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April 2007
KILLER OF SHEEP: Interview with Charles Burnett

KILLER OF SHEEP: Interview with Charles Burnett
By Special Correspondent Max Evry

April 9, 2007

What can you say about a movie that earns heaps of critical praise, launches a young director’s successful career, becomes one of the first 50 films entered into the National Film Registry, but never actually get released? “Killer of Sheep” is a wild anomaly of a film if there ever was one. Despite being named one of the National Society of Film Critics “100 essential films of all time,” this 1980 feature is only now getting a chance to be seen by audiences around the country.

Virtually handmade entirely by writer/director Charles Burnett while a graduate film student at UCLA (his classmates included future “Kids” helmer Larry Clark), “Killer of Sheep” depicts life in LA’s ghetto neighborhood Watts by presenting a myriad of alternately sad, funny, and touching vignettes. The various scenes are tied together through the main character Stan, played with thoughtful grace by Henry Gayle Sanders. Stan’s work in a slaughterhouse is beginning to take a psychological toll on him, creating a gulf between him and his wife and children.

Refusing to conform to any cheap plot devices, “Sheep” instead focuses on small moments like an attempt to carry a replacement motor for a car down a precarious flight of steps, a husband and wife’s solemn dance in the living room, a flat tire en-route to a picnic, or a little girl serenading her doll to an Earth, Wind and Fire song. Overall it creates the effect of being an invisible observer into the real lives of these people, and while it offers no solutions to their predicaments, it leaves the viewer hopeful. These people do not lead lives of quiet desperation, but rather of quiet dignity.

Burnett has gone on to a have a distinguished career as an independent filmmaker, including “To Sleep with Anger” and “The Glass Shield”. As his debut film is garnering virtually unanimous praise in the press, I got a chance to talk to Burnett about the release, which critic David Edelstein of New York Magazine recently called “…a great—the greatest—cinematic tone-poem of American urban life.”

MAX EVRY: So how did this proper theatrical release finally come about?

CHARLES BURNETT: It came about through the efforts of the restoration team, and it kind of took off from there. At the same time Milestone Films was interested in distributing it, but they had to go through a mountain of rights issues, which were kind of prohibitive. That was resolved after four-years of work, maybe more, they finally were able to secure the rights.

ME: The big thing holding it up was the music rights, correct?

CB: Yeah, because when I made this film at UCLA it wasn’t really made for theatrical release so I wasn’t as concerned with getting the rights. As long as you show the film without profiting from it that was okay. When we started to shoot for a proficient theatrical release then that became an issue. Like I said, the film was never designed to be shown theatrically, it was responding to how people were making films about the working class and usually oversimplifying the issues they were involved in.

ME: Right, you were doing it in response to the blaxploitation films…

CB: There was always the black exploitation films, but it was also films that were progressive and positive in a way but were also reducing the complexity of the problem to dealing with shop workers. Workers in factories where you get in the union and then it solves the problem. It was more complicated than that.

ME: Steven Soderbergh is presenting the film. What involvement did he have in getting it out?

CB: One of the things we needed was some sponsors to come in and help, financially, get the rights to the music and all these other issues and he stepped in big time and helped out a great deal.

ME: What was the original impetus for “Killer of Sheep”? What made you want to do this as your thesis film at UCLA?

CB: The impetus was the whole Civil Rights Movement and we felt we had a responsibility to reflect reality, tell the truth about the black community. To help, however we can, to march the social movement forward. This was an attempt at taking part in that. It was also, like we said earlier, a reaction against the typical Hollywood depiction of the black experience. The whole idea was to present the complexity of the fight for life, how these people live. It wasn’t something where you could do one thing and it would solve the problem.

ME: The thing I liked about this movie is, as you said, it doesn’t conform to those formulas. Whether it be the films of that time or the more contemporary ones like “Training Day” or “Menace II Society” that push for some big third-act confrontation. Your lead character, played by Sanders, is just a decent family man who goes through this spiritual crisis and he gets tempted several times throughout the film to commit crimes or to fall totally into despair but he never does. That makes him heroic in my eyes.

CB: Yeah. That’s the whole idea. You can’t ask for anything more than that.

ME: Do you think that’s why this film stands out in people’s minds and stuck around all these years?

CB: I don’t know. One of the things is that it’s hardly been shown. I guess to museums and maybe college students, it has survived that way but it really hasn’t had a run yet. It’s been shown so rarely so it’s hard to say what the response will be on the wider release.

ME: Of course, it’s a whole different ballgame when it leaves those esoteric circles and gets a wider audience. What films inspired the episodic structure that you chose?

CB: I don’t know if it was a particular film. If anything it was a neo-realistic approach where you’re wanting to tell the truth about a particular experience without imposing your values on it. It took on a documentary form, where I just set up the camera and shot what was there. That was the whole idea, not to feel the director’s involvement.

ME: You had a spartan approach to the filming, pretty much just you and the camera, no real crew?

CB: Yeah, and we had kids who were helping with sound and some of the other areas. The whole thing was to demystify filmmaking in the community.

ME: Shooting in such a guerilla style must have led to some interesting incidents. Do you have any anecdotes from the shoot?

CB: It was a slow process, a weekend kinda thing. People would show up and they wouldn’t show up. It wasn’t like it was structured or anything. If they showed they showed, if they didn’t they didn’t, we just wouldn’t shoot that day, that’s all. For example when one of the guys was sick and he couldn’t make it, and we’d already shot some footage of him and he said “well can’t someone take my place at that moment?” It’s not like you’re playing football, someone can’t just step in and play your position, you know? In film, the body has to be the same body! That was a little difficult for them to understand.

ME: This was your first feature. What stuck with you from the experience that you still carry into the films you’re making now?

CB: Overall the thing of having completed the film and knowing that you could make a film. The satisfaction of having done some experimental work that you feel comfortable in. Kind of hard to measure what you’ve learned, but I think it’s more a thing of confidence, in a sense. That you could tell a complex story. It wasn’t difficult to shoot. Filmmaking isn’t difficult, it’s simple. Each film is so different, you tend to block scenes and visualize things using the experience you have.

ME: You got some really naturalistic, seemingly spontaneous moments, especially with the child actors. How did you go about capturing that?

CB: Well, I think it’s being aware of them, and also respecting them. There was an incident I remember where I was trying to tell this little girl how to drink this water and come over to her father. So I’m telling her, I sort of bent down to her level, took the water, “walk like this,” sort of crouching down at her level. Then when I said action she did exactly what I did, she crouched down and walked over to her father. I said “no no no”, and I get down on her level again, did the same thing, and she did the same thing. I didn’t realize she was imitating me crouching down. I was just trying to get down to her level. So I realized it was my mistake and I stood up and said “this is what you do.” So from that moment on I learned you can talk to kids like they’re adults and they understand perfectly what you’re talking about.

ME: Your next movie is “Nujoma: Where Others Wavered”, about the first president of Namibia.

CB: Yes, it’s a film about the liberation movement in Southwest Africa. Kind of a personal story, it’s based on Sam Nujoma’s autobiography. Danny Glover is in it, and Carl Lumbly plays Nujoma. We’re finishing up now, we’re doing the mix in April in South Africa, and it’ll be in festivals sometime after that.

“Killer of Sheep” is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York and the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y.; April 6 at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles; April 20 in Denver and Lincoln, Neb.; May 4 in Atlanta; May 18 in San Francisco; May 21 in Austin, Texas; June 1 in Dallas, Santa Cruz, Calif., and Washington; June 8 in Boston; June 15 in Houston; and June 22 in Pittsburgh and Seattle, with more engagements to follow.


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