Check the Gate is a recurring column where we go one-on-one with directors to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with the Ebo Sisters, Adamma Ebo and Adanne Ebo, about their collaborative process when bringing Honk for Jesus Save Your Soul to the screen.
Some movies are missions. A filmmaker (or a few filmmakers) witnesses a wrong in the world, and they address it through action. It takes years to understand the injustice, to experience it from every side, and condense those initial emotions into an idea. Then, it takes a few more years to work out the script and run it through different iterations.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is not a mockumentary. The sister filmmaking combo Adamma Ebo and Adanne Ebo prefer the term faux documentary. Although, that label is not entirely correct either, as the faux documentary is frequently interrupted with scenes from behind the camera, where the performances of its characters drop, and the realness takes over.
The film stars Sterling K. Brown as Lee-Curtis Childs, a pastor who has recently lost his flock after a sexual harassment scandal. Regina Hall is his wife, Trinitie Childs, desperately trying to kickstart a new phase for their church by inviting a camera crew into their lives. Both are ducks on the water, their tiny little feet scrambling furiously to keep their wealth afloat.
Adamma Ebo is credited as the writer/director and Adanne Ebo as the producer. However, they see themselves as a total collaborative unit, with the film springing directly from their experiences growing up in Atlanta as Southern Baptists. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Souls is their attempt to reckon with their history without falling into caricature and inauthenticity. The antagonists in this story are merely ones who allow wickedness to form within.
“I would say that it’s not that there are no villains,” says Adanne, “it’s just that sometimes you yourself are your own villain. That can be a tough thing to contend with.”
There is another possible version of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. It’s a film that could have been utterly ruthless toward Lee-Curtis Childs. The Ebo Sisters preferred to recognize his humanity instead, to absorb and contemplate the decisions a distressed and seemingly trapped individual made, rather than roasting a bad guy.
“First of all,” adds Adamma, “that’s less interesting. There are very few mustache-twirling villains in this world, except for a select few serial killers. I think people are complex. A lot of people have good and evil in them. Sometimes it’s more or less of one. It’s not like [our film] is a condemnation or a judgment; it’s just an examination. It’s holding up a mirror, and when you hold up the mirror, you see worth, and you see beauty.”
The Ebo Sisters found their point of view on the story through various drafts. First, they did a pass at a feature, but they needed something that popped to get people’s attention. Like all shorts, the Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. mini was designed to grab attention. But how do you do that exactly?
“The characters in the first version of the feature were the same,” says Adamma. “They were still struggling with their marriage and trying to get their congregation back. But the scandal was different, and the goal was different a little bit. When I did the short, I wanted something that wasn’t in the first draft of the feature, which was more arresting images! It’s a short, right? You got to lock people in pretty quickly.”
Finding those arresting images came from their experience as well. Slightly altered. Adamma Ebo envisioned a ministry dressed to the nines, hopelessly flailing on the side of the road.
“What’s something that we could afford?” she continues. “Something that is, when you see it, you’re like, ‘Huh, I want to see what this is about.’ And I was like, I’m going to put these people dressed in their Sunday best on the side of the road. Roadside ministry is not abnormal in the South, but you very rarely see people in their Sunday best doing it.”
Obviously, Adamma and Adanne leaned on each other throughout the process. They’ve constructed their self-reliance over a lifetime, and their determination only strengthened through the multiple productions. They built an incredible team around them, but the final voice they trusted was their own.
“Something we brought from the short to the feature is that we trust each other implicitly in all things,” says Adanne Ebo. “That just became even more staunch in the feature. We learned that no matter how much bigger the project gets or how many more people get involved, no one knows our story better than each other. We gut check each other and hold firm with that.”
When the Ebo Sisters finally received the go-ahead to transform Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. into a feature, they had to rework their idea and theme a third time. Adamma and Adanne had a hook, but they still required a mighty long reel. The short itself became the solution.
“Going from the short to what’s now the feature,” says Adamma, “it was really about figuring out how to incorporate the fifteen-minute short into the feature. I figured out that the entirety of the short is the climax. It was really just writing around that and figuring out how to get them to the side of the road and that ending.”
Mostly, the Ebo Sisters are concerned with what their audience is taking away from the experience. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. helped them work through their history with institutions, and they hope the film can do the same for others. This is a conversation, and they want to see it ripple through their audience.
“Question everything,” says Adamma. “Especially institutions that report to govern our lives and our souls. I think those are deserving of the most critique and the most questioning. Just do that. Also, for those institutions, provide a little bit more transparency for us. I want people to walk away feeling like it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can critique these institutions in these spaces but still feel love and reverence for them or feel like they do good even if they can be doing better. You don’t have to be quiet about these issues.”
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. opens in select theaters and streams on Peacock on 9/2.