Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bringing Back The Badass Black Heroine with Savage Sistas Writer/Director Dan Smith

cast of Savage Sistas
I remember the feeling of curious hesitation and excitement while doing more research on this teaser film trailer I stumbled across last spring. A new horror movie with four Black female protagonists, overcoming one of the most dire of circumstances. Savage Sistas stood out as one of the answers to this blog's initial call. But one aspect was unwavering. Chardine Taylor-Stone put it frankly in her essay, "Where are the Black Women in Science Fiction?":

Yet, even when feeling the relief and enjoyment of encountering a character who doesn't fit the 'standard' racial profile, I cannot escape the fact that those burned into my psyche are the creation of White and overwhelmingly male writers.

I approached writer/director Dan Smith's project with a bit of trepidation. Was this going to be a throwaway horror film that would essentially be part fetish, part exploitative? What investment did he have in the centralized agency of Black women characters, specifically in horror, where by the hands of those white male writers and directors, they seem rarely invested in giving those characters any. My gut told me not to be dismissive and approach Dan himself and my earlier post with honesty. Additionally, I wanted to hear what he had to say. My bottom line was; how was Savage Sistas going to stand out amongst the dozens of horror films people are already looking forward to seeing this year?

Dan makes no excuse for being white and male. Nor should he. His approachable sincerity and openness about this passion project should not be ignored. He's one of the few filmmakers in a position of privilege to want and actively seek Black women in leading roles in horror. Additionally, there is a self-awareness about the implications of his work that I deeply appreciate. And he's just a really, truly nice guy! In our following talk, he brings up how this will-be film exists in the larger context of our reality which tells us much about the (independent) entertainment industry and how we grapple with race and race relations. Also, how much we both love Black heroines in genre film.

Writer/Director Dan Smith
Dan's Tumblr account, fuckyeahsavagesistas, is a loveable archive of Black women in genre cinema. It's been a revelation of epic proportions that keeps the wheel of Graveyard Shift Sisters such a strong co-sign in conjunction. I was curious about what was the character for Dan that sparked all the time he consumes archiving with such an ambitious project, "Thank you for the compliment. Tumblr has been an interesting exercise. I feel like an archaeologist, tracing the roots of where this crazy interest began. I may never have the definitive answer, but a very early influence on me was Rosalind Cash as Lisa in THE OMEGA MAN. I was attracted to horror at an early age and was ten when that film was released. Lisa was my first introduction to the Badass Black Heroine.

She’s a character who’s very much in charge, protecting her brother and the rest of the group against the infected “family”. She’s very strong and very intelligent, and to see a Black woman commanding larger-than-life Charlton Heston on the screen left quite an impression on me.

Though I wouldn’t see COFFY until many years later, Pam Grier’s portrayal of the title character takes things even further. She also has that close family bond as she fearlessly goes up against drug dealers and sleazy gangsters to avenge her brother. I really like that. These films are a bit dated and over-the-top by today’s standards, but I think both of these super-charged women form the inspiration for the characters in SAVAGE SISTAS."

With such great examples of characters to draw inspiration from, I imagined finding actresses for Savage Sistas to bring forth a "Badass Black Heroine" was high priority. I inquired Dan about the process of finding his four dynamic leads, "I worked with an awesome casting director in LA named Megan Foley Marra. Megan and I have collaborated on projects a few times before. She puts out the feelers to talent agencies as well as actors she knows to gather a great mix of talented people to audition.

Casting is very intuitive. Since the actors only read for a few scenes you really have to trust your instincts. I look for ability of course, but also try to get a sense of the potential an actor will be capable of down the road.

These auditions were completely exhausting, mostly because all of the actors I met were really, really good. It’s a great feeling to see dialogue that you’ve written brought it to life by experienced actors!"

Certain films of this ilk work great when the main group consists of each person bringing a personal quality that makes the group feel cohesive. I asked Dan what was he looking for in his leads that made them stand out and what makes each woman unique, especially after spending time with them, "This sounds trite, but all of the leading ladies are really one of a kind, and they’re all totally different from one other. Though they’re all working actors, one of them is a sports show host, one is a business consultant, one is a fitness coach and another works as part of a film crew. They’ve all come to LA from different cities across the country.

Amazon Beard (right) plays Pam 
One thing I look for in actors especially is a kind of connection. I want to make sure we’re speaking the same language. Actors will say flattering things just to get the job. You’ve got to be able to sniff out the bullshit.

When production on SAVAGE SISTAS begins and I find myself in horrible conditions, battling high desert temperatures, giant insects and severe low budget constraints I’ve got to know I can trust each of these women to deliver.

With these leading ladies, I feel I’ve really got that!

Going back to some of my earlier thoughts on this project, I wanted to learn about the collaborative process so far. How much consideration did Dan give to the insight and intelligence of his leads? I asked him what had he learned from them and even others who have brought their constructive input, "My biggest take-away from the actresses has definitely been the right use of language. We’re finding the right tone of dialogue as a group. I don’t want this to feel like a ‘white’ script performed by Black women, and sometimes what I’ve written does come across a bit forced. I rely on feedback from all of the actresses to interpret what I’ve written and act it in the way it’s intended. I totally trust them.

Besides, would you argue with the consensus of four Black women?

Ladae Bond plays Vonetta
Working on set is a very organic process. You learn a lot about people just by being with them in the same space over time. So far we’ve only worked together shooting the trailer, which took place only over a couple days. That’s not long, but I can definitely say I learned a lot about how we will work together when we shoot the feature.

I’ve been working in film and video production since the 80s, so the “mechanics” of putting a production together is not new to me. I know how to treat actors and crew with respect and a sense of comfort, but the environment we’re shooting in is extremely challenging. More than I really realized, that was another learning curve.

The daytime heat was well over 110 degrees and shooting at night our lights attracted every weird flying insect you can imagine, even tarantulas, (seriously). We even attracted a bat one night, which is pretty common in the desert. I saw it fly behind one of the leads (and of course I never mentioned it).

It turns out that women react to these things a bit differently than men do, so I’ll have to make some big adjustments if I don’t want mutiny on my hands during the shoot.

In jest, there were times when I imagined approaching Dan light-heartedly with my hands on my hips and a rough inflection proposing, 'So you're a white guy producing a horror film with Black women leads...'. In an attempt to further understand how he felt more broadly about his film as a white dude, I wanted to more insight on his learning curves in the process of developing this film in regards to race and gender, "SAVAGE SISTAS is about a group of Black women who cross paths with a family of vicious rednecks and end up fighting for survival. It’s a very deliberate choice to cast the heroes as Black women and the villains as white men. This is a horror story, but it’s also about race.

Erica Renee Davis as Tamara (left) with cast mate Jasper Cole (Badcop)
People read my screenplay and overlook the torture, dismemberment and murder, and instead they end up focusing on race. That’s what makes them uneasy!

Race is one of those things that our culture never ever deals with... STILL… in 2015!

What’s happening in the news right now illustrates just how apart we are. And movies about racial issues are things we’re rather to avoid, that’s why they never do particularly well at the box office.
But in the realm of horror, intimidating themes like race can be disguised. Horror fans absorb these issues on different levels, so filmmakers can be more subversive in their messaging and playing with racial stereotypes is part of that.

Seeing reactions to the divisiveness in the script has been one surprise, the other is the way people respond to the casting.

I’ve made this choice to have four Black women as the heroes of this film. What could be cooler than that? It’s a no-brainer, right?  Well, not exactly. I’ve had a ton of resistance to the idea! Most people think I’m actually joking or that this is some kind of campy send-up of Blaxploitation movies (which is isn’t). It’s even been suggested that I incorporate at least one white female into the mix to make it more marketable. That’s been a real surprise.

Denee Busby as Rosalind

It’s like Hollywood hates Black women, unless they’re Halle Berry or Zoe Saldana.

Hopefully the success of Black women hero archetypes on shows like THE WALKING DEAD, SLEEPY HOLLOW, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER and even Z-NATION will trickle down into the indie film market and open some minds.

It’s been over 40 years since Pam Grier blew us away in COFFY… 40 YEARS… we’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

Needless to say, I'm happy he's not wavering in his vision and breaking this 40 year lull.

Watch the trailer for Savage Sistas below!



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