I wouldn’t be writing this statement were it not for Darius James, who did not just write this screenplay with me but has been a mentor, friend, and my guide in exploring the mysterious universe that is Sammy Davis, Jr.
About 10 years ago, we discussed the possibility of a Sammy film. As a director, I had an interest in creating alternative histories. For instance, my previous film recounted how Frank Sinatra instigated the JFK assassination. I now wanted to make a picture about how Sammy Davis, Jr. caused the Watergate scandal.
You might be acquainted with the term “drunk history.” I’d like to call what I do “psychedelic history.”
Biopics and other historical films tend to be serious and sober undertakings. They aren’t playful. Yes, there is a time and place for bearing witness to important events and figures. But mixing fact and fiction can reveal hidden truths or what Herzog called “the ecstatic truth.”
The universe of Sammy-Gate is an absurd one. It’s a bizarro world in which Sammy gets attacked by a club sandwich while tripping on LSD. Or Richard Nixon manifests Satanic powers and speaks in tongues like Linda Blair from “The Exorcist.” Or Louis Armstrong pilots a flying toilet to save Sammy from eternal damnation in Hell.
Darius proved the perfect partner for this endeavor. Mentored by Terry Southern, raised on Ishmael Reed, he brought an afro-surrealist vibe to the project. We wanted to make a film that played like the visual equivalent of a Funkadelic LP.
However, as we undertook research on the improbable “Davis caused Watergate” thesis, this project settled into a much deeper groove. Sammy might have endorsed Nixon and ’72 and served as an advisor to his administrator but he also donated to the Angela Davis legal fund. I need hardly mention how his membership in the Church of Satan thickened the plot.
In short, Davis was a complicated cat. And a genius to boot. I spent a long time talking with Darius about Sammy. While we originally had planned to write a satirical conspiracy thriller, the film became a much deeper meditation upon race and politics in America.
When we started production in 2012, a dark and angry satire about Nixon era racism seemed almost anachronistic. This was the height of Obama’s “post-racial” America. Suffice to say, most investors found the project a bit esoteric.
But we made the film anyway.
With an awesome team of seasoned studio folk, many of who worked pro bono, we slowly and lovingly shot the film scene by scene from early 2013 to late 2018. Some of it was captured on 35mm Panavision gear and glass from the 1970s. Some of it was shot on RED Monstro and Digital Bolex. And the rest of it was animated frame by frame.
The project took eight years to complete. I don’t mean we wrote a script and then waited seven years for financing. I mean dozens of people worked on the feature for years and years and years. This film was the product of creative energy and sheer willpower.
Though I hadn’t intended for this project to consume nearly a decade of my life, I realize its slow gestation may have been for the best. Trump is the bitter fruit of the seeds Nixon sowed a half-century ago. As Mark Twain put it, history doesn’t repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes.