Adamma Ebo’s satirical “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, features career-best performances from its stars Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall. Brown plays Lee-Curtis Childs, pastor of the fictional megachurch Wander To Greater Paths Baptist Church, who is in the midst of a sexual misconduct scandal. Hall plays his loyal first lady Trinitie, who is doing her best to stand by her man. The power couple has hired an award-winning documentarian to make a film about the weeks leading up to their church’s grand re-opening. This, of course, does not go quite as smoothly as they had planned, dredging up old wounds, insecurities, and exposing the uneven power dynamic at play in their relationship. Both actors give layered performances, often veering from deeply emotional moments to wildly comedic beats within the same scene.
Based on her own 2018 short of the same name and inspired by her own life growing up in church, writer/director/producer Adamma Ebo and her sister Adanne Ebo, her producing and creative partner, began the adaptation process while attending the Sundance Screenwriting Labs. It was through this program Ebo met Daniel Kaluuya, who came on board to produce the film under his newly launched 59% Productions.
For this month’s Female Filmmakers in Focus column, RogerEbert.com spoke over Zoom to both Adamma Ebo and Adanne Ebo about their collaborative process, the genius of Regina Hall, and using satire to explore hypocrisy within organized religion.
What was the process of taking your original short film, and really fleshing it out for a whole feature film?
Adamma Ebo: I knew that I wanted the contents of the short film in the feature. So I spent the majority of my time when I started to adapt it figuring out where that fit in. After stewing on it for a bit, I realized that basically the entirety of the 15-minute short is the climax of the feature. So after figuring that out, I wrote around that, knowing that it is the climax, that they're going to be on the side of the road. So how do we get there? And then where do we end?
What was your collaboration process like working together?
Adanne Ebo: The process is pretty seamless. It's pretty symbiotic. Honestly.
Adamma: It is similar to our personal relationship.
Adanne: It’s very similar to our personal relationship, which involves a lot of just talking and being in each other's faces all the time. So it's just literally talking all the time.
Adamma: It’s hanging out, but talking about story.
How did Daniel Kaluuya come on board as a producer?
Adanne: That came by way of the Sundance Lab. So an earlier draft of the script did the Sundance Screenwriting Intensive, and Daniel is also a screenwriter, and he's an alum of the Sundance Labs. He had recently started his production company 59%. They were looking for material to produce and so he was like, “I know the Sundance Lab usually has some great stuff coming out of there.” So we met at a mixer for Sundance Lab alumni. First, they were intrigued by the title of the project. So we set a meeting and it was off to the races from there.
Could you speak about the casting process? Obviously, Regina Hall is a comic genius, but she gets to really flex her dramatic muscles towards the end as well. And Sterling K. Brown is sort of the opposite. We're used to seeing him very dramatic, and yet he's hilarious in this.
Adamma: When we first talked to Daniel about who we wanted to be the first lady we said a “Regina Hall type” because we didn't think that we could get Regina Hall. But we knew that she had the range and she had the chops to do almost like slapstick comedy and the more dramatic stuff. She's phenomenal in this film called “Support The Girls.” We were just like, oh my god this is transformative. So we knew that she would be able to do both and everything in between. Regina was always the archetype.
Sterling came a little later. When his name popped up, we were like, is he funny? Because, like you said, it's the opposite. We're used to him in the more deeply dramatic roles. We did some digging and found out he was in an episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” as a guest star. And he was actually nominated for the Emmy for guest starring role. He is hilarious in the episode. He plays like a murderous, narcissistic dentist. And it's a very dry comedy. So we were like, okay, this is good. He could probably do this.
You mentioned the slapstick of it and, obviously, there's the mockumentary layers. Are there films or filmmakers whose take on comedy or take on documentary inspired you during development?
Adamma: For their take on comedy, the Coens. I think the Coens always managed to find immense comedy in the mundane, in the unexpected, and in violence. That was definitely inspirational.
Adanne: Also a tonal comp for both, honestly, for comedy and when things take a turn for the worst is a documentary called “Weiner,” the documentary about Anthony Weiner and his mayoral run after the scandal happened and then a scandal happened during the making of the documentary, another one happened and it's a friggin' train wreck. It all happens on camera and it's tragic and funny too.
Adamma: It's super funny.
Adanne: Somehow it's very very funny.
Could you talk about how you use costumes to delineate the character personalities between the two sets of pastors?
Adamma: We wanted the Sumpters (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance) to feel both real in the space. They're probably still dressed modestly, but they have a younger feel to it.
Adanne: More modern.
Adamma: And we wanted that generational dichotomy to be felt. Also, I think the Sumpters, while they have high aspirations, they're not desperate to prove something. So the opulence hasn't hit them. They're not super rich or anything. So they don't look suspicious or conspicuous.
Adanne: I also don't know whether or not they subscribe to prosperity gospel.
Adamma: I actually don't think they do.
Adanne: I don't think they subscribe to prosperity gospel in particular, which prosperity gospel is like preaching the word of God and saying that if you are devout enough, if you tithe enough, then you too can have a Maserati. And that's, you know, just not ...
Adamma: ... not true.
Adanne: That's just not it. Whereas Trinitie (Regina Hall) and Lee-Curtis (Sterling K. Brown), they do do that and to have that be your ministry, you have to look the part.
Speaking of the ministry aspects of the film. Until I'd seen the short, I had never heard of praise miming. So I looked it up and it’s a real thing. There's so many videos online. What is your relationship to praise miming, how it first came into your life, and when did you decide it would be a central visual in the film?
Adamma: I mean, it came into our lives because we grew up going to church and it became popular around the time we were coming of age. Like very popular. It was happening constantly. It was too strange for us. It felt like it was entering the uncanny valley.
Adanne: It was jarring.
Adamma: It was very jarring. We didn't understand what one had to do with the other. Miming with gospel music, how does this make me feel closer to God? How does this make me feel more faithful, more spiritual? So it felt like the perfect way to get Trinitie closer to her breaking point. That first of all she has to do something that she's deeply uncomfortable with. Then she has to literally put on a mask, after she has been putting on a mask for all of these people, for the cameras, for the public, for Lee-Curtis a lot of the time. It added weight to her circumstance at that point in the movie.
What inspired exploring the “good wife” trope within this particular church community?
Adanne: I think because it's true.
Adamma: It’s what we saw.
Adanne: It’s what we literally saw and it's what we see whether or not the couple's a power couple. As a Black woman, you're supposed to aspire to be married and then once you have met that aspiration, you're expected to play the “good wife.” And what that means is being a ride or die, for lack of a better term. You do whatever it takes to uphold your husband, support your husband, even if that's to your own detriment. And to keep your marriage, even if that is to your own detriment.
Adamma: Something I feel like I've noticed is that there is this specific burden placed on Black women and that we often place on ourselves to stay married, even when it's not conducive to our health and happiness. I think there's a lot of historical and sociological reasons for that. I definitely think, without getting too heavy, I think its a relationship to the transatlantic slave trade where families were literally ripped apart. So you're taught that you now are in a position where people aren't forcing you apart, keep it together. And that's heavy. That's a burden.
You mentioned the generational changes between the pastors, and the film really has three women whose marriages are discussed. Trinitie, Shakura Sumpter, and Trinitie's mother (Avis Marie Barnes). They all clearly have very different relationships to their marriages. Could you talk about developing those generational divides?
Adanne: We wanted to explore Black womanhood in particular in relation to marriage, and how it looks different from generation to generation because we decide that things should look different from generation to generation. Like Trinitie's mom clearly put up with a certain amount of stuff, but it's because in her generation that was expected. Same thing for Trinitie. It may not be on the same level as her mom, but it's kind of like the same but different. Then with Shakura, she's in a whole different generation where she is more of an equal. She sees herself and people see her as more of a leader.
Adamma: She's definitely more in control in the relationship.
Adanne: She is arguably the leader of that relationship. That was definitely very intentional.
Flipping to the husband for a second. There’s this amazing scene where Sterling is playing basketball, and it starts as a slow zoom and then kind of pans around and it feels like a one shot. Was that a one shot, and how did you plan that scene with him and the cinematographer, because he's acting for like 10 minutes straight without a cut. It's really impressive.
Adamma: We had an amazing DP. Alan Gwizdowski. I'm obsessed with him. There were quite a few takes of that one. We started out on a dolly. It was a dolly push in.
Adanne: Didn’t the dolly break down?
Adamma: The dolly broke down. You know, you know.
Adanne: Indie film.
Adamma: Indie film baby. So then we switched over to steadicam and that worked. Gwiz actually operated that one. In a number of key scenes in the film, he decided he was going to camera opp. So he’s the one based on his own legs creeping in very slowly to Lee-Curtis and then doing like the sweeps, like doing the push ins. He's a force, man. And he's a little guy. Yeah, he's amazing. I love him so much. That was definitely heavily choreographed. We blocked the hell out of it. Eventually we got it right.
Adanne: The “perfect man” sermon is also a one shot and that's Gwiz operating the camera doing his thing.
The inside of the church and the whole campus is really stunning. How did you find the location?
Adanne: It’s a church we grew up going to often at home. It's a church in Atlanta.
Adamma: It’s in Decatur like 20 minutes from our parents house. We frequented that church and we knew that they also did some other film productions there.
Adanne: We knew they were film friendly.
Adamma: We knew they were film friendly, but then also it looked perfect.
Adanne: It was their aesthetic.
Adamma: There are a lot of mega churches that look a lot more sleek and modern than we wanted, but still very big, and we didn't want the stadium feel that a lot of mega churches have. We wanted it to feel aesthetically like a Southern down home Baptist church, but just huge. And that's what it felt like and it is gorgeous. There was very little dressing that went into the interiors of that church.
Could you talk about the scene where the Childs dance to “Knuck If You Buck” in their car? It’s such a specific song and such a specific mood.
Adanne: It was always planned. It's written in the script as Trinitie and Lee-Curtis hype up to like a 2000s hip hop or gangsta rap song, but we didn't find the song. We didn't make the decision on what the song would be until we were deep into pre-production.
Adamma: Because we just haven't found the right one. Nothing felt right.
Adanne: I don't know why it wasn't always “Knuck If You Buck.” I don't know why that wasn’t the first thing that came to our mind. But when we finally felt that, we were like, this is 100% it, because it says so much about their relationship. Where they're about to go on their journey. And it's just such a distinctly Atlanta song. So it was just perfect.
Adamma: We were shocked that not everybody knew it, namely Sterling and Regina.
Oh, they didn't know it?
Adanne: Not before shooting.
They nailed it.
Adamma and Adanne: They did.
Adamma: They’re pros.
How did you find the balance between how much of the film is the documentary and how much of the film is the private time between Trinitie and Lee-Curtis?
Adamma: The majority of it is written into the script. Every slugline in the script will say “Exterior: Wander To Greater Paths Baptist Church - Documentary.” And if it wasn't in that format, it would be “Exterior: Wander To Greater Paths Baptist Church - Cinematic” is how we delineated the standard narrative work. So it was written into the script every time we switched back and forth, and the switches were motivated by the story. We’re playing a lot with what's the truth and who's telling the truth and who's being their true selves, and so we loved this idea that when the cameras are on, Trinitie and Lee-Curtis are putting on the most, they’re not being their true selves. Then when the cameras are off, it's the opposite.
Something I became really interested in when trying to figure out when were the best times to switch back and forth, was when you want them to break in front of the camera. When you want the camera to catch them doing something, when they're most uncomfortable, when they’re at their most desperate, and then switching right before it gets too nitty gritty ... up until the camera crew catches everything.
Adanne: I will say there are certain things that were wholly in the edit. Most of it was scripted, but there are things we found wholly in the edit. We shot a lot of the scenes both ways.
Adamma: Shout out to Gwiz. That was his idea.
Adanne: For example, when Regina is on stage by herself, and she's talking directly to Anita (Andrea Laing) saying, I just want to make sure we're on the same page. We shot that both ways. Both the full documentary style and the cinematic style. On the page, I don't think that scene is written so that it goes into the cinematic.
Adamma: No, it's the documentary style.
Adanne: But because we got it both ways, we felt like when Trinitie asks Anita to cut, storywise, that feels right. She asked her to cut, therefore the cameras are off, or at least she thinks they’re off. So then we switched from the full documentary style to the cinematic style. I think that was wholly built in the edit. It’s finding those story points where we would switch between the styles in one scene.
It’s really smoothly done
Adanne: It was work.
Adamma: It was a struggle because It was extremely hard.
Adanne: Some of them cuts. That was a whole other movie, some of them cuts.
Adamma: A worse movie.
How do you hope people feel when the film is over?
Adamma: We want people to feel—
Adanne: —how they feel. We want people to feel how they feel. What I want people to come away with is asking questions, and being okay with being able to critique certain institutions.
Adamma: I want people to feel reflective. If that results in you feeling outrage, whether it being the point of the film, or I guess at us, for talking about it. Or if you feel like you want to be more introspective about yourself and your spirituality and your relationship to organized religion or larger institutions in general. I just want people to come away feeling more introspective about how they play into these larger institutions, and whether or not they're being complicit in what's happening in them. And whether or not they are truly serving the purpose that they purport to serve.
Are there any women whose films have either inspired you as a filmmaker or that you just think are maybe really cool?
Adanne: Oh my god. “A League of Their Own” is fantastic.
Adamma: Shout out to Penny Marshall. “A League of Their Own” I think is just superb from top to bottom. I think it's spectacularly written. I think it's spectacularly casted and acted. And I think it's phenomenally directed. It's kind of big. It's a big old cast. Like, my God, girl. She did that. Penny Marshall. I would watch it later on constantly.
Adanne: Oh, yeah. On repeat. On repeat. Also, Sayo Yamamoto. She's a Japanese anime film director. She’s also directed episodes of “Cowboy Bebop.” But also she has directed episodes of her own series, which is called “Michiko & Hatchin.” She also directed “Yuri!!! on Ice,” which is a big anime. She’s phenomenal.
"Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." is now playing in theaters and available on Peacock.