When Suicide Kale made its debut in the world, I thought to myself, “Oh, this is a cool thing some people I know have done!” And then I watched it and was like, “Oh wow, this is really something special.” That’s what queer people around the country thought also: Over the course of 2016, the film, crafted from beginning to end by an all-queer women team helmed by Brittani Nichols and Carly Usdin, won a truckload of trophies at film festivals, including the Audience Award for Best Feature at both Los Angeles’ Outfest and New York City’s NewFest. And today, finally, you can buy it or stream it on Vimeo or Amazon!
Suicide Kale follows two queer couples — lovebird honeymooners Jasmine and Penny, and their long-married friends Jordan and Billie — during an afternoon cookout. During dinner prep, Jasmine finds a suicide note in Jordan and Billie’s bedroom. Who wrote it is important, but the mystery isn’t the central thread of the movie. The note forces Jasmine to examine the way she thinks about everyone in her life, including herself. No one leaves the movie unchanged, and also no one dies.
To celebrate their streaming release, I forced writer and lead actor Brittani Nichols, director and editor Carly Usdin, executive producer and lead actor Jasika Nicole, director of photography and executive producer Robin Roemer, and lead actor Lindsay Hicks to wake up early and talk to me about their movie one more time.
Heather: What was it like to release this film you made for no money in just a few days into the wild, and then watching it take off and win every film festival award on the planet?
Brittani: It was very surprising. I think we hoped —
Carly: Yeah, it was like meteoric. But go ahead Brittani.
Brittani: [Laughs] We had no idea what the festival circuit was like going into it. We were obviously “hoping for the best” but we had no idea what the best was. So we started to roll with it when we were getting into festivals and winning awards, so our ideas about how widespread our success could be really changed as we learned more about the process and about the whole film festival game.
Carly: Right, our idea of success at first was “making a film people other than us could watch” and then it was like “other than our friends could watch” and then it was like “getting into one single festival” and obviously “total world domination” after that.
Heather: The awards speak for themselves, but what’s been the response from the people you’ve spoken with in the community as you’ve toured around with the film?
Brittani: I think since the film accomplishes a lot of things, it gives different people opportunities to latch onto different things. Like, “It’s great to see people who are actually queer in a movie.” “It’s great to see butch people in a movie.” “It’s great to see people of color.” “It’s great to see lesbians just talking.” “It’s great to see lesbians not dying!” The world of queer media can be so dark sometimes and if one thing goes away all the queer representation goes away, so if you have a lot of positives going on, it gives a lot of different types of people the ability to relate and for the story to resonate with them.
Heather: Jasika and Lindsay, how did this experience compare to the other things you’ve acted on?
Lindsay: I’ve actually been really spoiled to work on small sets with mostly women.
Jasika: I studied theater at school and a lot of what we did was improv stuff, so I do feel like I had some experiences with how we made this film, but it was nice to feel like my voice was heard because most actors — unless you’re very rich and famous — don’t have a voice on set. I think it’s also harder for women on male-dominated sets to feel like their opinions matter and that they have the space to say anything, so this was a real departure from that. It was a little hard to go back to other work after this because I expected to be important still, and I wasn’t.
Carly: So this project ruined you, is what you’re saying.
Jasika: [Laughs] Yes, basically.
Heather: Robin, I rewatched Suicide Kale last night and it never stops amazing me how beautiful it is. Lesbian movies are usually so ugly. When you rewatch it do you feel like, “Wow, this is more gorgeous than Carol” or are you always finding stuff to pick apart?
Robin: Yes, I constantly go back and am like, “Wow, this is more beautiful than Carol.” [Laughs] No! Every time I rewatch it I find something to be like, “WHY!” But the nature of it is we didn’t set up any lighting. We just shot what was there. It was kind of a cool challenge and experiment to make a film like that. On a big film set, the Director of Photography and their crew will spend two hours setting up a shot, but we didn’t have time for that, so we had to focus on the story, which actually turned out to be pretty cool. Luckily Jasika’s house is beautiful and flooded with natural light.
Heather: What did y’all learn through this process that you’ll take with you going forward as you put more queer art into the world?
Brittani: Oh wow, so much. It’s been so hands on the entire way, I have learned about every aspect of filmmaking. Things you wouldn’t learn unless you were actually forced to do them for yourself. So now I can think about, “Okay, now that I’ve learned all these things, what can I do with a little more money? What can I do with a little more time? Would I have kept it the same, even if I had more resources?” So now I can think about what parts of this movie I want to carry on, no matter how many options I have.
Heather: Do you know what that is, what you want to carry on?
Brittani: Definitely the focus on the storytelling. It would be nice to have time to make things a little more beautiful, to give people a little more time with the material, but for me, the story is king, and having everyone on board with it — having everyone’s voice be a part of the overall vision — is important to me.
Jasika: For me, I want to make sure, going forward, that everyone knows where to place their lav mic. Which is something we learned at the end of our shoot.
Heather: Where is it supposed go?
Jasika: Well, it needs to be unobstructed from clothing, and it needs to be close to your mouth. One other thing: Don’t shoot a film in the summer when the air conditioning needs to be on. Just practical things someone else usually thinks about. Also, I’m not used to being on film for so long! Usually it’s 20 takes and the editor pieces together your best performances. So, I love that our movie feels so real, but there are some moments in that eating scene where I’m like, “Wow, I was just chowing down.” Okay, it is not cute to watch someone eating a full lunch.
Brittani: I would watch a film about you eating lunch.
Lindsay: I actually would too.
Brittani: It would be very compelling.
Carly: I saw someone tweeting recently about how it’s annoying that you can tell no one’s ever really eating in an eating scene, and I was like, “Well, we don’t have that problem.”
Jasika: When you’re eating in a scene, you’re trying so hard to not let your fork scrape the plate because then the sound guys come up and they’re like, “Jasika, hey, that’s really loud.” They don’t let you do anything for real.
Lindsay: Also, that food was delicious.
Heather: Jasika, did you cook?
Jasika: I did. I sent out this email and was like, “Does anyone have a dietary restriction or a problem with this lunch?” And I think they were like, “No. We know how this works. We’re not actually going to be chomping on this food.” After that scene, I was so full, and Brittani had brought lunch for everybody, so I was like, “Oh, am I supposed to eat again?” And I did.
Carly: It was collaborative. It was meal collaboration. Which, in reality, is one of the most important things I’ve taken from this film: I want every set I work on to have this sense of collaboration.
Heather: Lindsay, are you never going to work with men again? Suicide Kale has sealed the deal.
Lindsay: Honestly, maybe. I haven’t worked with men since then! I shot a web series that was all women and now I run by a production company that is run by two women. It’s literally the future I want to see, and I’m trying to make that happen for everyone.
Heather: Y’all made this movie back when Donald Trump was still Twitter’s favorite political joke and now here we are in this dark new world. Has anything changed about the way you think about your art since the election?
Lindsay: I really did lose hope for a minute. I couldn’t believe that this is how the majority of our country feels. But it does make me feel even more hopeful and committed about the power of women to create. Suicide Kale is a perfect example of some women who had an idea and they just got together and fucking did it. And when you do it, great things can happen. And when great things happen, it opens up more doors for more great things to happen.
Brittani: The election definitely solidified for me why I do what I do. Since the election, every decision has felt bigger and more important, even the tiniest thing, which I think people are starting to realize is. No matter how small something is, it’s all part of someone’s human experience. The big picture things have felt out of control, but we can control what we give of ourselves to someone else. Art and entertainment are avenues for activism, to show people that they are seen by you, that you know they exist and they matter to you.
Carly: Well, once again: What Brittani said! Representation matters. I’ve lived in New York and LA for the last ten years, in my little liberal elite bubble, but that’s not everyone’s reality. The election forced me to remember what exists outside of that.
Robin: But we don’t live in a bubble. It’s the places isolated away from population centers full of diverse humans that are in the bubble. This is real life. We are surrounded by people trying to make everyone else’s lives better. We’re in touch with the humanity of the world.
Carly: That’s true.
Jasika: I have become less apologetic, in a way, about having a viewpoint. Before the election, I would cater to other people’s comfort levels sometimes, so I wouldn’t necessarily use my voice to talk about issues that affected me. But I don’t do that anymore. I will use my voice to talk about how shitty the patriarchy is, instead of like bracing myself to see what someone else’s response is, or if I made them uncomfortable. It can be a really polarizing thing. When you do speak up and you can sense it make someone else feel weird, my normal thing is to immediately say, “Oh, but that’s just what I think!” Or, “That’s just my personal experience!” But now I realize I don’t need to be accommodating any communities that are not being kind or thoughtful to people who have experiences outside of their own.
You know, I was just at ClexaCon and I was the only woman of color on a panel speaking to mostly white women, but they were receptive to what I was saying about diversity, so while using my voice in this way can create rifts between me and certain communities, it’s also showed me there are people who are receptive to understanding the experiences of people who are different from them.
Heather: Do y’all think Moonlight winning best picture will have an affect on the film industry in a broader, more mainstream way.
Brittani and Jasika: No.
Carly: It’s hard to be optimistic about that when the industry has been resistant to change for such a long time.
Robin: I think it will have a weird impact in that there will be the white cis screenwriter guys whose idea of what Oscar bait is has been broadened, but I worry it will just result in more films like that movie Stonewall. You’re like, “Yes, a movie about Stonewall.” And then it centers on a white, cis guy.
Heather: Do you think Moonlight will have any affect on films being made about black people’s experiences?
Brittani: No. I hate to say that. But I think what will happen is executives and gatekeepers will be interested in very specific stories that intersect with some of the identity markers in Moonlight, and maybe that will have a small scale effect on independent productions — but on a larger scale, I think we’re just going to keep rebooting everything that’s ever been made. I don’t know, maybe they’ll reboot Moonlight.
Jasika: But with an all-white cast.
Carly: 2 Moonlight 2 Furious
Jasika: I think for production companies it’s about making money, so unless there’s a way to capitalize on diversity, it’s not going to happen. It’s not about humanity. It’s not about non-discrimination. Even though Hidden Figures and Jordan Peele’s Get Out have done so well at the box office, I don’t think production companies even see that as a sign that people clearly want to see more diverse stories.
Heather: Okay, what’s next for everyone?
Brittani: Carly is working on a top secret project.
Jasika: I’ll go! I’m on the show Underground right now, and then an animated series I was a part of called Danger and Eggs will be debuting on Amazon at the end of June. And a project I can’t talk about.
Heather: Y’all have so many secrets!
Brittani: Well, I am writing for season two of Take My Wife.
Lindsay: I did a web series for Tello Films called The List. I mean, no big deal, but I kind of made out with Saffron Burrows and Tracy Ryerson. That’s out now. You can watch it on Tello today! And I’m going to Dinah Shore for it with some of the cast and I’m kind of terrified.
Heather: Okay, last question! Everyone give your best one-line pitch for why people should watch Suicide Kale.
Brittani: You should watch Suicide Kale if you’re lonely and want to have some friends in your life.
Jasika: Suicide Kale: It’s like Big Little Lies, but darker. And queerer.
Robin: You should see Suicide Kale if you’re interested in the complexity of human relationships and want to see a film that actually stars queer women of color.
Carly: You should see Suicide Kale because you want to support queer independent media created by women, and by doing that, it will encourage us to make more things.
Lindsay: Support queer women while watching to see where I forgot to wear my necklace a couple of days, ’cause that’s some continuity!
Heather: Would y’all work together again?