said he loved it.
KW: Now Michael did write a book criticizing Cosby and the black middle-class.
KL: I read the book.
KW: Care to comment on the controversy between them?
KL: I don't know that I really want to comment except to say that I know them both and they're both incredible men and they're both right. They're both right. You know what I mean?
KL: They're both right.
KW: What about you, in terms of getting movies made, getting a movie like this or "Eve's Bayou." What type of challenges do you face in terms of pulling that off?
KL: Well I face enormous challenges. But I've come to really believing that every filmmaker does. It's extremely difficult to get films made. And I've got to tell you, if I were trying to get "Eve's Bayou" made right now, I'm not sure that I would be successful. It's a different world and I don't know that it's getting any easier for independent films, even though we do see successes every year. But I really don't know if we could make "Eve's Bayou" now and make it successful. And that's a shame. It hasn't gotten any easier.
KW: What role does your being a black female play in the greenlighting process?
KL: I try to look at being a black woman as a plus because at least it's rare. People remember. And I just try and get movies made. I mean it's interesting because people ask me what I was doing those years between making movies, but all I was doing was trying to get movies made. So that's how long it takes.
KW: So, I guess the business side is as important as the artistic side, then.
KL: It's unavoidable. You have to kind of go through that in order to make your movie. You don't want to be completely ignorant of it because as a filmmaker you're responsible for your budget. You're responsible for your key crew. You're responsible for a lot of things. And so you don't want to be just in a box of "Well I'm just an artist, an artist and I'm not grounded in any sort of reality." But on the other hand, that being said, I do think of myself as an artist first. I'm not really a business person. I'm an artist, and I kind of feel that my job is to tell the best story that I can possibly tell the most economically, prudently, and to try and have a good time while I'm doing it and make a good movie.
KW: Tell me about the deleted scenes you put in with the DVD extras.
KL: Well, I'll tell you one that you're going to find on the DVD that's really so extraordinary is with Martin Sheen. I believe it's on the DVD. He delivers a speech that was incredibly resonant and beautiful that comes after the King assassination. You don't quite know what's going on with this character and all of a sudden he makes this speech and you realize something profound about the character that really explains a lot. It's such a beautiful moment and he's so wonderful doing it.
KW: Why was it left out of the original film in that case?
KL: It came at the end of a sequence that was very, very long that that sequence kind of takes over the movie. Once it happens it happens kind of suddenly. It takes over the movie and it takes over the movie for many, many minutes. And so it came at the end of that where there's an exhaustion, and you just need the sequence to be over. One thing that you learn about editing when you're a filmmaker is that you can have an effect that the audience. The audience doesn't realize why they think a certain part of the film was long. It might not be that that part of the film was long. It might be that the part that came before that was too long. So you always have to be concerned with timing and inherent time and how the audience feels and how you feel. So, that's something my editor and I are very conscious of.
Mostly, it just had to do with the pace of the film overall. A wonderful thing about DVDs is that an audience gets to discover these moments and really kind of get inside the director's mind a little bit, and the editor's mind. It's like okay, here is something so wonderful. We want you to see it. But when it was actually in the material and cut together as that version of the film it didn't quite play as smoothly.
KW: Well, one thing I've noticed lately when I look at old movies is that they seem to be much slowly paced than today's movies. I don't know why, but for whatever reason, things just seem to be speeded up.
KL: I think that we've sensitized ourselves to fast cuts and it's interesting. There was a time when we could watch a movie with less cuts. I really went through this with my first film, "Eve's Bayou," which had a very languid pace and it was very emotional to me to have the little girl exit left a frame, to walk all the way to the end. It meant something to me, and I had to fight for it because we live in an age where people are used to quick cuts. But you can earn that. And there are many filmmakers doing it still. Many filmmakers beautifully taking their time. So we can't all give into it.
KW: No, so, what will be your next film?
KL: "Jailhouse Lawyer" is this wonderful script about a man serving a life sentence in prison who's made himself a lawyer while behind bars and he takes on a case that matters to him when he really thinks that nothing would really matter to him. It's almost like The Verdict.
KW: So who is going to star in it?
KL: Morgan Freeman, hopefully.
KW: Were you at all disappointed with how Talk to Me did in the theatres? Did you expect it to do better at the box office?
KL: Oh, of course I did.
KW: I though that gradual roll out of the film was strange. For instance, it never made it anywhere near where I am, in Princeton, in Central New Jersey. It never even got here.
KL: Yeah, I heard that a lot from people in New Jersey.
KW: If it had been up to you, would you have released the film differently?
KL: It's really hard to quarterback from right here. That's not quite fair. It's hard to say. I guess because of Don's performance, there's a part of me that says maybe we should have released in the Fall, but the end of Fall is so crowded with fabulous movies. But I do think that release date and release pattern has become very important, at least as important as the movie itself in some ways. It's an area that this is not my area of expertise. I'm a filmmaker so I try and make the best movie. So, it's hard for me to second guess the very good people and talented people that released the film. Everybody was hoping, we had every reason to believe that it would break through. But it didn't. It didn't do as well as anybody wanted it to do.
KW: How did you make the transition from actress to writer/director?
KL: When I wrote "Eve's Bayou," I kind of wrote it for myself as insurance for the day when I would no longer be able to get acting parts maybe. I would be 40 and it would be a little bit more difficult. I wouldn't fit into my little audition dress. And so I wrote this trying to kind of write what's the most fabulous part you could write yourself. And so I wrote Mozelle in "Eve's Bayou." And what happened next was unexpected, which was that people started reading the script and wanting me to do something with it right away. So, then I looked for a director and we looked at all these directors and the directors passed. And really, I woke up one day with the epiphany that I should direct "Eve's Bayou." It was like, "Wait a minute. I've been to film school."
KW: What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers?
KL: I think your first script should really be something that makes a deep personal statement about you. I see writers that do it that way. I see writers that do it the other way trying to guess what maybe the audience wants or what's going to be the market for a certain film. And I feel that you're more successful with your first film if it really is a calling card to a work where you are saying something about yourself as an artist. And so I'd say, with your first film particularly, stick to something that resonates really deeply for you and says something about you as an artist.
KW: The Jimmy Bayan question. Where in LA do you live? Were you affected by the recent fires?
KL: No I wasn't. I live in Hollywood Hills' Laurel Canyon. One of the most disconcerting things to me, and I don't know how to reconcile this with my feelings about life, is I think that these fires are set often. It's so depressing. It's almost too depressing to think about when you look at the devastation. It's very, very upsetting.
KW: How's the weather right now?
KL: Well, I'm in London, so it's raining a little bit.
KW: I guess my final question is the Columbus sort question, "Are you happy?"
KL: Am I happy?
KL: That's a complicated question. I'd say most days I'm very happy. I'm very happy. I have fabulous children. I've been able to walk a road less traveled and yet do exactly what I want to do almost all the time. I'm almost always working on something that is exactly what I want to work on, and I think that that's a real gift.
KW: Well, thanks so much. I appreciate the time.
KL: Thank you.