Paul D. Miller: Melvin, hey, how you doing? Last time I saw you, we went to go see David Henry Wang’s theater piece Chinglish. And right now there’s another theater piece, by Ayad Akhtar, called Disgraced—I want you to check out. It’s brilliant.
Melvin Van Peebles: David Henry Hwang—his theater piece seemed very right now. I think now would be a wonderful time to redo that piece. I thought it was terrific.
PDM: The way people are redefining identity, and looking at the new ways of expressing progressive issues around people of color in a multicultural context—you led the way for a lot of that. You did Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song as a kind of theater, looking at cinematic style applied to theater, and then reversing that. I would love to hear you talk about when you were doing your band, because the band had a kind of theatrical soundtrack component mixed with the way you recorded it.
MVP: I was approached by a band who had been approached by the French, and it went from there. I did a remake of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss song in Paris for the Festival Sons d’Hiver in 2010.
The piece in 2010 was with Greg Tate and his band Burnt Sugar. But in the original, you see, Earth, Wind & Fire. That was the beginning. Earth, Wind & Fire, this was their first album. They’d never really done anything before they did Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. I was working with musicians to play my music. My secretary, her boyfriend had a band. And that band was Earth, Wind & Fire.
PDM: Miles Davis had scored a couple incredible films, like Ascenseur pour l’échafaud in 1958; the Modern Jazz Quartet scored Sait On Jamais; and later, aside from Woody Allen, you’re one of the few directors I know who was able to think about scoring the film and being in the film and directing the film. You’re the DJ of the whole situation—mix, edit, and on top of it, have all the characters come alive in the song.
MVP: Not at all! Not at all. What I did was much more traditional. Of course, this was my third movie. And I wanted to do music for it. So I wrote the music. And I was already in Brer Soul in 1969. I’d done the music for Watermelon Man, for Columbia. I’d done music with Nicky Baker for a French film of mine. In this case, I was in complete control. I told them the songs. I knew how I wanted to adjust it to the film. They were excellent! Wonderful musicians. They played what I told them.
PDM: They went on to define a lot of the sound of the ‘70s. Everybody from Wu Tang Clan on over to A Tribe Called Quest has reflected off of their sound. You like to use the German term sprechgesang, which means an expression somewhere between singing and speaking. A lot of people look at that as parallel to the origins of hip-hop.
What’s your take on some of the contemporary things in film that you’re looking at?
MVP: I’m not a cinematic cinematic person. I go to the movies like I did back when I was a kid. I go to the movies and I sit down. If the music works, hmm. If it doesn’t work, hmm. The whole concept of the thing, not as one piece here or there. For me, music is a large part.
When I went to Broadway and did musicals, I did it the same way. I can’t read or write music. When I want to remember something, I try to remember all the keys on the piano. Which is what I still do. I put the numbers on the keys. And that’s got to become music again. I explain to all the band members—Oh you mean that? C minor, B this—I don’t know! I just say it and tell them to play it.
Directors love to do music, they’ve been doing that all along. Music is for theater like theater is for scripts. It’s total: it’s cyclical. Music or sound in a film is a character as important as another character. That’s the way I approach it. That’s the way I explain [it] to the musicians that I’m using for such-and-such a scene.
PDM: Would you edit the film first or would you make the sound first?
MVP: It depends. I usually use the visual aspect of the film first.
PDM: You hum the melody and then watch the scene? Sometimes they’ll have an orchestra play in front of the movie screen.
MVP: Yes, sometimes they do. But normally, I talk to them about it when they’re watching the screen, for tempo.
PDM: And they have to play slower or faster if it’s an action scene, or if it’s a chilled-out scene?
MVP: You would think so, but it’s not true, at least in my case. Sometimes a slow scene, I’ll have them playing fast. I have had the fortune to be the boss. And I just do it the way I feel.