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Love Jones, which turned twenty last year, screens in 35mm at BAMcinématek this Wednesday, the evening of Valentine’s Day. The only movie to date written and directed by Theodore Witcher, it examines the blossoming connection between two driven Chicago creatives: the sublimely named Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate), a writer and poet, and Nina Moseley (Nia Long), a photographer. Their romance — and their relationships with the rest of the ensemble cast, which features Isaiah Washington and Bill Bellamy — plays out with a thrilling cultural omnivorousness. Their conversations are peppered with references to Gordon Parks, George Bernard Shaw, Prince; in one scene, Darius reads Amiri Baraka. Their bond seems to emerge not from the dictates of screenwriting but from common interests and shared heroes.
Ahead of the screening, the Voice spoke with Witcher by phone about the Chicago setting of Love Jones, the state of the movie industry, and the James Gray cameo we almost had.
Can you talk about how Love Jones was received at the time?
Theodore Witcher: We got a good review by Janet Maslin in the New York Times. Ebert and Siskel liked it. I think the L.A. Times review was good. There were some that were middling, some pans. But my recollection is that the critical response was good. Then it didn’t do a tremendous amount of business, which was surprising. They [initially] put the movie out during the spring, and the soundtrack record became a hit. So, between the studio and the record company, they scratched some money together and decided to do a rerelease. They put it back out that summer, I believe, on four hundred screens. It still didn’t perform. I couldn’t figure out why — nobody could figure out why. I just moved on. But even from the beginning, people were coming up to me on the street and would say positive things. That continued on for years, to this day. So, I never got the sense that the audience didn’t like the movie. It had its acolytes.
Despite the fact that it didn’t make any money, the longevity of it has been gratifying. We’ve had some retrospective screenings over the last few years. I was at BAM in 2012. They did a screening for the 15-year anniversary, I think. That was one of the first ones. It was a lot of fun. Last year, we did a bunch of them. There was the ABFF [Honors]. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences did a 20th-anniversary screening. I did another screening, in Chicago, at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
The other thing is that either BET or TBS would always run it in February, because, coincidentally, February happens to not only be Black History Month, but it also contains Valentine’s Day. So it seemed like the perfect programming fit. I don’t know if it’s running this year, but for years it ran on either TBS and/or BET or some outlet.
Love Jones is full of Chicago locations that you and your cinematographer, Ernest Holzman, photograph with clear affection: the Buckingham Fountain, the Record Emporium, the Wild Hare. Was it important for you to set the movie there?
I grew up outside of Chicago. I went to school in Chicago. I spent my early 20s working in Chicago. All my friends were there. The world of the movie is very much a version of the Chicago that I knew. It’s slightly romanticized, but not that much. The Wild Hare — that’s a real thing, and it’s presented pretty much as it was when I would go there to hang out. The poetry scene that I was a part of in the early ’90s — what you see in the movie is a version of that.
And the tiki room, that bar — actually, it’s no longer there anymore. They tore that whole block down, in Hyde Park. But that was a real place. We even shot in South Shore. In fact, we wound up making the movie — the opening scene, for example, is, like, blocks from where the Obamas lived. We had no idea that five blocks away there was some shit brewing. [Laughs] There was a guy with a dream, and his wife. I’d never heard of this guy. So that area, Hyde Park, and other parts of the South Side — that was where we all were at the time. I wanted to put that in a movie in a way that I don’t think had been seen before.
Many mainstream romantic comedies are led by characters with financially cushy careers and/or glamorous-seeming lifestyles. There’s a hint of that here, in that Nina is house-sitting at a place that looks fancy. But Nina and Darius are both unknown creatives, not big earners. Why did you gravitate toward humble protagonists with artistic pursuits?
It’s funny. Now, there’s a name for those people. We call them the creative class. That was not really a thing 20-plus years ago. I tried to make it as true to my own experience as possible. He [Darius] is living in an apartment with secondhand furniture. The funny thing about her [Nina’s] location, where she’s house-sitting … My intention for it wasn’t to be as polished as it turned out.
This is how a movie can get away from you, particularly when you’re a first-time director. That was sort of the last location we could find that was willing to have us. We were running out of time, and we needed a location to lock in. I thought I could cover it with that line, where [she says] she’s house-sitting for an old professor — which, unfortunately, a lot of people miss. One of the complaints I’ve gotten is that, “I love the movie, but I cannot figure out how Nina could afford such a fancy loft on the North Side of Chicago.” [Laughs] The idea was: It’s not her place, and I thought it worked as a contrast to his place.
It actually makes the physical comedy of a later sequence — in which Nina attempts to relegate Darius to the downstairs couch while she retreats upstairs for a chaste night’s sleep — sing all the more. There’s so much space in which the between-floors comic play can breathe.
Yeah, they’re separated, literally, by a floor. You’re right. So I was able to make some use of it. As far as the creative thing goes — that was a conscious choice. Everybody in a romantic comedy of the Nineties, or in any studio picture, usually they’re, like, architects. Or the dilemma is “He’s trying to make partner.” [Laughs] What I connect to is, “I’m 26. Let me spend three months to try and write this book and see if I can make it as a novelist.”
And she’s a photographer. She begins as a photographer’s assistant, which is the way you would begin, certainly in those days. Actually, these days, you’d probably start doing your own pictures and then putting them on Instagram. But she was coming up through the ranks, trying to get a book published. Another notion from the past, right? Those are things that date the picture. But the notion of twentysomething people trying to pursue careers related to their artistic interests [onscreen] — that was uncommon for that time. And certainly for black people.
Nia Long and Larenz Tate share an incredible chemistry. Were they cast as the leads from the beginning?
I was looking at a bunch of different guys, and I couldn’t settle on one. Larenz was suggested by the studio, New Line, because he had been in Menace II Society, which was a hit for them. He was considered a rising star. I wasn’t sure that … How should I say this? I saw Menace II Society, and I thought he was so dynamic as O-Dog that I didn’t know that that was acting. I literally looked at that guy and was like, “Oh, they must have just went down to South Central and got some sociopath off the street who could memorize dialogue.” I didn’t know, until I met him, that that was a job of acting. So I wasn’t sure his range could encompass what I had envisioned for Darius. It wasn’t a question of whether he could act. Clearly, he could act. It was just whether he could extend his abilities to encompass what I had written.
What I also didn’t know at the time we met, as I’m circling him, looking askance at him, is that he’s looking askance at me, because — though he liked the script — he wasn’t particularly high on the idea of working with a first-time director. And no actor is. So he’s like, “OK, all right, who’s this guy?” [Laughs] But I respected what he had done in that movie, and he liked the script. So he signed on. I thought we had a good working relationship. I loved what he did.
As [for] Nia Long, I had written the script with another actress in mind. If I said her name, you would recognize her. We went down the line with her, and she passed. The executive on the movie, Helena Echegoyen, had worked with Nia on Friday, which was a hit. She said, “What about Nia Long?” So, we had dinner, and come to find out that Nia’s from Brooklyn. She’s from Brooklyn from when Brooklyn was like … She’s Gotta Have It Brooklyn, right? [That’s when] the Fort Greene area was kind of the creative capital of black America in a lot of ways. You had hip-hop, jazz, all kinds of things happening. And Spike [Lee]. That was her world. Her father was a poet. She came from an artistic family. So she connected to the idea of the movie. I put them together in a screen test, and it was obvious they had chemistry. It worked out perfectly.
The dialogue is refreshingly sexually frank, as when Nina, in the taxi-cab scene, says, after her first date with Darius, “It was like his dick just talked to me.” Earlier, a male character expounds on the brain activity that causes an erection. There are also other nuggets of conversation — a couple scenes begin with someone entering a group situation and announcing, “Hey, black people” — that seem strikingly culturally specific for a studio movie. Did you receive any pushback to make the language more accessible?
No — to my surprise. It’s fairly racy, actually. Maybe too much so. One, from a practical reason, because when you’re finishing the movie, at that time, you also had to do what they call a domestic-airline version, which is like the broadcast-TV version. It took me two weeks to go through and make a sanitized version that could play on airplanes. [Laughs] And I thought to myself, “OK, I don’t need to have this much cursing in the next picture. I’m just creating extra work for myself at the back end.” [Laughs]
So there was that aspect. Then, as I got older, I thought, “Man, they are cursing a little too much.” [Laughs] Especially, like, the dick-on-the-chin joke. That’s shit you think is hilarious when you’re 25, you know? It’s funny, but it’s a little off-color. I don’t know.
The funny thing is, old people have seen the movie, young people, adults of all ages. Nobody has ever pushed back on the language. And black people, particularly older black people, are fairly conservative about that kind of stuff. They’re more-or-less churchgoing folks. I was expecting a little pushback, and I didn’t get it. I guess people thought it was funny, or thought it was real, and were willing to laugh along.
That taxi-cab scene between Nia Long and Lisa Nicole Carson is an exemplary display of comedic timing. There’s one shot that rests for several seconds on Carson’s facial reactions. Even as what seems like three or four punchlines rush by, you keep the camera on her. Did you and your editor, Maysie Hoy, share a philosophy for how you wanted to approach timing?
I can tell you a story about that moment from a filmmaking standpoint. The line is … Nina says, “His dick talked to me.” Lisa says, “What did it say?” Then Nina says, “Nina.” I thought, when I wrote it, that that was the punchline. Then we shot it, and Lisa gave that reaction. She clearly understood how to play that scene, without any direction from me. When I had the footage in, we were like, “Oh, we’re just going to cut to Lisa and hold on her.” Because the funny part is when you [have] her reaction to what is being said.
It’s like that scene at the beginning of The Shining. [That’s] what came to mind when I was cutting the movie. It’s when Shelley Duvall is talking about how Jack Nicholson is beating up on their son, and she’s saying it in a way that seems like it’s normal, [that] this is just the things that happen with parents. Then Kubrick cuts to Anne Jackson, who’s in the scene with Duvall, and her face is just agog listening to this. And it gets a laugh! It’s the same cinematic construction. I cut to Lisa, and her reaction gets a laugh.
The first time I screened it, at the test screening, it was drowning out the [following] lines so much, I was like, “Let me build more space into it, just to let the laugh die down.” I extended the shot by another couple seconds — and it still didn’t work. Every time, for twenty-plus years, every audience laughs through the next two lines. But that’s all [Lisa]. She gave that to me, without any direction, and me and Maysie understood immediately how to cut the scene.
You have not directed another movie since Love Jones, although you have written one other picture, called Body Count, from 1998.
Skip that. That might be one of the worst movies ever made.
Now I’m curious.
No, no, no. Listen to what I’m telling you. Do not waste two hours of your life watching that movie. Not even for a laugh. It’s not worth it, I’m telling you.
Can you talk about the obstacles you’ve faced getting other projects off the ground?
I’ve been working off-and-on over the years. It was challenging to get other material like that through the system. It’s hard for anybody who’s trying to do anything that is off the beaten track. I’ve been in the business, out of the business, came back into it. Jobs would come along, and I would take them. I’ve always been working on my own stuff.
But now, because of the disruption of some of these big [digital] players — Amazon, Apple, Netflix — and also the cultural disruption, where now, finally, I think the push to include other kinds of … I won’t even say other kinds of movies, but other kinds of people in the movies … I think that’s actually taken hold. I have to be honest with you — not to seem too Pollyannaish about it — but I feel more optimistic now, in the last year or two, about continuing on to make other films in the vein of Love Jones, than I have in the last 20. I’m looking forward to making another film at some point soon, hopefully.
That echoes something Leonard Roberts, who appears in Love Jones, stated in a panel following that Academy screening last year. He said: “If you’re 22, and you’re black, and you’re going out to see a movie with your friends, you haven’t seen a movie in 1996 where somebody hasn’t died at the end.” I take it, then, that you have noticed progress?
Oh, for sure. There’s so many new people, even people my age, who are [in the game] now. There’s been a general progression — and not just for black people, but for other groups who haven’t seen themselves in movies. Certainly for women as well.
This is a huge cultural moment for women in pop culture. I think everything is pointing upwards, quite frankly. Usually I’m the doom-and-gloom guy. [Laughs] But at least in my corner of the world, which is show business, things seem to be looking up. I wish I could have the same optimism for the general state of the country. [Laughs]
Your most conspicuous credit on IMDb is a “special thanks” citation for James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. What is your connection there?
Oh, am I? That’s funny. James and I have been close friends for over 20 years. As filmmakers do, when he’s working on a picture, he’ll ask for my input. I’ll read the script and give him notes and go to early screenings. He does the same for my material. I didn’t know he put me in the credits, though. That’s very nice.
I think he’s credited in Love Jones, actually. James had a scene that I cut out, believe it or not. We had the same producer — Nick Wechsler produced Little Odessa [Gray’s debut], and also produced Love Jones. That’s how we met. I wrote a scene for him at the beginning. He plays a guy who works at the newspaper with Larenz the day he’s quitting his job. I don’t know if you’ve ever interviewed James, but he’s a character. I thought, “This guy has to be in the movie.” And he’s not the guy who would usually be in a quote-unquote “black movie.”
It’s less so now, but at the time, there were all these rules you had to follow. If you were making a mainstream movie, there’s the cool black friend. If you’re making a black movie, there’s the corny white-guy friend. I was like, “I don’t know any corny white guys.” So let me have the sharpest, most unique, idiosyncratic white guy be Darius’s friend at the newspaper. [Laughs] James came to Chicago. He had never acted before. As I was finishing the movie, I was trying to make it shorter. The scene was expository, so it wound up getting cut. But I think I left his name in the credits. So maybe he paid me back 20 years later.
But on the subject of Lost City of Z — this is a crime. This movie is criminally overlooked. It’s far and away the best picture I saw last year. His last three pictures — Two Lovers, The Immigrant, and Z — are absolutely incredible. Z in particular — me, all of his friends, were blown away with what he achieved. The fact that nobody is talking about it, and these other wack-ass fucking movies are getting the awards nominations, it’s infuriating. But that’s the state of the culture, my man.
It’s encouraging that you’re optimistic about making something soon.
Yeah, I’ve got a couple things I’m working on. Two projects that I might actually be able to get made. Fingers crossed. I’d like to make my second movie after two decades. [Laughs]
A long-awaited sophomore effort.
That’s exactly right. I was joking once with some folks, I said, “My plan is to be the black Terrence Malick. Just sit out for 20 years, then come back with a storm.” [Laughs]