Editor’s note:This is another in an occasional series of stories by reporter Andy Hyland, asking Kansas University staff to share “16 Things I’ve Done.” This week, we talked with Kevin Willmott, an associate professor of film.
1) Got his first job when he was 10 years old, growing up in Junction City in the late 1960s, working at a grocery store. He loaded trucks and stocked shelves.
“It was a lot easier then for a kid to get a job at 10 years old than it is now,” he said. “That had a big effect on me. It taught me to be independent, and it taught me to have a good work ethic.”
2) Met the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest and social activist, who became an inspiration in his life and his work.
3) Cast Martin Sheen and Isaac Hayes to star in his first film, “Ninth Street,” about life in Junction City in 1968. Sheen was introduced to him through Berrigan and was able to spend four hours shooting the film. Willmott wrote a beginning, middle and end for his character knowing the amount of time he would have to film it. Hayes also came from another connection through a friend. He read the script and did the film.
“I was very, very lucky,” Willmott said. “Very lucky.”
4) Mixed a Molotov cocktail in high school and got expelled after it was discovered in his locker. He led something of a rabble-rousing crowd in high school, against a principal he said was “a big-time racist” who had kicked out several of his friends from school. The Molotov cocktail was intended for use in the bathroom, but Willmott said he didn’t think he would’ve actually used it. It was “pretty dumb, obviously,” he said today.
5) Enrolled in a private school, St. Xavier, after getting expelled from the public school.
“If I hadn’t done the Molotov cocktail, I don’t think I would’ve gone to college,” he said.
6) Became not only the first in his family to graduate from college (at Marymount College in Salina), but also the first in his family to buy a car.
7) Saw a movie camera up close for the first time on the first day of filming for his movie “Ninth Street.”
8) Started a homeless shelter in Junction City and became a community organizer, leading protests that led to the integration of the fire department.
9) Sold a screenplay, “Shields Green and the Gospel of John Brown,” to 20th Century Fox with co-writer Mitch Bryan, which sparked his screenwriting career. They never made the movie, but the proceeds enabled him to finish his first movie.
10) Used stock footage in several parts of “CSA: The Confederate States of America” and went back and bought rights to the footage for himself using some of the first money the movie made. Today, he tells his students not to let obstacles like that stand in their way. During the years he made the film, he said he never had more than $5,000 in the movie’s budget at any one time.
11) Received hundreds of letters and emails reacting negatively to his film, “falling just barely short of threatening my life,” he said.
“That reminds you of the power of what you’re doing,” he said. “Something that’s not true, but it teaches truth in a way, it forces them to re-evaluate their position, which often leads them to be quite upset.”
12) Named film company, Hodcarrier Films, after his father, who worked as a hod carrier (a skilled laborer who carries construction materials) in Junction City.
13) Went with his stoic father, who was 60 years old when Willmott was born, to see “In Cold Blood” in the theaters when he was still in the fourth grade. He remembers walking back in the dark after the ending scene featuring the hanging of the murderers in the movie.
“He’s not comforting anybody,” he said of his father. “I was just in shock. This was a grown-up film.”
14) Heard his fourth-grade teacher tell him that they wouldn’t be talking about the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. He recalled his mother screaming on the front porch after she heard the news.
“I’ve not stopped talking about King ever since then,” he said.
15) Heard many times that he should approach Oprah Winfrey or Spike Lee about his films — “these people don’t want to see you,” he said. But after filming CSA, Lee called him. They worked together on another film afterward.
“I tell my students it’s an example of how you have to go out and do things,” he said, and can’t just expect that good things will come your way.
16) Tried to share his experiences and counsel to the students with whom he interacts as a professor.
“You have to define success on your own terms,” he said. “Things don’t change, but that doesn’t mean you’re not doing something that’s important. ... You tell the stories you want to tell.”