EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Based on the award-winning play by Lorraine Hansberry, “A Raisin in the Sun” is a film adapation of director Kenny Leon‘s own recent Broadway revival of the play. “Raisin” follows the Younger family as they struggle in 1950s Chicago. When an insurance check changes that, each goes about spending the money differently, and the family balance is but to the test. Sundance’s John Cooper says “Raisin” has been elegantly transformed from stage to film by director Kenny Leon’s careful guidance and the performances of a talented and insightful cast. In their capable
hands, this American classic reveals it is as timely and significant as ever.”
“A Raisin in the Sun”
Director: Kenny Leon
Screenwriter: Paris Qualles
Producer: John M. Eckert
Cinematographer: Ivan Strasburg
Editor: Melissa Kent
Principal Cast: Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, Sean Patrick Thomas
U.S.A., 2007, 131 min., color, Sony HD Cam
Please introduce yourself…
I’m Kenny Leon; Born Tallahassee, FL; grew up in St.Petersburg, FL; Graduated Clark Atlanta University in 1978 with a degree in Political Science, minor in Theatre; Fellow Alumni include Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking? What other creative outlets do you explore?
I really love the story of “A Raisin in the Sun.” I directed it on Broadway in 2004 and felt that cinematically we could lift the story. I knew that with “Raisin,” we had a great opportunity to make a wonderful film from the stage version. Other creative outlets: I am a Broadway stage Director, and my works have included dramas and musicals; I directed Toni Morrison‘s latest opera, Margaret Garner; I began my career as an actor.
Have you made other films?
This is my first film, and I was a political Science major with a minor emphasis in Theatre during undergrad. I’ve always been a big fan of filmmakers, including Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee.
What prompted the idea for “A Raisin in the Son” and how did it evolve?
I was approached by producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron after they saw the 2004 Broadway production. The project developed from there.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
I’ve always felt that, in directing “Raisin,” it was important to try and see the souls of these people, so I found it crucial to use handheld cameras, as you’re able to get closer to the characters and sense who they are and what they’re about. I also felt that the apartment setting in the story needed to feel claustrophobic and, to heighten that, I wanted to open the story up and get outside the apartment a lot more; I wanted to leave the apartment 10-12 times and then return to the constricting home and really sense the place’s claustrophobic conditions.
Also, since the story was originally a stage play, it was very important for me to lose all the feeling that it was a taped version of the stage adaptation. Instead, I strove to create a more cinematic feel. It was especially significant to have an opening and closing of the story that felt like a film and not a play being filmed. This movie is unique to film, and it does not carry with it a feeling of being a stage play. I am proud of that.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
I was very lucky with the support of Sony, Storyline, and ABC. I was very fortunate to have great producers working with me. I did not have to worry about distribution.
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
I hope that new audiences will be exposed to “A Raisin in the Sun” at Sundance. I also have hopes that the industry will take me as a serious director who wants to make the transition to the feature film industry.
What are some of your favorite films?
Favorite films include: “Dog Day Afternoon,” “American Gangster,” “The Godfather,” “Chocolat,” and “Do the Right Thing.”
How do you define success as a filmmaker?
I imagine that you can claim success on a film when you feel that the story in your head translates on the screen, when you capture what’s in your head on the screen. I think that a film is successful when it works on and captures all five senses, when it looks/feels/tastes/sounds/smells like what you wanted it to be; when the film on screen exceeds what it was in my heart and on my mind, then I have succeeded. I want my future film experiences to be as rich as “Raisin,” which has included a wonderful cast that stretched me, a wonderful production team that lifted the film, and a story that was worth telling.
Please tell us about any upcoming projects?
I’m directing [stage musical] “Flashdance” in the UK, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” on Broadway, “Margaret Garner” in Detroit and Chicago, but I am still trying to discover what the 2008 feature film project will be.
What’s your take on the state of independent film today?
In the independent film industry, there is more room to tell deeper stories and ask tougher questions.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.