Don’t underestimate the importance of finding your tribe. In the past, I’ve wasted some time working with the wrong people who turned out not to share the same values or passion for the project that I had. Finding the right tribe is crucial to the success of a project AND your sanity. It’s important to find people who truly have your back and have the best intentions for the project.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Cole.
Lisa Cole is a creative activist, writer, director, and producer, whose award-winning work amplifies underrepresented voices and exposes social injustices. Her short film, “Bienvenidos a Los Angeles,” inspired by a true story of immigration, won the 2023 Diversity in Cannes Short Film Showcase. A Regional Finalist at the Student Academy Awards, Lisa has several feature films in development with acclaimed producers, and her short films have screened in 100+ festivals worldwide. www.lisalcole.com
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
From age 18–21 I traveled internationally living with 201 host families in 12 countries in the span of three years. After I left life on the road, I lived in Norway for 6 months where I taught dance. While there, I decided to return to college. I knew I didn’t want to dance for a living and film seemed like a natural avenue to combine my love of movement with storytelling.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
While attending film school in Los Angeles, I worked part-time in production in order to pay the bills. I started out as. P.A. on music videos, commercials and low budget indie films, and would literally hang out with the camera crew as much as possible. I loved being in that department as I learned so much there, and because those guys were usually the most chill people on set. Also, DPs tell the best stories as they’re natural nomads who’ve often traveled the world. This one time, I met a new D.P. from Romania, who offered me a gig and a chance to move up to second Assistant Camera. I jumped at the chance and when I showed up for call, I realized it was for a soft porn film. I spent a week on set with Shannon Tweed, a popular adult soft porn actress at the time. She was married to Gene Simmons from KISS and Gene would sometimes visit set during meal time. He brought their kid to visit and the kid would do homework while mommy went to work. It was all very normalized and professional. While this is not really an example of a ‘mistake’, I share it as the experience was eye-opening as I witnessed a side of the business I’d not experienced before.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’d have to say that living with 201 host families all over the world was such an incredible learning experience as a young person. My biggest take-away from that time is that everyone has a story worthy of being told. If we dig deep enough, and take time to listen to one another, we’ll undoubtedly find something that unites us in our shared human experience.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I love the quote, “well behaved women rarely make history.” It’s true. Whether it’s Maxine Jones, the infamous brothel owner who regaled me as a child with stories of her time running my hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas in the 40s/50s, to other pioneering women in history who dared to be bold and stand up for themselves, I’m continually inspired by women who seemingly come from nothing and make something of themselves or find a way to better the world.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
My jam is sharing women’s stories that are inspired by truth. For more than a decade I’ve been pushing to make a film inspired by a wonderful woman named Sue Webber-Brown. Sue was Northern California’s first female narcotics agent. Sue is self-made, lives in Oroville, California and was the only woman on the all-male task force in her county in the early 90s. It was during drug raids that Sue realized there’s no protocol for children found during drug investigations. Sue made it her mission in life to create the first protocol of its kind called the Drug Endangered Children protocol. Sue literally gives voice to the voiceless, the innocents living amongst us who are the real collateral in the drug war. Sue continues to advocate for children today. I co-wrote a film based on her journey and we had acclaimed producers Laura Bickford, Nathan Ross and Jean-Marc Vallee attached. We had a very talented director from Brazil attached, a leading actress in the role, and most of our financing secured when Covid hit. As we regrouped in year #2 of the pandemic, Jean-Marc died unexpectedly. I’m picking up the pieces now, determined to bring this story to light. Sue deserves it and people need to know about the social injustice happening with drug endangered children.
Most recently, I made a short film inspired by a true immigration story entitled, “Bienvenidos a Los Angeles”. The film tells the story of the time my friend and former babysitter, Elizabeth, attempted to reunite with her young son coming back to California from Mexico. He got detained at LAX airport and the story is about what happened that night. I’m grateful Elizabeth trusted me to share her story and I’m happy to report our filmmaking team is comprised of 56% BIPOC creatives. The film was mentioned in the New York Times and won the 2023 Diversity in Cannes Short Film Showcase and is currently looking for distribution. We’ve partnered with the San Fernando Refugee Children Center, a non-profit based in Los Angeles that advocates for migrant children and families. To date, we’ve held two successful fundraising events for the center where we raised both funding and awareness for their important work. “Bienvenidos” film Trailer HERE.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
For my short film “Bienvenidos a Los Angeles” — I was listening to NPR right around the time that Trump instated the Muslim ban, and heard all these truly heart-breaking stories of lives upended from this senseless ban. A few days later, I went for a run and remembered the night that Elizabeth attempted to reunite with her son at LAX Airport. I had lived that night with her to some degree as the person (in real life), who went into the airport to pick up her son that night. Suddenly, the intense emotions of that night came flooding back to me. I called Elizabeth the next day and asked for her permission to turn her story into a short film. Luckily, she said yes.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I’ve been able to attend a number of film festivals this past year with the short film. Most recently, I was at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival in early August. After the screening we held a Q&A for the audience. Two grown men came up to me with tears in their eyes and told me how much the film impacted them. I think there are so many people who have personal narratives of immigration in their families, who can relate to the story in the film. It makes me feel good to know the film moves people emotionally as I think that’s what all filmmakers aspire to — to move people in some way by what we put on screen.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
For starters, I’d love for everyone to embrace the notion that no one is ‘illegal’ and that we all have the right to freedom of movement.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- I think all film schools should spend a great deal of time helping students identify and hone their unique voice. Each of us have something special about us and a unique reason why we want to share stories. Mine that. Spin your passion into your own personal gold that fuels your filmmaking.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of finding your tribe. In the past, I’ve wasted some time working with the wrong people who turned out not to share the same values or passion for the project that I had. Finding the right tribe is crucial to the success of a project AND your sanity. It’s important to find people who truly have your back and have the best intentions for the project.
- Things take a long time to manifest. Not always, but I think this is true as a general rule in this business. Learn to identify when someone means ‘no’ even if they don’t flat out tell you ‘no’. Juggle multiple balls in the air, but hone what you’re most passionate about. And put in the work.
- Thoughts manifest actions. Remember that.
- Writing is about rewriting. And rewriting and rewriting. But, I’m also learning it doesn’t have to be perfect. At some point, you have to let the baby go and find its way in the world.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Filmmaking has the potential to be such a strong agent for change, so why not use that platform for good? I’d encourage any filmmaker to share their story, and to look around their community and see how they might highlight some social issue through their art and creative endeavors. You can’t tell people to ‘eat their vegetables’ as they won’t do it. You have to hook folks with emotion and characters that are somehow relatable. Once you do that, you have a better chance for your audience to absorb the ‘message’ in your art.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
There’s so many I’d love to collaborate with! For starters, Jane Goodall — I’d love to write the screenplay about her life! I’d also love to collaborate with The Obama’s and their production company Higher Ground. Katherine Hayhoe is another person I’d love to collaborate with. She’s is a climate scientist who often takes her message to Evangelicals. I know an inspiring true story about a woman based in the Gulf and it would be great to work with Katherine as a consultant and/or Producer on the story. I think the challenge will be to continue coming up with creative ways to produce engaging entertaining stories that also impart important messages about climate, equality, and any number of pressing issues of our time.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Reese Witherspoon posted a video on Instagram a year or so ago wherein she shared the best advice she’d ever gotten. She acknowledged how crazy easy it is, but also how challenging it can be to remember — that other people’s opinions about you do not matter. Reese said, “The sooner you figure out that other people’s opinions of you are none of your business, and it literally doesn’t matter what they think of you, you become free”. I try and remember that!
How can our readers follow you online?
On Instagram at @thelisacole and @flyingfishpics
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!