- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

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Mildly superstitious, director Kasi Lemmons thought it would be a lucky first step to begin shooting her latest film, "The Caveman´s Valentine," on Valentine´s Day.

That was a year ago. This past Feb. 14, Miss Lemmons sat in her home high in the Hollywood hills overlooking Los Angeles and figured her luck has been holding pretty well.

Miss Lemmons had managed to adapt a complex novel about a fiercely deranged, cave-dwelling New York City man to the screen with a striking at times startling visual flair.

The murder thriller had a high-profile premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where Miss Lemmons also had the honor of serving on the jury that chose the dramatic award winners. After Sundance, "The Caveman´s Valentine" was the opening movie for the Hollywood Black Film Festival.

"I´m not ridiculously superstitious, but I wanted to start on Valentine´s Day," says Miss Lemmons, an actress since childhood whose best-known role was as Jodie Foster´s FBI academy chum in "The Silence of the Lambs." She made her directing debut with the acclaimed "Eve´s Bayou" in 1997.

"I have all kinds of magic spells. I´m like a magic-spell type of person. It´s like, oh, I found $19 in two jacket pockets, so that means in 19 days my luck will " Miss Lemmons says, trailing off with a laugh.

"The Caveman´s Valentine" had other good omens, notably that the title character was played by Samuel L. Jackson, who also starred in "Eve´s Bayou." Miss Lemmons´ sister Cheryl, a psychiatrist, was on hand as a consultant about mental illness.

Like "Eve´s Bayou," it was a tough project to get started. Adapted from George Dawes Green´s 1994 novel, "Caveman´s Valentine" did not exactly scream "commercial success" when Miss Lemmons and her producers were shopping it around to film financers.

The "caveman," Romulus Ledbetter, is a Juilliard-trained pianist whose schizophrenia has left him ranting on New York streets and living in a hole in the ground.

Romulus believes an evil force named Stuyvesant spies on him from the top of the Chrysler building. He wrestles with visions: his ex-wife, who cajoles and encourages him; paranoiac images that flash on TV screens; black angels, or "moth seraphs," that inhabit the chambers of his mind and torment and guide him.

On top of that baggage, Romulus emerges one day to find a corpse in a tree outside his cave. He sets out to hold his scattershot mind together, play detective and solve the homicide.

"I think if you went anywhere and said, 'I´ve got a movie with a homeless lead,´ it´s hard automatically" to raise financing, Miss Lemmons says. "Even without him being African-American and homeless. That´s a really hard sell. And African-American, schizophrenic and homeless? I mean, who are you kidding?"

The project had strong advocates in its producers, the partnership Jersey Films formed by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher. Franchise Pictures eventually stepped up to finance it.

"Eve´s Bayou" also was a tough sell an intricate tale of visions, guilt and the elusiveness of truth. Mr. Jackson plays a lothario doctor in the Deep South whose romantic trysts touch off darker doings in his family.

Miss Lemmons wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 1992, a time when she was frustrated about the quality of acting roles coming her way.

The story for "Eve´s Bayou" had been in her head for years; she used to tell it to family and friends over long evenings. Miss Lemmons grew up in St. Louis and Boston and spent a lot of time with relatives in Alabama. Those experiences helped shape the tale.

After a year of looking for a "real director," "I really just woke up one morning and decided I should direct it," Miss Lemmons says. "I thought, it´s a very delicate piece of material, and it´ll never stay intact unless I direct it."

Though Miss Lemmons would consider acting again for the right parts, she says writing and directing come first.

"I´m having so much fun, though it´s the hardest thing I could ever imagine doing, except for raising children, which is a day-to-day adventure. The most realistic drawback for me right now is my tastes. I have very strange tastes in material. An African-American woman with very strange tastes. Well " Miss Lemmons says, laughing again.

By David Germain


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