What: Saul Ressnicoff, one of the world’s great concert pianists led a conflicted life, one that his neglected but devoted daughter Edie challenges herself to unravel after his sudden death on stage during an encore at Carnegie Hall.
Who: Saul’s final choice of music for his encore at what would turn out to be his very last concert was a birthday present for his daughter and archivist Edie, 30. Lyrical and sad, Edie is transported by a piece that she is unfamiliar with; she is unable to ask Saul about it for he has a heart attack on stage and dies. At his funeral Edie spies a mysterious, beautiful black woman who disappears almost as quickly as she is noticed. Soon after, Edie and her mother Lillian are informed by the family attorneys of a codicil to Saul’s will; a provision that bequeaths a set of music entitled “Eight Pieces for Josette” to a young woman, Sunday Eubanks, in New Orleans. This is a composition heretofore unknown by Edie and both the discovery of the music and the mystery of the bequest upsets Edie’s world enormously; as her father’s archivist, the only role in his life he allowed her, she had been certain that she knew all of his work. Upon further investigation, Edie discovers an unfinished letter among her father’s possessions:
Dear Sunny, we’ve come to a dangerous place. I must put an end to this self-indulgent, wretched charade before it’s too late. It’s not fair to you. It’s not fair to my daughter. Let me explain…
She also finds a handwritten manuscript entitled “The Josette Variations,” one of which she recognizes as the encore he was playing at the concert; wedged within the manuscript is a telegram and faded photograph. The photo is of a theatrically beautiful woman with dramatically white skin; the telegram reads:
Thursday the thirtieth – the evening bells – I’ll be waiting – Josette.
Edie sets out on a path of discovery and against all advice, she takes off for New Orleans to find out why her father would will something so valuable to the mysterious Sunday (Sunny) Eubanks, a woman she finds singing in a jazz club. Edie is determined both to discover her father’s relationship with Sunny and to prevent her from gaining control of the music manuscript.
Sunny, the mystery woman at the funeral, is no pushover and lets Edie know in no uncertain terms that she will fight. Edie sends Sunny the manuscript, but also, discovering that her father had paid the rent on Sunny’s jazz club, immediately stops payment. Still, Sunny will not give up and, upon Edie’s return trip to New Orleans, Edie discovers that, contrary to her previous belief, Sunny was not her father’s mistress; Edie decides she must dig deeper, gradually bonding with Sunny in the search for her connection to Saul and the elusive Josette; a trip that eventually takes them both to Paris.
No Meaner Place: In this feature film script, Lemmons has found a perfect mix of romanticism, character growth, and atmosphere traveling from the stage of Carnegie Hall to a sophisticated flat in Manhattan; from the French Quarter (written pre-Katrina) in New Orleans to Montmartre in Paris with classical music and jazz as a background. Although it is apparent all too soon what the relationship between the girls is, it is the path of discovery that both travel that widens the sphere of this story and the layers of hardness and hurt that are gradually peeled revealing hidden beauty. Their biological relationship is less important than the truths both eventually uncover about and within themselves. The journey is the message and it is a journey well worth taking.
From a studio standpoint, and this was a script “in development” at Searchlight (where it should have found a perfect home if they had ever put it into active development) after being in turnaround from Warner Brothers, this is a small movie, very much an independent in a shrinking independent world. Though the “independent” movie is becoming increasingly rare and a tough sell at a large or even midsize studio, this story has the possibility of expanding from the art house niche as it is both a self discovery “romance” and buddy road pic. Lamentably it is a marketer’s world and this will hinge on the poster, but within the several themes, a strong “poster” and message will emerge. Further, despite the locations, this would not be an expensive film to make, as I’m sure Lemmons has already outlined in her many dealings with both studios. Her experience as writer/director on “Eve’s Bayou” and “Talk to Me” show that she is highly skilled at economically produced, well developed character films.
Life Lessons for Writers: There is no expiration date in the features world, just a need for enormous patience and determination.
Neely: I fell in love with your storytelling with “Eve’s Bayou” and have to admit that I’m slightly intimidated because there’s already a lot out there on you. You started as an actress and have some impressive credits. Do you still take acting jobs or are you now permanently behind the camera?
Kasi: I’m pretty much permanently behind the camera. I’d take an acting job if a friend offered it or I was directing something and I thought I was perfect for the role.
Neely: Is there anything you would have liked to have done…a role that you’d like to have played?
Kasi: I don’t think about that anymore. I just don’t think about being in front of the camera. But I still act – I act out all the roles I write, I just act them out inside myself when I’m writing. It’s part of my writing process. Acting was my first love. Now I get that emotional release when I’m writing characters. As a director, I’m passionate about actors.
Neely: I was immediately intrigued when I saw that you were born in St. Louis, had roots in Louisiana and then moved to Boston. We spent 10 years in St. Louis after college (Washington University) and my husband’s best friend Fred grew up in St. Louis and his wife, my best friend, had roots in Louisiana. African American, they lived through segregation and desegregation in both locations. As a child in St. Louis you would still have been living at the tail end of that era and moving to Boston wouldn’t have been a lot better because they had all those South Boston busing riots in the 70s. What do you remember of your childhood in all three places?
Kasi: I feel as if I grew up in a place that would be called St. Louis Tuskegee, Alabama because I spent an extended amount of time with my grandmother in Alabama. In St. Louis I was surrounded by black society and was really unaware of race in any distinct manner. My mother was a psychologist, she got her Master’s at Washington University, and my father was a biology teacher. That all changed when I moved to Boston with my mother after my parents’ divorce. I remember the first time racism was mentioned was when my mother, who was going to Harvard for a PhD, tried to get an apartment in Boston and felt that they were using unfair housing practices to keep us out. I was the only black girl in my elementary school and it’s there that I had my first encounter with racism. I had to fight it everyday. Going from no experience with racism in the cloistered St. Louis society to racism in Boston was shocking. I ended up loving Boston, though, because my mother was much happier and I went to an incredible high school, Commonwealth, and made lots of life-long friends. I still feel very close to Boston; maybe because I had to fight so hard.
Neely: You discovered acting at the Boston Children’s Theater after moving to Boston. Did it lead to a professional acting career or did that come later?
Kasi: I discovered a love of performing and became myself there. My first job came about because of the Boston Children’s Theater when an agency called the theater on behalf of a local TV show. They were looking for someone to play the first child to integrate a classroom in a daytime courtroom drama called “You’ve Got a Right.” It was my first experience auditioning and I got the role.
Neely: You started out at NYU/Tisch and transferred to UCLA where you majored in history. Has that background in history informed your work? Any particular time period of history?
Kasi: I left Tisch for UCLA because I wasn’t yet done with academics. I was interested in history, which continues to inform my work as a writer. I studied the French Revolution. I was fascinated by the bloodiness of it; the storming of the Bastille; the massacres, the aftermath. It wasn’t tidy. There were waves of execution; it was horrible and bloody and righteous. I then went back to New York on a grant to study at the Alvin Ailey School. It was fabulous; I danced all day. Ailey had a big impact on me. I gained a huge appreciation for the aesthetics. I was moved by the aspect of the beauty and the fleeting nature of it – using the body to make art; it truly shaped my aesthetic view of the world.
I continued acting in commercials and little theater before going back to school in film at the New School for Social Research. I went there with an interest in directing and cinematography. I was interested in the image. I wanted to make documentaries but my first film broke the rules because I used a fictional voice-over. This was the first time where I saw myself as a filmmaker, and so did others. The Black Filmmaker Foundation gave me a screening of my first film. I believe it was part of a series of shorts, and significant members of the film community attended. Spike Lee was there. After that, Spike would always ask me, “When are you going to do your your feature?”
All this time I continued acting to support myself and I started to get more important roles in television and the theater. I got my supporting role in “Silence of the Lambs” when I was attending film school.
Neely: At what point did you start viewing yourself as a writer?
Kasi: I guess after film school. I was writing the whole time. I wrote plays based on personal experience and I would write scenes for my friends to do in acting class. A turning point occurred when I auditioned for the Cosby show. Boldly, I asked him to look at the film I had made. He wasn’t interested but he did say he was looking for writers. I immediately said “I’m a writer!” He gave me a week to write a scene between a married couple – he doesn’t want a kid; she does and she doesn’t know how to tell him she’s pregnant. Excited, I returned to give him my scene and he had completely forgotten about it, he wasn’t even there and had to be tracked down. He told me to give it to his associate Matt Robinson who read it and recommended me. On the basis of that scene I was hired by Cosby to work on a screenplay for him with two other playwrights, P.J. Gibson and Lee Harkens. It was an incredible educational experience and Bill Cosby became a true mentor to me.
Neely: Were you tempted to act in “Eve’s Bayou?” Which role would it have been?
Kasi: I wrote “Eve’s Bayou” for myself. It was actually a combination of short stories that I had written that kind of coalesced into a story that kept telling itself in my head, complete with flashes of lightning. When I started writing it, I didn’t know whether it was a novel, a play or a screenplay. When I realized it was a screenplay, I realized I was writing the role of Mozelle for myself, figuring one day when I was old enough and my dresses were getting a little tight I’d be ready and I’d find someone to make the film and I’d play Mozelle.
Neely: How did you get the money for “Eve’s Bayou” and how long did it take – what was the process? Can that same process work for “Josette?”
Kasi: I wrote it and then showed it to Vondie (note: Kasi is married to the actor Vondie Curtis Hall) who was so moved that he insisted that I show it to my acting agent, who in turn gave it to Frank Wuliger who became my writing agent. Frank thought it was doable so we started looking for a director to attach to it. Frank also found me work as a writer and I wrote whole scripts in between my various writing jobs. Then on the morning of my birthday I woke and I realized that I needed to direct it because I had written a delicate piece of material and the best way to protect it was to do it myself.
Once I decided to direct it, Frank hooked me up with Cotty Chubb (of the insurance family). Cotty encouraged me to direct a short film called “Dr. Hugo” to show what I was trying to do, which he and Frank personally co-financed. “Dr. Hugo” was festivaled and is on the DVD of “Eve’s Bayou.” In “Dr. Hugo,” Vondie played a sexy doctor who pays a house call. While a child waits outside, the doctor seduces the patient, the child’s mother. It functioned sort of like a pilot for “Eve’s Bayou” and was integral in getting me the directing job. People really responded. In going for financing we sent around a package that included the short film and the “Eve’s Bayou” script. Sam Jackson read the script and wanted to be that sexy doctor. When Sam came on board, he was the ammunition to get Tri Mark to make the film.
Neely: I ask because it seems as if the environment has changed considerably in the case of independent features. “Eve’s Bayou” successfully crossed over to all audiences and age groups because of its universal family function/dysfunction dynamic. “Eight Pieces for Josette” is almost mainstream compared to the quasi spiritual voodoo that rests at the soul of “Eve’s Bayou,” and yet I suspect that finding the financing and distribution for this beautiful film has been more difficult.
Kasi: It has been really difficult. It would take the right combination of actresses. So many have expressed a deep love for the script but I still can’t get it made. I wanted Halle Berry to do it. I could also imagine Thandie (Newton) and Nicole Kidman; or Halle and Naomi Watts; Halle and Julianne Moore. It was a reflection on a different time. I thought it would be interesting to have two women who were paralyzed by not knowing their parents’ history. Josette is set in the present, but circumstances cause the two leads to reflect on the generation before, the generation of their parents, which at the time I wrote it was the late sixties. A very romantic era in Paris. As time went by, I realized it would have to be the seventies. That’s cool too. I always imagined the actresses in their thirties, so that would work. But if I don’t get the film made soon, then they’re going to be reflecting back on the eighties. I suppose the eighties in Paris were romantic…but it’s not the same. So I need to get it made soon.
Neely: I loved your view of Paris. I so love Paris, its history, its warmth, its people (yes, I did say that), its language, its everything. I’d kill to work there on location someday. You know the character of Coco de Crécy in “Eight Pieces for Josette” triggered memories. There was a star dancer/singer in one of the famous Parisian music halls in the 70s who was called the “new Josephine Baker” and it drove me crazy trying to remember who she was. I did everything I could think of; finally I emailed a French cousin and she did the research (because she couldn’t remember either) and came up with the name. It was Lisette Malidor. She was from Martinique and she was discovered selling programs at the Casino de Paris by the famous French choreographer Roland Petit. He created the show at the Casino de Paris where his wife Zizi Jeanmaire, a famous ballerina, was headlining and he put Lisette in the chorus. Within a couple of years she replaced Zizi and was the toast of Paris, eventually headlining also at the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère. Performing nude bothered her at the beginning but she eventually came to understand this quote from Josephine Baker, “I wasn't really naked. I simply didn't have any clothes on.”
Kasi: I had never heard of her until you sent me the information!
Neely: One of the things I like best about your stories is the palpable atmosphere. In “Eve’s Bayou” one could feel the thickness and humidity. In “Eight Pieces for Josette” it starts out chilly in the rarified and sterile air of an aesthete Manhattan contrasted with raucous, disheveled and smoky New Orleans, the contrast of black and white, so to speak; and ending with the freer, warmer, environment of Paris where it still seems as if all things are possible and accepted. How do you do that?!
Kasi: I don’t know. I’m very familiar with the three places. It’s intentionally a very romantic view of Paris. I compare the story to opening a beautiful box of old jewelry. I’ve written about twenty scripts, some more atmospheric than the others, but all share the theme of “crossed boundaries.” I like to write about the grey areas of humanity; no one’s all good or bad – not completely heroic and not completely villainous; good people behaving badly. I’ve written only one totally villainous character because I couldn’t find any redeeming qualities – Bull Connor.
I recently spent 6 weeks in Paris working on the screenplay for a project called “Strangers in Paris” under the auspices of a program called “Autumn Stories” that was co-sponsored and co-financed by the WGA, SASEM and the Ile de France Film Commission. They select four established writers with screenplays that take place in Ile de France and put us up in an Abbey outside of Paris and help us research our subjects. My family was able to join me for the last week of my stay. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to work on “Eight Pieces for Josette” under the same circumstances.
Neely: You also directed and did a rewrite of “Talk to Me.” What kind of changes did you make to the original script, or rather, where in the process did you enter? How much of your rewrite appears on screen and how did the final writing credits read?
Kasi: I came on first as a writer but didn’t receive screen credit. The script was already well framed and I loved the project. My entrée into the project was strictly as a writer.
Neely: Your talent for casting is amazing. “Eve’s Bayou” is a veritable who’s who of African American actors. In “Talk to Me” you had the incomparable Don Cheadle, but you also cast one of my very favorite under the radar great actors – Chiwetal Ejiofor. How did that directing assignment come about?
Kasi: After I came on board as a writer and fell in love with the project, I fought for that directing assignment. I love Chiwetal. Another actor had been chosen for that part but he fell out because of the deal and then the movie fell apart. Months later when Don was still on board, Chiwetal was on a short list to play Dewey Hughes. We got a great call from his agent saying that Chiwetal, who was in New York, was willing to meet us on his way back to London.
Neely: Interesting sense of direction.
Kasi: I know. So he came in and Don read with him on the spur of the moment. The chemistry was instantaneous and that was it. He was our Dewey!
Neely: Did you know that you had three Kelley series regular alums in “Talk to Me” – Don Cheadle (“Picket Fences”), Vondie Curtis Hall (“Chicago Hope”) and Taraji P. Henson (“Boston Legal”)?
Kasi: I’d never thought of it before. All three are amazing.
Neely: Do you still write plays?
Kasi: Not in a long time, but I have an idea I’d like to pursue. I have lots more ideas than time.
Neely: We already spoke of casting hopes for “Eight Pieces for Josette”, which leads to a related question – do you ever write characters with certain actors in mind?
Kasi: As a final note on the casting of “Josette,” when I get it made it will depend on who will be the right age at the time. It’s age-specific. Fox Searchlight came close to making it but now it’s mine again. I will make it.
Neely: When I googled you one of the sites that came up was “Who is Kasi Lemmons dating?” You’ll be happy to hear that the only picture that popped up was your husband Vondie Curtis Hall. Both you and Vondie have cast each other in small roles in the films you’ve written and directed. Who is he going to play in “Eight Pieces for Josette?”
Kasi: I need to correct you on that because I’ve given Vondie significant roles in my previous films. I’m not sure he’s in this one. Maybe at the beginning he was Buzz. We’ll see.
Neely: You were out scouting locations last week for your new directing project. What is it and how far along are you?
Kasi: It was for an HBO film on the Duke Lacrosse case. I’m directing it. We’re at the point of making up lists of potential casting choices. Filming will start in April if everything goes according to plan.
Neely: I can’t wait to see it and hope that I won’t have to wait much longer for “Eight Pieces for Josette”.