Khadir Cade (he/him) is a Production Designer from West Philadelphia who studied Film and Media Arts at Temple University. He has designed for a vast portfolio of features and shorts, landing on big networks like the NFL, BBC, Lifetime, and Showtime. Also having worked as a teacher, Khadir has led his community by example: guiding young students towards the possibility of working in the industry and succeeding in the arts. He uses a broad spectrum of skills to hit every curveball he can, and we’ve seen it in action! Read about his experiences starting out and how he was able to pivot from an unexpected start to a more fulfilling career.
Written and Edited by Kate Feher
Khadir Cade: My name is Khadir Cade (he/him) and I am from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I went to Temple University and graduated in 2015.
Kris Mendoza: Welcome, and how did you get started in this industry?
Khadir Cade: Oh, I started off as a science major. A lot of people don’t know that – and I switched over to Film and Media Arts after I arrived at Temple. I’m no stranger to hard work, but at the same time, I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t fulfilling in creative terms. You can either waste time chasing it anyway or you can just pick something that you want to do: pivot.
So, yeah, I made use of the career counselors available to me at Temple University – She was so patient with me. When we stumbled upon film, I hadn’t even known Temple had a really strong program like that. So, I picked that fast and that was all she wrote, really.
Kris Mendoza: Did you have any interest in the arts at all before that or did you head to science and make a 180?
Khadir Cade: Ha, yeah. I definitely had an interest in movies. It took something like science to show me how important it would be to follow my passion. I remember, growing up, I would go to Best Buy like every Friday, straight to the sales section, and buy a couple of movies for $5. I still do that to this day, I still support analog.
Kris Mendoza: It’s the $5 bucket at Best Buy, I remember that.
Khadir Cade: Yeah. So, I was always fascinated by what really goes on behind the scenes. Going for it felt like shooting for the stars, but I thought “This is something in my lane, actually, as far as passions and dream jobs.”
Kris Mendoza: I guess while at Temple you started to specialize in production design?
Khadir Cade: I didn’t hone in on that until after I graduated. Before as well as during my time at Temple, I was a teacher’s assistant and so, pretty much my first job was working with kids. I was taking my film courses, and teaching, but I didn’t get involved hands-on with production until 2015.
Kris Mendoza: And you’ve already got some Lifetime movies in your portfolio, and I’ve seen some corporate and commercial work. What kind of projects do you prefer to go after?
Khadir Cade: I’ve determined that I gear toward narrative. I may be in production design but my interests lie in story-telling and character. I really enjoyed my experiences with feature films, but the important thing is to stay open, and always learning. I feel like production design is one of those industries or one of those fields where you just have to constantly be on your toes, ready for the curveball. I’m sure others in the industry are there for the same thrill: there’s always a new lens or camera coming out, pushing the boundaries. And you always just have to stay ahead.
Kris Mendoza: Did you have mentors who took you under their wing or who taught you the ropes?
Khadir Cade: Yeah I was an art assistant on my first feature film, that was Death House. I got to meet David Bonner, Steven Nguyen, and Tommy Sztubinski who were three people who really took a chance on me early on. David Bonner introduced me to Tim Stevens, and Tim is the guy who really took a hardcore chance on me. Many people did – who knew I was a hard worker. They put my name out for me, but Tim was a mentor to me and gave me a feeling of real credibility in my field.
Kris Mendoza: That’s right, a couple years ago Tim brought you on a Maestro job to help rebuild a set piece, which is how we met.
Khadir Cade: I remember that. I remember that.
Kris Mendoza: He was so casual, he just said, “Hey. I’ve got Khadir, he’s coming on.”
Kris Mendoza: So in terms of production design… what are your thoughts on the art direction? It’s one of those elements of production, with the exception of period pieces or highly stylized pieces that if it’s done right, you’re not supposed to realize or notice it.
Khadir Cade: Mm-hmm and unfortunately for myself I can’t watch any film the same way because of it.
Kris Mendoza: How do you as a production designer approach that and still put your stamp of creativity and artistry on projects that you work on knowing that’s the case?
Khadir Cade: The conversations I have with each director are pretty paramount for me because that’s when I get the opportunity to extract more from their brains as far as vision and artistic freedom.
Part of the challenge is being asked for something vague, like a couch, and having the foresight to anticipate extra pillows, blankets, etc to make that couch believable in the space. I’m lucky enough to work with some directors who let me have complete freedom, and who trust me as an artist. Others present a different challenge, finding or creating that one specific item only they have imagined…
Kris Mendoza: And you think some directors are a little more prescriptive, whereas others, you have to coax it out of them?
Khadir Cade: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been handed built set locations and blank-slate locations, it’s all a part of the problem-solving challenge.
Kris Mendoza: I know you said you’re enjoying more narrative stuff as of late, are there any other particular genres or directions your work is leading you to?
Khadir Cade: I’m fascinated by documentary features that call for a production designer like myself. I’m intrigued by it. When you think documentary, you think they’re operating with just a sound guy, a camera guy and a producer doing a “run and gun” style shoot on the street. But some still need production design and when they do, you can take your time with a documentary and still make artful decisions.
Kris Mendoza: So you’ve had you’re fair share of being on all different kinds of film sets… in your experience do you feel like there are people of color working in film but that they are under-represented or not considered? Being a person of color in an an otherwise fairly white dominated industry, is that something you’re aware of the minute you get on set?
Khadir Cade: Yeah, absolutely. I’m not going to say it came from a place of racism, but I got some stares starting out, you know what I mean? I began with some big budget corporate work and there were not a lot of African-Americans there with me, even amongst the PAs. I don’t blend in. I know that.
Some people are just rude in the morning and some people are just rude towards me. Who can say?
As far as industry quotas go, we’ve reached a point where many companies are trying to get on board with being progressive. I’d rather be hired because people know I can do the job and they know I put in the work. But I can’t ignore that some people basically just want to save their reputation in the public light, so it’s a true thing, there definitely are incentives to fill those quotas.
Kris Mendoza: In the last year, have you felt an uptick of people reaching out to you? And if so, what’s your take on why?
Khadir Cade: No, not particularly. I would say the same suspects are still hitting me up. I don’t think it’s ever because of a skin color. Maybe it’s a generational thing but a decent amount of the people I work with are pretty much in the same age range so it’s always just love and respect across the board .
Kris Mendoza: I was talking to a director who said, “My phone is blowing up. People clearly are aware there’s a problem – and whether I’m a token or whatever, I don’t know – But people are calling me, coming out of the woodwork, that I never thought would call me.”
Is this maybe the first step in the right direction? A weird first step?
What needs to happen for it to not to be so intentional or forced like this?
Khadir Cade: I think, as of right now, it’s a good start. I think it comes with good intentions, but I also think some people will recognize the opportunity to capitalize on a lack of diversity. What’s important for me is the chance to bring on other people of color, whether they’re Asian, Latino, African-American, etc, if I do get more opportunities. For example, I used to teach pre-K, so I’ve stayed connected to my old school communities. I try to give some of them a chance to see these sets and this kind of work.
Even if it’s not a paid gig, I’ll throw them $100 for the day or whatever out of my pocket. But I want them to see a different side. I know how hard it was for me to find it. I think every diverse person in the game opens the door for more diversity overall.
Kris Mendoza: How much of that weighs on you in terms of responsibility and representation?
Khadir Cade: It weighs a lot. It does. I’m in no way shape or form perfect. I’ve made mistakes and as a man I always own up to it. But growing up in West Philadelphia depending on where you are… there can be some bad areas. A former student of mine was shot two weeks ago, in the neck while he was playing basketball, just practicing. Stories like that remind me that any boy could be in that situation but if he was on set with me, maybe that could be avoided.
You know, when students tell me they want to be rappers, I just cringe. I really cringe. It’s not a bad thing exactly, but there’s more out there.
Kris Mendoza: Do you think it’s because rapping is at least a means of getting out of an endless cycle? How do you get other opportunities, like film or other arts in that mix?
Khadir Cade: It’s about challenging yourself to look a little deeper even, for something different. You don’t have to be the guy in front of the camera, you can be the guy with the camera, filming the rapper. Which can open up doors for film other rappers’ videos. That way you can build a name for yourself in a different avenue.
Kris Mendoza: You keep a responsibility to your folks to show that there’s someone that looks like you or whatever, from your neighborhood maybe, making this a viable career that they would not otherwise have considered.
Khadir Cade: Definitely. Because a lot of them, well they don’t have fathers. And even though I’m 29, I might even be one of the more positive role models they have in their lives. These diversity inclusions might open up opportunities for them. It’s a little harder now with the pandemic and Covid protocols but there’s always new opportunities on the horizon.
Kris Mendoza: Nice. I think it’s fair and safe to say that the general public has become hyper-aware of race and inclusion in the last 8-10 months or so. Does that translate into the film industry and what we’re doing? And if so, how?
Khadir Cade: I think more diverse stories are being told. Even though there may be a quota at the Academy Awards, a lot of the actors who get nominated, like Steven Yeun, are really phenomenal. So I don’t think he was considered only because of a quota. I think it only looks that way to people who see his race and not his performance. I will say this though, if someone isn’t nominated, do people talk enough about the film to get it seen? Now that people are paying more attention to media outlets rich in diversity we’re able to hear about stories inside and out of film that we might not otherwise pay attention to. Whether that’s because we can’t relate or the characters don’t exactly look like ourselves. Not a lot of people can relate to Avatar with scientists going to space and discovering blue aliens but we can agree it was a phenomenal film.
Kris Mendoza: Has a particular project stuck out to you as your favorite, not only as far as a subject matter, but as far as crew and fulfillment?
Khadir Cade: Oh yeah, in 2017, I did work on a film about Teddy Pendergrass, who was a big time R&B singer in the 80s. It was directed by Olivia Lichtenstein, who is a BAFTA award winning director. I never even figured out how she got my email, but she brought me on to that BBC doc when they came from the UK. Teddy Pendergrass was my mom’s favorite R&B singer, so when I told her what I was working on, she really lit up. She was just glowing with excitement, calling all her friends, telling everybody.
I got to do a little voiceover work for it, as a Philadelphia radio host. So it was my first BBC film, seeing these award-winning directors coming all the way to Philadelphia, and it was my first production where I got a screen credit for the feature. It was a lot of firsts for me, but the best part was bringing my mom to watch the film at the Philadelphia Film Fest. We sat down and the very first voice, the very first voice you hear when the film comes on was my voice. I was busy asking her if she wanted popcorn and she told me to stop talking because she just knew it was my voice. She said, “Listen, listen. Is that you?” And she completely lit up.
It was one of those dream moments, when you make your parents proud. She has been proud of me I’m sure, but I think the fact that I went to school for film and was really sticking to it. I was really a fangirl/proud mom moment all rolled up into one.
Kris Mendoza: That’s awesome. I’m sure a proud moment for you as well –
Khadir Cade: Absolutely.
Kris Mendoza: And validating to be able to share that moment with your mom.
Khadir Cade: Definitely.
Kris Mendoza: Was that the moment you knew, you could feel confident to say, “I am in this industry.”
Khadir Cade: I take my blunders pretty hard, so when I was first starting out I had an experience where I forgot a prop and that really bothered me. What I noticed was that I spent the next day trying to create a system to prevent it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had dry-erase boards out and lists, etc, and at that moment I realized, “Wow. I’m making up a system for future projects.” I was challenged and motivated to be better and that proved to myself that I was feeling committed.
If I find a weakness during a shoot, I try really hard to target that and make it a learning experience. Sometimes it isn’t necessarily a failure on my part, but the system could be improved and I sort of work out those kinks, and adapt.
Kris Mendoza: Seems like a moment where you could have either folded and walked away from this or doubled down and just crush it going forward. I’m glad you picked the latter.
Khadir Cade: Me too.
Kris Mendoza: What’s next in the pipeline for you? Working on anything cool that you can tease or things coming up for you?
Khadir Cade: A lot of people close to me know this, but I really have a love for writing. I do love production design and I have made a great career doing it so far. I’ve been so grateful for every opportunity I get. But lately, I’ve been accepting that I also want to enter the writing stage of my life. I’m currently in pre-production on a film called Symbol written by myself and produced by Steven Forde a Philadelphia Toy Maker. I’m also in development on a television series with Rachel Ofori a Philadelphia producer. I even have a book to publish this year sometime around my 30th birthday next month . I have a lot of interests and a lot of crafts to hone. I don’t necessarily want to be like a Swiss Army knife, but just do things that I’m passionate about, things that I love. I have a goal to constantly improve my art.
Kris Mendoza: Can I ask a bit about what this book will feature?
Khadir Cade: Well, given my teaching background, I’m doing a children’s book. Quynh Le who is a phenomenal Director Of Photography and Illustrator is doing the illustrations for it. I was lucky enough to get lots of positive feedback from my community and families of students I used to teach. I have a pretty vested interest in shaping young minds.
Kris Mendoza: That’s awesome. Seems like a chance to bring all your talents together. So, lastly, what do you love best about what you do, whether it’s production or writing, what’s the most fulfilling part for you?
Khadir Cade: I love the cast of characters. In film, we are all driven toward the same goal, but each of us has their own creative individuality. I just respect that so much. I respect the fact that not one person I meet on set is going to be the same as me. Yeah, that’s one of the things I appreciate most about working in production, design and film in general… it’s the ability to be unique here, and still be a part of a team.
Kris Mendoza: I feel like filmmaking is just one of those things that, unless you’re Rob Rodriguez, and even in that case you still need actors and other people, you can’t really make a film by yourself. So, working with other people means choosing to either just roll with the punches, accept differences, collaborate…. or find another career.
Khadir Cade: Absolutely.
Kris Mendoza: Any parting words you wish to give to readers?
Khadir Cade: Life’s a fight so don’t stop fighting it. If you fall, collect yourself, take a deep breath and get back up. And if you need some help getting up I got your back.
Kris Mendoza: That’s an awesome way to end it there. Thank you for coming on, and best of luck to you!