Project Forte: Steve Nguyen

Project Forte is an original series of interviews presented by Maestro Filmworks and hosted by Executive Producer, Kris Mendoza.  These conversations work to amplify marginalized voices within our industry, promoting a continued initiative around allyship.  Allyship is not about the struggles of our contemporaries canceling each other out, but rather about solidarity.  Our goal is to cut through the noise of the status quo in order to highlight the voices of the many talented and creative individuals who are forces in their own craft.




This week we sit down with Steve Nguyen (he/him), a production manager and line producer working in Philadelphia.  He investigates a crucial factor present in our industry, the difficulty of cutting through a cyclical network to establish roots and make more diverse connections.  Steve shares a unique perspective, recognizing at a young age the social behaviors that cement cultural stereotypes and the importance of rising above them.  Having fought for breakout opportunities, he recognizes the value of hands-on experience and has harvested a valuable education by cutting through the gravel of PA-work to achieve his goals in leadership. Join us in this deep dive, which broadens our understanding of how the industry can evolve, especially through considerate production staffing and management by Steve Nguyen.





Written and Edited by Kate Feher


Steve Nguyen:          My name is Steve Nguyen and I’m Vietnamese and partly Chinese. In the film industry, I’ve been a production manager and a line producer as of late. 

Kris Mendoza:           Welcome. I know you’re about that Philly life but I actually don’t know too much about prior to that. Are you Philly born and raised?

Steve Nguyen:          No, I was born in Lansdale, Pennsylvania and I really grew up in Souderton, Pennsylvania, and now live in Philadelphia.  I went to Pennridge High School out in Perkasie. It was mainly a white school, there were maybe three Asian people..three black people.. and three Puerto Ricans out of about 500/600 people. It was a small school.

Actually, oddly, it felt like other Asians growing up were battling each other to be the token Asian person… which is a trap I didn’t fall into.

Kris Mendoza:           It’s interesting you say that. This has nothing to do with filmmaking but … If I’m out with a couple of Filipino guy friends and we see another group of Filipino guys at the club: you would assume that we’re like, “Hey, what’s up my people.” [jokes] But you end up staring each other down and trying to be like that, “Hey, there’s only enough room here for one Filipino group.” So it becomes very territorial. I’ve tried to change that up a little bit by walking up and introducing myself but people are still so put off by that.  

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, I think once you go to college you start opening up, but a decent amount of Asians grow up being the “only ones” and there is a sense of survival pushing you to vibe with the white person, even in relationships. I just remember the Asian kids would make such self-deprecating comments about being Asian, like, “Oh look at my eyes.”  And I would see all the white guys laugh or play on a stereotype and that would anger me. But at the time I thought, “Well, they’re also winning. That kid is winning because people are liking that shit.”

Kris Mendoza:           Like he’s owning it.

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Steve Nguyen and Jo Shen on the set of Americano

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, and I think sometimes black people fall into that too, especially in high school. They use the stereotype to gain more of that status and acceptance. It’s very hard to be yourself as any color but, still, they use that device to make themselves look less alien to people.  I think it still goes on a little bit as adults, especially in corporate culture, but not so much in the art industry because it’s too evolved for that. 

Kris Mendoza:           …You talk differently, you carry yourself differently just to fit in more?

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, and then you might make a joke to put someone at ease about your culture. If the Asian guy brings lunch for the office, he might joke, “Don’t worry, it’s not dog.”  People laugh, which relieves tension, and maybe you feel better but I don’t support that.

Kris Mendoza:           Injecting humor to disarm because you feel like you have to be liked or accepted?

Steve Nguyen:          You do it to yourself first, too.  If you brought in Kimchi and somebody asks about it, you sort of dismiss it with, “Here’s some shit that I eat.” Almost to defend against an ignorant person who might say something ridiculous. I don’t know if we’re off on a tangent but-

Kris Mendoza:           No, this is right on schedule here. You said this doesn’t happen in our industry because it’s too evolved, is that because filmmakers tend to be more progressive in general?

Steve Nguyen:          It’s because I think we’ve been conditioned. If you’re in the film business, you’ve obviously watched movies,  TV, or subscribed to something like music so generally, it becomes the diet of what we consume.. You’re watching more, and you’re probably exploring more, so you have that open mind. Culturally, whether it’s race, whether it’s sexuality… you’ve been exposed to it more than the average person. Also the documentaries for the past 15, 20 years have been very social justice conscious so I think people are hyper-aware of political, racial, gender, and environmental issues. 

Steve Nguyen pictured right

So, yes, I think that’s why most people in our industry are overly evolved.  We’re just constantly learning things or open to learning things. 

Kris Mendoza:           It’s refreshing to hear that because, of the people I’ve spoken to so far, there really are different perspectives on how far the industry has come and how much further it has to go. I’m trying to gauge it properly.   Is there a lack of people to nominate or is there work getting lost in the sea of the status quo?  Is it possible there are not nearly enough people entering this industry because of cultural differences or expected career paths?

Steve Nguyen:          I don’t think the establishment is a systemic thing. I think socially, filmmakers are aware and they are trying to be a “good person” when it comes to the practice. 

In the end I think it’s who you know or who that person knows. Networking in any industry presents a barrier to entry, made more difficult unless you shine. It’s not necessarily about race, but it is mainly a white industry still. Black people have been successful but until there’s an active hiring initiative for somebody with a different culture or background or race, hiring starts with “Oh, I need to fill in this position, who do you know?”  So most likely that person doesn’t target a minority option they just say, “Oh my cousin or my friend from college does this…” 

So you can call that systemic but I don’t think anyone is saying, “I only hire white people.”  Look at how politicians tend to fall up. They keep failing and failing but they’re getting promoted all the time and I think it’s the same way with this industry. We could take chances on untried people and get rid of bad people. Stop giving them more opportunities.  We wouldn’t have someone like Spike Lee otherwise, but it’s not even much of a gamble. You can vet them, interview them, put them through the wringer, but give them an opportunity.

I think you have to build your own economy, that’s what Atlanta did. They have lots of minority-owned businesses and the method is to keep working with each other, even on an individual basis. There’s reciprocation in building alliances but we can’t get there because everybody’s chasing after the big dogs. 

Steve Nguyen

There’s a big movement to decentralize power and I think we can have multiple economies. It doesn’t have to be one linear economy. And it’s moving that way anyway. We don’t even have a common mainstream anymore.  Everybody operates in their own cultural world now. 

Kris Mendoza:           Yes, absolutely. So, you said a lot of good things there and what I’m hearing is – you have to take a chance on folks but there’s no shortage, it’s just a matter of hiring.  When staffing a production line, instead of going with the people that have been at arms length, take a second to ask, “Who else is out there?”  Ask a couple of questions, get a little more intel, but open up your horizons in terms of finding new people.

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, personally for me, that’s why I think I’ve taken so long to get where I’m at today. I didn’t come into this with a connection. I had to put in the free work or the low-pay work and grind. Nothing is given to you unless you know somebody.  We all want diversity but we also want the people that will work hard, rather than placing people due to a quota. I’ve always had a mindset for hiring diversely, but a big complication is the timetable.  I can’t spend a month looking for the right candidate who may also be female or a person of color when –

Kris Mendoza:           – when you know five white dude gaffers, for example?

Steve Nguyen:          We try, right? 

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Behind the Scenes with Steven Nguyen

Kris Mendoza:           I’m interested to hear how you cut your teeth in the industry, was there anyone or two people in particular who took a chance on you? And what was that experience like?

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, so there was a film program available while I was in college. I was a business major but I took this 10-week class in Philly – a bit like what the New York Film Academy does. There was a producing teacher who also worked as an independent movie producer and he said, “Hey, we’re shooting a movie, you want to come and help?”

So I would work, then go to class, and at night I would volunteer on those shoots. Eventually, I was making enough money to leave my other job and commit to building my resume. I got a lot of experience on low-paying jobs and I was expanding outward towards Baltimore and New York, taking any job I could. Starting with PA work, I shifted to grip and then to AD then UPM, which was just a natural progression for me since I had a business background. Making a movie is more than just the story. It’s the financing and the distribution. That’s the next chapter for me.

Kris Mendoza:           You put in a lot of sweat equity to get where you are today and in some cases, this loops back to what you said earlier, you’re starting with no real connections. Whether you’re a person of color or not, you have to grind a little bit harder and jump in with a weighted vest from the beginning.

Steve Nguyen:          It’s either comfortable or very lucky. I could not get a PA job on a studio picture so I had to be in the independent world. You have to know someone to get in on these Hollywood productions and if you’re a good worker, then you’re part of the machine.  Ironically, I think it was better to learn at that bottom level. Instead of waiting around to get that production manager opportunity in the Hollywood system, you can grow the position you want. Being in the freelance world, you’re an entrepreneur without the business behind you. You’re trying to sell yourself and you can always build towards whatever position you want to be in.

Movie Posters

Kris Mendoza:           I 100% agree with you. I’m also conflicted because I’ve had multiple conversations with other folks about these diversity quotas and in some cases it’s a modern-day affirmative action in our industry presenting those necessary opportunities. Is it fair to say there will be undue pressure for people of color fulfilling those quotas to prove themselves for the whole of a marginalized community?  Will they have to try extra hard to impress people as a responsibility? Is it down to the few, to prove we can operate and we can do well in these positions if given the opportunity?

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, in the end, everything’s competition so you have to be better than – doesn’t even matter what race – you need to be better than everyone or you’ll be replaced.  There’s a problem when the people in power take the initiative to hire an assistant of color or a woman assistant but then they don’t extend that to any position of managerial or department head status. If the department head is white, do we feel good enough that the lower-paying job is diverse? The true progressive should involve seeing the potential in a person and grooming them to be the best they can be. 

Kris Mendoza:           So if it’s just a checkbox, then there’s the possibility that it’s considered “good enough” …

Steve Nguyen:          Hollywood’s been talking about diversity forever and I don’t see a change.  The only way to really do this is out-compete them as companies and give out opportunities that way. When they see a certain model for inclusion working, maybe then those minority companies can breakthrough.

I don’t think it’s deliberately systemic, but you need to build your system instead of waiting on somebody to do it. You can try 25% harder to give that opportunity, and honestly that’s all I can ask for. Just try a little bit but don’t kill yourself doing it, you know?  Because you might want more Indian people on your set, but you’re in Nashville …

Kris Mendoza:           So let me take it a step farther and say, assuming we do that extra 25% and you go that extra mile, what does this net production?  What is the value for productions to have this kind of diversity at the end of the day anyway? Beyond inclusivity, what results can we quantify?

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Behind the Scenes with Steven Nguyen

Steve Nguyen:          I don’t know if it’s a measurable thing. I don’t know if you can make more money because of it. I think socially it’s good to talk to people that don’t look like you, or work with people that don’t look like you. I think it helps with bridging communities in general and if you’re forcing it, sure maybe that could make things worse. If you hire a bunch of Filipino janitors to satisfy a diversity quota but don’t place any as managers, that’s where it gets bad socially.

Kris Mendoza:           That’s when they’ve really missed the point. 

Steve Nguyen:          I think maybe you can quantify how it affects the well-being of a team or a process. People can feel good about it, which probably makes them better at working. Because they also check their boxes – “I went to work today and I talked to black guy, I talked to a woman, I talked to an Asian guy.” It’s that subconscious feeling that trickles out into society.

Even though in today’s society we’re getting into a person’s identity, we’re also hoping that when people talk to each other, it’s not about the identity or maybe you don’t see their identity.  Ultimately you want to be so comfortable with them that you don’t see their color or gender, etc. We want to talk to each other as humans and to get there you have to exercise your biases or prejudices.  If you’re not comfortable around women, talk to women all day and become culturally socialized.

Kris Mendoza:           Yeah, maybe you can’t say a film made 10% more because you got X number of POC or anything like that. But maybe there’s a way to gauge the economic impact of a film within a city.  You can gather the production details of how much money you spent in restaurants and hotels, etc. 

I do agree, being on set with other cultures breaks down those barriers which keep you from people you wouldn’t normally interact with. If you’re able to collaborate, you take those relationships with you, even beyond work, broadening all your horizons – I think that absolutely makes sense.

Interestingly, you talk about the issue behind not putting people of color in managerial positions but just including them as seconds and thirds… I think that’s especially important when it comes to a narrative.  If you get a  Director, a DP, or a Production Designer in charge of molding things visually, that affects the level of authenticity and the nuances of telling a diverse story. 


Steve Nguyen pictured right

Steve Nguyen:          Guiding or mentoring a person who goes on to have a successful life because of that opportunity, that can come back to you 10 fold.  

Going back to the business side of things, we’re talking about diversity in hiring, but the diversity in product identity is also important. There are a lot of films and TV shows that market without a cultural identifier, so that becomes a white story. Especially the blockbusters or any big movies, so you have to find a charming person.  There are certain actors like Denzel  Washington or Will Smith who sort of go beyond race – they’re just personable. 

Kris Mendoza:           Yeah I think it important to talk about diversity in front of and behind the camera. I think when you start to balance on both sides, that’s when you really start to build these new economies, like you’re saying.

Steve Nguyen:          Also, you’re an entrepreneur, so you’ll understand that Hollywood tests independent films. They let you risk your own money to make these decisions and then if they see that it’s successful, they bring it to market. Take Ryan Coogler for instance – he did a $300,000 movie and he put his money where his mouth is.  Maybe that is why he got the chance to do Creed then Black Panther.

Things are happening now, Eddie Huang did a movie recently called Boogie, it’s an Asian basketball story. Think those stories are pretty cool to watch but also I’d like to see stories where race has nothing to do with it.

Kris Mendoza:           …where there just happen to be Asian folks doing regular people things and it’s not a focal point.

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, how many stories have we seen about infidelity or “the affair” and I think “Why is that a white specific story?”  Or all these lifetime movies about women in peril – they’re not culturally specific so you really could put any charming person of color into it. You could use that same formula for anybody.

Kris Mendoza:           I think audiences are primed now. I remember in 2000, Romeo Must Die came out with Jet Li and Aaliyah. [ R.I.P. Aaliyah ] I read there was actually a kissing scene at the end of the movie and test audiences freaked out.

Steve Nguyen:          They ended up hugging in the end, right?

Kris Mendoza:           They shoulder bumped or hugged or something like that but apparently there was actually a more romantic scene in there and audiences just weren’t ready. People were up in arms then, but today, I think we have to make the content and hold ourselves accountable, make good stuff, and not rely on race as a ticket.

Steve Nguyen:          But also it’s like, “Who cares?” Even with this cancel-culture, I still hear the same voices over and over. I think any emotion is good so you have to walk away from that critique, especially in the creative world…there’s always going to be somebody that doesn’t like what you made so just stand by it. I don’t even know why they use a test market.  Imagine writing a song that is test-marketed. You want to have some emotion to it,  that’s how you get people to be passionate about it-

Kris Mendoza:           Why create if you’re only making what people think they want…

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Steve Nguyen and Time Viola on the set of Americano

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, and you shouldn’t market in a general sense. I hope if you are going to a test market, it’s with people that already like that genre. If it’s a superhero movie, don’t test market to people who don’t like superhero movies. If they’d rather watch Italian neo-realism films, then who cares about their input. It’s not for them.

Kris Mendoza:           This has been an insightful conversation, do you have any parting thoughts? 

Steve Nguyen:            Be open to learn, evolve and commit to the destiny that you define. Use your voice, someone will listen.

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Project Forte: Fre Howard

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Written and Edited by Kate Feher

Alfreda “Fre” Howard Keck (she/her) is a force.  Fre perfects her art daily within her own company, Faces by Fre, and concentrating on special effects, wigs, prosthetics, and makeup for a properly diverse clientele.  Alfreda has gleaned experience ruthlessly, ignoring superficial obstacles the way they must be, and forging her own path by proving her skill quite simply, with confidence and the expertise to back it up.  Project Forte is proud to present this conversation. Fre Howard has decades of practical expertise, working with a multitude of talent, who in turn are fighting for space within our evolving industry.  Read more about her experiences and also of Fre’s invaluable lessons, for we all glean a fuller perspective upon considering another’s journey.


Kris Mendoza:            Thank you for taking the time to do this!

Fre Howard:       Well, thank you for having me on Project Forte. My name is Fre Howard and I am a professional makeup artist.  I specialize in makeup, wigs, prosthetics, and special effects. I’ve worked commercially, but also in theater, film, and opera. I own a small company Faces by Fre, LLC with six employees. I’m originally from Michigan, and I now live in Philadelphia.

Kris Mendoza:             I don’t think I ever knew you were from Michigan. What brought you to Philly?

Fre Howard:        College, I am a Temple grad! I went to Temple University and I loved the city, so I decided to stay.

Kris Mendoza:             How did you get your start in the industry?  Did you go to school for this at Temple?

Fre Howard:      I took classes in NYC and Canada, but I already had a love for makeup. In high school, I would do my friends’ proms and weddings, and then when I got to college I would do girls’ makeup and eyebrows in my dorm room. 

You’ve got to find something to fill your life. You can’t stick with something that will drain you. So I interviewed as a makeup artist for this show called Del Vow Now . After that job, I worked on the set of Compromised, where I met Carla Morales, and started the web series, The Book of Nimrod. People started spreading my name by word of mouth so pretty soon I was working with folks from The Wire and other celebrities in town. 

I recognized that the world of opera had diverse companies, so I sent letters out, and sure enough, landed jobs as the lead makeup and wig designer for the Curtis Institute of Music, for Temple University, and for Rowan University. 

Kris Mendoza:             Nice. I didn’t realize how heavily you were entrenched in the Opera world. 


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Fre Howard: Oh yeah, Opera gave me my start!  And each season you get a variety of shows like new, fresh versions of La Bohème or Madame Butterfly. We see more people of color in the world of opera and that changed the landscape for me. I appreciated the old stuff, but hearing singers like Denyce Graves, or even Leontyne Price who I saw with my mom in Pittsburgh… I just couldn’t get that out of my head.  

Kris Mendoza:             So you mentioned diversity in that realm, and you see initiatives now in terms of inclusion and in some cases, quotas… are these positive and negative sides of the same coin?  You see an affirmative action approach sort of mandating this kind of inclusivity, what are your thoughts on that? 

Fre Howard:      Well, let’s start with the pros. I’m called for jobs that I normally wouldn’t be called for, simply because the talent is of color and they’ve requested someone with the skills to style them. That’s an opportunity for me to work for someone who would otherwise not even think about hiring me. Viola Davis once said that opportunity is what makes the difference for people of color.  Once I get one, my work speaks for itself and they can then see that mine is a small business which is also international.  They can see that, “Oh, she’s not just some local girl who’s doing hair and makeup. She’s actually traveled with her craft.” That broadens their perspective.  The reality is there are people globally who do this, and they’re not all in Hollywood. They’re right here in our backyard.

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The cons, unfortunately, are that I don’t get  a lot of calls for jobs that do not include African-American talent because they think that’s my specialty and that’s my lane, and that’s all I know how to do. Whereas, artists not of color have been hired to do all kinds of talent.  Unfortunately, most times when a woman of color is on set and has a non woman of color doing her makeup, that stylist doesn’t even have the canvas of colors to treat their skin or the skills to do their hair.

I was just on a shoot in New York for example, and there were two people of color, one had braids and one had naturally curly hair. I could tell that’s why I was brought on. The first woman sat down and I noticed she had her makeup and her hair things in her lap…  And I’m like, “Well, what is that for?” 

She said, “I’m in awe.  Can I take a picture with you?? I’ve been doing high end commercials since I was a child and I’ve never had a woman of color to be my makeup artist and hair designer.”  

And I said, “Well, you can just take that and put it away…” so I moved her stuff to the side and noticed that what she uses on her hair was exactly what I had at my station.  I mean, this woman was astonished, she kept talking about it saying “We have Kamala Harris now as a figure of what black women can do. And now today, I meet you here, working on this big commercial, and you’re a woman of color who has her own business and who has brought her own team… This is crazy!  In all my days, I’ve never seen anybody where you are.”

 So we’re like unicorns that pop up. And it’s sad because there are a lot of unicorns, but people just don’t know about them.  I am in 3 unions and I can work bi-coastally, but they don’t know about women like me because they are only given the names of people in their established networks. It’s a difficult circle to break into.

Kris Mendoza:             You mentioned Kamala Harris so I’m guessing this is fairly recent. This is 2021?

Fre Howard:                 Oh yeah. It was right after the inauguration.

Kris Mendoza:             Got you. That’s wild that it took her that long to have an experience like that. You mentioned Viola Davis and I recently saw a clip of her saying, “I’ve got an Oscar, I’ve got a Tony, I’ve got multiple Emmys, and still, I’m paid a fraction of what my white counterparts are. Wherever I go, people think they’re complimenting me by saying, ‘you’re basically the black Meryl Streep’.”

Your stories kind of remind me a little bit of that.  I can imagine people saying “Let me reach out to Fre and her team or another African-American-owned business or something when we need to. But when we don’t, we’re going to stick to this familiar crop of folks.”  

I mean, it stinks that I have to ask you this, but are the capabilities different in your experience?

Fre Howard: Frankly, yes, in that I have the intuition to work on people who look like me but also the experience of working on those who don’t.  I have the skills to do Asian skin. I know how to do a monolid. I know how to assess color and approach your undertones properly. 

My experience tells me that someone, maybe from Northern Europe, with more red in their skin and hair would look ashy with yellow based makeup on their skin.  Or that a man might be looking for subtle treatment, so don’t go too close, but blend the foundation into his facial hair so it doesn’t look like he’s wearing anything at all.  It takes experience to know they want to look clean and crisp and bright on camera, but they don’t want to look like they’re wearing makeup.

Amazingly there are people I’ve worked with in this industry who don’t know how to do that. It’s not something they’re trained to think about. 


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For example, I took a class with one of my unions… It’s about properly assessing talent quickly when you get the opportunity to day play … and day playing is when someone from the head hair and makeup team says, “We need an extra person,” and they call you in, not to do the run of the movie or the run of the show, but as extra hands that day. You come on and you “play” just for that day. I was excited about this course because the instructor was really well-known, and I knew some of the work they had done.  But what they got to a section on skin color, they didn’t show a single slide of an Asian, Latino, or Black person.

How are you going to teach all of your brothers and sisters in solidarity? We are of all colors. How could you have a slide show that didn’t represent all of us? And I think that’s ‘white privilege’ when they just…

Kris Mendoza:             They don’t think about it.

Fre Howard: They don’t think about that. They don’t think about me, so they don’t think about hiring me. 

I’m not at the top of their list, even though I may have crushed it the last time I worked with them. They think about hiring “Karen” because they always hire Karen. It’s easier. 

Kris Mendoza:             It’s a matter of exposure, so we do need a little bit of intentionality, as a phase to go through – where we purposely hire people of color, or women, or folks in the LGBQT community, until we build awareness and therefore equality.

Fre Howard:                 Yes, because despite my portfolio, I don’t get the calls and I get a fraction of what others get paid. I have yet to go into a job and not have to negotiate my rate, outside of Maestro and Five-Five Collective, who have not tried to low-ball me. And this is sad to say but I’m telling you the absolute truth: people ask, “Can you work for $200 a day?” They want to give me $100 for hair and $100 for makeup for a 10-12 hour day.  That’s not even what I get to do a bridal consultation.

I am in three unions, 799 in Philadelphia, 798 in New York, and 917 for the casinos in Atlantic City and Vegas.  I earn more working union jobs than non-union jobs, but some clients approach me with non-union jobs and want to pay less than half of what I normally get. 

Being in 3 unions is hard to do because, to get in, you have to really prove your skill level.  You have to show that you can lay hair on a face and make a fake beard. You have to exhibit your range of color. You have to show that you know how to do hair for period pieces and special effects and bald caps, and laying a prosthetic and burning edges and doing tattoos, and covering tattoos and doing it all quickly.


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So I’ve got the skill, the unions say I have that. My resume and my portfolio shows that, and yet people come to me asking if I can do a consultation for 25 bucks.  I pay my daughter’s piano teacher $80 for an hour session.  Why would I work 10 or more hours for so little? 

Sometimes people don’t understand that makeup makes the film… hair makes the film. You can have the best lighting, you can have everything else working for you, but if you don’t have that talent, that canvas in your chair, believing what you’re doing to their skin enhances their character, you have nothing.

Kris Mendoza:             Well, I think it’s one of those things you don’t know you need until you don’t have it. And a lot of art department things fall into that murky category where, if it’s done well you almost don’t know it was done on purpose. Sometimes people don’t appreciate it, until they don’t have it or they see it done badly.

It’s interesting. I never thought of your particular position as directly affecting people of color who get in front of the camera.  But when you talk about the average makeup artist who doesn’t know how to treat different pigments, that’s because there’s a lack of diversity in front of the camera as well as behind. Those fellow artists really aren’t getting the practice you’ve been forced to have with diverse skin tones.

Fre Howard:                     Sure, I’ve had assistants want to shadow me, so I ask them to bring their kits… I want to gauge their skills, I want to see their brush to skin techniques, etc… Every time I bring someone in who’s not of color, they don’t have anything in their kits past their own shade. It’s like they don’t realize there are darker Latinas, darker people of Asian, or South Asian Indian, Eastern Asian descent. And you know, maybe they like their skin to be a little lighter or darker than it is, so you have to have that in your kit. Sometimes I look at portfolios and there are absolutely no people of color at all, not one. And it’s unfortunate that this has been acceptable for so long. 

I did a job years ago, pro-bono, for a fashion week in Lehigh Valley. Kris, I had about six women lined up, of color, waiting for me to do their makeup.

Kris Mendoza:             Meanwhile, there were five other white makeup artists?

Fre Howard:                     I was so tired! But I was really moving.  I could hear them talking, “She’s been knocking us out, child, she got us… I only been here for 10 minutes. Have a seat. You’ll be fine,”  I mean, they were all about to go to the bathroom with their makeup before they saw me.  They don’t even expect anyone to consider them and they’re the ones working the product.

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The same thing happened at a press junket I did… that’s when a movie is on the trail.  They do these press junkets for the local TV stations or radio stations who come in and interview the stars of the film. People of color were swarming, “Can you tighten up my curls? Can you put some oil on my braids?”   Even the men of color were coming in… I had this one guy from Spain, we still keep in touch,  who wanted to have a photo with me, saying “What’s your Instagram? I can’t believe you’re here! I’ve not seen a woman of color.”

And he was like, “Can you line me up real quick?”  so I took out my clippers… they were so excited and I thought, “It’s a press junket! A lot of these movies have African-American leads, why don’t they have artists that can do an edge up, that can do braids, that can do palm rolls of locks?  Other people have that…”

Kris Mendoza:             Absolutely…what are some of the levers that need to be pulled in order to challenge that status quo? It sounds like you’re constantly having to jump with a weighted vest on, compared to your contemporaries. Do you have any thoughts on what needs to change going forward?

Fre Howard:                 I think people need to be open, first.  And thinking about that, I can’t help but feel heavy. I have been in the game for a long time and I have the credentials to do anything really.  I could be doing a television series… but even though it takes seeing someone like Viola Davis or Lupita Longo in front of the camera, that’s not enough to change things where I am.  That’s still not an accurate reflection of our world… of who’s hitting the pavement, working their butts off, taking classes, going to school, learning new skills, and getting certified or unionized.

Kris Mendoza:              So we need to make space on the ground floor?

Fre Howard:                 We have to lift each other up.  Even with you and I, and our relationship…Meeting other women, the same people Maestro met through working with Faes by Fre.. I’m proud that I’m ushering in diversity to our industry and these women are smashing it, now in totally different fields. Simone Holland is behind the camera and Bianca Moon is doing lighting and G&E!   Neither of them do makeup anymore, and what a beautiful legacy that is for me to offer opportunity.  I take pride in that. It may be hard to feel like a stepping stone when someone moves on, but it’s not a competition and that has nothing to do with my momentum. There’s a seat at the table for everybody. It’s not going to change my trajectory. It’s not going to change my artistry.


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Kris Mendoza:             Yeah. I’m so glad to hear you say that because I also feel the same way, in terms of hiring talent, developing talent, and people we collaborate with. Sometimes it feels like a thankless job, like, “Why am I investing in this person, building them up only for them to move on?” But when I looked back at it, that’s not the reason we’re investing in them. We’re doing it for them, and if we’re not doing it-

Fre Howard:                 Who will?

Kris Mendoza:             Exactly.  I think that’s an unsung part, but at the end of the day, you take pride in seeing other people succeed.You may not get the credit or recognition for anyone’s particular ascent, but you know that you seeded the ecosystem with diversity and that gave them the opportunity to grow.

Fre Howard:                I think, like you said, the higher scope of it is, who else will take on this challenge?  Because no one else is going to give a black girl from Ghana a chance of doing makeup on a major production, or to go to the Sundance Film Festival or the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to see their name in lights and their film being screened.  I’ve raised those opportunities for people in my company and it just fuels me to work harder for all of us.  


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Kris Mendoza:             That was a good segue because, we’re talking about make-up artist roles, but you obviously also wear the hat of a business owner. Let’s back up a little… did that really start as a side hustle? At what point did it become the main grind and then how did it grow into having a team of six people?

Fre Howard:                 That was so organic, Kris. This story, you can’t even make this kind of stuff up. I got fired on my day off, I’m not kidding.  I glossed over this before, but I was a telephonic therapist for a large insurance company, and I’d been doing that for over 15 years. I was on my way to retirement! I didn’t think about vacations, so I had time wracked up. That’s when I started working for the Curtis Institute of Music and then Temple hired me to do their opera season.

After that, I got called from local 799 to fill in for a show, which I took a day off to do.  It was fun, I felt rejuvenated. They asked me to stay for the run of the whole show, and I took the time off to do it for a week.

But then I was so depressed.. because I felt like I had to make a decision and I didn’t know which move to make. Do I stay with this company that I’ve been with for almost 16 years? or do I start my own business and start just doing this and only this?  So I took my FMLA.  I needed to take time off, get my head right.. and the first day I started my FMLA, they called me and said, they’re letting me go. The next day I got the job doing Hairspray Live.

Kris Mendoza:             That sounds like the world telling you, this is what you need to be doing. Also … it sounds illegal to fire someone when they are on their FMLA, that’s a whole other story…

Fre Howard:                It’s a whole other story Kris. It was like, “Wait a minute, can you do that? Because I’m protected, right?”  Everyone suggested I get an attorney and sue, but I thought “You know what, I’m going to be in New York tomorrow.” 

And I haven’t stopped moving. 

So it was, like you said, the universe saying, “Yeah, I’m going to force you to make a decision.”


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Kris Mendoza:             It seems like you really love what you do, is that fair to say?

Fre Howard:                 Oh, it is. And people knew it, even at my old job.  When I was in the office, if I was sad about something, they’d say, “Hey, go to Fre’s desk and let her do some makeup on you. You’re going to dinner tonight, right?” 

I’d be all sad, and they’d say, “Hey, can you put some lipstick on me? So they knew that brought me joy. I just didn’t know it.

Once I had the opportunity to do this, it was all I wanted to do. I love going to classes. I love teaching. I love learning. I love everything about it.  I’m living a dream and I am paying my bills through work that sustains me. I’m supporting my team through my hard work. And there’s no better feeling than saying, “It’s payroll day and I’ve got the money to pay all of you.”

Kris Mendoza:             Truly. And I recognize you’re not just employing people, you’re a role model. A black woman owning her own business, employing staff, treating people fairly.. I think people see that even though you can’t quantify what that does for your business or what that does for someone’s career.

That visibility which you may or may not be aware of, is huge for other people of color and younger women that are aspiring to run their own business or do what they love doing. I’m sure that’s true even for your daughter at home, to see you happy in your work probably speaks volumes as she pursues what she wants to do.

Fre Howard:                 That was a hidden blessing, owning my business meant I could have my daughter with me sometimes. She was able to learn how to break down my lighting system and to help. Pretty soon she was saying,  “You know what, I want to learn how to do eyebrows. I want to learn how to put on eyelashes.” Or remembering, “Oh my goodness, mom. I really miss being in the theater, listening to opera… or being on a train, driving to New York to work off Broadway.”

Kris Mendoza:             And totally as an aside, I think I saw that she took on her first modeling gig a couple of weeks ago?

Fre Howard:                She did, Kris! She crushed it too. They loved her.  In April, she’s going to have her first solo with T-VOCE and the Philadelphia Opera at the Cherry Street Pier, so the arts is her thing!

I’m so proud of her. I’m starting to think I need to get her an agent.


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Kris Mendoza:             You are a mom-ager as they call them, right?

Fre Howard:                A mom-ager, right! So she’s killing it right now. I’m so excited for her.

Kris Mendoza:            Awesome. That’s so good to hear. Any parting thoughts, Fre? Anything that I didn’t ask you that you feel is something you want to share?

Fre Howard:                I wanted to say, lastly, I think that it’s awesome to have a relationship with Maestro.  Whatever you do, whether I’m on the list or not, I read everything that you put out,  because I want to be a supporter of you. I think that we have to uplift each other, and we may be from two different ethnic backgrounds but we share the same kind of heart for our industry and what we like to do. 

You and Jo Shen, for example, you’re people I can trust.  We’ve even done a job together where someone higher up was particularly hard to work with for me but I was the one who got your support. I respected you so much for that. Not everyone takes the time to apologize for the way someone else treats me on set but you went out of your way to say, “this is not how Maestro does things, this is not how we treat people”… and that it was not what you wanted me to experience.

I’ll never forget that feeling, it fueled me to want to work with more people like you. Gone are the days where I take a job for the money. I work for people who understand the craft, understand the industry, understand the artistry and respect the humanity in it. I really want to thank you for that day.

Kris Mendoza:             Well, thank you for that. Yeah, I distinctly remember that particular job and everything that ensued.  I think you hit the nail on the head, because whatever your background, ethnicity, gender association may be, we’re interacting with fellow humans regardless of their background, who are fighting for the same opportunities as everyone else.

Fre Howard:                 Empathy. That’s it.

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Live Chair Health

This project was one of the early shoots we did with masks and social distancing on set when things began slowly opening back up in July. It’s a short spot we produced for Live Chair, a healthcare startup that is aiming to solve the disparity of health issues in black communities.

Now more than ever we see how much the black and brown communities have been disproportionately affected by the current pandemic due to existing comorbidities. Live Chair is solving this problem by breaking down the stigma of men talking about their health by starting that conversation in the trusted, sacred space of barbershops in urban communities.

Director by Keenan Marshall

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Visit Philly with Swoop

We recently wrapped on a series of videos for Visit Philly featuring Swoop of the Philadelphia Eagles. The purpose of the campaign was to show that the city was opening back up safely and to motivate folks to drum up tourism in the city. It was a fun day walking around with Swoop and he stayed in character the entire time.  Enjoy the spots below!

Midtown Village

Museum of American Revolution

Chickie’s & Pete’s

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Something Brewing Locally

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Supporting local businesses has been on all our minds, especially as the pandemic stalls the livelier side of Philadelphia.  As an ever-evolving town,  we welcome breweries that don’t leave us hanging.  Human Robot moved into the neighborhood just as soon as we lost the St. Benjamin Brewing Company (St. BBC) and they’ve opened our eyes to a masterful blend of both foundational beers and modern evolutions like the “pastry stout.”  


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Word around town is, we Maestro folks know a thing or two about showcasing this refreshing side of summer in Philadelphia.  We’ve also worked with Two Robbers, a homegrown hard seltzer company that’s been through the wringer.  But as we said, these are Philly Companies tried and true.  They may have had more than their share of thieves  (at least they got a name out of it)  but as one of the best tasting seltzers on the market, we think we got away with the real bounty.

Obsessed at first sip, check out our “love letters” to these two fantastic local creators who bring us a little summer relaxation when we really need it. Cheers!

“Robots are Brewing” | Director Kris Mendoza, DP: Weston Fahey & Ian Duffy, Editor: Jo Shen

“Two Robbers” | Director Kris Mendoza, DP: Weston Fahey, Editor: Rob Jennings

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Everybody Counts!

Once a decade, the Census Bureau fulfills a count of every person living in the United States, collecting vital data that decide how taxpayer dollars come back to our communities.  With such a task at hand, Maestro Filmworks joined the Bureau’s “Get to the Count” initiative to raise awareness and call our city to action.  


An accurate and complete census helps businesses,

community leaders and elected officials

determine where to put resources for hospitals,

emergency services, schools, roads, and more. 

You count!


Now more than ever, as evidenced by the pandemic and racial injustices, it is clear just how critical it is to be counted so that the communities most in need can get the proper resources allotted to them. We hope that the census and the recent activism around reform is a winning combination to begin real change we so desperately need.

Whether you are inspired by humor or by sentiment, these clips will get the message out!  

Directed by Rob Jennings • Animated by Andrew Czudak

Directed by Kris Mendoza • Edited by Rebecca Schwartz

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Humbly Home for NRF

NRF is the largest retail trade association in the world, and we were hired by Deloitte to create a faux spot for a fictitious company in order for them to use in a Cyber Security training for the world’s largest retailers at NRF’s recent conference in NYC.

The spot was used to establish a make believe company in a session with top cyber security experts in the retail field, with additional training videos that would outline important security protocols and recommendations to keep consumer information safe and secure.

As always, thanks to our great cast & crew for the work on this spot, make believe or not!

Starring: Erin Sanderson, Giancarlo Mariutto, Rachel Yong
Director: Charles Morabito
Producer: Kris Mendoza
DP: Bill Burke
AD: Joanna Shen
2nd AD/PM: Steve Sklarow
Art director: Mike Mizrahi
Gaffer: Paul Bradburn
AC: Weston Fahey
2nd AC: Joanna Shen
Sound mixer: Rich Mach
Art PA: Kate Feher

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Lagos Jewelry – Designer Series

We recently collaborated with Lagos Jewelry, whose global headquarters happens to be right here in Philadelphia. Our crew is on hand creating a campaign of videos, but this one captures the essence of the company’s signature inspiration line, Black Caviar.  We are revisiting the old-world craftmanship that creator Steven Lagos first incorporated and melding with it state of the art technology used to develop each intricate piece.  From the design floor to the workshop, we follow the process by showcasing systems and artistry leading to incomparably beautiful jewelry. Charles Morabito directs, combing over hand-drawn sketches and carefully illuminating diamonds, gems, and precious metals.  This deep dive explores the treasure trove of Caviar’s rich history.

DNA Simple

DNA Simple: “Speeding up science with you”

We are happy to announce our recent collaboration with a local Philly based startup in the Healthcare & Science field. DNAsimple is one of the most buzzed-about companies in the fascinating area of genetic research, and it has been fantastic for us to collaborate with such an exciting client.

DNAsimple is “the match-maker of the genetic research world”, matching-up interested users with relevant DNA research studies that are seeking donors. Their streamlined platform is free and easy to use, 100% anonymous, and automatically informs you any time you qualify for a study. For nothing more than the completion of a home saliva kit, all donors are fairly compensated any time they decide to contribute to a study.

The mission of DNAsimple is to enable donors to double the pace of genetic research, bringing cures and treatments to millions of people much earlier than they could otherwise be provided. The combination of cutting-edge scientific research with an intuitive, easy-to- use platform is what has helped DNAsimple gain such great buzz in a competitive, burgeoning field. Co-founder and CEO, Olivier Noel, was featured on the 2017 Forbes Magazine 30 Under 30 list for Science, in addition to prominent write-ups the company has received in BuzzFeed, The Boston Globe, and Philadelphia Magazine, among others.

The Maestro team produced a video for DNAsimple which will be used by the startup on their website, social media, and eventually even in a broadcast spot. We couldn’t be happier with the final product, and with the fact that we helped to contribute to DNAsimple’s goal of furthering the field of genetic research, and ultimately improving the lives of millions of Americans.

DNAsimple has been featured in stories by multiple media outlets, often touted as a leader in the emerging biorights movement. Visit dnasimple.org to learn more about the cutting-edge research going on at DNAsimple, or to sign up today.

Check back at the Maestro blog soon as we’ll be highlighting some of our most exciting projects yet!