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“We Were Determined to Locate and Use the Lenses from Gone With The Wind“: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz on Antebellum

Janelle Monáe in Antebellum (photo by Matt Kennedy)

Antebellum, the debut horror/thriller from filmmaking duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, wasn’t initially scheduled to be released this week. Originally slated for a late April theatrical bow, the film’s public exhibition was indefinitely put on hold once the COVID-19 pandemic hit and closed all movie theaters for the foreseeable future. After waiting in the wings for several months, Lionsgate decided to move forward with a North American digital release (opening the film elsewhere theatrically around the globe) and the unintended timing couldn’t be more apt.

Antebellum’s much-dissected trailer, portraying an African-American woman (played by Janelle Monáe) enslaved in the Antebellum South under extremely brutal conditions, implied a socially conscious horror film with hints of a modern day twist. Why, for instance, were there scenes of Monáe’s character, in modern day wardrobe, spliced poignantly into the trailer? Was the film toggling between the racial injustices of the past with the racial injustices of today? And if so, how? 

What begins as a brutal slice of American history eventually pivots into a very sharp damnation of what the self-proclaimed “land of the free” stands for today. Coming on the heels of a summer that saw social justice movements for racial equality rise as Confederate statues fell, Antebellum feels very much in tune with the current public discourse. As I write this, President Donald J. Trump is calling for a shift toward “patriotic education,” a surefire whitewashing of American history he feels is presently under attack. Maybe it is, and it should be. 

A few weeks before Antebellum was set to premiere across digital platforms on September 18th, I spoke with Bush and Renz about the origins of the project, the added relevance it’s taken on since being delayed by the pandemic and how a quest to locate the lenses used to shoot Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind served as an intentional correcting of history.

Filmmaker: While Antebellum marks your debut feature, your collaborative partnership extends several years, from music videos to calls-to-action campaigns. I imagine it’s been a particularly successful partnership for each of you?

Bush: It has. We’ve been working together for twelve years now and the connection was pretty instantaneous. The best way to describe it is if you were on a deserted island with a thousand forks and no knives and you suddenly ran into someone with a thousand knives and no forks. It was a perfect fit!

Back in 2008, Chris and I had a few story ideas we wanted to get serious about writing, but we were in the middle of the Great Recession and realized that we needed to find other steady jobs for work. While we remained determined (even buying t-shirts that said “Recession Proof” on them), we got our first industry gig working with the French winery company, Moët & Chandon, then started working for-hire in the luxury-fashion industry for several years. 

We were also seeking filmmaking work that doubled as activism, as agencies of change within the political sphere. We were personally focused on a whole host of issues going on in the world and wanted to find some way we could use our love of storytelling to amplify those issues. Fast-forwarding a bit further: we decided to make a big leap three years ago and move out to Los Angeles. Now here we are with our first feature. It’s essentially taken us over ten years to become something of an overnight success.

Filmmaker: Many works of literature reckon with the inherited trauma apparent in slavery and how its painful grip extends across multiple generations. Did that theme drive your desire to tell this story?

Bush: When we moved out to Los Angeles, my father had just passed away less than a year prior. It was an incredibly traumatizing time for me. One of the bonuses of Chris and I relocating to L.A. was that I could then be closer to my best friend and brother, Troy. However, Chris and I were barely settled into the city when Troy became deathly ill and shortly thereafter also passed away. As you can imagine, I was not having an easy time dealing with all of this loss and found myself having these incredible nightmares. 

In one specific nightmare, I would be witnessing a woman who was in such an unimaginably horrific situation that it felt like she was screaming for help across several dimensions. That nightmare is truly the story of Antebellum. The best way I can articulate it without sounding too “New Agey” is that I hadn’t been convinced of deceased ancestral communication prior to that nightmare (it just didn’t feel normal) but I found myself ready to explore it further, and that’s how we originally came up with the story for Antebellum.

Filmmaker: How did you pitch the film initially? Was there always a need to place an emphasis on the horror/genre elements? 

Renz: Once Gerard told me about his dream, we first wrote it out as a short story. The short story would go on to form the basis for the feature script, of course, but the story came first. 

Filmmaker: Did it include everything that ultimately wound up in the film?

Renz: It consisted of what makes up the first and third act of the feature. Once we began adapting the story into a screenplay, we added in that second act.

Bush: We enjoy the various mediums that allow us to communicate via art, and we had every intention of publishing our short story. That’s typically been our process, writing a short story first and then adapting it into a screenplay.

Renz: It’s a personal outline for us.

Bush: Yeah, and we’ve actually done that for our next feature, Rapture, as well. We wrote it as a short story before writing the script.

Filmmaker: And you’re looking to publish that story as well? Or that’s just a private part of your process to be shared between the two of you?

Renz: No, we’d be looking to publish it but hopefully somewhere the line after the film gets made.  We’d want to keep the twists to ourselves for the time being.

Bush: We’ve had pieces commissioned for TIME, Vanity Fair and a few other publications (and we thought we’d look to publish the Antebellum short story prior to the film’s release), but we quickly realized that publishing the short story might ruin the narrative elements for filmgoers. Hopefully we’ll be able to publish that down the line, as the short story is a completely different experience than the movie.

Filmmaker: The film opens with this remarkable, uninterrupted shot on what appears to be a slave plantation in the American South. The camera glides past the mansion of its white owners, through the nearby slave quarters, past the white soldiers and a man raising the Confederate flag in victory. The single take gives us a nonverbal representation of the horrors of American history. It’s really impressive and I wanted to ask if that was actually an unbroken, single take?

Bush: It was, and it was a very difficult experience to capture. We were determined (through a series of seductions) to immerse the audience into the horrors of the Antebellum South by first showcasing the idealistic beauty in the front of the plantation. That serves, of course, as a facade that covers the horror in the back behind the mansion.

Renz: It was all done via Steadicam, but things weren’t very steady in the moment. While our Steadicam operator was fantastic, it hit 95 degrees that day. He had sweat and bug spray and sunscreen in his eyes, the ground was really saturated and he was sinking right into it. On his first go at it, halfway through the take, he told us “I just can’t get [the shot].”

Bush: Well, he collapsed. He collapsed with the camera…

Renz: We really only had two opportunities per day to get the shot, as it needed to take place right at sunset. The movie essentially begins at sunset and concludes at sunrise. It was difficult, but well worth it. We couldn’t use the production audio at all because it’s just my voice screaming in the background.

Filmmaker: And when you’re blocking it, I imagine everything has to be timed to the second and rigorously (and overly) rehearsed. 

Bush: Yes, it’s like an opera. We have the enslaved people and the building of the tent and then we have—it was kind of like Billy Joel’s music video for “Allentown,” very symphonic in what we were trying to build. Each one of those segments, whether it’s the enslaved women at the clothesline (with their permagrins slowly turning into horror) or any other moment…all of that has to be perfectly timed by our cast. 

It’s important to note that the shot requires us to walk all the way from the front of the plantation to its endpoint. That makes up the equivalent of one mile. Everything had to go perfectly. When we were filming, it was somewhat of an upsetting experience because the sun wasn’t cooperating with us. There were arguments amongst us, as everyone’s passionate about getting the shot right and there’s a lot of anxiety due to each of us wanting it to be perfect. Our feelings of heartbreak and agony of defeat were worth it to eventually get the one take that encapsulates everything going exactly as it should. That only happened perfectly once, but that’s all we needed.

Filmmaker: Was everything shot on-location? Did you have to build 19th-century sets? 

Bush: While we did build sets in some instances, the shoot took place on the Evergreen [plantation] in Louisiana. It was really important to Chris and I that we shoot on an actual plantation while, of course, simultaneously respecting its hallowed grounds. By that I mean, there still are actual slave cabins on site, but we didn’t want to shoot in those cabins because it would desecrate its history. It felt disrespectful to us, so we built replicas on the same pathways or roads as those pre-existing slave cabins. Our production designer, Jeremy Woodward, was brilliant in designing those and we were lucky to have Sanford Biggers, who is one of today’s most celebrated Black artists (and a dear friend of ours) come on as an art director, working in tandem with Jeremy and building, for example, the “burn shed” that plays a central role in the film. 

Filmmaker: The sets come off as very “film ready,” like the way you use what appears to be a split diopter to have two characters divided on opposite sides of a door. The burn shed is another example of the sets’ “movieness,” as the camera pulls back and the viewer gets a sense of how big the plantation is. It all feels very classical in a way.

Bush: All right, so we should note here that we were determined to locate and use the lenses from Gone With The Wind to shoot this movie.

Filmmaker: Were you successful?

Renz: We were, and we refit those lenses to work on our cameras.

Bush: We shot the movie with the actual lenses Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan used for Gone With The Wind. We were determined to use the exact same lenses that were weaponized and used to effectively create propaganda in 1939. Hopefully our film corrects that record.

Filmmaker: With HBO Max adding an introduction for Gone With The Wind that contextualizes the film a bit, perhaps Antebellum might serve as an appropriate addendum. 

Bush: [laughs] Exactly!

Filmmaker: The film comes with many twists, none of which we need to go into great detail on. But I think it’s really interesting how you identify certain aspects of the American South (and its slave-trade) with more modern symbols of America that speak to its dark past. In the form of your film, they are clues to something not being quite right, but it also makes the viewer question the history of the objects around us.

Renz: That’s right. From the first frame, we wanted to make clear that Antebellum requires more than “passive viewing.” We need you to be alert and engaged. It was imperative that we communicate that nonverbally through the visual language of the film. Our concept was to disorient our audience and confuse them a bit about whether they were in the modern day or if they were in the Antebellum South of the past. The city of New Orleans offers that [confusion].

Filmmaker: It’s unsettling and somewhat sinister in a lot of subtle ways. Perhaps that’s via the way you light a hotel hallway (or a darkened restaurant) later in the film and the way it contrasts with the natural, candle-lit lighting of the 1800s sequences. It all feels part of an intergenerational whole.

Renz: Yeah, and that second, “modern” act specifically also takes place in New Orleans. If you’ve ever visited, it’s the kind of city where you could be walking down the street and still feel like it’s 200 years prior. The lighting in the restaurant is primarily candle-based and there are all of these photos of plantations and other relics of the Civil War amongst them. 

Bush: We wanted viewers to recognize these monuments (or vestiges or relics of the past) as being a representation of America’s “original sin.” While these relics are omnipresent, we’ve grown blind to them, right? Even the last name that I carry, “Bush,” is a permanent branding or tattoo on my person, as it serves as a reminder of my still not knowing my family’s original origin. Antebellum is about each of the elements still very much around us that ground us in the past. They’re seamless and they’re still present. The film shows you these relics and vestiges from a different perspective, and that causes you to have to confront it rather than ignore it.

Bush: There are a number of Easter eggs built in to reward a second viewing. It’s tough to talk about without spoiling plot points, but it’s a very different viewing experience the second time around. 

Filmmaker: You also make Janelle Monáe’s character an academic who often has to be a “talking head” on right-wing TV shows, pushing back against the ugly, racist discourse of our current media landscape. That too feels intentionally prominent.

Bush: It is. Chris and I find preachy, finger-wagging films pretty abhorrent and it’s not anything we’re particularly interested in. We both grew up around some really extraordinary women (me, in particular, with Black women, with my mother and sister, who went to Spelman College, a HBCU). I grew up surrounded by academia and Chris and I thought it was important to demonstrate that Janelle’s character isn’t a person who is “entertaining people” as her job. Her job is to educate and inform. Unfortunately, that’s a rather rare depiction you see on film, especially as it relates to Black women in media.

Filmmaker: You obviously couldn’t have predicted that your film would be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. While your film was originally going to be released this past spring, it’s somewhat incredible, given the social events that have taken place over the past six months in this country, how even more timely Antebellum currently feels. With Confederate statues being toppled and serious conversations about reparations being had in the mainstream media, your film feels designed for this moment, a moment you couldn’t have predicted while in production.

Renz: Absolutely. It got to the point where we could either release the film now or wait until 2021. We did everything we could for this film to be released in theaters, even pushing back the release date a few times and hoping for a [a different outcome]. As huge supporters of the theatrical experience (and having designed the film to be experienced communally in a theater), that was our goal. But you’re right, we’re in this moment now where it couldn’t be a better time for Antebellum to be released. Unfortunately, that means that it won’t be experienced in theaters in the United States (it will internationally, however) but we felt it was necessary to get it out there now.

Bush: I can only speak for myself, but I could never have predicted that our film would perfectly intersect with America’s latest “flash point” in such a way that feels tailor-made for our movie. As such, we really needed to move forward and get the message out, especially ahead of the upcoming presidential election. That was really important to us.

At the end of the day, we as writer-directors believe that it’s important to create art that moves the needle forward in some meaningful way. We’d love for Antebellum to catalyze a national dialogue around the issue of race, as it’s extremely urgent and the conversation can’t be deferred any longer. The country needs to confront this issue, in all of its ugliness, if we have any hope of healing the fissures inherent in our society.

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