February Spotlight: Kevin Willmott

Each  month we connect with an influential professional in the industry. This month our Spotlight is on Kevin Willmott -screenwriter, director, producer, actor and professor.

To have one of your film heroes say that about your work is about as good as it gets.

Kevin Willmott

Kevin Willmott grew up in Kansas and attended college to study Drama at Marymount University in Salina. His work as a peace and civil rights activist after college resounds in his filmography. After Marymount he created two shelters for the homeless and fought for integration within several long-standing segregated institutions. Later he went on to the graduate program at the prestigious NYU, Tisch School of the Arts where he won several writing awards and earned an MFA in Dramatic Writing.

Although I didn’t have Willmott as a professor at KU, I did have the great pleasure of working as a camera assistant/loader for a 2nd unit team in 1999 on his critically acclaimed feature film, “C.S.A.: Confederate States of America” (2004). The film explores what America might be like had the Civil War been won by the South. “C.S.A.”, as well as “The Only Good Indian” (2009) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and represent only a few of his many professional credits.

Willmott’s numerous credits range from actor (11 credits), writer (8 credits), producer (9 credits) and director (8 credits). [Source IMDB]

As a professor Willmott inspires students by example – by creating consistently, working hard and having the determination to make films he believes in that often take years to enter into production. Our intern, Rachel Kephart, a former student of Willmott says, “he’s very present as a professor and teaches from a real knowledge of filmmaking from idea to distribution without pretension.”

We are grateful that he shared some of his experiences and photos with us, even with an incredibly busy schedule.

KCFMO: What were you doing before you came to University of Kansas to teach?

KW:  I was working with Rick Cowan (KC area producer) making films, specifically my first film, “Ninth Street” and working with Mitch Brian (Screenwriter/UMKC professor) writing screenplays for Hollywood.  We wrote numerous projects together for 20th Century Fox, NBC, Oliver Stone and others.

KCFMO: You have an incredible body of work – “Chi-Raq” with Spike Lee, “The Sublime and Beautiful,” “Jayhawkers,” “Destination Planet Negro,” “The Only Good Indian,” “CSA: The Confederate States of America” and “Ninth Street” to name a few – can you share some of your stand-out experiences or anecdotes?

KW: I’ve had lots of great experiences.  Going to Sundance the first time showing CSA is one story.  The audience during the Q and A after the premiere was kind of turning against me a bit not knowing what to make of the film and Melvin Van Peebles stood up and said, “I know people want to know what I think of this film and I think this is exactly what we were trying to do in the 1970’s.”  The audience immediately knew what they thought of the film.  To have one of your film heroes say that about your work is about as good as it gets.

Kevin and Spike 2
Set of “Chi-raq” – Spike Lee director, Kevin Willmott producer watch the monitor

KCFMO: You write, direct, produce, act – how has being versatile contributed to your success?

KW: It gives you the ability to get things done. It also helps when you’re writing because you put on different hats with your imagination.

KCFMO: Chi-Raq was released in December on Amazon – how long did it take to make this film, from first draft to release?

KW: I wrote the script 13 years ago at that time it was called “Gotta Give it Up.” Spike and I went to all the major studios and tried to get it produced we had two readings for Dreamworks, but it was not produced.  In the fall of 2014, Spike called me and asked if I still had the script and I said yes.  He said lets set it in Chicago and call it Chiraq. Then we went to work shaping it about the Chicago problem. We started shooting June 1, 2015 and we completed in six weeks. The turn around to get the film out was amazingly quick.

Kevin and Spike

KCFMO: Were you at all apprehensive about Chi-Raq being Amazon’s first ever feature release?

KW: Not at all, Ted Hope is in charge at Amazon and I knew he was a great producer.  I knew he was one of the few people in Hollywood who could understand the film.

KCFMO: What does the Lawrence-KC film scene offer you? What does it have

spike john and kevin
Spike Lee, Willmott and John Cusack

that other places may not?

KW: I love the fact that we can photography the city and the prairie in minutes of each other.  I have some great friends and colleagues I get to work with here.  There are so many fine actors and crew members to make a film in the area.  People are not jaded by film and are still willing to help and support a low budget film.  The ability to get things done is one of the main reasons why I live here.

Cusack 2
Kevin Willmott and John Cusack on the set of “Chi-raq”

KCFMO: What are you working on now?

KW: I am finishing a feature film, “The Association” with Scot Pollard, the former KU and NBA player, the film deals with issues of  Agent corruption and the problem of Athletes making millions as professional players and making bad choices becoming broke by the end of their careers.

Kevin, thank you for answering some of our burning questions. We can’t wait to see what you’ll create next!

Check out Kevin’s work, including Chi-Raq available now on Amazon Video.

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