In 2007, Out Magazine included him on their famous Out 100 List. That same year, the stylish Harlem-based Uptown Magazine said he was "the one to watch." Both glossy publications simply recognize and co-sign the fact that talented filmmaker, Kirk Shannon Butts is nothing short of a visionary with a blueprint for something new. His vision is of an old dream first inspired by pioneer African American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, and is reaching its culmination in a landmark film, Blueprint, now commercially available on DVD.
In the film, Keith (Blake Young-Fountain) and Nathan (Damion Lee) are two young black in their first year of college. Polar opposites, they're both independent, but lonely souls drawn to each other by their mutual loneliness. They act and talk like young black men often do with lots of aggression and angst. In fact, there are times when everyone in the film seems to have an attitude, but that's where the plan and the program takes action.
Frameline, the leading organizers of international film festivals, says Blueprint represents "a bold new direction in queer and African American cinema" yet some film critics have had trouble trying to classify it. Shot over 10 days in various New York City locations, Blueprint made its debut in London and has since enjoyed nothing but praise in a successful and successive run at over 25 international film festivals from Hong Kong to Cannes and parts of Africa. Some say it's a black film, some say it's a gay film, a coming of age story, love story and or all of the above. It's about all that and so much more! It's about a discovery of self and whatever it means most to the viewer at any given time - and that's the film's own personal blueprint.
Shannon-Butts recently spoke to me from Paris, France about Blueprint, and the prescience of his next-level life in film and work.
One of the film's characters states "there is no blueprint - everyone must walk their own walk." As Blueprint's writer, director and co-producer, how do you interpret that statement? KIRK SHANNON BUTTS: It is ambiguous, HOWEVER, that is the point of YOUR blueprint. Mapping it out for yourself! Many paths have been made to make it all easier for us. Start at the end of one of those roads not at the beginning - otherwise you may never have an end that is your ownn.
Oscar Micheaux is among one of the more interesting names mentioned in the film's acknowledgments. How has that film pioneer set a blueprint for you? KSB: Oscar Micheaux is beyond a blueprint! He is a pioneer! HE IS THE MOLD! As I said, you have to continue the footsteps. That's why I'm in Paris, France making a film in English, French and Arabic. Go FURTHER!
Critics and reviewers have had a hard time categorizing Blueprint. Most of them call it a "gay love story" but I see friendship and POSSIBILITIES and something deeper if they decide to build a relationship. What are your thoughts there? KSB: BLUEPRINT is definitely about the endless possibilities of friendship and how to create a new and meaningful relationship in general - by calming down and paying attention to the person right there and not the person you wish or create to be there. See the person who is actually THERE! When I first started out on the film festival circuit with my first short film, Complete Abandon, I caught a glimpse of my future as a filmmaker. Once when I was at a Q&A session, there were two people in a very heated debate over whether or not Complete Abandon was a Black Film or Gay Film....to overhear this debate was enlightening because in many ways the audience is questioning my identity. The film is about a black college student (Kenton) who is the object of affection of a white police officer. It is ALL ABOUT KENTON! He is on screen 90% of the film but because - maybe - he is the ONLY black person in the film, some people felt it was not black!
There is such a sense of searching and listlessness throughout Blueprint! Would you say this is a reflection of our society as a whole, young men or young black men in particular? KSB: I think Blueprint captured a mood of the period with Bush, war(s), violations of our First Amendment Rights and extreme gentrification - a lot for a 17 or 18 year old college student to be the recipient of. Those street scenes in Harlem are authentic, no extras or stands. Those are real people walking about Harlem and shopping on 116th & 135th Streets.
How were Blake and Damion chosen for their roles? With such obvious chemistry, do you plan to work with them again? KSB: I went through a VERY long audition process. I found Damion on the first day. Then we could not hear his telephone number on his audition tape. It was a bit of a nightmare. Blake, I found just a few days before shooting, and when he walked in, I only saw KEITH! They were PERFECT! So fresh and alive and self-aware! I wanted Blake for my (next) film, but it was too late. Damion, I am certain we will (be working with).
I grew up with many guys like Nathan - they were tough but they could be tender. I could relate to some of their experiences like riding around town together, and especially Nathan introducing Keith to smoking weed! Were any of these scenes from your own experience? KSB: Blake and Damion really brought Keith and Nathan to life and injected the characters with such a human element that you are affected. For me, it was more about deconstructing James Dean or Marlon Brando. Redefining (the relationships in) Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. NOW, we have a KEITH AND NATHAN!
For the record, Kirk Shannon Butts holds a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Film & Television Production from Chapman University's Cecil B. DeMille's School of Film & Television. All of his online bios will tell us something like that, but I asked him to tell us something we didn't know....
Why Paris? KSB: Well, one of the main reasons for coming to Paris was to write the screenplay for [James Earl Hardy's] "The Day Easy E Died" and I can say it is DONE! Now, it's about tweaking the screenplay, generating buzz and getting some amazing actors attached. When some people leave home they want to create an entire new image and leave behind their roots and essence. I grew up in Baltimore, so it was wonderful! It totally prepared me for all of my travels. In the summers, and on the weekends each community had a fair: Italians, Germans, Polish and African Americans. Today, I am a Parisian. It is OFFICIAL because I got into an argument with some cranky old shopkeeper in the 18eme and used my bad French to have a verbal sparring match. Paris is a great place to be creative for me because the language barrier allows me not to fully engage. I can do a lot of spectating.
Beyond film, you also work as a stylist with stints at such fashion mags as Glamour Magazine, and you're constantly called a Fashionista. What becomes a Fashionista most? KSB: Fashion is all about style. It is important to present an effortless, simple, elegant, classic and chic image! Lots of crisp white shirts and black pants, and of course, nice shoes.
Shannon-Butts dressed the whole band in traditional tuxedo attire and accessories, and I couldn't resist asking.......
HOW DOES IT FEEL looking at the finished product? How close in alignment were the two of you? KSB: Working with Maxwell was very cool! Of course, I have all of his CD's. So, when the opportunity presented itself I explored it. Maxwell is an artist - so he was really clear and aware of what he wanted and did not want. For me as a Fashion Editor (Stylist), I was able to get right to the Thom Browne, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Lanvin which we selected for his tour. The beautiful slate gray suit appeared everywhere - Jet, Rolling Stone, Uptown). I remember walking up to Radio City Music Hall the night of the concert and looking up at the marquee and seeing MAXWELL and thinking WOW, I dressed Maxwell! He and his band will be wearing clothes I selected.
Kirk Shannon Butts readily admits that it's a lot of work to synergize film and fashion with other areas of his life. Done, his latest short film is about a strained long-distance relationship and was shot and completed in Paris. Kirk shared the script with me and when I finished, I immediately thought of the adage about living to work instead of working to live. "Work sucks! I just LIVE" says the visionary. And so it we are done!