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6 Filmmaking Tips from Melvin Van Peebles

The father of blaxploitation shares his wisdom on making history in the industry.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song Poster
By  · Published on February 7th, 2018

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one covers the filmmaking advice of Melvin Van Peebles

A true multi-talented artist, Melvin Van Peebles is best known for his film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which he wrote, directed, starred in, edited, and scored. While that’s the film that ultimately kickstarted the blaxploitation genre, Van Peebles made his film debut while living in Paris a few years earlier, with the feature La Permission (also known as The Story of a Three Day Pass), which he adapted from one of several novels he himself had written.

It was not until Watermelon Man in 1970 that he made his American debut, and after gaining a level of success he took his creative talents even further by working on Broadway. As an up and coming filmmaker in the ’70s, he broke barriers in the industry at a time when that seemed near impossible. As a result, he’s been an inspiration to generations of writers and directors in the ensuing decades. In honor of Black History month, we have collected some of the lessons and advice he’s shared over the years.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Melvin Van Peebles

1. Recheck Your Work

A film is a form of creative expression, but for any piece of art, you have to pay close attention to detail if you want to be successful in your work. Even if that means checking yourself over and over again. Van Peebles told Stumped Magazine in 2004:

“I mean you’ve got to really check on what you’re doing, check and recheck it seven other times to be prepared. Sometimes, people get carried away with the artistic-ness of the endeavor and don’t quite have their game face on when the time comes. It’s always a pretty costly mistake.”

2. Look Inside Yourself

If you spend a lot of time focusing on why you can’t do a particular movie, you’ll never get around to doing it. Instead, Van Peebles suggests having more positive thoughts, as he told Parle Magazine in 2013:

“It’s all about how you look at stuff. Scars are the price you pay for success. You have to not let yourself believe you can’t. Do what you can do within the framework of what you have and don’t look outside, look inside.”

Van Peebles

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3. “Keep on truckin’”

When it comes to keeping a filmmaking career going, Van Peebles likes to make his daily routine simple. When asked if he had any advice for upcoming filmmakers, he told Film Festival Today in 2009: 

“No. People say, ‘You have no advice for filmmakers?’ Well, I have a pretty good formula. I look in the paper; if I’m not in the obituary column I get my ass up. Not very complicated, is it?”

In the same interview, he also shared this bit of related encouragement as words of wisdom:

“Keep on truckin’.”

4. Get Into a Routine

Right before his son Mario began his professional career, Van Peebles gave him some memorable advice. Mario reflected on this in a 2004 interview with Filmmaker magazine:

“When I…decided I wanted to go back into film, I took my dad out to dinner. He said, ‘Great, let me give you some free advice: early to bed, early to rise, work like a dog and advertise.’ He got up and left me with the bill.

Watch Van Peebles and Mario discuss this advice, their careers, and their relationship in the video below.

5. Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself

While technical resources can help make a film stand out visually, Van Peebles emphasizes the importance of not getting carried away and instead focusing on what you’re prepared for, technically and artistically. He told Origin. magazine in 2012:

“There is a downside to affordable technology, and that’s mediocrity. I mean just ‘cause you can afford it don’t mean you can do it. In fact, I sometimes think art was generally better when shit cost more! The bottom line is technology’s great; people are shit and that’s the truth.”

6. Focus on Your “North Star”

Every writer has their own rewrite process, which sometimes involves multiple drafts before a film is even in production. Van Peebles, however, suggests rewriting when needed as you go but always keeping sight of your original vision. He told the DGA in a 2004 interview conducted by Mario:

 “There’s no writing process with me. It’s all sort of a seamless thing. You see, that’s like when an actor comes in, I remember there’s a French movie I did and I thought of the guy who ran the hotel as a little short round guy and then here comes in this tall, lanky guy, but it was right a whole another way, and his lankiness was righter than the other thing. So then, I had to rewrite movement, lines, the whole situation.

“It can change continually, but not really at all from the fundamental North Star. It’s like if you’re on a boat and you’re rowing, and you’re towards the North Star, if a wave comes from that wind, or the wind comes up that way, you may be attacking, you may have to attack this script and so forth, especially when you’re doing things on a budget. But you get a fix on your North Star, and you don’t lose that fix on your North Star. Sometimes you have to change a little bit here, a little bit there, and to make it come around, you have to Kentucky windage sometime, you know?

“If somebody is very pretty and you don’t want them that way, you may have to dress them down. If they’re a little on the homey side, but you want them to be flashy, do it with clothes, or do it with language, or even do it with music. There’s a thousand ways you can do it. Or you can even do [CGI]. You can do effects after and put a little halo around the head. It all depends, but I have, in my arsenal, the whole thing. I have sound, since I do the music; I have the editing; I have the, since I’m doing the editing, I have every trick in the trade, but I really don’t even separate them. The rewrite, it may come up, I show up one day and you expect one guy to show up or the fire hydrant is not there, you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Baadasssss G

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Making a film is not always fun. It involves a lot of hard work and effort and can alternate between feeling like an art form and a dragging day job. But keeping the motivation for a project is necessary, and waking up to go to work even when you may not want to is important.

Getting a routine going every day can help as well. Understanding the business side of filmmaking and always being adequately prepared for your film can also be a great asset to you in the long run,  yet don’t lose sight of your artistic side. Don’t discourage yourself before you even begin. Look inside yourself and use the abilities you have at hand to make your movie. 

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