New Jack City, Mario Van Peebles‘s first directorial effort, was a critical and commercial smash, and he’s subsequently helmed and acted in a wide range of high-profile films and television shows. He made his big screen debut as a teenager in his father Melvin’s pioneering indie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; years later, the younger Van Peebles directed Baadasssss!, playing his father in a critically-acclaimed drama about the making of that seminal African-American film. His latest, Redemption Road, stars Michael Clark Duncan and Morgan Simpson in a drama about two unlikely road trip companions who find common ground in music. In an interview with RT, Van Peebles shared his favorite films, and also discussed using music as a character in his movies, working with his well-known father, and making the world a greener place..
Well, obviously, I would have to say my dad’s movie, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is one of them, for sure. You know, I was lucky in that case not only to see the film and see the first movie where an overtly empowered black power character goes up against the system and survives. That was the first of its kind. But also to see my father insist on working with a multiracial crew. He had women on it, he had hippies on it, Hispanics, Asians, you know, and really bring all these folks together. That was super inspiring, to see that you could take sort of a multiracial, sometimes ragtag crew and make the first overtly revolutionary film in America and win and change the game. Because after that, Shaft came. Shaft was written for a white detective by a guy named Ernest Tidyman, and when my dad’s film Sweetback made money, they rewrote it with a black guy, and they got a young guy to do the music from Stax Records named Isaac Hayes. My dad, when he did Sweetback, had used Earth, Wind & Fire. So that was a super influential movie on me.
Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando. After that I was like, “Man, I’m going to Hawaii or Tahiti and getting me one of them!” I mean, holy moly! [laughs] Just being out in nature like that and getting away from the hard, structured Victorian England, it’s almost like — if you look at it now — it’s like a guy going organic. [laughs] In multiple ways, I thought that was exciting.
Night of the Living Dead was one I saw with my dad. I was 18 years old. It scared the s— out of me. I think my dad and I had to sleep together that night. [laughs] I said, “No, that’s it. I don’t care how big I am!” And what I loved about it, too, was how [George] Romero could just take this film, and do it clearly on a budget, and yet make it work, have this sort of tongue-in-cheek humor with it.
So part of what, I think, attracted me to the films I mentioned was not just the films themselves, but how they were made, what they meant politically, on all levels. I’m attracted to all those films that, in a way, engaged us across cultures. So, you look at Night of the Living Dead and you put these people in the 1960s in this pressure cooker, and one of them is the black guy, one of them is the white guy, one of them is the chick, and the brother and sister, and you see what happens. The unspoken subtext of it was huge. It was huge, it was revolutionary.
Mutiny on the Bounty was the same thing. And even in films like Redemption Road, where I’ll take the black guy, and he’s the one who’s into country and western, and the white guy, he’s the one who’s into blues, and both of them, along the way, are going to encounter music that informs their personal narrative, and it also informs the musicality of the film. So, along the way they pick up some blues, some gospel, some jazz, and that feeds into the song they play at the end of the movie, the sort of redemptive song. So I think those movies actually speak to what I’m attracted to in film. I just like something that, on some level, even if it’s a horror film, is interesting and redemptive and makes you think.
Next, Mario Van Peebles talks about using music as a character in film, and working with his famous father.
What’s interesting about Redemption Road is how the music, as with some of your other films, is almost like a character. There scene early in New Jack City when Nino, played by Wesley Snipes, walks into a club and they’re playing “The Show” by Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, and instantly you have the milieu, the vibe of the time.
Mario Van Peebles Yeah, that’s a trip, and you’re right; the music here was almost a third character. And what I wanted in Redemption Road was to look at music in almost a historical perspective and say, “Okay, what’s interesting about America? Well, you take Jews, and Chinese, and Irish, and Russians, and Germans, and Africans, and you take the drums away from the Africans so they can’t put rhythm in the drums, but they can now put rhythm in the guitar and the piano. You put all these different cultures together in this new melting called the New World, called America, and you get sparks. And out of those sparks comes great art and great music, and that’s why so much music has come from America. And it’s got a rhythm to it; it’s almost like an African rhythm if you track it. And so, jazz, gospel, hip hop, rock and roll, rap, all this music comes out of America. In this trip through the heartland, you pick up bits of gospel, bits of country, and bits of blues, and that’s all a part of America’s birthright. So grounding it in Americana is almost like a ballad that’s been sung before. You almost feel like, “I’ve heard this ballad before.” But in fact it’s a new ballad, but it’s grounded contextually in something that’s very much a part of our culture, even down to the way the characters look, sort of [like] cinematic icons. Luke Perry’s going to be this sort of James Dean bad boy, and Taryn [Manning] is going to be this sort of Bettie Page thing, and the blues guy is going to be this guy, and the Marlboro Man, the country guy… So you’re not only hearing it, but you’re actually seeing it. And the cars they drive, you’re going to see we’re playing with primary colors, so Augy’s truck is blue, and her truck is yellow, and the mom’s car is red, so those are all primaries. And we put it all in a specific timeless space where this film could have been shot 10 years from now or 10 years ago, sort of disembodied from any time constraints. And the music, I mean, we had these guys from Nashville, and bring these guys up from New Orleans that to do the blues thing. So you’re really getting these great musicians to participate and then write the songs. A couple of songs I put together. You know, I’ve been doing music for a long time, years and years — my first piece of music for Clint Eastwood on Heartbreak Ridge — but get together with Tree [Adams], who wrote some of these songs and wad inspired by certain things and then took other artists, so that they would grow, so by the time [Jefferson] Bailey [played by Morgan Simpson] plays his requiem at the end, it encompasses country and blues and gospel and all those influences that feature in the narrative.
Yeah, you know, that’s a really good point. I think, more than any other genre of film, the Americans made Westerns. That was a real American genre. I did Posse. And of course, the gangster movie is nothing but an urban Western, and we did a lot of gangster movies as well. I wanted this to be timeless. Even looking at the locations, they were sort of almost Americana, Norman Rockwellian, you know what I mean? Between Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper, so that it would go from Rockwell — this sort of bright, sunny, very clean Americana — to a little bit more edge, a little darker, Edward Hopper stuff, and strike that tonally. What I talked about with the DP [Matthew Irving] was, let’s start it out and play with these palettes. And he really got that, he really understood that.
And then, playing with country and blues and all those… In this one, Tree and I wanted to work together — Tree is my composer — a director-composer collaboration, and I really feel that was a great collaboration, but that the director of photography was so much a part of that, too. The whole thing was a real collaboration, and that was really attractive about it. You know, this is not a studio film in that it’s not one of those pictures where you can have a lot of, you know, voting by committee. We still need things that were specific that we had to design — and we did — that I feel pretty strongly about the way they came out. Generally, it’s a pretty well-crafted little movie.
Your father Melvin Van Peebles is in all your movies, and you guys obviously have a very close relationship, but was it still a little bit weird drudging up some of the family history when you were making Baadasssss!? When I saw it, I wondered, “Is this the most Freudian movie I’ve ever seen?”
You know what? There are multiple ways and lenses I can look at something, and I decided, if I was going to tell that story, I was going to tell the truth. And my dad’s okay with that. You know, I wouldn’t have done that without his blessing. He knows he’s a good guy, and I’ve always jokingly called him a paternal fascist [laughs]. But he’s a bad dude, to do what he did and have all kinds of folks and break the unions and have multiracial crew. At that time, to do what he did — that was a bad muthah. There was no two ways about it.
Now, there are things he did as a parent that I wouldn’t do, but I’m sure there are things that I’m doing as a parent that my kids wouldn’t do. Hopefully, we’ll all learn. We’ll have our moments where we can disagree, and hopefully and not be too disagreeable. But I was cool with it. The truth is what it is. We’re like, “We love each other, we’re not perfect…” A buddy of mine said to me once, “The biggest thing you can do with your kids is be who you say you are. And if you’re not who you say you are, then you’re going to spend a lot of time proving that you’re not who you say you are.” My dad was very clear with that. He said, “I never said I’m 100 percent perfect.” You know, so once you’re okay with that, once you’re okay with yourself, you’re like, “Hey, I’m looking in the mirror. I’m okay, what the hell?” That’s the most important thing, and here’s why: At a certain point, if you’re okay with you, then you’re family’s okay with you, then whether you’re on a billboard because Hollywood and the public loves you, or then you’re on a milk carton because Hollywood and the public no longer know who or where you are, you can be cool with it because you know your family loves you, you’re cool with you, and the folks around you know how you are, and you’re not measuring yourself by that kind of thing. So once you’re insulated from that, then you get the joke of life, and my dad gets the joke of life. I like to think I get the joke of life. We’re not perfect.
You know, there’s four phases in your life; there’s “Mario who?”, “Get me Mario,” “Get me young Mario,” and “Mario who?” So while you’re in the “Get me Mario” phase, do some movies that have some quality, that make people think, that inspire. Not everybody’s going to like it, but do something. Don’t just do, you know, Dumb and Dumber, Part Seven. You know what I mean? You don’t know which movie is going to be your last movie, so treat them all like they’re important. Once you start to do that, then you’re cool.
The other thing is this: Not only am I not that worried about what the public thinks all the time — of course, I’m going to worry about it to some degree – but because none of my family is really materialistic, it doesn’t affect us the same way. If I had to have five Rolls-Royces and two big houses — and my dad had to have that — to feel good, then we’re more reliant on the system supporting this. But we’re like, “Dude, I’m not a materialistic guy anyway, and neither is my dad, and we never were.” So a lot of what most folks subscribe to, we don’t subscribe to, and yet we’re very rich. We’re not rich because we have a lot of money; we’re rich because we get to do what we want to do. So, part of being rich is being able to say “I don’t give a f—.” [laughs]. You can’t take money from McDonald’s and then make Super Size Me. So the minute that all the money to make my movies come from the system, comes from the bank, then my money’s no longer independent, and my vision can’t be independent. If my vision’s independent, my money has to be independent. My independent vision is not trying to please the dominant culture or the bank. That’s a big difference. That’s why I don’t have to put on a wig and put on a dress and act like a buffoon.
Yeah, that’s a good question. I have to say, I just finished doing Boss, which is a new show with Kelsey Grammar, where he plays this sort of politically entrenched powerhouse mayor of Chicago, and I think he’s going to light it up; he is great in this thing. Gus Van Sant directed the first one. The thing is, when you do LOST or Damages, Sons of Anarchy, and even Law & Order, but you do those thinking shows. I have to say that some of these are better written than some of these superhero, silly things that are out there posing as films right now. You know, they’re really video games in 3D. And the other thing is, as a director, it really keeps you at fighting weight, so when I go out and I’m going to do Damages or LOST or Boss, and you’ve gotta do that in eight days, and you stay sharp with it, you’re working with some really good actors — I was working with Kelsey, of course, and William Hurt — you’re working with some powerhouse folks that are fine actors, it’s really exciting. Do you have to know how to move, know how to think, know how to make your day? Yeah. But what I do with each one is I push the envelope, and I learn on each show. I learned something on LOST that I had never done before, and I just did something with Kelsey on Boss that I had not done before. So I think if I had gotten complacent and sat back and said, “Well, I’m just going to phone it in,” that’s why I left being a budget analyst for [New York City] Mayor [Ed] Koch, because I didn’t want to phone it in. So yeah, it depends on the kind of filmmaker you are, but I definitely enjoy it and would go back in between features to do that. So I definitely enjoy it. But look, they are getting to do on cable TV what we used to only be able to do in indie film. And now, they’re doing some things on cable that you go, “Wow, that’s pretty interesting stuff.”
In addition to working for Mayor Koch, you also worked for the Environmental Protection Agency before you made your bones in Hollywood, and recently you had the show Mario’s Greenhouse, where you and your family tried to live as green as possible. How do you feel about the state of the environmental debate?
Well, the environmental debate is stalled behind the economic debate, if you will. I’m an Econ major. But we made a mistake in Economics. The mistake we made in Economics was… How much does it cost us to go to the forest, cut down a tree, make the tree into a chair, bring it to market, varnish it up, and take out some ads and sell it? The supply and demand will determine the cost of the chair. But that’s a fundamental mistake. The fundamental mistake is that we’re only thinking about its effects on humans, and even that is shortsighted. We never think, you know, the tree was giving us oxygen. We never thought the tree might have a medicinal purpose. We never took into account that the tree was giving us shade, or keeping the topsoil together. We never took into account that it was providing a habitat for other forms of life besides human beings. So the numbers were off. We never accounted for it.
If we wipe out all the forests, what will it cost us to create oxygen? Now, that’s going to be a whole different cost. So economics is lost, and the ever growing idea that this economy can always keep growing into perpetuity with the population going into perpetuity, with a world that’s finite and resources that are finite, it’s always going to be off. Now, what’s interesting — I was just talking to my kids about it — with the economy on a downturn, guess what’s happening ecologically? No downturn! Because we’re driving less, we’re flying less, we’re having less kids, so sometimes it’s absolutely the inverse of what’s happening with this sort of artificial economy thing that we’ve all created. Look at it this way: if you invest in pharmaceutical, your stocks go up when people are sick and buying a lot of pharmaceuticals, but if people get healthy, your pharmaceutical stocks are going to drop. So what’s healthy for the market is not necessarily healthy or human beings or for the planet. All ecological discussion is second place to the economic one, and of course, in this time when the Tea Party is holding everyone hostage, and our government, unfortunately, the way it’s structured right now, is not really democracy, because the people that aren’t afraid to bring the temple down filibuster and obstruct the whole damn thing. So it’s very difficult and to put forth and to pass anything ecological-saving, because human beings always ask “What does it mean to me and my job?” As the Native Americans said, we don’t inherit the land from our parents, we borrow it from our children. Until we get that philosophy down, I don’t know that we’ll make any real change. That’s my position. That doesn’t mean I won’t do everything I can in my power with my films, with my media, to try to get people to think. It doesn’t mean I won’t fight the good fight, but I think we’re in a tough place. I think tomorrow’s generation… I have good reason to fight for it, because I’ve got five kids. Tomorrow’s generation is going to be in a different place than us. [Environmental activist] Paul Watson said, “We are on a wonderful spaceship blowing through space. The spaceship’s called Earth, and it’s really more ocean than earth, and we’re killing off the crew.” All the life support systems, the worms, the birds, all the stuff we don’t care about, and we’re killing off the crew. And we say, “Hey man, I don’t understand why this is happening to us.” That’s because we’re not looking at the cause and effect of how we live. You know, I don’t want to get on my soapbox too much about it, but I think we’re going to be in tough shape, and the question is, will we wake up in time, and how many of these other species will we take with us? The planet ultimately will survive – it’s not the death of the planet – but will our species survive? That’s the question. It’s got nothing to do with party, race, sex, sexual preference. Dr. King used to say, “We have to learn to live in harmony with each other or die together as fools;” I would add to that, “We have to learn to live in harmony with each other and nature or perish together as fools.” So there you have it! [laughs]