Set in Harlem in 1936, when FDR’s New Deal was funding the black unit of the Federal Theater Project, “Voodoo Macbeth” tells the story of directors Rose McClendon and John Houseman’s determination to create a production of “Macbeth” from Shakespeare at the Lafayette Theatre.
To direct their production, they enlist inexperienced 20-year-old Orson Wells, who reimagined the play into a Haitian story using a uniquely arranged cast. Based on true events, “Voodoo Macbeth” tells the story of an all-black cast coming together to create something groundbreaking and is now considered a defining event in African-American theatrical history.
“It’s one of those moments in history that unfortunately hasn’t been explored in film before and isn’t talked about enough,” said Jason Phillips, one of the film’s three producers.
Phillips holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Production from the School of Motion Picture Arts at the University of Southern California (USC) and has worked on projects for recognizable names such as Lionsgate and Amazon. Prior to this project, Phillips had not heard of “Voodoo Macbeth” and was thrilled to be part of a team working to bring the story to the screen.
The film was shot in 25 days thanks to a collaboration of 8 writers, 10 directors, 3 producers and a large cast and crew ensemble. The writers and directors are all college students and much of the rest of the crew and people working on the film are USC alumni, working on the film in department head positions often for the first time.
With so many directors, a small budget, and post-production efforts beginning near the start of the pandemic, the film had a unique creative process. On a single day of shooting, up to 8 directors worked consecutively, changing approximately every 45 minutes. In order to create a cohesive work, the directors had to be adaptive and collaborative.
“There was no room for one ego to trump anyone and we really had to work together to make it work in the end. That’s ultimately what the film is about: every voice matters and to make a better project and a better show, all voices need to be heard, respected and valued,” Phillips said.
The filming process was very different with 10 directors involved. Trying to keep creative visions cohesive, each director shot their part of the film on their iPhones with friends and in their own homes. The entire film was put together with these clips so that the producers could mix up the directing styles and make things smoother. Before filming began, the three producers and each department head sat down with each director individually for an hour to assess their vision for them. Then they worked two 10-hour days to agree on plans as a team.
“I really think all of the cast, all of the department heads, all of the crew were so phenomenal in their own way and they brought such a level of professionalism and commitment to the project that as a producer, I felt very good because [I was] tasked with bringing this group of people together. Without them, we couldn’t have made the film we have, it would have been totally impossible. We just had the perfect storm mix,” Phillips said.
Every part of the process had to go smoothly in order for the film to be put together and ready to screen at festivals and find a distributor, however, it didn’t always go well. In the film, Orson Wells takes Macbeth’s Curse seriously, as does Phillips.
“At one point we were filming and all the power to the whole theater we were filming in went out. We were the only place on the street where it went out, the rest of the block didn’t have a power outage and we couldn’t turn it back on in our entire lives,” Phillips said.
Despite the team’s best efforts, the power remained cut all day and filming was postponed to the following day.
Another hitch in the film’s release was the pandemic. The film’s first screening to friends and family took place in February 2020. After taking some downtime to adjust, the producers remained vigilant and began submitting to festivals in the fall of 2020.
After that, they began traveling around the United States to promote the film, trying to meet as many people as possible at in-person screenings.
“The industry was in such a weird state of flux at this point, so I think we were all trying to figure out: how is this going to be distributed? Will cinemas still be around by the time we’re done with this pandemic? How long will this pandemic last? There were just a lot of questions in the air,” Phillips said.
Attending Q&As at various film festivals proved to be another challenge, as everyone wore masks and it was difficult to read audience reactions. In addition to the efforts to get the film made, being vulnerable to a masked audience ended up paying off.
At the Sedona International Film Festival, Phillips met Arnie Holland, CEO of Lightyear Entertainment, who would become the distributor for “Voodoo Macbeth.”
“It’s extremely exciting to get this cast and to see it come out, it’s amazing. It’s almost indescribable because there’s so much work to do and when you all see it together it’s a kind of like, wow, we actually shot for 25 days and we made this movie and that’s my name up there. You feel a huge sense of pride in that,” Phillips said.
The long journey comes to an end on October 21, with the release of “Voodoo Macbeth” worldwide. Seeing this film, Phillips hopes audiences will go home and seek out Rose McClendon and The Negro Theater Unit, as well as the cities they performed in and the other productions they put together. For Phillips, his research led him to the untold stories of LGBTQ+ history where he found productions and people he never knew existed.
“I think it’s so important for all of us to look back and see that there are so many stories from different bands that have been completely erased and not talked about. It’s those types of stories. stories that are most important to talk about right now,” Phillips said.
Tickets for “Voodoo Macbeth” can be purchased in theaters across New York starting Friday, October 21.
Things to keep in mind during the movie:
- The film changes directors approximately every ten minutes.
- All game footage was shot in reverse. They started with the final set, then took it apart to get different stages of production and because there was no budget to build each individual stage.
- The directors did a Shakespeare lesson early on in the project to refresh on different ways to communicate with actors and as a fun bonding experience.
- If you want to play a game, you can count Jason Phillips as an extra in the film, who, like many of the crew, stepped in whenever he ran out of extras.