If you read Tambay’s highlight’s journal of the ABFF last week, one statement that probably caught your attention-as it did mine-was his summation of the films saying…“I’ll say this, frankly, the shorts are more impressive than the features!”
Days before the festival, I had the pleasure of speaking with kA’RAMUU KUSH, a director of one of those impressive short films. His AFI thesis film Salvation Road, starring Roger Guenveur Smith and Russell Hornsby, was a finalist in the HBO short film competition at the festival.
Classically trained as a theater director with an MFA in Classical Drama from Sarah Lawrence College and with deep theater roots, kA’RAMUU became a fixture in various NYU graduate short films before he decided to try his hand at directing film. In fact, he played the bad guy “Kwesi” in director’s Seith Mann’s Five Deep Breaths, a film receiving much praise here at S&A. He went on to direct a number of short films while he continued his trek in theater.
Now, eleven years later and armed with a MFA in Film Directing from one of the country’s preeminent film schools, AFI, he looks to the road ahead. Yes ladies, he’s charming but I can say there’s plenty of substance to the man. We had a very long discussion covering everything from his filmmaking style, to his Assata Shakur inspired film along with his unabashed love and desire to spotlight black women.
Tell me about your background? You started acting first, right?
The acting is the more higher profile skill but I’ve been acting and directing from the very beginning. In terms of the directing I was saying ‘move here, move there.’ In terms of writing, I was adapting and revising words, monologues and scenes. I was doing it in theater before I put a name to it. As I matured in the work, I focused more on the acting in pursuit of a professional career. Acting and writing always stuck but in 2000 I made my first film.
You’ve done quite a number of short films.
Yeah. I was active in a number of NYU grad films. This was when I was in school in New York. I was still doing theater but started acting in film, then I got inspired to try my hand in film directing. It’s interesting, I just got done with AFI last June but, even before that, I claimed and embraced being a guerrilla filmmaker because I was pretty much self taught. Coming from the theater, I felt compelled to tackle a larger canvas and just acted on the impulse to make a film. I spent roughly five or six thousand dollars shooting on 16mm. I refer to it as being my first film school because I learned the language of film by making that film and didn’t get to finish it. That film ’til this very day is in the can…it hasn’t come out of the can yet. (laughing) It was right before the digital explosion but then my first film that I finished is called The Bus Stop.
I like that you said you’re “proud” to be a guerrilla filmmaker. You don’t see that much today like it once was. How would you describe yourself as a filmmaker?
Again, I definitely embrace the distinction. To me it kind of implies that you don’t need all the bells and whistles and I feel good about that because I don’t need all the bells and whistles. Of course, like the next person making a film, I look forward to making a living-a very good living- from making stories. The whole guerrilla thing is just inspired by having a story to tell. The need to connect with people with that story by any means. I really hope to never lose that fire and that passion to connect with people.
One of the things that really inspires me to tell stories is the absence of stories about black women. I love black women. So of course if I love black women, I want to tell that story or at least express that love and admiration in some kind of way. There’s so much to say and so many perspectives to explore. To quote Ossie Davis it’s like ‘being black is a special cup of gladness,’ he said. It’s a special thing to be able to communicate those stories. On film? The way they haven’t been seen yet? Oh my God! Even the idea is exciting. It moves me. The idea of showcasing black women. In my films, sisters first (with exception to the hollywood game that any successful filmmaker must play; 3 for hollywood, 1 for me, 5 for hollywood, 2 for me etc).
Well you should be very successful then. (laughing)
I hope so but I don’t know about that. I’m always studying-with Imdb and what have you-and a large majority of sisters, for example who had agents and were working like two years ago, now have no agents, no managers and they’re not working. That really hurt me. I was like ‘Damn! Is it like that?’ It’s probably a handful of sisters who are getting some looks and even those looks…a lot of them are redundant. The state of opportunities, it’s horrible.
It’s an urgency to get this thing in a different paradigm and to really bolster black indie films. I have to pull info for stories and every time I look into black actresses from the past, I’m so upset when I read about the kind of work they’re doing or roles not being offered. So it’s interesting hearing it from your perspective. Hopefully you’ll bring changes with your films.
We’ll I hope to make my contribution. The indie scene has to remain true to the idea of craft. Otherwise, where would we turn for our enrichment? Where do we go for our cinematic nourishment? The medium of cinema is POWERFUL at it’s best and POISONOUS at it’s worst. And the large majority of black product is really bad in terms of craft, in terms of quality and in terms of understanding storytelling. I’m really grateful for having gone through so many years of theater before getting into film and I’m grateful for the blessing of being able to study at AFI honing and refining my skill set. I think it’s imperative for us as black filmmakers to put our best foot forward every time out the gate. I went into AFI with the understanding that I have to be excellent, even if at times I may have fallen short; I can’t settle for mediocre.
That’s a very good point.
Well it’s important for black filmmakers to understand that. Yet, it’s really a big quandary of sorts because on the other hand, you got people who could give a damn about craft or culture and are just trying to make a living. That’s real! The industry can beat you down like that. So often times, prioritizing making a living gets in the way of your socio-political perspective or your cultural mantra. Often times, we don’t have the luxury. That’s really deep when the idea of building culture becomes a luxury, huh? So it’s really tough.
Filmmakers often have to walk a tightrope when it comes to personal passion projects versus commercial productions. Have you encountered that issue so far and, if so, how do you personally resolve it?
Excellent question! I’m happy you asked because that’s exactly what I’d planned to do with my time at AFI. In short, I think you resolve it by mastering it. Being that I’d pretty much identified my artistic voice upon acceptance to AFI, I seized the opportunity to test it as a hired gun in the insulated environment that AFI affords. I figured that if I can still have impact outside of doing my auteur thing, I’m doing pretty good. I’ll always be an artist. Nobody and no school can take that away. It’s my charge to know when and how to modulate my artistry with respect to the business of getting the work done.
What kind of challenges did you have to overcome regarding Salvation Road?
Salvation Road was a perfect example. Unlike any of my films before, it featured no Black women. And the only woman featured in the film was dealt with in a questionable way so I had to justify that. Her fate had to be warranted in the narrative. That was the first challenge for me and a hard pill to swallow. But it was good because I had to find myself in that story without going to what was familiar. I love children as much, if not more than I love women, so that’s what fueled me. So the first challenge of many was getting over myself. I think once you do that, everything else falls into place. And the film has done very well for me so far.
So tell me about Last Trane? Is it a short?
Last Trane was a short film I wrote inspired by John Coltrane. It’s focusing on him recovering from his heroin addiction and now it’s evolved into a three part feature. It’s like three shorts; one inspired by Coltrane, one inspired by Thelonius Monk and one inspired by Miles Davis. It’s, basically, chronicling moments in these cats lives where they were overcoming some trial in their life with the stalwart assistance of a woman. It’s kind of like The Hours but it’s just about jazz musicians through different decades. So now it’s entitled Suite: Inspired By The Lives, Loves and Music of John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis.
What’s your other project?
It’s called Die Enormous. In short, it’s a modern urban remix of Apocalypse Now inspired by Assata Shakur. It’s the feature I‘m trying to get done first. It‘s kind of wild too.
It really sounds interesting. Tell me more.
It‘s the best and the worst of our culture. It‘s my artistic take on juxtaposing or mixing the sacred and the profane in one film and it’s no apologies at all. It’s just all out, its crazy.
In my head, I’m already thinking what kind of cast or wish list do you have for this?
Exactly. Well I wrote the piece with very few or anyone in particular in mind but it’s definitely going to get some looks. The whole ensemble is really colorful. The person playing the character inspired by Assata Shakur, that’s going to be a powerful role. I mean it’s just like Brando in Apocalypse Now, it’s a powerful role.
Who are some of your influences? I’m guessing Spike is on that list.
Definitely. I don’t believe there’s a black filmmaker alive, who’s come after him, that hasn’t been inspired by Spike in some kind of way. Hate him or love him, we’ve all been influenced by him in some way. We all have to pay homage to that dude, he’s precious. I’m also really inspired by Frances Ford Coppola, Kubrick’s work, Adrian Lyne’s work, Woody Allen, Carl Franklin’s work also. I dig Kurosawa, his epicness is undeniable and it never undermined his artistry. Being an actor/director I can’t help but be inspired by Clint Eastwood. And my curveball is Keenan Ivory Wayans. Dude did it his way on some Black Barrymore type shit. Gotta love that!
One heavy influence on me is Adrian Lyne because his films are very sensual. As a filmmaker, I really like to tell very sensual stories. He made Unfaithful, 9 1/2 Weeks…
That’s something we’ve talked about on the blog. Where’s the black 9 1/2 Weeks?
You know its funny, on my list of projects that’s one thing I want to tackle in terms of adaptation of sorts. I also want to tackle a remix on Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. I really think that as black filmmakers we have to crack that sensual nut. I don’t mean erotic, I mean a level of filmmaking that’s not so deliberate or heavy-handed. We’ve got to find our subtlety. That really informs my approach to filmmaking, I’m looking to be as subtle as possible-not to the point of being nondescript. It’s something you smell as opposed to being hit over the head.
I love that. And using visuals, colors and sounds…
And the culture is robust enough to support that kind of subtlety. That’s why when we see it done badly it’s so gross because you‘re screaming ‘look at me.’ You’re thinking ‘why you gotta do that dude? You don’t have to scream that.’ The culture will do it for you. Let me tell this, black culture is the most powerful shit on the planet-in terms of culture. We’re the phoenix culture. The world follows us. The world is trying to talk like us, walk like us, act like us, listen to our music… The culture is robust as all hell!
What are your thoughts on Tyler Perry?
The reality is, the brother is a wonderful business model. People take issue with what is seen as the lack of development, the lack of depth and that’s arguable because Tyler deals with all the issues. He has the element of spirituality or faith in his films, he has relationships, he has social issues, he has family. I think what you could argue with is dude’s craft. His learnedness with the filmmaking medium. People will take issue with that.
Well, I definitely love his business sense and he’s good at casting. I do get mad with him sometimes because I wish he would take on producing more projects. He’s starting to do that now with We The Peeples.
I would broaden that madness towards the affluent black community in general because black people got dough. We’re talking about all these music moguls, real estate moguls, investment banking moguls and pro athletes…all these people with mad dough. The question I ask is ‘Where’s your sense of cultural consciousness or preservation? Where’s your impulse to preserve the culture, to expand the culture, to progress the culture in some kind of way?’ Tyler can’t do it all. Even if Tyler did three films a year by other filmmakers, he couldn’t do it all by himself. He needs dispensable millions. If you got that much of an issue with Tyler Perry, then invest in something that you want your children to see because we’ve got the dough. It’s not his cross to bear alone, it’s really on all of us.
It’s seems the only black person, in Hollywood, who can get a green light on a film is Will Smith. It’s weird to know in 2011 he’s the only one.
I think it’s a sign. There can’t be a reliance on anything or anybody, it really is time for us to close ranks as a community. Find quality projects we have to get behind and support. It’s been proven there’s a community out here willing to get behind projects.
So with difficulties that black films sometimes face, do you feel hope and change?
There’s hope. If Kanye can go from rocking Jesus to Heru around his neck, there’s hope. (laughing) I’m just looking to do my part. It’s my effort in consciously crossing the cultural and the commercial. Die Enormous is built to serve many interest, from venture capitalist to cultural critic. I feel like the climate is right for it now, we’re in a place that this kind of thing is not only feasible it’s needed. I can’t help but be inspired by something higher, something greater than just my own benefit. Pursuing more than affluence, it has to be more than that. I could do a lot of other things if it was just about me.
Since his return from ABFF, I was able to speak with him about his progress and, as I expected, the offers and meetings are flooding in. During our conversation, I had to confess my real intentions for calling…I wanted to read Die Enormous. Who wouldn’t want to read a story inspired by Assata Shakur? The curiosity was killing me! So, after I swore on my great grandmother’s grave, I was granted access to read it. So what can I tell you about it? Well, I promised him secrecy and I intend on staying true to that but let me just tell you this, it’s a phenomenal script. Serious producers and investors should jump on it…quickly.
If you’d like to contact kA’RAMUU or keep up with his progress, please check out his website HERE. Below is the trailer for his AFI thesis film Salvation Road and a video clip of In The Mood For Love, a film he’s greatly inspired by.