The Lightyear Entertainment film “Voodoo Macbeth” hits theaters October 21

Set in Harlem in 1936, when FDR’s New Deal was funding the Federal Theater Project’s Negro Unit, “Voodoo Macbeth” tells the story of directors Rose McClendon and John Houseman’s determination to stage a production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” at the Lafayette Theatre.

They enlist the inexperienced 20-year-old Orson Wells to direct their production, who transformed the play into a Haitian story with a uniquely arranged cast. Based on true events, “Voodoo Macbeth” tells the story of an all-Black cast who came together to create something revolutionary and is now considered a milestone in African American theater history.

“This is one of those moments in history that sadly hasn’t been explored in film and not really 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 University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts and has worked on projects for household names such as Lionsgate and Amazon. Prior to this project, Phillips had never heard of Voodoo Macbeth and was thrilled to be part of a team working to bring the story to screens.

The film was shot in 25 days through a collaboration of 8 writers, 10 directors, 3 producers and a large cast and crew. The writers and directors are all students, and many of the rest of the crew and people working on the film are USC graduates, often working on the film for the first time in department head positions.

With so many directors, a small budget, and post-production work that began just before the pandemic began, the film had a unique process of making. On a single day of shooting, up to 8 directors worked in a row, changing about every 45 minutes. To create a cohesive work, the directors had to be adaptable and collaborative.

“There was no room for a single ego to outdo anyone and we really had to work together to make it actually work. Ultimately, that’s what film is about: every voice counts, and to make a better project and show, all voices must be heard, respected and valued,” said Phillips.

The shooting process looked very different with 10 directors involved. In an attempt to keep creative visions coherent, each director shot his part of the film on his iPhone with friends and at their own homes. The entire film was assembled from these clips to allow the producers to mix directorial styles and make things flow more smoothly. Before filming began, the three producers and each department head sat down with each director individually for an hour to assess their vision for their part. They then worked two 10-hour days to agree on plans as a team.

“I really think that all the actors, all the department heads, all the crew members were just so phenomenal in their own way and brought such a great level of professionalism and dedication to the project that I felt really comfortable as a producer because [I was] responsible for bringing this group of people together. Without them we couldn’t have made the film we have, it would have been absolutely impossible. We just had the mix of the perfect storm,” Phillips said.

Every part of the process had to go smoothly to put the film together and get it ready to be screened at festivals and find a distributor, but things didn’t always go right. In the film, Orson Wells takes Macbeth’s curse seriously, as does Phillips.

“At one point we were shooting and all the power went out in the entire theater we were shooting in. We were the only spot on the street where it went out, the rest of the block had no blackouts and we couldn’t turn it back on for the rest of our lives,” Phillips said.

Despite the crew’s best efforts, the power went out all day and filming was postponed to the next day.

Another hiccup with the film’s release was the pandemic. The film’s first showing to friends and family took place in February 2020. After taking some time off to adjust, producers remained vigilant and began submitting to festivals in Fall 2020.

After that, they began traveling across the US to promote the film and tried to meet as many people as possible at in-person screenings.

“The industry was in such a strange state of flux at this point that we were all just trying to figure out: how is this being distributed? Will cinemas still exist when we end this pandemic? How long will this pandemic last? There were just a lot of questions in the air,” said Phillips.

Another challenge was sitting at Q&A’s at various film festivals as everyone wore masks and it was difficult to read audience reactions. In addition to the efforts to make the film, its vulnerability to a masked audience paid off.

At the Sedona International Film Festival, Phillips met Arnie Holland, CEO of Lightyear Entertainment, the future distributor of Voodoo Macbeth.

“It’s extremely exciting to get this distribution and feels amazing that it’s actually going to be released. It’s almost indescribable because so much work has gone into it, and then when you see it all together it’s kind of like, wow, we actually shot for 25 days and made this film, and that’s my name up there. There’s an overwhelming sense of pride in that,” Phillips said.

The long journey will come to an end on October 21st when “Voodoo Macbeth” will be released to the world. By seeing this film, Phillips hopes viewers will go home and check out Rose McClendon and The Negro Theater Unit, the cities they have performed in, and the other productions they have performed. For Phillips, his research took 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 groups that have been completely erased and not discussed. It’s those types of stories that matter most now,” Phillips said.

Tickets for “Voodoo Macbeth” go on sale in theaters across New York beginning Friday, October 21.

What you should consider during the film:

  • The film changes directors about every ten minutes.
  • All game sequences have been rotated backwards. They started with the final set and then took it apart to get different stages of production and because there was no budget to build each individual stage.
  • The directors held a Shakespeare class right at the start of the project to refresh the various ways of communicating with the actors and to create 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 members, filled in when he ran out of extras.

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