A Look at the Short-to-Feature Path of Sundance Filmmakers Adamma & Adanne Ebo
It’s satire, but not a mockumentary. It was a short film, but with big risks. Now it’s the feature Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.
Adamma Ebo and Adanne Ebo are not only collaborators, they’re identical twins. Adanne Ebo began as a lawyer, and Adamma was a dreamer. But above all, they both loved story.
The Ebo sisters grew up with Southern Megachurches. On the one hand, they were community-building. On the other, they were eye-raising.
Writer/director Adamma Ebo had an idea for a satirical exploration of for-profit religion with this in mind.
However, it involved the interweaving of two different styles: cinematic and faux-documentary. She wasn’t completely sure it would work. So with Adanne as producer, they made a short to explore it. The film worked, got spotlighted by Issa Rae, and now the feature starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown just premiered at Sundance.
Adamma and Adanne Ebo spoke with No Film School after the film’s premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival to talk about their process of making Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.
No Film School: What drew you to filmmaking, and how did you end up knowing that you’d be good collaborators?
Adanne Ebo: We've always loved story and storytelling. We've always loved TV and film, but also we love reading, love video games, mostly RPGs—because those are all about the story. But it was Adamma who came to explore filmmaking first.
Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Adamma Ebo: I decided I was going to take the leap. If all I do is daydream about story, then I might as well make something. And so that's what I did. I did go to film school and then Adanne ended up coming along at some point yeah. Not to the film school but to LA.
Adanne Ebo: I went to law school, and Adamma I guess was my introduction into the industry. I did work in entertainment law for a few years, but all the while I was producing on this side. We started writing together on the side. So that partnership just kind of naturally came together.
Adamma Ebo: And it's no different than—
Adanne Ebo: Our everyday—
Adamma Ebo: Our everyday partnership. It feels very much the same.
NFS: I know Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul started as a short film. Did you know that this would be your first feature? And did you make the short film with that in mind?
Adamma Ebo: I definitely know it was going to be my first feature, but actually there was an earlier draft of the feature that I wrote before the short was even written and before it was shot. Because it is so specific, I was like, "It's probably best if I have something to show for it, some sort of proof of concept." And so I decided to shoot the short as this proof of concept and then continue to develop the feature script to sort of incorporate the things that I had in the short.
NFS: Obviously the proof of concept worked because you were able to make the film, and it’s here at Sundance. Was it an important exercise for you as the director? Is there anything that you learned in that process that informed the journey of the feature?
Adamma Ebo: I really want to try out these sort of two different styles in the short. And I think because of the time constraints and honestly creative constraints, I ended up sticking mostly with the faux-documentary format. And so when I got to the feature, I was like, "Okay, I'm really going to try to take a swing at these different styles." Shooting a short reinvigorated me to take a shot.
Adanne Ebo: I think the short was also an exercise in tone.
Adamma Ebo: That type of tone definitely always works for me, but to see if the tone as it relates to the subject matter would work for other people.
A screenshot of the Ebo Sisters at the Q&A of 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
NFS: I'd love to hear about the faux-documentary style.How did you write for that?
Adamma Ebo: Every scene was slug-lined as either faux-documentary style or cinematic style, so that when we got to shooting, everyone knew what was going on. At the same time, myself and my DP Alan Gwizdowski made room to switch it up. If it wasn't feeling right, or if the emotion of the scene felt like we want this to feel shaky, then we did it. The styles start to mix in the film, and that's written. It's written in very specific parts, but again, if it felt like it would serve itself best elsewhere., we allowed ourselves to do that.
NFS: In those conversations with your DP, how does it work on set when it comes to a particular moment that is faux-documentary? In terms of choices like, camera will zoom in at a particular moment or pan from a character. Did you have specific blocking or did he listen for those moments?
Adamma Ebo: It's a little bit of both. Some things were written in, like “The camera zooms in for a closeup," or "the camera pans to catch something.” But because we are making this distinction between faux-documentary style and mockumentary. We didn't want it to be a mock because we felt like mockumentary format sort of is like “in” on the joke a lot of times, or like winking at the audience. And we wanted this to feel like—
Adanne Ebo: An actual documentary.
Adamma Ebo: A documentary within a narrative film. We wanted the camera to be largely observational. If it did a whip pan, or a zoom, it was maybe just a little late. The cameraman was like, "Oh, this is good, we need to catch this now," so that it felt a lot more natural. A lot of the times we would start takes where I would just let [Gwizdowski] do his thing and he would sort of find it in the moment. And a lot of it was great because it felt very natural, but depending on performance and depending on what I was trying to get from my actors, I would be like, "Okay, let's keep doing that but this time maybe we just get a little bit closer. Maybe this time we pop zoom out." And it was really collaborative.
The Q&A at the Sundance Film Festival featuring the filmmakers as well as stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown.Credit: Sundance Institute
NFS: I'm thinking about that in comparison to the "mockumentary" definition, which would be more in like The Office. When there's a punchline, the camera zooms in perfectly timed with the actor, and the actor stares into the camera in perfect sync.
Adamma Ebo: I want to say the camera was almost never part of the comedy. Maybe in select key moments, but only when we wanted the styles to start to mix.
NFS: What is your advice for other filmmakers on honing their creative potential and making a film?
Adanne Ebo: There's no way to hone creative potential without just doing the thing. Like I said, even when I was working, full-time not as a creative, I was still producing, I was still writing, I was still doing things on the side because if not, then I couldn't hone anything if I didn't just do it. Whether it's writing, whether it's directing, there's so many, there's so many ways to do something and it doesn't have to be high budget, high quality, as long as you're exercising that muscle in some way, it's going to feel worthwhile. That's the only way to get to hone anything is to do it.
Adamma Ebo: I would say, make sure to prioritize rest.
Adanne Ebo: That's true.
Adamma Ebo: It's not easy to do, especially when you're sort of juggling a job that's not creative that isn't paying the bills. But know that people are at their optimum when they're well-rested and whatever rest looks like for you. If it's taking naps that's what I like to do. I love naps. But even if it's reading, or having a home spa day where you're just washing your hair and taking... And I guess, maybe not really long shower, because it's not good for the earth, but just something very relaxing. Prioritize that make it part of your creative schedule when you're making sure that you are writing and creating or, finding other projects on the side, make sure that incorporates rest. Because burnout is real and—
Adanne Ebo: The creative suffers.
Adamma Ebo: I'm of the personal belief that the creative will suffer if you're tired. I can't ascribe to the grind philosophy of life. Nothing, nothing phenomenal, comes from people just dragging themselves through everything.