“I’ve liked every script I’ve ever written, I’ve hated every movie made from them.” – Bill Gunn
Bill Gunn (1929-1989) never liked what happened to his scripts in the hands of another director. In 1969, Norman Jewison needed a writer for his new project The Landlord, an adaptation of Kristen Hunter’s novel of the same name. Love Story author Erich Segal, at the time a professor of Greek literature at Yale, had written a draft, but Jewison deemed it “not ethnic enough” for a film that Jewison was promoting to Variety as “the first all-negro comedy.” Bill Gunn had just finished the script for The Angel Levine (Jan Kadar, 1970), which was going into production for Belafonte Enterprises, and Harry Belafonte’s producing partner Chiz Schultz recommended Gunn to his friend Norm. Gunn revamped The Landlord, giving the content a more political edge and adding brilliant dialog that struck a nerve. In one of the film’s most poignant final moments, Diana Sands’ character Fanny asks Beau Bridges’ Elgar to put their love child up for adoption, declaring him as white. When Elgar asks why, Fanny replies with a line that’s utterly heartbreaking in its simplicity and truth: “Because I want him to grow up like you. Casual.”
Gunn spent a good deal of time on set with first time director Hal Ashby, who Jewison had turned the film over to at the last minute, but expressed frustration with the final work. Determined to direct his own scripts with complete creative control, he took his experience on set along with actress Marlene Clark (a nightclub dancer in The Landlord) to Nyack, NY and began working on a film that would truly defy generic categorization, Ganja and Hess.
Gunn had previously written and directed Stop in 1970 for Warner Brothers, making him the second African American director hired for a major studio project. Yet, the studio refused to release the film, which received an X rating from the MPAA and remains rarely seen. Despite these setbacks (including the lackluster BO performances of The Landlord and Angel Levine), Gunn remained faithful to his artistic vision, following with his most ambitious work to date– a spiritual mediation on Black ritual and desire in the guise of a vampire film. Ganja and Hess premiered in 1973 at Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim, but its U.S. producers Kelly-Jordan Enterprises missed the appeal of Gunn’s experimental exploration. Cutting almost 40 minutes from Gunn’s film, the completely re-edited version was promoted as a Blaxploitation horror film, which had become all the rage following the box office success of Blacula (1972). Additional versions of the film were later released under alternate titles, including Double Possession and Blood Couple. Yet, the original print remained at the Museum of Modern art, becoming one of its most popular rentals and earning the status of cult classic.
Given Gunn’s dissatisfaction with other director’s interpretations of his scripts, one wonders how he would feel about Spike Lee’s Ganja and Hess adaptation, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014).
The restored director’s cut of Ganja and Hess will screen on 35mm on Friday, August 29 a the Indiana University Cinema. Print courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.
 Variety, April 10, 1969. See also Chris Sieving’s chapter on The Landlord, ” Hollywood meets New Hollywood” in his book, Soul Searching: Black-Themed Cinema from the March on Washington to the Rise of Blaxploitation (Wesleyan, 2011).
For More on Gunn & Ganja and Hess:
Manthia Diawara and Phyllis Klotman’s essential Jump Cut essay, “Ganja and Hess: Vampires, Sex, and Addiction”
“Lone Wolf in Black America: A Bill Gunn Retrospective” from Moving Image Arts Film Journal
And a great feature on the house rented by Bill Gunn and creative partner & composer Sam Waymon (brother of Nina Simone!) during the production of Ganja & Hess: “Sam Waymon Lived Here”