Project Forte is an original series presented by Maestro Filmworks that seeks to amplify marginalized voices in the film industry to promote a continued initiative around allyship.
Allyship is not about the different struggles of diverse groups cancelling each other out or competing with each other; rather, it’s about coming together in solidarity. Our goal is to cut through the noise of the status quo in order to highlight the voices of the many talented and creative individuals that are forces in their own crafts
Written & edited by Kate Feher
This week, our Executive Producer, Kris Mendoza sat down with Simone Holland (she/her), a director and creative director working in Philadelphia, whose experiences within our industry compel change and growth for all of us. She has spearheaded core projects that rely on black, brown, indigenous, and LGBQIA+ communities to raise their voices and join them in collaboration, not just with each other but in a way that includes others with different stories to understand their perspectives better and get involved. Having struggled for breakout opportunities and equal playing fields, Holland recognizes the value of enabling hands-on experience with evolving aspects of the trade, whether they are tech or art related. Her work inspires all folks to recognize stigmas, expectations, and methods that do not support inclusivity, and which serve only as a clear call for change.
Read below about her compelling projects/collaborators, who she draws inspiration from herself, and where Simone Holland will take us next!
Kris Mendoza: How did you get started in the industry and what were the early beginnings like?
Simone Holland: I went to Villanova University for communications and political science and wanted to start in News and to be a line producer. But things didn’t really work out after I graduated, and I ended up getting sucked into makeup and wardrobe. My cousin-in-law was doing clothing design and she knew I wanted to work in production so she asked me to come with her on set one day. I was a styling assistant at the time and it just ended up being a huge Sesame Street commercial. I fell in love with it.
I started going back and forth to New York and really living in styling, but I’ve always been a techie person. So, I’ve taught myself how to do graphic design, web design, staying up to date with what was going on so that I could eventually make the switch to camera. Along the way, I’ve done a lot of set design too and went to Sundance in 2019.
In 2019 I was a costume design head for What Death Leaves Behind.. Even now, I continue to work with that team, especially Scott Hamilton, the director.
Khalil and Amanda Diaz, in What Death Leaves Behind from Artist Rights Distribution
Simone Holland: It’s always been a hands-on job. I was doing more than just wardrobe. I ended up being taken under the wing of the producer that was on the movie, and I just learned so much about how an indie film was made outside of my job as a wardrobe stylist. Being able to work with people that give me the space to learn a completely different skill allowed me to include everything that I’ve done up until this point into my directorial work and creative direction as well. Every opportunity that I got, I would work behind the camera, and then, eventually, I was able to make the switch.
Simone Holland on left Photographer by Kate Feher
Kris Mendoza: What was that experience like going to Sundance and working with Scott Hamilton?
Simone Holland: It’s funny, because I thought that Scott hated me at first…every time I would decide on something, I would ask him what he thought, and he would just nod and walk away.
And then, after we started talking, he said, “Well, I didn’t say anything because it was great. There’s nothing for me to say.”
Scott Hamilton pictured in center, attending Sundance Film Festival
Simone Holland: When I wanted to work more on camera, every chance there was, he would throw it at me. So, I was being tried in the fire that way, but it was definitely what I needed to learn: how to step up in those spaces when no one else is really going to give you a chance.
“When I wanted to work more on camera, every chance there was, he would throw it at me.”
It was a lot, as indie films are, but it was a great experience and going to Sundance was amazing, though I had the flu the whole three days I was there.
Hillary Hanak, who was working at Videosmith at the time, was giving me a chance to work behind the camera as well, and I came back to do this huge Campbell’s job as her first assistant camera just after Sundance. From there, I just stopped taking makeup and wardrobe jobs, and I knew that directing was where I wanted it to be.
Kris Mendoza: You mentioned something about the producer on that film taking you under their wing, and I think one thing that is super important in our industry and not enough people talk about… is mentorship. How important is that for young folks in our industry to get opportunities and someone teaching them the ropes?
Simone Holland: Yes!. The producer’s name is Rachel Ofori. She lived in Virginia at the time, and we would shoot the entire day and then she would drive back home to Virginia. By 3:00 AM she would pick me up again and we’d go to get craft services, she would answer my questions about producing and what it meant to make an indie film – getting it on the platform that you want, instead of just making a movie and hoping… There was a lot and I was there for all of it.
If it weren’t for that mentorship, if Hillary didn’t give me a chance to work at Videosmith to have hands-on gear, I wouldn’t have been able to flourish. People are using bigger cameras that cost a lot… not having access to that on a regular basis means that you can’t improve. You want to be prepared for your job when you step on set, and if you’re not used to having hands on that type of gear, you’re not going to do well, and then if you don’t do well, then you don’t get hired.
“You want to be prepared for your job when you step on set, and if you’re not used to having hands on that type of gear, you’re not going to do well”
BTS for Vex photograph by Weston Fahey
With Hillary, now, we work together. I will direct something and she’ll DP it. She’ll come to me with ideas. Even with Vex, my documentary that I’m releasing in April, which she DP’ed … she helped me get all the gear, we shot it at Maestro Filmworks. The help that Maestro’s given me, so that I can realize the projects that I’ve wanted to make, that mentorship really made a difference in just how I approach my art and being able to feel like I can create in the way that I want to create instead of having to fit into glass boxes.
Kris Mendoza: Can you dive deeper into what you mean by “glass box?”
Simone Holland: I like to say glass box because it has the implications of a glass ceiling, so when you get to a certain point, it’s hard to get past that, regardless of what you’re shooting for or the type of jobs that you want. People have preconceived notions of how they want you to exist. So, with Vex , being a woman of color within the LGBT community, there are certain stereotypes that people want you to live up to, and they don’t give you the space to just be. It comes with attachments.
Graphic Artwork by Simone Holland
Simone Holland: For example, one of the models, Dina, she had locks, and when she was trying to model and trying to get signed, they would tell her either, “Take out your locks,” or, “Keep them in,” but then she would get specific jobs that would only apply to that one stereotype of what she looked like, instead of realizing that she can have locks and work on whatever job she wanted to. It’s not that black and white when it comes to how people fit into these fashions, beauty spaces, or just life in general.
Dina, Photographed by Kate Feher
For myself specifically, it’s the constant struggle to create art and create stories that speak to me without me being a Black female filmmaker at the forefront of all of that. I’d want my work to be able to speak for itself. So, that’s what I mean when I say a glass box.
Kris Mendoza: Very well put. You just alluded to it, but let’s take a step back and talk about Vex!.
Simone Holland: Vex is a multi-medium film-based project that challenges standards of beauty through conventionally beautiful images. So, we took seven different models and artists who don’t fall into the traditional line of what a model is, or if they do, there’s a glass box that comes with it. Each one of them was given an era (theme) from pin-up to futurism/cosplay.
BTS from Vex photographs by Kate Feher
I brought local Philadelphia photographers to take the still photos, and now we have seven different graffiti artists and muralists all local to Philly that will be involved. It’s a story of connectivity. Each one of the models is completely different and has their own story and their own struggles. The push to be open and talk about things that are typically taboo when it comes to beauty and self-love, I think, are more important now than they ever were, with isolation and people being inside and not really being able to express themselves in the way that they normally would. It’s a three-episode series that we’ll be promoting come March.
Kris Mendoza: Sounds like an awesome project and can’t wait to see it, and also a great segue into my next question which is about diversity, whether in front of or behind the camera. What are your thoughts on the current state of just diversity in the industry?
Simone Holland: I think with the state of the industry, and obviously every department is different, but the diversity just isn’t there, not just for Black filmmakers, but filmmakers of color in general, and LGBT filmmakers. There’s a term of sophistication that people use when they’re talking about directors or DPs: saying that this director is sophisticated or they’re not sophisticated. And I think it’s a little bit of red lining. Take the Golden Globes, there was a lot of missed opportunity there for stories, and it continues to be the case year after year, where filmmakers of color are speaking up and telling stories in the way that they want to tell them and they’re just undeniably amazing.
So, I don’t really know where things will go in the future, but we’re definitely pushing the boundaries and making our voices heard. I do think that there needs to be a level playing field, but every day is a battle. And I wouldn’t change my experience or who I am for anything. And what I bring to the table, I wouldn’t change that for anything.
Kris Mendoza: How important is it for BIPOC people in the film industry to work together regardless of background? I think there are different struggles for different ethnic groups, but it seems like a common thread. You have your Black filmmakers, the Asian filmmakers, LGBT filmmakers and overall working together so it seems like we’re working towards a common cause, right? But it’s also very siloed…
Do you feel like you’re in a struggle together or we’re still fighting separate fights?
Simone Holland: Up until this point, it’s felt like separate fights. People were inclusive within their own group, whether it’s LGBT or Asian or Black. When they get their crews together for a project that speaks to their struggle, they go to the people that are like them to tell that story. It makes sense, but there is a level of inclusion that’s missing, to give people in other groups the opportunity to learn about your struggles and (for them) to be able to help you tell that story and open the conversation more. I do think that it’s getting better, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Kris Mendoza: Separate from mentorship and what you’ve explained, did you have any early inspirations and role models in the industry?
Simone Holland: When I was young, I would always watch Tim Burton films, which is probably why my graphic art is a little bit on the weirder side.
Graphic Artwork by Simone Holland
I grew up with that alternative view of art and what movies could be. I always had a love for claymation but, for me, I don’t have the patience to do it. As I was growing and working in wardrobe, (I was) watching Ava DuVernay and Victoria Mahoney. They would be two of my biggest inspirations as far as directing goes. Ava’s producing and PR skills in addition to directing are just amazing. Growing up in that space, I didn’t always look to the go-to celebrity directors or wardrobe stylists, because I gravitated towards the quieter people in the room and the people that were creating (differently)-
Kris Mendoza: Favorite Movie?
Simone Holland: Coraline.
Kris Mendoza: Favorite director?
Simone Holland: Victoria Mahoney.
Kris Mendoza: Favorite DP?
Simone Holland: Ava Berkofsy. She went to film school and took what she learned and expanded it to teach herself how to light darker skin tones. She’s the perfect example of learning the rules so you can break them. She creates like “water” but continues to calculate as things shift. Using her environment and falling into the feeling of the moment, is one of my favorite aspects of her approach
Kris Mendoza: Favorite project you’ve ever worked on?
Simone Holland: I would say Americano because even though I was doing makeup, a lot of the people that I’m closest to now I’ve met on that set. And even when I’m meeting people now, they say, “Oh, I actually met you on Americano. (Dir. Tim Viola, 2018)”
Kris Mendoza: Talk to me about Tetra Creative, how’d you come up with the name, what kind of work are you pursuing, and what does that look like for you now into the future?
Simone Holland: Tetra Creative was a collective built from a ragtag group of outlying filmmakers that do everything. We consider ourselves a Swiss army knife. If somebody directs, we all fall in line to help that person tell their story. “Tetra” came from the film stock used to capture people of color… we’re going back to the Shirley card, when they were first building cameras and basing sensors off of one skin tone. It (Tetra Creative) was built to acknowledge stories outside of the mainstream.
We’ve been pushing really, really hard to get the content out there. We have a few projects coming up. My documentary, Vex, that I directed almost two years ago now, was supposed to come out last March. Then everything happened with the pandemic and that event fell through. But it opened up a space for me to build it to what it is today, including the graffiti artists and working with Mural Arts and Conrad Brenner from Streets Department. Pushing women’s mental health during a time where we’re all isolated was the main focus for me finishing this project and making sure that it’s seen. The women who told their stories are artists and they’re amazing and they’re brave, and they really bared their souls to us as a crew. And I didn’t want that to go to waste.
It’s a beauty project, and four out of seven of them specifically mentioned Tyra and America’s Next Top Model word for word in (their experiences of) how they weren’t tall enough to try out. So, it was just such a connective story. Having it be multi-medium and finding a team that’s been able to foster that, has really helped us go into other projects that we’re working on.
Kris Mendoza: What’s next for you and Tetra Creative?
Simone Holland: I’m continuing to bring in Tetra Creative, push the projects I have in front of me, give access to other filmmakers that wouldn’t traditionally have access, and work with schools and nonprofits to continue to open that door to storytelling. We’re just creating what we love to create, and finding a way to make a difference in the meantime.
BTS from Born and Raised
Simone Holland: Also, it’s coming out very soon after this interview,, so I might as well say something. Born and Raised is a West Philly music documentary that we’re working on. It keeps the multi-medium energy going, so we have a lot in store for that coming up. And for myself, I have just been working on the agency side and trying to figure out how I fit into that world as well.
Kris Mendoza: And finally, what inspires you in the work that you do? Is there a common thread?
Simone Holland: I think because I’ve had my hand on almost every department in one way or another, I feel like I’ve always been in a transient state. As I create artwork, it tends to be more multimedia, including different styles and perspectives. As I’m moving forward with Vex, I have DJs that I’m talking to about doing a set beforehand, I have graffiti artists and muralists who are going to do their rendition of what the documentary means to them and how important women’s mental health is to them.
Because I do graphic design and illustration, I felt like I could do them (a lot of that work) myself, but the projects are bigger than me and it’s more important to have different perspectives on a film based project that is very relatable. I get a lot of pushback for trying to “do too much,” but to be honest, it has always made sense to me. Why wouldn’t you want to amplify the voices of different types of artists. There are ways to keep a film what it needs to be, but also include other types of artists. That’s been my throughline, and I continue to do that as we do more and more projects as a team.