I Always Have Ideas When I Don’t Have a Pen or Computer Nearby by Writer/Producer Torri R. Oats of ‘No Lies Told Then’
TORRI R. OATS
WRITER/PRODUCER — ‘No Lies Told Then’
Film Courage: Where did you grow up? What was life like at home?
Torri R. Oats: I grew up just outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan in a middle-class, two parent home. I had everything I could possibly want in terms of material things. To hear my mother tell it, I only wanted educational things, so it was easy to say “yes.” As a child I was sad and lonely. I was shy, nerdy and struggled with the way I looked so I didn’t have many friends my age. I spent a lot of time creating worlds and characters in my head or writing them down.
My mom and aunts used to take me to the Fox Theater in Detroit whenever a new black play would come to town. After seeing another play with a similar storyline, I remember telling my mom we were seeing the same plays over and over. I wanted some originality. This was the moment when I thought a career as a writer was possible.
In hindsight, being a lonely, shy child allowed me to be an empathetic adult. In hindsight, those plays that lacked originality made me starve for creativity. My childhood allowed me to keep probing deeper and deeper into the lives, and psyche, of the characters I would create. It was my childhood that propelled me closer to my dreams.
“In hindsight, being a lonely, shy child allowed me to be an empathetic adult…. those plays that lacked originality made me starve for creativity. My childhood allowed me to keep probing deeper and deeper into the lives, and psyche, of the characters I would create. It was my childhood that propelled me closer to my dreams.” Torri R. Oats
Film Courage: Which of your parents do you resemble most?
Torri: Definitely my mom. She’s my buddy.
Film Courage: Did your parents lend support toward creativity or encourage another type of career/focus?
Torri: I think they tried to be supportive. Like all parents, they wanted me to have a better life and to them that meant making big bucks. They always knew I was creative and I can remember my mom suggesting a career in media because she thought I belonged in front of the camera, but that wasn’t me.
There was a turning point though. The night my mom saw my first play she took me to the side and told me I made the right decision by moving to New York. I wasn’t searching for my parents’ approval, but I never knew how much I needed to hear it until that night.
Film Courage: Did you go to film school?
Torri: No, I didn’t. I wanted to, but looking back I’m glad I didn’t. I spent so much money on film books and magazines trying to follow the rules and it paralyzed me. I couldn’t write. When I stopped thinking about structure, I was writing freely and couldn’t stop.
Film Courage: You asked this question, “If you could become anything, achieve anything in this moment, what would you be?” As the first question in your four-week Twitter campaign. What is this campaign all about? How would you answer that question?
Torri: We crafted four questions, each dealing with themes of the film. When I watch a movie, I want to be challenged; I want to think; I want to feel. These questions are an exercise designed to challenge viewers to do some self-examination, enhancing the film-going experience. We want them to connect to the film and our hope is that the campaign will help to do that.
If I could become anything, achieve anything in this moment, I would make this film with the cast and crew we want, and facilitate a dialogue that endures long after the film leaves theaters.
“I always have ideas when I don’t have a pen or computer nearby. When I’m on the bus or train, for example. When I am awake on public transportation, I like to look at faces and create backstories. Sometimes seeing a particular person at a particular time will inspire a character. I think my best ideas come while I’m in the shower.” Torri R. Oats
Film Courage: Tell us about the writing process for No Lies Told Then.
Torri: I was writing a series of one act plays titled “A Literal and Figurative Exploration of Life and Death.” There was one with a little girl who was five years old. She loved to sing and dance. She was this incredible little girl so full of life and energy, and she got under my skin and I couldn’t forget her.
I kept thinking there was more to her story, but I didn’t know what that was. One day, I was listening to Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue” and I started writing for that same little girl, Sandy. Only this time, she was 13. I had the song on repeat because to me there was a connection between the lyrics and Sandy. I wrote the first draft very quickly, but she kept talking to me, giving me more of her story.
Film Courage: How much time did you spend on the first draft?
Torri: The first draft took maybe two weeks. I was writing at a crazy pace.
Film Courage: Did you really write over 50 drafts? Why so many?
Torri: Yes, and I think 50 is a conservative number. The director and I would meet each week and read every line aloud. We were meticulous about it. If something didn’t quite work, we’d talk it out and I’d go back and rewrite that part. Neither of us want our first film to be one that was thrown together. We have one shot and we’re not going to waste it. We’re passionate about film, and quality, and we want to make sure it will withstand criticism and will be something we’re proud to have our names attached to.
Film Courage: After so many drafts, how did you know you had your final one?
Torri: Sandy stopped talking and there was literally nothing left to pick apart.
Film Courage: Who did you give the script to for feedback?
Torri: Friends, family, film lovers, and those who attended film school. I even posted an early draft on a site for feedback.
Film Courage: Why does this story need to be told?
Torri: When I was a kid, I wondered why no one who looked like me lived inside the television. It was strange that I would see all of these white people living full lives with careers and loved ones, but I didn’t see characters that reflected my image.
While we see more women of color in film and television, seeing us as fully realized human beings isn’t as common as I would like. The protagonist in No Lies Told Then is a black woman, but her journey could be like any one of us. She knows love. She knows loss. She knows what it’s like to have dreams much bigger than you think you can reach. She knows what happens in that moment when you look in the mirror and wonder, “how did I get here?” She is all of us. This film is necessary because we’re all so busy moving from place to place, thing to thing, just existing. But, how many of us are truly living? That is what this film is about.
Film Courage: With the script complete, what are the steps you are taking to get this movie made?
Torri: Right now, we’re focused on building our audience through our four-week campaign and we have something planned after it’s finished. We’re talking to community members in Harlem and building relationships. We’re having conversations with other filmmakers to learn from them. Next month, we’re going to start location scouting.
Film Courage: How is your experience directing and producing two off-Broadway plays helping you make your first feature film?
Torri: Well, the plays taught me to put aside my ego. The first one was way too long, so I had to edit it down with the actors. It was tough losing those lines, but it was in service of the work. The other thing I learned was to be resourceful. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’d be surprised how people will respond. (Read more here and watch the trailer)
Torri R. Oats, a Harlem-based writer, operates on the credo “to give voice to the voiceless.” She has contributed to Madame Noire, The Atlanta Post and has written, directed and produced two off-Broadway plays. Her written pieces challenge authority and portrays positive images of underrepresented groups. No Lies Told Then, is Torri’s first feature film.