There’s magical realism at the heart of this latest version of the famous story of suffering and triumph, editor Jon Poll tells Adrian Pennington for IBC365.
The new screen version of The Colour Purple is neither a remake of Steven Spielberg’s multi-Oscar nominated 1985 film nor a movie of the later Tony Award winning musical. It’s not even a didactic interpretation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1982 book. The latest adaption of the story about a poor black woman living in the rural South in the early 1900s weaves in elements of them all.
“The way I look at is [Alice Walker] wrote this phenomenal novel that stands on its feet emotionally and historically,” said editor Jon Poll. “Then Steven Spielberg and his band did a cover and then Oprah Winfrey and everyone involved in the Broadway musical did another cover and now it’s time for us to show you our version. It is really different in a lot of ways, but the story is the same and a lot of the same dialogue [from Spielberg’s film] remains.”
Continuity is maintained with Spielberg (who still owns the movie rights) and Winfrey (whose acting debut was the 1985 film) as executive producers along with Quincy Jones who, along with Winfrey, produced the Broadway play.
Although it slashes the number of songs from the play in half, “you can’t say this is not a musical,” said Poll, “the aim was to make a film with music which is not quite the same.”
The director is visual artist and rapper Blitz Bazawule who co-directed Beyoncé’s 2020 musical film Black Is King (2020). His presentation for The Colour Purple included an Art Deco Hollywood stage and had Celie, the story’s soft-spoken heroine and persistent victim of abuse, singing on top of a giant vinyl gramophone.
“Personally, I am not drawn to making particularly dark movies and obviously The Colour Purple is a lot of trauma. But Blitz’s take was how do we show the character’s resilience and the love and sisterhood of these people to explain what they overcome.”
Crucially, Bazawule explained that he wanted to give Celie “flights of fantasy as a way to explore more of her inner life, as a way for her of dealing with all the pain and suffering. That positive viewpoint really pulled me in.”
Although he was one of six editors to have worked on the box office hit musical The Greatest Showman Poll said, “I’d not cut a lot of musical numbers before and I tried to talk them out of it.”
He felt this to such an extent that he suggested the editor with whom he worked on The Greatest Showman (Tom Cross, who cut Whiplash) should do it.
“I tried to talk Blitz out of hiring me by telling him my favourite musical was Walk The Line even though it’s more biographical drama. I told him I liked The Harder They Fall [a Jamaican crime drama from 1972] starring Jimmy Cliff because the music and the character were intertwined and that I really enjoyed Summer Of Soul even though it’s a documentary of a music festival. At best these are unconventional ‘musicals’ but I guess that was what Blitz was looking for because a few days later he hired me.”
What Warner Bros. wanted, executives told Poll, was to find “a really good partner” for the Ghanaian filmmaker who was making only his second feature film. Bazawule’s first, The Burial of Kojo in 2018 was made for just $40,000 but shortlisted for a Golden Globe. Now a major studio was about to entrust him with millions of dollars and a potential Awards season juggernaut.
“I’ve made 75 movies and TV shows and this is the best I have worked on,” Poll said. Praise indeed from a filmmaker whose résumé as either editor, assistant editor, second unit director, director or producer includes Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Captain America, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and Bombshell.
The music itself wasn’t what Poll expected either. Bazawule had hired songwriting duo Nova Wav, and composers Denisia Andrews and Brittany Coney to reimagine the songs and write new ones.
“Part of his pitch was to take an audience through Black American and even African music from the 1900s to the fifties evolving through gospel, jazz, and blues.”
Behind the Scenes: The Colour Purple - Tackling trauma
The filmmakers didn’t want to shy away from the struggle and suffering of Celie (actor Fantasia Barrino) who among other things is forced to give away her children and is then separated from her best friend and sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey).
“We had to deliver on the reality of the story and in particular the abuse of women whilst also being exceptionally sensitive about portraying the impact of that on screen and endangering our PG13 rating. Blitz said the movie should be elegant, grounded, intimate and real so that is what we were going for.”
Within that scheme they realised the importance of original composition ‘Keep It Movin’ which Nettie sings to Celie on a beach. “We tried taking it out for a while but we couldn’t because it just showed how important their relationship was, how different Nettie’s outlook was and how her love helped Celie discover her voice. It also gave us a little bit of a break from the darkness and helped us work out how to shift between tones.”
He added: “Someone who has not seen this version of the story will be quite surprised about the amount of laughs there are. To me they are tension relievers. We are constantly building this tension up so when you have a comic moment it allows you to release some of that and then rebuild the tension. My feeling in life is that the darker and tougher it gets the more that humour is needed.”
Behind the Scenes: The Colour Purple - Transitioning between musical and dialogue
In early meetings the director showed Poll “a thousand” storyboards that he had drawn. “Blitz said, ‘I don’t want to have to redraw these. I know these are shots that are going to be in the movie,’ recalled Poll. “Within that he had complex dance sequences, voice-overs, sound effects, all kinds of different elements.”
Such a defined vision might be awkward for editors keen to use their first-look skills to shape the material but Poll wasn’t phased. The boards served as a jumping off point with Bazawule comfortable letting the editor cut the material on its merits.
The biggest discussion between them and involving director of photography Dan Laustsen (John Wick: Chapter 4) were the transitions in and out of songs. “We were trying to find transitions that didn’t throw people. In most cinema musicals, when a song starts, the tempo of the film language changes and the audience watches it while the story is sidelined until its finished. We wanted to try and erase that break where it can feel like you are switching genres.”
Half of the transitions ended up just as they were planned. Others are ones that didn’t quite work and on which Poll experimented.
Poll added, “If you have a bunch of editors in a room and they were asked what would be ideal in a relationship with a director they would agree that it would be one who really knows what they want. The second most important aspect is a director who is willing and open to look at alternative ways of putting the film together. Blitz was both of those things.”
Behind the Scenes: The Colour Purple - Test screenings and feedback
As seems the par for studio movies these days, The Colour Purple was extensively test screened.
“Millions will have read the book, millions more will have seen Spielberg’s movie and plenty more have seen the play but we also had people who hadn’t even heard of The Colour Purple. So, you have to deliver a film that speaks to all of those groups. The screenings were helpful in picking up on things we needed to tweak for each audience.”
One of these was more clearly establishing the character of jazz singer Shug Avery before she is introduced. They did this by repurposing a scene that had been removed of Mister listening to Shug on the radio and added in a little piece of ADR.
“Each time you screen the movie among 300-400 people you remember how everything plays. You remember when you can’t hear a pin drop and when people are fidgeting in their seats.”
Some of the songs were trimmed while others never had a beat removed. “We were conscious of not over staying our welcome. Half of the movie is song so we use a form of narrative shorthand. Most of the songs are establishing character or setting up story or taking you deeper into what Alice Walker was trying to do. We didn’t want a three-hour movie.”
The opening ensemble ‘Mysterious Ways’ and the bluesey hoedown ‘Push Da Button’ in a swamp-side juke joint feature the rapid cutting familiar to most modern screen musicals but the other numbers are more relaxed. “We were determined not to have the movie feel rushed, even though we didn’t want to make it slow.”
Poll said he hasn’t seen the play (which last year toured London’s West End) and didn’t revisit the Spielberg movie but he did lean into the audio book of the novel, read by the author herself. He listened to it three times.
“In every pause and in every choice of intonation the author is telling you what was important to her. I said to Blitz, that is what I want as my guide and stay clean of everything else.”
Walker also visited the set in Atanta and was so moved she told the director ‘This is what I always hoped it would be’, as reported in the LA Times.
Behind the Scenes: The Colour Purple - Avoiding stereotypes
One of the accusations levelled at Spielberg’s work (landing 11 nominations and famously ‘snubbed’ with none winning) is its promotion of stereotypes about black men, a point which this new production was conscious.
“We tried to characterise the men in The Colour Purple in a bit more of a modern way,” Poll said. “It is easier perhaps than it was 40 years ago. You can see that most clearly with Harpo, Mister’s son (played by Corey Hawkins). His father, ‘Mister’ (played by Colman Domingo), is not as bad as his father ‘Old Mister’ but he is still a deeply troubling, horrible person. ‘Mister’ is the demon of the story.
“Hiding the letters that Celie receives from her sister for decades is psychological torture compounding his physical abuse of her. He does eventually realise he is wrong but his redemption is, I hope, a grey area.
“This is also a film in which no character is perfect. Even Celie tells her friend to beat up on Harpo. Isn’t it a more interesting and complex and human world if we can explore that? Everyone makes mistakes.”
Poll concluded: “It’s the greatest feeling in the world, and an honour, to be involved in making movies, which communicates to an audience.”
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