While the premise of “Antebellum” has been shrouded in mystery, activist filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (credited as Bush + Renz) worked with their crew to deliver a wild ride delving into the current climate of racism.
In choosing to deal with the pandemic situation, “Antebellum” will only be available on VOD in the United States, beginning Sept. 18, even though it will see a theatrical release internationally. “It’s still not the same,” Bush says, “Because the movie is for America.”
“We consider ourselves activists who use art to communicate our very specific point of view and amplifying a host of issues that felt urgent,” says Bush, who worked with his partner and crew to deliver the story of an accomplished woman trapped in a horrifying reality.
Janelle Monáe stars as Veronica Henley, the woman caught in this mind-bending mystery somehow connecting to Eden (also Monáe), a Civil War-era enslaved woman. Filmed on the Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana, a location also used for “Django Unchained,” the filmmaking team did what was needed to properly represent the period, in addition to using the horrors of slavery to build into an extra layer of surprise.
As Bush says, “The environment needed to be grounded in the Antebellum South, with just a dash of WTF.”
Helping to capture this tone, cinematographer Pedro Luque (“Don’t Breathe”) was a key collaborator. “We would storyboard with him for eight hours a day while in pre-production,” says Renz. “Once filming started, that focus helped us communicate quickly on set.”
From a visual standpoint, the most exciting combination of cinema and theme came from the literal incorporation of one of the most famous films in cinematic history.
Renz explains, “A lot of our storyboards and inspiration for imagery came from “Gone with the Wind.” So, collectively, we decided to go after the lenses used for ‘Gone with the Wind’ and adapt them for our cameras.” As a result, all of the plantation scenes were shot with those lenses.”
Finding the actual lenses from Panavision was no simple undertaking. As Bush notes, “It was a six-week process just for us to track down the lenses, and then another three weeks for the recalibration. But we’re so thankful because we were able to take that same weaponry used to misinform through propaganda with ‘Gone with the Wind’ and correct the record. We were insistent upon getting those lenses, and the studio was patient with us.”
Bush continues, “When I see antique materials, I always wonder what they witnessed, what they absorbed, and what still lives in the crevices of those objects. Having those lenses, for us, it was an heirloom, and that heirloom was a co-conspirator in us creating something that re-cast the narrative of the Antebellum South. It was an extraordinary experience.”
The connections do not stop at the lenses used either. “Antebellum” features a lot of heavy and symbolic imagery, including dusk as a mood to inform the film. As Bush explains, “Looking at ‘Gone with the Wind,’ we wanted to hearken back to some of those burnt, orange silhouettes that were quite prevalent within that movie.”
Bush + Renz also designed the film with many match cuts in mind to further amplify the scenario and the look. As Bush notes, “You want to keep the audience grounded in what you want them to see so you can further disorient them and take them on a ride. So, those sorts of cuts were crucial to achieving that end.”