“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” Spike Lee’s remarkably powerful romantic gothic that the director famously took to Kickstarter to fund, is currently playing in theaters and exclusively on Vimeo on Demand. Based on the 1973 film from director Bill Gunn, Lee’s updated version is a sexy, stylized religious take on the modern vampiric romance, filled with bright colors, thrilling music, subtle societal issues, and Knicks pride.
Equally humorous and tragic, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is one of Lee’s most refined recent works, a fusion of youthful energy and well-worn perspective.
After experiencing the film the first time out, I spoke with editor Randy Wilkins, a filmmaker in his own right who has worked with Lee on several of his recent projects, about editing diegetic and nondiegetic musical sequences, knowing when not to cut, and whether or not he considers “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” to be a horror film.
What editing software do you use?
Wilkins: I work on Avid and that is my preferred choice. I’ve grown really comfortable with it. At some point, I plan on learning Premiere because the industry seems to be moving towards that.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the mesmerizing, stand-alone opening credits sequence, involving a lone Jookin dancer performing throughout New York City. The sequence doesn’t feel clipped or pieced and assembled together, but rather gives off the impression that it was performed multiple times at each location, cut to the music to create a kind of choreographic continuity. It’s a beautiful, joyous piece of work. What was your approach to that sequence?
Wilkins: It is funny that you bring the opening sequence up. There is a pretty interesting story behind this. I didn’t cut the opening scene of the film. The legendary Barry Brown was the one to cut it. The original plan for the post production of “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” was Barry would be the lead editor and I would be his assistant despite Barry leaving the country to work on another film. Barry wasn’t able to deliver the edited scenes at the pace Spike wanted so I slowly began to take over the lead editor duties. Before I knew it, I became the lead editor and Barry transitioned to the Supervising Editor. There wasn’t a conversation or meeting about it. It just kinda happened. Right before Barry left the country he cut the opening scene with Lil’ Buck. Barry has so much experience cutting sequences like this from “School Daze,” “Do The Right Thing” and some other Spike films that it was very natural for him. Spike shot the dance at multiple locations with Bruce Hornsby’s score serving as scratch music for Lil’ Buck and Barry. So your intuition is correct. The sequence was handled in a way where the choreography was natural and continuous. I think it is one a great and unconventional way to start the film.
Due to his profession, the film features numerous static shots of ancient African artifacts and symbols that decorate Hess’ mansion. Multiple scenes often open with these signifiers, staring straight at us. They represent risk (as in the central Ashanti dagger that sets the story into motion) and a forgotten history to be savored.
Wilkins: All of the observations you make about the presence of the African Art are correct. It is a reminder of the great histories of African countries. But the primary reason for their presence is to build the Hess character. Spike and I needed to establish throughout the film that Hess was raised by an affluent Black American family. His wealth is an important piece of the story. It is how Hess navigates in the world of Martha’s Vineyard and feasts on the world of Brooklyn, NY. The Bill Gunn original places Hess in a world of affluence, but doesn’t explore it as much as “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.” The art is a clear indicator of the type of man Hess is, the behavior he exhibits and the worlds he inhabits.
Due to some of its heavy genre elements, the film has been classified as a horror film. If this is to be believed, do you have to use more cuts, intensified as the film moves forward? When a character crosses over into the undead, did their reawakening have to be underlined by a stylistic change of sorts?
Wilkins: I don’t view this film as a horror movie. I know it has certain horror elements, but I believe this is a love story. We didn’t make any conscious decisions to intensify the cuts or quicken the pace when Hess’ victims came back to life. In fact, some of the revivals play out in long takes. There is a very methodical pace and approach to this narrative. There was a story we wanted to tell that extended far beyond the blood addiction elements. That is one thing that I really love about the film. It would have been easy to play to the genre and follow a formula. Spike has never conformed to the rules of genre. The beauty of the story is that there are so many layers to explore. The film touches on class, race, personal addiction, societal addiction and of course love. If I manipulated the pace these themes wouldn’t have the opportunity to breathe. That was more important than pandering to the horror genre.
There’s a scene where Hess, after a memorable one night stand, heads to the clinic to get tested for HIV. Once he discovers the results and stands up to leave the office, you employ a striking wipe cut, transitioning us from his current location to him standing on a beach in Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a startling switch.
Wilkins: I have to give all the credit to Barry Brown for that idea and Randy Balsmeyer at Big Design Film for executing it. It is a great detail in the film and one that makes sense. It certainly heightens the transition into the next phase of the story.
There’s a brutal moment where Hess, giving in to his thirst for blood, picks up a random mother to murder in her Brooklyn apartment. While we don’t see the murder take place, the sinister implications come from its aftermath. We see Hess playing with the now orphaned baby, before the camera pans past the slaughtered woman and into the kitchen, where we see photos of her with child taped to the refrigerator. It’s a subtle sequence that emphasizes the severity of Hess’ actions.
Wilkins: This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It is a demonstration of Spike’s tremendous ability as a director. It is one simple shot that captures the essence of that moment. It heightens Hess’ viciousness, while also creating a desperation for the audience because they realize, in the moment at least, that we are witnessing a baby become an orphan. We layered the sound of the baby crying throughout the scene and added music from a Celeste piano. As a director myself, that scene is a great lesson in less is more. One well thought out shot and a few sound elements can really create a powerful scene that resonates both emotionally and in a narrative sense.
There’s a tension-filled scene dripping with eroticism where Ganga dances with Hess’ old girlfriend in their living room (they dance without music, slyly portraying a rhythmic activity sans rhythm). The camera repeatedly circles them, going a continuous 360, leading the anxious viewer to believe that Hess may appear at any moment from behind Ganga’s prey, ready to attack. As this moment features zero cuts, when do you know when to step back and let the scene play itself out? How closely do you work with the rest of the team on making these choices?
Wilkins: Spike designed this scene so there wouldn’t be a cut during the dance. He didn’t want to interrupt the energy and build of the moment. This came from Spike’s preparation prior to production and the great Director of Photography Daniel Patterson executing such a difficult shot. My job was to find the best take performance and camera wise and put it into the cut. A lot of these discussions come while you’re viewing the dailies. You get a better sense of what the director is thinking for a scene while you go over the raw footage. You get a better sense of the rhythm, the transitions and key components of a scene when looking at all of the takes. It is a critical part of the process for an editor. Spike requires that we see all of the shots for a scene prior to cutting it. If we haven’t viewed the dailies the scene doesn’t get cut. I believe in that rule as well.
The film has an incredible score by Bruce Hornsby and a youthful soundtrack by a diverse group of up-and-coming artists. The nondiegetic music pulses throughout. And the music within the film, like the toe-tapping church number late in the story, provides an uplifting moment in a filmed with darkness and uncompromising weight. How do you cut for music? Is there a different approach you take when working with diegetic and nondiegetic music?
Wilkins: A lot of people don’t realize this, but Spike is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to music. He grew up in a music household with his father the great jazz musician Bill Lee. Spike has a clear vision of what instruments he would like in a score, the rhythm of a song and how the specific pieces of a song evokes a particular emotional tone he wants. It was really wonderful to be a witness to that.
I definitely take a different approach depending upon the source of music. We didn’t use temp while we were cutting because you can fall in love with it. We wanted to make the cut as fine as possible before we introduced music so we spent about three or four months just working on the picture. Scene 91 with the Lil’ Peace of Heaven Baptist Church Band was the most challenging and satisfying scene for me. This was my first feature as a lead editor. There were a lot of things I learned throughout the process and one of them was learning how to cut diegetic music in a scene that has so many elements. The first thing Spike and I did for that scene was pick a music take that wasn’t too long or too short time wise while having a strong performance. We weren’t so concerned about picture because there was a great deal of coverage (three cameras) and multiple set ups. Choosing the right performance of the song was paramount. Once we picked the best music take you begin to build the scene. The music is dictating some shot choices and it really provides a great blueprint for how the energy builds for a climax in the scene. This is the most important scene in the film so there are a lot of factors in play. The challenging part was striking a balance between the atmosphere of the church and the redemption that Hess seeks from the church. It took about twelve hours to get a rough cut and we worked on that one scene for about another week. We really fine tuned that scene to make it the best it could be. For the nondiegetic music, my focus is on the picture. Bruce Hornsby scored to picture so the score didn’t affect the way I cut a scene. In the case of the unsigned music Spike curated, we played around with his selections to see which songs fit which scenes the best. Some songs had an obvious place in the film, but others involved a lot of experimentation. We didn’t want to be conventional with the placement of the songs so we looked for ways to play against what one would normally expect.
Follow Erik Luers on twitter at @ErikLuers.