- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2016

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, ILLINOIS | Chaz Ebert introduced filmmaker Kasi Lemmons Friday evening by saying her late husband had it in his “notebook” to at some point program her movies “Talk to Me” and “Eve’s Bayou” for his film festival. While Ebert himself didn’t live to see it, Ms. Ebert proudly introduced Ms. Lemmons to the capacity crowd at the Virginia Theatre.

“She is also one of the most impressive women I’ve ever met,” Ms. Ebert said before bringing the filmmaker, who is also a professor at New York University, to the stage.

“Roger Ebert literally made my career,” Ms. Lemmons told the crowd, saying Ebert wrote a glowing review of “Eve’s Bayou” when it showed at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1997.

“Critics are incredibly important; they’re the arbiters of taste,” Ms. Lemmons said. “This man told everyone to go and see my movie. It became a hit indie film. Thank you, Roger.”

Eve’s Bayou” tells the story of a philandering Louisiana doctor (Samuel L. Jackson, who also produced) and his family. His youngest daughter, Eve (Jurnee Smollett) witnesses one of his extramarital encounters, which sets in motion a series of events that will end in tragedy.

For Ebertest Ms. Lemmons screened the director’s cut, which added in Uncle Tony, a key character the investors asked her to delete from the theatrical version.

Uncle Tony is confined to a wheelchair for reasons never explained, and he also has a speech impediment that more or less renders him dumb. However, he is a witness to one of the key events in the film, which did not happen in the theatrical version.

“Uncle Tony was the mute witness, so the truth was contained in some person,” Ms. Lemmons said. “I removed Uncle Tony, but it was so painful that my postproduction crew had a T-shirt made that said ‘Where’s Tony’?

“I like both cuts, but the film was not at all autobiographical, but in a certain way it is based on my family aesthetics,” she said, adding she set the film in Louisiana based on her own family history and Creole extraction.

Ms. Lemmons said the financiers also requested she make the ending less ambiguous, however, she said that was her “line in the sand.”

Ms. Lemmons was an actor before migrating to the director’s chair, perhaps most famously appearing as Jodie Foster’s FBI colleague in “Silence of the Lambs.”

“Directing is like sex, you never know how the other guy does it, but when you’re an actor, you see other directors direct,” Ms. Lemons said. I tried to make it an intimate conversation with my actors.”

At the time Ms. Lemmons and her colleagues were trying to finance the film, no one in Hollywood was willing to take the risk on an unknown talent even though they liked the concept.

One would-be financier told Ms. Lemmons, “I don’t see how you can do it without a big star like Samuel Jackson. And then I went and got Sam.”

Mr. Jackson, hot off “Pulp Fiction,” agreed to produce. Ms. Lemmons found a financial backer in England from Trimark, a company not exactly known for art house fare.

“When I got my greenlight meeting, nine months pregnant, I sat across from a poster for ‘Leprechaun in Space,’” she said to immense laughter.

With a star and financing in place, the director still needed two young actors for the key roles of Eve and her older sister, Cisely. At first she cast Meagan Good as Eve, but by the time she was ready for production, Miss Good had gotten too old.

“It takes so long to make movies, which is hazardous if you have your eyes on a child,” Ms. Lemons said, adding she on location in Louisiana, with sets under construction, without her Eve.

“One day I was walking the French Quarter and I thought, ‘I’m screwed,’” she said.

But then her casting director called from Los Angeles saying she believed she had found the young lady for the part.

“Jurnee had that quality that I couldn’t describe, and I fell in love on the spot,” the director said. “Her brother was there, and I was like, ‘Are you an actor?’ So I cast them both.”

Ms. Lemmons has directed four feature films, saying that at the time she made “Eve’s Bayou” she was considered “a statistic” as a female director of color.

“When I made ‘Eve’s Bayou’ I thought that was the end. And then I kind of got the bug,” she said. “Now there are more women making more films.”

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