King Williams, Filmmaker

King Williams, "The Atlanta Way"

“There will be no perfect moment in life and your fears can control you — so act fearlessly and just do it.” -King Williams

My friend King is the Director of‘ “The Atlanta Way: A Documentary on Gentrification” that’s set to release later this year. Immediately following his 2008 graduation from Georgia State University, King began pre-production on his documentary, which is set during the last days of public housing in Atlanta and the global financial crash of 2008. Curious about the world of independent filmmaking and King’s unique career experiences — like interning for director Spike Lee, speaking at Harvard’s business school, and giving a Ted Talk! — I asked King some career and non-career questions. Here’s what he told me…

King Williams | The Atlanta Way

1. After high school I wanted to be…a movie director. Really ever since I was a small child I knew I wanted to be a movie director. When I officially made up my mind…maybe while watching the Lion King.

After high school, I wasn’t truly ready for film or living out of state, so I went to school in my hometown of Atlanta at Georgia State University (Go GSU)! But once I got there I realized two things: It [school] was more video/television than actual film, and I just didn’t like it, rather I didn’t like the introductory courses. So, I became a business major before graduating with a degree in African American Studies. I still think to get that dual Urban Policy degree in the future, since it was only an extra 5 classes.

2. My first job after college was…after graduating from GSU my job prospects — like many people at that time — were slim, but I did work part-time at a Red Lobster. Besides the deliciousness of the Cheddar Bay Biscuits, I just wasn’t making enough money, and I was definitely on the struggle bus going nowhere fast.

So, I quit my job at Red Lobster and got another part-time job at a FedEx. In hindsight, I should’ve got another job, too. This was Spring 2008, which was a tough year for many people, but I took the FedEx job. I actually got the job solely because of my looks (no, not like that). I was overdressed and over-prepared for a part-time package handler job, so they gave me a position called ‘Hazmat Inspector’ on the spot. Honestly, it sounds a lot cooler than it was.

I did that for two years for very, very little money, and by the time I got a raise (entering my third year at FedEx), it left me thinking about my future and what the big picture was for me…being a ‘real’ professional filmmaker.

Most importantly my part-time jobs gave me time to work on my documentary, “The Atlanta Way.” I started pre-production on it the day after I graduated.

King Williams | on a bike

3. As an independent filmmaker, my responsibilities include…absolutely everything. I’m a director and producer, which means I’m always in the business of getting a large group of people to buy into the end game. As a director it’s really about being able to make people comfortable, and as a producer it’s about sticking to the end game of finishing the film.

In the indie [film] world your responsibilities are always:

  1. Figuring out where the money is coming from
  2. What you’re willing to adjust because of a lack of money
  3. Figuring out how too keep the day-to-day production afloat

4. My favorite part of my job is…seeing it all come together. There’s nothing like watching something that was an idea manifest itself into an actual product. That is really what I love about entertainment especially, it’s such a tangible thing that the average person can experience.

King Williams | Spike Lee Intern

King with fellow Spike Lee interns on the set of Red Hook Summer.

5. I landed an internship with director Spike Lee by…sending him an absurd amount of tweets.

(But, before I go into details, I want to apologize again to Spike and the 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks staff. And also say to anyone reading: IF YOU DO THIS THERE IS A HIGH PROBABILITY THIS WILL NOT WORK WELL FOR YOU.)

So, as I remember it, I was sitting with a friend in the computer lab of GSU. I remembered seeing that Spike Lee joined Twitter in February 2011. My friend, who was working on political campaigns at the time, decided to make a twitter campaign to get me to be Spike’s intern. Spike wasn’t actually looking for interns at the time but he accidentally tweeted his assistants email.

So for weeks we would tweet Spike daily using the hashtag #kingwilliams4Spike. We also created a Facebook group and got friends to use the hashtag daily when they @SpikeLee on Twitter. Eventually, after weeks of doing this, we decided that we would have a full on blitz to get Spike’s attention. Yea, it worked really well…too well!

Within a few minutes of Spike’s office opening we jammed the lines, and then, a few minutes after that happened, I received a call from his assistant who told me to stop immediately. Then, we talked for about 20 minutes, and at the end of the call he set up a Skype interview for me. I interviewed, and of course, I overdressed just like I did for my FedEx interview and every job interview.

I didn’t hear anything for almost six weeks, but I was happy that we did it. I got a call around my birthday (which is June 3rd in a case anyone wants to buy me a gift) asking me if I could be in Brooklyn by the following Friday. I couldn’t leave that fast, so they gave me another week. And a week later, I was in New York City for the first time in my life and sleeping on my cousin’s living room floor in the Bronx.

King Williams | The Atlanta Way

6. A surprising thing about working for Spike Lee was…how much more prepared I was as a result of working there for the film industry at large. This was even more surprising because the entire time I didn’t even touch any film equipment whatsoever.

People always ask me how it was working for Spike Lee. It’s sort of like how I’d imagine working for Alabama football coach Nick Saban; unrelentingly focused, very disciplined and always being ready for whatever is going to happen.

King Williams | Edwin Williams

King’s dad, Edwin Williams, during a sound check at The Georgia Theater at the University of Georgia.

7. My happiest moment so far in 2015 was…seeing my dad, Edwin Williams, release his first ever Jazz album this April. As corny as this sounds I get my joy from watching people I know succeed.

But, on a personal note, the most recent thing for me was actually on May 18th, 2014 at 11:59pm. This was the day I received full funding for my Kickstarter campaign for my film. Seriously, that may be one of the top five moments in my life. The irony of it all was that I was all alone in my apartment [when I got the notification], but I was so close to all of my friends, family, team, and all of those donating to the campaign.

King Williams | Harvard Kennedy School

King speaking at Harvard’s Ash Center at the Kennedy School of Government.

8. I never thought I would…speak at Harvard. That opportunity was so out of the blue, and how that even happened was so random. A guy from Harvard, who, at the time, I thought was a student, sent a message to my The Atlanta Way Facebook page and asked if I’d like to speak at his school. I said, “Cool, email me.” And once he did, within about 24 hours I was making arrangements to talk to students at the Ash Center at the Kennedy School of Government on the topic of gentrification, which is what The Atlanta Way documentary is all about.

(Check out this article that King wrote for the Harvard Kennedy School which is part of the Ash Center’s Challenges to Democracy series.)

King Williams | Interviewing Former Mayor Bill Campbell

King and crew interviewing former Mayor Bill Campbell for “The Atlanta Way”.

9. A seminal moment was…when I decided to stop being scared of my next phase in life and quit my production assistant job in January 2015.

10. I’m the most productive whenI wake up early and run. My Atlanta-based running group Movers and Pacers keeps me motivated and accountable; an accountability partner is very effective for me to be productive. Also having a single day plan-of-action is highly effective for me. I’ve started making a list and just attacking the list. The easiest thing for me to do is attack what I want to do the least, and then do what’s most important, and then follow that with what’s the most time sensitive.

King Williams in San Juan

King in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

11. The last vacation I took was to…San Juan, Puerto Rico for my birthday last year. I don’t think I’ll have another vacation until maybe 2016, but when I do I want it to be out of the country. Maybe South America or London and Paris in one trip.

12. The most invaluable decision I’ve made in the last six months was…deciding on my vision of what I want to accomplish this year. For me, 2014 had a lot of highs like speaking at Harvard and accomplishing my Kickstarter goal. But I was really unsure and unhappy about everything. I was working as a production assistant (PA) on an ABC show, but I was never happy doing PA work. Also, the city of New York, the people, the culture, and the experiences, while great, they aren’t what I want for my life. I knew staying on the PA path would never lead me to where I want to be in my life or need to be in my filmmaking career.

I lost my confidence; I lost my swag (yes, it happens), but most importantly I never lost my faith in God, which in turn helped me to see that my team, my family, and my friends never lost faith in me. It was really sitting down late at night with a best friend at a Waffle House (where all good decisions are made) and just affirming that I have to really buy in to what I want, where I want to be in life. So, I quit my job as a PA. That’s the most invaluable decision I’ve made, and the crazy thing is the day after I said it, I got the invitation to do the TEDxGeorgiaStateU event. And the very next day was the opportunity to speak at the University of Alabama for it’s J-Day (Journalism Day) conference. If that isn’t a sign to commit to my vision, I don’t know what is!

King Williams | TEDxGeorgiaStateU
King Williams | The Atlanta Way crew

“The Atlanta Way” crew post TEDxGeorgiaStateU event.

13. My experience speaking at the TEDxGeorgiaStateU event was…fast, like really fast. I tell everyone that and it kind of surprises them. But when you actually see it online it looks a lot more slowed down than it actually was. Another thing I can say from my experience is that people have no idea how much every speaker practices before as well as how nervous they are before the talk unless they’ve done one themselves!

I did something very different during my talk that my speech coach, Eleina Raines, was very pissed about. I completely disregarded the entire speech that I practiced. I did that because when I was there I was the next to last presenter, and by that point the audience had been there for three and half hours. I also felt like the material that I practiced was too focused on making a traditional TED Talk. It really wasn’t in the spirit of who I am and it wasn’t going to represent “The Atlanta Way” of doing things. So, I completely freestyled my entire presentation. It starting out as a fairy tale story and ended as a semi stand-up comedy routine…I know, very not the typical style of a TED Talk, but you just have to commit to it!

King Williams | The Atlanta Way

Thank you so much, King!

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