Joel and Ethan Coen, Mark and Jay Duplass, Matt and Ross Duffer—isn’t it about time Hollywood also had a pair of powerhouse filmmaking sisters? Writer-director Adamma Ebo and her producer sister Adanne Ebo are just that, especially with the arrival of Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul, their viciously comedic mockumentary skewering black Southern megachurches.
The satire, which will be streaming on Peacock, stars Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall as pastor and first lady Lee-Curtis and Trinitie Childs, who are attempting to document their recovery from a highly uncomfortable scandal that has seen most of their flock flee to a competing congregation. As Leigh Monson writes in The A.V. Club’s review, Adamma Ebo “incisively captures the realities of evangelical life and its addictive capacity to encourage fame and material comfort above all other values.”
How to approach those realities with the right balance between provocative satire and heartfelt homage? Fresh off their multi-year deal with 20th Television, the Ebo sisters reflect on the many ideas and tones Honk For Jesus manages to cover, its unlikely Harry Potter-inspired origins, and cinematic influences past and present.
The A.V. Club: Talk to me about the inspirations for this story. Growing up in the Atlanta megachurch culture, were there aspects that resonated and other things you became skeptical of?
Adanne Ebo: So we grew up in that area with the culture and everything. And we started to question it very early, I think around the time that Harry Potter came out. Because we were diehard Harry Potter fans. But if you lived in the South, Harry Potter was like literally reading the devil’s Bible for people. They banned it in schools. But we loved it. So that was the first time—when we first heard an entire sermon dedicated to the evils of Harry Potter, we were like, “Oh, they haven’t read the book at all. And I hope they understand that this is not real. Because we’ve tried the spells and they don’t work!” So that’s when we were first like, there’s a disconnect here, something’s not quite right.
AVC: And then the seeds of Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. became first a feature-length script, then a proof-of-concept short, then feature-length again? How different were each of those iterations?
Adamma Ebo: Yeah. Trinitie and Lee-Curtis were always constant. But the goal was different, it had a completely different name. And then I sort of revamped it for the short, knowing that I wanted the short to be a proof of concept for an eventual feature.
AVC: And what aspects of this world were you trying to illuminate or examine that maybe you had not seen in the past?
Adamma Ebo: I mean, I don’t think that I’ve seen much about black Southern megachurch culture.
Adanne Ebo: I think particularly with this tone.
Adamma Ebo: Definitely with this tone. But something that I really wanted to highlight was that there is meaning and beauty in a lot of it. I think a lot of the times when this subject is approached, it’s extremely dramatic. And then it’s also judgmental and demonizing. And that’s why it was important to me to give Lee-Curtis a sermon that is moving. It moves him and then hopefully moves other people listening to it. Because this is the reality for a lot of people, including myself: you hear some of these folks speak and you’re like, “This means something to me, this moves me.” And I feel like that sort of perspective hasn’t really been shown, how lovely it is and can be.
AVC: How did you balance this film’s tone? There’s comedy, marital strife, that lovely spiritual authenticity, and such dark satire.
Adanne Ebo: Yeah, I think our sweet spot, tonally, are always dark comedies and satires. And so I don’t think we could have made this a hard-line drama at all. That wouldn’t be true to us as storytellers, our sensibilities. And I also think it would have garnered a more limited reception if it went that way.
AVC: There’s something about comedy that’s very effective, you’re saying?
Adamma Ebo: I think it sort of lulls people a little bit.
Adanne Ebo: It does! You think you’re along for, like, “Look at these kooky people in this kooky world.” And then you get hit with the reality.
AVC: Regina Hall does it all the time.
Adamma Ebo: Oh, yeah, she does.
Regina Hall and Adamma Ebo on the set of Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul
AVC: So how did you settle on a scripted mockumentary style?
Adamma Ebo: We really wanted the faux documentary aspect of it because we are exploring in the film a few things, but one is: What is the truth? And a lot of folks take documentary filmmaking and storytelling as fact and the truth and that what you’re seeing is absolute. And that’s not the case a lot of the time. And then also, we loved the idea that when the cameras are on is when our main characters are not really telling the truth, being their most false. And then when the cameras go off is when you get the nitty-gritty, who these folks mostly are. So it was really playing with all of those layers about what is the truth and what’s not and everything in between.
AVC: Are there examples of other documentaries, faux or real, that inspired this?
Adamma Ebo: Mostly real documentaries. The one that’s probably the closest is this documentary called Weiner, about Anthony Weiner and his mayoral race to be mayor of New York after his scandal. I actually didn’t find out about the documentary until after we had done the short. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is strikingly similar.’
Adanne Ebo: But I’ll also say, for a scripted version, there’s this series on Netflix called American Vandal and it is fantastic. It takes more of a true crime documentary approach to the mockumentary style or faux documentary style. But our DP worked on that show, he was the camera op on that show. We very much drew from a lot of that because it felt very much like a real documentary, even though you knew you were looking at something scripted. And it was funny.
Adamma Ebo: Oh, and The Comeback on HBO.
Adanne Ebo: Lisa Kudrow! [Chef’s kiss]
AVC: Lastly, do you both have a dream collaborator or favorite filmmaker?
Adamma Ebo: Oh, my favorite filmmaker is Hayao Miyazaki.
Adanne Ebo: That’s never going to happen. But, yes.
Adamma Ebo: Yeah. He barely makes his own films anymore. [Laughs]
Adanne Ebo: I would say if they worked together again, it’d be cool for the Ebo sisters to work with the Coen brothers. I think that would be fun.