ABOVE PHOTO: Kevin Willmott
Interview with Kam Williams
Kevin Willmott grew up in Junction City, Kansas and received his BA in Drama from Marymount College in Salina, Kansas. After graduation, he returned home and worked as a peace and civil rights activist, fighting for the rights of the poor, creating two Catholic Worker shelters for the homeless, and forcing the integration of several, long-standing segregated institutions.
Kevin did his graduate studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, receiving several writing awards and an MFA in Dramatic Writing. He subsequently wrote, produced, and co-directed Ninth Street, an independent feature film starring Martin Sheen and Isaac Hayes.
The movie is a dramedy based on Kevin’s own experiences in Junction City, a tiny town adjacent to Fort Riley. Set in 1968, the film deals with the last days of one of the most notorious streets in the nation.
At the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, he screened C.S.A., The Confederate States of America, a mockumentary speculating about what the United States would be like had the South won the Civil War. The picture was picked up by IFC Films and was also a Spike Lee presentation.
Kevin has also directed The Battle for Bunker Hill, the Only Good Indian and Jaywalkers. And, earlier this year, he co-wrote Chi-Raq with Spike Lee. Besides making movies, Kevin is a Professor of Film Studies at the University of Kansas. Here, he talks about writing, directing and starring in his latest offering, Destination Planet Negro.
Kam Williams: Hi Kevin, thanks for another interview.
Kevin Willmott: My pleasure, Kam.
KW: As you know, I loved Destination Planet Negro. Where did you come up with the idea of combining a spoof of sci-fi movies from the Fifties while simultaneously making some thought-provoking statements about race relations?
Kevin: I liked those old, silver bullet, rocket ship movies that we watched on The Late, Late Show as kids in the Sixties. The title of the picture comes from the film Destination Moon. Another influence is Rocketship XM. The kind of sci-fi I like is the type that makes a social statement, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. So, I tried to combine the two elements, paying homage to those rocket ship films while giving it meaning by dealing with racism, past and present. As well, when President Obama was elected, I thought a lot about my parents and what they would have said had they witnessed his election. My father was born in 1898 in Mississippi and was 60 years old when I was born. When I was a kid, we often joked about how a black president could never happen. So, I wanted to deal with that reality about how far we have come in America and how far we still need to go in terms of race. In many ways, that also shaped my reasons for making CSA- Confederate States of America. For me, I am always trying to find a plot that allows me the opportunity to tackle issues I’m interested in exploring.
KW: The film walks a line back and forth between serious and farce. How do you decide when to go for the joke and when to be serious?
Kevin: You try to experience the film as you are writing it. There is a rhythm and tempo that develops between humor and drama as you move forward. Humor is the base coat of the film, and then you are looking for opportunities to bring forth the serious elements that inform the comedy. You want the serious moments to be organic and not feel forced. In that sense it all becomes somewhat instinctual.
KW: This is your first starring role. What made you decide to play Dr. Avery?
Kevin: In my first film, Ninth Street I also played one of the leads. I started out wanting to act and be a standup comedian. I was obsessed with Richard Pryor. I knew in writing the film I would have a very limited budget. In that sense playing one of the leads makes producing the film a lot easier. I also knew I was available and willing. As well, I probably wouldn’t be too difficult.
KW: What message do you hope people will take away from the film?
Kevin: I hope people will see how important every moment in history really is in terms of how past injustice and discrimination affects our daily lives. I wanted to have the audience contemplate how bad racism was in the past and how complicated it is to identify and fight today. I think the film shows how we aren’t in a post-racial society and perhaps the race problems we have today are even more completed, in terms of the response, than those of the past.
KW: What’s up next for you?
Kevin: I am finishing a film, The Association, starring Scot Pollard who was recently a contestant on Survivor. Scot was a former KU basketball player and had a long career in the NBA. The film deals with the underbelly of college and pro sports and how many athletes end up broke at the end of their career.
KW: Which do you enjoy more, filmmaking or teaching?
Kevin: I was a filmmaker first, and that is why they hired me at Kansas University. I also love teaching. For me, I see the two professions, on the whole, as entirely interconnected.
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to direct?
Kevin: No, I don’t care for remakes as a whole. I think we should remake films that had a great concept but didn’t quite work. Maybe it’s the script doctor in me.
KW: Larry Greenberg asks: Do you have a favorite movie monster?
Kevin: Godzilla and King Kong. I loved the original King Kong vs. Godzilla. I saw that old movie in the theater as a kid.
KW: Ling-Ju Yen asks: What is your earliest childhood memory?
Kevin: I have a vague memory of drinking my bottle at church. I think it’s because I took a bottle far longer than I should have. [LOL] I also have a vague memory of seeing the film, The Ten Commandments. All I can remember was the vivid colors.
KW: Who loved you unconditionally during your formative years?
Kevin: My mother and father were great! I also was lucky to have terrific role models. Including a man that lived in our basement, Ralph Starks. He was a former Buffalo Soldier and had served in Italy during World War II. He taught me many lessons and was like a second father. My mother was a real entertainer and was very funny I think I get that side of myself from her. My father was a very hard worker and I get my work ethic from him.
KW: Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
Kevin: Yes, I have been very fortunate to have had many people in my life lead me on a positive spiritual journey.
KW: Sherry Gillam would like to know what is the most important life lesson you’ve learned so far?
Kevin: Never give up
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
Kevin: My father’s son.
KW: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Kevin: I was the leader of a small revolutionary gang during race riots in high school. I was expelled and then attended a Catholic high school where a priest took me under his wing and encouraged me to go to college and to become a filmmaker.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
Kevin: For everybody to have enough money to live a decent life.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
Kevin: The beautiful lady in my life.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Kevin: Hamburgers and French fries. I eat far too much of both.
KW: Finally, what’s in your wallet?
Kevin: Plenty of receipts from traveling and lunches.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Kevin, and best of luck with the film.
Kevin: Thank you, Kam.
To see a trailer for Destination Planet Negro, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXHmOxa0wX4