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Director Adamma Ebo on the most underrated creative tool: sleep
Published on January 26, 2022
Growing up in the Southern Baptist megachurch culture of Atlanta, Adamma Ebo developed a complex relationship with organized religion. Though she found inspiration in the community there, she also remembers hearing some sermons that made her raise her eyebrows—like the ones discouraging congregants from seeing Harry Potter movies or celebrating Halloween. It left her wondering: what could be so dangerous about exploring your creative imagination?
Years later, after moving to Los Angeles to attend film school at UCLA, Ebo began turning memories of those moments into a story that became a short film, her masters thesis, and finally, a debut feature that Variety calls one of the hottest films at the 2022 Sundance.
Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul is a faux documentary satire that stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown as the leaders of a once-thriving megachurch who are struggling to recover from a crisis that threatens their future.
A dark comedy full of twists and scandals, the film doesn’t rely on absurdity to get laughs. Ebo lets the cringe come naturally. As the “documentary” cameras roll, they catch the characters accidentally letting their masks slip as they try to do damage control.
As the founder of Ejime Productions, Ebo brought expertise not only as a creator but as a multi-project manager to the making of her new film. She and her team relied on tech tools including Dropbox to keep the production rolling even when her team couldn’t collaborate in the same room.
Here, Ebo tell us how she and her twin sister, Adanne, worked together to expand the short into a feature-length film, and the importance of rest in replenishing creative energy.
She and her team relied on tech tools including Dropbox to keep the production rolling even when her team couldn’t collaborate in the same room.
Unlike a lot of stories driven by scandals, yours begins with the comeback rather than the downfall. Why did you decide to start there?
I personally prefer to subvert expectations. I think the expectation is to watch people fall from grace. I also think that's something that we're used to seeing captured in the media. I felt the most interesting approach [would be] seeing people scramble back for the power and influence they had, when desperation is at an all-time high to recapture something great.
Could you describe how you and your sister Adanne work together on scripts?
We are writing partners, but I wrote this one myself. She was still extremely involved in the creative process [as] producer. For this particular script, I would write out dialogue or write out scenes as they came to me. Oftentimes, they were in no particular order. It's not a very organized system over here for me. [Adanne] actually brings a lot more organization to the party.
I would chat about it with her. I would be like, ‘This is what I'm thinking.’ Then we bounced off each other. She would give me her opinion and some really cool ideas. Then I would go and write in a more organized way. Then she would read through every draft.
Did you already have a full-length script before you went into production on the short film?
I did, actually. I was in my first or second year of film school when I wrote the first draft of the script. It was very different, but it was still, at the core, this couple in megachurch culture, trying to get their congregation back, trying to get back to the height of what they were.
In my first year at UCLA, they brought in Damien Chazelle [director of La La Land and Whiplash] and his editor Tom Cross. They talked about how they had done a short film as a proof of concept to get excitement about the possible making of the feature. I was like, ‘That's a really good idea.’ So I decided to finish writing the script for this feature writing class at UCLA, all the while planning to make a short film version of it as my thesis project.
So I wrote a feature, then the short script, then filmed the short, and continued to develop the feature. Many, many drafts later, it is where it is now.
Did your experience during the pandemic have any influence on the making of the film?
That's a good question. I honestly think being in the pandemic made me want to make it a lot smaller. Once we brought more producers on, they actually encouraged me to think a little bigger.
“I've learned, in order to keep myself creative, in order to make sure all these projects actually get my best work, I need to sleep more.”
Coming from film school, you have no money to do anything. So I've always written things that I'm like, ‘I could make this.’ They had to tell me, ‘People are hungry for filmmaking right now. Don't think so small. You can make it bigger.’ So the addition of the competing, younger generation megachurch leaders came from that idea of broadening this world.
When you’re taking a film from script to screen, who are the next people you invite into the process when you’re ready to get the ball rolling on production?
Definitely the producers, because then we’ve got to start hiring people. The first producers to come on were 59%, Daniel Kaluuya’s production company. He had two other producers with him, Rowan Riley and Amandla Crichlow. Our finance team were also producers on the film—that's Jesse Burgum and Matthew Cooper from Pinky Promise. Kara Durrett was also very instrumental.
When you're putting together your crew, are you looking for collaborators that have creative chemistry or complementary skills?
It depends on the role. For people like my [Director of Photography], Alan Gwizdowski, I one-hundred percent wanted someone who got the creative vision, but also would make up for any areas where I was lacking. He was really influential in helping me shape the visual style of the film.
In some roles, I was looking for people who were kind of lockstep with me—like in costume design—because the way Black folks dress in Southern Baptist megachurch culture is very specific, and I know it very well. So I needed someone who also knew it very well. But for people like my DP, I needed them to bring something else to the table, some visual eye that would be good checks and balances for me.
Could you describe your collaborative process with the editors, Allie Greer and Stacey Moon? Had you worked with them before on other productions?
I never worked with them before, but they came very highly recommended. Allie Greer had worked on another film that was narrative, but had a documentary aspect to it. Documentary language can be extremely different from narrative filmmaking, and I loved that she had those two gears. Stacey had edited episodes of Portlandia, and I wanted someone who would be able to handle strangely funny tones, tones that could get weird, then kind of dark as well.
As someone who's established your own production company, you have perspective not only on the creative process, but the project management process as well. What have you learned about managing multiple projects during this time of isolation and remote collaboration?
First, I've learned that having a partner is super helpful. We're able to divvy up work, then still come together making it cohesive in a way that feels extremely creative, but also efficient.
During COVID, I've learned to give myself a little bit of grace with managing these projects. Quite frankly, I nap more often. I'm home anyway, and it's tough to have a proper work-life balance when it's all crammed together in one space. So I've learned, in order to keep myself creative, in order to make sure all these projects actually get my best work, I need to sleep more.
I also think that Zoom in particular is draining in a way that I don't think anyone really expected. If your entire workday is now staring at a screen, it's draining. People need to recharge after that. I'm a big proponent of naps—possibly multiple naps a day if you need it—and allowing people the right recharge time for sure.
Do you ever wake up and have an idea for a line of dialogue or a new change you want to make to a script? Do you keep a journal by your bed to capture those ideas?
I do, yeah. I still handwrite quite a few things and put them into notebooks. I almost always have a notebook and pen on me just in case something happens. Oftentimes, it happens in the middle of sleep.
“That whole sequence about going back and forth about Rocky came from a Seth MacFarlane-induced nap!”
Can you think of a specific idea that made its way into the script from one of those times you woke up and wrote something down?
There's a line where Lee-Curtis compares himself to Rocky. He calls himself a winner and he's Rocky in this fight to come back. Then Trinitie says, “Rocky didn't win.” I'm pretty sure that came from a nap and I was laughing pretty hard. The first time I saw Rocky was in college actually, so I'm not quite sure why some aspect of Rocky was in my dreams.
I fall asleep to TV a lot. I think I’ve fallen asleep to 10 episodes of Family Guy. They did some sort of Rocky spoof. It might have been American Dad. It was one of the Seth MacFarlane shows, so maybe that's why it made its way into my dream. That whole sequence about going back and forth about Rocky came from a Seth MacFarlane-induced nap!
What advice do you have for creators who are struggling to stay inspired right now?
As scary as it is for a lot of people right now, I would say go outside. Obviously stay safe—but so much inspiration comes from taking in the world around us. We are starved for that in a lot of ways right now. So if you can, go and sit in a park away from other people and just people watch.
Something I personally like to do is eavesdrop, not for the information necessarily, but I like writing dialogue a whole bunch. I get inspired by hearing how people talk—their different cadences and the type of vernacular they use. That kind of thing always gets me inspired. I think just allowing yourself to sit in the world outside would really help people stay inspired.
What would you like audiences to feel after watching your movie?
I definitely want there to be some semblance of hope. But I think more than an emotion, I want people to leave with an inclination. I want that inclination to be to question everything. You shouldn't just take things at face value, especially if something doesn't feel right. Don't ignore it. Question it and push for a larger understanding of it. Because the lack of questioning leads to lack of accountability, and that's just dangerous and damaging.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
To learn more about Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul and the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, visit festival.sundance.org