‘Antebellum’ tackles the past head on in an effort to ‘move forward’

A successful writer finds herself trapped as a 19th-century slave. Without getting into the ensuing twists and turns too much, that’s the general premise of Antebellum, a new psychological horror film and the feature debut of writer-director duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz.

“It’s like The Color Purple meets Hitchcock,” Bush tells Fortune.

The filmmakers acknowledge that some of the imagery on screen is difficult and uncomfortable to watch, but they felt it was important for the story they were trying to tell. “As much as we would like to look away because we don’t want to confront it, it’s necessary,” Bush says.

Antebellum, the film, has its roots in a short story the duo wrote in October 2017. It was then adapted into a script by the following February before it was eventually filmed. Bush and Renz have been working together for about a dozen years, producing social justice–driven advertising, short films, and music videos, which means they were very used to collaborating by the time they made the movie.

“We’re able to, within the writing process, work through all of the issues with the story and know exactly how we want to tell the story and become crystal clear on our vision before we even get on set,” Renz says. “So that by the time we’re on set, we know exactly what we want.”

“There was an absolute unified voice on set,” Bush adds.

Janelle Monáe stars in psychological horror film “Antebellum,” out via video-on-demand Sept. 18.
Matt Kennedy—Lionsgate

That said, the two writer-directors would sometimes split up when having to discuss particular aspects of filming with their cast.

“We’re two men. We don’t want to come on set and crowd an actress who’s just had a really difficult scene. That isn’t appropriate,” Bush says. “The two of us caucus, and then we figure, ‘Who would be the best to go in and have this particular conversation at this moment?’ But we’re always within seven feet of each other.”

The filmmakers credit casting director Laray Mayfield (known for her work with David Fincher) for getting the ensemble together. Additional cast members include Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, and Gabourey Sidibe; each brought something distinct to the production.

“She’s one of the most intense listeners. She’s always present,” says Bush of Malone. “Gabourey is bottled sunshine. She’s just a person who brings a warmth to every room she enters. She also happens to be one of the more intelligent people I’ve ever met.”

Bush describes the film’s star, Janelle Monáe—the Grammy-nominated singer whose film credits include Moonlight and Hidden Figures—as a polymath: “We think that going from supporting roles to taking on a movie of such weight where she has to be the spine and heart of the film, I think she’s going to surprise a lot of people.”

Antebellum is coming out at a time when the U.S. is grappling with its history of racism and inequality. The past year alone has seen a wave of titles dealing with such issues, from HBO’s Watchmen series to Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. On some level, it’s an indication that “art is reflecting the times,” Renz says.

Writer-directors Christopher Renz (left) and Gerard Bush on the set of “Antebellum.”
Kyle B Kaplan—Lionsgate

“Our focus has been on social justice storytelling for a decade, and for our part, we really think that the movie has a very specific thing that we are saying,” says Bush. “I think that America is finally waking up to the idea that for a large swath of the population, there is a horror prism in which that would probably be the most effective way to gain an understanding of some aspects of the Black experience.”

Current events and how they connect to the film’s themes and plot points are part of what Bush and Renz hope audiences can take away from watching the film.

“We need to move forward. And to move forward means we have to confront the past and all of its ugliness, so that we can correct this behavior now,” Bush says.

“There is great hope in America’s future if we’re courageous enough to confront the past,” he adds.

The film, which was supposed to be in theaters earlier this year, is coming out via video-on-demand on Friday as the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend theatrical release schedules. It wasn’t what Bush and Renz originally envisioned for the film, but they opted not to push for a theatrical release later in 2021, because they believe it’s important for the film to be a “part of the conversation now.”

“We hope people turn the lights down and the volume up and turn their phones off and try to experience it the best way possible,” Renz says.

Antebellum is available to watch on VOD starting Sept. 18.

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