1. When it comes to storytelling, where do you get your inspiration from?
A lot of reading. A lot of just trying to sort through it all. You know, life, love, the pursuit of happiness, everyday headlines… Everyday situations turned crazy by characters in conflict… All sorts of places. Inspiration is everywhere. My job (and challenge) is to stay unlocked to see it, receive it, find it…
2. What was the inspiration behind writing and directing your recent film Cap?
Cap came to me straight from a headline. I was taken aback and moved by the circumstances of this story I came across one day while reading a gossip blog of all places. I started to do more research about the subject matter and the various circumstances around what has become an all too common theme. Yet this story was different. It hit me on so many levels, but mostly in my gut, and was one of those impactful stories that just wouldn’t let me go. It was also something that was personal to me. There’s so much I’m proud of about this film and what we’ve been able to collectively accomplish with it, one of which, is having the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles perform the original score by my brilliant composer Timo Chin. It’s the cinematography, the performances, the costume and production design and editing that make this film so effective and I just couldn’t be prouder. I’m so glad we all came together to give voice to this story.
3. What has been the toughest challenge you’ve faced so far?
There have been many challenges in my career and in my journey to becoming a director. I’ve battled with those internal voices that tell you you’re not good enough, smart enough, bold enough, etc. only to come through it all with a stronger sense of self and purpose. I think the hardest part is the very process itself of becoming an artist, and accepting whatever may come from it without ever succumbing to the sense of giving up. I have to admit that the process is more than just putting your work out there. It’s the commitment to strategy, it’s forming a team, nurturing relationships, growing up and mostly being diligent in creating product; all of which are necessary functions in the everyday life of a creative professional. It’s not for the faint of heart. There’s a lot of sacrifice involved.
4. Tell us about being vulnerable in your work? Do you think there’s a line?
I think as storytellers, there’s nothing more important than vulnerability, or being able to access it. It’s such a crucial part of what we do. It’s mixed in there with passion and is what’s needed to make something great and that truly resonates with an audience regardless of race, creed, nationality, identity, sexuality, religion… Vulnerability is the essence of being human and that’s why it’s so vital as a storyteller, no matter genre, no matter format, no matter in-person or on film, vulnerability allows an audience to connect and empathize with the characters and allows us into whatever world we’re presenting. Is there a line? I don’t know exactly. I like to think of myself as a fan of “restrained vulnerability” if there is such a thing. And there’s so many ways vulnerability can be conveyed. It’s in simple things like gestures, hand movement, a twitching smile… You always want to be cognizant of not doing too much. We’re complex creatures. Vulnerability makes us human. It’s what’s underneath the mask.
5. When did you realize you wanted to be a Filmmaker? Was there an exact moment, or was it more gradual?
I often refer to a film I saw late night on cable when I was 15 that struck a chord with me. It was a film called Midnight Express and it was something that truly changed my life. It was the first time that I felt like if there was a hell on earth, this is what it must have felt like. I found out years later, once I started to pursue film, that it was Oliver Stone’s first produced screenplay. But I’m a big believer that film has the ability to transport us to other worlds and dimensions of thinking. The more deeply felt the experience, the more richly fulfilling it is for an audience. I’m not exactly sure when that moment was when I actually decided to pursue film, so I’ll just say that that movie Midnight Express had a profound lifelong impact on me and as a filmmaker. I want to make important films that might have the same impact on others as that film had on me. It’s one of the things that fuels me. But in my journey, there was an actual process of me first becoming a documentary filmmaker before transitioning into narratives that feels more intentional and deliberate. At some point in the process you just say let’s go for it.
6. How did you feel about being a finalist and then wining the HBO short film Competition at ABFF?
First, I have to tell you that this is my second short at ABFF. We submitted my first short Night Shift which was produced by Viola Davis and Julius Tennon’s JuVee Productions and premiered at Sundance 2017 and Sundance took it on tour with six other short films from that year as part of the Sundance Shorts Tour, but we didn’t get into the HBO competition at ABFF that year. We did end up screening Night Shift there as part of the ABFF Emerging Director’s Showcase, which was cool, but it wasn’t in competition. So, when we found out that Cap was one of the five films selected for the 2019 HBO Short Film Competition at ABFF, we were beyond thrilled and excited. It’s such an incredible honor. And it’s unlike any other competition that I know of. They take such good care of you, fly you out and put you up — first class everything — it’s all just so fantastic being a part of such a prestigious competition with these incredible filmmakers.
In the end, you are presented with the opportunity to have your film live on HBO and its many platforms which is a goal realized and one of the best ways of getting your film in front of a large audience. In fact, the first time I had ever heard of Ryan Coogler was watching his winning short Fig on the HBO platform a year or so before Fruitvale. The idea of us actually winning just took me by surprise. I’m still sort of stunned by it all. Like when I replay that moment back in my head it’s like this really happened. I don’t think I’ve ever been more floored in my life. It’s such a great honor with a tremendous history of fantastic filmmakers coming through the competition. I’m honestly just grateful to be a part of it all.
7. What would you say is your unique responsibility as a filmmaker?
I would have to say that my unique responsibility as a filmmaker, aside from being true to myself and my vision, is to do the work. And what I mean by that is doing all the hard work, all the heavy lifting required in great layered storytelling that will ultimately challenge or confront an audience’s idea of something and then turn that expectation straight on its head. I’m constantly pushing myself to go beyond the limits of my own expectations as a storyteller and find meaning, empathy and understanding in those really uncomfortable places. It’s in those uncomfortable spaces that we find out who we are as human beings. I love films that challenge me and as a viewer, I don’t want everything spoon-fed to me. I want to actively participate and do some of the work myself and be fully engaged. And as a storyteller, I want my audience to be just as inquisitive about a subject matter or about a conflict and how its resolved, as I am. And I think a lot of that comes from interesting story structure and re-thinking the many engaging ways a story can be told or approached. How do we make it fresh? How do we make it exciting? I hope that I have an impactful film career where I’m a part of some really engaging, thought-provoking cinematic experiences, whether as director, producer, writer, or all the above. I hope to always remain a fan of others work and that we collectively keep pushing the envelope forward in telling our stories in profound and heartfelt ways. I feel like all of that is my responsibility as a filmmaker, and then some…
8. What’s next for you?
I have a few things on my plate right now. One, of which, is getting through this next draft of a screenplay I’ve been working on that I hope will be my feature film debut. It’s a story that will undoubtedly confront some really uncomfortable issues, but told through a very personal and intimate lens. I’m really exploring a lot of interesting emotional terrain in trying to determine what will come next. There are a couple of options we’re considering right now through our production company New Bumper and Paint.
How can others reach out to you and/or stay informed about your upcoming projects?
Also, Night Shift is a Vimeo Staff Pick which you can check out here: https://vimeo.com/276387189. And Cap is coming to HBO soon!