Sun | Jul 21, 2019

Matsoukas takes on passion project with A Brief History of Seven Killings

Published:Sunday | October 29, 2017 | 12:00 AMKimberley Small
Issa Rae (left) and Melina Matsoukas of HBO's 'Insecure'.
Melina Matsoukas

By all appearances, the television series adaptation of Marlon James's beloved, Man Booker prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings is in worthy hands.

Following the recent announcement that Melina Matsoukas will sit in the director's chair for the Amazon Studios production, The Sunday Gleaner caught up with the accomplished film-make, to uncover if this would become her next passion project.

And it is.

To start off, though Matsoukas is a highly sought-after film professional, she revealed that she wasn't approached to take on the job - but that she sought it herself.

"I was very much the approacher! I fell in love with Marlon's word upon reading A Brief History of Seven Killings and chased him down, iterally. Thankfully, he liked my work and appreciated the approach I wanted to bring to the telling of the stories," Matsoukas told The Sunday Gleaner.

"After I spoke with [Marlon], I met with the producer on the project, Eric Roth, and it was an instant work connection. I explained my passion for the book, and after a few well-placed drinks (I kid, I kid), he said, 'Well, you should be the one to tell this story.' I put together a not-so-brief pitch, and we took it to a couple places before finding a home at Amazon to develop the series," she said.




Those familiar with Matsoukas will recognise her work in music videos like Rihanna's You Da One and Rude Boy, as well as BeyoncÈ's Pretty Hurts and Formation, for which she won a Grammy. Matsoukas is currently the director of HBO's hit comedy-drama series Insecure.

James's prize-winning novel re-imagines the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, rehashing that vital day in multiple time periods, while exploring the aftermath. Jamaican politics, poverty, race, class, and the volatile relationship between the United States and the Caribbean are broached topics, along with the efforts of the CIA to destabilise a left-wing Jamaican government in the 1970s.

Developing the series soundtrack is another aspect of production that Matsoukas has already begun plotting for.

"This is a challenge I've been thinking of since reading the book. There is not a real plan as of yet, but my idea would be to incorporate as much music from 1970s Jamaica that we were able to clear, as well as involve new artistes and composers to create a modern bridge to make the sound relevant to today. I would love to trace the history of ska and reggae sonically into dancehall, reggae, and hip hop now."

As it happens, Matsoukas is a frequent visitor to Jamaica, a fact supporting her confidence in tackling the series adaptation.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable even attempting to tell this story had I not experienced the land in which it was birthed. I've travelled all over the island, visited countless times for pleasure, and also shot there a few times before. I love Jamaica, the culture, the people, the landscape. It's inspiring every time I touch down."

The Brief History team is still in the pre-production phase, but Matsoukas divulged that the decision was made to include Jamaica as a primary film location and a source of talent.

"It's superearly in the process, but inclusion is one of the elements that attracted me to this project. I love telling and representing stories about people and places we haven't seen before on screen," she told The Sunday Gleaner.

"I could not imagine shooting a series about Jamaica, its history, its people, and its culture, without actually shooting in Jamaica and incorporating the community in the telling of

this story."

Throughout the local film community, there is a perennial debate about how palatable patois may be to an international audience, where some believe English ought to be the standard in Jamaican film-making. However, Matsoukas disagrees.

"I think the language has to be authentic for the story to stay true to itself. There are plenty of moments [in the book] where the language is not only patois. It really is a mix of languages and accents, but where appropriate, the characters should speak patois, and we'll use subtitles so that international audiences can understand."

With this disclosure, Matsoukas further declared that the target of the series is not just American audiences.

"It's a story that has universal appeal. I believe as long as the characters, the performances, the story, and the visuals are great, the audiences will pay attention.

"I am deeply honoured to be entrusted with this tapestry of stories so entrenched in roots, reggae, race, mysticism, and politics. I hope to create a great series that will go down in history as one of the best ever made. I also hope to do it successfully with the people the story is about."

"We will be there [in Jamaica] - hopefully, with your blessing - shooting, casting, and creating, together," Matsoukas said.