About a week ago I was at New York City’s Metrograph where The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a special screening of director Kasi Lemmons‘ 1992 classic Eve’s Bayou. It was part of their Academy at Metrograph program. Eve’s Bayou is the film that was chosen for this month to both continue to spotlight female filmmakers in the industry and in honor of Black History Month.
For her directorial debut, Lemmons wrote a story about a daughter who witnesses her father having an affair, and starts a chain reaction that could tear her family apart. For her cast, she assembled a group of veterans and newcomers (Samuel L. Jackson, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Debbi Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Diahann Carroll, Lisa Nicole Carson, Meagan Good, Roger Guenveur Smith, and Vondie Curtis-Hall), who are all still working today.
Prior to the screening, I sat down with Lemmons and film editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, who had gone on to edit Lemmons’s subsequent films, including Caveman’s Valentine, Talk To Me, and Black Nativity. Both had discussed their experience on making the film during a time when black women in those positions were rare.
For those who may not know your work as a director, they may be familiar with your acting roles. Can you talk about the transition from acting to directing and the challenges you faced?
Kasi Lemmons: In some ways, it was a gift. I was always interested in writing. I had gone to film school. I definitely had a pull in writing and directing. I had been writing and acting since I was a kid. So I went to film school and I started writing and writing with other people. Eve’s Bayou was the first thing I wrote by myself and it was as simple in that I took the time, I wrote the script, I wrote a few drafts until I thought it was good. I showed it to (husband) Vondie (Curtis-Hall) and he said that I really had to show it to someone else. So I showed it to my acting agent and he read it and he went down the hall to the theatrical department and literary department and that person is still my agent, Frank Wuliger. Frank just fell in love with it. Then it was a process of trying to find a director for it because I didn’t have the idea that I was going to direct it.
We looked for a director and all the directors we approached turned it down. Then at a certain, I said to myself that I had been to film school, I am a writer and an actor. This might have the right quality and I don’t think anyone would recognize that but me. I told my agent and producer that I think I should direct it and it really was an epiphany. It was magical that we shopped it around town, and had 100 meetings. People loved the script and it was one of those things where everyone wanted to meet but no one wanted to make the movie. Then I met the folks that wanted to make the movie and from the time they wanted to make the film, they never faulted. I was nine months pregnant when we got greenlit. I was just happy that I was getting in all those rooms. The producers I worked with were looking for a prestigious movie with a big star and by that time we had Samuel L. Jackson attached.
Can you talk about the film still being shown and discussed over 20 years later?
Kasi Lemmons: What a gift that is. It finally got to the point where I can watch it as an audience member which is great. It’s something so close to my heart, but the major thing that happened recently that was a transformative experience was the film being inducted the National Film Registry by The Library Of Congress in 2018. We are so honored and to be honored with this screening that still 22 years later people are coming to see it. It’s your dream when you make a movie that it would have legs and that will stand the test of time and Eve’s Bayou has proven to stand the test of time. I’m incredibly proud.
This was your first of many collaborations with Kasi. Can you talk about coming onboard with this film?
Terilyn A. Shropshire: When I was given the script of Eve’s Bayou, I had never read anything like that in my life. When I read a script, I watch a script and I saw my family. I saw uncles and aunts and I saw these professional beautiful black people and I just knew that this was something that I wanted to be a part of and whether or not I got the job, I was so grateful that someone was finally making this film. I initially had a conversation with the producer Caldecott Chubb and Caldecott was very protective over this movie. He really put me through the ringer. He even passed me on to Kasi to be considered.
I wasn’t sure at a certain point that I would get the opportunity because I think there was someone else that they were looking at, but I just knew that I had to do everything I could to get to be a part of this beautiful movie and if I wasn’t going to be a part of it, I just wanted to know thank you for writing this. It worked out. We didn’t meet until she came into the cutting room for the first time. She was in New Orleans and I was in Los Angeles cutting and it was always scary the first time you show a director your first cut. I was meeting her for the first time. There’s a lot of magic to that movie and working on it. It allowed me to do everything I have done since.
How was that experience for you, especially when on your first film, you’re not sure what will work or not?
Kasi Lemmons: We were just trying to make a good movie and get through the process and get through the politics and get the story told right. We didn’t think about the future. It was a very difficult movie. It was a very difficult post. We knew what we felt we had. We felt we had captured the script. We felt we had captured the movie in the best way possible and we didn’t know what the reaction was going to be at all. The first reaction I was completely unprepared for and that was the Telluride Film Festival. I would never forget it. It was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. The response to the movie was very overwhelming.
During the 90s, there was a lack of female directors and editors. Can you talk about that journey because we still have a lack of Black female editors?
Terilyn A. Shropshire: They are getting there but it’s been slow and coming. For me, I was at a stage where I was just trying to be seen. I had worked up the ladder being an apprentice editor, assistant editor, 2nd assistant editor, 1st assistant editor and I had been making that transition to editing but it was sort of that situation where if you don’t have the credits in your resume, you can’t get the job and you can’t get the job unless you have the credits in your resume. With a name like Terilyn A. Shropshire, I was going into meetings and you can see the change in their eyes where they weren’t expecting a Black woman to walk through the door. Yes, I was aware that I was trading my career in that but I wasn’t thinking that I was the only one out there. I was looking at people like John Carter and George Bowers. I was seeing African American males cutting and I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
I was more focus on being a real good editor and getting opportunities to show my skills. I was fortunate that the film I did before working with Kasi was with an editor who had become a director and had recognized my contribution in her cutting room. Then I was fortunate enough to have Kasi look at that work, even though it wasn’t anything close to the genre she was directing; but she looked at the work and hired me based on the work and my passion for her script. Young editors like Joi McMillon (Moonlight) came from our cutting room and there have been other people that I have been mentoring who are starting to make their way. I know that they have a lot more faces that they can see than I did.
What are we getting with your next project, Harriet?
Kasi Lemmons: You’re getting a biographical adventure film about one of the greatest heroins of all time. It’s one of the greatest American stories that we have to tell and I got to tell it. Please see it.