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Tuesday, October 24, 2017 
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Inquisitive

The Evolution Of Saul Williams

All he wanted to be was an actor, but now he's juggling careers as an actor, poet and rock star.

Interview Anthony Carew
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To hear an audio stream of "Om Nia American" from Saul Williams' Amethyst Rock Star, please select from the following formats...

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"Slam" won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and the Camera D'Or at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.
Carew: How did the making of "Slam" differ from the making of the other, more commercial films that you've been involved in?

Williams: Well, the difference is this: I got together with the director and Sonja Sohn, who played the other star of the film, and we workshopped the script for nine months. We got together, like, two times a week, and, um, just went through it, developed the characters and every idea that's in the film.

However, what really differentiated it was that we decided that we didn't want a script. We decided that when you're dealing with urban and quote-unquote "ghetto" realities, it's really hard to, like, bottle the language and throw it down on paper and have it still be valid six months later. And we wanted it to serve as some type of eternal or living testament of the realities we were aiming to portray.

So, what we did is, we wrote down very intense scene outlines. We would do improvs in front of a video camera, tape them, watch the tapes, and we'd say, "This idea works, this idea didn't work." And we'd take the ideas that worked and we'd write scene outlines — we'd write what would happen in the scene but not what would be said. So, when we went to shoot the film nine months later, we didn't actually have a script. We had a very intense scene outline of what would happen in every scene, but we would use our own words, come up with them in the moment.

Carew: And that therefore lends the film more of an air of verité, which is what it was trying to portray.

Williams: Exactly. The way we developed the film was what created the feeling of it. Also, the fact that we worked in a real prison with real prisoners who did not have the opportunity to develop their characters over nine months like we did — we only had seven days that we were allowed to shoot in the prison. So, we had to go in there and meet these "well-behaved" prisoners that the warden allowed us to shoot with, and we had to work with them in creating their characters, and then we had to shoot it. And we couldn't always tell everybody that was involved that we were shooting a movie until afterwards.

Carew: Do you think that a lot of that — the way it was shot, and the idea behind doing it that way — was influenced by Marc Levin's background as a documentary maker?

Williams: Exactly. That's where the idea came from.

Carew: How much pressure did you feel when making "Slam," both in the guerrilla way that the film was made, but also in your role, which was to bring to life this idea that art could not only rise above the environment it was created in, but also raise the whole environment itself?

Williams: Well, you know, I never really thought of it in terms of feeling pressure. I just felt honored. The entire time it just felt like the most amazing blessing to have this opportunity. Here I was, in grad school, and everybody in my class is wondering "What are we gonna do after we graduate?" I had been so involved in the poetry scene, and I was just looking for a way to fuse my acting and my poetry, and then this project came along.

I had all these beliefs about the power of word, the power of us being able to call our world into existence just through what we say. And instead of becoming jaded by a slow process of being hurt by the industry — doing the try-and-try-again, which usually happens with a lot of actors, or young people with big dreams — I had my ideas confirmed from the start. So, even as we were shooting the film, my goal was to inject those ideas into the film.

I named the character Raymond Joshua because of the story in the Bible of Joshua marching around the city of Jericho seven times and the walls tumbling down. I said, "If we lace the poetry in this film with strong enough spells, the walls of people's psychological Babylons will start falling down, as it's played on 700, 7,000, 700,000 screens." I truly believe that it did affect the way that people think. And, so, the entire time I felt blessed, I didn't feel that pressure.

I know there was that one scene in the courtyard...

Carew: I was just about to ask about that...

Williams: I remember I was like "Is this gonna work?" It was the idea of the producer to do that scene, and initially I thought he was crazy. I thought, "This is just fucking stupid!"

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