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An Affinity for the Road Less Traveled

Director Kasi Lemmons only wanted to tell the story of a schizophrenic composer-detective. Try selling that.

March 04, 2001|ANNE BERGMAN | Anne Bergman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

More than three years have passed since Kasi Lemmons made her feature directing debut with "Eve's Bayou," not exactly a typical entree into the world of movie-making. With an all-black cast headlined by Samuel L. Jackson (who also co-produced) and a challenging story line infused with magical realism and hallucinatory imagery, "Eve's Bayou" was 1997's most commercially successful independent film.

A tough act to follow to be sure, as the film also was named that year's best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards, while Lemmons, who also wrote the film's screenplay, received a National Board of Review award for best new director.

Now Lemmons awaits the reception of her second feature, "The Caveman's Valentine," which opened Friday in Los Angeles and New York, with Jackson as Romulus Ledbetter, a.k.a. the Caveman.

"After 'Eve's Bayou,' I thought maybe I was a one-symphony composer. Maybe this is it," Lemmons recalls, sitting on a family-room sofa in the Hollywood Hills home she shares with her husband, actor-director Vondie Curtis Hall, and their two children. "But when 'Caveman's Valentine' came along, I felt the same kind of passion start to boil."

Written by George Dawes Green, who adapted his 1994 novel of the same title, the film tells the story of the Caveman, a Juilliard-trained former classical musician and composer who lives in a city park cave and--despite being a ranting paranoid schizophrenic--sets out methodically to track down the killer of a young drifter.

After "Eve's Bayou," Lemmons says, "I was very tired and very certain that I was going to write the next thing I did," Lemmons says. "So I wasn't looking to read a script at all. But my agent talked me into reading it and I got to Page 3 and I knew I was in."

Key to Lemmons' decision to direct the movie were the black angels, who appear in Romulus' visions as moth seraphs who guide and protect him. "I am obsessed with black angels," says Lemmons. "It started right after the L.A. riots, and I was working on this documentary and we interviewed this Korean woman who was talking about her father not liking black people. She'd asked her father why he didn't like black people and he said, 'Have you ever seen a black angel?' And that was haunting me, it really penetrated me."

From that point on, Lemmons was determined, she says, to depict black angels in her next film.

It was another sort of angel who propelled "The Caveman's Valentine" into production.

Jackson, who had loved the book, happened to approach Jersey Films partner and producer Stacey Sher and screenwriter Scott Frank, who also had just read "Caveman" and felt the same way. The coincidence prompted Jersey to develop the project for Jackson, who had just wrapped "Eve's Bayou." Jackson, in turn, suggested Lemmons to help bring the thriller to life.

Even with Jackson on board, however, Lemmons acknowledges that "Caveman's Valentine" proved a hard sell. "People would look at me and say, 'An African American, schizophrenic, composer-detective?' " Lemmons says with mock incredulity. "But without Sam it would have been impossible, because once you have a major talent like that, people start to look at it. He's made my career possible. I don't think 'Eve's Bayou' would have gotten made without Samuel Jackson."

For the new movie, "she really distilled the essence of the story so you could understand what was going on with Sam's character in a visual way. That sort of propelled the story forward," says Jersey's Michael Shamberg, who with Frank and partners Sher and Danny DeVito developed the script.

"These kinds of colorful characters on the edge of sanity, they're kind of 'Rain Man' characters," says Shamberg. "They're great for actors to sink their teeth into." And in this case there's an extra tension, Sher adds: "You keep rooting for him not to lose it and solve the crime."

To capture Romulus' tumultuous inner life, Lemmons developed the visual manifestations of his insanity--the moth seraphs who live in Romulus' mind, the yellow and green beams he sees projecting from the Chrysler Building, the visions of his estranged wife--and then the sequence of clues to the mystery.

To shape the story visually, Lemmons worked with cinematographer Amy Vincent. "I'd done visions and flashbacks and hallucinatory memories before," says Lemmons. "But this was much bigger and more challenging."

Lemmons and Vincent, who'd made her feature debut as a cinematographer on "Eve's Bayou," decided to shoot the clues to the murder mystery in high-contrast black and white, and to accomplish most of the other effects in-camera as they were filming. "Most of the effects work in conjunction with light cues from us, like the way the beams come off the Chrysler Building," Vincent explains. "The beams as they originate from the top of the building are digital, but we did their effect as they fall upon the Caveman."

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