WAMG Interview – Kevin Wilmott: Director of DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO- SLIFF 2013
Kevin Willmott is a professor of film at the University of Kansas and a filmmaker known for work focusing on black issues including writing and directing NINTH STREET, C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA and THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN. His newest film, in which he costars, is called DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO.
DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO made its premiere last winter, and is continuing to travel the film festival circuit, including a screening this Saturday as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). WAMG contributing writer Sam Moffitt describes DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO as “that rare comedy that actually gets funnier as it goes along. The rocket ship and especially the hardware inside are spot on, beautifully done. Obviously done on a low budget, this is great stuff” (look for Sam’s complete review here at WAMG on Friday)
DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO deftly mimics low-budget 1950s sci-fi to make some comically pointed observations about present-day American reality. In 1939, a group of African-American intellectuals – including such luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois – come up with an ingenious if unlikely response to Jim Crow America: leave the planet and populate Mars. Using peanut-and-sweet-potato-based technology created by George Washington Carver, a three-person crew (plus one rambunctious robot) rockets into space in Earth’s first working spaceship. After an unfortunate encounter with a time warp, however, these early astronauts find themselves not on Mars but in a place that bears a startling resemblance to the contemporary U.S. Their spacey adventure – which takes the trio, both literally and figuratively, from black-and-white into full color – threatens to undermine the time line of history but unearths some hard truths about American culture.
The DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO screening at SLIFF is this Saturday, November 16th at 8:30pm at the Tivoli (6350 Delmar Blvd., University City, MO). Kevin Wilmott will be in attendance to answer questions about the film afterwards.
For more ticket information, visit Cinema St. Louis’ site HERE
Kevin Wilmott took the time to answer some questions about DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO for We Are Movie Geeks.
Interview conducted by Tom Stockman November 13th, 2013
We Are Movie Geeks: Have you been to St. Louis before?
Kevin Wilmott: Yes, I live in Lawrence, Kansas and I was at your film festival a few years ago with my film THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN.
WAMG: What is your film training?
KW: I went NYU film School. I was in the dramatic writing program.
WAMG: I’ve read that you were a fan of Blaxploitation films when you were young. How have those ‘70s films influenced your own filmmaking?
KW: I went to the movies a lot growing up in Junction City Kansas, and there was a black theater there that showed all of those movies. It was great because I went to see a different Blaxploitation movie every week. And of course Gordon Parks directed SHAFT and he’s from Fort Scott, Kansas and that film had a large influence on me and lead me to believe that I could be a filmmaker and tell stories I wanted to tell. I think that the better Blaxploitation movies had a certain kind of honesty about them that I still try to include in my films.
WAMG: Have you ever thought about casting one of the great ‘70s Blaxploitation stars like Pam Grier or Fred Williamson in one of your films?
KW: I have not. I’m tempted to wait for the right film to do that. I would really love to though.
WAMG: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers and why?
KW: One of my favorite filmmakers is actually Woody Allen. I like him because he makes a variety of different films. He started out as a stand-up comic and made some satires and slapstick in his early films, which I think DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO has some connection to. He’s also done sophisticated urban comedies, and heavy, Ingmar Bergman-inspired films. He’s done a little bit of everything and I’d like to be able to make any kind of film I want to and work in a lot of different genres, make a lot of different types of films.
WAMG: Have you seen Woody’s latest BLUE JASMINE?
KW: Yes, and I liked it a lot. It’s pretty much Streetcar Named Desire.
WAMG: Your site says that DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO has the feel of a low-budget ‘50s science fiction movie. Were you also a fan of those films as well?
KW: Yes, and we paid homage and kind of tipped the hat to those films. DESTINATION MOON is one where the title of our film comes from. ROCKETSHIP X-M, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO GO TO MARS. All those films I grew up with. They were a lot of fun. The science of those movies was almost non-existent and we kind of use that to our advantage in our film.
WAMG: How did the idea of DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO come to you?
KW: It’s an idea that I’ve had for a long time. I’ve always been interested in stories about people trying to change the course of their problem. I’ve like the idea of pioneers going out to some new place. Nicodemus is an all-black settlement that we have here in Kansas and there were a lot of those across the country. There were always people going out into the unknown to solve their issues. That’s the kind of theme addressed in this film as well. There’s always been a lot of jokes about black folks, especially during the civil rights days, going to the moon or going someplace. I kind of took that and ran with it and played with that premise to hopefully tie it to more current events.
WAMG: You play one of the leads in DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO. What are the challenges of directing a movie you’re starring in as opposed to one you are not?
KW: I knew that I would be playing the lead in this so it was one of those things where I write it accordingly and my cinematographer Matt Jacobson, who I work with all the time, directed me, told me where to turn and things like that, so I had assistance. When you write a script, you know exactly how you want things to go which makes things easier. It’s a lot different since the movie is so much a part of me and it was a lot easier for me to play a part.
WAMG: How were you able to pull off the special effects on such a low budget, or are the effects supposed to look sort of cheesy?
KW: Some look cheesier than others. We certainly tipped our hat to that style of film. We had fun with that and we had other things that look more modern, especially in the later part of the film. One of the advantages I have is that I have a lot of former film students that work with me and a lot of them have become very skilled at special effects so we were able to do a lot of that at a low price.
WAMG: Was filming in Black and White a particular challenge?
KW: No, I have made several films in Black and White. Actually DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO isn’t all Black and White. It starts out that way, then turns to color.
WAMG: Oh, all the publicity stills I’ve seen from it have been in Black and White.
KW: Yes, we’re trying to not give away too much of the color part of the film. I really love Black and White. My new film JAYHAWKERS is in Black and White entirely. I think when it fits the style or theme of the film you’re making, it works, although Hollywood doesn’t do much of that. It’s one of the advantages of being an independent filmmaker.
WAMG: Is JAYHAWKERS your Wilt Chamberlain project?
KW: Yes it is.
WAMG: What’s the status of that film?
KW: It’s finished and we’re just starting to submit it to film festivals. Hopefully we can be down there with you guys next year.
WAMG: Do you address Wilt’s claim to have slept with 20,000 women in the film?
KW: (laughs) No, but we kind of show where that notion comes from which is interesting I think.
WAMG: Well good luck with both JAYHAWKERS and DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO and we look forward to seeing you in St. Louis this weekend.
KW: I look forward to it as well.