TA  L  K          TO             M    E

SAYS DIRECTOR KASI LEMMONS TO THE POPCORN REEL

By Omar P.L. Moore

July 8, 2007

photo of Talk to Me,  Kasi Lemmons
"Talk To Me" director Kasi Lemmons at last month's LA Film Festival; Don Cheadle stars as Ralph Waldo 'Petey' Greene in Ms. Lemmons' film, which opens on Friday in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and around the rest of the U.S. on August 3.  (Lemmons photo: WireImage; Cheadle photo: Stephane Fontaine/Focus Features)
 
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A nd on the by and by, when a person as talented, as skilled and as wondrously beautiful as Kasi Lemmons grants an invitation to converse with her, you don't refuse.  Particularly when it is to talk about her remarkable new film "Talk To Me", which opens in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles this Friday (July 13; expands to other U.S. cities on August 3.) 

"Talk To Me", about Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene -- an irreverent figure who became a community leader in Washington D.C. following a stint behind bars as an ex-convict -- is loaded with passion, energy and dynamic performances by Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Taraji P. Henson.  Cheadle plays Greene, the nation's first talk radio "shock jock" if you will, whose show at WOL -- a struggling white-owned radio station in D.C. during the racially turbulent 1960's -- was a daily variety of social commentary, political activism, music, wit, and the speaking of truth to the powers-that-be.  Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor) is the WOR radio station executive who gets Greene on the air despite much objection.  The real Petey Greene was not only a cause celebre at WOL, he went on to become one of D.C.'s most favorite and beloved icons in the local community he led.  Greene passed away in 1984, just two weeks short of his 57th birthday.

Lemmons, an actor (in such 1990's films as "Hard Target" and "The Silence Of The Lambs") prior to directing the breakthrough independent hit "Eve's Bayou" (1997) followed by "The Caveman's Valentine" (2001), said that with her new film "we basically focused on the friendship between Dewey and Petey within a certain period of time."  There was a tension between the real-life Dewey Hughes and Petey Greene that Ms. Lemmons spoke of, such as the time when Hughes told her that he'd asked Greene to do a comedy album.  Mr. Greene assented, Lemmons recalled Hughes telling her, but "Pete would blow the punchlines.  He didn't like to be packaged.  He liked to be pure, spontaneous voice," said Lemmons.

For the director the relationship between two black men on the big screen -- something anathema to mainstream American film -- was an element of "Talk To Me" that was very important to Lemmons.  "It's rare to see and such a beautiful thing to reveal," she said of the rapport between the two black men in the story.  Ms. Lemmons said that the kinship between Greene and Hughes recalled the friendship between the characters played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" (1969) and the camaraderie shared by Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby in Mr. Poitier's "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974).  During filming, Lemmons said, Dewey Hughes (who became a good friend of the director through their collaboration on the Focus Features release) told her about Petey Greene and the kinds of conversations that Hughes and Greene shared.  "They loved each other, they loved each other.  They could work together all day and then go home and talk to each other at night and yet they were very, very, very different people.  And so the way he would talk about Petey and their friendship allowed me to build that friendship in the movie and between the characters, which of course, was also in the script."

The story was created by none other than Michael Genet, who also happens to be the son of Dewey Hughes.  Naturally it made sense for Mr. Genet to be the architect of the script and story, as he had insights into the life of Petey Greene through his father that very few others had.  Genet wrote the script of "Talk To Me" along with Rick Famuyiwa.  Among Mr. Genet's other screenplays is "She Hate Me", Spike Lee's 2004 film.


Shaking on it: Don Cheadle as Petey Greene and Chiwetel Ejiofor as WOR radio executive Dewey Hughes in Kasi Lemmons' "Talk To Me".  (Photo: Stephane Fontaine/Focus)

The movie poster for "Talk To Me" is billed as "inspired by a true story."  As many keen observers of film are aware, there is a big difference between "inspired by" and "based on" when it comes to true stories on the big screen.  "Inspired by" usually means that much more dramatic license is taken and that only the idea of the true events remains at the center of a story which may have wholly different facts and circumstances surrounding it.  Even though inspired by creates more freedom to truncate or at least be more creative with the film's subject matter, Lemmons' first objective was to evoke the relationship between the two men and the others within the film.  "I felt that I wanted to be true to the emotional integrity of the characters, and if I did that as good as I possibly could then the rest would kind of fall into place.  If I was trying to get right the details of the Petey Greene life story -- that wasn't the kind of movie that I was making.  That was never the movie we were making.  We were making a movie in which Petey Greene was a character, from Dewey's point of view." 

"Talk To Me" is the first film by Kasi Lemmons which is based on or inspired by non-fiction subject matter.  "Eve's Bayou", which Samuel L. Jackson starred in and helped get made, did strong business during its release in U.S. theaters in 1997.  The film was about a haunting secret that reverberates around young Eve, played by Jurnee Smollett in the deep South.  Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, Debbi Morgan and Diahann Carroll also starred in the film, which grossed $14.8 million in the U.S. and Canada (the film was budgeted at $5 million -- $3.2 million of which was grossed on its opening weekend.)  Esteemed American film critic Roger Ebert praised "Eve's Bayou" as the best film of 1997.  "Bayou" demonstrated Lemmons' unique visual style and texture as a debut director and her emphasis on character-driven work and intimate storylines fueled her next film, "The Caveman's Valentine", also starring Samuel L. Jackson -- a story that takes place in New York City, with Jackson as a cave-dwelling man who has endless talent as an artist and musician, and perhaps as a detective.  The film also features Tamara Tunie, Ann Magnuson, Aunjanue Ellis and Anthony Michael Hall and contains astounding cinematography. 

In those prior Lemmons films the characters were real, palpable beings that were uncompromised and undiluted.  The director carried the same mindset for the characters in her latest film.  "We wanted to stay true to the emotional authenticity of who Petey was to us.  I didn't want an imitation.  It's not interesting to me, as interesting to me as emotional authenticity.  I don't want a mimic.  I want Don Cheadle.  You know what I mean?  I want a tremendous actor.  And then we see the humanity in the character and we relate to him.  He's a hero and yet he's a man that we're watching right there and then at that moment."  One can sense trepidation, or perhaps anxiety in Lemmons' voice as she forecasts the prospects of the Beltway community's reaction to "Talk To Me".  "I'm going to be very interested to take the film to D.C. and show it to them and see what they think.  Petey Greene's nephew had seen it.  And most importantly to me, Dewey's seen it.  I've never been so nervous in my life before I'd shown him the film.  I had a deep need for him to love it and fortunately he did.  I'm kind of looking forward to exposing [the film] to people that remember [Petey] extremely clearly."  While the filmmaker admitted that she was a little nervous after a press day in D.C. held during the filming of "Talk To Me" there last year, the only real pressure was to accurately depict the emotional integrity of the characters.


Don Cheadle as Petey Greene and Taraji P. Henson as Vernell Watson in "Talk To Me".  (Photo: Michael Gibson/Focus Features)

Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor have played some interesting and electrifying characters in their screen careers and the trend continues in "Talk To Me".  Both actors could have played each other's characters, and Lemmons considered it, asking the two thespians whether they wanted to.  "As soon as I found out that [Don] wanted to do Petey I thought, 'this is gonna be great," said Lemmons, who is married to actor-director Vondie Curtis Hall.  She was excited at the chance to get to see Cheadle in "this outrageous performance."  She added: "It's not the way you usually see him.  Don's amazing.  Killer, in "Devil In A Blue Dress".  He's almost saintly in "Hotel Rwanda" . . . I hadn't seen him just this completely outrageous before recently, so I just really enjoyed watching him in the performance."  Lemmons recalled that Ejiofor turned to her during the filming and in his native British accent (which Lemmons mimics) said, "I love playing this part!" 

With two actors of the status of Mr. Cheadle and Mr. Ejiofor it's easy to forget that "Talk To Me" also stars Taraji P. Henson (memorable in January's "Smokin' Aces"), Cedric The Entertainer, Martin Sheen and Mike Epps.  Lemmons has said that she would like to see Henson in another prominent role, certainly in a future film of Lemmons's.  "She's a very, very sweet person, and very exciting to work with.  She's a livewire."  Other than "Smokin' Aces", Henson had previously been in "Hustle & Flow", where she played a subdued, timid type of character.  Here as Petey's on-again, off-again girlfriend Vernell Watson, she more than rivets the attention of audiences.  Cedric plays the Nighthawk, a popular talk radio host at WOL whose status as top dog encounters competition once Petey Greene hits the scene.  With Mr. Sheen as WOL's manager and chief executive E.G. Sonderling, and Mike Epps as Dewey's brother Milo, the ensemble is complete.

And of course, as she has done in her prior two films, Lemmons casts her real-life husband Mr. Hall, in "Talk To Me" as WOL's talk radio personality Sunny Jim.


"I'll tell it to the hot, I'll tell it to the cold.  I'll tell it to the young, I'll tell it to the old.  I don't want no laughin',
I don't want no cryin', and most of all, no signifyin'."

                                                                                                                        -- Ralph Waldo 'Petey' Greene


The look of "Talk To Me" which remains as vibrant as the director's previous efforts, is down to cinematographer Stephane Fontaine.  "A really good DP watches the actors and is informed by the actors.  So he watches the rehearsal.  And we've talked about it of course.  We'd broken down the entire script scene-by-scene and gone through it and talked about what we want and what we want it to feel like.  But Stephane particularly is very affected by the performance.  He still talks about the final pool hall scene, how the energy in Don's body is completely different."  The visual tone shifts over the course of the film with the subject matter and circumstances of the film's times (during the 1960's through the 1970's and early 1980's) and Mr. Fontaine "instinctually make those decisions as well" about the look of the film, as much as Ms. Lemmons did.

As much as the look of "Talk To Me" grabs the audience, its music will force even the most antiseptic of audiences to tap their toes.  "It was one of the reasons why I did the film, honestly.  The character of music in the film -- is very wonderful thing to play with.  I remember the moment that it occurred to me as a director I could choose all the songs.  'Like, wait a minute!  We could choose all these songs!  We could just put what I want to hear in the movie!  It's one of the distinct, distinct pleasures of working on the movie, was the music.  The actors would show up and in their hotel room I'd have the director's mix on a CD.  Of course, there was an evolution of the music and the soundtrack to what ends up in the film, but I had strong ideas and would burn CDs for every [character] to listen to, so they'd go into the make-up trailer and they'd be playing one of my mixes, so the music was very important to me."  The film features many signature American soul sounds of the 1960's and 1970's, including Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come", a song that plays in its entirety during a key period in "Talk To Me".   Lemmons said that "we went through different choices of the song.  We wondered, 'has it been overused?'  We had Mahalia Jackson there for a while, which was also fabulous.  But because Sam Cooke was important to Petey . . . it was the perfect, perfect choice, so when we decided that that was what we were going to play, we just couldn't imagine it any other way."  Terence Blanchard scores the music for "Talk To Me", as a compliment to the original soul music from such artists as James Brown, who is played by an actor in one scene during the film.

Finally, the director had some thoughts about "Petey Greene's Washington", Greene's television show that was syndicated across America to more than 50 million homes in the late 1970's and early 1980's.  Howard Stern was invited on to the show and appeared in blackface, angering the studio audience at the time.  Mr. Greene however, quickly quelled the situation, with an implacable disarmament.  Mr. Greene also became more controversial to some with a segment on one of his television shows entitled, "how to eat a watermelon".  Greene is seen slurping away lasciviously as he eats.  The clip is the one thing that remains about Greene on the Internet, and Lemmons expressed lament about that -- that with all of the things he did to inspire a community and save America's capital city during the loss of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  many of the uninitiated today would have no knowledge of his leadership and heroism (he prevented a fellow inmate from committing suicide when he was in prison), but would only have this clip as a frame of reference.

"Talk To Me" aims to change that.

"Talk To Me" opens this Friday in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles and across the rest of the U.S. on August 3.


Kasi Lemmons (center) with her "Talk To Me" cast: husband Vondie Curtis Hall to her right, Don Cheadle to her left.  Flanking the middle three filmmakers are, at far left, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Elle Down, and at far right, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric The Entertainer, at last month's Los Angeles Film Festival.  (Photo: Steven Williams)
 

 
"Talk To Me" screenwriter Michael Genet (left) with Terrance Greene (nephew of Petey Greene), and the real-life Dewey Hughes, father of Mr. Genet.  Hughes is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film.  Filmmaker Kasi Lemmons pictured here with her actor-director husband Vondie Curtis Hall at last month's Los Angeles Film Festival.  Mr. Hall plays Sunny Jim in Ms. Lemmons' latest film "Talk To Me".  (Photos: Steven Williams)
 

Click here for the "Talk To Me" trailer

Click here for the "Talk To Me" featurette

Click here to visit the official "Talk To Me" website


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