ATLANTA — For Adamma and Adanne Ebo, setting and shooting their first feature in Atlanta was no question.
The twin sisters grew up here and channeled much of their observations surrounding the city's southern Baptist culture into the satire "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul," now available to watch in theaters and on Peacock.
The film, which premiered earlier this year as part of the Sundance Film Festival, follows a disgraced mega-church pastor, played by Sterling K. Brown ("This Is Us," "People vs. O.J. Simpson"), and his "first-lady," played by Regina Hall ("Girls Trip," "Scary Movie") as they attempt to stage a career comeback in the wake of controversy that's left their sanctuary largely empty on Sunday mornings.
"This was born of our experience being both extremely frustrated with a lot of aspects of the church but also being in this weird limbo because we love and have reverence for it," Adanne - who produced the picture - said the morning before the film screened at the historic Plaza Theatre in Midtown. "We grew up kind of in the height of mega church culture, when it was really becoming a big thing and we grew up coming to church."
Twin sister Adamma - who directed the film - wrote the first draft of what would become "Honk for Jesus." back in 2015.
"It's been eye opening," she said of the writing process. "I found out a lot about my own faith and spirituality."
Among the various incarnations of the script would be a 15-minute short released back in 2018.
"Something I realized when I was trying to readapt it into a feature was it's the climax of the feature," Adamma added. "And so, once I figured out it was the climax, I just wrote around that."
As for how the two starry leads came on the board? Ask either of the sisters and they'll tell you, "it was always Regina" for the lead role.
"The moment Daniel Kaluya (who's also a producer on the film) asked me who I want to be the first lady character, I said a Regina Hall-type because I didn't think I could get Regina Hall for our first little indie feature," Adamma explained. "But, the archetype was always Regina. I knew instantly that she could do the slapstick comedy all the way to the deeply dramatic stuff and everything in between."
Brown's role, on the other hand, would take some searching, along with a little convincing - considering his most notable rolls involved portraying gut-wrenching emotion as opposed to producing belly laughs.
"Our first question was like, wait...is Sterling funny?," both sisters remarked when thinking back on the casting decision.
They'd ultimately be convinced after watching Brown in his Emmy nominated guest spot as a murderous dentist on the comedy series "Brooklyn 99." Both Adamma and Adanne knew he'd be perfect.
"He was phenomenal in it," Adanne said. "He was so funny, and deadpan comedy is the hardest type of comedy to do. So we though, well if he could do that, he could do all of it."
Once both Hall and Brown were on screen together, the sisters stated that "the chemistry was instant."
That electricity is no more present than an early scene where Hall and Brown both perform the song "Knuck If You Buck" while riding in a car together. The song, as the sister's put it, is an "Atlanta anthem."
It's another example of the kind of city specific detail the Ebo sisters sprinkle in throughout the film, having been familiar with the song growing up in the area.
"Regina and Sterling are older than us, so we were like 'they got to know it,'" Adamme recalls of bringing up the song to her two stars the day of. "But they were like, 'what is that?'"
Ultimately, both Adamme and Adanne would describe the shooting of the sequence as one of the most fun days on set, with crew members who could have gone home staying overnight just to watch the actors perform the number.
But both Adamme and Adanne have more their minds than just crafting clever comedy with their feature. "Honk for Jesus." mixes styles and tones in order to tackle some of the two's heavier ideas surrounding institutional religion.
"It's the balance the two of us grapple with every day," Adamme said before the film's Atlanta premier. "There are so many flaws and so much harm that goes on but there's still - like I said - a deep love and a deep reverence for the culture. Because it's almost inextricable from Black culture, definitely southern Baptist culture. The critiques are supposed to be holding up a mirror. I didn't want to make fun of anything. There's a lot of comedy in it but the comedy comes from the aspects of the culture that exist as they are."
Stylistically, the movie also offers moments where the traditional narrative look gives way to mockumentary.
In the film, Brown and Hall's characters have recruited a documentary crew to capture their self-proclaimed comeback, but as Adamme explained, that only further highlights the contrast between the couple's performative image of success - complete with diamond studded church hats and three-piece Prada suits - and the actual turmoil going on when the cameras are off.
"I wanted to feel like, when you were watching the documentary potions of it, it was a real documentary," Adamme explained. "Documentary filmmaking, most people take as fact or absolute truth but that's not always true. There's often a lot of liberties taken, a lot of subjectivity in documentary filmmaking"
As for the source of the characters' turmoil, both sisters said it was important to not let the specifics of the controversy Brown's character finds himself in overshadow their overall message.
“A lot of people asked us in test screenings and drafts of the script, they were like ‘just tell us what it is’," Adanne explained, with her sister adding, "The point is after the scandal. It’s how we treat the people who are victims of the scandal afterward and people who are the perpetrators."
As for the experience of shooting in the city they once called home? Both stated having Atlanta itself as a character in the film was very important, adding they "wanted to show how the city contributed to the overall narrative of the film."
And there's certainly plenty more to come. The sisters stated they hope to set up writers rooms within the city and have there eye on tackling a wide range of projects from television, to podcasts, and even a second feature they said is already written.
"It doesn't feel like I'm working with another person, it feels like I'm working with an extension of myself," Adamme said of her relationship with Adanne. "We've been in collaboration our entire lives."