film feature
February '04

 

 

Kevin Willmott: The Sundance Kid
by Russ Simmons

"If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.” – George Bernard Shaw

Those words are featured in the first frame of Kevin Willmott’s faux documentary, CSA: The Confederate States of America, and summarize its guiding philosophy. Willmott, an assistant professor of film at KU, presents a fictional story to try to get closer to “the truth.” The movie imagines what America would be like today had the South won the Civil War.

Filmmaker Kevin Willmott says he hopes the distribution deal for his documentary CSA: The Confederate States of America could breath new life into his earlier works.

Shot mostly in the Kansas City and Lawrence area, CSA recently enjoyed a warm reception at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT. Shortly after its premier there, a distribution deal was struck with IFC (Independent Film Channel).

“What we have to do now is prepare the film for theatrical release,” explained an exhausted Willmott during his hectic week of screenings, panel discussions and interviews at Sundance. “It’s an ongoing debate as to when the movie will finally come out…maybe the first of (next) year.”

The movie is a sly, comic take-off of television documentaries. It also features phony commercials for products like “Sambo Toothpaste” that would persist in a society where slavery still existed.

“I was trying to find a new approach to the subject to make it fresh and exciting,” Willmott said. “Then I saw the Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War. There’s a section that talks about the South’s actual plan had they won, called The Tropical Empire. When I found out, I said, ‘Wow. I could make a film about how they carried out the plan.’ They wanted to go further south into Mexico, Central America and South America. Everything in the movie is based on actual, factual stuff.”

The controversial and provocative approach taken by CSA has raised eyebrows among some viewers.
“Sometimes our film gets the reaction, ‘This is too hard or too tough.’ That’s been one of the real problems Americans have had concerning slavery, and that’s why we’ve never gotten to the next level in terms of black-white relations.

“Black and white folks get along a lot better now, but it’s built on mutual tolerance where we don’t talk about certain things,” continued Willmott. “When (the topic of slavery) comes up, they’re shocked, hurt, ashamed and angered…this whole host of emotions that really gets us nowhere. The relationship doesn’t grow; it stagnates. We’ve hoped, like Dr. Strangelove did, that it breaks all of that open in a bold strike and says, ‘This is who we are and this is the situation we’re in and let’s talk about it. It’s okay to talk about it.’”

Willmott used the approach of a “hybrid film” in an attempt to broaden its appeal.

“What I tried to do was to use the format to open (the subject) up to a larger audience that would be interested in a faux documentary that has, at its core, a deep truth. When you reverse it, you can actually see it more clearly. By doing a ‘What if,’ we get to do a ‘What is.’”

Getting the movie on the screen has been a long, arduous process for Willmott.

“I wrote a draft in 1997. Shooting took three years. For me, the independent filmmaker has to use time to his advantage. My first film, Ninth Street, took seven years to finish. The people involved were wondering, ‘Are we ever gonna see this thing?’ I learned that, unless you’ve got a lot of money up front, it’s going take a while.”

Now that Willmott has inked a distribution deal, some of his earlier work may have a new life.

“A high tide raises all boats. We just got our rights back to Ninth Street. We never made any money on it the first time around. We know there’s an audience out there that would really like that film.”
Ninth Street, a dramatic film about an entertainment district for black soldiers in Willmott’s hometown of Junction City, KS, was also filmed in Kansas City. Along with Willmott, the film starred Isaac Hayes and Martin Sheen.

“We have a little more access to the system,” Willmott asserted regarding the IFC deal. “It’s not every day that a major distributor picks up a movie as different as ours. It’s a real breakthrough for us. Hopefully, we can create a niche that will allow us to continue to make movies that probably would not be made in Hollywood… but with access to capital. It’s an exciting time in the sense of getting back and starting movies in our area. Our goal has always been to make a film a year.”
CSA producer Rick Cowen was also taken up in the Sundance whirlwind. Addressing an enthusiastic audience at a screening, Cowen shared an exciting announcement.

“In the last week or so, we had Spike Lee join us as executive producer,” Cowen explained, “along with our original executive producer, Marvin Voth. I want to tell you how happy and proud (we are) to bring to life subject matter too often ignored by Hollywood.”

Willmott, Cowen and Voth are now back home to put the finishing touches on their work, hoping for a KC premier of the final product.

“Kansas City and Lawrence are how we make these films,” Willmott insisted. “If we didn’t have this beautiful film community, it couldn’t happen. One of the givebacks that we’d like is to do is a big fandango, and celebrate Kansas City and Lawrence filmmaking.”

              
              
                 

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