Kasi Lemmons Interivew
It's been an incredible journey so far we're happy to move the football down the field with someone who works in the field and sees both perspectives her journey has started its funny funny thing happened on the way to being the filmmaker she was an actress and then a funny thing happened on the way to being an actress she you know, kind of cup reversing itself she's not only an actress by trade a writer by trade ah filmmaker a thinker we are honored to have with us remotely via skype. Miss casey lemons hi. Hi, casey. Thank you for taking the time to be with us. I really appreciate that reading the history books a little bit before filmmaking there was acting in your life was that ah, a choice. What was it? A sort of family preoccupation or occupation? How did that work out? It wasn't a family preoccupation at all my family's in medicine and academics and so it's kind of the black sheep of the family. I think that, uh my parents got divorced when I was quite young when I was about eigh...
t years old and I think that kind of keep me out of trouble or to keep me from being model in my mother put me into classes of boston children's theater and I never suspected that I would be instantly smitten which I wass and I started actually on a professional we're very early I got my first acting job when I was nine and pretty much had decided that that was what I was going to do with my life and that's what I pursued for quite a while was filmmaking in the in the ether for you released in the back of your mind did you when did directing it was in that youth period where you were moving into performance is a very young age did you ever consider filmmaking or directing or wonder what that person did that director person not immediately I was a writer's oh so you know I was I was trying to write you know, little novels when I was twelve and all such a grating pretty seriously and worked on plays and everything like that even as I was an actor and I still didn't put that together in terms of filmmaking my real job filmmaking was that d a pennebaker edited in my building he had a suite of editing room is in the building where I lived on eighty six tree and so I used to kind of peek in there and watch him and that was really my first kind of besides just loving movies that was my first real you know, how does this work? What is the nuts and bolts of it? And I was so impressed by him that uh I decided you know being an actress that a lot of time on my hands even though I worked at a lot of time on my hands and friends of mine we use it in different ways you know they would stay in their in their voice lessons there their dance classes and I decided to go to film school and I decided to go to film school to make documentaries so I didn't put the marriage of acting and writing together kind of t make directing until until a bit later penny d a pennebaker for those you watching at home and he should be household and what a great mentor such a kind man but what would a cool early entry for you to work through documentaries I think that's a great training ground do you find that served you well in the sense of your narrative work has the documentary and food served your narrative work? Um I could say yes but I'm not really sure I mean I was very imperfectly it making documentaries I mean first of all, if he was a mentor he didn't know what I kind of spying on then I went to film school and I was very imperfecta at it so the first documentary that I made that actually festival's a little bit and had a little life but I did a very bad thing I put a voiceover on it which I didn't know kind of was breaking a rule at the time so I was never quite great at making documentaries and still very, very interested in it. Uh you know, and I think I've done some some better work since then, but I think I was always drawn tio creative writing and drama. Well, I like to tell my students correctly or incorrectly every film is a documentary, so in a way, you know that word requires a constant revision. I want to go back to before again before you were filmmaker, you went to tisch, correct? You were then you to school? I wass were you taking acting craft classes there? Will you take more you training there? Oh, yeah, I was in this studio program, so I was I spent most of my time in strasbourg and circle in the square. I used to teach it strasbourg that's funny was so you were learning method technique or were you learning a technique and how was was that was technique working for you, I guess. I mean, this idea of learning acting language was valuable for you. Yes, it was. I mean, I was a serious method head like I have many, many years was the method, and then, uh, spent a little chunk of time with the actor studio was a finalist, and they kind of let you sit in, uh as a guest observer and so I was there for a while, but I said I think like twelve years a class in strasbourg, probably all together before I started really branching out and studying are they just friends as well? Do you think acting can be taught? Oh, I think he can get a whole lot better. I think if you have some sort of natural spark or interests but a really interesting interest in human behavior in an interesting in an emotional life and and human reality, if you profoundly interested, you know, that would've spark I think that studying can make you a whole lot better again reading the history books you you went out to u c l a, but you're history major correct? Yeah, I wasn't quite done with academics and I decided to go back to schools in history. Major and sociology minor was film. I mean, obviously, the tradition of film at u c l a is very rich were you getting infected, thereby filmmaking or was it was very sexual word divided for you? No it's very divided. I went there and I enjoyed my classes, I was still acting, I was doing a lot of commercial work and stuff like that on the side and and then I moved back to new york and I went to the new school at school it's funny because you know film training just to digress a little bit film training is changing and you know this because you're in your instructor now and why you correct I am from training you know a lot of film training programs aren't even called film studies they're called media studies I know than the new school has a media studies division which is essentially their film studies when you entered into filmmaking training what were you learning was a technical was that aesthetic with it was at historic what what were you learning at the time I remember is being very very technical they basically they give us a blow alex you know you go make a seven minute film I'm sure that there was some history involved but it was very technical and that was great because of the time I thought I might want to be a cinematographer um you know it's definitely interested in shooting my own films and kind of you know exploring you know world conflicts was a camera on my shoulder that's how I envisioned it I think they could take the girl away from d a pennebaker because they can't take the d a pennebaker away from the girl but and again unless you the corollary khun filmmaking be taught questions I think yes yes it can be taught you can learn how to make a film you can learn what goes into the making of the stone you know, there's a whole life that can't be taught and there's this this's very inexplicable, something that I get, that you have to kind of have to be an artist. I mean, it's, just the latest, I think with any art, filmmaking is our it's it's a lot of things, but it's also in our and I think in order to be, you know, a gifted filmmaker for somebody who has something really interesting, a really interesting way of looking at life that city needs needham we need an interesting perspective, and deep curiosities and empathy comes and that's what makes good the lakers talent is one of those weird words that I just don't know, you know, it's so, so hard to put your finger on what that is, but yeah, it helps if you have something, you know, I love I love that dare I say refrigerator poetry, perspective in the sense of it's all these words, right? And I love your response there, and I also I tell my students this a lot, aiken point you and teach you craft, but I can't teach you how to be an artist. I feel students have to self professed that what do you stand on that can a student what? Did you have to call yourself an artist casey or did someone call you that? How did how does one become an artist? I know this is again a real simple question, but how does one teach that or is that simply self designed? Well, it's kind of a deep question for me, it's not at all a simple question I was on I think a lot of people experiences you know, I was suffering like I felt I felt pain they didn't know my felt unfulfilled, you know? I thought comes deeply frustrated and when I realized that what it wass was that I was an artist, I felt a lot better, you know, like ok, I'm not I don't have mononucleosis I'm just an artist that explained a lot, you know, there's no cure, right? I mean take two of these and call me in the morning no that's not happening seek out others like yourself, way have self help groups they're called acting classes and filmmaker because, well, it's good back to the more terrestrial concerns a z was starting to make films do you thinkyou're your pedigree is an actor helped you eyes that a language that that you felt you could re utilizes a filmmaker, the act, the actor language oh yeah, but I certainly didn't think about it that way and it was pointed out to me later, you know it's but I remember seeing an e p k for is by you and electronic press kit and the actors were talking about me and it was in seeing them talk about me that they said that it made a difference that I was an actor but I didn't really I don't think about that I was very happy that when I went to work on the first day on my first movie that wasn't the first set I've never been on you know what a clue yeah because of acting in people's movies even though I never really was that preoccupied with where the camera wass you know, it was always the beast is trying to avoid you know out there but I did get to see how the directors that I loved o and I worked with a great many wonderful directors how they treated actors and so I tried to incorporate you know, the things that I loved about each one of them were trying tio analyze kind of what was special about that relationship you know, where was the magic in that relationship the actor director relationship so I don't think a lot about that and some very good models to look up to you know I love that I love that answer a lot of film students will say to me, how do you how do you direct actors and I said and I said, you know, I don't know if it can be taught but it can be learned you know, in that sense and I love what you're saying that there's some kind of observation observational value and seeing I love the word used empathy I mean the the tools of working with an actor is no different then the tools of life in a strange way now I don't know if that's too poetic appoint or do you find there's another you I mean, do you feel like the tools that you used to work with actors are kind of the tools you used to work with anyone you know, someone doing work on your house or you know that kind of thing or is there a unique set of tools for actors? Uh I like the poetry of what you're saying, but I think that's the unique set of tools for actors I think it does involve, you know, dealing with complex human beings, which we do all the time, but I find that actors they're kind of special people and you're asking them to do something that's very scary and they're very they're incredibly vulnerable on dso that's something time to stand so unlike the guy painting your house who might also be vulnerable in his own way actors asking somebody to really access somebody else's pain an imaginary character you know too put themselves through some of the things that we're asking actors to put themselves through I think that takes a certain level of understanding and a certain level of empathy, empathy for actors, you know, understanding what you're asking of them, what you're asking them to do and that's what I told my students, you know, just like you have toe, you know, I want them to act two definitely experience it and experiment with it because I think you have to understand what you're asking someone to do, you know, it's not a magic trick it's a skill it's a craft and it's very difficult and very, very elusive you the last chapter of thought I wanted a dress and then we'll see if their questions in the room when I look at your work in the in a footprint and think of you you know, I also think of the life of film, you know, there's another filmmaker I know in your life you know, the history of your life in the tapestry of I mean your real life, what is it about the art life not to sound too david lynch in for a moment, but you know, film and work is part of your everyday let your everyday existence, you know, your husband is a filmmaker and and uh our is that a unique a new uniquely balance is that a unique balancing act toe have the life and maybe to life's under the same roof that have film and acting and has it been a help to have someone in your life who understands your journey and vice versa? Yeah, I mean definitely it's za tremendous help you know, we started off really first where way were friends for a while he was I think he was on broadway and he's just starting tio do that kind of thing and I was doing the I was trying to be, you know, theater actor and stones and stuff like that and I passed kind of, you know, converged around the idea that we might be interested in filmmaking in I think the same year I made eve's by you he made good left and it was really after making those films that we realized we were filmmakers you know what I mean? You suspected but it needs to be you need to really investigate it to see if you take to it and so I think it's incredible that we made those as our first films oh, and so we kind of kept uh doing it you know, we kept doing it and then there you have it you know, it's um it's full of land mines and, you know, tremendous ups and downs and I very, very very challenging but something really great to aspire to I mean it's great to aspire to something that you may never be good at you know in a way you know what I mean way we're talking about you know, when actors pick an intention in the scene you almost have to pick an intention you can ever achieve because the cnn you know, once you achieve that scene and of course we're referencing your husband actor wonderful actor filmmaker vondie curtis hall I want just one of the questions we'll see if there are questions now I'll just be real pointed you have children if they come to you they may have and may continue do about the profession would you advocate or not their entry into the profession would you say good news good idea bad idea would you what would you be a response? Well my children you know, we're making up to have declared themselves and so my one actor I am one actor in the bunch my children my sister's children s o before them they there's there's one after and he knew it when he was green you know, when he was six to kind of asked again like so you know what do you into he said like we've been over this I'm going to be an actor, you know? Hey hey always just knew and so he's a purchase in the the river green that's a great program that's a great training program for actives is part of your heart in your throat a little bit about them but him going down this actor journey yeah I mean I spent a lot of time lecturing him about you know, suffering thie importance of you know pain I don't know she listens I mean he wants it badly he always always he's an artist you know he's an artist and so he has that that take you know that you you feel better once you figure out that that's what it is and so he's got the others don't you know the genie is out of the bottle it's hard to put it back in you know any questions in the room for casey yeah and I made repeated just for clarity go ahead yeah and so a z understand you you still active in both disciplines ahs a filmmaker around an actress how do you go about balancing those two on? Does one detract from the other both creatively and also you know just in terms of time wise oh well I'm primarily I would say a filmmaker writer director that's what I spend most of my time doing in some ways the more interesting balancing act is writing and directing you know they're so completely different writings very solitary you know and and directing is is is very social you know, hearing a people business and balancing people and managing that acting is completely different, you know it's a great joy to act it's terrifying but it has been I make jokes that is in some ways it's it's the most difficult thing in the world and so elusive but it's a lot it's a lot easier in some ways and directing directing is very, very hard job, so sometimes you just I wanna be honest and have somebody put your makeup on and bring you the best breakfast burrito you know? And that that seems relaxing when you're directing and along those lines actually has has your acting informed your writing in the sense of do you feel like there's any kind of strategy that advantage but eyes that those molecules that you invoke is a writer? You're acting your dna is an actress? I think so I hear the characters talking in my ear and I know a lot of writers that d'oh that aren't actors, you know? So I think that that's imagination but I do feel that I get to act all the rules you know, when I'm writing, I'm very like emotional when I'm writing, I laugh when I cry and you know, I definitely feel like I'm acting all the rules and so that's the way I work, but I know a lot of people that I have similar experiences that aren't necessarily active well, I love the response I was thinking john kasich, betty's, cassidy's usedto act out the characters in his secretary would would transcribe it. Actually, he was not one to sit in a typewriter and indented in that kind of thing, he would literally act at all. There was, I think, I think that's a liberating point of view you offer case because I think there are writers who may not be the disciplinarians that the writer, the discipline, peace may not be there. I'm not saying you're not discipline, I'm just thinking being able to portray the rolls is kind of an interesting way into writing. In a sense, it gives you a sense of how characters talk, you know, you don't want to write a character that you've seen before. From on the other hand, I think is an actor. You pay attention to human behaviors in a way that can inform your writing, you know, also, when I teach, I try and get my students too. First of all pay attention, human behavior, you know? Yes, since we're in a last question, since we're in a context of learning and teaching, what is the state of film information? Education? You know, you meet students on a daily basis. Are you encouraged by the hunger I mean, you know we have a new narcissism now whether it's in society or in film do you are you hopeful about the idea of learning craft the very basic essential premise of loving the craft or do you feel like it's how can I get in the business faster and quicker and I mean what is the temperature when you take the temperature of students? What how do you read it? Well, I teach in a very good film school, you know? So I have a good experience I wonderful students we have wonderful students it and why you grabbed phillip's a wonderful program and so I find it very healthy you know? I love my students they are incredibly diverse, they have stories that they bring from around the world from a wonderful variety personal experience they're incredibly passionate maybe they're impatient but you know, aren't we all they they they're rich, they have a wealth of of life that they're bringing tio bringing tio us the stories that they want to tell you I'm very, very excited about it and I'm really excited about the diversity I've got to say is a woman it's wonderful to be in a class that that's just about half women you know, very very exciting so I'm tremendously excited by filmmakers that I see coming up on any of the stories that they want to tell one more thing about your students that you failed to mention they're fortunate there are very fortunate to have you in their lives you know again mentors are usually reluctant and unbeknownst to themselves and I could see how you would be the picture of mentorship to them thank you so much for being with us we're going to steal you one of these days and bring you here because we would be fortunate to have you share your knowledge with our group here so thank you so much casey thank you thank you casey women's everybody cool thoughts about that anything pop up in terms of something that you know I think film education a lot is feeling you're right you know, because she said something interesting she kept using the word elusive and I think kraft is elusive artistry is elusive and I think sometimes hearing the same I always tell my film students if you've heard something once that you're going to hear again don't be afraid to say it because when you hear it multiple times it becomes craft you know she was stressing that craft could be taught I think part of learning craft is hearing things in patterns anyway what did you think about casey? Anything we about it you what she said about vulnerability resonated with me and about how part of fully immersing yourself in a role requires you to make yourself emotionally vulnerable? Yeah, yeah yeah, I love the word she used empathy I think it's an extraordinary word on a human level let alone I thinkit's a prerequisite of being an artist being able to submit your feeling to something else and again, you know and I mean this almost in a clinical way there's this new narcissism in film you know that we're in the age of the selfie, you know, and this is not a value judgment on it I just think sometimes what we're missing a little bit is the scene study of life you know, I think films in general are you notice how few scenes there are any more like two people sharing information there's something the sight of compassion or empathy or understanding forget on an acting directing level I think also on a writing level one thing we didn't get with casey, but if you really study her she considers herself a writer you know? She teaches screenwriting I don't know if you got that out of the discussion mean she's a wonderful guest to have with us because she's so diverse but in terms of her craft but she's a screen writer by trade she calls actually screenwriting her straight job um other thoughts about her what did you think about the life pieces? I didn't want to probe too deeply into her life, but her husband is a filmmaker and does a lot entrepreneurial and film did any of that resonate with you? I love that her candor of talking about her son and you know I'm sure those discussions you all have had in your lives about life choices and art do you still have them probably should have them more no you know, I guess you know not my family still has them with me and I have a job you know what I'm saying? I think there's something about what we've decided to do that is intangible, you know and it's it's it's not chargeable you know in that sense I mean we're lucky to have guests you know, our guests in this course here's the news flash there freelancers you know this you know we're talking about rewriting the definition of rehearsal we also have to re examine what a freelancer is the joke on a movie said there's always world freelancers you know films were talking about work flow we were talking about we're talking about the architecture in the infrastructure of a film I think of it this way a film said essentially is a small business and literally if you produce a film you set up like an llc a limited liability company that but it doesn't make you an employee here essentially an independent contractor actors, filmmakers, gaffers grips, craft service everyone so that does take a lot of reconciliation whether it's individually or within families you know I also love her emphasis on meeting people from different worlds in different disciplines I think that's one of the gifts of this profession we meet people from different parts of the country, different parts of the world, different traditions I've learned more I don't go to the movies toe to get the news, you know I was told my students if you want the news, don't go to the movies but film process results can teach you about that word culture and tradition you know, I've learned so much about vocabulary, you know, and so much about where people are from through film through experiencing said another thing I thought was really interesting filmmaking is a social art or social profession I think that's a really important distinction for filmmakers I always I always quip maybe it's not equip even the worst filmmakers on a set even though you're really bad at it through a watching you everyone is watching, you know, in a sense that there's that position if we can digress for a little bit the eyes are upon that man or woman does that make sense? I mean there's something about that I've been on film sets where the director is slightly insane. I was joking before about one of my first I can't name this director, but one of my first jobs out of university was on a film set and I was in charge of literally walking behind the filmmaker and holding his chair that was my job pretty sweet, right pretty glamorous um I guess my point is he was I'm not just saying because I had a rough experience the coup had no trust in him and that's another component in terms of trust you guys have been on cruises on sets, the crew there's the crew has to trust right? They didn't trust him and you walk on the set and you think no one's paying attention to this director anymore they the crew even though morale was low, they observed everything no one checked out you can't because that doesn't happen these are professional circumstances this is we're talking about people's livelihood, people's means of supporting their family you cannot check out you stay you don't desensitize yourself to the process because there's still a job to do so even something further to what casey was saying about a craft that's teachable film is also a job that's teachable a lot of people don't want to use this word job around film because it says, oh, I don't want a job I want to work in film I never understand you know I don't want a job I want to be in film that's a job you know and this happens is realities come into our lives and that kind of thing, but I love she's a fascinating case case casey, this is a case study case study onda also she's a teacher and a lot of filmmakers. You know, frankly, my first advocation after I was done carrying well, that's the thing you know, I was carrying my chair around for this filmmaker I said I need a new way to work and work you know, there's an old joke the best way to be in the film business is to not be in the film business. You know, there is a road into film where your production assistant and work your way up and some people think that's not the right road I'm not here. This isn't a class about the right road, but I needed a new advocation of location where I could be flexible and pay the bills. What you know, actors know this more than filmmakers in a way. So I became a film teacher and I you know, there are there's a history of film teachers who work and why you and u, c l a and a lot of other film schools. If I have, you know, really great working professionals who are teachers and who plied their trade flexibly case he teaches every year two semesters a year on top of trying to take on other work on top of trying to write children, you know, husband family affairs that air going on? So I think it's a fascinating tapestry, but it's in a way, it's no different than that a young film practitioner. So I always joke when the young actors say, how do I get auditions? How do I pay my bills? I always joke that that's the same thing I'm going through like that's the same, you know, and that's why? One thing I never do is they never judge a professor, actors and filmmakers, their professional choices. And, you know, there's some actors who have who have made some dubious choices, we could sit here and go around the room, but I never judge them because you don't know what the motivation is. You know, I'm going to use a really bad example, but someone like robert de niro ok, so some of his choices make you scratch your head, but you are also is a production company. You know, he has a family, his other businesses. I mean, this is not nothing exists in a vacuum, so even going back to keith gordon keith okay, keith hasn't made twenty two features, but what he's chosen to do, it seems like either inadvertently or strategically is he does a lot of tv, but what I loved about what kids said is he does the tv huge likes to do you know, I thought that was fascinating, that distinction, he he's, not just a traffic cop, he actually is trying to execute some choice, and choices get harder and more complicated as we go, and they don't get simpler ahs you progress through film, collaboration, from a student or early practitioner to an advanced state of whatever. I think there are more variables involved, nothing, nothing, that everything is is connected to everything else. You know, I want to be an actor, but I don't want to live in l a. I want to be an actor, but I want one. I mean, these were sophisticated decisions, you know, they're sophisticated decisions.