An interview with Night Catches Us writer/director Tanya Hamilton
11-05-2010, 03:35 PM
An interview with Night Catches Us writer/director Tanya Hamilton
Night Catches Us [trailer]
Night Catches Us
Since it made its acclaimed debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, screenwriter and director Tanya Hamilton’s love story Night Catches us starring Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington has been wowing audiences and getting rave reviews atfestivals from among others, the San Francisco, Urbanworld, Savannah and Chicago’s BlackHarvest Film Festivals. The film, set in 1976 Philadelphia, tells the story of two former Black Panthers who rekindle a long smoldering love affair when Mackie returns to town after several years on the run. His return sets off a string of dramatic events which lead up to a powerful climax.
Recently Ebony had an opportunity to talk to Ms. Hamilton about her film, the ten year struggle it took to make it and her fight against the “no” culture in the business.
EBONY: First question I have to ask you before we begin is where did you find all those 1970’s cars in such great shape for your film?
HAMILTON: (Laughs) Our film crew and honestly from Philly people. It is an old town.
Well I read somewhere once that you said it took you seven years to get this film made.
No, it took me from me from 1999 to June 2009 to make this film. What is that? Over ten years?
Was it because you didn’t have a man in a dress in it? Did that make it harder?
(Laughs) Yeah, I think it because it was about the Panthers and people were saying: “Where are theguns?” (Laughs)
Because the only other film I can think of that dealt with the Panthers is Mario Van Peebles’ film Panther back in 1995.
That’s true, that’s true. Yeah, because I think it’s really a “kitchen sink” drama at its heart. I took the project to the Sundance Film Lab Institute in ’99 and I did think, without any hubris, that I would make it six months later. But a lot of my fellow lab mates did make theirs like Darren Aronofsky (director of Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, The Fountain and the upcoming Black Swan) So a lot of them were able to make their films within a year like Debra Granik (director of this year’s film Winter’s Bone) So I thought for me maybe a year and half, two years I could get it done. But I just wasn’t able to find the money.
Was the project too political?
I don’t look at my film as being all that political. I mean it is political, in subtext no doubt about it. I would screen the film at film festivals and the main audience would be older people especially women in their 50’s and that was so interesting to me. But, then my agent told me that: “Well your film is sort like a Lifetime movie, can’t you see?” (laughs) And what he means by that—and he’s really sort of brilliant—is that at the center it is what it is, which is really a very simple love story.
That there are a million different ways for people to come into this film is one of the things that I’m very proud of. There are a lot of threads. But at the center of it are two people who can’t be together. And that’s what those women are connecting to along with whatever else they may be carrying. I thought that was interesting.
For a while I could not figure out why people would say to me: “I don’t know why I found your film so compelling,” until I realized they were saying “Where are the guns?” If you’re telling me this story about the Black Panthers where are the teeth?
And I always had throughout its development great people attached to it. One time I had Mos Def and Sophie Okonedo on board…
Yes it was under a different title then. Something like Butterbean…
(Laughs) No, Stringbean and Marcus …Butterbean and Stringbean. (Laughs)
Butterbean, butterball… you could have called it that…
It was under a different title at that time and I just couldn’t get it financed. I would take the project to places and they would say this is really good writing, but…
But, you of course, eventually got it made, and your film should be an inspiration to so many other filmmakers out there who are struggling to get their films made because it doesn’t fit what people except of a black film.
People in the business all they do is say “No” constantly. You come up against these walls all the time and there’s no logic to them though.
You remind me of that quote by film producer Joel Silver (Sherlock Holmes, The Matrix and Die Hard films among many others), said once when he was asked what do you do as a producer he said“ Simple. I get up each morning and have people tell me, ‘no’ all day long.”
Yeah it’s frustrating. Very frustrating.
So what kept you going and not give up? It took you ten years. You were going to make this film come hell or high water while someone else might have given up a long time before.
Well culturally...well…I’m Jamaican. I don’t know any other way how to explain it (laughs) At the end of the day it sort of defines who I am. The older I get the more I realize it. I mean I came here when I was 8, but I always envisioned myself as an African-American. But as I have gotten older I have definitely come to recognize my “Jamaicaness,” my “Caribbeaness.” So much more of an understanding of a) what it means and b) what it brings. And it’s interesting, it is really a very entrepreneurial culture.
But at the end of the day I’m just immediately suspicious of anyone who tells me no. Just accept “my child’ (laughs) and that’s it. Because there is always a way. And if there isn’t a way there is a strategy that you can try. What is unacceptable to me is to be told that I can’t do it. And then I will feel, in a spiteful way, that I need to try to do it just to say
“Go f---- yourself.” (laughs) I felt much like that throughout the process of making the film. I came up against a lot of walls.
And I think that everyone needs an advocate. And I think it’s a difficult thing if you don’t have one. And I think, in a way, that they shouldn’t come from the film industry.
Because they would have their own agenda?
They do and because they were also bought up in a“no” culture all about keeping something over there for yourself as opposed to letting the door open. I think that in that way I was really lucky to have something like Sundance Film Lab and Michelle Satter (director of the Sundance Institute Feature Film program) who really have nothing to gain. They like to finish what they start. That’s one thing that I know about them. They let you in through the door and they want to see you succeed.
The other thing is that I don’t think I recognized my own power for a long time and the power of the work that I had. And by that I mean I would go to places like Lionsgate (which distributes, along with other titles, all of Tyler Perry’s films) and others and I just couldn’t get it financed and I realized that in many ways I was looking in from the outside. So my husband, who was at Bank of America at the time, and was friends with this designer, they said one day: “Hey we’re going to put together this package for you.” And that’s how it started. Because I realized ‘why am I not looking at Black people to invest in my film? Why am I not looking at the very same people who this film, in large part, will be for?’;To look at those people for money, to find a way to finance it. These sort of avenues that were working for other films weren’t working for mine and it has been so long knocking on all these doors. So that’s where it really began. We put together this package and went to ordinary people. I don’t know if that’s a model, but I know it was very empowering to know that I could work outside the world that I was supposed to work inside of in order to get financing.
You kind of touched on something earlier that I want to get to, in the film there seems to be a touch of nostalgia for a time when Black people were definitely more political and conscious than they are now. But in the film the great dream they had began to curdle and fade out, and people are becoming bitter and disappointed.
Well it’s a very subconscious thing. It’s not my history.
It’s not my time. I think I grew up, in a very peripheral way, in that curdled perspective. I remember coming to this country and my mom had this friend and I remember when I was 8 or 9 and she was always saying: “They reelected Nixon! This country neverlearns from its lessons. They reelected Nixon!”
(laughs) That was sort of the umbrella I lived under as a kid—the peripheral of somebody else’s political thought. But always interested in the ways she thought and the cynicism that went along with it.
She had this tremendous patriotism, but she could criticize the country. So I think there is a little nostalgia for the house I grew up in Silver Springs Maryland. So you’re probably in a way sensing the threads of my own childhood that are kind of morphed into the film.
One final last and very obvious question, what’s next?
Struggling with my next script. I’m obsessed with Black Native American culture. I’m obsessed with casinos and politics and money.
You’re going to put that all together in one movie?
Yeah I think I can! If I can just get past the first 35 pages (laughs)
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