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Interview: Spike Lee & Kevin Willmott (CHI-RAQ)
CHI-RAQ (Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions), a drama-musical about gun violence that’s based on Aristophanes’ Greek comedy Lysistrata, arrives with grim timeliness in the wake of the video being released of Laquan McDonald’s murder and a seemingly endless stream of mass shootings plaguing America.
The WGAE spoke with CHI-RAQ co-writers Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee about their writing process and the long road to getting the film made.
KEVIN: I make independent films. I made this film called NINTH STREET. That was my first film I made. In an interview, I said I was interested in writing a script about John Brown, the abolitionist. Mitch Brian, who’d been in L.A., had just moved back to Kansas, said he was also interested in John Brown. We got together and about a year later we had written a script on John Brown called SHIELDS GREEN AND THE GOSPEL OF JOHN BROWN. We were able to sell that to 20th Century Fox. That is what launched my screen-writing career. After that, Mitch and I worked for about ten years in Hollywood for various studios. We wrote a thing called CIVILIZED TRIBES for 20th Century Fox. We wrote a few things for Oliver Stone, one called LITTLE BROWN BROTHERS, which was about the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the century. We wrote several versions of a script based on Mike Blake’s Marching To Valhalla. He was the author of Dances with Wolves. Then we wrote a couple things for TV at NBC. A thing called HOUSE OF GETTY, which is about the billionaire J. Paul Getty. Then NBC did THE 60’S and THE 70’S, and we wrote THE 70’S, which was a two night mini-series. That actually was a movie. The only thing I have ever had made by a studio before CHI-RAQ was THE 70’S. It wasn’t a really great experience for me, to be honest with you. After 9/11, it seemed like I just couldn’t find any more work, so I concentrated on making my own films. I was a vested member of the WGA, so it seemed like a good time to, maybe, change courses. I made this film called C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA. At that time, Spike and I were with the same agency. I had never met Spike. He heard about the film and asked to see it. He watched it, really loved it and became a presenter on the film. So the film is ‘Presented by Spike Lee.’ After Sundance, he asked if I had any other scripts. I had a script at that time called GOTTA GIVE IT UP, which was based on the Lysistrata play.
SPIKE: Credit has to be given to Kevin Willmott. Kevin is the co-writer on CHI-RAQ. He’s the one that first brought Lysistrata to my attention. He wrote a script called GOTTA GIVE IT UP, which was based on Lysistrata. That took place in a nondescript urban city. Kevin wrote the script. I was the director. And we couldn’t get it done. Nobody wanted to do it. It wasn’t time for this show.
KEVIN: One of the most frustrating things most writers talk about is writing movies that never get made. From the very beginning, even when I was a kid, I would write a play and then we would do the play. I’ve always tried to keep that notion alive in my head. When you write something, you’re writing it to do it. That’s been something I’ve tried to hold onto. After GOTTA GIVE IT UP, I went back to making my films. Spike went back to making his films.
SPIKE: A little more than a year ago, I called Kevin up and said, “Do you still have hope to sell your script? Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to co-write it. We’re going to make it take place on the south side of Chicago, and we’re going to call it CHI-RAQ.”
KEVIN: Thirteen years later, he calls me and says, “Do you still have that script?” I said, “Yeah, I still have it.” He said, “Let’s set it in Chicago and call it CHI-RAQ.” GOTTA GIVE IT UP was originally going to be shot in New York. It was basically supposed to be set in any major city. That was the idea. That’s what’s so interesting about the CHI-RAQ thing, because even though we’re dealing with a very specific thing, CHI-RAQ could be any major city. Most major cities have huge problems like this.
SPIKE: We went back and forth. He’d write something, and I’d write something. It was a totally beautiful writing relationship. We both wanted the same thing, and we both knew what we could do to make it the best script possible. It was a beautiful relationship.
KEVIN: I write at my home. I write on a computer. I usually write in the morning. I’m clearer in the mornings. Some things I have to write by hand and some things can go right to the computer. Sometimes, you have to step away and get your hand, pencil and paper involved. I use a beat sheet. That’s all I use. I usually think about the movie a lot before I get started. I tell my students that you don’t want to sit in the chair and the chair become this bad place for you. When you sit in the chair, you should be writing. When I get stuck, I’ll go to the library, I’ll go do other things, but I try not to be frustrated in the chair. The chair should be a good place for you, and a fun place.
SPIKE: Kevin made the smart decision to keep the script written in verse when we re-wrote CHI-RAQ. We wanted to keep the verse. We also knew we didn’t want it to be all verse. We had to go to the script and decide where it’s going to be verse and where it’s just going to be plain dialogue.
KEVIN: I was in the play Lysistrata in college. I noticed, immediately, how speaking in verse spoke to African-American traditions and African-American literature. Spoken word and rap and folk tales really fit within the original text of Lysistrata. That was one of the things that Spike always really liked about it, was the verse.
SPIKE: We rewrote the script. Last January, my agent Bart Walker and I went to Sundance. We had the script, a budget and some cast. We made appointments to try to pitch it. Everyone said “No,” but Amazon.
KEVIN: Working with Amazon was a lot like making an independent film, which I loved. We have a reading for them and they green light the film. I wish that happened every day. That’s like a miracle of God. That just doesn’t happen very often. When you think about it, we’d been trying to do CHI-RAQ for thirteen years. I guess it was time.
SPIKE: We’re very fortunate that Amazon came through. I told my students in NYU graduate film school, where I’ve been a professor for the last fifteen years, forget about the “Nos.” It only takes one “Yes.” Everybody said “No” except Amazon. A big shout-out to Ted Hope, who believed in the project.
KEVIN: When you try to deal with issues in a film that are touchy and volatile and divisive, people don’t deal with them. People don’t want to go there, because they are divisive and people have real clear sides of the issue. That’s why you have to do it. When you do it, then the things that happen in real life, and they happen all the time, they send a message that your film is speaking the truth in some kind of way. The urgency of what you’re trying to say is clearly apparent. I think that’s what we’re seeing here.
SPIKE: We’re in kismet with the Laquan tape being released, police commissioner resigning or being fired, take your pick. Rahm Emanuel, who was the first critic of the film, his job’s in jeopardy. All these things, like the shooting in Colorado Springs, This film is very, very strongly against gun violence. This was the right time for it to be made.
KEVIN: We’ve had a lot of flak for trying to take this on. Now I think you’re seeing the response to taking on such a difficult issue. The response is, “We need to talk about this all the time.”
SPIKE: We had one script before we got to Chicago. There was a lot of rewriting while we were in Chicago, because we’re talking to the people who live there. Father Michael Pfleger was a big influence on this script, especially, which I feel is a great scene portrayed by the great actor John Cusack, where he does the eulogy/sermon for the slain young girl. There’s Father Pfleger all over that speech.
KEVIN: We went to Chicago on a research trip. Met with gang members. Met with the mothers of victims of murder. It was really a very profound experience. Talking to all these mothers and all these people who had been touched by violence in so many different ways. We took all that information and took that back to the script. Spike would write certain things. I would write certain things. We’d pass notes back and forth to each other. There were things from the original script that didn’t really fit anymore, because of the setting in Chi-raq. The reality of dealing with something that was as real as gun violence in Chicago changes everything.
SPIKE: The script evolved when we got to Chicago. There were a couple of scenes where they weren’t even written when we started to shoot. We wanted to remain contemporary. That act of terrorism, when Dylann Storm killed those people in Charleston, South Carolina was not in the script. South Carolina wrote that scene during shooting. We wanted to include that.
KEVIN: One of my favorite characters is the Dolmedes, played by Samuel L. Jackson. That character was always in the script from its origins. Samuel did such an amazing job with it. It’s kind of the embodiment of Rudy Ray Moore and all those trash talking guys. There is a whole legacy of people who have told tall tales. I think African-Americans who’ve grown up with that, really respond to it. I saw a lot of that last night, at the film’s premiere. That’s something that really translated from the script to the screen very well. We were able to utilize the Dolmedes character to glue things together and keep the movie moving forward.
SPIKE: The first time I saw thought bubbles used in a movie was in Justin Simien’s film, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE. That’s where I saw Teyonah Parris, the lead actress. In Chicago, many people told us that what people put on social media got a lot of people killed. What they posted on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. That’s something I did not know. We definitely wanted to incorporate that into the script. The scene between the great Roger Smith, who plays the insurance guy with the Red White and Blue Insurance, with Angela Bassett was not written until Chicago. A woman named Natasha Parker, who was one of the location managers, told me this happened to her. The guy came up to her, and somehow, they knew she was a single mom and had a teenage son. They tried to sell her to take an insurance policy out on her son. I’d never heard of that before.
KEVIN: Jennifer Hudson was amazing, and very courageous for being willing to go there. Having lost family members in Chicago. Her being willing to go and pull from an experience that you know is still very fresh. That wound will probably never totally heal. That takes a lot of courage. We’re very fortunate to have her in the film.
SPIKE: Jennifer Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew got murdered in Chicago. We had this character, Irene, and we wanted Jennifer. It was just a matter of if she wanted to do it. I definitely knew I wanted her. She was the only choice.
KEVIN: The thing about that scene with Jennifer discovering that her child has been killed by gun violence is that that scene happens every day around the country. It certainly happens every day in Chicago. The normality of it all was the most disturbing thing. When you would be in the neighborhood talking to someone, a neighbor that was watching us shoot the film, and you would start talking to them, and you’d quickly find out that they’ve lost a brother, or a cousin, or a father. Literally, you couldn’t talk to anyone that had not lost a family member. That’s just shocking. I think that’s part of the problem. People have become used to it. I think Americans, as a whole, have become used to gun violence. Are we really shocked when the next school shooting happens? Are we really shocked when there’s some mass shooting in a theater someplace now? We have become numb to the whole thing. That’s why I think CHI-RAQ, in so many ways, is really important.