Oscar-winning screenwriter Kevin Willmott spoke with Solzy at the Movies in a phone interview about his newest film, The 24th.
Vertical Entertainment is releasing in virtual cinemas, digital, and VOD today. Sunday, August 23 marks the 103rd anniversary of the Houston Riot of 1917. Willmott won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay as one of four writers that worked on 2018’s BlacKkKlansman. Most recently, he co-wrote the script for Da 5 Bloods. Both films were directed by Spike Lee.
The 24th is coming out in virtual cinemas, Digital, and VOD on Friday. Was releasing during the Houston Riot’s anniversary always in the plans?
Kevin Willmott: I think it could have become the plan. Well, the plan was altered so much by the fact that we were supposed to premiere at South by Southwest. When South by Southwest canceled, I think it was kind of a reconfiguring of the plan in general. I think also with things happening in the country with Black Lives Matter and with the horrible murder of George Floyd that I think that it was obvious that this film needs to come out sooner than later.
I agree there. In a perfect world, I would have attended the world premiere at SXSW.
Kevin Willmott: Yeah. I’ve never spent any real time in Austin. I was really looking forward to that on so many levels.
How disappointing was it to lose out on the red carpet premiere in March?
Kevin Willmott: Well, we were supposed to have a premiere of Da 5 Bloods at Cannes as well. I was kind of prepared for it. It was right when things started to shut down and you just knew that there was this national/international crisis happening and you just had to accept the reality of that. It hurt but filmmaking—especially independent filmmaking—is all about trying to stay positive.
Can you talk about crafting the story and the writing process?
Kevin Willmott: The story originated for me from a photo I saw in a book called The Black West. There is one photo of the trial and the photo had the 63 men on trial, and they were surrounded by white soldiers with rifles with fixed bayonets. The caption said, The largest murder trial in American history. And it was like, Oh my god, what is this all about it? Or why don’t I know the story? When I looked into it, it was a great story and important story. I saw it as a vehicle to really say a lot of things on race and about that period, which is the Teens and 20s period. We don’t know much about that period especially in terms of Black history. We don’t see that much in film. All of that interested in a great deal so that’s really where it originated from. I wrote it about 30 years ago and I could not get it made.
I was working on BlacKkKlansmen and Trai Byers, who plays Boston in the film, was one of my former students at Kansas University. We made several films together and I told him, Hey, why don’t you take the script and I want to enhance the romance and make it bigger and more important. I wanted to do several things. Trai ran with it and came back, did a great job, and really made all the changes that I really wanted to make. We worked on it more from there but for me, it was really trying to tell the story of this incident, and more importantly, of the kind of men that were involved in this. I think they reflect so much on us today. I mean, I think so much of the same problems that we’re dealing with in the film, we’re still dealing with today.
Were there any attempts to get The 24th made as a studio picture or was it independent all the way?
Kevin Willmott: I tried years ago when I first wrote it. We tried after we wrote and everyone told us no. Literally everyone told us no. And in fact, years ago, when I first wrote it, my agent told me, “No one in Hollywood will ever make this.” I think that it’s a testament that I think things have progressed some and things have definitely gotten a little better. I think Amazon and Netflix—those things have kind of opened things up a lot more for stories like this but we still have ways to go. I mean, we were still very lucky to find the financing for this film. It’s not a cakewalk by any means. Like I said, they literally told us no. Stories like this are still are still hard to tell.
Did winning an Oscar help with getting the financing?
Kevin Willmott: I think it was a big part of it. I think that the juice that I had coming off of BlacKkKlansman—I think—probably was one of the things that made a difference. Thank G-d for that because it’s helped my career and there were ways but I think probably this was the most directly that it affected.
What were some of the challenges of shooting this film in 18 days?
Kevin Willmott: Anytime you do a period film in a film that has action kind of scenes that night, it’s tough. I really worked hard at a lot of low budget films so that really helped me to approach that part of it. I just know a way to approach these kinds of limitations. And really, more than anything, time is your biggest limitation. It’s not so much money as it is time and time equals money in movies. The more money you have, the more time you have. For instance, what I always do is I work with the production designer and I know exactly what I want to shoot and what I don’t need. And so I’m letting them know, we don’t have to build this whole part of the world. I’m not going to shoot that—I’m only going to shoot this and this and this and this. It ends up saving money and ultimately, it ends up saving time because when you have 360 or whatever to work with on a set, you often end up wanting to use that stuff. It looks so great and it’s just so tempting and it pulls you into it that you end up ultimately kind of oftentimes wasting time because we end up shooting things and we don’t end up using them. I’ve always embraced my limitations and I kind of almost enjoy that to some degree. That’s really kind of how I approached it.
Do you have any fears of the film falling under the radar since so many people are turning to nostalgic viewing for comfort?
Kevin Willmott: Well, there’s always that possibility. We’re gonna try to do our best to get the word out about the film. I think the fact that it speaks directly to the Black Lives Matter situation and in the wake of George Floyd’s death—his murder—that people are hungry for these kind of stories right now. I’m hoping word of mouth really helps. Word of mouth in the end is kind of what does it for films. I’m hoping that that people will see it, spread the word about it, and it’ll really grow from there.
It’s my understanding that you’re adapting David W. Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom for the Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground and Netflix. Where do things currently stand at the moment?
Kevin Willmott: I’ve finished my work on it. I’m not sure where it’s at right now. I’m actually now working on a project on Arthur Ashe—a biopic. I’m in the middle of that now but I’m not sure where the Douglass picture is at this point.
When it comes to biopics, do you prefer focusing on a narrow part of the timeline or looking at their full life?
Kevin Willmott: I think each one is different. I think each one you’d have to kind of look at what encompasses their life and what really is the most dramatic part. Big figures have big lives. I know the notion today is to take one little small slice of their life typically and really kind of focus on that. I think that can be extremely effective and I’ve done that. There’s also times when you want to know more about your lives. You want to know several periods of their life to really understand them to get a notion and an appreciation of their importance. You kind of have to use more than one kind of narrow slice. I kind of look at it both ways still. I think that you have to look at—for instance with Ashe right now, I’m looking at some of his childhood and, obviously, his playing—his work as a tennis pro. To understand some of the things as a tennis pro, you need understand some of the things from his youth.
In addition to the film, you’re also a college professor. How do you feel about going back to campus this fall during a pandemic?
Kevin Willmott: (Laughs) Well, I’m not doing it. (Laughs) No, I mean, I tend to think that—last semester, I did all online and I will do all online this semester as well. It’s a very shaky time right now. Colleges and universities are all trying their best to make it safe and responsible to return. I hope it all works out. Unfortunately, I think there’s a degree of it’s a bigger problem than the university that’s a national problem is no national leadership. There’s no national leadership in terms of approaching a pandemic. It’s just kind of wreaking havoc on the country right now. Hopefully, we get rid of this guy that’s in there now and you will have a real national approach to the problem and hopefully the virus can be to be maintained and controlled.
Amen to that.
Kevin Willmott: Amen.
What do you want people to take away from viewing the film?
Kevin Willmott: I think that there’s a lot of things but one thing is that the sacrifice and love of country that Black soldiers have always had for this country even when they did not receive equal treatment and were treated as second class citizens and did not have the rights that they ultimately fought for overseas. And then as well, I think that it’s important to note that this problem of police abuse has been with us forever—since the creation of the police. I hope that the film is a reminder that it’s time for us to gain some control. We need to reevaluate our approach to and specifically how police are involved in minority communities. One-hundred-three (103) years ago in Houston, they were going through the same thing that we just went through with George Floyd in Minnesota. As more things change, the more they stay the same. I’m hoping that we grow and learn something from this.