By Curtis John
As reported on S&A last week, Brooklyn NYC’s Caribbean Film Series will be bringing the Trinidad Carnival-centered film “Bazodee” to BAMcinématek on Wednesday, September 7th, just days after New York City’s world-renowned Labor Day Carnival celebrations.
“Bazodee” stars singer and songwriter Machel Montano, the leading voice in Caribbean-originated soca music, in his first acting role as the leading man in this ‘Bollywood musical meets Carnival’ drama.
I recently got an opportunity to chat with the film’s screenwriter and producer Claire Ince. The Barbados born creative works daily to devise film and media content for international audiences, but was able to make the time to provide us with behind-the-scenes knowledge on the genesis of “Bazodee,” her gumption in securing Machel Montano to the project, and what motivates her to tell the stories of Caribbean people.
Curtis Caesar John: How did the idea for ‘Bazodee’ come about? I know that the previous title was “Scandalous!’ so how did this version change from the original incarnation?
Claire Ince: My husband and I were in Barbados where we were producing a TV show. And we were listening to a countdown of carnival hits and of course the music of Machel Montano featured prominently. And listening to Machel’s music we said, wouldn’t it be cool to do a carnival musical that told a story using Machel Montano’s music. And because the music was soca and so upbeat it leant itself very easily to being a happy story about love overcoming conflict.
Trinidad and Tobago is also a real mix of cultures…roughly half of the population is Indian and half the population is of African descent. That plays out in the food, and the music as well, so there was this really interesting terrain to explore. So I decided to use this unusual backdrop that the world is not familiar with to tell a very universal love story about a woman forced to choose between her heart and her family’s future. And I knew that I wanted Machel Montano to not just provide the soundtrack for the movie but to be the romantic lead in it because he’s such a dynamic performer.
So I had the idea, talked to my producing partner Ancil McKain about it and we were able to reach Machel. He was excited to have his music be the inspiration for a movie musical. With Machel’s buy-in we went away and I worked on a script and chipped away at getting international partners and tried to generate financial interest. And then in 2008, an early draft of the script won the Bahamas Screenplay Film Residency Program and I had an incredible mentorship experience being mentored by people like Malcolm Lee (“The Best Man”) and with the winnings I was able to start the pre-production process for “Bazodee,” or “Scandalous” as it was then known…getting the first draft of the budget done, starting to approach directors and so on.
You asked about the name change… The project “Bazodee” is the same project as “Scandalous”…just with a name change. I originally titled the movie “Scandalous” because of the Machel Montano song and because of the scandalous, sexy romance of the love story that took place against the backdrop of carnival. But early in production the name started to feel like it wasn’t the perfect fit. And for folks that did not have the reference to the Machel song, “Scandalous” suggested a much more scandal-filled story, like a sex or political scandal. It also had a very British sound. So we all thought long and hard about alternative titles and we kicked around a couple and then I came up with “Bazodee” but we let it sit for a while because it’s a foreign word. But then it became clear that the word really fit the story, even though it was a word that would be unknown to the majority of the world audience.
Bazodee – that giddy, light-headedness when you fall in love, which I think encapsulates the feeling of the film, its lightness. And there’s a musicality even to the sound of the word. Ba-zo-dee. And so we chose a Caribbean word that would mean something to Caribbean people and looked at it as a chance to educate the rest of the world about the word and its meaning. And it’s been cool even on that level to see the response to the film with the reviews and discussion of the word and the New York Times writing in the closing line of its review “You might just go bazodee over that soca beat.” I don’t know for a fact but I’m going to guess that’s the first time the word “bazodee” has appeared in the New York Times.
CCJ: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is your first feature film script to make it to the big screen, yes? If so, how does it feel for you to have your work seen by a fully-engaged movie theater audience?
Ince: This is my first script to make it to the big screen and it is an incredible and surreal feeling. So much of what you do as a writer is done in solitude. For a long time you are the only audience your screenplay has. But once you go into production the screenplay becomes the blueprint for all these incredible artists to build on and the movie from the screenplay is a truly collaborative experience which is thrilling. I worked closely with director Todd Kessler and learned so much from him and he was able to push the story in terms of making it more accessible.
The other real thrill is having actors become these people you’ve created, truly embody them and bring so much to the roles. And now to see it in theaters, and to see it received the way it has been, it’s been amazing. [Still] I’m acutely aware that the script is just the foundation for the work of all these wonderful artists, some you see on screen and some whose work you see in the costumes created or the perfect shots or the great production design. It is truly an honor to have been a part of something like this and to be able to go to a theater and share in the experience with others who’re laughing, gasping, shouting at the screen, bursting into applause at the end…I have to pinch myself that this has actually happened.
CCJ: How exciting was it for you to have the one and only Machel Montano play your male lead in ‘Bazodee’?
Ince: I look at cold calling Machel Montano as one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. He is a very big deal not just in Trinidad and Tobago, but for the entire Caribbean. But I had nothing to lose as I hadn’t written the script yet and I just wanted to get an idea of his level of interest so I’d know whether to invest time in writing the script or not. As soon as I told him the idea he enthusiastically said yes and that was exciting because it would have been easy to say no. My producing partner and I had nothing but an idea. No big backers. No money. But I think Machel has become the artist he is by not being afraid to take risks and grow, and I think he saw this movie as a chance to do that. The great thing for me personally is that I always felt that he had it in him to be wonderful in this role and there was some apprehension on the part of naysayers about whether Machel, a singer, could act – and he just knocked it out of the park. So I was excited to work with his dynamic talent, proud of his vision and courage, and inspired to make a movie worthy of his talent.
CCJ: Can you share with our readers what made you go into screenwriting as opposed to other types of writing? I know you received your MFA from the very competitive New York University Dramatic Writing Program.
Ince: I was doing my A-levels in Barbados and I was always interested in creative writing. I wrote poems and short stories and for some part of my life I was convinced I was going to be a novelist but there was something about the visual nature of film, the challenge of telling a story in moving pictures that appealed to me. And it was around the time of filmmaker Euzhan Palcy and when I saw “Rue cases négres” [aka “Sugar Cane Alley”] it was a revelation that people like me from the Caribbean made movies and that maybe I could too. And so I decided to go to film school at Howard University in Washington DC for my undergrad [degree] which I think people were confused by. People would say what are you going to do with a degree in film? Are you going to run the local TV station? Read the news? But I wanted to make movies that told Caribbean stories and going to film school to learn how to do that seemed natural. And I was lucky that my parents always supported me.
And then at film school at Howard University, right around PA’ing on my first 5 am shoot, I realized that what I really wanted to do was write and I focused on it, got accepted to NYU for grad school and had this terrific opportunity to immerse myself in the craft and learn from wonderful teachers and other writers. And that’s been my focus since…every day I’m trying to write and learn and improve and be a part of bringing entertaining stories to screen that people can learn from and be inspired by when they go back to their day.
Ince: Yes, we did try to raise financing for a Barbados-set rom-com but conditions in Barbados were not ideal. They don’t have the same incentives for film financing and production as Trinidad and Tobago. However I am sure that I’ll get an opportunity down the line to make something there. Also I have to say that I feel very at home throughout the Caribbean and when I meet Caribbean people there’s that bond. Perhaps it is as a result of living outside of Barbados for so many years now that I feel defined as a Caribbean person too. The island I’m working in is the detail but it’s the spirit of the Caribbean that I’m attracted to and there are lots of plans to make future stories, series, TV in the truly beautiful, resourceful, resilient, remarkable part of the world I’m lucky enough to come from.
Presented by the Caribbean Film Academy, the Brooklyn Cinema Collective, and BAMcinématek, “Bazodee” in the September edition the Caribbean Film Series at BAM Rose Cinemas on Wednesday, September 7th at 7:30pm. A Q&A with Claire Ince, Ancil McKain, and Susanne Bohnet will follow the film.
The short film “Cleaning House” (14 min – 2013), by Jamaican writer and director Toni Blackford, precedes the film. For tickets and information go to http://www.bam.org/film/2016/bazodee. For more information about the Caribbean Film Series go to caribbeanfilm.org or bkCinema Collective.org