Zach Clark is the writer/director of Modern Love is Automatic, Vacation!, White Reindeer and Little Sister. His films have played across the United States and Europe at festivals including SXSW, Edinburgh, Outfest, BAMcinemaFest and Stockholm. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
When Spike Lee launched a Kickstarter campaign for his “newest, hottest joint” in the midst of a flurry of celebrity crowdfunding projects, I was a little suspicious. Lee’s original Kickstarter video, which was high on listing his accomplishments and his rich, famous friends, and low on sincerity, was the biggest turn off. Having been through a long, tough Kickstarter campaign myself, I firmly believe your crowdfunding video shouldn’t really be anything more than an earnest, honest explanation of what the project means to you, why you need the money and what you plan to do with it. Unlike other million-plus dollar campaigns, Lee actually listened to criticism and released another video where he answered most complaints directly, though still seeming a little bit like he’d just had the internet explained to him. (His inclination to capitalize every word he writes on Twitter shows a generational disconnect, like when my mom ended all her Facebook wall posts to me “Love, Mom.”) It was a simple gesture, but he deserves a lot of credit for it.
Lee likely didn’t initially feel a need to explain why he deserved the money, or that he’d put it to good use, because he’s spent his entire career proving those exact things. Independent filmmaking is always an uphill battle, and it’s important to remember that in the midst of bigger, higher-profile studio pictures, Lee has continued to make small, strange and truly daring work. 2000’s Bamboozled was not only astronomically ahead of the digital filmmaking curve, but also subversive, shocking and sharp. 2012’s Red Hook Summer was basically Lee’s version of David Lynch’s Inland Empire — an overlong, self-funded mess of a movie, so indulgent you couldn’t describe it as anything but deeply personal, and simultaneously in spite and because of all these things, immensely fun to watch. Which is all ultimately to say that when Lee’s not doing it for the paycheck, you’re guaranteed he isn’t going to phone it in, and maybe most importantly, he’s going to try things and see if they succeed. If they don’t, he’ll probably leave them in anyway. It’s amazing to watch filmmakers actually experimenting, when so many of us seem afraid to make something that doesn’t look and feel like a hundred other movies. Lee’s timing might have placed his campaign under the loathsome Zach Braff umbrella, but he’s really the kind of artist Kickstarter was created for, and the kind I wish I saw on the site more frequently. (John Waters, I’m looking at you.)
Lee did, however, remain vague on one major detail — what the movie was actually about. The campaign teased, “Humans beings who are addicted to Blood… (and not a remake of Blacula),” which is a pretty weird way to put it since now we know it’s a pretty faithful remake of Bill Gunn’s essential ’70s indie horror Ganja & Hess. And while the lengthy history of Ganja’s various re-edits might have lead to some legal hurdles, it feels like a missed opportunity that Lee didn’t express his appreciation and enthusiasm for Gunn’s visionary classic while raising the money for his version, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
One downside of crowdfunding is the level of expectation it creates for a movie that hasn’t even been made. Instead of just having to repay your investors, you’re now also beholden to the people who gave you their money without asking for it to be returned, and your responsibility is to deliver a good movie for them, which in many ways is more difficult to do. While I can’t speak for the expectations of the average Sweet Blood backer (especially since I’m not one of them) I can say that Lee’s remake is fun, surprisingly true to its source, and contains some surprises of its own. Lee shares screenwriting credit with Gunn, who passed away in 1989, which is very indicative of how closely Sweet Blood’s plot follows Ganja’s. In short, Dr. Hess Green is researching an ancient African blood cult when his assistant stabs him with a ceremonial knife, turning him for all intents and purposes into a vampire. When the assistant’s widow, Ganja, comes searching for him, she and Hess start an inevitably doomed romance. Some scenes feel lifted in their entirety, dialogue and all. Lee’s update adds a few modernizations (a brief vampire AIDS scare being the most notable) and fills the cracks liberally with his own ideas. Both sex and violence are amped up across the board, but like its predecessor, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus never really feels like a horror movie. Its tone is too conversational, its focus too set on the interdynamics of the characters, to play as a straight genre piece. If it does belong to a genre, it’s the indie vampire hangout movie — like Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Onur Tukel’s Summer of Blood — where lounging and existential pontification take center stage over the bloodsucking.
Stylistically, the film is all Lee — slickly shot and quickly cut, with its clean CinemaScope frames projecting an inner emptiness that appropriately evokes another indie auteur’s seminal Kickstarted feature, Paul Schrader’s The Canyons. Like Red Hook Summer, Sweet Blood has a tendency to meander and can sometimes feel like it’s alternately trying too hard or not hard enough. The constant music cues on the soundtrack feel so crammed in I thought the bands must have paid money to have them included (if they did, they didn’t do it through Kickstarter) but their brief absence does create one of the film’s strongest and strangest scenes — a silent slow dance between Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams, who steals the show) and one of Hess’ ex-girlfriends. As the camera swirls around the two women, Lee achieves an off-kilter mix of surrealism and eroticism with the barest means available — in short, what independent filmmaking is all about. Lee smartly doesn’t skimp on the cheap thrills, and there are enough fun set-pieces to make you care a little less about some of the film’s questionable decisions. It’s a testament to Lee’s directorial eye that in a genre as worn out as the vampire movie, he can get a genuinely visceral reaction from a close-up of a woman licking lipstick off her teeth. The film’s strangest scene may be its last, which evokes the work of French horror-sleaze auteur Jean Rollin so specifically that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Lee is a big Rollin fan.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is available to rent on Vimeo ahead of and during its theatrical release. As independent filmmaking grows increasingly marginalized, crowdfunded budgets and digital distribution will become the norm for filmmakers of all statures who want to make personal, challenging work. While Spike Lee might have come to the Kickstarter party a little late compared to the thousands of micro-budget projects the platform has birthed, he’s still ahead of the game compared to most of his peers. Regardless of your interest level in Lee’s work, if you’re concerned about the real future of independent filmmaking then the production, distribution and success of his newest film deserves your attention. (And if anyone can confirm or deny that Spike Lee has seen any Jean Rollin movies, please let me know immediately.)