Kasi Lemmons's films include Eve's Bayou and The Caveman's Valentine, both featuring Samuel L. Jackson. Like her husband Vondie Curtis-Hall, Lemmons both acts and directs, but these days she spends more time behind the camera. her latest film is Talk to Me, the true story of Washington D.C. DJ Petey Greene. I spoke with Lemmons at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: What did you learn by listening to and watching tapes of Petey Greene, and also from his autobiography?
Kasi Lemmons: Well, I didn't actually read the autobiography; I wasn't allowed to, legally. I had the benefit of a couple of Petey's shows, as well as a documentary, that actually has Dewey in it as well, on Petey. And an audiotape that was of comedy bits, you know? But my major source of information was Dewey Hughes himself. The words that he chose to use in describing Petey and their relationship—I was really informed by that a lot. There's a lot about Petey's timing that we tried to do exactly. But especially, because we didn't have access to tons of material, you know, kind of his sign-off and his—one thing I learned was that he was a rapper.
G: The patter, the Ali-like patter.
KL: The patter, that he used in rhyming. At the end of his shows he would make up a rhyme, extemporaneously, based on how the show had gone. Which I have a wonderful example of at home. This episode of Petey Greene's Washington that he did. And at the end of the show—he couldn't have prepared it, because it had to do with the conversation that he had just had, but it rhymed. And I was like, "Oh, this is"—that was an incredible thing to realize.
G: None of his radio shows survive?
KL: A few of them. We hear rumors about people that might have collections—you know, like, "I hear Sugar Ray Leonard has a collection"—but we didn't have access to a vast library. Now lots of those shows—and even, we found The Tonight Show—lots of those old shows they taped over. You know, it's amazing now, in retrospect, to think like, "You what?!" You know, but they taped over those shows. And so there's not like some huge vault. But like I say, we've heard rumors that somebody has collected it, has a collection. But we did not; we had a few—
G: Could you give a specific example of how Hughes served to get a scene on track—?
KL: Well, he didn't do that. He didn't sit—he did visit us. But he didn't ever comment on what we were doing. But he met with the actors, outside of the set. He met with the actors early on, before we started shooting. So Chiwetel was able to sit with him and talk to him and spend time with him. And Don, too. And Vondie [Curtis-Hall], you know, my husband, 'cause he's playing Sunny Jim. It's like, "Who was Sunny Jim?" And so Dewey was able to really help with that. And also my production designer would call him all the time, "We got a question," you know. And so he was available to us, as a resource—He was on the set at WOL, when we were shooting the radio station. He was there; he came up and visited us—he sat and watched some of it, and then at one point, I saw him get up like "I can't, I can't watch this." It's either too close or it's bringing back some old emotions. But he would walk into the DJ booth, and you could tell he just felt nostalgic for it, you know? I've never been so nervous as when I first showed him the movie. And I realized how important it was that he, you know, love it. And I'm like "What am I going to do if he doesn't like it?" But fortunately he really, really, really, really responded to the movie—
G: Well, and since the screenwriter, or the co-screenwriter, Michael Genet, is Dewey's son, I gather there was probably some vetting in the screenwriting process as well.
KL: Yeeah, it's interesting. I wonder what that original process was like. The story that I heard was that Joe Fries, who's the producer that developed the material—they were trying to put together this movie, into a script, the Dewey and Petey story, and he brought a list of writers for Dewey to look at, and Dewey looked at one name and said, "That's my son." And Joe says, "Oh, we've got to get him to write the screenplay," and Dewey said, "He doesn't know the story." And so he had to learn the story—
G I want to get your thoughts on a few of the issues in the film that are particularly resonant today, the first being the authenticity of African-American affect. I thought that was a very interesting scene, in particular, in the pool hall. Could you talk a little bit about how you saw that speaking to today's audiences?
KL: We were looking for complete authenticity. You want to feel the contemporariness of it. And you want it to feel relevant to today and to resonate on a vibrancy frequency with today's audiences and yet be completely authentic to the affect of the time period. So it was something that we talked about a great deal. One of the interesting challenges that we had—that wasn't a challenge because he's such a wonderful actor—but Chiwetel's British. So not even all of our actors were African-American actors. As a matter of fact we had some Canadians, also, in the ensemble. And so we did a lot of talking about what was going on then and how the characters would have felt. I think that one of the things that moves me so much is that both the characters have a great deal of—they both have their share of bravado. And masculinity. And yet they're able to be vulnerable. And expose their emotions.
G: Well, they have that debate, too, about what it means to keep it real.
KL: Right, exactly.
G: In terms of how you present yourself within and without the community. And advancing—
KL: Well, I think that Dewey was easy for Petey to underestimate. Because Petey feels like, "Well, if you don't act a certain way, then you're not down, right?" But Dewey's made a choice. Dewey's made a choice to present himself a certain way. Which is really a choice that anybody can make. To the point where some days nowadays, you see people who are—you know, they gotta be more down than anybody. Because of whatever insecurity or reason that they might have to feel that they need to act like that. But the interesting thing to me is that Dewey's made a choice; he's actually from the Anacostia projects. He's made a choice to not be that person. And yet he recognizes the need for a voice as raw as Petey's. And he suspects that Petey's voice is going to resonate with the community—
G: Another resonant issue is the FCC versus straight talk.
G: And this sort of seemed like—we're at a certain place right now, and this almost seems like the beginning of that arc.
KL: Right, exactly.
G: And maybe they weren't even—there's no frame of reference to deal with somebody like Petey Greene at the time. Is that something that during the process you got a sense of: what the FCC was like then versus now?
KL: I never really got a sense of it. I love the fear that they have of like "What is he going to say?" You know, you just don't know what's going to come out of his mouth. And that scene where Martin Sheen's like "Watch your language!" And just his fear of what's going to come out of his mouth. And the excitement of going out live, I thought, is just really an incredible experience. You don't really get that much of it now. I've been on the radio live, and it's terrifying. You know, it's terrifying, because as you're speaking it, people are hearing it. You're much more comfortable if you can edit a tape, you know what I mean? Now, I think that we live in a world where every statement is examined, reexamined, and often misconstrued. And there's so much opportunity every time somebody opens their mouth for the statement being used against them that people have become uber-cautious. And that's a drag. So I kind of like that it's speech. And I looked at it a lot, I gotta say, as an anti-censorship film. I felt that that was what was interesting to me. So if I took a meeting and people said, "Well, can you make it PG-13, or can you soften the language a little bit?", I wasn't interested. I wanted it as raw as it could be. Because I thought that that was important to the character. Not just because I found it titillating; I thought it was part of the point of the movie. Part of the point of the movie is its rawness—he was able to speak for the community, not just to shock. Even though certainly he was irreverent, and he believed in irreverence. But also he was speaking the truth as he saw it. In a way that inspired the community. And helped keep 'em together, and motivated them. So it did serve a function. And actually in Petey Greene's real life, later on he became very much a community leader. But at the period of time that we're focusing on, it's really his irreverence. But yet he connected with people. Somehow he could tap into their soul and say things that they were feeling but maybe not saying. And we need a voice like that. We need a voice like that—he was really intelligent and spoke from a collective need.
G: Obviously music is very important to the film, and again you're working with the amazing Terence Blanchard.
KL: Yes, amazing.
G: I'm curious when you decided it's most important to move away from the source music, or the songs, and have the Blanchard score.
KL: Well, it definitely had to do with the emotion of the moment. Sometimes to make a dramatic turn—at one point, we make a turn from comedy to kind of tragedy, and that music is very helpful in forming that kind of transition.
G: And then the button on that section, actually, is a song.
KL: Is a song, yeah. So you can go back again. They're both so evocative. The interesting thing was to make a decision—'cause it wasn't the way I heard it at first, in my head. But the decision to finally add the strings and let it be an orchestra, you know? So not only we're going to go from R&B to score; we're going to go from R&B to orchestra. And back again. And I knew that Terence was a person that knew how to hit that perfectly. And do it perfectly—so talented. He's a dear friend of mine. And this is our third film together—
G: When you're telling a true story, there's of course—there's the truth, and there's—
KL: That's right. (Laughs.)
G: And there's dramatic truth.
G: And I'm just curious—obviously, you inherited the screenplay—but did you have a sense of when it was necessary to fudge reality a little bit to get the emotional arc?
KL: Did I have a sense of it?
KL: When I approached the movie, I approached it as a movie. So my first pure thought was "How do I want this movie to feel as a movie?", before I did a lot of research. You know, I thought of it as a movie first. As a movie first. And the emotional truth of the characters. As opposed to the actual truth. The emotional truth was much more important to me. What did I think the movie was about? What did I want to say with it? And what did I think was the essential theme of the movie? And I decided it was friendship. And so the whole movie to me was guided by a friendship between two characters. And that's the way I looked at it. That being said, what we tried to be very factual about was, you know, this song was released this year. The years. The details of the time and place we tried to get right. In terms of the facts of Petey's life story, whenever you take a character that is that dynamic that actually lived, you could make whole other movies about him. About different facets of his life. Or a whole other cradle-to-grave biopic about Petey Greene that would be completely different. This movie has to do with a specific time when Dewey discovered Petey and put him on the air and their friendship. And so I tried to be respectful of the truth, but not enslaved by it.
[For Groucho's review of Talk to Me, click here.]