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From Proof of Concept to Feature Film: An Interview with 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul' Filmmakers Adamma Ebo and Adanne Ebo

The Ebo sisters speak with Script about becoming filmmakers, expanding their proof of concept short film of the same name into a feature film, their collaboration with each other and with their cinematographer Alan Gwizdowski, capturing Trinitie's character arc and so much more.

In the aftermath of a huge scandal, Trinitie Childs, the first lady of a prominent Southern Baptist Mega Church, attempts to help her pastor-husband, Lee-Curtis Childs, rebuild their congregation.

At first glance, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul., seemingly plays out like the great mockumentaries that have come before it, like Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind. However, these filmmakers, the Ebo sisters, Adamma and Adanne, respectfully, take it two (maybe even three steps) further - fluctuating between two forms of filmmaking and challenging their audience to think outside the box, and so much more. 

All the while, keeping you incredibly entertained and invested in what is to become of Trinitie and Lee-Curtis Childs' fate - both personally and professionally. And the cherry on top of all of the incredible filmmaking footwork is the casting, namely Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown - you know these two were not only creatively challenging themselves but also, having a grand ol' time. 

I had the immense pleasure of speaking with the Ebo sisters about becoming filmmakers, expanding their proof of concept short film into a feature, their collaboration with each other and with their cinematographer Alan Gwizdowski,  capturing Trinitie's character arc and so much more.

Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown star as Trinitie and Lee-Curtis Childs in HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL., a Focus Features release. Credit: Steve Swisher / © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC

Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown star as Trinitie and Lee-Curtis Childs in HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL., a Focus Features release. Credit: Steve Swisher / © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Let’s start from the top. What was the inspiration for the two of you to become visual storytellers?

Adamma Ebo: I think it's because we always consume story in some form or fashion growing up. And it was a lot of visual storytelling. We were big readers, but we are also constantly watching TV, constantly watching films. And we're also big gamers, and our favorite types of games were RPGs, which is all about the story, and its visual storytelling.

Adanne Ebo: And I'd also say we're big into comics and manga as well. And that's visual storytelling.

Adamma: That's true. And so, I think it's just being entrenched in various types of visual storytelling that eventually became nonsensical for us not to try to do this.

Adanne: It made sense. [laughs]

Sadie: Yes, manga. It's such a different way of storytelling, rather than Western narrative storytelling.

Adanne: And it's so visual, like the way the panels are illustrated it's directorial.

Adamma: It is. It's directorial. We're big manga fans.

Sadie: I just had like a flash of those animations, and they're facial expressions, and immediately thinking of Regina Hall. [laughs]

Adanne: Let's see an Anime or manga illustration of Trinitie and Lee-Curtis. That would be amazing. [laughs]

Sadie: I would totally buy that. So, in terms of going from the short film, which you made in 2018, was that originally a proof of concept knowing that you're going to do this as a feature film?

Adanne: Yeah, it was intentionally a proof of concept.

Adamma: It was always going to be something larger for sure.

Writer-director Adamma Ebo, producer Adanne Ebo and executive producer Carolina Groppa on the set of their film HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL., a Focus Features release.Credit Steve Swisher  © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC

Writer-director Adamma Ebo, producer Adanne Ebo and executive producer Carolina Groppa on the set of their film HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL., a Focus Features release.Credit Steve Swisher © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC

Sadie: Where did the idea itself come from in writing about megachurches and developing these two characters?

Adamma: I think a lot of it stemmed from lived experience and us growing up in Southern Baptist megachurch culture and then becoming disillusioned with it and then straying pretty far and then finding ourselves being pulled back into it and not like against our own will, but finding out that we were still being drawn to it for specific reasons, but still not jiving with a lot. And basically, feeling very emotional and feeling a lot of complexities about where we were I think culturally and spiritually that made me want to dive into why it feels complex for me. And a lot of it is because of the flaws in the institution.

Sadie: Trinitie's character arc and her development are so interesting how you two were able to capture all of that. I feel like you are hitting all the character archetypes or at least these very specific stages for her journey. How were you tracing her character arc, but also from fleshing it out from the short film into a feature film?

Adamma: Yeah, tracing her character arc from the short film to feature film, I wanted it to feel more like going on a roller coaster for the very first time; like you never know when it's going to be smooth sailing, you never know when you're going to go on a loop or a plunge. And there's always a point, I think for people who aren't roller coaster enthusiasts, but do it anyway, where they're like, 'I need to get off this ride.' And I wanted to feel that ebb and flow of when is Trinitie going to say, ‘I gotta get off of this ride.’ And so, tracking her character arc was seeing how much was going to be too much for her. And when would the inevitable break happen?

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Sadie: And then on the producing side for you, Adanne, being strictly a producer on this, what is it about producing, especially with something like this, where you’re facilitating both documentary and narrative filmmaking, what about it was creatively satisfying, or maybe even challenging for you?

Adanne: Yeah, to answer the first part, I'm not strictly a producer.

Adamma: Only on this project was she a producer.

Adanne: Yeah, we're writing partners, as well. So only on this project was I solely a producer. And I mean, even on this project, I feel like just the way that our working relationship is, I may be more involved than a lot of producers tend to be. On set, I was at the monitor with her all the time, unless I had to go off and put out a fire or something. And I was instrumental in every draft of the script and all that so very much we were filmmakers together and have this creative partnership.

Writer-director Adamma Ebo and producer Adanne Ebo on the set of their film HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL., a Focus Features release. Credit Steve Swisher  © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC

Writer-director Adamma Ebo and producer Adanne Ebo on the set of their film HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL., a Focus Features release. Credit Steve Swisher © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC

Sadie: Even better. So, in terms of producing this feature, anything that was creatively satisfying or challenged in terms of execution as a producer, on top of putting out fires?

Adanne: Probably casting the shorter bit roles was very creatively satisfying. And casting the Sumpters as well like pushing the other producers to go in a different direction I think maybe they weren’t intending to go in. We very much wanted it to feel like homegrown, very much Atlanta. And we were obviously going to cast [locally] for the smaller roles. But I think Adamma and I tended to have some creative differences when it came to casting some of the roles.

Adamma: Not with each other.

Adanne: Not with each other. We are usually on the same page. I think there's a perception of what feels like acting. And for us, we wanted it not to feel like acting. We wanted the bit roles not to feel like acting. We were like, we could literally just take somebody off the street and be like, ‘Can you read these lines?’ type of thing. But we obviously went with actors, but we went with a particular type of feel And I think, produceriarly, I really pushed for that. And that was a little bit of a battle. But we came out on the other side of it. [laughs]

Adamma: It worked out.

Sadie: It definitely did. As far as collaborative efforts, working with your DP Allen Gqizdowski, and your editors and combining two different kinds of mediums, documentary, and narrative, and then also the different aspect ratios and how you're cutting between those two – it works so seamlessly. I feel like we're in Trinitie’s mindset towards the end of the film. What was the process like working with your core team to execute that, Adamma?

Adamma: All of the scenes in the script are delineated whether they're narrative or documentary in the slug lines. But it did shift a bit when once we got into the edit. On set, me and Gwiz had decided that it's probably a good idea to shoot certain scenes both ways. Even if they weren't written that way. And I think that's because, once we got into really crafting the visual tone and storytelling nature of this movie, I knew that I always wanted two styles, like you said, to start mixing up as the film goes on and as Trinitie devolves and everything else falls apart. But something that was, I think, very astute of Gwiz was that we should start laying breadcrumbs so that when it starts happening, it's not completely jarring. And so, you get moments throughout each act until it's all of it at once.

Adanne: And the moments are within one scene. So, a good example of that early on is when Trinitie is in the throne chairs by herself talking directly to Anita saying, ‘I just want to make sure we're on the same page,’ it's one scene and it's written in the script as documentary style. But because we shot it both ways, when we got into the edit, it felt right to switch from documentary to the narrative cinematic style, when Trinitie says, ‘Anita, can you cut?’

We always wanted the switch to feel motivated by story. And so, we were like, it makes sense. It makes sense that the cinematic style is when the cameras are off or when Trinitie and Lee-Curtis think that they're off or they ask Anita to cut whether or not she really cuts is up for interpretation. But in that scene, she asked Anita to cut and so then that's when we switch to the cinematic style, but it's in the same scene.

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Sadie: So smart to roll both cameras at the same time. Because you just never know. Cover all of your bases.

Adanne: Cover all of your bases.

Adamma Sometimes we can't roll both cameras at the same time. Sometimes it's two different setups. It took a lot of time. [laughs]

Adamma: It was definitely a lot it, but shout out to Gwiz and his spreadsheet. He had it all mapped out.

Adanne: Yeah, we got it done.

Sadie: How many cameras did have to get all of that coverage?

Adanne: It was only two cameras, but I will say the archival footage where we see like Trinitie and Lee-Curtis back in the day like in the heyday of their church, a lot of that was footage of the congregation came directly from the church - they had that footage and they licensed it to us. But also, they had the Betacams that it was actually shot on, so we were actually able to shoot Regina and Sterling with those Betacam cameras to match the footage that the church already had.

Sadie: That is so cool. That's even cooler than doing all of that in post. As for casting the two leads, I mean obviously Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall are just masters at their craft, but going back to Regina just her facial expressions say so much. I really appreciated that you two embraced letting those cameras role and capture those moments. What was the creative collaboration with Regina and working on that character arc of emotional highs and lows?

ws-transformational_360x

Adanne: It's a testament to the craft of acting. But also I think a lot of it's a testament to the direction, like how you would have them do the same scene and give wildly different motivations for how they should approach the scene.

Adamma: Yeah. There would be scenes where I'd be like, ‘You're desperate with Lee-Curtis. You're pleading with him, please don't do this.’ That's the tone of it. And then I would do the exact same scene and I would be like, ‘This time you're chastising him like he's a kid,’ you know what I mean? And a lot of the time, we would split the difference so that there was an evolution where she would maybe start off pleading and then be like, ‘No, forget this.'

And so, it was really in crafting the performances, it was really an evolution of takes. I would start out one way, I would get it another way, maybe get a third way. And then I would mix them up. So, I would be like, ‘When you get to this point, that's when the switch happens.’ I think that's why in so many of their performances, there's this really nice escalation within a single performance and oftentimes within a singular shot. I did as many one shots as I could. I like them. I like them for actors, especially when you got good actors - just let them do it.

Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall star as Lee-Curtis and Trinitie Childs in HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL., a Focus Features release. Credit Steve Swisher  © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC

Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall star as Lee-Curtis and Trinitie Childs in HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL., a Focus Features release. Credit Steve Swisher © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC

Sadie: Exactly. I keep thinking about Sterling’s performance in that scene on the basketball court. I'm trying to recall if that was all one shot until you start cutting to the close-ups.

Adanne: Yeah, it's one shot until Lee-Curtis. says, ‘The air of youth is important.’ And then we cut. It's a one-shot for a long, long time.

Adamma: I think another testament to why I really wanted it to be a oner. I really wanted it to be this like slow creep-in. And there was some pushback on it, but I think it worked out. I love it the way it is. And I think it's also a testament to our DP, Alan Gwizdowski. He wasn't a sit in the chair and tell people how to light it and how to op type of DP. He didn't always op the camera, but he opted some of the hardest stuff. And that was one of them. And we tried to shoot that one in multiple ways. Like we started out on a dolly and the dolly broke because we were poor…

Adanne: On a budget!

Adamma: And so, he was like, ‘OK, I'll do it on Steadicam.’ And I was like, ‘You're gonna do the slow push-in on your legs?!’ And he did.

Adanne: He's a runner though, he's got strong legs.

Adamma: That's true. Gwiz runs marathons. He's fit. A lot of the sweeping stuff, like the perfect man sermon, that's Gwiz opping. And like going around Sterling, the breakdown following Trinitie, that's Gwiz in the heat running after Regina. [laughs]

Sadie: Wow!

Adamma: Yes. Everybody hire him!

Adanne: He deserves all the great things.

Sadie: Are there certain stories or themes that you're looking forward to exploring in what you have coming up next?

Adanne: Yeah, I think we're always looking to explore Blackness, but not in direct relationship to Whiteness, like Blackness, just as it is.

honk-for-jesus

Adamma: Yeah. And I think we're also interested in showing it's another part of that. Blackness, but like, subcultures, or even sub subcultures, Blackness that seems very blatant to us and a lot of people around us. Even this whole thing, people were like, ‘Yeah, I wasn't familiar with Black megachurch culture,’ and I was like, ‘It's everything where I'm from.’

Adanne: Yeah, everything. And tone is going to be everything for us. We like satire and dark comedy, so it'll always be that.

Adamma: Maybe some more heavy genre though. 

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is available in Theaters and streaming only on Peacock on September 2, 2022. 


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