Kevin Willmott — writer, director, sometimes actor and two-time Sundance filmmaker (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, The Only Good Indian) — is one of my indie filmmaking idols. He has parlayed his experience making movies into a career teaching filmmaking at the University of Kansas which, in turn, has given him further resources to keep making films. The guy never stops making movies — personal, meaningful, funny, dramatic and one-of-a-kind movies.
Kevin recently gave me a sneak peek at one of his latest projects, Destination Planet Negro, in an interview conducted via email. Read on to learn more about this sure-to-be-provocative film and Kevin’s clever techniques for low-budget sci-fi filmmaking…
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Kevin Willmott: In 1939 Black leaders secretly meet to creation a solution to the “Negro Problem” in America. They arrive at the conclusion to leave the planet. A rocket ship takes off with three astronauts headed to Mars — but instead the ship time travels and they end up in the present. The idea comes from my interest in solving social problems. I love ideas about people setting out into the unknown to resolve problems. I would call them pioneer or history stories, stories that come from some kind of philosophy or approach. It continues my interest in history and how it relates to today. I was able to couple that with having fun satirizing the old ‘silver bullet rocket ship’ movies from the 1950’s.
MTM: One of the great things I admire is your resourcefulness as a filmmaker. Destination Planet Negro didn’t have as large a budget as some of your other films, correct? How did you work within those constraints, especially when it comes to special effects?
KW: I wrote it so I didn’t require much in terms of hard cash. I knew ahead of time almost all the casting choices. I knew I would play one of the leads. I knew almost all the locations. I knew it would take at least a year to complete the film. You save a great deal conceptualizing the film in that manner. I knew I had a former student that was great at special effects. I knew my cinematographer and colleague at KU, Matt Jacobson, was an amazing model-maker and was an expert on science fiction. The resources of the University and the student base I have for support is a huge asset.
MTM: What were the biggest challenges on this particular film?
KW: Keeping everything moving forward, unified and together for a year. You really have to keep thing organized and simple. You really have to keep spirits up and the momentum moving forward — it can seem like it will never end.
KW: Matt Jacobson shot the film on the Red camera. We would shoot a few scenes at a time. We did this over the course of a year. This allows you to never need a lot of money at one time. One of the main things that tax a production is organization and the day to day schedule. We could place all our resources into a few scenes and actually a location at a time. It allows your crew to have other jobs, go to school and in the case of our lead actor be in plays and even act in other films, while we were filming.
MTM: I understand you are just beginning to send the movie out for festivals. What is your distribution strategy?
KW: We hope to premiere the film at a major festival. I believe this is the best place to launch your film. However, I believe Planet Negro has the kind of appeal and marketing potential to have legs of its own. This could perhaps allow us to really target audiences and gives us a chance to make our money back even without a distributor.
MTM: When you speak at film festivals — either introducing the films or doing a Q&A afterward, you’re always entertaining. Is this some of your old stand-up experience coming through? How do you approach these audience interactions… basically, what is your secret?
KW: It’s partly from my old days as a stand-up but it mainly has to do with my approach to film. I think Independent filmmakers are also entertainers and that our job is to please and gain the interest of audiences and sell the film. The other thing I try to do is make films that can be discussed. I enjoy that as much as the film itself. The films I love are those that can be examined afterwards. Those are the films that influenced me as a kid. That’s probably why I like to teach because film is a vehicle to change lives, influence and broaden outlooks.
MTM: What’s next for you?
KW: We just finished shooting Jayhawkers about legendary Kansas University basketball coach “Phog” Allen and his most famous recruit Wilt Chamberlain. The film deals with the segregation that Wilt encountered in the 1950’s and how that changed the lives of everyone involved. It is a project I have been working on for many years.
MTM: You also teach aspiring filmmakers at the University of Kansas. What advice do you give them? What is the best advice you were given as a filmmaker?
KW: I try to make them smarter filmmakers. I speak to them honestly about the realities of Hollywood while still encouraging them. My philosophy is simply become good at something and don’t quit. The best advice I ever got was – make another movie.
MTM: Can’t wait to see this film (and Jayhawkers too)!
KW: BIG THANKS, JOHN!