Movie News & Reviews

After Oscar win, KU’s Kevin Willmott talks Trump tweet, his next film with Spike Lee

Kevin Willmott is heading back to Kansas clutching an Oscar.

A professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas, Willmott won in the adapted screenplay category at Sunday’s Academy Awards for co-writing “BlacKkKlansman.” He shared the award with Spike Lee, who directed the comedic biopic that chronicles the bizarre true story of an undercover black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan.

“I never thought in a million years I would win an Oscar for that,” Willmott told The Star Monday morning before hopping on a plane to Kansas City.

“But you never know in life. Even when I was finished with the script and felt really good about it, I couldn’t imagine that would happen.”

Already the win is generating controversy, having provoked the ire of President Donald Trump Monday after Lee’s acceptance speech urged the audience to “be on the right side of history” when voting in the 2020 election.

Still euphoric from a night celebrating in Hollywood that ended at 5 a.m., Willmott talked about Trump, his next project with Lee, his own red carpet fashion choice and the whole Oscar scene.

Q: Who is the most interesting random person you talked to the night of the ceremony?

A: At the Governors Ball after we won, there was a KU student there working as a waiter. It was really cool because he didn’t know if I’d won or not. But when he saw (the award) was in my hand, he went, “Man, you did it!” He talked about how the KU people out there were waiting to see what was going to happen. It was like I was in the Final Four – and we won.

Q: Did anybody ask, “Who are you wearing?”

Yes. One person did on the red carpet. I said, “Weaver’s. Mass Street. Lawrence, Kansas” (referring to the longtime department store there).

Q: When we discussed a potential Oscar nomination back in September, you deemed it something you couldn’t even imagine being a reality. What was the most unreal moment during this process?

The most unreal moment was when we won. There’s been all that talk we were the favorite. You try not to think about it. But obviously it comes through your head. Then you push it back out. When they called our category, it was so loud that I couldn’t hear if we won or not. Then the other producers, like Ray Mansfield, turned around and hugged me. When I saw (presenter) Samuel L. Jackson go, “Ohhhh,” I knew we’d won.

(Sunday was a night of firsts for African-Americans: It was Lee’s first Oscar. Hannah Beachler and Ruth Carter became the first African-Americans to win awards for production design and costume design, respectively, for “Black Panther.” And “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” co-director Peter Ramsey became the first African-American to win an Oscar for animated feature film.)

Q: Did you have a speech written, or did you know Spike would hog the mic?

I knew Spike was probably going to take it. (As Lee gave his speech, Willmott stood silently smiling behind him, along with co-writers David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel as well as Ron Stallworth, the former cop who wrote the memoir the movie is based on.)

Backstage at the Academy Awards, writers David Rabinowitz (from left), Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott show off their Oscars for “BlacKkKlansman.” Jordan Strauss Invision/AP

Q: You want to give your speech now?

OK. I want to thank my family. My lovely wife, Kathy (Henderson). My mentor, Father Frank Coady. And Spike. Focus Features, who’ve been really great in supporting us. Of course, all my people in Junction City (where Willmott grew up). And all my people in Lawrence, Kansas, who’ve helped me make this moment come true.

Q: What is the first thing Spike said to you after you won?

He said, “I’m on the plane going to Thailand to work on our next movie (‘Da 5 Bloods’) tomorrow. And we just keep on …” (The Vietnam War picture stars Chadwick Boseman of “Black Panther.”)

Q: Trump tweeted today that Spike’s speech was a “racist hit on your president, who has done more for African Americans … than almost any other Pres!” What are your thoughts?

(Laughs). His words are meaningless at this point. A guy whose first comments when he ran for president are that Mexicans are rapists, the whole thing should have ended right there. I’d like for it to be a “Twilight Zone” where you get to living this other reality where everything shut down right after he said that – as it should have – and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He’s such a sad example for America. It will go down in world history as one of our darkest days that he was ever president.

Q: Were you surprised by “Green Book” winning best picture?

Big time. I thought it would be “Roma.” I thought we had a shot because that happens occasionally, the big surprise. I don’t criticize other people’s movies. But it was disappointing.

(“BlacKkKlansman” was up for six Oscars, including best picture and director, but nabbed just the one for adapted screenplay. After presenter Julia Roberts announced “Green Book” had won the top prize, Lee stood up, waved his hands in disgust and appeared to try to leave the Dolby Theatre before returning, according to The Associated Press, reflecting the backlash over the film’s sentimental portrait of race relations.)

Q: In terms of inclusion, did the Oscars show progress with this year’s winners?

There was clear progress. The fact we won was progress to a large degree. I know Spike has a lot of detractors in the Hollywood community because of his opinions. The fact we won is a huge step forward because people voted for him and the film, even though they might not always like him. But the night ended on a note that said, “We still have a lot more work to do.”

Q: Where did you go after the show?

We went to the Governors Ball. But if you win, your Oscar is your entry ticket to any of the other parties. My daughters and wife were here and (some friends). I had to do the press thing and the photos, and that took a good 45 minutes to an hour. By the time that was done, we didn’t feel like running around some other place, so we just stayed at the Governors Ball and had a good time.

Q: Where are you planning on keeping your Oscar?

That’s turning into a real question. I have a spot for it, but I sometimes think I should put it into a safe deposit box. I have to figure that one out.

Q: Will winning an Academy Award change the way you make films?

I’m hoping it gives me a little money to make films. I made “Destination: Planet Negro!” for $7,000. The thing about all those movies I’ve made is I wouldn’t change a thing. All those movies came out of a desire to tell the story, and not letting my circumstances and situation stop me from doing that. That’s the thing that brought me to last night: I never thought about anything other than wanting to tell the story. In the end, that’s the only thing that still matters.

Q: What’s next for you?

The new film with Spike, “Da 5 Bloods,” starts shooting in March. I’m going to Thailand for a week or so to watch the filming. I’m also working on a documentary (about Langston Hughes). I’m hoping I get a new writing job here that I’m in discussions with. The big thing I’m going to do is I’ve got another script that’s been in the system. I’m going to try and direct that and get it made. I would like to do it the way I always have, shooting it in Lawrence and Kansas City. That’s our plan.

Q: This kind of feels like a win for everyone around here, right?

The thing about my ability to make films has always been predicated on everyone helping me. I wanted to win more for everybody else than even myself, to be honest with you. I always talk about community filmmaking; I wanted it to be a community win. That’s probably the best part about the whole thing. … It’s like a moment in a Frank Capra movie — like the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where everybody comes in and puts the money in the hat. That’s the best thing about it. I really share it with everybody in Lawrence and Kansas City and Kansas as a whole.

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

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