INTERVIEW: The Ebo Twins Share Their Filmmaking Process for 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.'

How did this short-turned-feature "faux-documentary" about a megachurch scandal come to bless our screens?
by Shanee Edwards - updated on May 10, 2023

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul is an eye-opening look at the struggle of a fictional Black power couple at the center of a megachurch super scandal. Trinitie (Regina Hall) and Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) built the congregation for their Wander to Greater Paths church from scratch based on conservative Southern Baptist values. But like so many religious figures who’ve fallen from grace before them, it turns out the Childs may not be as squeaky clean as they’d like the public to think. The film uses a variety of techniques including faux-documentary, archival footage, and biting comedy to illuminate the themes of greed, marriage, hypocrisy, and homophobia.  

Writer/director Adamma Ebo makes her feature debut with the help of her twin-sister Adanne who serves as producer on Honk for Jesus. I chatted with the sisters over Zoom to find out more about their filmmaking process, from turning their short into a proof of concept feature to putting a spin on the mockumentary subgenre.

Using a Short Film as a Proof of Concept

According to Adanne, the inspiration for the film comes from the sisters’ own lived experiences growing up in the church in the early 2000s which were admittedly complicated. “We kind of felt both disillusioned with it and critical of it while also having love and reverence for different aspects of it,” she says. 

Adamma agrees, saying, “We experienced things that needed to be called out and needed to be critiqued and oftentimes weren’t. It was really born out of our frustration with that as a whole.”  

While Adamma first wrote the story as a feature-length screenplay, she knew a film about a religious scandal set in a Black Southern megachurch would be a hard sell in Hollywood. When she got to UCLA Film School, she retooled the story as a short film that would not only become her thesis film, but also a proof of concept that the feature version would be viable.

“The strategy,” says Adamma, “was to have something to show people that perfectly encapsulated the tone and also the way I wanted to approach shooting it. It’s a very specific tone and has a lot going on in terms of the type of style and cinematography. It was hard to succinctly pitch that to people, so I wanted to have something to show them instead of just telling them about it.”     

INTERVIEW: The Ebo Sisters Share Their Filmmaking Process for 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.'_Adamma and Adanne Ebo bts

Adamma and Adanne Ebo behind the scenes of 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.'

The effort paid off, particularly after the short film’s success allowed Adamma to develop the feature script at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Intensive Program where she met producers Amandla Crichlow, Daniel Kaluuya, and Rowan Riley. Soon Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown joined the cast and the film began shooting over five weeks in Atlanta in 2021. 

The Thin Line Between Comedy and Drama

The dichotomy between Christ-like behavior and human behavior was successfully mixed with Adamma’s sharp wit to provide the basis for a story that could only be told through a comedic lens. But a marriage in crisis, like the one the Childs are going through, isn’t always funny. It’s often incredibly painful, especially when it seems like pastor Lee-Curtis may have sexually preyed on young male congregants. Like with many stories, pain and humor are the opposite sides of the same coin.

"Balancing the tone wasn’t tough because it’s innate in so many ways, it’s just the truth.”

“Personally,” says Adamma, “I think that balancing extreme comedy and extreme pain is something that culturally, Black folks do to a T. It’s a coping mechanism that we passed down and inherited since folks brought us over here for a necessary reason. You have to find the joy and the comedy in life – especially under such awful and tragic circumstances. But it’s also the tone of Black church culture as well. So much of the culture is boisterous and hilarious and super engaging. But at the same time, it’s also very serious and meaningful and dark in a lot of ways. Balancing the tone wasn’t tough because it’s innate in so many ways, it’s just the truth.” 

It's a "Faux-Documentary", Not a Mockumentary

Another way to balance the humor with painful moments in the story in Honk for Jesus was to use the pretense that Trinitie and Lee-Curtis Childs were the subjects of a documentary. At times, we see the lead characters explaining their situation to the documentary film crew when the cameras are rolling and then reveal their less guarded selves once the cameras have cut. It allows the audience to see layers of the characters.  

“We’re calling it faux-documentary. It’s not mockumentary because with a mockumentary the camera tends to be in on the joke, kind of winking at the audience. We wanted this to feel as much like a real documentary as possible whenever we were in that style. So the camera is mostly observational,” says Adamma.  

Writing the script, Adamma was very clear about which parts of the story were documentary style and which were not.  

INTERVIEW: The Ebo Sisters Share Their Filmmaking Process for 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.'_Sterling K. Brown

Sterling K. Brown in 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.'

“Every slug line had a style attached to it. So it would be, ‘INT. SUCH AND SUCH – DOCUMENTARY.’ Or ‘INT. SUCH AND SUCH – CINEMATIC,’ or not in the documentary style, and there was a bit of archival footage in there so whenever that arose, it was INT. SUCH AND SUCH – ARCHIVAL. It was all very mapped out, all very intentional,” she says. 

Adamma says she stopped with the documentary style every time it seemed like the characters might “break” emotionally. “I wanted to build this momentum and this tension because eventually, someone is going to have a breakdown on camera. I wanted it to feel like [the characters] continuously pulled it together just in time for the documentary crew to shut the cameras off,” she says.

Adamma adds that going into the “cinematic” style is when you’d get to see, “What’s real, the pain, the emotion – what they don’t want the world to see.” By putting it right into the slug lines, the actors get clarity on exactly where they are in the story.        

A Unique Writer’s Voice

A lot is said about writers developing their voice or that a good screenplay should encapsulate a writer’s voice. But for Adamma, she seems to have developed her voice that uses equal parts comedy and drama very early on. 

“In the last year or two, my dad was cleaning out our garage and he found this creative nonfiction essay I wrote to Osama bin Laden in elementary school. I was reading it and the tone of it was exactly the tone of this movie. It had a lot of comedy in it but also a, ‘Look man, this is serious’ tone. So I think I’ve always had this voice,” she says.

INTERVIEW: The Ebo Sisters Share Their Filmmaking Process for 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.'_Adamma and Adanne Ebo

Adamma and Adanne Ebo on the set of 'Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.'

Adamma adds that clearly writing about your feelings is an important part of your voice, too. “A lot of times, what people feel isn’t what they communicate or dictate to the world. Your deepest feelings, your true feelings – that is your voice. So go ahead and put it on the page. Who cares what other people think?”  

If you happen to like the Ebo sisters’ voice, you’re in luck considering they’ve just signed a deal with 20th Century Television Animation to develop a show called SupaShawty Girls, Funkamatic BangBang. The synopsis from IMDb Pro says the show, “Follows twin college students and a laboratory accident turns them into superheroes, and they must learn to manage their brand new super-powered lives with the growing pains of adulthood.” We can’t wait!

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul opens in theaters and streams on Peacock on September 2nd.

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