Joe Angio brings the life story of the indomitable Melvin Van Peebles to DVD

Melvin Van Peebles is a force of nature. He is someone who doesn't see any boundaries between what is and isn't possible. When he started making films he didn't like what he was seeing as far how African Americans were portrayed on screen. So he made a little film called Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, grossed $10 million dollars and beat all the big studios at their own game (all while making a message movie). He continued to do this on Broadway, in music and when he went to work on the New York Stock Exchange. Melvin Van Peebles isn't a savant. He's just someone who if wants he to do something doesn't see why he shouldn't be able to. More to the point, he doesn't see why he should have to ask anybody's permission.

Filmmaker Joe Angio has made remarkably inspirational documentary about Melvin Van Peeble's life that is aptly titled, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It). Angio recently took part in an interview with us to explain how he crafted such a well rounded portrait of a man who continues to work strictly on his own terms.

How did you put this documentary together? Was it tough getting MVP on board?

Joe Angio: Well, once I finally got the nerve to ask Melvin to do it, it was actually quite easy! I had been interested in doing a film on Melvin for many years (see answers to following question) and had done a fair amount of research on him - this is around 1995-6. It was my friend Michael Solomon - who eventually came aboard as the film's producer - who really provided the spark for me to make the film.

I had made a couple short docs but my film career had become sidetracked in this period while I was working as a magazine editor (at this point I was the managing editor of Vibe magazine). Over lunch one day Michael asked me if I was ever going to make another film, and I told him, "Yeah, I really want to make a film on Melvin Van Peebles." He replied, "Joe, I know Melvin really well!"

Turns out Michael, who had been a film festival programmer, had gotten Melvin to show some of his films in Italy and elsewhere and they'd become friends. Initially, then, Michael was just going to be my liaison to Melvin, to introduce him to me. So I wrote a proposal and started looking for money, because Michael's only advice to me then was that Melvin would take me far more seriously if he knew I had financial backing, etc. However, I soon found out that no one would even discuss money until they knew Melvin was on board.

It was at this point (early '98 now) when I asked Michael, who was now producing commercials, if he'd want to produce the film. He agreed and, changing tacks, we concluded we needed to get Melvin aboard before we continued looking for money. So the three of us had breakfast one morning at a diner on 57th and 9th. I was pretty nervous - I'd been thinking of or researching this project on and off for almost six years - but as long as Melvin hadn't said no, it was still alive! So this was the moment of reckoning. I'll never forget what happened next. Immediately after we shook hands, Melvin looked at me and said, "Michael Solomon has had my back a number of times and helped me out of numerous jams. I read your proposal and he vouches for you so I'll do your film."

And that was it. I didn't have to pitch him or convince him or anything! Then he basically gave me two caveats. He said if I was going to tell his story, tell it warts and all - don't make him out to be a saint. The other was that he'd tell us the names of people I may want to talk to but he wouldn't track them down; that was my job. And that was it.

We started shooting shortly after, in March 1998, and Melvin never blinked over the course of the next seven years of shooting!

I found out about him in film school, I was just curious where you found out about him?

Joe Angio: I didn't go to film school but like you, I suppose, anyone who follows film knows who Melvin is, and about Sweetback in particular. So that was the extent of my knowledge of Melvin when a friend of mine, a budding trader on Wall Street, told me about this amazing guy he worked for, Melvin Van Peebles, who was a filmmaker, playwright, musician, marathon runner, and on and on and on. Like I said, I'd heard of Sweetback at this point but had never seen it. So this was my first introduction to Melvin as someone who was more than just a filmmaker. This was around 1987 I guess.

Then, in one of those weird twists of fate, just a few days later I was out with a friend who was a film editor. We got to talking about movies we liked, etc., and I asked him why he became an editor. He said it was after he saw Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles. This was the second time I'd heard Melvin's name in three days. So I immediately rented Sweetback and, like anyone who's ever seen the film, was just knocked out by it. I remember having this reaction of, "What was that?!" And I watched it again.

So the seed to make the film was planted then. On subsequent trips to New York to visit my friend Brent (the Wall St. trader; he's actually one of the two traders in my film), we'd invariably watch Sweetback and he'd tell me more about Melvin. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became. I couldn't believe no one had done such a film already, so that's when I knew I wanted to do the film.

What was it about him that made you want to tell his story?

Joe Angio: I guess I got at this in the last answer: Once I learned what a remarkable, complex person he was - and that no one really knew his story - I knew he'd make a fabulous subject for a film. I was really surprised Spike Lee or St. Clair Bourne or the Hudlins or people like that hadn't made a film on Melvin already since they're all on the record as being highly influenced by him.

Your film is very comprehensive, how long did it take you to put it together?

Joe Angio: We started shooting in March 1998, and the film premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in April 2005. So seven years of production and post. Add a few years to the head of that if you consider when I started researching, writing and (unsuccessful) fundraising (though, I should add, we did raise money to edit the film). In short, a long time!

How did you get all the footage of him... as a young boy, from Sweetback, on the New York Stock Exchange?

Joe Angio: The footage came from various sources, either from our own research, our researcher, Judith Ailey, and from Melvin himself. Pretty early on, I had seen the short French TV documentary of Melvin from 1967, so I knew that stuff was available. Then, when it came time to substitute in the master footage of those segments we called the French production company that owned it and they asked us if we wanted that or the TV books segment or another TV thing they had on Melvin. I didn't even know the other stuff existed! So I said, "Send it all!"

The PBS footage of the play Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death came from my research at the Museum of Radio and Television. Then Michael tracked down the Tony Award footage of Ain't Supposed to Die... (the great clip with Peter Ustinov introducing the play, with the cutaway to a bored-looking Melvin glancing at his program).

Also, a few years into our filming, I asked Melvin about all the videotapes he had in various stacks around his house. Turns out they were recordings of virtually everything Melvin's ever done - one-man shows, all his TV talk-show appearances, etc. I borrowed them and those turned out to be a treasure trove. That's where I got the Channel 5 news footage. In fact, we ended up using his 10th generation VHS copy (I'm exaggerating, but that's how crappy it was!) of that scene. We tracked down an old 3/4-inch U-matic of it, but our editing facility had no way of transferring from 3/4 to digital! So I just used the VHS tape! And it really doesn't matter, I don't think. In fact, I think it almost adds to this sense that you've uncovered something rare - like the Rosetta Stone or something!

And then we also used a lot of stock footage, especially for the France segments and the faux newsreel that covers his early years. My editor, Jane Rizzo, and I were watching a lot of newsreel/travelogue footage at this time and that was the inspiration to do the fake newsreel. This was the only part of his life where we didn't have "eyewitnesses" to talk about Melvin, and it was much too slow when we had only Melvin himself discussing that era. So it was a bit of a "Eureka!" moment in the edit room where I suggested to Jane that we do his early years as a newsreel, and she loved the idea. I banged out the script for it in, literally, 15 minutes, laid down a temp track, and what you see is pretty much exactly what we cut in a half day's work in the edit room! It's one of my favorite parts of the film.

Did you involve him in the editing? Have you gotten feedback from him about your film?

Joe Angio: No, Melvin was remarkably hands-off during the entirety of the shooting and editing. He completely trusted me to do what I wanted, which was incredibly liberating, as you might imagine. I mean, this guy's a legend - and opinionated, to boot - and he let me make the film I wanted to make with no creative input, or worse, interference.

And he loves the film. He's been behind it 100% and has appeared with us at film festivals and has been inordinately generous with his time to help us promote it. So that was also a great relief. I kind of had this fear in the back of my mind of how Robert Crumb and Terry Zwigoff stopped speaking to one another after the Crumb film was finished - and they were quite close, apparently. Luckily, nothing like that ever happened with us.

So many people have to do things they don't want to do in order to survive. Why do you think MVP has basically been able to do whatever he wants to do in life? Is it really as simple as his bumblebee theory (since it doesn't know it shouldn't be able to fly it just flies)?

Joe Angio: Well, this is not an easy question to answer - in effect, it's what I'm trying to get at with the film - but I think, at the risk of being reductive (because he's far too complex), it comes down to fearlessness. He possesses a fearlessness that is unlike anything I've ever seen. And he's had plenty of ups and downs. But he never let the low points derail him. It's like that great quote from St. Clair Bourne in the film. He talks about one of Melvin's favorite sayings is, "A setback is just an opportunity in work clothes." And I think that's how he thinks.

I mean, think about all the obstacles - genuine or of our own making - that we face or use as excuses to justify the things we don't do. And now think about a black man growing up in the middle of the last century - when the obstacles were not only genuine but seemingly insurmountable for many. Melvin simply refused to make any excuses. He didn't acknowledge the obstacles, which isn't to say they weren't real and didn't exist. They did. But through force of will and determination and persistence he carved out a unique existence for himself.

Based on reading his Sweetback book and seeing him in your movie, he really seems to speak, think and act with incredible focus and simplicity. I was wondering what you, after being around him for all that time, have taken away about him personally from this experience?

Joe Angio: That's a good question. Certainly, I've tried to use what I just described above as an example. He's incredibly inspiring and motivating. I try not to make excuses, and when I feel like being lazy and procrastinating I think of the ten things Melvin has probably already accomplished while I was laying in bed - and that pretty effectively gets me out of bed!

Also, I guess, finding a "third way" when Plan A and B are not working. He always finds a solution. He's very pragmatic and practical

You showed him making a film at the beginning of your movie... I was just curious what was happening with that?

Joe Angio: That film is Bellyful; it was his first film in fifteen years (since Identity Crisis, which he did with Mario). It was a French film, adapted from one of the tales in his French short-story collection Le chinois du XIV. It played at Cannes, and won the Acapulco Film Festival, but never got a U.S. release. It played one night at Film Forum as a double bill with my film during our week-long run at Film Forum in NYC last January, but it's not easy to find.

What are you currently working on?

Joe Angio: I've got two docs in development. One is on the Swiss photographer Arnold Odermatt, who has become a bit of an overnight sensation at the age of 82 for these photos he took - primarily of the aftermath of car accidents - over the course of a 42 year career as a policeman in rural Switzerland. They're amazingly beautiful and haunting.

The other is a music documentary that I'm too superstitious to reveal the band since they've yet to commit. We've met and they're interested but haven't said yes yet. So I'm crossing my fingers on that.

Then there's close to a dozen various other projects (all docs) that are in various stages of research and proposal writing, along with some doc-based TV shows I've been pitching.

How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It) hits DVD stores everywhere June 5 from Homevision Entertainment.