Off the Lot With Mateen Kemet

Matt Sussman August 28, 2007

It’s been about a month since Oakland-based filmmaker Mateen Kemet left the Fox reality show "On the Lot" as one of seven finalists. But Kemet left the show running. I caught up with the talkative director while he was enjoying a brief bit of downtime, from planning his next few projects, with family on the East Coast. As in his weekly short assignment films for "On the Lot," Kemet packs his responses with big ideas. His ambition, creativity and intelligence are palpable in conversation; the first quality having perhaps (unduly) received more notice while he was competing on the show than the other two. While reality television may have reduced Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes to a 15 second sound byte, Kemet is clearly setting his sights well beyond his time on "On the Lot," which was closing shop as we spoke with Kemet this week.

SF360: How are you doing?

Mateen Kemet: I’m good. I’m just trying to settle down after the three months of chaos I’ve been going through.

SF360: Could you give me a sense of what the day-to-day of being on a reality show is like?

Kemet: It was like a six-day revolving door. Unfortunately they weren’t able for whatever reason to show how we made the films in that time period. I don’t think most people who watched the show really got a sense of what a remarkable feat all of us engaged in week after week. Once you started you would meet with your DP and assigned crews — you didn’t pick anybody. We had a different complete crew for each shoot, which was something different for someone like myself who is a guerilla filmmaker. It was like having this massive machine behind you. So it makes things a little inflexible. We only had time to write a first draft. We never met our actors. We met them on set — which was really new to me. I value actors. I am a performance-driven and character-driven director and so it’s hard not to have those kind of intellectual discussions with actors.

SF360: The premise of the show was interesting to me because you’re given these constraints yet at the same time the means by which you can make the film are a bit more lavish than, say, what the average film student gets access to. It was interesting to see what would come out of that incongruence.

Kemet: Yeah. From [the show’s] perspective I think they saw it as ‘Let’s give ‘em the best of the best.’ As soon as you picked your prompt, the ball was rolling and you were locked in. But I would try and sneak in little things, like conversations with my actors during wardrobe; which wasn’t really allowed.

SF360: You weren’t allowed to talk with them before they were on the set?

Kemet: No. It wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but we would try and come up with ways to see them before showing up on the set
SF360: I don’t know if you’ve had time yet to reflect on your experiences on the show, but how do you see that experience affecting your own aesthetic.

Kemet: Well, I’m a much more efficient filmmaker. Initially I set out to make big films in a short format, which I think was a different strategy than most of my competitors who might take a moment or a bit of dialogue and stretch it. I worked in the opposite way, where each film could be a feature, but I had to take a little slice of it and compose it in a way so that it would fit into a short structure. I have to make choices so much faster now. And hanging out with 18 other filmmakers 24/7 definitely left me feeling more creative and more fertile. When your feet are to the fire in that way you either burn or you dance.

SF360: Your horror entry ‘Profile’ dealt with racial profiling. How comfortable do you think Hollywood is with directors who take on race and racism?

Kemet: The record stands that the question is rhetorical. Unfortunately, race is still the ugly, retarded sibling that you keep in the attic. No one wants to talk about it, but maybe occasionally someone feeds it and you keep it alive — but you have to — but no one wants to talk about it. And that’s what race is in America. But it’s such a part of America that I feel it’s incumbent upon directors — especially those who are racial or ethnic minorities — to address their experience of it.

SF360: How did you develop the short?

Kemet: There’s no doubt that I could make a monster movie. I mean, I’m one of the top emerging filmmakers in the world, according to Steven Spielberg. So, it shouldn’t be hard to make a monster with everything Hollywood has to offer. I had to figure out what horror meant to me. I sat down and thought ‘What is the most horrific thing that could happen to me right now?’ and I came up with police brutality. That is something that is very real for me, and for everybody who looks like me, and those who don’t. I’ve been stopped by the cops seven times in Los Angeles in a four month period. I’m a black man with a masters degree; a law abiding citizen. I’ve been stopped for all kinds of ‘reasons,’ but which basically amounted to a form of intimidation.

SF360: Tell me more about your local production company Runaway FilmworX.

Kemet: It’s an outgrowth and embodiment of my spirit when I left corporate America —and now it is morphing into a full fledged film production company that has a mandate to produce films that are ethically centered, and in particular, are rooted in the African American experience and the African Diaspora experience, and to give a different perspective utilizing that experience. I don’t think most ‘black film’ is rooted in black peoples’ lives; it’s just black people on screen.

SF360: How would you evaluate that last statement in terms of a filmmaker like Tyler Perry? Many would consider him a black filmmaker who has gained a certain amount of ‘cross over’ appeal while retaining his core African American audience. If you did a straw poll and asked Americans on the street to name an African American filmmaker, I wonder if more people would answer ‘Tyler Perry’ rather than , say, ‘Spike Lee’ or ‘Kasi Lemmons?’

Kemet: In a straw poll, yes, I think people would say Tyler Perry. He’s much more popular and populist, though I think what he has done is struck a nerve. As for Spike Lee, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I’m going to be the next Spike Lee. Even on the show, people were saying, ‘Oh, Spike Lee better watch out.’ I was like, that man has made 25 features in 25 years. I haven’t even made one. There might be a slight physical resemblance and I’m obviously influenced by his work … but people are being lazy not having any other way to asses me. I’m influenced by him, but I’m also influenced by David Lynch and Bertolucci.

SF360: What’s currently in the pipeline?

Kemet: I’m going to be shooting a film for the port of Oakland that is going to be about the city of Oakland, and it’s going to air in the Southwest terminal in the Oakland Airport. They have a media wall, and I’ve been chosen as one of four Bay Area artists — and the only narrative artist — and I’ve been chosen to do a film.

SF360: Will people have to go to the airport to see the film?

Kemet: Yes. They can only see it at the airport, at least for the first year. Although I think the city of Oakland film commission will have airings in other places.

SF360: What would be your ultimate fantasy film to make? Your cast can include the living and the deceased.

Kemet: It would be a swashbuckling film about the moors. I would have Jeffrey Wright, Denzel Washington, Avery Brooks, early Sidney Poitier and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Jimmy Smits. It would be about the fall of the Moorish empire as the Spanish are trying to reclaim power. It would be a love story too; there would be princesses and intrigue. I love that sort of stuff. It would have a cast of thousands. We’ve never seen that with black characters. The closest thing that comes to that is ‘Drumline.’

SF360: Do you consider ‘Drumline’ part of the swashbuckling genre?

Kemet: Not really. It’s just that ‘Drumline’ had a cast of thousands and costumes, and there was a huge battle in the middle of the Georgia Dome. It had scope and scale. It was big. I just kept thinking, wouldn’t it be great if this was like ‘Hero?’ I want to do an African Diaspora version of ‘Hero.’

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