Founded in 2005, Maestro Filmworks is an independent and minority owned, Emmy award winning video production company based in Philadelphia.
Our missionis to be the trusted storytellers that shine a light on stories that need to be told, doing so with the brightest and most creative talent, for the world’s top brands and companies.
Our vision is to be the leading advocates for sustainable careers and lifestyles in the film industry in order to enable our people to make an impact in their communities.
Our ethosis to approach our work with a focus on diversity and inclusion, ensuring that we are intentional in empowering and employing members of marginalized communities in our industry.
Start date: ASAP. The Video Transfer Technician will be responsible for transferring and digitizing legacy video tape formats, including but not limited to VHS, MiniDV, HDV, HDCAM, Betamax, for usage in documentary and corporate/commercial projects.
Contract / Hourly / Entry Level
digitizing legacy video tape formats
managing and entry of digital assets into database
a degree in film & TV preferred
knowledge in post-production formats, codecs, both digital and analog
knowledge of Adobe Premiere CC and Media Encoder
proficiency in technical trouble shooting of hardware and software
Project Forte is a compendium of interviews tuned to the frequency flowing from creatives working within the Philadelphia film industry. Our goal with this initiative is to promote a continuing conversation around the responsibility we have as storytellers and to amplify marginalized voices deserving of recognition and opportunity. The project bears witness to their unique experiences, issuing a sense of empathy and honor for these leaders and their innovative teams. Each story, profound and vulnerable, sheds light not only upon the status quo but also upon ways to challenge it respectfully. By exposing their struggles and successes, these industry professionals have compelled others to ally around each other in solidarity, recognizing that there is space for everyone, and proven tools to create safe sets for collaboration within our community.
Our final interview for 2021 features the incomparable Artina Michelle (she/her), a Liberian-American filmmaker who reminds us that “cinematography is therhetoric of film.” Although at home behind a camera, Artina is able to speak candidly about both recognizing and challenging fear. That we have a responsibility to recognize our talents and use them, regardless of roadblocks and lessons yet unlearned. Ultimately, pinpointing fear and rushing headlong into it is the fastest way to reward. Read on to hear more about her latest documentary This Too is Liberia and the talented collaborators working with her!
Artina Michelle: My name’s Artina Michelle and I’m a director of photography in the process of co-directing and producing my first feature film, This Too Is Liberia.
Kris Mendoza: Born and raised in Philadelphia?
Artina Michelle:I was born in Staten Island, New York. I was raised in Philadelphia.
Kris Mendoza: Talk to me about how you got started in the film industry. How early in your life did you know this was what you wanted to be doing for the rest of your life?
Artina Michelle:The earliest memory I have of film is when my mom bought a camcorder for one of our family reunions. My older sister and I would take it and make home videos. We used to do remakes of MTV Cribs, just random things. We did our first short film, edited everything in camera because we didn’t know how to edit. My brother would make cameos. It was just something fun that we would do. I didn’t take it seriously at the time.
Kris Mendoza: Just so I can place us here, is this Mini DV, Hi8, VHS? What era are we talking here?
Artina Michelle:Yeah. I don’t even know the name for it. It was one of those camcorders with the cassettes.
Kris Mendoza: It was a mini cassette like… Yeah, Mini DV or HDV, depending.
Artina Michelle:Wait, does that make me old?
Kris Mendoza: Ha, no, it’s cool you grew up in the analog era. You touched some analog tapes. That lets you straddle both cool old school and new age.
Artina Michelle:Vintage, I’ll take it. Anyway, as I got older, I thought I wanted to act, but I was too ashamed or afraid to say it. Fast forward to college, I thought I would be going into psychology because I did well in an AP Psychology course in high school. But I knew I didn’t really want to do that for the rest of my life. The acting thing was still in the back of my head, but… I’m a first generation Liberian American and I felt like I couldn’t tell my African parents I wanted to act. I just didn’t feel like they would support that. They’re very academically driven.
Kris Mendoza: So you had the preconceived notion that they wouldn’t be into it. What’s a typical Liberian American career path you thought was expected of you?
Artina Michelle:Yeah, for sure. I mean, I believed it because I heard it. “You sure you don’t want to be a nurse, a lawyer, or an engineer…” just different conventional paths that a lot of immigrants see as profitable.
Kris Mendoza: But you declared your major as film, the actual major cinema, and then your parents didn’t need much convincing. Were they supportive after all?
Artina Michelle:Yeah. I think what it was was my dad saw that I was really going hard for video work. I was doing events at that time. I was shooting music videos. I was shooting anything that I could.
Kris Mendoza: Ah, and he saw the passion?
Artina Michelle:Yeah, that and I started making money. I started making money from shooting events, and then that’s when he was like, “Okay…”
Kris Mendoza:“This is a career.”
Artina Michelle:Yeah. I think when I did my first event, it was either a wedding, or baby shower, or something. I got that paycheck. My dad was like, “They paid you all for this? … Okay, we’re in America. Here, children can do different things.” That was it. After that, he was really supportive.
Kris Mendoza: Ha, like, “What? They’re paying you money for this?”
Artina Michelle:Yeah and that all started in college. I got advised to take a film analysis course as an elective. At the time, I was undeclared at Temple University. I didn’t think I would care too much about this course. I was just trying to get close to the theater but in this course I learned about cinematography. It reminded me of an English class I took that had to do with rhetoric.
To me, cinematography is the rhetoric of film. It’s the visual language, and that’s something that really interested me. After that, I bought a camera. I taught myself how to edit. I finally took the plunge. I picked my major which was film and media, and told my parents. They saw I was so passionate about it, so they actually did support me to my surprise. I started interning for FreshFly. After that, it’s just history.
Kris Mendoza: That’s right! I don’t know if you remember how we met, but you were renting our studio. Then, I think it was Greg Heller, who was working with you at FreshFly, who had come to Maestro to edit right around the same time you arrived. You guys saw each other in the hallway and I thought he must have been a Temple student with you. It was such a coincidence…
Artina Michelle:Oh yeah, I forgot about that!
Kris Mendoza: That’s Philly production world for you, small world. Was that 2014?
Artina Michelle:It was! I’m surprised you remember the year.
Kris Mendoza: To that end, walk us through your work since? In what way did film school equip you for the workforce and really starting a career out there?
Artina Michelle:Yeah. I would say one of the biggest things I got out of film school was a network. I got a chance to connect with different people. A lot of my peers are doing some major things. I’m super inspired by them.
Kris Mendoza: Yeah it’s a safe space to put yourself out there and find different pockets of people. I always say to folks working in Maestro, being a people person is just as big of a part of this business as being a technician or creative. Getting along with people, and having them remember you, pulling you onto other jobs, giving you opportunities and stuff. In that regard, I think it’s worth noting. Are there any people, whether it’s companies/organizations that you feel really helped you open up new networks and start to try new things? I know you mentioned FreshFly is one of them, but how does one transition from student trying to build a network, to being known for a position, and then getting calls and getting work?
Artina Michelle:Oh yeah. I would say it was FreshFly, then Maestro, you all really hooked it up, and Carron Willis at Alkemy X. I think my network got much bigger through PA-ing with Alkemy because I met Marcus Clarke, a talented director, who ended up getting me on the set of Creed II.
That was a formative moment for me. I was doing the best that I could on those jobs – they had me on background and stuff – but I was also already doing DP work as a side hustle. So by the time I got on Creed II, I was already nearing the end of accepting PA work… then, someone got me really upset on set one day and I was like, “I think I’m over it. I think I’m better than this.”
I was like, “Let me just go talk to the DP real quick, and tell him I’ve been inspired by watching him work.” I was going to tip my hat and go. But just through having a conversation with him, that turned around. That day I was told I got moved to the camera department as a camera PA. That got me specialized in what I was actually interested in which was camera work.
Kris Mendoza: Was that a turning point for you in terms of specialization and the like?
Artina Michelle:Oh, I’ve always called myself a DP from the beginning. Even when I was interning, I was like, “I’m a DP, I’m a cinematographer.” I knew that, but when I first went into the industry, it was as if I couldn’t say that. People advised me not to say it.
Kris Mendoza: It felt like it was a title you had to earn?
Artina Michelle:Yeah in a sense.
Kris Mendoza: It’s interesting. Right? There’s an older DP that we work with who you know, and he mentioned, to this day, he doesn’t feel comfortable calling himself a DP. He is “the camera guy” because of the pressure and the weight that he felt like came with the title, but I think there’s a lot to say about just owning it and saying, “This is what I am, and these are the kind of jobs and stuff I want to be known to for and get called for.”
Why did you decide to draw a line and take only DP work moving forward?
Artina Michelle:Oh, wow. To be honest, it was a twofold thing. I was reading this scripture in the Bible, the parable of the talents which talks about how you should not bury your gifts, but use them. At the time, I really would sit with myself and think, “I’m still learning.” I’m ever-learning. I’m ever-growing, but at the same time, I don’t need to wait to take the leap. I know that I have the capability to have this title, regardless of what the industry was telling me at the time.
I think that goes hand in hand with what you’re talking about concerning identity too. It’s something that you have to find within yourself – to say, “This is who I am, and this is who I’m presenting myself to the world to be.” One thing I found helpful at that time in my life was that I got to PA for a female DP – Oo, actually I don’t like using the word female to describe women.
Kris Mendoza: Non-male.
Artina Michelle:Ha, right. I should say I was on set with a woman, Julie Kirkwood, and she was a DP from LA. I just didn’t see a lot of women DP’s in Philly at the time, and our B-cam operator was also a woman too. Basically, seeing them just added fuel to the fire.
Kris Mendoza: Digging into the experience of not seeing a lot of non-male representation on the set… it sounds like you felt it drove you to be even more forthright in your mission to become a DP, yeah? Had you seen that as a main obstacle?
Artina Michelle:To be honest, my gender didn’t really cross my mind when I was choosing my career. I’m confident that everyone’s path is different. Everybody has different ways to get to their destination, you know? I had the confidence that if this was for me, that was going to be true whether I’m a woman, whether I’m black, whether I’m young, you know, or something else. If it’s mine, it’s mine, and no one can really take that from me, basically.
Kris Mendoza: How do those circumstances all factor into creating you, the artist? Do you find yourself gravitating towards certain projects? Do you find yourself being comfortable on certain sets? Are you picking and choosing who you work with? How does all this factor into the creative approach?
Artina Michelle:Yeah, that’s a good question. Even with confidence, it’s definitely challenging. When I was learning about lighting, it was hard to be around a whole bunch of guys who were grips and stuff, especially having smaller arms like I do. That’s not a woman thing, that’s an Artina thing (jokes).
I think I was there for the knowledge, but definitely had to deal with a lot of male ego and people who were trying to fight their way to the top. People are crabs in a barrel when you’re in a small market. Then for me recently, or when I defined myself as a DP, I had to find my voice within what I wanted to do because now I’m making creative choices.
I realized that in film school, I was taught a very Western-centric way of thinking about film that didn’t resonate with me, to be honest. What I was told was good, I didn’t think was good.
Kris Mendoza: Is this from a story sense or technical approach?
Artina Michelle:I would say story. Technical was good, but… There are certain films that are American classics which I don’t find…
Kris Mendoza: There was zero cultural experience for you. As an American, you’re like, “None of this resonates with me whatsoever.”
Artina Michelle:Exactly. When I would get a chance to speak in my courses, I was made to be the issue. “You’re the person who doesn’t understand high cinema,” basically. The culture that I come from is much different from the people who are creating these things. It’s not to say that my opinions, or what I would want to see, or what I would want to make is wrong or lower class cinema, but it’s just… an untapped perspective basically. I had to realize that my voice is important and it’s comprised of my varying identities as a Liberian American, as an artist, as a black woman, and more.
Kris Mendoza: Only you can tell it, right? Quite frankly, with a lot of culturally driven stories, if you’re not telling it, who is? Someone may opt to write it, but if they don’t come from that culture, they may miss key elements or moods. I’m not necessarily getting to the point where, for example, only Filipinos can tell Filipino stories, etc.
But – it’s no secret that in the last year and a half or so, The US has become super race conscious. Some call it race guilt, this move toward intentional calls to hire minorities. I don’t know if it’s the optics that scare them into action or if there really is authenticity behind it. Do they actually want the right crew for this – to understand or appreciate it – or do they have their eye on a quota? Ultimately it opens the door for a lot of minorities in this filmmaking space regardless. It’s interesting because I think about it through the lens of being qualified. You talk about this inner validation, external validation, but ultimately it’s who’s qualified to tell what stories and who’s qualified to aid in the telling of it?
I’m curious to hear what your perspective is on this.
Artina Michelle:Yeah, It’s interesting because for me, I didn’t get an influx of jobs carrying the pretense of needing a black DP. I probably got maybe two jobs simply because the talent themselves said, “Hey, I want to see someone who looks like me on the other side of the camera.”
I’m learning that there’s just a long way to go. Last year was a revelation for a lot of people, but for my community, it was stuff that we were saying and experiencing for so long. I still feel that sometimes people’s advocacy comes off performative. It can be a little shallow without a deeper understanding of other cultures, other identities and experiences. I do think that, for the most part, we’re on an up trend though.
Kris Mendoza: Hopefully it sticks…
Artina Michelle:Yeah, exactly. I think I’m a little bit more cynical than others are, maybe. I just want to see longevity, but what I am interested in honestly is just the awakening that’s happening within black artists as well as other cultures and communities of artists. Basically, Americans and all our variations, like Liberian American, Caribbean Americans, Asian Americans, Black Americans… I just love that there’s a Renaissance of art that’s been going on for us.
The independent projects are the ones that I’m interested in. Recently, I was called for a shoot about black women who are preparing to deliver their children in the middle of America’s black maternal health crisis… that’s a story that needs to be told, and I believe that it can only be told from the perspective of the women who are going through it, or at least can relate to it.
Kris Mendoza: I think that’s a good segue then in terms of independent projects – can you talk a little about the documentary you’ve been traveling to Liberia for? I think it’s been a few years in the making. Can you give me the high level overview, and where you’re at, and what you’re accomplishing.
Artina Michelle:I started working on This Too Is Liberia at the end of 2018. I was fresh off the set of Creed II… and I just got rejuvenated by all the diversity that was on that project, for example seeing Steven Caple Jr., who is a young black man from Cleveland, directing.
Kris Mendoza: Non-female.
Artina Michelle:Yeah, for us to witness someone in this generation just killing it and making a project of that caliber, I got really excited.
I already planned to go back to Liberia at that point. Naturally, I wanted to create something there. I thought it’d be a short project, but I discovered that Liberia has a surfing counter-culture that is growing so I started connecting with that community.
Then I went for it.
Initially, I went to Liberia for a month and started filming. I connected with my family over there – connected with my culture, my identity in a way that I’ve never done before.
Then I came back, thinking I would get a whole bunch of grants and everything would work out how I wanted it to, but instead had to wait a whole year and some change to go back to Liberia. It was during the pandemic that I actually went back for the second trip. That was fall 2020. I stayed there until February 2021. Now we’re close to the finish line. Thankfully, we just got approved for a grant a few days ago to finish the last bit of principal photography.
Kris Mendoza: Congrats. What have you learned as far as documentary filmmaking when it comes to you as an artist throughout this whole journey?
Artina Michelle:So, so much… The journey with this film has been impactful because I’ve been documenting this story for the majority of my 20s. I think that timeframe in anyone’s life is just… There’s a lot of growth. It’s been a lot of reconnection and learning about my family and about my history.
When I first started it, I was super excited. I was thinking, “Okay, this is going to be my first feature. It’s going to take a year tops.” All I wanted to do was show my homeland, and so, in a way, it was all about me.
Then, when I met the surfers, I learned that it was bigger than me. I wanted to do it for them. I wanted to showcase the people who were in Liberia, who stayed after the war. I realized they are basically my counterparts.
At that point, I started to put more pressure on myself. I was like, “Oh, this project needs to be good, and I don’t know if I can deliver.” I realized I had a fear of failure, and what I learned most through the documentary so far is overcoming fears and not letting fear rule me as an artist or even as a person.
Kris Mendoza: The game got big when you realized you really had something there.
Artina Michelle:Yeah, seriously. I was like, “Oh, okay. This is actually looking like it can be something.” Then I started to get fearful that it wouldn’t happen, that someone else, some Europeans – I know the French, in particular, do films in West Africa – would come in and take over the story. That became a fear of mine.
Throughout the project, I began to experience a lot of rejection, not getting the grants I was applying for. I was like, “If we don’t get this money, I’m not going to finish this project…” That rejection process really taught me a lot.
Then 2020 the world stopped. I thought, “I can’t push anymore for this doc. I can’t even leave the country. I can’t even leave my home, what now? What do I do with this time?” So I learned to let go, and that’s actually exactly what I needed.
There’s enlightenment on the other side of fear. Now I know, if I’m afraid of something that basically means I should go in that direction, to address it. Whatever my fear is, my treasure is on the other side. It’s just an indicator.
Kris Mendoza: And now you’re just rushing towards your fears?
Artina Michelle:I don’t know about rushing, but I’m definitely more inclined to use it as…
Kris Mendoza: As a Motivator?
Artina Michelle:Yeah, as a motivator. There we go. Now fear is more of a motivator.
Kris Mendoza: That’s super powerful to mentally unlock that for yourself and also empower yourself rather than be too paralyzed to do what’s next. You talked about the fear of failure, and conquering fears, but also, it’s important to note that the creative process lends itself well to learning from failure, embracing failure. I think that those things go hand in hand.
When you look directly at rejection and failure, it makes you a better artist, a more resilient person at the end of the day.
Artina Michelle:It hits differently, fear of rejection, when it’s art that you’re creating, that you’ve become a part of.
Kris Mendoza: You’re more vulnerable, right?
Artina Michelle:Yeah. It’s very vulnerable, especially when the project is close to your heart like that, it’s close to your growth, and your identity. You may have people say, “We don’t believe in this right now.” And that’s tough but, that rejection is also creating the project, because every time I got rejected from a grant, I had to go back and revamp, rethink it.
Kris Mendoza: You asked yourself, “Why did I get rejected? What can we do better?”
Artina Michelle:Yeah, those questions are needed. I think all of it is needed for growth.
Kris Mendoza: Absolutely. So where can we find more information on this particular project? And also, there’s one other project that I’ve been following… Can you talk to me a little about Dear Philadelphia?
Artina Michelle:Yes, you can find more about the doc on my website, ArtinaMichelleDP.com there’s a tab for This Too is Liberia.
Dear Philadelphia… That started with the director, Renee Osubu. She is originally from London but would spend her summers volunteering with kids in North Philly. I met her through a friend of mine who I was going to church with at the time. He told me Renee was looking for a DP for her project. Originally, Dear Philadelphia was a photo series that she intended to turn into a short film.
It was true vérité style filmmaking. We were just rolling around and capturing people in North Philly. Renee didn’t tell me at the time, but she lost her father a few years prior to starting the project. It just so happens, the series is about black fathers in Philadelphia. I guess that was a turning point in her journey to make this project. I really was just there to help but every time I watch it, I tear up because I know that it was made with love.
I started out with them during the first half of production, but I had to leave to focus on This Too is Liberia. Then, she brought on Luis Lopez, a DP from San Diego. I was happy that they kept going. I had to bow out but I think that was the best thing that could have happened because Luis definitely did his thing on it.
I was still able to pop in on them throughout the summer, shoot a couple shots here and there. That’s how organic it was. It would be like, “Here’s a camera. Oh, you’re here hanging out. Grab some shots.”
Then it ended up just being massively successful and way more than we thought it would be. It is her first film and her first short. To me, watching that after being in the game for this long, and knowing how difficult it is for people to even just finish a short, let alone have it reach this level… I’m just like, “Wow. All glory to God.”
Kris Mendoza: And this is out for people to watch now, or it’s still running a festival circuit?
Artina Michelle:Oh, yeah. Dear Philadelphia is now available to watch on Vimeo Staff Picks. Aftering premiering on the British Film Institute online player. It had an International premiere at Sundance, screened and won at Blackstar Film Festival and is now an Oscar qualifier.
Kris Mendoza: I love to hear it, a lot of good stuff happening. Thank you so much for joining us and best of luck!
This month on Project Forte we sat down with the co-founder of Pink Lemonade Pictures, writer and director Kelly Murray (she/her). Follow along as we discuss the risks and rewards of taking a leap, not only into the film industry, but from stability to freelance life. Throughout her career, Kelly has been exploring such themes of transformation which mirror great changes especially in women-led stories. She has developed her own experiences into relatable storytelling and continues to hone her writing for publications such as Accidentally Wes Anderson while creating editorial and visual content as the Director of Marketing for Trail Creek Outfitters.
Kris Mendoza: So, You and I met on the set of Americano, and you had a different capacity there. It’s been great to see you flourish into many roles, and I know you’re capable, keeping busy with so much more. Tell us, how did you get started?
Kelly Murray: Well, my journey into film and production has definitely been non-linear. (laughs) I was always creative growing up, and was drawn to theater and the arts. I was a strong writer at a young age, so I went to the University of Delaware for English. At UD, I got involved in a student theater group helping with makeup and costuming, but I didn’t get into film until after I graduated. I was always fascinated with film, and wanted to be in the industry, but I didn’t really know what that path would look like.
After I graduated, I worked as an English as a Second Language tutor for two years and then took a job in marketing. Around that time, there was a large demand for content writers. Businesses were starting to use blogs and social media as marketing tools, so I joined a recruitment company in Newark, Delaware as their marketing coordinator and content writer. Marketing was never really the plan, but I was excited to be able to work as a writer.
Ironically, it was through that job that I met a Delaware-based filmmaker named Chris Malinowski. Chris was a friend of the CEO’s and he was using our office for pick-up shots for a feature film. Around that same time, in my marketing role, we were talking about exploring video, so my manager connected me with Chris and suggested I shadow him during his shoot. Delaware isn’t really known to be a filmmaking hub, so I found it really cool to have the opportunity.
When I met Chris at the shoot, he gave me the rundown of their set up and I watched them block their scene. Then I sat in the background during one of his pickup shots as an extra. It was just him and his DP (Chris was also the lead actor in his film), and I think thatexperience, for me, was the moment I realized, “This is what I want to do.” After I shadowed Chris, the company sent me to a video production workshop at WHYY and we ended up making some marketing videos. As it turned out, I was actually laid off from that same marketing job a few months later. So while I was figuring out my next move, I decided to pursue film production and see if I could make a career out of it.
I found Film.org and applied for a PA job on a film called Brotherly Love, which was a feature film shot in West Philadelphia, directed by Jamal Hill. Queen Latifah’s production company produced it, and Keke Palmer was in it. I worked in the production office with the UPM and APOC, delivering things and helping with paperwork. That was my first introduction to a large production. It was mostly night shoots, it was crazy. But I was just happy to be a part of it.
After Brotherly Love, I continued to find jobs on local productions, and around the same time, I got a part-time position at QVC as a copywriter. So I began splitting my time between QVC and production work. Given my background with theater, I was drawn to art department roles on set. I started out doing makeup and costuming. And as is the nature with low-budget indie films, I began helping on set wherever there was a need, so I started set dressing and eventually began art directing on low-budget projects.
In the beginning, a lot of my jobs were unpaid. I worked on a lot of student films and short films, trying to get as much experience as I could, and make as many connections as possible. I was then hired full-time at QVC but still took set jobs when my schedule allowed. I was living in West Chester by then, and was surprised to find an amazing community of filmmakers there. I worked with the production company/animation studio Something’s Awry Productions. I did a lot of production coordinating with them on their short films. I also did some art directing on a handful of narrative shorts in the West Chester/Philly area and New York.
Around 2015, I met Hillary Hanak through a mutual film friend, and she and I became really fast friends. At that time, one of my colleagues reached out about a short documentary they were producing on World War I veterans. They didn’t have any crew put together yet, but were looking for a director and a DP… and I thought, “Hey, I’d love to direct.” It was something I was interested in, and never done before. So I offered to direct the project. They agreed to bring me on, and I brought Hillary on as DP. The documentary includes a series of interviews with Philadelphia-area genealogists telling the stories of their ancestors who fought in World War I. The project is called Memories of the Great War, and that was the first time I had ever gotten behind the camera as a director.
After Memories, I was getting the itch to write my own project. A few months after we locked in the Memories edit, I saw a call for artists for a video exhibit at The Delaware Contemporary, which is a contemporary art museum in Wilmington, Delaware. They were looking for videos that were themed around space exploration. I felt inspired by the prompt and wrote a short script called The Astronomer, which essentially is an adaptation of a Walt Whitman poem called When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer. That project became my first narrative short film, which Hillary also DP’d and co-produced; and led to the launch of our creative partnership as Pink Lemonade Pictures.
Kris Mendoza: I don’t know the course of how many years you went from here to there, but I think it seems like your journey was, I won’t say relatively quick, but one thing certainly led to another. And part of it is how you sought these opportunities.
Let me take a step back, because I wonder, if you didn’t get laid off from that job, would we not be talking today? And I ask that because I’m curious about the relationship between job security and freelance life. That seems like a barrier for some, and also a badge to wear on your sleeve no matter how successful you are, because you challenged yourself to make the leap.
How big of a decision was this pursuit? When it was right in front of you, did you think, “This is a no-brainer….” and had it not been for the timing, do you think you’d have different outcomes in retrospect? Was losing a job, in fact, a blessing in disguise for you?
Kelly Murray: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think at the time, because I was so young…I was 24…I remember feeling humiliated. It was my first office job out of college and I couldn’t believe I was laid off. But like you said, I think it was a blessing in disguise. It offered me the time and opportunity to explore another career path, so I didn’t really think twice. I just was like, “You know what, I’m going to see where this goes.” Film production was this whole new world that I hadn’t encountered before. I felt like I was part of something bigger, and it felt attainable too–
Kris Mendoza: It sounds like it took a lot of your interests and your skills and put it together in one role.
Kelly Murray: Yeah. So what’s crazy is that I started this film journey with losing a job, and after years of pursuing this passion “on the side”, I then decided to voluntarily leave my job at QVC to freelance full-time. I was 28 and I felt like I was at a turning point in my career. I thought, “I’m not getting any younger, maybe I should just go all in on this passion,” So I did, but you know what? I really struggled in finding my footing as a full-time freelancer.
Looking back, I think there were a lot of factors that contributed to this, but a major one that impacted me heavily involved my relationship at the time. I had an agreement with my partner that I was going to give myself six months to a year in dedication to launching my freelance career. I had a bit of a slow start at first, but I began booking work. My first freelance booking was actually with Maestro on Americano.
This relationship I was in, looking back, I think it suffered from the circumstances. And I say that just because with freelancing, you have less separation between work and home life, and they affect each other. What ended up happening was that my partner just…he came home one day, ended things, and left. It was about five months into our “agreement”, and I remember feeling blindsided. He said that one of the reasons why it wasn’t working out was because of the production life that I had chosen.
Kris Mendoza: Wow. And how long were you guys together?
Kelly Murray: A year and a half. It hit me pretty hard. We were living together, and I think because I had tied up so much of my identity with working in film, that it kind of levelled my reality. He said he was done, and “You have a week to move out,” type thing. And in three days, I was supposed to fly out with Hillary for a production job in the Caribbean for a week, so I was in a bit of shock. I was like, “Cool…”
Kris Mendoza: “…we’ll figure this out later…”
Kelly Murray: Yeah, like on one hand, I just got dumped really badly, but on the other, I have this really great job opportunity…
Kris Mendoza: And the show must go on!
Kelly Murray: Exactly, the show must go on. It was the biggest job I had booked at the time, and it was a week away on an island — it was an incredible opportunity. So I had to steel my nerves and focus on the work.
Kris Mendoza: Did you even have time to process it?
Kelly Murray: I mean, I went and it was an amazing experience — we were doing 360 VR and photography for a client located on the island of St. Kitt’s. But I remember coming back to the States and having to face the reality of, “What do I do now?” My life had kind of turned upside down. I ended up moving back home to my hometown in Hockessin, Delaware. I was 29, and it felt like a major setback. But after I moved back, I ended up getting a contract job at a company called Spirit Animal Collective, I don’t know if you remember —
Kris Mendoza: I know Spirit Animal, yeah. Edan and Doris, right?
Kelly Murray: Yeah! So I was producing with them for a little bit. I drove an hour and 20 minutes from Hockessin to Philly and then back every day. I was so determined. I just was like, “I’m going to make this happen, I’m going to make this happen.” And I guess my point in saying all this is that there have been a lot of ups and downs, really –
Kris Mendoza: – It’s not a straight line, people may see it differently.
Kelly Murray: Right. It isn’t a straight line. And even while working with Spirit Animal, I still had to take a step back and reassess my path. I still wasn’t able to support myself financially freelancing, so I decided to step away from crewing and return to the marketing field. I eventually got a 9-5 marketing job at an architecture firm back in West Chester. I moved back out on my own, and really focused on rebuilding my life. I’ve continued with marketing and currently, I’m the Marketing Director for Trail Creek Outfitters, an independent retailer of outdoor equipment and clothing in Glen Mills, PA. It’s a great company and the owner loves video, so I’ve been able to get behind the camera again and write and produce videos for the store — like a mini in-house creative department.
Kris Mendoza: Awesome.
Kelly Murray: Yeah, so I guess my point in telling that kind of rocky road story is that pursuing a creative career is far from glamorous… it isn’t one size fits all…and it’s really important that you know and stay true to yourself.
With social media nowadays, I think it’s easy to compare ourselves and think that we’re not where we’re “supposed to be” in our careers, or whatever. Of course, we want to market ourselves and put out our best sides out there… but I think for any artist…creative person…or entrepreneur, life can get really messy sometimes. Life can throw a lot of curveballs at you. Staying true to yourself and your goals is so important.
And it’s different for everyone…I had to deal with some major setbacks in my personal life, but through that I also realized that my approach to the industry wasn’t really sustainable. Even though I wanted so badly to work in film…just working “on set” wasn’t enough. I had to take some time to really think about what I wanted to offer as a filmmaker and as a creative. So I consciously decided that I would refocus my creative efforts on writing and directing, even if it just meant for my passion projects in my free time.
When I stepped back and focused on writing again, I found that more doors began opening organically. People began seeking me out to help write scripts and develop their film projects…which was so refreshing. Along with my current job, I’ve been growing a client list for freelance writing. I’ve written scripts and developed videos for both Fortune 500 companies and mid-size businesses. And currently, I’m a contributing writer for Accidentally Wes Anderson, a digital platform with over one million subscribers. Kind of crazy.
Sometimes the path isn’t always a straight line, and having that self-awareness can be really important, because the great thing about film and production is that there are so many avenues you can take, and it might not be exactly what you expect, but if your goal is to work in film or any creative medium… it can still happen by another route.
Kris Mendoza: I’m glad you said that, it’s refreshing to hear someone get back to that sentiment that it takes hard work, takes a lot of networking. I can relate to both the entrepreneurship side and also the filmmaker side, that it can be a lonely road sometimes. There are times other people seem like they’re staying busy and getting booked with all these jobs but you’re kind of like, “I’m qualified, and I’m out there, and I’m marketing myself, why am I not on the set?”
Kelly Murray: Exactly, yeah.
Kris Mendoza: And you kind of start to worry more about that than being creative.
We’re really lucky that filmmaking is also the most collaborative medium out there, right, because having other artists to work with keeps you inspired and learning… keeps you creative.
It just takes a bit of balance to motivate yourself, when you’re a freelancer and you’re essentially your own boss… you are an entrepreneur, even if you’re reporting to set, and the balance is about finding that daily motivation to go out there and get it.
“Find something you’re passionate about, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Which I think is flawed, right? “Passion is fleeting,” in fact. Passion is the very, hot and heavy romanticism that exists when you fall for a medium like this and something sparks in you. But to develop an appreciation for every factor of the process – a gratification for the parts that didn’t come easy, maybe marketing and networking and collaborating – if you can do that, you develop a deeper love for the entire job. It changes what feels like work and that’s when “you’ll never ‘work’ again.”
I went to watch Todd Carmichael, who owns La Colombe, speak one day and he said, “Passion is what I feel when I kiss my son on his forehead, for my son, that’s an injection of passion. But to be good at something and get to that next level, there’s also a certain level of it that’s obsession.”
I think people on the outside of this industry don’t really get how much you have to immerse yourself in filmmaking to see it through. If you’re the only one telling yourself you need to get this script done or get this film done, you’re the first and last case of accountability and the idea of an entire film becomes more daunting as you broaden your scope to see all those different moving parts. That alone can make you stall before you start. One method to combat that is staying open to collaboration, because that is where you find moments of rest and relief from the larger goal. It’s not a marathon, it’s a relay.
And people find different ways of making it work, whether you have a full-time gig and you’re doing filmmaking as the side hustle that is really just another main hustle, or you’re doing the full-time thing, or you’re working at a production company full-time, there’s no one size fits all in terms of making it work. But in terms of your role, how do you reconcile the work? I don’t want to paint it negatively, but you’re kind of burning the creative candle on both ends, right? And I hear from a lot of people that maybe they’re a photographer during the day, and a video editor on the weekends. And you almost have to find this endless source of creativity, because you’re using up your creative functions on both ends. How does that work for you, and how do you make it work?
Kelly Murray: That’s a really great question…I recently had lunch with Tim Viola, the writer/director of Americano, and he asked a similar question, too. We were talking about working through writer’s block and creative block, and he’s like, “How do you keep the well full?” And my answer in that moment, and maybe this is a writer’s perspective, was “I do anything but… [writing].” (laughs) I will simply focus on doing things to get out from behind the keyboard and experience life.
So, Tim’s question was more of in regards to enduring the pandemic, because it’s been such a crushing, isolating–
Kris Mendoza: Sucks the creativity out of you.
Kelly Murray: Yea, sucks the creativity right out of you. So during the pandemic, I took up horseback riding, which was something I loved as a child. I could do that outside, and still be safe and active… plus, riding keeps you present and disciplined. I began hiking and camping, a lot… that sort of thing. Just trying to find new experiences that kept me sharp. Creativity is pulled from within, from our life. If you’re constantly writing and just banging away at the keyboard 24/7, what are you pulling from? We operate in a very emotional world as filmmakers, whether you’re writing a narrative film, or even if you’re doing something commercial, right? We’re still telling a story, we’re still relating to people. If you are simply spending all your time at the keyboard… how can you… effectively relate to your audience?
Kris Mendoza: Or replenish that well, yeah.
Kelly Murray: Yeah, you have to have that balance, so that you’re not burning it from both ends. I’m fortunate because much of my marketing work is computer-based, so I can easily transition from my marketing world to my freelance or personal writing projects right on my laptop, but the time commitment can be difficult. Right now I work full-time and then I work on my freelance and personal projects in my free time.
I think through the pandemic it was a bit comforting, because I had something to do after working remotely all day, and not really having other places to go. I was doing a lot of Accidentally Wes Anderson (AWA) writing, which was exciting because I got to research and explore different parts of the world each night. AWA features original architecture photography inspired by Wes Anderson’s symmetrical style. As an AWA writer, I’m assigned a photograph and then I write a short history on its location. The histories are intended to be narrative in tone, so it’s a great opportunity to stay creative.
But yeah, I mean, I think just trying to be as present in life as I’m trying to be in my art… remembering that I have to have that source. Before, I felt like I wasn’t a true filmmaker or a true artist or whatever term you want to use unless I was always on set or making something, and I think it’s easy to fall into that hole or the mindset. Of course, if you’re freelancing you want to make sure you have steady work… but what I’m saying is, just don’t forget to experience life.
Kris Mendoza: You make a really good point about how to keep the well full, because even if it’s one project that you’re pouring yourself into, at what point does it get unhelpfully obsessive? I had this uncle who was a composer and he had a very… let’s call it a darker approach to creativity. He made his best work when he was a starved, tormented artist, so he almost did not want, did not aspire to have money, because he made his best work when he was on the brink of losing it.
Kelly Murray: Yea, I think that dynamic is so interesting. I once had a friend say to me, “I don’t think I could be a writer, because I only wrote the best things when I was depressed, and I don’t want to be depressed.” And I remember thinking, Damn, is that what we associate with the creative life? The idea that we must be depressed to create compelling work? But, I know I’ve certainly dealt with that. The relationship between the artist…creativity…and success can be very complicated. I have to actively remind myself that struggling doesn’t always have to equate to creating great art. You have to fight to take yourself out of that mindset sometimes…you can get lost in there if you’re not careful.
Kris Mendoza: Yeah, and that’s when a seemingly straight path is revealed as winding, when the artist is lost internally. There wasn’t really a straight path in what they’re doing, nor are they really at a point where we ever feel like we’ve made it.
Kelly Murray: Yeah.
Kris Mendoza: I think as an artist you’re constantly evolving and constantly trying to figure out what’s next. So I don’t know if there’s a project or a collaboration or an award where you’re like, “You know what? I think I’m done, and I’ve done it, here I am.”
Kelly Murray: Yeah, I think that’s so true. And I don’t know if there’s really a benchmark of success or finality for artists. Even at the highest level of one’s profession or success, there could always be more to do…more to improve…to create…to experiment. I read somewhere, “Even at a Hollywood level, or very large-scale production, the process is still the same. It’s still long days, and it’s a lot of problem-solving, and you have to really love the process.” And I think that goes for any medium. Even after you’ve “made it”, you still need to do the work.
There’s a quote by Ray Bradbury that I like where he says, “You have to stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you”. I’ve interpreted that as you have to remain enchanted by writing. You have to love the process. Writing can be such a difficult, solitary medium, but even though you are, as one, single, solitary person, kind of creating on the page… you have the ability to connect with so many people at one time with your work. You have to really love the grind, be committed to it, and be willing to stay with the work until it’s published on the page…or performed in front of an audience..whichever form it takes shape.
Kris Mendoza: This is leading very well into the next question here, which is – How do you handle vulnerability? This is something that a lot of artists experience, and I’ve been working with someone that’s writing and producing something loosely autobiographical… with that work, whether it’s autobiographical or not, you are kind of making yourself vulnerable and putting a part of you out there, right? I’m sure there are artists who are relatively bold, saying, “Take it or leave it, I don’t care what you think,” but really no one is putting it out there without the understanding that it is now open to other people. What’s that notion like for you in terms of your perspective as an artist, of spending months and hours on something, and taking a chance? I’m not talking about comments on Facebook, or likes, or anything like that, but just the sheer vulnerability of sharing a piece of yourself and then kind of putting it in an unknown space. And now with the internet, it’s forever, right?
Kelly Murray: Oh God, yeah. So like, what are my thoughts [on vulnerability]?
Kris Mendoza: Yeah, are you conscious of that as a creator while you’re creating, and does it embolden you or is it something that makes you anxious or that shy away from?
Kelly Murray: That’s a really good question. I’ve done projects that have been semi-autobiographical, but I think that I was so focused on the creation of the project at the time that those personal tones didn’t emerge until later…
Like, for example, Your Wreckless Heartis a short film in the festival circuit right now. It’s a five-minute drama that we did, about a painter who is dealing with a creative block after a really bad breakup. This project came to be originally as a music video submission for a contest by singer/songwriter Glen Hansard for his song, Wreckless Heart. Which is basically a break up ballad.
So when I stumbled upon this Wreckless Heart contest, I listened to the song, and wrote a treatment involving a painter who is trying to make it in her career… but she’s having trouble balancing her relationship and her creative ambitions, and her relationship ends because of it. But it isn’t until she realizes that her own agency and power is within herself, that she is then able to break through the creative block.
We shot this project in one day, in a really beautiful studio location owned by Robert C. Jackson, who’s an oil painter in Kennett Square, PA. His daughter Becca Jackson was our lead actress, and we had worked with her on The Astronomer. But to your point, I remember thinking, “Let’s make the deadline and let’s enter this video contest.” And it wasn’t until after shooting, when I was putting the edit together, that I realized, “Wow, I pretty much wrote my breakup into the story.”
Kris Mendoza: Ha, Inadvertently!
Kelly Murray: Yeah (laughs). So I guess my point is you talked about vulnerability…and well, that project was definitely an exercise in vulnerability. We ended up not winning the contest, which was fine, because I thought, “Hey, all right, well, we have this beautiful piece, let’s make it its own thing.” So we adjusted it a little bit, added some original poetry by West Chester poet A.E. McIntyre, and emerged with this really beautiful standalone piece. But, it took me a really long time to edit.
During the secondary post-production portion of it, Hillary kept asking, “So, how’s Wreckless Heart coming along?” And I would say, “I’m working on it.” (laughs) But really, I think I was putting it off a little bit, because I was dealing with watching that breakup over and over again. But even now when it’s in festivals…the audience doesn’t know that they’re watching “my” break-up on screen. They don’t know that deep, autobiographical part of it, but they can appreciate the story. And they can relate to it. That’s where vulnerability is so key…and that’s the beauty of art — creating that connection through the presentation of our own experiences.
I usually tell people when they’re working on a script that might have autobiographical tones [and they’re questioning whether or not they should include a personal detail], “Try to ‘go there’. Try to go to that painful, uncomfortable place, whatever it may be, and see what comes of it.” The goal is not to be a whistleblower. You’re not making a reality show, you’re not just going to put everything out there. But if there’s something in your story that’s pulled from a life experience and it’s not quite leaving you, try revisiting that experience and see what you can pull from it to weave into your script. Because more often than not, people will relate to that personal struggle more than you’ll ever realize.
A lot of the narrative projects I’ve worked on, like Blockwith Carrie Brennan… that was a beautiful story of coming to terms with her own sexuality. That’s not an easy topic for anyone. Halfway to Fifty with Amanda Mazzone, dealt with themes of self-acceptance, and her relationship with her mom… again, a very personal thing. These stories are beautiful examples of vulnerability, and the response I’ve seen to these projects is incredible.
So I definitely think that when it comes to vulnerability…you know, we’re in the business of connecting and sharing emotions with people…so if it’s something that you’re really afraid of sharing, I guess just explore it, and see what comes of it, and then express it artfully. More often than not, people will relate to it, and you’ll get that connection. Because when we make a film or write a story, we’re trying to move people emotionally, right?
Kris Mendoza: That leads me to my last question here, and it’s a perfect segue, what’s next for you? Anything you want to tease, anything you’re working on that you are able to talk about right now?
Kelly Murray: Absolutely. So, I’m in post-production for a documentary called The Openers. Hillary and I are co-producing. We followed our friend Karol Brehany, an aspiring Philadelphia-based comedian, for about a year and a half while he pursued stand-up comedy. It’s really a story about beginnings. We often discover comedians, either they’ve been on the circuit for a while, or they might have a Netflix special, or we see them at the top of their game. But what Karol wanted to do was really show what it’s like to break into it from the ground up.
In late January, I’m directing a short film written and produced by Becca Jackson. It’s currently untitled, but it’s a drama that explores the dynamics of emotional abuse in relationships. We’re currently in pre-production now and have some great talent lined up on both sides of the camera, so I think it will be a really powerful project.
And then later this year, I’ll be directing a short film called Ligeia by actor/writer John Reshetar. It’s an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe short story by the same name. I wasn’t really familiar with the story until John brought it to me. It’s a story about a young writer who is taking care of his ailing second wife, while being haunted by his first wife’s ghost. It’s like a horror love triangle involving a ghost… so yeah, very gothic and very Edgar Allan Poe.
Kris Mendoza: That sounds cool.
Kelly Murray: Yeah, I love period film. So those are the next projects that I’m focusing on, and other than that, just working and taking a day at a time during this pandemic, for sure.
Kris Mendoza: It was great to hear a little of your story… I think these are the things people connect with the most, to hear you be so honest about your journey. I’m excited to see all the stuff that you’re working on, and also see how that has evolved over time into bigger, better things. But yeah, I see you staying busy on the production side of things and continuing to learn… any final thoughts for us?
Kelly Murray:Yeah, definitely… I think looking back, what I’ve learned is don’t be afraid to fail, keep going, and that there is no clear path to success. I kind of see this film journey as a marathon, not a sprint, right? I still feel like I have a lot more to contribute and I hope I’m able to continue to make films.
We’ve talked about themes of entrepreneurship, and kind of…the approach to business or approach to the industry, and I think it’s important to maintain that professional mindset in this industry. It’s about building relationships with people…whether it’s strengthening your network, or really focusing on how you can help people. And on the creative side of things, you can’t be afraid to express yourself. I don’t know if this is corny or not, but I’ve always liked the quote, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
Usually something that you’re really nervous about, usually you have to get over that mental block. And you find that it just takes a little bit of courage to go there. And whether it’s telling a tough story, applying for that gig, or even just saying you want to pitch something to someone…just push yourself to try, and just keep going. More often than not in the creative community, there are like-minded individuals and plenty of opportunity. There’s plenty of room for you and your story — so trust yourself, be true to yourself, and focus on creating.
Kris Mendoza: Absolutely. I think that’s a good place to end there, because I firmly believe, like you’re saying, Creativity happens on the edge of comfort.. where comfort ends and your fear begins. Thanks so much for the time!
Welcome Back! Maestro Filmworks is proud to open the fall season with a new monthly installment of Project Forte featuring Sofiya Abena Ballin (she/her) a compelling storyteller across multiple mediums, thriving right here in Philadelphia. Sofiya has evolved through creative writing and journalism, to production and editing, taking fierce care of the valuable human stories she excavates. Her project, Black History Untold, was born to print but has since blossomed into film, immersing the viewer into an intimate sharing of experience. Sofiya and her team gather raw perspectives tied to unsung ancestry, bringing the suppressed influences and inspirations of Black lives to us in a full, compelling and emotive way. These stories, as well as Sofiya’s own journey, create opportunities for empathy amongst us and refresh our understanding of how lush Black history is. She fought to see her vision fulfilled, overcoming outdated barriers that stifle the change we hope to make in our society. Work like this encourages new growth and conversation, which we know is a grand beginning not only for our communities but for Sofiya Ballin.
Kris Mendoza: So how long have you been writing? Can you give me a little bit of background on your work?
Sofiya Ballin:Growing up, acting was always my passion and my love. I was able to stay involved in drama by taking acting classes but sort of moved that creativity to the back of my mind because, as a child of immigrants, there was an expectation to gear toward becoming a doctor or lawyer. But I did start writing poetry in high school as an outlet when I was being picked on and that medium stuck for me. I joined the Newspaper Club and garnered a friend group that supported what I was doing: kinda trying to figure out why we think the way we do and using journalism as the method to explore and investigate that.
I went to Temple University, majored in journalism, wrote for a local music magazine, ran a blog for Huffington Post, and freelanced here and there while going to school. I was interning at the Daily News when I got hired by The Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s funny though, I actually cried my first day because, as much as I love reporting, I still didn’t know if it was what I wanted. It felt a little stuck behind a desk and not as creative as I wanted to be. Despite being worried that I’d get too comfortable, I stayed with the Inquirer, and benefitted from a whirlwind of experiences. I got to interview everyone from Tyler Perry to Whoopi Goldberg and Tamron Hall. And of course, while I was there, I started one of my most important projects centered on Black History.
Essentially, I was asked by my editors to produce a few write-ups for Black History Month . I just remember it centering on the same figures we typically discuss around February, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, etc. These people are all prolific. But part of me was like, “Really?”
Kris Mendoza: This is stuff we learned 20 years ago in school, right? That’s nothing new.
Sofiya Ballin:Exactly, right? Black history is treated a lot like the plastic Christmas tree you have in your basement that you just dust off like, “Oh, it’s Christmas.” But what I know about Black history and Black culture is so vibrant and so colorful. I said to myself, “You know what? This year I’ll do it their way. But next year, I’ll do it differently…” And that eventually became Black History Untold.
I got inspired by my own experience growing up in a Jamaican household where I was learning so much about Black American history, African history, and Caribbean history. And then when I went to school, I wasn’t getting that. I was getting those same four or five figures, right? It wasn’t as comprehensive, and I was seeing the impact of that on students and especially Black students and how they saw themselves. How does it impact your psyche when you’re taught that your legacy, your lineage began in shackles?
I realize the impact of losing parts of your history. It affects what you know about yourself, how you view yourself, and your level of confidence, especially as a Black person in this world. How does a queer Black kid feel like they’re seen and accepted if they don’t know about Bayard Rustin, who wasn’t mainstream news coverage until now. He was a queer civil rights leader working alongside Martin Luther King?
So that next year, I decided to interview Black people, and investigate their untold Black history. I think there have been many half-truths spread in schools, but we learn it outside in our communities and from our families by hearing the personal histories that changed them. We live in a very anti-Black world. And then this is a very anti-Black country, where every day you’re told overtly or covertly, that you’re not good enough, that you’re a criminal, that you’re too much. We are consistently told these lies about ourselves. So I wanted Black people to share the stories that changed how they viewed themselves, and how it got them where they are.
Kris Mendoza:Where did you start looking for those stories?
Sofiya Ballin:So I put together a dream list, and pitched it to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and they loved it. We kept it Philly specific with a mix of celebrities like Jazmine Sullivan and Marc Lamont Hill and also everyday dope people. I don’t know if you know the actor and activist Jesse Williams..
Kris Mendoza: Yeah, I do.
Sofiya Ballin:A lot of people don’t know he went to Temple and he taught in Philadelphia schools, so he was perfect. I said, oh Black Thought, it’d be great to have him…. and all of these people said yes! Black Thought talked about reading Cheikh Anta Diop’s work and realizing, “I don’t come from a ‘dark continent’. I come from a continent where math and science was innovated.” Jazmine Sullivan talked about Negro Spirituals and how the messaging and music impacts her, not only as a singer but as a songwriter, to be intentional about the messaging she puts in her music.
Kris Mendoza: That’s inspiring, is there a repository where all these exist?
Sofiya Ballin:You can find the independent installments at blkhistoryuntold.com. Those first two installments would be on Philly.com. That year I produced it with The Philadelphia Inquirer and it had a great response. I was getting letters from the penitentiary to the nursing home. Second year, I introduced themes… I did it through the lens of Black joy. That’s when I had Malcolm Jenkins, a former Philadelphia Eagle, and Sonia Sanchez.
At the time, this was 2016, I was one of the few young Black reporters at The Inquirer. I had to compromise, ask for permission, explain things, and create a vision that, to me, didn’t fit how I wanted it to be or how I, as a Black person, felt that Black people would want to be depicted. I wanted to get out from under the restrictions and focus on the work, so I aimed to introduce film and produce independently down the line. I think film is so incredible, just capturing the emotional attachment we have with our history and our identity. It’s so sacred.
A lot of these revelations and these interviews are very emotional, and I wanted to capture that and show the beauty of that. There are so many times when I’m interviewing people, and hear, “For the first time I saw myself as someone to be revered – For the first time, I saw myself, my people, in a different light – For the first time I feel like I have a better sense of who I am.”
Kris Mendoza: It’s interesting you say that, right? Because some of these people, they’re already celebrities, and influencers and politicians in the limelight. So for them to share those moments for the first time is very telling as to who’s controlling the narrative and what’s out there; not only for the general public, but for fellow Black folk to consume. It’s very important work, what you created, can you tell us about getting it to video?
Sofiya Ballin:So after the second installment in 2018, as the project began winning awards, the newsroom became more supportive of the project and wanted to plan for the next year… And I said, “I quit.”
Kris Mendoza: What did that feel like?
Sofiya Ballin:It was the scariest, boldest thing I’ve ever done, but I wanted to protect the project. Also, I was growing, myself. I wanted to introduce video work, and that wasn’t where The Inquirer was at that time. I managed, by the grace of God, to produce the project independently, still as portraits and text but without the salary I had, and fully self-funded.
For my second independent installment, I linked up with the Brooklyn Nets to do a New York specific series. It was so wild. I got an email at 5 am.. And when I tell you, I read this and I thought I was going delusional. It was an email from the former CMO Elizabeth Brooks, writing to say she has been googling untold Black history, and wanted to tell Black History in a more intentional way. Similar to the Christmas tree analogy, she didn’t want it to just be the same thing, every year.
The Brooklyn Nets had the capital for me to bring on a photographer I really admired, Joshua Kissi, who then brought on a DP, Emmanuel Afolabi, who I now still have a working relationship with. And once I saw the stories expressed with emotion, through music and video, I couldn’t go back. I think the medium just complemented the project so beautifully and the audience was able to connect better.
So that’s how I got into the film industry – I had no experience or academic background in film production. It was a challenge. I had a larger team of people behind the project at The Inquirer, a 200 year old company with wide reach and resources and when I left, it was just my photographer, myself, and my friend (Temi Oyelola) was a graphic designer. As the project gained more support, I started slowly building my team up to 13 people. I learned how to produce and direct, made some expensive mistakes but I also know I have great instincts. I think that it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s really, really beautiful work.
Kris Mendoza: Hearing about your trajectory is so important, because the value of storytelling – whether you’re writing for a newspaper or teasing out for video – is preserving the voice and experience of a person. A large part of Project Forte is telling your story as it connects to the ones you are working to tell, like every story is important and adds to the fuller understanding of the human experience.
Sofiya Ballin:Yes, sure the project has some household names, but I’ve also had everyday people. It’s important to treat the story as valid no matter what your tax bracket is. No matter what your visibility level is, the purpose is to show that though we are different we also share similarities that are part of the Black/African experience.
It also helped that we were a young Black crew, and I do think people felt more comfortable sharing their stories fully in that space.
Kris Mendoza: I’m glad you bring that up because there’s a question, not only around which stories are being told, but who is qualified to tell them. There’s no shortage of Black people, Asian people, or Brown people in this field, they’re only lost in the sea of the status quo, which just so happens to be very White-male driven, not even in an anti-White or anti-White-male approach. It’s present in examples of big budget Hollywood films coming out about Asian experiences: the cast may be billed as an all-Asian crew and maybe it’s filmed in Asia, but when the director at the top is “someone-Goldberg” it seems like they completely missed the point. What if Do the Right Thing was made by a White director and not by Spike Lee, it’d be completely different, right?
There’s a respectable way to tell stories of other cultures without having to be in that culture, so I’m not saying these films fail to make a difference, but I’d certainly like to see change reach the more powerful positions.
Sofiya Ballin:Yeah, I’m always shocked whenever I see these documentaries with “White hipster guys” going to Haiti or Thailand-
Kris Mendoza: “White Savior” tropes
Sofiya Ballin:Yeah. I’m like, “Why are we still doing this?” It’s upsetting. With Black History Untold there have been really powerful moments shared because our crew created such a welcoming and comfortable environment just by being Black and open to hearing the story. We interviewed a man for our Revolution Series who was wrongfully convicted of a crime and spent over 20 years behind bars. He said, “Some people get caught with drugs and all they get is a slap on the wrist, but if you or me …” And when he said “you or me” he was acknowledging us behind the scenes. That we too could have been in a similar situation. It was a simple acknowledgement that expressed that he knew we understood him. It was something really small but I took note of the fact that he felt he didn’t have to explain too much.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve noticed that people hold back in certain ways if there isn’t that level of familiarity and understanding. You feel like you can’t be fully transparent. There’s a direct link between the environment and crew, to the raw, honest material we get.
Kris Mendoza: That’s a huge point.
Sofiya Ballin:When I did pitch the project the first time, I had a hard time with The Inquirer… I said I wanted all Black people on the project and they were like, “Great, and we can add white people and Asian people and have them talk about Black history…
I had to be more specific and make it an identity series. Black history impacts Black people in a very specific way, and that’s what I want to explore. For some reason, when it comes to discussing our culture and our history there’s this need to diversify it. I think it makes it feel like less of a threat to people who are caught up in their white guilt. But that’s not my business.
Historically in the press, Black people have been misrepresented or underrepresented so at the very least, let Black History Month be a time where we hear Black voices. Oftentimes, when our stories are not told by us, you can tell. It feels like an outside gaze. It can present as exoticization. The stereotypes and sensationalized versions of Black people are what’s presented. It’s an idea of us. But it’s not us. When we tell our stories, with full agency, it feels like home. For some people, these stories are home. When people watch our work, it hits a chord in them, it speaks to a place inside that only someone who is of that experience can understand.
And again, it doesn’t mean that someone who isn’t of a specific culture can’t help create something great. Especially if they’re intentional and do their research. I think that different people have different perspectives. But we have to get to the point where we have all those seats at the table, before we can really have that conversation. Because right now, only white people have had that chance in America. It’s mostly white men in the director’s chair, right?
Kris Mendoza: I dig. You mentioned the word exoticize, and I see that as connected to another issue. For corporations, it could become performative and miss the point. Having a diversity division makes a company look good, but once they push all our people of color to the forefront and take all their photos, posting everywhere… Will it continue every day or will it become another Pride Month or Black History Month? Will this behavior be sealed off into the realm of “special occasion” which we forget during the “normal” day?
Is it the lesser of two evils, to see it as performance and accept it anyway because of the good it still does?
Sofiya Ballin:That was a big motivator for my project, because the way we celebrated Black History Month, felt very much like, “Oh, the time has come. So let’s just put this up so the coloreds can be happy.” It doesn’t feel intentional.
Kris Mendoza: It becomes a Hallmark holiday.
Sofiya Ballin:Yeah, it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel personal. And therefore, it defeats the purpose of helping others learn what really happened in this country and is still happening. Personally, I don’t do something just to do it. I’m very intentional about every decision that I make. And when you talked about performative actions and the lesser two evils, it reminds me of something Martin Luther King said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
Sometimes, unfortunately, it becomes this thing where you have to mandate it before it becomes natural for future generations. I still think in many ways we’re in a place where inclusivity has to be mandated and is treated as an obligation at many companies. Something I heard in the journalism world a lot when people were talking about diversity, I’d hear “We can’t find them. We can’t find them.”
Kris Mendoza: Like there’s not enough?
Sofiya Ballin: “There’s not enough!” (they say) And yet I know so many of them! And they are so ridiculously talented, right? And overqualified!
A lot of these newsrooms can feel like a white boys’ club. And I think that people just look for people with backgrounds like theirs. What J school did you go to? Or what film school did you go to? Instead of realizing one, not everybody has all those resources…
Kris Mendoza: It becomes very homogenous very quickly if you’re not trying.
Sofiya Ballin:Yeah. One: not everyone has access to those universities, to those networks. And two: culturally, different people have told stories and passed down history in different ways, you know what I mean? And just because it may not be an important story to you or it’s not told in the way you’re used to, doesn’t mean it’s not a story within a community or that it’s not told well. Space needs to be made for that.
Kris Mendoza: Exactly. Let’s transition into some of the stuff you’re working on now and what’s next for you. I read your bio and loved that line – a dose of trap and a sprinkle of Black girl magic. We’ve talked a lot about your project and your approach to winning space for Black people, but you have not once really mentioned even being a woman in the midst of all this. What’s that extra layer like? There’s a quote I’ve seen a lot recently, stating “The Black woman is the most disrespected person in society.” Can you unpack how that relates to you and how does that reflect in your work?
Sofiya Ballin:That’s such a deep, deep question. And that’s a Malcolm X quote.I think that I’ve realized more as I’ve gotten older, through the many ways that I am treated, that there’s a sensitivity growing within me over this. Especially when it comes to directing. That is the big one, because not everyone takes well to a woman leading.
Kris Mendoza: Black or not, just women in general.
Sofiya Ballin:Women in general. And being a Black woman adds an extra layer. I have to get myself out of it and remind myself, “Sofiya you can’t be mousy. When you want something done, say it… be firm about it.” But I have such a great team because they encourage me. My camera ops, Lou Peluyera , who’s a good friend of mine, will be like, “Sofiya, it’s okay. You’re good at this. You know what you’re doing. Just be confident.”
And then I think when you add being a Black woman as your leader, especially on the business end, people will really try to take advantage of you. And people will really try to low ball you for your work. I have a lawyer friend who I’m constantly having to reach out to, to work with me on contracts, or to make sure I get paid because I have, in the past, done work for someone on good faith that they would pay me or pay me my worth.
So I’ve learned that doesn’t always happen, right? And I’m like, this is what I learned in my African American studies classes. This is what I’ve been writing about. But I’m living it, right? I’m actually watching people tell me they want to pay me nothing or a really low rate, but then in the next breath telling someone else they’re going to be paid more. That is disrespect.
We produced Black History Untold: Love , our 1 hour and 10 minute doc and interviewed 13 couples, and we did it in three or four days. It was a lot, but it was planned to a T. So it was very exhausting production, but also exhausting because of the mental demands of “bracing myself” sometimes for how people would combat or communicate with me… people outside of my team.
To be honest I might have to take a break this year, because it was just so much. We saw what happened May through June with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It pushed me that year because I was like, “People need to talk about Black love.” But also with Breonna Taylor specifically, I was reminded of this woman named Oluwatoyin Salau. She’s a Nigerian-American woman I wrote about in the Washington Post, who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed. I did so much research involving how many Black women and girls are missing, it’s this trajectory of…
Kris Mendoza: It’s a pattern.
Sofiya Ballin:Yeah, it’s a pattern of erasure and disrespect. And it’s not because you don’t have a voice, but because people don’t want to listen to you. Oluwatoyin Salau said she needed help, before she was kidnapped. Breonna Taylor was killed in her home. And the reason why people kept pushing her name, is because so often when Black women and girls are killed in general and by the police, people don’t really rally around them the same. And why is that?
It’s a lot to be thrown into the understanding of this bigger picture and suddenly see my place in it, noticing how people are talking to me. I’ve become more and more sensitive to it.
Being a Black woman is an absolute gift, especially as a storyteller. Ava DuVernay has a quote about how as a Black woman you can… It’s almost like you see everything, right? I know what it’s like to be a woman, I know what it’s like to be a person of color. And that finds its way into my stories.
I wouldn’t trade being a black woman for anything. I hate the way the world treats us, I think we deserve better. We do a lot of incredible work, and we don’t get paid for it. We don’t get recognized. But I think that it’s truly been a gift to my storytelling and my life, especially the way that it’s made me really see the world. What I’ve experienced behind the scenes, I can take that and put that in my work, creating something specific to that.
Kris Mendoza: So, as you were saying in the beginning, this is where you draw your strength from. This is what motivates you. But I do see, when you talk about that Black girl magic, this is the source… It’s kind of like your blessing and your curse of what drives you, why you are so outspoken.
As an artist, and as a writer, as a filmmaker, I definitely think that identity as a Black female can certainly be a thumbprint all over your work. There’s no separating your identity from your work. No matter what, if it’s very culture focused, female focused or not, I feel like everything is very strongly through the lens of what only you can tell.
Sofiya Ballin:I think as a Black woman in this industry, in journalism and film, in any industry, shit, it’s so important to be confident in yourself. And it’s so important to trust. And I say this all the time but trust your vision and trust your voice. And it’s something that I’m still working on because the world won’t validate it, right? Even with this project in the beginning, I was told, “It’s not going to work. It’s just not.” When I left my job, the first thing one of the editors told me was, “I think this is a horrible idea.” I have to constantly push and prove my bankability, prove the value of my work.
Kris Mendoza: You’re wearing a weighted vest with everything you’re doing. A double weighted vest even – when everyone else is running.
Sofiya Ballin:Exactly, exactly, exactly. And that’s why Black women get the title of strong all the time. Because they’re carrying around that extra weighted vest. But every time someone compliments a Black woman on her strength, I’m like, “That’s a time that she’s struggled and you or someone else didn’t help carry the load.”
And that’s where I think the ally-ship comes in. And I think Black women try to do that for each other.
Kris Mendoza: Last question here, what’s next for you? What’s on the slate for Sofiya?
Sofiya Ballin:Yeah. I’m in such an interesting place entering this film world. I’ve mastered writing and I still want to keep doing this project. I’m just trying to solidify the system, if that makes sense. I think that I’ve been very integral to all of the pieces and I want to get to a point where it kind of runs itself. So for the future, I think that I’m going to be refining Black History Untold.
I’m also writing the script for a short film that I’m really passionate about. It goes into Jamaican culture and being first generation. I really am a storyteller of all the mediums. And now I think the next step is figuring out how to become an octopus, and how to do a little bit of all of them. Because that’s when I feel my happiest and that’s when I feel like I’m living my true purpose.
Hector David Tapia (he/him) has been working as a Director and DP in Philadelphia for over two years since moving to the United States from Mexico City. This month on Project Forte, he sheds light on the uniqueness of Mexican cinema as it hinges on the idea of a compact, multifaceted crew who thrives by innovating and problem-solving out of creative necessity. This is slightly different from the larger American machine, which can afford increased specialization due to enormous budgets and crews; and therefore, less departmental interrelationship. As witnessed by Hector, many who contribute to Mexican cinema are rewarded with resourcefulness in exchange for the passion they must pour into overcoming each obstacle. True to that experience, Hector brings every skill to bear when on set, trusting in his fellow filmmakers and inspiring camaraderie. It takes a connection, an opportunity, and a yes to open doors, and his story is no exception. Read on to hear more about Hector’s journey so far!
Kris Mendoza:Welcome to Project Forte, Hector. Let’s begin with how you got your start in the industry.
Hector Tapia:It was probably 15 years ago, when I started out as an editor for a TV network. I was mainly editing live concerts, documentaries for bands and stuff like that. I was really focused on the indie scene back in the days, probably 2005 to 2010. I was in Mexico City at the time, focusing on editing those kinds of projects and it was like a full five years of just sitting and editing.
Kris Mendoza:What drew you to the profession? What were some early influences other than the music scene which led you to understand you wanted to pursue this? Were you a big moviegoer growing up?
Hector Tapia: That’s an interesting question because throughout the years I discovered it really goes back to my childhood. I always saw my dad grabbing the camera, like all the time. For example, at Christmas, he would wake up really, really early and wait for us with the camera ready to see that Santa Claus had come and then he would capture our reactions. That was a constant image that I’ve had stuck in my mind since my childhood. But, my only dream and goal at that time was to be a professional soccer player. I had tunnel vision for the sport until high school. Eventually, things with soccer got complicated and I lost interest in pursuing a professional career when I was in my senior year and it’s funny cause that’s exactly when filmmaking entered the frame for the first time when we had this final project assignment to craft a video. I think that was my first official approach toward this passion.
There were three or four of us on a team and we could do anything we wanted, we had complete creative freedom. So we filmed at a friend’s place and I remember recording and somehow “directing” him. It was like an “I’m having a nightmare” kind of scene. I remember saying or feeling like a really interesting exercise to me. To be honest, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it but it didn’t matter because I think I internalized the main message: “I enjoyed filming a movie”. Back in 2002, we didn’t have access to nonlinear editing software like today and we figured out a way to edit that piece. I think we just recorded the TV screen and then we would basically edit on camera. That part was really tough and tricky for us, but in the end, we delivered the final product so it was a success.
Moving forward, I went on to college and studied engineering for a year. Just as I was realizing that was not for me at all, my older cousin was also switching from his engineering major into communications. He said to me, “Why don’t you try this too? Maybe you like photography.” I was really frustrated with my engineering major and that question really inspired me to look back at the camera and that previous experience of making a film made all sense, it was like: “Yeah, I think that’s what I was looking for this whole time.”
And I really liked the program and what the career offered at the time, cause it’s always changing. The only thing I regret is the fact that it was going to be a huge extra cost for my parents, a whole year of tuition to the trash but they were really supportive as always. They made me and helped me feel comfortable switching to a creative career. Then, within the first two years, I met a friend who needed me to edit and retouch photos for her, and I realized that I really liked that creative process as well. She connected me to her boyfriend who was a producer at this TV network and luckily they were recruiting. He interviewed me, it was like a quick stand-up interview, I remember him saying “You seem like a good fit” and then he walked me through the door of the Executive Directors. I was so nervous but that second interview went well and the next day I showed up and started editing my first TV show. I was really lucky to get that job.
Kris Mendoza:Nice. What was the industry like in Mexico City at that time? Is it a totally different animal from the United States?
Hector Tapia:I mean, some people say that it’s really a closed circuit –
Hector Tapia:Yeah, like a tightly woven industry. It is very large, although I was really lucky it is indeed hard to find an opening. I remember one of my post-production teachers explaining communications as a broad spectrum. He said “In this major, you basically have these options: Radio, TV, Commercials or Cinema. And more sad news… he said, you will only have one or two opportunities in your lifetime to get into the industry. So, don’t waste them. That was like the word, the clear message.
Kris Mendoza:It sounds like you were doing a lot of Post at that point, but as far as Mexican, the U.S., or even global filmmakers, who were some folks that you were following and being inspired by?
Hector Tapia:I know it’s gonna sound cliché but definitely one of my main influences was Alejandro González Iñarritu when he released his first feature: Amores Perros, in 2000. It was very impactful to me. I remember watching that movie 10 or 15 times with one of my best friends in high school and it just woke us up. We thought, “Wow, this is something new. This is amazing. This is Mexico.” We memorized almost entire sequences, dialogues, and scenes. It had such a raw texture, visually innovative, super complex scriptwriting, and great performances. It was a complete boom and success in my country. That movie revolutionized and changed Mexican cinema forever. Because, back to my childhood again, in the early to mid-’90s, Mexican cinema was garbage, I remember going to the theater with my family to watch “La Risa en Vacaciones 5” a prank movie saga, they made like eight movies, all exactly the same: actors, jokes, pranks, places, and songs. At the time we laughed a little, but now I look back at that era and it’s like: “What the hell happened to those Mexican filmmakers? Then, a few years later, we all saw Iñarritu, Arriaga, Cuarón, Del Toro, Lubezki, and many others raising their hand and the rest is history.
Back to Amores Perros, at the time I was just a pure viewer, you know what I mean? I didn’t have this bias of being on set or of being a cinematographer, yet. I wasn’t analyzing the technical aspects of the movie. I was just like into-
Kris Mendoza:– Drawn into it?
Hector Tapia:Exactly. I just let myself absorb it. That was my first big impact and big influence. Then also, I really liked Y Tu Mama Tambien from Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki. Those guys were my biggest influences starting out and still, they are.
Kris Mendoza:Very cool influences and I should say even without knowing too much about Mexican cinema, it was very clear to see at the time that they were inspiring and inspired by a global zeitgeist. I know Iñárritu did Babel in the early 2000s, but I feel like it wasn’t really until 2014 when he did Birdman that he became a household name.
So, using this as a jumping-off point, let me ask you: what makes Mexican cinema unique? Are there some elements or approaches within Mexican storytelling that differ from other cultures in terms of filmmaking?
Hector Tapia:I would say first that Mexican filmmakers are great problem solvers and they are driven by their passion, so they always find a way. The budgets for Mexican films also tend to be smaller which encourages a lot of multi-tasking and creativity. That’s one of the main differences between U.S. and Mexican filmmakers. For example, in Mexico, most of the time one person will cover a lot of roles while here in the US it’s really uncommon to see that, it is definitely more structured here at all levels of production cause everyone has a specific role. I think it can be seen as an advantage for a Mexican filmmaker, because if you don’t have the budget, you are going to try a thousand different ideas to get your project made and learn so much from each experience.
Kris Mendoza:Yeah, you get resourceful very quickly when you don’t have the budget.
Hector Tapia:Exactly. And we are like that, we don’t let any obstacle stop us. And you know, we have this beautiful ability to connect, and that aids in our resourcefulness. Sometimes you have to make friends get the shot, whether that just means talking to the police in a hectic and crowded location to get them on board, knock doors to see if the neighbors allow you to come in to get the shot from their balcony, or even helping someone in the crew solve a problem.
Kris Mendoza:When we talk about resourcefulness and smaller productions with really high value, the first person that comes to mind is Robert Rodriguez. Obviously, he’s American-born but of Mexican descent, and shot a lot of his early work, like El Mariachi, in Mexico. He did a lot with very little.
Kris Mendoza: It’s really interesting to see how restricted access to X, Y, or Z inspired a creatively stimulating environment, where you were forced to think outside the box. I read Rebel Without a Crew, which was very insightful in its approach and reminds me of this, but I never thought of the cultural fingerprints involved. Thinking about Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids) or Iñárritu (Revenant) you can see that moment when you do finally get access, in this case, to all these toys and all these resources – you are unleashed and your creativity can be fully activated. Is that what brought you to Philadelphia?
Hector Tapia:Actually, I made that decision out of love, really. About 3 or 4 years ago my wife was given a really nice opportunity to work here and took it because it was a good financial decision for us. It was rough on our relationship, but I traveled back and forth as much as I could, especially to see my daughter and Melanie (my wife) flew back to Mexico sometimes for vacations. She has a really good relationship with my family so we got through it in the end.
Finally, she did say, “I’m not moving back to Mexico. The only way you can stay with us is if you move to the U.S., to Philly with us.” So despite the fear of moving, love definitely won that battle and things have really been working out well since then.
Kris Mendoza:That’s amazing. You know, I didn’t realize until recently that your wife is Melanie Silva! I follow each of you separately and it finally clicked when I saw you both post the trailer for the really touching piece about your daughter.
Hector Tapia:Oh, that’s awesome!
Kris Mendoza:What’s it like being in a relationship where you are both in the same creative field? I’m so curious to know what it’s like to live and breathe creativity, art, and film production at home and even work together in some regard.
Hector Tapia:That’s a very interesting question because it was really hard at the beginning, but we evolved and balanced. We met at this TV channel in Mexico City. She and my sister were both editing and they became best friends. That was how we connected and then we started spending more time with each other.
Melanie is a very talented filmmaker and storyteller, while I’m more focused on the visual realization. She’s always telling me, like, ” You have to focus more on the story.” Then I say, “You have to focus more on the visual ” [jokes] I think we push and also complement each other really well, but in the beginning, it was a little bumpy trying to meet halfway.
Sometimes when we’re together, there’s a little healthy competition, and I have to remember that one is not better than the other, we only have different styles. Also, when I started focusing more on cinematography and directing, she started to focus more on producing. She and one of her best friends and colleagues have now founded their own media company here in Philly and our talents and styles can be combined and complementary.
But it’s also really nice to see that we can accomplish and deliver projects of our own. It’s not, like, all wonderful. Obviously, we have some friction sometimes when we’re stubborn about our approach. But we’ve arrived at something really really sharp and true to what we want with this project you mentioned earlier, Dear Sofia, which is about our daughter.
Kris Mendoza:I bet it would be totally different if you were both directors or both DPS. Your nuanced differences mean you can complement each other and also enrich each other’s work in terms of open constructive critique.
I know personally, I would have a tough time opening up my creative vulnerabilities to my significant other, let alone wearing two different hats with them. When you’re working on something as personal as Dear Sofia, how do you switch on work? Any advice for couples in the same field?
Hector Tapia: It’s really tough because sometimes, for example with this project, we’re spontaneously being inspired by something interesting that Sofia is doing. I have to follow my impulse to just grab the camera and start. It’s a matter of seconds to switch the hat, being a parent and then a filmmaker. We do like to keep our work separate for some of our other projects.
As far as advice, I would say probably the word would be humbleness if that makes sense from both sides. It’s important to set aside your egos. Rather than battle, you listen and ask questions out of love and respect for the other. You have to be open to hearing them and learning them, which helps you to know each other’s weaknesses and talents in terms of storytelling. When you can share like that first, you find out that you really can have some separation and be in charge of one part of the process while they are in charge of the other. You trust each other with the talents you see in them.
It really helps to always approach the other with a respectful suggestion, and not tell them they can’t do it. I find myself asking “What do you think about this mood for the scene?” or “What do you see if this is the direction I want to go?”
Kris Mendoza:I watched the trailer that you both posted and was very moved by the visuals and the story, so I can see each of you in it already. Just to touch on your daughter’s personal experience a little, I’ve had experience with the diagnosis of autism in the family and what that can mean for your relationship with your family, especially your wife. Talk to me about how that project came to be and how it’s evolving.
Hector Tapia:We’ve been filming for almost a year, because it’s entirely dependent upon Sofia’s mood, and some days we only shoot one or two scenes. It’s been a learning curve, and of course, we have two different processes regarding Sofia’s autism. Melanie has her own way and I think I go a little bit slower than her. My acceptance of the diagnosis, I mean. It’s going to be almost two years now. She was diagnosed back in September 2019, and for me, it was really tough to understand because my daughter is so wonderful.
I began processing by minimizing her behavior. I was in denial, saying “no, to me she’s, like, a neuro-typical little girl.” I wasn’t embracing her difference, but Melanie helped a lot with my process. She did a lot of research, read books, and subscribed to Autism groups on Facebook with other parents who were sharing their experiences and knowledge. While she did that, I was mainly focused on my work but then I realized that it was not going to be good enough for me and for Sofia. I started to get more and more involved and then I suddenly became inspired to use my camera to help me see what I needed to see: Sofia.
I told Melanie that it will be really helpful to me if I just start filming her, just be with her on and off camera and explore what happens. She agreed and so we talked with Sofia. She loves to watch videos. Actually, I edited a video for her every year for her birthday and it makes her so happy. She always likes to watch them a thousand times and memorize her words or “dialogues” in each video. In terms of filming the movie, which is more of a docu verité, we always ask her first, because sometimes she doesn’t want to film and isn’t in the mood and we must respect that. It all started a healing process, working on this film with my family. I’m always editing some sequences and going through the footage and then I see things, looks, reactions, and behaviors about Sofia that I wasn’t aware of, so shooting this movie has been really insightful in terms of that and also therapeutic for me.
It’s important to ask yourself what your motivations are when you do something like this. Personally, I’m always checking in to make sure I am doing the right thing or asking if I’m being selfish by making my daughter a subject. Do you know what I mean? It’s a very difficult situation, internally for me. But Melanie, our parents, and our family, have all been really supportive about that because they can see we are doing this out of love for Sofia. We don’t want to expose her. So far, we’ve agreed that we would not show tantrums or expose her to ridicule because she wouldn’t be able to say that is ok to film.
Kris Mendoza:I can see you’re concerned about exploiting your daughter’s story and situation, but at the end of the day, I think it sounds like your hearts are all in the right place. You’re really documenting for her, and for your family, which is something I’m totally used to. My dad documented every waking step of our lives growing up and always had a camera.
I think you are blessed with the opportunity that you are actually a professional in the industry so you can capture these moments and turn them into art. I think if other parents and families can get anything out of your message, it would be hugely impactful for those who are experiencing their journey of acceptance with an ASD diagnosis. I am looking forward to seeing more of it.
It seems like you’ve really sunk your teeth into the Philly scene, working with a couple of different production companies. What makes you do what you do? Why do you love it? And what’s next around the pike for you?
Hector Tapia:What’s next? I want to film and film and keep filming for the rest of my life. That’s what I want. Regarding Philly, I love working with Kyra Knox, a very talented emerging director and producer. We are actually shooting her first documentary feature and also I really enjoy working with you and your team at Maestro. I’m so happy that you consider me for the work you are doing. I’m excited to see what Philly has to offer this year and as I expand my career. Also, I’ve been shooting documentaries in LA and would love to shoot more in New York. I’ve been pretty lucky. Obviously, I want to keep filming in Mexico. I recently sent one of my latest short films to top festivals around the world, it was proudly shot and produced in my country. I really want to be like I am now, you know, filming, editing, applying to festivals, traveling, filming again but this time more and more interesting projects, better stories and characters. I get a sense of belonging just from grabbing the camera. It is my vehicle and my key to knowing the world and to connecting with more people.
That’s what I dream of. That’s my everyday obsession and it’s happening. I’m living that dream one day at a time, one project at a time.
Amanda Mazzone is courageously embracing a rapid shift toward the creative industry as a writer, producer, and actor. Undeniably suited to these arts, it is surprising to know that Amanda is only newly inspired, particularly by her experience working on Block, with Carrie Brennan – a Project Forte alum. Understanding the power of telling one’s story, both Carrie and Amanda have risen to the challenge of sharing their experiences, not only for their own expression but also to help others find company and closure. Tune in below to hear about Halfway to Fifty developments and to share in Amanda’s history and humor.
Amanda Mazzone: Hello, I’m Amanda Mazzone, but in the creative space I go by Amanda Francis. I am a writer, creator, producer, and actor…always last. I’m whatever I need to be. I like to think of myself as an Asian Phoebe Waller-Bridge [Fleabag] in the creative space, writing my own stuff and collaborating with folks along the way.
Kris Mendoza: Tell me a little bit about how you got started in this industry, where you’re at now, and what you’re working on.
Amanda Mazzone: I am currently in New York. I moved here to work in foster care, which is just completely outside of the film industry. But along my way, I met Carrie Brennan, who’s from Philly, and a brilliant and amazing queer filmmaker. When we met, she was still in the writing stages of Block, and I was immediately drawn to her story. I’m queer. I hadn’t come out to my family at the time, so the story especially spoke to me. But more impactfully, I befriended Carrie, and if I’ve learned anything in this industry, it’s the importance of having a wonderful support team and I knew that I wanted to be a support for Carrie in that space. I was able to help her by embodying that hype man, the T-Pain, of production, and worked alongside her as a production assistant, mostly, and just by being a good friend along the way.
Block inspired me into action. I’d never thought of myself as a creative person, though I was always assumed to be – I had friends and a community in the space – but I was always way too scared to dive in. Being on that set changed everything for me. A few months later I decided to write my own story about being queer, being Filipino, and to focus on mother-daughter relationships, which all meant that her story inspired me to tell my story.
We’re currently in post-production for that web series so, that’s how I got started in the industry: through an inspiring, supportive, and creative friend community.
Kris Mendoza: What was it about Block that attracted you to the project?
Amanda Mazzone: I always joke about that but it really was just… Carrie, you know? She’s effervescent. She knows how to connect with people. And when she first pitched me on the story, I thought, “You’re bizarre. Is this going to be an animated block following you around? Like, is it its own character?” But lo and behold, it is its own character: an actual, physical block, which really demonstrates Carrie’s humour. And it’s something that I think a lot of people can connect with, even if they don’t necessarily have a coming-out or coming-in kind of story. It’s just that heavy weight on your chest which a lot of people have a hard time talking about. Block is starting conversations and allowing people to see themselves within a narrative, making their own stories feel finally relatable. Of course, as soon as I understood the whole narrative of Block and what it could do for folks, I was 100% on board. I knew it could change people’s lives.
Kris Mendoza: You know, that’s the power of the film medium. It creates empathy and brings people together. So many people have their own personal stories and think they’re alone, like what they are feeling is concentrated only within themselves and that “No one else is really going to care”. When you put yourself out there in this kind of medium, making yourself vulnerable, you start to realize so many other people connect and resonate with your story. And the hope is, I noticed for Carrie, to inspire others to feel comfortable and live their own truths.
You’re doing that now with your own project, are you able to tease that a little and talk to me about the approach?
Amanda Mazzone: Oh yeah, it’s not top secret! And you know what? You’ll learn more about me, Kris, there’s no secret in my life unless it’s about my mom [jokes].. then it’s always a secret to her.
My story’s called Halfway to Fifty. It’s a mini web series, so five episodes, each around five minutes. I began writing in March at a time I was feeling super inspired and creative so I was able to get it off the ground fast. I formed a skeleton team from some folks who worked on Block, actually. Talk about having friends in the industry and being on that set… I was able to collaborate with so much of the Block crew. We got Hillary Hanak to DP, Heather Monetti on sound, Kelly Murray directing an episode, and Sierra Schnack directing the other four. It was a really cool collab.
Halfway to Fifty is about a woman named Amanda, loosely based on me, and her relationship with her mom. The two are exactly 25 years apart. It kicks off with Amanda realizing that her mom had her when she was 25, a child. And Amanda’s living in New York, exploring her queer, bisexual identity in a very whitewashed purview, while her mom, who we call Mother Gothel, is in the Midwest (Wisconsin), and has this relationship with Amanda where it’s mostly on the phone or on Facebook, monitoring her every move. So the subjects involve being queer and Asian, but also touches on social media, the autonomy of having to be an adult, upholding family values, and finally “self-realization.” There’s a lot to resonate with, hopefully.
Kris Mendoza: There are so many important notes to unpack. Let me start with something I can easily relate to myself, being Asian and Filipino, because that presents the lens through which these subjects are approached, right? That’s sort of your first identity. I don’t know how it is in your family, but I know it’s a very Asian and Filipino thing to just never have the sex talk with your parents. You don’t talk about things like that. So I’d imagine coming out and announcing that… is maybe harder to communicate in this culture than others. Is that something you focus on in the story?
Amanda Mazzone: Yeah, a hundred percent… Those conversations aren’t familiar, I can definitely say, in my life. I can’t tell you the last time my mom and I had ever gotten close on that subject. In this web series, it jumps right into the middle of all of that. Amanda has already tried coming out, is in that stage of, “I’ve told you a thousand times, and yet you still cannot hear me” kind of space. And Amanda’s mom is very much like, “I’ll pray for you, Ging. I’ll pray for you”. You know? Amanda never asked for those prayers, but she still thanks her mom for them. So there’s a kind of reverence and respect that you need to have toward what your family does understand.
That’s kind of what we sit on in this web series, what I focused on, is that respect. But also again, where’s the limit according to your need to be heard? Just because you’re family doesn’t mean you need to bend to every will and uphold every value, especially if it collides with your life. Another aspect of my history which plays out here is that my mom remarried. I’m a first-gen Filipino in the U.S., but my mom remarried to an Italian white man who is now my stepdad. I call him Papi, Kevin, but he’s from an Italian, White, Conservative family in Wisconsin. So over the past year with Black Lives Matter, coronavirus, there were some-
Kris Mendoza: Stop Asian Hate.. Throw all of these things into a bucket.
Amanda Mazzone: Yeah, no rest… A lot of stuff just came up with family, I’m sure a lot of people can resonate with that right now. I found that the white side of the family was, in person, so polite. Conversations were so like, “Oh, how are you? How’s New York? Blah, blah, blah”. But on social media, it was nasty. People were commenting with guns blazing, showing angry emoji faces as if that was a threat. I wanted to take that and write about it. So you’ll see similarities in the series loosely based on my life where I had my white grandpa, the “patriarch” of the family, coming at me on Facebook, which is just crazy. I didn’t mean to put my grandpa on blast for calling me, a brown girl, a racist, but that was just fundamentally not possible in the context that was going on, so I called that out.
And it involves my mom, who grew up in the Philippines, moved here when she was 23 and assimilated into an American culture. She accepts and acknowledges the fact that I grew up American, but I still have her cultural roots. She couldn’t step up and defend me in that space because her voice was being drowned out from the “patriarch” of the Mazzone family. That put a strain on my relationship with her. I didn’t feel like I was being supported or backed up. It was less about my own queer identity, or my political views, or my personal life at that point. We were on two completely different planes, and we can build a bridge somewhere, but we’ve got to start having conversations about that. And even if it’s a sex talk or anything like that, it’s just so hard to bring that up in Asian familial spaces.
Kris Mendoza: And it’s tough, too, because a lot of the negative stereotypes exist concerning female Asian immigrants that come to the U.S., specifically speaking about your mom’s generation and my own parents’ generation here. The stereotype that they’re submissive because they are soft-spoken and things like that. It’s almost like she feels she doesn’t have a voice, even though at the end of the day, I’m sure there’s a large part of her that disagrees with a lot of the other side of your family. The pressure blurs lines in terms of what you believe in, what you want to just make peace with, and ultimately what you’re going to speak up for.
All those things swirl about before even injecting gender identity, being queer, or even the kind of creative work that you do. It’s definitely a divisive climate these days.
I guess I’ll turn to a more hopeful, positive question now. How do you feel film, media, and television spans this conversation? Do you make a point that you can build a bridge, or that there’s no convincing someone, especially your grandfather who’s probably lived his entire life believing certain things… Is there no changing his point of view?
It’s hard to accept that someone in their 60s and 70s is prepared to turn 180 degrees unless there’s some crazy life-changing event. Can your story build a bridge? Can his love for you help him to better understand, at least a little bit? Is that effort the saving grace amidst the turmoil we’ve gone through recently? How is film helpful in approaching, softening these conversations, and opening doors?
Amanda Mazzone: Ah, those are good questions. I think film provides a space where you can find community and visibility where you want to. That’s a double-edged sword though, right? And the way that media and film and all the ways that we’re able to entertain, it’s like a science now, right? To mess with algorithms and kind of manipulate what you see. But if you’re not manipulating any of that, and you’re just kind of interacting with the things that interest you truly and genuinely, then I would hope that you find folks, people of like-mind, who can inspire you and make you feel heard and seen. I think that’s the most positive, uplifting thing that media can come to. It’s just such a tricky landscape still. As a younger person, I thought I could change everything through social media. I thought I could inspire my grandpa. I could teach… “Are you telling me, Mom, that if I don’t comment, or if I don’t respond to him, he won’t learn something?” But lo and behold, kind of holding true to what you’ve mentioned, Kris, it is hard to talk to anyone who’s sedimented in their ways. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, especially when an old dog gets on a new social media platform, like Facebook.
And my Lola, it was really funny, she’s not on Facebook at all, but she heard what was going on. She’s in the Philippines now, she Facebook Messages me and she goes, “Ging, why would you trade in your dollar for a white man’s two cents? Mathematically, that doesn’t make sense.” And I was like, you know what, Lola, you’re right. I’m going to take a step back, and only interact with the folks that build me up and support me, and pick my own battles. You don’t have to throw yourself at every divisive comment or post that is out there. And yeah, I think, again, the hopeful positive piece is that you find folks that believe in you, support you. And even if they don’t agree with you, they are able and open to having conversations.
Kris Mendoza: I think oftentimes the written communication is more effective than a verbal one, because in a moment of heat you have so many feelings about X, Y, and Z, that all of the logical facts don’t come out. Instead, you can take an expressive medium, like film and television, in which you’re able to carefully plot all these points and carefully express emotion. It may be a better medium to sway someone’s opinion, or at least get them to think outside their boxes. I think two people shouting at each other or commenting on social media, putting each other down, that’s not going to change anything.
I saw a funny meme that was like, someone’s Facebook rant changed no one’s political view ever, right? People rant all the time, but it’s not going to do anything. But watching a piece of film or hearing someone’s story, that’s the kind of authentic, real-life relationship that’ll expand my mind or make me think differently. If its a well-executed story that sticks with someone for just a day, whether that’s someone who’s been living in their own way for years and years or someone that’s on the fence to being like, “I believe in this, but I’m conflicted because of religion or culture to believe this,” I think film storytelling is a good way to shed a light in someone’s mind. You say it’s a double-edged sword and it is, absolutely. You’re making yourself vulnerable and you’re putting yourself out there in a vast landscape. You’re telling your story in a place where it can be equally rebuked or accepted, but the latter is too valuable to forsake.
Now, I have seen Hillary Hanak and Kelly Murray posting about Halfway to Fifty. So, I see that production is happening on this. What’s next for the film? What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?
Amanda Mazzone: Yeah, so right now, interestingly enough, I’m dubbing myself a creator, writer, and editor. Production on Halfway to Fifty is wrapped, it’s fully out the gate, kind of in record timing. We’re currently in post and I’m editing it. My goal is to get this out in July, probably hit YouTube mid to end July, which is a very fast turnaround. And after Halfway to Fifty’s out and the world can see it, which I’m beyond excited for, the next thing on my brain is moving. I’ve lived in New York City, Brooklyn specifically, for the past four years. And Halfway to Fifty is kind of my kiss, and nod, and gift to New York while I’ve been here. Being here was meaningful because it took me a really long time to find myself in this creative space.
I’m very, very proud of my team, myself for once, for writing this, and getting this through production. It’s truly magic, what film and crews like this can bring to a project. And so, yeah, it’s my kiss goodbye to New York, and the next adventure is Los Angeles. I’m moving out there with my partner and we’re planning on making another web series. I’m currently in the writing stage, it’s called Friendly. It’s about queer relationships, because after three months of being together and now moving somewhere totally sporadically, it’s kind of playing on lesbian relationships that move way too fast.
I’m also setting into stone my first short called Lola, about a Filipino grandma and how she plays such an important role – Filipino grandmothers always play such under-appreciated, heartbreaking, or hilarious roles. I want to tell a story for all Lola’s out there. And so, those are some big upcoming projects after this that hopefully will keep me busy for the next year or two.
Kris Mendoza:Those are super exciting projects you’re working on. It’s definitely great to see you tackling all this head on and I’m sure it’s certainly not easy telling these stories and opening yourself up. But in terms of writing what you know, what’s true, and expressing yourself, I think there’s no better way to do it and share your story with the world than the way that you’ve approached it. I wish you the best!
Amanda Mazzone: Thank you for listening. You’re such a grand listener! Having this opportunity is really, really cool. I appreciate it.
Carrie Brennan is a filmmaker working in New York and Philadelphia, who got her start exploring stand-up, but her chops in storytelling through writing, acting, and producing her own experiences. Carrie’s golden rule is to tell the truth and in doing so, model its possibilities for those who struggle to find their own. This month on Project Forte we look to LGBTQ+ stories, of which Carrie is a valiant protector, and the parade couldn’t have come at a better time! This community has experienced many evolutions of persecution and Carrie reminds us all that we can be proud of the progress seen today, while constantly pushing forward. Her message is one of hope for all communities to feel safe in their expression, their identities, and their future.
Carrie Brennan:My name’s Carrie Brennan. I go by the pronouns she/her, and I was the writer, producer, and actor for Block, the film.
Kris Mendoza:Could you tease Block a little bit, talk a little about the project? What did you set out to do and where are you now with it? It seems like you’re premiering in two weeks!
Carrie Brennan:Yeah! Okay – I will try to be succinct with this, just give me a hand if we move onto hour two. [jokes] But anyway, so Block is a coming-out LGBTQ story that I wrote. It’s a 43 minute featurette, and the mission for this story is to inspire people to see the best in themselves and to love themselves.
Kris Mendoza:Oh, I didn’t realize it was that long. Nice.
Carrie Brennan:Yeah. Yeah. I wrote it about my life, my experience coming out of the closet, but really, it’s just a story about what it means to struggle with something that other people might not know about and the good stuff that comes from loving yourself and expressing your truth. I wrote it in 2016 as I was coming out, writing as I experienced, and then we filmed in 2019. Classic indie post-production took a year, which led us up to 2020. Like I said, the mission of the film was always to bring it to the people. Of course I always wanted to do the film festival route, but also bring it to therapist organizations, schools, high schools, parent/teacher meetings, places like that – grassroots stuff. We had a pretty nice lineup planned to target that for 2020, and then COVID happened. So, we put a pause on everything and instead, put together a virtual premiere in March of 2021. We just thought at that point, the community had been suffering and needed it. We hadn’t had our people together in so long that it just came down to – we want the people to have this story now.
We are actually hosting our first in person premiere this Pride month on june 22nd! We’re going to show the film, followed by a Q&A with the cast and crew, and we’ve got a DJ lined up as well, so we can kick off pride and dance the night away.
Kris Mendoza:And where can people buy tickets, or is it open to the public?
Carrie Brennan:Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Tickets are on sale! Blockthefilm.com/tickets, and It’s on our Instagram Bio. I’m just really grateful that you gave me the opportunity to talk about a thing that I love. I love this stuff so much –
Kris Mendoza:I can feel it! I feel the passion coming out… It’s infectious! So now, tell us how you got started in this crazy industry?
Carrie Brennan: Good question. I started off wanting to do stand-up comedy, actually. I quit business school my sophomore year of college and did a bunch of stand-up around the philly area- just hustling to as many open mics and student films as I could. I was out in California for a little bit, graduated college, and then went to an acting school called Playhouse West Philadelphia, and that’s when I fell in love with storytelling. It really kicked off from there and I started studying the craft of acting and just really fell in love with the production process and what stories could do to people… how it could make a difference in their lives..
Kris Mendoza:And you are a champion of telling LGBTQ+ stories! Can you tell me a little bit about why and how you’ve made that your mission?
Carrie Brennan:I think that my specificity comes from having experienced the pain of living in the closet, and the sense of realization and security that I felt from seeing people that reflected who I truly was on screen. When I was in 7th grade, I sort of started getting inklings that I might be gay, and with that realization came SO much anxiety. And terror. And fear – fear for mostly, what is my life going to look like? I couldn’t see a future for myself. I felt so trapped by this thing that I never asked for or wanted, and felt like there was no way out, really. Until one day, I saw these two characters on Grey’s Anatomy finally understanding their love for each other . And it was so visceral for me, because not only were they gay characters, but there was a woman on screen who looked like me. Blonde, blue eyes, long hair… I had never seen a lesbian that was feminine before. I just about spit my drink out. And in retrospect, that’s really the power of showing characters on screen who truly express how beautiful and diverse our world is. Right? So really, that changed my life. That was the first time that I realized I could be okay. I mean, I didn’t come out for like 10, 15 years, but I always had that example. It was this thing that I carried with me. I was just really moved by it, honestly, and so, when I did eventually come out at 23, I wanted to just tell stories that would inspire people like I was inspired in seventh grade. I think that’s where it comes from – wanting to tell the truth.
Kris Mendoza:That’s amazing, in terms of seeing something of yourself on screen. Just last month we were talking to a lot of Asian American filmmakers and, yeah, we didn’t have a lot of role models ourselves. To find a handful at that age like on Grey’s Anatomy… And if I remember correctly, she wasn’t a lesbian in the beginning of the show, right? She came out halfway through, so it’s incredible that her character was given the safe space to realize a fuller, more honest version of herself and to be celebrated for it. For that to be depicted on screen for someone in grade school to see as, I would say normalized, right? It’s probably very empowering and validating.
Carrie Brennan:Yeah. And actually, you hit on something so important, which was not just a gay couple, but a lesbian couple that looked like me in a way that modelled a future for myself. Because in seventh grade, I couldn’t picture a future for myself past 30.
I remember my friends wanting to go to a fortune teller in that year – This is such a random thought – but I wouldn’t go because I was so scared on a very deep level that the fortune teller would say, “Oh, apparently reading your palm, you’re going to be gay. You’re going to marry a woman and you’re going to have this number of kids.”
Kris Mendoza:Haha, You didn’t want them to be there for that.
Carrie Brennan:Yeah, exactly. I’d be like ohhh no I wasn’t ready for that, but that’s why it’s so important not only to have LGBTQ films, but make those films with LGBTQ+ characters who are not just white. It’s not enough to just to make a white male lead gay in a script, and call it a day. We’ve got to create LGBTQ+ films that actually represent what we actually are, and how diverse and beautiful our community really IS.
Kris Mendoza:Absolutely. Can you talk about why it is so important that folks within the LGBTQ community be the ones harboring this narrative and telling it themselves as opposed to people who aren’t in the community?
Carrie Brennan:I think the best storytelling hinges on telling the truth – the ugly, messy, embarrassing, vulnerable truth. It’s not to say that straight people can’t tell LGBTQ+ stories, but what’s the intention behind it? Are you trying to check a box? Are you trying to be “good?” What about this story is personal and important to you? Why do you really want to tell it?
I’ve met straight people who have told incredible LGBTQ+ stories, and straight people that have absolutely butchered LGBTQ+ stories and hurt people along the way. It’s so delicate because these are people’s lives you’re dealing with. Just as much power as responsibility, or whatever that spider man quote is…but the people who work on LGBTQ+ films and do a great job always have some sort of very very deep personal connection to the struggle, or the celebration, or the community. Without it, there’s no motor.
Kris Mendoza:Absolutely. Can you tell me a little about your personal work? What are you most passionate about in terms of approaching a project, collaborating with people, and sharing it with the world?
Carrie Brennan: I love writing slice of life LGBTQ+ stories that ultimately inspire people to see the best in themselves. That is my motor, that’s my north. I’ve always erred on the side of writing from my own experience or from stuff that has happened in my life too..
Kris Mendoza:You write what you know.
Carrie Brennan:Yeah! Exactly. And I’m really inspired by slice of life movies. I love when everyday things are cinematic like, for instance the shows Fleabag and Broad City. You get to open up someone’s brain and see, “Oh yeah, this is what’s going on” and recognize how relatable it is to your own experience.
How I choose movies and projects usually goes like… If I know in my gut it’s something that will inspire people to see the best in themselves and love themselves and it’s queer and it’s personal, AND got a great crew, then I know it’s something that I’m going to work really hard on because I care about it.
Kris Mendoza:I don’t know if it’s happenstance, but it seems intentional that you choose to work with.. not only other LGBTQ people but a lot of… well, the most women I’ve seen on a cast and crew, which is just amazing for a project. What are your thoughts on the current representation you see in this industry, not just behind the camera, but also in front, as a producer, writer, and actor? You see both sides of it.
Carrie Brennan:I think we’re “good, getting better.” I think the progress that we’ve seen in the past, even just two years, is good. I have definitely had more people asking for female crew members specifically, which is great. But I have friends directing commercials who are still, 9 times out of 10, the only women on set of more than 100 people. I think the biggest room for growth is the intention behind WHY we want to see more women on set. I think real progress will be made when people realize that certain stories are actually meant to be told by a woman not to check a box, but because the female eye might elevate the story.
Monica [O’Hara] and I wanted women on our crew because it was the best way to tell this story. We found our crew naturally. These people were in our lives and as I would tell them about this project they’d come on board saying, “this is something that I resonate with on a personal level, on an emotional level.” I would meet with a friend, and she might tell me about going through this really tough time – so I’d share – “Here’s what I’m trying to do with this story.” Those interactions came from the heart. Those women shared emotions or feelings about it, and it just came together that way.
Kris Mendoza:I definitely stalked you prior to this interview, and you posted recently about your aunt in terms of… I don’t want to take your story away from you, but in terms of someone who helped navigate and help you find a community. I think you said when you were seven she was going to… well, she knew she needed to be around for you at a certain point in your life. Unfortunately, I think there are some people that don’t have someone like that in their family or a role model at all, so can you talk to me about this person being, not only a family member, but also just being someone who helped you navigate that part of your life?
Carrie Brennan:I love that you saw the pride people story. I think that’s awesome. Growing up, it was always just “Aunt Mary Ellen and Amy” – my family wasn’t so pride-forward in the sense that we were marching in parades, but it was what it was. I think towards the later years, I knew, in a way – on a very deep level, that she knew, and I was like, “I think she’s on to me.” She would ask me things like, “Oh, anyone new in your life?” instead of saying, “So, any guys-
Kris Mendoza:Do you have a boyfriend? Yeah.
Carrie Brennan:Yeah. So on this very deep level, I was like, “Oh my God, she knows.” And I didn’t even really know at that time. There was a consonance. It showed me the importance of having a role model who is not only like you, but also who has a loving relationship themselves and normal ups and downs like anyone else. I think you just need one person to show you that you’re not alone. It’s astronomical what it can do to a kid’s life. I think I would be a lot worse off had I not had my Aunt Mary Ellen and Uncle Paul to just show me the way without showing me the way… without saying, “Hey kid-
Kris Mendoza:“This is how you’re supposed to do it.”
Carrie Brennan:Yeah. And “I think you’re gay.” And when I did eventually come out to her, it was just a, “Great! amazing!” – such a positive thing. It was like, “now you’re going to be able to be a deeper level of yourself, a freer version, and I’m so excited for this and for you.” It was like a celebration versus a death. And that’s what I think scares so many people about coming out: they think all they know is this life, and it’s frightening to give all that up for a hope that it could be better. When you have someone to look up to, and just to know that hey, this is possible, it can make all the difference in the world.
Kris Mendoza:That’s empowering. So, you posted that she said, when you came out, “Pack your bags, you’re going to P-town?” What is P-town? What happens in P-town? I want to know!
Carrie Brennan:Yes! P-Town, it’s called Provincetown, P-Town for short. It’s just a very gay beach town. And they have this one event every year called Baby Dyke Weekend, and it’s where all the young lesbians come down for a beach weekend. It’s literally like Mardi Gras. It’s like gay Disneyland. At the time I was still living in West Chester and I didn’t really have many gay friends, and she just said, “Get your shit together. We’re going.
We’re doing this. We’re going to go down to the beach. I’m going to introduce you and to just get you into the community.” And it was amazing to just be surrounded by people that were like me. She knew from the time I was running around in my backyard as a kid -I had a snapback hat and my brother’s Jordan Jersey like a huge dress on me. She literally leaned over to her girlfriend and was like, “Someday, she may need us.” And her girlfriend was like, “Yeah, maybe.” And it was like this joke, but however many years later, it was true. And I always say, like, my mom gave birth to me, but my aunt gave birth to my soul. She’s like my soul mom.
Kris Mendoza:And this is your mom’s sister?
Carrie Brennan:Yeah. My mom’s sister.
Kris Mendoza:Yeah. How fitting!
Carrie Brennan:I know, right?
Kris Mendoza:Are there people in the film and television industry that are, whether they’re loud voices or not even in the LGBTQ scene, is there anyone who inspires you or you aspire to?
Carrie Brennan:Yeah. I would say off the bat, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer inspire me so much, even since I was in the closet during college. They’re the writer/ producer/actors who started this TV show called Broad City, which began as a web series. They just put it up on YouTube and the community grew from that seed. They didn’t have a lot, but they were so resourceful with the things that they had, and they paid people in pizza – like classic – just pulling stuff together to tell stories. They’re hysterical.
It was picked up by Comedy Central where they played larger than life versions of themselves and they just used what they had. They are role models to me in the sense that they work their asses off and they tell the truth. Abbi actually did an episode towards the later half of the series in which she came out, but she did it in such an off the nose way, talking about hats like, “I always thought you were a hat girl.” It was just so great the way they did it. I’m so inspired by them.
I’ve met Abbi a couple of times just in book signings and stuff like that. She is exactly who she is all the time. She doesn’t change for anyone, and I just think that’s really hard to do – especially when you have such a big following – to not lose yourself or get overwhelmed. It’s a dream of mine to work with her some day…of course gotta just throw that out there right into the universe.
Kris Mendoza:I don’t think people realize that this is not just on the LGBTQ side, but ethnically and gender-wise too. I’ve been talking to a lot of different folks who say, “I didn’t have anyone to look up to when I was younger in the industry,” or “I didn’t see myself in it.” Now they are, themselves, in the industry, realizing maybe it’s not just kids, it could be peers also who are looking to you for inspiration as a role model. It’s good that you’ve made it part of your mission, part of who you are.
So let me turn it around full circle here. You’ve been doing this for a little bit now, telling stories you’re passionate about, telling stories that you know, writing things that are near and dear to you. How often does it cross your mind, the responsibility or maybe privilege that you are a role model, not just for a young, aspiring filmmaker, but for any young person who may not know how to navigate this new part of their life?
Carrie Brennan:I think about it all the time. I think about it every day. I will stop when every kid born into this world no longer has to hide who they love or question their self-worth based on who they love. That’s where I’m at. Whether it’s 2020 or 2080, whatever. That’s my motor. That’s what keeps me up at night. That’s what I’m working for.
So, I feel really honored. I feel hella privileged. But I’m still trying to navigate it myself. It’s still a struggle for me. After I came out, I was like, “Oh, well, I’m good. I made Block. I’m not going to have any blocks in my life now.” And I remember my therapist laughing and being like, “Oh honey, you haven’t even started dating. Get ready.”
Kris Mendoza:Ha, that’s so great. I can sense your passion, your pride in finding yourself and moving on to help others. It’s inspiring for me, so what does this month mean to you? How have you seen it evolve and become more visible? Has it become a hallmark holiday?
Carrie Brennan:It’s definitely changed over the past few years, turning away from a corporate check about history. The coolest part about this pride is that it feels less like a season, like Christmas where we all see green and red for a while. It’s not like rainbows start shooting out of places just because it’s June. This year feels a btt different. like everyone is taking a second to understand the why of what we’re celebrating. That’s what’s made this pride month feel richer, in a way, because people are taking the time to learn about Stonewall and what people went through in order just to love, just to experience what it’s like to love without fear.
Kris Mendoza:Can I ask you why there’s a difference this year, in your opinion?
Carrie Brennan:I think a lot of it started with the Black Lives Matter movement last year. People were looking at their privilege and saying ” ok,There are other people here, and look how far ahead I am just because I’m White or just because I have money or just because I don’t look like this person.” There’s a deeper richness that comes from trying to unpack that and realizing the world isn’t just straight white men. There are a lot of layers to it and I’lll be the first to admit im on step 1 of a thousand ringed ladder though, but working towards it.
Kris Mendoza:I’m glad you made that connection because I’ve listened to a lot of diverse stories and there’s definitely a binding struggle. I do think Covid and quarantine brought a lot of people silence and the opportunity to question life and look for more meaning. Me Too, The Black Lives Matter, and Stop Asian Hate movements have all come to the surface in recent years, so that silence became a tipping point. I think that’s ultimately where we are, and I hope it’s just the beginning in terms of people being really intentional and conscious of it. The next step is what communities, companies, and politicians do about it.
Carrie Brennan:Yeah, that’s really what’s important. It’s a wild, wild west right now in all aspects of life, but we needed to shake things up so, so badly. 2019 was like… everyone was on a hamster wheel, refusing to slow down. It’s like trying to get someone’s attention, but the world was not stopping for anything. And then COVID hit and we were quarantined, with all the variables of life held still and it’s just like you’re floating in space, Right? We suddenly had time to look at what was really going on.
I think The point of understanding our history in pride month is not to shove it down people’s throats and not to show straight people that they’re bad.
The point of it is to say, “Look at how beautiful this LGBTQ community is – how bad things were that the Stonewall riots had to happen.”
And look how far we’ve come even in the midst of all that noise. These people were willing to risk their whole lives just because they knew their truth. Their hearts were so strong! That’s an amazing thing, and that’s worth celebrating. So, hell yeah, we’re going to celebrate! We’re not going to do it just because it’s June, we’re going to do it because WOW! And I think that’s a passion that comes from learning and understanding, so potentially – everyone can join in with pride, and celebrate that progress, but also join with us in continuing to fight for progress as well!
Kris Mendoza: And with that, I want to wish you a Happy Pride Month!
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