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An Affinity for the Road Less Traveled

Anne Bergman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

More than three years have passed since Kasi Lemmons made her feature directing debut with “Eve’s Bayou,” not exactly a typical entree into the world of movie-making. With an all-black cast headlined by Samuel L. Jackson (who also co-produced) and a challenging story line infused with magical realism and hallucinatory imagery, “Eve’s Bayou” was 1997’s most commercially successful independent film.

A tough act to follow to be sure, as the film also was named that year’s best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards, while Lemmons, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, received a National Board of Review award for best new director.

Now Lemmons awaits the reception of her second feature, “The Caveman’s Valentine,” which opened Friday in Los Angeles and New York, with Jackson as Romulus Ledbetter, a.k.a. the Caveman.

“After ‘Eve’s Bayou,’ I thought maybe I was a one-symphony composer. Maybe this is it,” Lemmons recalls, sitting on a family-room sofa in the Hollywood Hills home she shares with her husband, actor-director Vondie Curtis Hall, and their two children. “But when ‘Caveman’s Valentine’ came along, I felt the same kind of passion start to boil.”

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Written by George Dawes Green, who adapted his 1994 novel of the same title, the film tells the story of the Caveman, a Juilliard-trained former classical musician and composer who lives in a city park cave and--despite being a ranting paranoid schizophrenic--sets out methodically to track down the killer of a young drifter.

After “Eve’s Bayou,” Lemmons says, “I was very tired and very certain that I was going to write the next thing I did,” Lemmons says. “So I wasn’t looking to read a script at all. But my agent talked me into reading it and I got to Page 3 and I knew I was in.”

Key to Lemmons’ decision to direct the movie were the black angels, who appear in Romulus’ visions as moth seraphs who guide and protect him. “I am obsessed with black angels,” says Lemmons. “It started right after the L.A. riots, and I was working on this documentary and we interviewed this Korean woman who was talking about her father not liking black people. She’d asked her father why he didn’t like black people and he said, ‘Have you ever seen a black angel?’ And that was haunting me, it really penetrated me.”

From that point on, Lemmons was determined, she says, to depict black angels in her next film.

It was another sort of angel who propelled “The Caveman’s Valentine” into production.

Jackson, who had loved the book, happened to approach Jersey Films partner and producer Stacey Sher and screenwriter Scott Frank, who also had just read “Caveman” and felt the same way. The coincidence prompted Jersey to develop the project for Jackson, who had just wrapped “Eve’s Bayou.” Jackson, in turn, suggested Lemmons to help bring the thriller to life.

Even with Jackson on board, however, Lemmons acknowledges that “Caveman’s Valentine” proved a hard sell. “People would look at me and say, ‘An African American, schizophrenic, composer-detective?’ ” Lemmons says with mock incredulity. “But without Sam it would have been impossible, because once you have a major talent like that, people start to look at it. He’s made my career possible. I don’t think ‘Eve’s Bayou’ would have gotten made without Samuel Jackson.”

For the new movie, “she really distilled the essence of the story so you could understand what was going on with Sam’s character in a visual way. That sort of propelled the story forward,” says Jersey’s Michael Shamberg, who with Frank and partners Sher and Danny DeVito developed the script.

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“These kinds of colorful characters on the edge of sanity, they’re kind of ‘Rain Man’ characters,” says Shamberg. “They’re great for actors to sink their teeth into.” And in this case there’s an extra tension, Sher adds: “You keep rooting for him not to lose it and solve the crime.”

To capture Romulus’ tumultuous inner life, Lemmons developed the visual manifestations of his insanity--the moth seraphs who live in Romulus’ mind, the yellow and green beams he sees projecting from the Chrysler Building, the visions of his estranged wife--and then the sequence of clues to the mystery.

To shape the story visually, Lemmons worked with cinematographer Amy Vincent. “I’d done visions and flashbacks and hallucinatory memories before,” says Lemmons. “But this was much bigger and more challenging.”

Lemmons and Vincent, who’d made her feature debut as a cinematographer on “Eve’s Bayou,” decided to shoot the clues to the murder mystery in high-contrast black and white, and to accomplish most of the other effects in-camera as they were filming. “Most of the effects work in conjunction with light cues from us, like the way the beams come off the Chrysler Building,” Vincent explains. “The beams as they originate from the top of the building are digital, but we did their effect as they fall upon the Caveman.”

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Lemmons developed her visual sense while studying to be a documentarian at New York’s New School of Social Research. “I wanted to learn cinematography so I could make my own documentaries,” she says.

Schizophrenia and homeless people were subjects Lemmons had tackled in film school. “My short film was about homeless people,” she says. “I had a lot of shots of people screaming at the sky, and as I was editing I had the opportunity--from seeing these images over and over--to wonder what they were seeing.”

In addition, both her mother, a Harvard-educated clinical psychologist and older sister, a Yale-trained psychiatrist, work with schizophrenic people. Lemmons’ sister Cheryl even served as a consultant on the film, working with both Jackson and Lemmons. “She helped me with the script, to make sure it felt right,” she says. “But you do have some artistic license because it’s a very colorful disease, very tragic but very evocative.”

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Born in St. Louis in 1961, Lemmons began acting as a child after her family moved to Boston and her mother enrolled her in a children’s theater. “I knew I was going to be an actress, there was no other choice, nothing else ever came up,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be an actress or a writer.”

While making her way in New York as an actress, Lemmons met Hall, then a Broadway actor who was a member of the original cast of “Dreamgirls.” Over time, Lemmons began landing movie roles, including one in Spike Lee’s “School Daze” in 1988, the same year she finished her film studies. Lemmons also began writing screenplays, with Bill Cosby providing her first break, hiring her to write a screenplay for a film that never materialized on-screen. It did, however, allow her to join the Writers Guild of America.

But Lemmons’ big opportunity that year came when she was cast as Ardelia in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” “I was just out of film school with a short film making the festival circuit and then I got ‘Silence,’ ” Lemmons recalls.

She then moved to Los Angeles, where she quickly began landing work, including roles in films such as “Candyman” in 1992 and “Fear of a Black Hat” in 1993. Still, she felt unfulfilled “on a psychic and spiritual level,” enough to begin writing “Eve’s Bayou” and to take on additional screenwriting chores on other projects that haven’t made it to the screen.

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“With ‘Eve’s Bayou,’ we were trying to make a $20 million movie for $3.8 million, and with ‘Caveman’s Valentine,’ we were trying to make a $50-million movie for $13 million. That’s not what you’d call a low budget; $13 million is medium-lowish,” says Lemmons, who notes that with its extensive location shoots in Manhattan and Toronto, $13 million was “not enough.” To get even that much, Jersey wound up partnering with Elie Samaha’s Franchise Pictures on the production.

But with that smaller-than-required budget, Lemmons says, came a certain amount of creative freedom. “We just basically went off to shoot and nobody told us not to shoot it that way,” she says. “I know from having a lot of friends who are directors working in the studio system that it can be an excruciating situation. If I’d demanded--although I’m not powerful enough--$50 million to make this movie, I would have had to deal with more people’s opinions and the pressure. And maybe the things that made this film worth doing, the weirdness of it, would be lost. So in order to keep the weirdness quotient high, you have to work within a certain budget.”

“Sometimes,” says Lemmons--whose husband directed the upcoming Mariah Carey debut vehicle, “All That Glitters"--"I wish I was more commercial, but I’m not--I’m deeply not.”

As for whether she thinks she’ll ever make a “commercial” film, she says, “Hopefully one day accidentally, but I have really specific tastes and passion. . . . I can’t imagine doing something that I didn’t feel completely and totally obsessed with. And to a certain extent, that’s the difficulty of the road less traveled. I’m attracted to the black, schizophrenic, composer-detective, because who else has done that?”

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