Tribeca Film Festival - Behind the Screens - "Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha" - May 1, 2008
Behind the Screens – Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha
Directors Guild Theater
May 1, 2008
Legendary independent filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) participated in a discussion lead by film producer and DVRepublic Founder Warrington Hudlin during the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival after a screening of Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha, written and directed by Van Peebles. Confessionsofa “chronicles the adventures of a man who, armed only with a can of contingency cash, swims his way to New York, joins the merchant marine, romances women of all ages (and an amorous gorilla), and dances for his life in the court of Zampoughi.”
Before the screening of Confessionsofa, Tribeca programmer Aaron Dobbs welcomed Van Peebles to the stage. The always humorous and candid Van Peebles laid out some ground rules to the audience saying “laugh a lot” and “white folks don’t have to be scared or nothing.”
Confessionsofa has been my favorite film I've seen so far at Tribeca. It's hard to put a finger on exactly how to describe this film. It's sort of an epic low-budget experimental comedy musical filled with Van Peebles's trademark charm and bravado, but with less of a political message than previous works.
At the conclusion of the film, festival volunteers collected ballots from the audience for the Cadillac Award. Dobbs then welcomed back Van Peebles to the stage along with Hudlin. This is the second time this year I’ve been to a discussion that Hudlin moderated. The first was back in February at a Tribute to St. Clair Bourne at the Museum of the Moving Image, which Van Peebles also attended. Hudlin’s moderating style remained the same, that being of a more participatory nature by allowing members of the audience to jump in anytime.
Hudlin: Other black filmmakers stand on the shoulders of Van Peebles who literally founded black cinema. You paved the way, but how did you find your own way?
Van Peebles: I’m known somewhat as a fighter. People ask me, how did you know you could beat this guy? I didn’t know. A courageous person is never without arms.
Hudlin: You went ahead and did it your way. What is your creative process?
Van Peebles: In an old Mad Magazine, there was a section called “Things you’d like to see in the movies.” I just make the things I’d like to see. I don’t try to be clever about it. I just try to say what I have in mind. If something’s funny to me, how can I put that funniness in cinema?
Hudlin: In both Sweetback and Confessionsofa, there seems to be this character off camera. What resonates with you in having this character?
Van Peebles: This makes me think of a funny situation. [Before Van Peebles continued to answer, he asks his cast & crew to stand.] Momma told me to praise the bridge you stood on. Paul, my second assistant editor, a young white man from Minnesota who doesn’t have a lot of ‘hood in him, called me the other day. I told him to add in a lot of “um hmm” into the film. I just put in what I’m thinking. This movie was on a constraint with finances. I thought it would be easier to do the music first. Music is an integral part of the story. I find it interesting to let people see the trajectory and evolution of it. My choice is not me, but clarity for the subject.
Hudlin: A lot of your film’s titles allude to the anatomy. Is this a coincidence?
Van Peebles: The title explains the story. The memoirs of a wanderlust…let’s translate that to Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha. I like the iambic pentameter and the cadence of it. A question I often get is what is the message? There are a lot of subliminal messages. People will pick them up at different levels in their life.
Audience Question: Why does the opening title sequence give credit to the Diaspora?
Van Peebles: A zillion people helped me make this movie and they’re not all on camera. I wanted to do a shout out to those folks. I had a huge amount of assistance all over the world.
Audience Question: Where are we now in terms of black cinema?
Van Peebles: I am pretty much a loner and a maverick. What I wanted to do was no just open the door for black cinema, but for all independent cinema.
Audience Question: Was the sex scene with you and the character Rita uncomfortable?
Van Peebles: I liked it. When you shoot sex scenes, there are always problems like; I have to make sure the lighting is right. When I made Sweetback, I caught the clap, but that’s beside the point.
Audience Question: How long did it take you to do this project?
Van Peebles: 75 years, duh!
Audience Question: How did you use technology to paint this film?
Van Peebles: The credits at the end say “edited and painted by.” It’s like a painting to me. I started as a painter and sculptor. The texture, color and shading tell the story subliminally. All these tools are there. Why fight a battle with one hand? You have a zillion hands. People don’t use them.
Audience Question: What were some of the challenges in making Confessionsofa versus Sweetback?
Van Peebles: This technically was much more ambitious than Sweetback. This time I didn’t have to carry a gun. Everything was a challenge.
Audience Question: How did you go about casting? Has your process changed since Sweetback?
Van Peebles: No, sometimes you cast people for their experience and sometimes for plasticity. Sometimes you take a person who doesn’t have acting experience, but they can play for the character.
Audience Question: Why did you premiere Confessionsofa at Tribeca?
Van Peebles: Tribeca is in New York and I’m lazy. Tribeca is a great vessel. Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro funded Panther when no one else would.
Hudlin: Tribeca has a sense of mission of international diversity that’s distinct from other festivals. Peter Scarlet (Artistic Director) really gets that we’re a world community. As Tribeca continues to grow and mature, it will be a premiere festival.
Audience Question: When will you make your next film?
Van Peebles: That’s dangerous. I open the door and all these ideas come out, so I slam the door shut. I’m hoping to make my novel The True American as a film next. I’m harnessed by the finances. Confessionsofa had no financers or distributors. I wanted this film to be made this way. When I sell it, then I’ll do another one.
Audience Question: Have you developed a strategy to get past constraints?
Van Peebles: My strategy is not a single way. I started off writing. The great advantage of writing is it’s not that expensive. As a writer, I didn’t know why people were so difficult with me when I pitched it to them. Learn your craft so you can do what you have to do and how to manipulate your media, then make it within the confines of your budget.
Hudlin: If you watch what he does, there’s a DNA in his work. He takes people that are off camera and takes them on a journey. He lets black people win. Sweetback is a perfect example. He fights the power and prevails. That’s the lesson we as filmmakers have to take.