By MICHAEL GINGOLD
The horrors of history impact on the present day in ANTEBELLUM, the Lionsgate film marking the feature writing/directing debut of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. The duo (Bush is African-American, Renz is white) put a tight focus through a genre lens on slavery and its legacy, with Janelle Monáe starring as Eden, part of the forced labor–also including Julia (SWEETHEART’s Kiersey Clemons) and Eli (Tongayi Chirisa)–on an Old South plantation run by vicious white overseers (Eric Lange and Jack Huston). In another portion of the film, Monáe plays Veronica Henley, a successful author promoting a book about self-actualization and hanging with her outspoken friend Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe). The way these two scenarios tie together is at the crux of Bush and Renz’s vision of the way past brutality echoes into modern times.
Originally set to hit theaters in April and delayed by the pandemic, ANTEBELLUM is now arriving (on VOD this Friday, September 18) at a moment when its themes are more trenchant than ever. It has already led to conversations and debate about its treatment of race and social injustice, which will no doubt only be amplified when general audiences are able to view it. In the meantime, its creators (who also discuss the movie here and in RUE MORGUE #196, now on sale) have their say…
How did you two first get together as filmmakers, and how was ANTEBELLUM launched?
GERARD BUSH: Christopher and I have been together for 12 years. We started a creative shop in Miami, and have been involved in advertising for the past decade, with the ultimate objective of moving into big, cinematic storytelling. We moved to Los Angeles three years ago, and pretty much had a deal for ANTEBELLUM within the first year and a half of being here.
ANTEBELLUM started off as a horrific nightmare I had. We wrote a short story, and that was what we based our script on. That script generated a bidding war between major studios, and we ultimately signed with Lionsgate because we felt intuitively, upon meeting with them and engaging in conversation, that under Nathan Kahane’s leadership, they were truly going to champion us bringing our vision for the movie to the screen.
That dream was as real to me as the ancestors sitting on the end of my bed. It felt like someone who was so desperate to reach help that they were able to communicate cross-dimensionally; that’s the only way that I can describe it. It felt beyond a nightmare, and had such a profound impact on me that it motivated us to write the short story, and then turn that into a screenplay.
CHRISTOPHER RENZ: The short story was the majority of the first and third act of what you see in the movie. For the script, we built out those two acts, and the second, all the modern-day scenes, is completely new.
How did you find the right actors for the lead roles?
GB: With Janelle, we were fans of her music; to be quite honest, we weren’t as familiar with her acting. Then we were watching the Grammys on television, and we saw Janelle in the audience, looking quite stoic at the presenter, and we could see that she was camouflaging this incredible furnace within her. That looked exactly to us like Veronica Henley, and we decided it would be exciting to have Janelle in the movie.
We saw Kiersey Clemons on this Netflix show called EASY before we ever started casting the movie, and she reminded me of a female Sal Mineo from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. She has this unbridled, wild-mustang spirit, and we knew we would eventually find something to work with her on. Once we wrote the character of Julia, we could not imagine anyone playing her other than Kiersey.
CR: Additionally, we’re incredibly excited about the actor we feel is the breakout in this movie: Tongayi Chirisa, who plays Eli.
GB: We share a casting director with David Fincher, Laray Mayfield, who is a legend in Hollywood. She’s this no-nonsense, Jack-Daniels-no-chaser, straight shooter. She introduced us to Tongayi, and sent us his tape; she broke out Mahershala Ali for HOUSE OF CARDS, so when she makes a recommendation to sit down and watch a tape, you do it. And once we watched it, and we campaigned hard at Lionsgate to secure Tongayi. Jena Malone [as the sinister Elizabeth] is just incredible; we’ve always been super-fans of her. She respects the craft, engages every step of the way in her research and fully commits to the role; she’s very Method. And Jack Huston is just a pleasure to work with. Eric Lange we saw in ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA; he disappeared into the role, and we were like, wow, this guy, can you imagine if he played…? You don’t even recognize him; he allows a part to take full possession of his person.
CR: And we would put Gabourey Sidibe in everything. We absolutely love her.
GB: We would watch her read the paper! Gabourey Sidibe is like sunshine in human form; that’s the only way to describe her. Dawn is a black woman who refuses to participate in her own dehumanization by other people. She calls it out when she sees it, and she owns her black identity and her body, and her personality and her curves, in all their beauty. That was a deliberate statement we were making in writing that character, but she brought Dawn to life in a way we could never have imagined.
Some of the white cast had to perform pretty brutal, uncomfortable scenes. Was there reticence from any actors, during casting or production, regarding those moments?
GB: I would say yes and no. I believe they felt a tremendous responsibility to the material, and fortunately for us, we had no issues with any actors, white or black, who were vying to be part of the project. It was important that we had that kind of enthusiasm. I will tell you, when we met with Eric Lange, he is a very sensitive, emotionally grounded man–a husband, a father–and he actually became teary-eyed in talking about his character and the horrors he delivers upon black people. That’s when we realized we were in very good hands, with white actors who were taking on these roles for all the right reasons, which starts with the responsibility of telling these stories in an unvarnished way.
How did the two of you divide your duties as directors while making ANTEBELLUM?
GB: We never made any decisions separately. We were always together, and that’s how we ensured that we achieved our singular vision. In fact, it was so complete that Janelle bought us and the entire crew T-shirts as a gift that said, “Two Directors, One Vision.” We actually posted it on our Instagram, because it was such a lovely gift for her to buy.
Were there any significant changes, or did you make any discoveries about the material, as you were making the movie?
GB: No. We are obsessive-compulsive about every little detail, and in fact, our DP Pedro Luque was pretty impressed that we had created a complete shot list. We worked together six, seven hours a day designing these shots in preproduction, to make sure we got exactly what we wanted. And that also went with the language in the movie. It was very important that we didn’t have ad-libs, that the actors understood what they were saying, why they were saying it and what the motivation was.
Have you been able to see the movie with audiences?
CR: Yes, and it has been pretty crazy. We didn’t know what to expect, but audiences have been super-moved by the film, and really surprised, which surprises us. I guess it’s because no one knows who we are, they don’t know us from Adam, so no one knows what to expect. They know Janelle, but their experience with her has been mostly through the music; she hasn’t led a movie before. So I think there’s just this shock of, who are these people, where did this come from? That’s the impression we’ve had.
Do you believe horror allows you to explore sociopolitical themes in ways that a straight drama does not?
GB: Well, no offense to straight drama, but that’s just not where our interests lie. We really respect the genre of elevated horror. I also love the popcorn-and-Diet-Coke fare of horror as well; we’re fans of the genre just generally speaking, so we really want to push the boundaries of what can be expected within it, and to elevate it to a different level by examining our sociopolitical life through the genre.
Christopher and I are huge fans of ’70s films; we love THE OMEN, we love THE EXORCIST, we love what those films meant for that era, and we think the definition of horror today has changed. We’re not so afraid of the Freddy Kruegers of the world; we’re afraid of our politics and environment and climate run amok. We’re scared of the real demons that lurk among us, and we’re concerned with how we can put a horror lens on that very real experience.
For me as a black person, looking at GONE WITH THE WIND, that is a horror film, so if I can put the perspective of a black person on what GONE WITH THE WIND looked like and what that experience was like, then that is horror. By us showing you the black perspective, and you experiencing this movie from that point of view, it automatically becomes the horror that it should have been. In fact, we and Pedro Luque were insistent upon identifying the lenses from GONE WITH THE WIND and obtaining them, and putting them on our cameras to film the movie.
CR: So ANTEBELLUM is actually seen through the lens of GONE WITH THE WIND–literally!
GB: We want to continue to elevate the genre and be a part of the conversation. We’re excited about making more and more movies, and having more conversations.