Earlier this week, Spike Lee’s highly anticipated “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” finally made its world debut at the American Black Film Festival in New York City, where it elicited a wide variation of reactions, ranging from sheer delight to confusion, to complete contempt, with even several indignant walkouts halfway into the premiere screening.
I shared my own thoughts on the film yesterday in a review you can read here.
A day after the film’s premiere, I had the opportunity to speak with Spike Lee at his 40 Acres head quarters in Brooklyn, NY, along with the film’s lead actors Zaraah Abrahams and Stephen Tyrone Williams, discussing everything from the casting process to the controversial Kickstarter campaign to why Lee chose to keep the movie’s source material a secret until now.
Below is a transcript of that conversation.
ZEBA BLAY: So, we now know that this is a remake of Bill Gunn’s “Ganja & Hess.” How did you approach interpreting the original content?
SPIKE LEE: I don’t like to use the word ‘remake’, I think reinterpretation is a better word. It’s just a matter of respecting the source, and then trying to make your own film, and trying not to be inhibited by being so beholden to every single thing… We respect the source, but we make changes to it.
ZB: Well, how did you decide what you wanted to change and what you wanted to keep? One big change is that Ganja and Hess’s lover was a man in the original, and was made a woman here.
SL: We worked from Bill Gunn’s script, and had the script, and just changed it so that we could make the best film possible for us. That film was done in 1972, we shot this in the year of our Lord 2013; the world has changed since then. I mean, Bill Gunn did not have rap music in the soundtrack to his film. We had to contemporize it. Sme other filmmaker might have kept it at the time when it happened, but we wanted it to be today.
ZB: Stephen and Zaraah, for you as actors working from this source material that, with two actors who have already played the parts you’re playing, did you feel at all beholden to what they did?
ZARAAH ABRAHAMS: So, I did watch a few scenes [of the original], to try and get, like, the style of how it was filmed back then, the style of acting back then, because I didn’t want to compare it to the script that I had now, but I wanted to see where it was coming from. I didn’t want to be completely blind. So I watched a few clips of it, and the style of it really helped me decide the poise and, kind of, secret wisdom of Ganja.
STEPHEN TYRONE WILLIAMS: For Hess, I went in terms of character… I knew that we weren’t trying to make a vampire movie. In terms of my approach, in terms of my character, I wanted to get an understanding of, like, something similar to what Hess was going through in the film, so I just started looking at early depictions of Dracula. I started with the very first one, Nosferatu – I started to see patterns in the films that I saw. People took the folklore of the vampire, and they all had a different spin on it – the character, or the weaknesses, or the special abilities would be used as a social commentary.
ZB: Many people are going to look at this and call it a vampire film, but, it’s been emphasized that it’s not a vampire film, it’s a film about people who are addicted to blood. Even though they’re undead. What’s the distinction for you?
ZA: For me, there was no fantasy, really, attached to it. When you watch one of these vampire movies, it says ‘fantasy’, for me… It felt like these people had an addiction. It didn’t seem like [Hess] woke up one day and it was really bright and he couldn’t see or something – it felt like it was set in the modern day, with a guy who had to live with this.
SL: It’s not a vampire film.
ZB: You did a Kickstarter campaign to get this movie funded, which got a bit of criticism…
SL: A lot of criticism.
ZB: A lot of criticism! What was the experience like for you? It was obviously successful – would you do it again?
SL: I don’t know if I would. If I did it again it wouldn’t be for a while, but that was the only way this film is getting made.
ZB: Do you feel that you have more freedom, with these kind of independent films?
SL: I mean, “Do The Right Thing” was a studio film. There’s been this narrative that I’m through with Hollywood, that I’m through with studio films. That me going to Kickstarter is a ‘fuck you’ to Hollywood. I mean, all that is wrong with a capital W. If people go to IMDB, they will see that I’m very comfortable with independent cinema, and doing studio films too. For me this is not an either/or situation. And I’m a realist, I mean, from the very beginning, I knew it would be a waste of time to try to get this made in a studio. There’s just some films that they’re not going to do. And it’s nothing about a “black film”. It’s just that if they feel the film is not going to make X amount, it’s like, ‘That’s too small for us.’ This script was never sent around.
ZB: Do you still plan on doing that Kickstarter endowment fund you mentioned?
SL: Oh yeah.
ZB: The development of this film was very mysterious. No one really knew until opening night that it was based on “Ganga & Hess”.
SL: Because surprises are good!
ZB: You don’t think it might have actually been a good thing if people had known in advance?
SL: No. Surprises are good. I’m not of the thinking which is prevalent today where you tell the audience everything. Sometimes I don’t even want to see the trailers. You see the trailer, you’ve seen the movie.
ZB: What was the casting and rehearsal process like?
ZA: We read through the script, all of our scenes, round a table with Spike, and then we had a screen test that started at, like, 5 AM, and finished at, like, 7 PM. We did things on camera, we talked about things that we liked, things about it that we thought we would change, we sang to music, we danced together, and we just carried that through from the screen test, into the rehearsal period. It was really good because we got to look at the script really thoroughly. It was easy through Stephen, and I think when you just have a love for something, then you it in each other as you go along. We’re not boyfriend and girlfriend, but we have a love for what we’re saying to each other, and where we are, and what we’re filming, and who’s directing us, and I found that I just – found that place in Stephen. But, you know, some of the scenes were difficult.
ZB: Like what?
ZA: Having sex. Yes, it was very difficult. It was just – sometimes you’re so in the moment it is hard to separate, but it’s such a separating experience. Spike was so gentle with the whole thing. It was a closed set, he made sure we were both okay, anything we needed. We weren’t allowed to smoke on the set but I definitely had a cigarette before that scene! So, yeah, I mean – yeah, it was really good. The chemistry that stood out to me.
ZB: And Stephen? What was the hardest thing for you, doing this film?
STW: I’d say stamina. Yep. Stamina, throughout. I think, as an actor – because of the role, it was my job to carry [the shoot], and with that sort of comes that responsibility to show up. You know what I mean? I’d say the museum, the Brooklyn Museum was the hardest day for me.
SL: Why was that?
STW: We had the whole crew; it was, like, the first day of school. And I had, like, a monologue – I had, like, a whole page monologue, and it felt like theatre, you know?
SL: That’s a good thing, though.
STW: It was great! For some reason, in my mind I put this pressure on it, ‘We can’t do another take.’ Which is insane! I think, in the beginning, that’s why I was just a little wound up with the experience. But for most of it, more than anything, I just wanted to do a good job.
ZB: There were a lot of ties between this and “Red Hook Summer”. We see the same church, Lil Piece of Heaven.
SL: Church at Red Hook. Baptist church.
ZB: Yes. There are lot of religious undertones here, is this a –
SL: We’ve done that before.
ZB: True, yes, but I suppose here it seems more significant because the time between the two films has only been a few years.
SL: Yes, here’s the thing, you’re exactly right, we’ve done it before, but it might seem more prevalent now because we’re talking like, “Red Hook Summer”, “Oldboy”, and this film, so only one film between them. But I like to bring characters back from my films. For example, the two cops that killed Radio Raheem are the same ones that tried to wrestle Wesley Snipes in “Jungle Fever”. Buggin’ Out was a homeless person in “Jungle Fever”.
ZB: But are these particular movies the beginnings of a kind of trilogy?
SL: No, no, no. No, it’s not a trilogy, we just like to have these characters occur in different worlds. It was the same church, so we tried to bring back the same faces, because, in [“Ganja & Hess”], it starts at church, and it comes back to church, so it just made sense for me – let’s bring back Lil’ Peace Of Heaven, the Baptist church.
ZB: I wanted to ask about the music – you had an open call for indie artists to submit their work for this film. What was the process in choosing the music – what tone exactly were you trying to strike?
SL: There’s nothing different from all my other films. Music is, for me, a great tool of a filmmaker, the same way cinematography, the acting, editing, post-production, the costumes are. You know, to help you tell a story. So the approach with this wasn’t any different. What was different, though, is that, during post-production, someone was supposed to do the songs. And that didn’t work out, so using social media, we had an open call to unsigned artists to submit songs. Eight-hundred songs were submitted. Some people submitted whole albums.
ZB: Might as well!
SL: I listened to all eight-hundred songs, and there were many that were selected, but the final was twelve – we had to find the right song for the right scene. Picked the songs, made the deal with the artists – they were all unsigned – then went to Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who runs Epic Records. I said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this stuff!’ So, I played him the songs, and got a record deal. The soundtrack will be the twelve songs by the twelve unsigned artists, so that will be put out before the release of the film. And right now we’re trying to get it distributed.
ZB: I know you say this is not a vampire film, but it is a kind of genre film at the very least, and we don’t see a lot of genre films with black casts. So were you eager to tackle that?
SL: I didn’t really think about it like that. I mean, people say – It was the same when I did “Inside Man” and people said ‘That’s a genre film! You’ve never done a heist film before!’ But, I mean, I’m a storyteller, and there’s some genres I like. I don’t think I’m ever going to do science fiction, but I want to do a musical one day. I want to tell stories, I don’t really try to get boxed in by a specific genre. But, at the same time, I know that there are people who are going to – I mean, I’m not surprised everyone says this is a horror film. I mean, I don’t think so.
ZB: What would you call this film?
SL: I don’t do that, to tell you the truth. I don’t do that no more. Done. ‘So, what do you want to tell the audience? What should the audience come out of the theatre thinking? What are the themes? What should we feel in our heart?’ I don’t do that anymore.
ZB: Zaraah and Stephen. What was it like working with Spike?
ZA: It was horrendous. No, I’m joking! It was so, like, magical, I think, is the word. It was hard, but it was a good hard. It was like when someone is pushing you to get the best from you. From the beginning he’s been so nurturing, not only of the film and me playing the character, but of me as a person. And so then I felt safe, and when you feel safe it allows you to be free. And obviously it takes a while to build that trust, it takes a while to feel safe, and it was just truly incredible.
ZB: Spike found you through watching “Black Girls In Paris”, right?
SL: And I don’t think that was a mistake. I don’t believe in coincidences. I mean, my student Kiandra’s classmate Will recommended Zaraah for Kiandra. So there’s, like, one step further. It’s not like she found her. Her classmate, who’s also from London, found her. They work together.
ZA: Yes, at the BBC. William Smith. He tweeted me, saying ‘Oh, I’m at NYU and my friend’s doing a thesis, and there’s a role I think you’d be really good at, shall I introduce you?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure!’ And he introduced us, and she sent me the script, and I loved the script. I had heard about the book, so when I knew what it was I reread the book. And I just did the audition process over Skype, really, I put myself on tape, and she liked the tape, and then we talked over Skype, and she gave me more direction and then, yeah, we were filming in Paris for five weeks, which was just absolutely incredible. Constantly throughout the filming, she was referring back to what Spike had taught her. He was a huge figure on the project before I even knew about him. And then I got the pleasure of working with Spike!
ZB: And you, Stephen, have done a lot of theatre. I saw you in “Lucky Guy” which was really, really great.
SL: That’s where I saw him. Opening night!
ZB: Well what was that like, working with Spike, coming from this theatre background and into this environment where you’re carrying the film, in a lot of ways?
STW: For me, it’s like some of the earliest depictions of black men that I saw, through the lens of a black director, were from Spike’s films. I mean, I always knew that I wanted to act, but where I place Spike, and Spike’s films, I never saw myself in a Spike Lee movie. So just to be on Broadway, I’m like, ‘Yeah! This is it!’ And then opening night, to have Spike approach me, congratulate me about the show, which was in itself pretty cool – but then to say, ‘I want to work with you,’ and then to have him keep his word?
SL: And when I said I wanted to work with you, I hadn’t even – at that point, we were talking about another part, it wasn’t even “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus”. That had not even happened yet.
ZB: What was the other project that you were talking about?
SL: Hmm…I wasn’t specific.
ZB: This premiere dovetails with the 25th anniversary of “Do The Right Thing.” Some would say that you’ve changed significantly in your approach as a filmmaker. Looking back, how do you think you got from that film to “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus?”
SL: Hard work. It’s a tough business. Tough motherfucking business.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.