Melvin Van Peebles Chapter 1


INT: My name is Mario Van Peebles, Today is May 25th, 2004 and I'm conducting an interview with my dad, Melvin Van Peebles, the original Badass for the Directors Guild of America Visual History Program. We're at the DGA in Los Angeles, California. Dad, could you give us your full name please?
MVP: Melvin Van Peebles [INT: Your name at birth if different?] Nope, same thing as on the birth certificate, Melvin Van Peebles. [INT: Any nicknames?] None that I think we can put on camera. [INT: OK. What's your birthdate?] August 21st, 1932. What do you want out of me? [INT: And your city and state at birth?] Chicago, Illinois, St. Luke's Hospital. [INT: Cool.]


INT: What was your sort of first film memories and then later, what made you want to get into film?
MVP: Well, when I was a kid back in Chicago, in the South Side, I would go to a place called the NRA, that was the name of the theatre. The NRA was for the National Rat Alley because you’d be sitting in there and these big rats would run across your feet in the theatre. My earliest memories were Saturday, going to see triple features with two comedies and the newsreel and just stepping into this world. The world was always, at first confused me when it came to the racial aspects of the world and then embarrassed me to no end and then dance. You could learn a lot of things from film; things your parents would never tell you about, how to sword fight, how to kiss, you know, really important things in life. Television had not been or at least, I wasn’t aware of television at that time. The only other movies I would ever get to see would be the radio, the radio serials, I LOVE A MYSTERY. There were no screen, but you had a screen in your head from the screen you’d see on television at the movies. So you had your own television, but we didn’t know it was television, it was just what you conjured up.


INT: How did you get your first professional film job?
MVP: Well, the operative word of confusing that is professional. I’m not sure what professional means, but my first film job, I hired me. Said, “I want to do something,” so I went out and did it. So I suppose I got it from this producer, I suppose I didn't know what a producer was, but I guess I was the producer and so I hired me. I said I got it.


INT: Can you tell us the story about how you first estimated the cost of what it would cost to make a feature and how you went about that?
MVP: When I decided that I wanted to make movies, I called a guy who was a photographer, who I heard had a camera. And I called this guy and he asked me, he says, “Well, tell me about movies. What kind of documentary you want to do?” I said, “I don't want to do a documentary. I want to do one of them stories, you know, like you see in the movies.” I said, “How long are they anyway?” He says, well, I’ve been going to movies, but hadn’t been paying attention, sort of just went to movies. The guy said, “They’re 90 minutes plus.” And he says, “Are you gonna shoot it in 16 or 35?” I said, “What's that?” He said, “16 or 35mm,” he explained to me. I said, “Oh, what’s that?” I knew nothing at all and he explained to me that 16 was a little more amateur than 35, 35 cost more. And also, he had a 16mm camera that he, if he were involved in the production, we could use. I asked him the cost and then I figured out, that was 1957, I realized by my calculations that you could make a 90-minute feature film for $500, if I did 16mm. So I … And then I did, what now I learned you call that pre-production, and locating, scouting and all that. I didn’t know that. I knew when…where I wanted to shoot the story and then I got some people that I thought would be good to play the roles and arranged for them to all meet one morning, we’d go out there. I realize now there are very, very formal terms for all that. And so we all go out, and the guy’s got a camera, it’s a Bell and Howell [Bell + Howell] wind up, Bell and Howell, but he’s got a camera. He’s got this camera and I said, “Alright,” I knew a little bit about movies ‘cuz I’d seen movies, I’d get everybody together, “Now I want you to go here, and you go there, and you go there. Everybody ready?” I said, “OK. Action!” And a guy comes out with a clap to put the scene and he started turning, I said, “I said action.” “No, no,” he explained, “you got to do this so you’ll know which scene it is.” “I know what scene it is, but the camera’s turning. I’m using film.” It turns out my $500 was, my calculations were $500, 90 minutes of 16mm film would cost $500. Long story short, we shot the first day and I was already, the film was shrinking because, I mean, the start up time, while they run the thing to get the thing, Jesus. Then after that, “OK, now you got to send this to the lab and get it developed.” I hadn't thought about that. [INT: But what about take 2 or editing?] This is why it was beginning to shrink right there before my eyes ‘cuz I said we’d shoot it again, and each time, I had not calculated it in, so there we’d go.


INT: How long was your first feature then?
MVP: 11 minutes. Well, first I sent it to the lab, and then I, “Oh, doo doo caca. I gotta pay for that?” And so then this guy said, “The film’s developed. It’s all good,” they say. Oh, great. “Oh, no, no, no. You can’t touch that.” What do you mean I can’t touch that? “You got to make a print of that because that’s the mother copy.” The mother what? I’ve got your mother, what do you mean I can’t see that? I’ve got your mother. “No, no, no, you’ve got make another copy of that, and then that’s your work print.” Oh, doo doo caca. So I got to do this again. The money is going, your mama is getting rocks in her jaw, which are turning into boulders. So anyway, long story short, I finally get that done. We get this first movie, first idea that I had all done. And we go downstairs to this guy’s basement, and in this basement, he had a white wall in the basement, another guy had a little projector, and, well, before that, the first day I finally got what was the rushes, and I got under your bed because we didn’t have any curtains, but the wall was white and under your crib, the little white space, I got down like this, this little projector, and I projected the film on the wall under the bed. And I expected to see, because I didn’t know about 16mm and 24mm, I mean, 24 frames a second, you know what I mean, as opposed to 16 frames per second as the old films. And I looked at the film and I said, I remember, I will never forget, I said, “Oh, shit! I got ‘em now,” ‘cuz it looked just like a regular film. I never expected that to look like a regular film. It looked like a regular film, it wasn’t jerky or. I said, “What’s going on here?” Right then I said, “A'ight. Watch out world, here I come.” Anyway, I got that all put together and we had all the crew, that is the friends who had helped, and we go down to the basement, and one Sunday morning, we show it on the wall. The guy said, I talked to the guy, he said, “Well, it’s all there, but it doesn't seem, we haven't edited it yet.” What's that? You mean you’ve got to cut… You do? I mean, this may sound, now everybody talks cinema, and people talk. Cinema before, it was like medieval alchemy or something or building a satellite. It was something maybe seven people knew how to do, secretly made in some caldron there in Hollywood, something like that. I never heard of editing. And the guy gave me Eisenstein’s [Sergei M. Eisenstein] Film and Form [Film Form: Essays in Film Theory] or something like that, a book, which had a little, it had some editing in it. And he showed me how to use a splicer, something like nail polish, you’d cut where you wanted, and then you’d hold it down until it stuck together. This is before they used tape, before, long before digital anything like that. So that consists entirely of my classical, professional film education. That’s all the film education I ever had. Then I had to get, somebody had to number the film to keep head and sprockets and all this stuff. The money began to fly and fly and fly so that 26 minutes, which had been reduced to 26 minutes, was now what I realized was called an end to end, that ended up, film ended up being 11 minutes, a brilliant 11 minutes, brilliant 11 minutes. I must confess that I had written my Oscar acceptance speech ‘cuz I knew there were awards. But anyways, so then I made some more, that’s how I went in it. Well, that’s not exactly… I said, “Oh shit, they gotta have sound.” I forgot about that part too. And then I didn’t know any musicians that I could count on to show up, so that’s how I went into music, I wrote the music myself. That's how I started in music.


INT: Were there any filmmakers that you admired?
MVP: I didn't know who the filmmaker was, I just went to the movies. I remember a guy came and knocked on my door, and he had to go up steps to get up to my place, and I looked out, and I could see Alcatraz and the Bay Area behind him. I saw this guy and the guy says, he says, “I'm Roger Ferragallo, and I hear you're making films. Welcome to the Bay Area film club,” things you don’t forget sometimes. I said, “Thank you,” and he says to me the same question, “You’re a disciple of, who do you like? You like Kurosawa [Akira Kurosawa] or Eisenstein [Sergei M. Eisenstein] or Orson Welles?” I said, “Who’s that?” He said, “Come on.” And I had never heard of these people. So this guy would come over late at night ‘cuz I said we didn’t have any curtains, and I saw POTEMKIN [BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN] on my wall, I saw CITIZEN KANE, I saw my first Kurosawa [Akira Kurosawa] all on the wall, there in that little room. That consisted my film education or, I got to see, I’d never seen, but I remember seeing the scenes of POTEMKIN [BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN] going, [Jaw drops as if to suggest amazement.]. All I’d ever seen Tom Mix, Gene Autry or something like that or Captain Blood swinging across the thing.


INT: What made you decide to become a director?
MVP: Nothing. I never did decide to become a director. That’s very flattering and nice, but I never decided to become a director. I just decided to show folks, especially minorities, like I saw them, not like they kept being shown around in cinema. I don’t know if that made me a director of photography or a financer or director or writer, no idea, but that’s all I was doing. Later, people put titles on it and said that, that’s all. I was just, I used to be a painter and a sculptor, and so I was just doing the equipment that I thought where people were. That's all.


INT: What was your first break?
MVP: Well, I don't know what you mean by break. [INT: Your first time you got to direct a feature, let’s say, your first feature film break.] There wasn’t a break. I didn’t get a break. I didn't get a cinematic break. I guess my first break was when I looked and I said, “I'm going to do it myself,” and started making my first little film. The, I went down to Hollywood, of course, and Hollywood wasn't having it and I was living in Holland- [INT: When you say Hollywood, elaborate on how Hollywood wasn’t having it. You got some great shorts.] I went down to Hollywood- [INT: I’m sorry, I want you to get this in the clear so my voice doesn’t overlap you. You went down to Hollywood?] I went down to Hollywood with those three little films that I made in San Francisco to show my stuff and to look for a job. And they offered me a job, but it was as an elevator operator. No, you guys don’t understand, I want to be around, I didn't know creative process, but I explained myself. They offered me a job as a dancer. So anyway, I decided to go back to my second love, and since I had GI bill from having done that other stuff, the military, I went to Holland to get my PhD in astronomy, celestial mechanics. I guess my break would be that I got a postcard from the cinemateque [La Cinematheque francaise] in France. And the Cinematheque [la Cinematheque francaise] invited me to come to France because they had seen my films through a whole series of circumstances. They had seen my first, those three short films, and they thought they were very good and invited me to France. So that’s how I ended up in France. And I got there, they showed my films at the little private screening room, and everybody kissed me, got in their cars and drove off. And there I was in the middle of the Champs Elysees with three cans of film, not a penny in my pocket and not a word of French, and two wet cheeks. That’s how I stayed in France.


INT: Can you take us that next step, dad, from you're in France, how do you finally get to direct THE THREE-DAY PASS [THE STORY OF A THREE-DAY PASS]? Can you just tell us about that? It’s an important step.
MVP: First thing, the first thing in France, they had done something very dangerous as far as I was concerned. This is the insidious part about racism. You see, when Hollywood refused to take my offer to work, they didn't say that it was because of any racial reasons; it was because I obviously didn't have necessary chops, etc. Unfortunately, I had no one to get a second opinion, and so I had to go with their opinion. So then when I go, the French, completely a 180-degree different opinion and praising my work, that was what hope was. With that, I decided that I was going to do or die. I make films. I set out to learn French, which many quite often, when people go to another country, they stay in an enclave, however, I lived as a Frenchman because I thought that was the only place that possible salvation could come from, so I taught myself French. I discovered along the way that there’s a French law that says a French writer can have a temporary director's card to bring his own work to the screen. So, I became a journalist, and I wrote these novels, I got them published, and then I asked for a director's card to bring to the screen a novel that I had written called LA PERMISSION [THE STORY OF A THREE-DAY PASS]. And that’s how I managed to get a directors' card.


INT: Can you just tell me a little bit about, and I know these stories, obviously, THREE DAY PASS [THE STORY OF A THREE-DAY PASS] and getting to do that, and then coming back to San Francisco, which takes us up to Hollywood, which I can then go into further, if that’s alright with you guys?
MVP: The French have the Cinq Du Cinema, who gives subsidies, grants to help people get along to get their films done. I wrote a story that was flattering to the French psyche about an American GI who comes to France, but he’s still, you know, the GI is in a much freer country, he’s tainted mentally, even though he’s been victimized, he still has the mentality of a victim because the GI is Black of the States. And so, he and the girl, they meet, have trouble in the relationship, they in and out, boy girl, girl boy type thing. And that’s the, sort of a bittersweet love story between the two of them. It was very appealing, very warm, and also quite flattering to the French, and so I got the subsidy. Meanwhile, so then I'm doing this movie, a feature, because once I got part of the funding, I was able to put together the rest of the funding. I meet a guy, another American, who’s at a party, a black guy named Albert Johnson, well, very dignified person. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him. He asked me, reminded me of years ago, “What kind of documentary you making?” I said, “I'm not making a documentary, I'm doing a story. I’m making a feature film.” He calls somebody over, yeah, he says, “What are you doing?” and I said, “Who are you?” He says, “I'm the curator from the San Francisco Film Festival.” And so that’s what happened there. Anyway, my film was one of the films selected to represent France at the 1967 film festival. I went to San Francisco, which I had been more or less tossed out of ten years earlier, as the French delegate to the San Francisco Film Festival. I remember, I get off the plane, and there’s a little old lady, blue hair on wedges, said, “Melvin Van Peebles, le delegation Francaise?” I said, “Lady,” she said, “Don’t bother me. Melvin Van Peebles, delegation Francaise.” I said, “I am Melvin Van Peebles,” so I sort of spun in her head. That was all very funny. But I was treated very well. When the film won critics’ award, I remember a friend of mine who I’d met along the way a few years before, James Mason, the famous English actor, was the one who had made the announcement on stage- [INT: That your film won.] That was the first real crack in the wall of lilly-whiteism of Hollywood. Hollywood was very embarrassed at that juncture because here I was, a Black American, having to work as a Frenchman, and my work was of such quality. So then everybody was saying, “Hey, what are you doing over here? What are you doing over there? Why aren’t you over here? What are you doing?” “What do you mean? Last time I asked you guys for a job, you told me to be an elevator operator.” Anyway, that’s how I got there.


INT: So then Hollywood invites you out?
MVP: Hollywood invited me out, but I couldn't take the offer because if I took the Hollywood offer, I felt that Hollywood would then have the only colored threat under wraps. So I thought I’d probably be more dangerous and more helpful to the political overall view by not taking the job. Sure enough at that juncture, the search for the great black hope was on. Two gentlemen much more qualified and had been around much longer than I had, Ossie Davis and Gordon Parks, got suddenly discovered to be directors. After that, because both of those films were shot on location, I then agreed that I would, ‘cuz they were still after me, I’d do WATERMELON MAN if, on the proviso we shot it in Hollywood. [INT: Why would you want to shoot it in Hollywood?] ‘Cuz that was then, each thing happened step by step. The other films were on location, this is the jewel in the crown, so I wanted not off in some backwater, not backwater shooting the thing. I wanted it to be right there. I remember, this is on Hollywood, it might have been Vine, but I can’t remember the street exactly, it was on Hollywood Blvd, directing a shot. I had the crew around me, and the thing, the crane is going up and down and all this other stuff, and somebody makes his way through the crowd, a little old lady makes her way through the crowd. I'm standing there, yelling at my crew, telling them what to do, and a woman taps me on the shoulder. I turned around and she said, I swear to God, “You seem to work hard. Do you do floors?” This woman asked me if I did floors. What the, she, it couldn't dawn on her that I was the boss. So I said, I pointed to my assistant, I said, “Well, go ask my boss over there.” He was a clever guy, “Well, not on Thursdays. How much are you gonna pay him? I’ll see if I can get him.” [INT: That’s great.]


INT: So you do WATERMELON MAN in Hollywood and your crew is mixed racially or what? What were the crews like then?
MVP: Not really. The crew, when I asked for minorities, each union actually had one minority in it, and that one minority, when they had a liberal director, those guys worked 500 days a year because there was one Black guy in the car union, one Black guy in this union, one of these, so he was, so the unions weren't Lilly-white because the government was beginning to get on the unions about being such a closed shop, so they would have one person in it, some kind of minority. So when I asked for WATERMELON MAN, “Yeah, I’d like to have some more minorities, etc.” They said, “Well Melvin, there's no one qualified.” Eventually, what I did was after they had spent about $240,000 in building the set, I claimed that my sadness, just my poor loneliness of not having any of my brethren of color around was just driving me mad so I was gonna have to leave. So they said, “Melvin, I told you there’s nobody qualified.” Oh, excuse me. So I had a meeting where I complied a list of each category of qualified people, so each one took two or three qualified people as apprentices. They wouldn’t put them in as full, but they got them as apprentices. That didn't make me too appreciated, but they'd already spend $240,000, so what the hell you gonna do.


INT: So you shoot WATERMELON MAN and you've got the three picture deal with Columbia, they want you do either comedies or whatever happened, what happens next? Tell us about the groundwork laid to SWEETBACK and the whole breaking the doors open for the crew. I think that’s all interesting because we’re all members of a more mixed Guild now because of all these changes.
MVP: Really? Well, I prefer to talk about other stuff. [INT: OK. All right, so let’s go to the script then, OK dad?] Le me, suffice it to say that I figured if the unions didn't know me or didn’t know my friends or minorities or disenfranchised whites, then they didn't know me, so I’d do it myself. That's what I did.


INT: What do you look for in a script, what are the elements of a good story?
MVP: Well, I look for a story that I just like. I like page-turners in one way or the other; it’s rather eclectic what becomes a page-turner for me. Sometimes I'll laugh at something, and then it's quite interesting to try and find the essence of what the laughter was or something will hold my interest in a story, and I try and find the essence of that. Or sometimes I have a theory, a theory, I was being a little nice with myself, sometimes I have a sermon I’d like to deliver. Usually I have a sermon I’d like to deliver. Now, how can I couch this sermon in cinematic terms? That's what I do. I don't really look for a story, they sort of find me.


INT: What role do you play in developing a story in the initial draft of the screenplay for your films?
MVP: Well, you have to realize here that in all these stories, I'm usually the writer myself. Sometimes on occasion if I'm directing someone else's story, I ask them what they want to say. I ask them what to think about it, and I usually keep myself to a minimum because if I didn't like it in the first place, I wouldn't have stepped into it. And if I don't like it, then I just won't do it. If I'm going to babysit them through it, then I want writer's credit. That's how I work.


INT: Any of these other writing ones appeal to you? Or, do you want to go to casting?
MVP: We can just ask them all. How do I supervise rewrites? Well, I usually, it depends on the stage. If I want something light, I usually drink a white zinfandel and go to bed. If it's something ferocious, I don't eat and go to bed and I’m mad the next morning. If it’s some other stuff, I give myself graham crackers and hot chocolate and cuddle up in bed.


INT: Let me ask you this, does the writing process stop for you at the point that you start to shoot, or does it continue to evolve as you're shooting?
MVP: Well, that’s very interesting because there’s no writing process with me. It's all sort of a seamless thing. You see, that’s like when an actor comes in, I remember there’s a French movie I did and I thought of the guy who ran the hotel as a little short round guy and then here comes in this tall, lanky guy, but it was right a whole another way, and his lankiness was righter than the other thing. So then, I had to rewrite movement, lines, the whole situation. It can change continually, but not really at all from the fundamental North Star. It’s like if you’re on a boat and you’re rowing, and you’re towards the North Star, if a wave comes from that wind, or the wind comes up that way, you may be attacking, you may have to attack this script and so forth, especially when you’re doing things on a budget. But you get a fix on your North Star, and you don’t lose that fix on your North Star. Sometimes you have to change a little bit here, a little bit there, and to make it come around, you have to Kentucky windage sometime, you know? If somebody is very pretty and you don’t want them that way, you may have to dress them down. If they’re a little on the homey side, but you want them to be flashy, do it with clothes, or do it with language, or even do it with music. There’s a thousand ways you can do it. Or you can even do CFI [CGI]. You can do effects after and put a little halo around the head. It all depends, but I have, in my arsenal, the whole thing. I have sound, since I do the music; I have the editing; I have the, since I’m doing the editing, I have every trick in the trade, but I really don't even separate them. The rewrite, it may come up, I show up one day and you expect one guy to show up or the fire hydrant is not there, you gotta do what you gotta do.