Locals contribute to ‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’

Spike Lee enlists help from the Island community while filming his latest movie.

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Spike Lee's "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" is a remake of a film from 1973, "Ganja and Hess." – Photo courtesy Rotten Tomatoes

It’s not unusual for a film crew to camp out on the Vineyard during the off-season while taking advantage of Island locales for a new movie. It’s a lot less common for a legendary Hollywood director to choose the Vineyard as a location and then manage to wrap the whole thing pretty much under the radar of the local community.

That, however, is exactly what happened last fall when Spike Lee brought cast and crew to the Island to film scenes for his just-released film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Much of the movie takes place on the Vineyard — although, aside from a few shots outside the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, the Island scenes are limited to one remote, classic Cape-style beach house and its grounds.

The movie centers on a wealthy college professor and his new partner, who become addicted to drinking human blood. Hardly your classic horror flick, the movie is highly stylized and almost (intentionally) emotionless in tone, and includes a good deal of social commentary. But this film is not for the squeamish. The violence (as well as the sex) is quite graphic, and more disturbing than your average vampire film, given it’s played out in more of a serial-killer realism vein, versus straight over-the-top gore.

Mr. Lee has publicly shunned the idea that he has made a “vampire” film. He was seeking less to shock with the violence of the theme than to explore the nature of addiction — as well as touching on typical Spike Lee themes like race, class, and power. The movie is actually a remake of a little-known film from 1973, Ganja and Hess, which Lee was inspired by years ago as a film student.

So far the film has received mixed reviews and been met with some controversy, although not so much for its subject matter as for its production history.

The low-budget ($1.4 million) film was funded through Kickstarter — a crowdsourcing platform usually reserved for independent projects by artists with limited means. The precedent for celebrity directors turning to crowdsourcing was set by Zach Braff (Wish I Was Here) and Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars), who both raised funds through Kickstarter for their 2014 projects.

In an interview with ABC News Radio, Mr. Lee clarified that while his use of the Kickstarter site was new, the notion of crowdsourcing funding was not new to him. “It was not called crowdsourcing back then. It was just getting money. For example, the first film, She’s Gotta Have It, we raised $170,000 back in 1985 for the film,” he says. “So we’ve always used principles of crowdsourcing, but now it’s just the technology makes it that much easier to get the financing from the fans.”

Although some criticized Mr. Lee for turning to crowdfunding, the highly regarded filmmaker has defended the move by explaining that he wanted the complete artistic freedom that he would not have been allowed in a project “owned” in part by others.

And Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is clearly a labor of love — an homage to an all-but-forgotten director (Bill Gunn) and an overlooked film (Ganja and Hess).

The movie also lays claim to an innovative approach to distribution. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was released on Vimeo, the popular video-sharing web site, a full month before it hit select theaters on Feb. 13. The films The Bachelorette and The Interview were similarly prereleased online prior to their big-screen debuts.

Vineyard connection

Mr. Lee owns a home in Oak Bluffs and spends a good deal of time on the Vineyard. In his interview on ABC News Radio, the director explained why he chose the Island as a location:

“I’ve had a house there for 20 years, and it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I love Martha’s Vineyard. Even though they know I’m from New York, I get mad love in Martha’s Vineyard. So we didn’t advertise it, but many people stepped up to and helped get that film made.”

One of those who stepped up was Christopher Arcudi, who along with his partner Celeste Elser owns Biscuits restaurant in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Arcudi was able to visit the Lambert’s Cove set while delivering food for cast and crew. Biscuits catered all of the food during the shoot — providing two or three meals a day for up to 140 people.

“The Screen Actor’s Guild requires that employees eat every six hours,” said Mr. Arcudi. “The hours varied. Sometimes we’d deliver food around four or six in the morning. Sometimes at twelve in the afternoon, then six.”

Twice the cast and crew ate in the restaurant. The timing worked out well for the Biscuits owners, as the restaurant was winding things down for the season.

“Spike’s been coming to the restaurant for quite a few years,” said Mr. Arcudi. “He thought the crew would like the food. I’ve done some little catering jobs for him previously. He’s filmed some small projects on the Island before.”

“They were cool,” said Mr. Arcudi of the production team members. “I had one perception of Hollywood before, and I have a totally different perception now. It was a good experience. They worked really hard.” He said, “Spike has always been good to our business — supporting us and sending us clients. We’re happy to support him and the work that he does.”

Another local business owner who contributed to the making of the film was hotelier Caleb Caldwell of Oak Bluffs, who lent the filmmakers his classic Rolls Royce. The 1956 moss green, right-hand-drive Rolls Royce Silver Cloud is featured prominently in the film, and helps establish the lead character as a man of wealth.

“I knew they were working with a limited budget, and I was happy to be able to help out in some small way,” said Mr. Caldwell. “After the fact some people said that I had really missed the boat in not asking for any money. I was just dazzled by the fact that the car would be used in a movie by Spike Lee. They treated the car very well.”

Mr. Caldwell is the owner of the Nashua House and the Madison Inn, and co-owner of the Dockside Inn in Oak Bluffs. The Rolls Royce, purchased by Mr. Caldwell in 1994, was never intended to be a source of income. “I use it strictly as a courtesy car for the guests of the three hotels,” he said. “We give the guests rides to dinner or pick them up at the boat or the airport or just go out for a joy ride. It’s strictly a free service for the guests of the hotels.”

An interviewer for Entertainment Weekly asked Lee if he had the chance to take the Rolls for a spin. The director said, “No, no, no, no. I was too busy. But all the cars you see in the film, those were donated by people who live in Martha’s Vineyard. [They] just let us borrow their car. We had great cooperation, not just the many who gave money, but also across the board. A whole lot of people had to call in a whole lot of favors to get this done. So I’m eternally in their debt.”

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is available on Vimeo and iTunes and at select theaters. For more information, visit facebook.com/dasweetbloodofjesus.