It's the London Film Festival and Kasi Lemmons, the young black US director behind Eve's Bayou, is looking fresh-faced as we talk over breakfast.
Her new film Talk To Me is the rewarding story of the friendship between activist Radio DJ Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene (seasoned Hollywood pro Don Cheadle) and station producer Dewey Hughes (Brit actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), showing how Greene became a crucial radio voice to Washington DC's black community over 2-3 decades. It shows Petey at the height of his powers but also how he fell from grace too, with his finest hour on the radio being when Martin Luther King was assassinated, with Greene's voice on air playing a crucial part in calming the riots that followed.
Kasi tells me first how passionate she was to secure the job of director. "I fell madly in love with the script," she says, 'and began a campaign to helm it. They had a lot of names but I was patient and fortunately many passed on it and I got invited to a meeting. There, I pushed for Don (Cheadle) to be involved only to find later that Ted Demme had been running around with the same idea. I thought I was the first to pencil him in! Before that, Martin Lawrence had been earmarked for the lead."
Getting the green light, Kasi had specific ideas to make the script come alive on screen. "I focused on the relationship between Petey and Dewey. It was always about that but I wanted the focus more narrowed and away from the idea of a biopic about Greene."
Kasi continues. "Definitely one of the great appeals, was that here was a genuine character and it was a great time to depict an uncensored voice."
Particularly, I venture, post the Iraq invasion? "Absolutely,' declares Kasi, 'Many people during the Iraq time were afraid to say anything for fear of being labelled or their comments misconstrued, so it was challenging to be depicting this uncensored character who wasn't afraid of controversy, Petey was very leftfield so he was very brave in that way. Others might say foolish, but that certainly was of appeal to me personally."
Voice of the people
Petey's "uncensored" voice was very much a rarity at that time, he was un-PC, and as a result, immensely popular, truly the voice of the disadvantaged and the working-class on the streets. Petey Greene could be coined the 'Howard Stern' of his time, and the link between them surprisingly is stronger still. Howard Stern was an early fan of Greene's, showing how Petey's courting of controversy became an inspiration to Stern.
"Incredibly as it may sound, Howard was a guest on Petey's show,' Kasi exclaims, 'if you type in Howard Stern and Petey Greene on a search engine you'd come across the transcript. Its amazing! Firstly for the kind of things they were getting away with on television and secondly for seeing these two great minds meeting and you can see how Petey influenced Howard and how they had guarded respect for each other." This we establish would have taken place in the early 70's when Howard Stern was a young man.
Petey's TV career was never going to be as strong on TV as his earlier time on radio, he simply wasn't cut out for television, much to Dewey's frustration who had pushed him to make the transformation. Kasi explains what happened.
"Petey knew who he was and what he wanted. Dewey wanted to live his life through Pete and thought Pete would be interested in the same things and of course that wasn't the case. Talking to Dewey about it and thinking about how we sometimes unintentionally invest in our friends or our children, what our dreams are, hearing anecdotally some things that Dewey said, Pete didn't see himself fitting in to providing a pre-packaged product, he saw himself as a performer who was raw and made instant connections with the community. Television was something different. Plus, there was perhaps a fear of success."
Greene as shown in the film betrays a reluctance to turn himself into someone he was not and Kasi's idea that we sometimes want to attempt to invest our own dreams through the talents of others is a well perceived one.
We move on to casting. "Don is unbelievable,' offers Kasi, 'I knew him a little bit socially and a lot of his work. I was interested in seeing him play Petey because that's not the sort of role he's played recently. He's wonderful to work with, very, very intelligent and great to be around. He brings a lot to the character.
The chemistry between Don and Chiwetel came as a big surprise. "It really came about in that first reading. Chiwetel was on a shortlist of actors, and we knew he had this almost Sidney Poitieresque air of regality, but it was when the three of us sat there to do the first reading, that the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I thought, 'Wow! This is what you've been waiting for. This is what movies are made of! It was indisputable, very exciting, and we recorded that session too, knowing we could impress anyone with it."
In supporting roles, there's the likes of Cedric the entertainer and Taraji Henson. "We got lucky,' confesses Kasi.
Securing the soundtrack
Budgetwise, Kasi was not out to be extravagant. "In many ways we were quite conservative, you need to be quite careful when you're doing a period piece on a limited budget. You have to plan, for instance when it came to re-creating a James Brown concert where there are supposed to be 10,000 people, let's say you have to be very creative !'
Music is like a character in Talk to me and it was a stiff challenge to get hold of the rights to crucial sounds. The rights to James Brown's 'I'm black and I'm proud' were secured early on and soon after 'The Tonight Show' theme. Kasi stresses that these are in no way a "given", you have to fight hard to secure the rights. "Sly Stone's 'If You Want Me To Stay' was really hard to get,' Kasi confesses,'we had to replace ten motown songs owned by Barry Gordy who remembered he didn't get along with Petey, and you really recognised the genius of Gordy, when you saw which Motown songs you couldn't have! We really did end up with a good selection though including greats like 'What you see is what you get', 'I'll take you there' and 'It's a man's world' "
Kasi was nervous about showing the film to Dewey, knowing he'd lived through the experience. He was invited to a screening and insisted on bringing 100 of his friends. There are also friends/relatives of Petey present. No pressure then.
"At the end, Dewey came up to me with a smile on his face. I was so relieved. He's gone on to see it at least eight times," says Kasi, "That was a victory for me. It mattered to me that he liked it."
What does she think Petey would make of it? "I think he'd get a kick out of it. He'd be ribbing with Dewey and on a high because Don was playing him."
Politics of screenwriting
Home for Kasi is LA, where she lives with two children, aged 11 and 8. I get the impression the family are a great distraction from her other passion, screenwriting, not that Kasi's doing much of that since she's on strike at the moment, joining with other writers campaigning for better residuals out of DVD sales.
"The companies are making huge profits,' says Kasi. 'Writers are just looking for double the sliver they get, so they have enough to live on during the lean times. It's important to us, and would allow us to keep writing rather than having to go off and do other jobs to pay the bills. They're making huge amounts and we're just after a small part of that and greater credit for the part that we've contributed."
It's a tense time. The companies are engaged in a stand-off currently. "It's a pretty scary time,' says Kasi. "It's necessary though, we've got to take a stance since it affects our lives so we've got to hold our nerve."
For Kasi being a director and a writer has its compensations. "I enjoy the collaborative part of being a director, but then when you've 900 questions in a day, there are times when you yearn for a dark room and the company of your computer. Then as soon as I'm writing all day, I'm yearning to be in the thick of it again, but it's a great balance."
The Jailhouse Lawyer may be Kasi's next project. She's also writing and directing a project for HBO called 'The Children's March about Birmingham, 1963 and a dynamic chapter in the Civil Rights movement.
Kasi goes on to talk about another project that she had in the pipeline with a major star attached which fell through. It will probably never get made but Kasi still carries a torch for it. "Its not easy to fall in love with doing a picture, I find," says Kasi 'but once I do, I never fall out of love with it. I'll still hope I can get it made somehow."
"Look at American Gangster. That project was around a few years ago and had A-listers attached and then it fell apart until recently when it had a complete re-incarnation. In that way Talk To Me is a similar project."
Kasi would never consider being a 'hired gun' director, helming to see off the bills ahead of something she really wanted to do. "It would be too hard,' she says. 'Doing a project if I wasn't in love with it. To work that many hours a day and to leave my children, I've got to be passionately in love with a project before I'll say yes to doing it."
Talk to me is on general release from today