6 Artina Michelle

Project Forte: Artina Michelle

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.


Copy Of ArtinaWithCamera


Our final interview for 2021 features the incomparable Artina Michelle (she/her), a Liberian-American filmmaker who reminds us that “cinematography is the rhetoric 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!



Written and Edited by Kate Feher



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.

NewYork IsabellaGranadaAC DirectorSabaahFolayan ArtinaMichelleDPIMG 7094
Isabella Granada AC, Sabaah Folayan Director, Artina Michelle DP

 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.

NewYork IsabellaGranada AC IMG 7106
Isabella Granada AC and Artina Michelle DP

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.

Screen Shot 2021 12 14 At 11.23.57 AM
Artina Michelle

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.” 

MelvinSKabakoleJr Surfer
Artina Michelle and Melvin Kabakole Jr

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. 

Copy Of MelvinSKabakoleJrandBillDiggs With Board On Motorcyle
Melvin Kabakole Jr and Bill Diggs

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. 

Screen Shot 2021 12 14 At 11.24.11 AM

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.

Artina Michelle

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!

MurrayHeadshot scaled 2 1

Project Forte: Kelly Murray




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.



Written and Edited by: Kate Feher





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.

Kelly Murray on the set of Renewed Spirit

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 that experience, 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.  

Kelly Murray and Hillary Hanak on the set of Block

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

Kelly Murray on the set of 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.

Kelly Murray on the set of Americano

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.”  

Kelly Murray writing for Accidentally Wes Anderson

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 at Playhouse West


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 Heart is 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. 

Kelly Murray on the set of Your Wreckless Heart

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 Block with 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. 

Block Crew

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!

Kelly Murray: Thank you for having me!

Screen Shot 2021 10 14 at 3.58.24 PM

Project Forte: Sofiya Ballin

Screen Shot 2021 10 14 At 3.58.08 PM


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.



Written and Edited by Kate Feher



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?

Screen Shot 2021 10 14 At 4.39.21 PM

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.

Reginald Cunningham + Brittney Cunningham – Black History Untold: Love (2020) photographed by Emmanuel Afolabi

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. 

Sofiya Ballin
Sofiya Ballin photographed by Rian Watkins

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. 

Jeffrey ‘DJ Jazzy Jeff’ Townes + Lynette Townes- Black History Untold:Love (2020) photographed by Emmanuel Afolabi

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. 

Afaq Shot By Emmanuel Afolabi
Afaq photographed by Emmanuel Afolabi

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.

Blair Imani – Activist- Black History Untold: Future (2018) photographed by Shawn Theodore

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… 

Sofiya Ballin behind the scenes on Black Love Untold (2020)

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.”

Sofiya Ballin behind the scenes on Black Love Untold (2020)

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. 

Behind the Scenes of Black Love Untold (2020)

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? 

Brittany Cunningham : Black Love Untold (2020)

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 photographed by Rian Watkins

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. 

Sofiya Ballin photographed by Rian Watkins

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.

Sel 1 8525

Project Forte: Hector Tapia

Portrait Hector Retrato Bco Y Negro


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!


Written and Edited by Kate Feher



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? 

2a246afb 8a97 4402 Bcc3 3bac5da01efc
Hector Tapia

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.”

4DD4D19F E98D 4EDF B2FB 05E18AC76143
Hector Tapia

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 –

Kris Mendoza:           Tight-knit?

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. 

27ECBDFE 21B0 4D42 A78D 790D5C1F5CD9
Hector Tapia pictured right

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.  

Sel 1 9670
Hector Tapia pictured right

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?

6529B20A CD98 46AB 83DE BD63713125E9

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. 

35A0DAD3 3259 4AC7 9EBF C142BE8B8BC7
Hector Tapia pictured right

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.

Hector Tapia:            Exactly.

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!

844875D0 C04C 4992 8677 F0B3D3F495F1
Hector Tapia drone operating

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.  

D27FE26C 621C 4491 B4C6 A16A65409890

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. 

IMG 4528 Jpg
Hector Tapia


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?

Screen Shot 2021 07 23 At 12.21.40 AM
Hector Tapia pictured left

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. 

Screen Shot 2021 06 18 At 12.22.14 AM

Project Forte: Carrie Brennan

Screen Shot 2021 06 18 At 12.19.57 AM
Carrie Brennan



 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.



Written and Edited by Kate Feher


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.

Screen Shot 2021 06 18 At 12.20.09 AM
Carrie Brennan in BLOCK

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?

Stroud Preserve 2

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. 

Screen Shot 2021 06 18 At 12.19.23 AM
Carrie Brennan on BLOCK

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.

Screen Shot 2021 06 18 At 12.21.09 AM
Carrie Brennan on BLOCK

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.

Stroud Preserve

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.

Image 4 27 20 At 6.26 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2021 06 18 At 12.19.11 AM
Amanda Amazzone and Carrie Brennan

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.”

Screen Shot 2021 06 18 At 12.19.38 AM

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!



Project Forte: Cal Woodruff

Calvin Woodruff


This week’s Project Forte continues a celebratory Pride Month with Calvin Woodruff (he/they), an editor and camera assistant currently living and working in Philadelphia.  Our City of Brotherly Love boasts many unique communities and it remains imperative, especially in the face of exposed animosity around the globe, that we provide support and safety to the menagerie of folk and their stories.  Calvin has been working to do just that for their community, creating safe sets which relieve anxiety and build confidence.  As our industry grows right here in Philly, we all have an opportunity to support this initiative and grow a different kind of set from the ground up.  This is a time of great reform and recognizing someone’s identity must change from a tactic of weaponization to one of love and celebration so that we can better relate to one another and serve each other.


Written and Edited by Kate Feher


Cal Woodruff:           My name’s Calvin Woodruff. I am an editor, assistant editor, and camera assistant, and I use he/him or they/them pronouns.

Kris Mendoza:           Cal, thanks for taking the time, officially kicking our relationship off with Project Forte. Can you tell me a little about your story, how you got into the film industry?

Cal Woodruff:           I really developed a passion for editing, to start with, in my teen years and instantly knew what I wanted to do because I just loved it, so I went full-force into that. I ended up going to Temple University for film and psychology. My parents are both psychologists, so I had a nice little backup plan just in case. But I feel like learning about psychology has also really helped on film sets and within the industry in general, because you have to deal with so many different personalities. I began my career freelancing, mostly as an editor and also as a script supervisor. 

Kris Mendoza:           What kind of projects do you find yourself working on, and what do you enjoy working on?

Cal Woodruff:           I did anything I could get my hands on while I was in school, but aimed for shooting a lot of queer events, drag, theater, and those types of shows. One of my mentors, Kelly Burkhardt, is an executive producer and was the photographer for a drag troupe I filmed for. She took me under her wing and led me to co-producing and script supervising on my first feature, which was a gay-themed drama called Beautiful Something. She used to work for TLA Releasing, which did a lot of queer films, so I had someone modeling that you can be LGBTQ and be successful in this business. 

Calvin Woodruff

I explored script supervising, and already knew I loved editing, but one day our camera assistant didn’t show so I gave it a shot and fell in love… It was just such a great skill to learn.  So far, my career has consisted of both camera assisting and assistant editing for documentaries, a few features, and commercials, as well as some TV shows like Queer Eye. I’ve had the pleasure of working on a lot of great short films, mostly queer-related. 

But you know, when I started, I was not out as a trans man. I worked through college and got my name on projects but at a certain point, I had to put those on a shelf because the name wasn’t correct. I transitioned, and going through that process meant I had to reenter the industry at a later age and as my true self. I had to start over because the people I had worked with before didn’t really know who I was. I think that’s definitely a big struggle for a trans person in the film industry. Being out … can be a gamble. I’ve faced bigotry, judgment, assumption… especially looking young as well. There were a number of years where I experienced employment discrimination and I didn’t get called for work because of who I am. But that inconsistency actually led me to carve out my own community within the industry. I consider myself lucky because I was forced to pick up the work that existed on the margins, but those were the projects I cared about and really wanted to work on.

Kris Mendoza:           It sounds like you get to pick and choose projects that are related to the theme of identity, the subject is specifically queer-related, or even just projects where set community involves folk who just share your views… Do you specifically pursue projects to maintain a certain level of comfortability for yourself or are you working to highlight these stories and further them for your community? 

Cal Woodruff:           I think it’s a mixed bag because, on the one hand, there are projects that I’m getting called for because I’m a trans man working as a crew member who shares the identity, and that feels great. I’ve learned so much from those opportunities. Those in the LGBTQ community don’t often have the same privileges and opportunities offered to others, so we create our own. And, yes, I’ve spent most of my career creating my own opportunities because of the lack of comfortability and safety on set.

Calvin Woodruff pictured second from right

When someone says something derogatory about your gender or your presentation, and you know that you’re not going to get called for the next job, where does that place you?  I’ve spent a lot of time looking at those patterns and creating better opportunities on the sets I’ve worked on. I have found such an incredible community of queer and trans filmmakers and there are a lot of us out there. We know how to create those safe spaces so we can make projects that are important to us and build our careers.

Kris Mendoza:           Within minority groups there can be an array of compounded diversity, for example, I’m Filipino but often get lumped into a blanket “Asian” identity with countless other cultures, from Taiwanese to Chinese to Japanese, etc. In the LGBTQ scene, obviously, there are complicated identities even separate from race, but they tend to place, all gay, lesbian, trans, queer people, into one bucket community. How do you navigate that, in terms of visibility and getting hired, and how does a lack of education keep others from navigating it?

Cal Woodruff:           Some people certainly see that you are in the LGBTQ community and want to take advantage of your identity so they can get brownie points for hiring those people. That can be really dangerous. Yes, the hope is you are called for that job because you fit in that community and there’s a certain responsibility to tell those stories as genuinely as possible. 

But you also hope to be called for work simply because you are a skilled camera assistant or editor who only happens to be a trans man and in fact, that is of no consequence. My community often loses when it comes to open opportunities because they simply are not thought of and so there’s no invitation to the table.”

Kris Mendoza:           It seems like whether it’s racial, ethnic, or gender inequities, folks get “othered.” You will be another if you don’t belong, in terms of a majority point of view. Can you unpack what that means for your community? Do you find there are similarities in what people of color go through on set, or any minority clamoring for opportunity and visibility at the same time?

Calvin Woodruff pictured right

Cal Woodruff:           I’ve noticed something happening in the industry, which is that people are beginning to think about who is on set and how it represents them as a production company. My fear is that at that point, companies are thinking about identity over skill-set and the point is to consider skill-set without excluding a person because you don’t identify the same way. People can use identity as a way to get a sense of who you are before you walk on set for the day, and to me, that can sometimes be dangerous. 

Kris Mendoza:           Yes, It’s hard to really know or trust people’s intentions. It’s also difficult to separate ignorance from racism, bigotry, and sexism. But once an education is offered, the hope is that person will simply hire folk because they’re good at what they do and they’re a pleasure to work with.

And I do think you’re right, people are very aware and becoming intentional of who’s on set now, and I think that’s a good first step. We do need loud voices in all these communities, to be activists and fight for a lot of this representation, but in your opinion what happens next?  What has to happen for us to not even have to have this kind of conversation?

Cal Woodruff:           I think we’re a long way away from that. A lot of our communities are being attacked every day, and we still have to be careful about where we are and what we do. If you’re always thinking like that, you’re not really able to focus on the work that you’re doing, on the career that you’re building. And I think that’s one thing a lot of cis-people don’t understand – when you’re sitting there trying to build a camera, you’re also thinking, what are they saying about me and how I present?

Calvin Woodruff

Kris Mendoza:           You are so aware that they are watching you because of the threat you’ve been under in the past. 

Cal Woodruff:           They’re watching me.

Kris Mendoza:           They’re waiting for me to make a mistake.

Cal Woodruff:           Exactly, exactly. And I know I’m not … LGBTQ people are absolutely not the only minority that feels that way. I think productions need to have an environment where you can focus on your job, and that’s something that I have had the privilege of creating with my friend, Easton Carter Angle, who is a cinematographer. We have done a lot of projects, and it’s all about safe sets, about …

Kris Mendoza:           Not COVID-related safe sets? Just safe sets in general?

Cal Woodruff:           No, no, like safe sets so that you’re not looking over your shoulder, and you’re able to grow your skills and make projects that matter to you. Because as we form the future and recognize that we need to be the ones to tell our stories, the ones behind the camera, the ones making the decisions, it’s not just about calling a trans person to be on set because they’re trans.

Kris Mendoza:           Yeah. And you made a good point. It is about having trans people and other minorities in leadership positions. It’s not like, hey, our PA is an LGBTQ, or we have a Black PA. Check.

Cal Woodruff:           Yeah, yeah. We’re not checking boxes here.

Calvin Woodruff pictured right

Kris Mendoza:           I think a big part of the solution is certainly placing folks throughout the decision-making process. I think that’s the … I don’t want to say “ultimate solution,” but it makes a huge difference when someone does trust you to basically head the department and to hire other folks. I think that is one of the big first steps necessary in terms of getting more minorities and folks of the LGBTQ community on set. They don’t necessarily have to be the loudest activists, so to speak, but if they are the ones hiring, making calls, creating culture, and setting the tone for set that day… it’s only going to, A: open doors and provide opportunities for filmmakers that are already feeling marginalized, and B: encourage other LGBTQ folks to pursue film in general. 

If you’re considering a career in film, it’s huge to see not only a DP or Producer like you but also the general crew – to see a gaffer or another department director making decisions.  That kind of visibility offers the idea, and then young folk can begin to even just consider this field and aren’t immediately edged out.  It’s a big part of the reason why I’m doing this – it was not a career path that was expected, at least of me, as an Asian American. And I’m sure there are a lot of very talented Asian-American filmmakers in high school who don’t think it’s for them, just because of what they see or don’t see. 

Cal Woodruff:           Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s a yearly Trans Wellness Conference that happens in Philadelphia, and I had the privilege of setting up and running a workshop panel with Easton for trans filmmakers and trans cast. I was shocked by the interest in it. We had a panel of trans filmmakers, and I realized in that moment, someone might see us and say, “I can do that, too.” 

And I think that’s the point. While visibility can be a trap sometimes, because you put yourself in danger, it’s also necessary because the next person will see that you’re doing this, and will feel empowered to do it themselves.

Calvin Woodruff

It’s a challenge today, to be recognized as a trans person in the film industry, or to be recognized (in my positions) for my talent.  If I can use my identity to my advantage at this moment, then I have to, because it will get me in the room. But then, once I’m in the room, other people will see that it’s possible. And I think it’s just … it’s about possibilities because I don’t think, as a young person, I really saw those opportunities at all.

Kris Mendoza:           Did you have any role models in the film industry or anyone to look up to as you were transitioning? Or even now, as a trans filmmaker, are there people you look up to in the trans filmmaking community?

Cal Woodruff:           I definitely have a lot of mentors, people that I look up to. I also think it’s incredible that, as I’ve grown in my career, I’ve noticed more and more queer people to admire in the industry. They showed me that there are opportunities for people like me. I think of Sam Feder and Laverne Cox for their Disclosure documentary. I got the privilege of working with director Chase Joynt, who did a documentary about Billy Tipton, a trans jazz musician. And there are people that worked on Transparent, like Zackary Drucker. It’s kind of incredible how many trans people are in the film industry right now that you can even point to because I think 10 years ago, I was like … maybe Chaz Bono was the one and only person that I could think of. And now I think, oh god, there’s a whole list of people to be proud of and to work with, even locally!

And I’ve had the privilege of working with trans people in Philly, New Jersey, New York, and all over the East Coast and the West Coast. Just even being able to look up to my friend, Easton, as a trans cinematographer. It feels great to be proud that we’re all sticking together to make it in an industry that can be really cutthroat, even if you’re not a minority.

Calvin Woodruff pictured center


Kris Mendoza:           This is a bit of a side question here because you mentioned Transparent, and it made me think about the bit of a backlash that it got, with Jeffrey Tambor not being a trans actor. I find this interesting. It’s happening in a slightly different way, but on the Asian side, this Marvel actor, Shang-Chi, he’s from Canada and considers himself Taiwanese Canadian, but he’s playing a Chinese-born character. People in China are freaking out, being like, “This guy’s not even Chinese. He’s Taiwanese, and he’s from Canada.” 

I’m curious, because a lot of the people that were getting mad about the Jeffrey Tambor thing were not even part of the trans community. They were just people on social media who were angry. So I’m curious about your own perspective … Because I agree that, yeah, the character should that have been played by a trans actor, because there are plenty of trans actors. But is it damning that he is not trans, at the end of the day? Or is it just better that there is even a show about the subject matter which became commercially viable and popular?

Cal Woodruff:           Yeah, I go back and forth about this because I know how hard it is to get greenlit on anything.  I think when I first saw that news, I was furious. I said, “A trans woman needs to be playing this role. There’s no way that a cis man, especially him, will know what it’s like.” And then I found out that there were trans people in the writers’ room and on the production team, who were leaders and made this happen. And at first, I was a little taken aback by it, but then I thought, as long as a trans person is telling those stories, then it feels somewhat acceptable to me. Should it be a trans woman in that lead role? Absolutely. But my thought is, if a trans person is in a leadership role for this, then it’s just one important step toward creating the next project, in which you have better facilitated an opportunity for the right person in that role. 

Kris Mendoza:           First you have to prove that people are going to watch this, and next you get to replace him with someone-

Cal Woodruff:           Right.

Kris Mendoza:           Exactly.

Cal Woodruff:           In my mind, I would say, sure, get it greenlit with Jeffrey Tambor. Get people excited about it, and then do better. It’s about taking your privilege, knowing where you are, and then pushing it to the next step. You can make a show about trans people, but don’t exploit us and our stories. I always say we should be the ones telling our stories. And yeah, I think it is hard because, on the one hand, as a viewer, as an audience member, it’s infuriating to see somebody play a role that has nothing to do with them. And then, on the other hand, it’s hard as a filmmaker, knowing how hard it is out there to even get these stories told. And I go back and forth between being thankful that this story exists, and upset that it’s not the right person that’s telling it.

Calvin Woodruff

Kris Mendoza:           You brought up a really good point right of just how hard it is to get something greenlit. It goes back to what you said earlier, it’s like … yes, Jeffrey Tambor is an amazing actor. You can package him with a good director, a good script, and that will get greenlit, right? But a talented trans woman who no one knows yet, will that get greenlit? Probably not. You do what you can and then focus on what you can do next to push it, building trust and using privilege to do better afterward. 

On the other hand, I’ve seen executives in studios just go for it, right?  If they have a really good story, a really good director, but they don’t know the trans-woman who was casted, they might still take a chance and it should be considered exactly the same amount of risk as taking a chance on an unknown white male or white female cis actor.  People get discovered all the time. You may not know who the star is. So it’s no different. I think executives should get over that hump, that it’s all the same, giving someone a chance, and that studios make enough money at the end of the day to take chances here.

So let’s touch back on having representation in the writers’ room. I’m also conflicted in some regards when you see a film and recognize: this was not an authentic story because the director or producer, whoever put this together, clearly was not of this background or ethnicity. But if you find out that the actor who, let’s say, was playing someone with AIDS – actually spent years with AIDS patients and researched with them, listened to their stories, and befriended a lot of people – really took this role seriously. You think a little differently about it because that is the role and the opportunity for a performer. A good actor needs to be trusted to empathize and reflect real life.

I’m conflicted. There are some instances where that’s okay, and others where there were dozens of people you could have hired for this role who probably didn’t even get auditioned. It’s like they didn’t even have the privilege of getting declined this role. They never got called. Those situations are nuanced, of course.

Cal Woodruff:           Yeah. I think you make a really good point about taking chances because there’s so much money and stress behind every choice that you make, every casting choice, every crew choice. And I think that, as we go into the future, people need to stop being afraid to take chances. Take something like Pose:  many of those performers had never had acting experience, and just look at what happens when you take chances and you allow those people into the room. They will surprise you.

Take chances on the people that you’re most nervous about, because – and I speak from experience – they are the ones who will be most excited and ready to be in the room and take on the work. Especially with some of these big indie projects, you can take a chance on an unknown trans actor and really surprise everyone.


Kris Mendoza:           Let’s talk about what happens after an opportunity. I always say there’s internal validation and external validation, speaking on what people know you as, not even exclusive to gender identity, etc. I know people that are known as a PA or known as, say, an AC, and then all of a sudden, they get an opportunity to DP, and all the people that knew them as an AC begin to meld their identity.  They’re kind of like, “Oh, so-and-so is an AC but kind of a DP now,” but all the people that met that person on the set as a DP only know that person as a DP.  They don’t know them as anything else and that DP has a right to assume the identity because they have gained the experience.  All they needed was the opportunity to prove themselves.

So from that point on, there’s this external validation of, “Oh, I know … yeah, or I know her. They’re a DP.”  But a person won’t know them as an AC, they don’t know what it was like prior to that. So how does that apply to how you present on set and how people know you, going forward?  If you’re not outwardly presenting as a trans man having, in fact, completed your transition, do you find that people speak freely and differently around you?  

Cal Woodruff:           Absolutely. And I think you’re hitting an important point on the head. On one side, it’s how you identify yourself. “I am a trans man who is a camera assistant and editor.” Or, “I am a camera assistant and editor who is also trans.”  

I am a passing white trans man and that has definitely put me in situations where I’m able to defend others. I feel lucky that I’m even in a position where I’m able to defend someone … if there’s another queer person on set, you better believe I will be defending them. I’ve been on sets where I don’t get defended by other people, and I would want someone like me to be that on set.

Calvin Woodruff

But I certainly don’t hide my trans identity, because it’s important to just allow other people who are queer know that I am a safe person in that community. I choose to be out.  What is difficult and unfair is that sometimes it’s safer to hide that part of my identity.

Kris Mendoza:           That’s so unfortunate that you have to navigate it at all, right? Like, do I feel safe to say this or not?  To not have to constantly assess and reassess even how you introduce yourself is, quite frankly, a privilege other people take for granted.

Cal Woodruff:           Right. And I think I mentioned it before. I am unabashedly myself, and people know that … people find out that I’m trans, and then I don’t get a call for the next shoot because of it.  I choose to take chances on that because I don’t want to hide that part of myself.

Kris Mendoza:           Do you also find yourself questioning if you’re not getting called because you said you were trans, or because you messed up in some way? Do you think,  am I just focusing on this as the reason, or are they just not busy and don’t have work to offer?

Cal Woodruff:           Yeah. 

Kris Mendoza:           The fact that you have to reconcile all those thoughts takes your focus away from your actual work. And it’s hard to not have insecurities when you have all those conflicting thoughts inside. 

Cal, this has been great. I think, to wrap up, let’s talk about what you’re working on now. I’ve seen See Us in the Wild‘s cut and it’s looking sharp. Ayumi Perry and Sophie XU actually came by the office and screened it. 

Cal Woodruff:           I feel really, very privileged to be able to edit that piece. It’s beautiful and I always love working with Eurica Yu. I’m really excited for that to come out.  I didn’t realize you got a little private screening, that’s exciting!

Kris Mendoza:          You were working on another trans project?

Cal Woodruff:            Oh, yes, Trans in Trumpland was the most recent film I worked on, which was a feature documentary that I AC’d on all last year and then was an assistant editor on. And that was a great chance to travel and capture stories of people that are like myself. 


Kris Mendoza:           Absolutely. What’s next for you? Anything cool you’re working on that you want to tease, or next steps that you’re looking at?

Cal Woodruff:           So the biggest thing is that I’m leaving Philadelphia.

Kris Mendoza:           Oh, man.

Cal Woodruff:           I know. My partner, her name is Ariel Mahler, she got into AFI‘s directing fellowship program for next year, and so we are leaving Philadelphia in late July to move to LA for a time. I plan to continue freelancing as an editor and camera assistant, and trying to work bicoastally as much as possible. Ariel already has an east-coast based project called Bad Ally, which is a web series we just shot an episode for on Sunday, and-

Kris Mendoza:           I heard about this!  You posted something about it I think –

Cal Woodruff:           Oh, yeah. That’s Bad Ally, it’s been a really fun project to work on! They’re doing a whole section of quarantine chronicles because they can’t shoot a whole second season yet. So that’s probably going to be ongoing, and there’s another short film that I’m working on in June for Morgan Sullivan and Noah Schamus who are trans New York filmmakers. I’m excited to go to LA and enter a new community of trans filmmakers, some who I already know and some who I’m anxious to meet. My biggest dream is to have this coalition of trans filmmakers that can all work together and support each other, uplift each other, learn from each other. I talk a lot about the niche Philly filmmaker scene and to have our own community where we all lift each other up and give each other opportunities… I can see it happening, and I can see that as a driving force for my career and my life, as well.

Calvin Woodruff

Kris Mendoza:           That’s awesome! First off, congrats on the move and to Ariel with AFI, that’s huge. You’ve got an exciting future ahead. As the world is opening back up, it seems like no better time to embrace a new city, new excitement, and new beginnings. Good luck to you there!  I really enjoyed this conversation. Do you have any parting words for us?

Cal Woodruff:           Thank you. Yeah, I just want to drive home the point that, if you are in a position of power in the industry,  allow yourself to take chances on people that we both know have incredible stories to tell and also have incredible skills that they need to develop. I think that’s just the most important thing that we can do, as a community and as an industry.

Aly Spengler BTS 02

Project Forte: Aly Spengler

Aly Spengler BTS 00
Aly Spengler


Aly Spengler (she/they) is a Philadelphia-based Director of Photography, MoVI Pro Operator, and Post-Production Editor. They have led full-scale departments and used their skills, technical and social, to overcome enormous obstacles with grace. Having taken an open stance on supporting their LGBTQ community, Aly is able to speak confidently when it comes to creating an open and safe environment for folks of manifold backgrounds within our industry. This week on Project Forte, we recognize that maturity comes from taking responsibility for your own growth and education, but without an experience or exposure to diversity we can remain unaware of our own ignorance. In these cases, allies can help breach the expanse that separates us. They navigate difficult conversations and usher our peers into a more respectful and inclusive brotherhood.  We are, after all, in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love! Read on to learn how speaking up can eventually dissolve animosity, creating empathy and community by illuminating areas of naiveté amongst us.  It is a crucial act, bravely but simply done, which will break down the walls that keep us from working together. 



Written and Edited by Kate Feher



Kris Mendoza: Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do? How did you get started in the industry?

Aly Spengler:            My name is Aly Spengler. I began my career shooting behind the scenes fashion editorial films and small-scale documentaries in 2008 with one of my childhood friends. Since then, I’ve grown and expanded my expertise in the various areas of production, but I’ve always called the camera department my home. I’ve participated across a broad spectrum of projects – I’ve been invited to travel the world to film radical movements and document humanitarian efforts, shoot national campaigns and commercials, hung backward off the back of motorcycles with a Mōvi strapped to my chest for large motorcycle and automotive brands, collaborated with non-profits and independent artists, and more recently have been trying to break into the larger film sector. 

Aly Spengler BTS 03
Aly Spengler

I am a non-binary LGBTQ filmmaker, and I aim to bring other LGBTQ, BIPOC, and historically marginalized filmmakers, creatives, and individuals to the forefront any way I can, whether it be on set and throughout production, or in front of the camera telling their story.

Kris Mendoza:          This is exactly what Project Forte is about, I knew you would be a great fit!! What pushed you to be an advocate for LGBTQ and BIPOC filmmakers beyond supporting your own community? Was there something that happened that spurred you to take a stand? 

Aly Spengler:            It’s always been at my roots, a sort of yearning and heartache for wanting more, wanting to fit in while also not. Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation and prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us and which parts we’ve created to protect us. It’s massive and existential and difficult. But I’m convinced that being confronted with the need for profound self-discovery so explicitly, and often early in life, is a gift in disguise. We come out the other end wiser and truer to ourselves. Some cis/het people never get there. 

I grew up in a very rural, conservative town in central PA, home to about 7,000 people. Everyone knew everyone’s business. I was closeted, and then I was outed. I went through a really difficult process of trying to hide myself while also trying to understand who I was. My two dearest friends growing up were two gay men. Needless to say we all shared similar experiences of verbal and physical bigotry from our peers. Being a direct target to hateful individuals and watching friends of mine be ridiculed for being themselves fueled a fire in me that burns today, and continues in the same way for any other group or individual who is treated like they are the lesser.

Processed With VSCOcam With C1 Preset
Aly Spengler

After moving away to pursue a career in filmmaking, developing my career and myself at the same time was the focus of my life. But it can definitely be a double-edged sword in terms of speaking up against injustice or against people who are outwardly bigoted and or racist. I’ve found myself coming toe to toe with some of these individuals, both on and off set, and although it’s uncomfortable, I think these conversations are necessary.

Kris Mendoza:           Can you expand on the double-edged sword metaphor? Is it in balancing how much to speak out and how much to blend in at the same time?

Aly Spengler:            I’m honestly tired of trying to blend in. I mean, it’s definitely a delicate dance. No one wants to start a ripple that’ll get them fired or X’d out of a future gig because someone thinks they “speak their mind too much” but also, would you even want to work with individuals who felt that way about you, to begin with?  That answer is simple, and the answer is no.

I only recently came out as non-binary, so for the longest time I was just “the only female on set.” Navigating that alone had it’s challenges. Prior to 2017 I was strictly a freelancer. In fall of that year I started working a 9-5 corporate job as an in-house DP for a local Philly moto giant. There, I worked with predominately straight, white, cis-male individuals, and in my department specifically, many narrow-minded and outwardly biggoted and vocal personalities. Most, I’m sure, would call their actions cute and harmless, but I tote that up to them not being a part of the community they were making caricatures out of. It’s plain ignorance to a group of people you know nothing nor care to learn anything about. It just became overwhelmingly exhausting and difficult working with this certain group who would behave outwardly sexist, bigoted, and racist through seamingly off-hand comments. And like many companies, these individuals were always protected from being held accountable. Which can be the most damaging. 

Aly Spengler BTS 08
Aly Spengler

I eventually found myself pretending to joke back with them as a means to make them question their initial statements, which forced them to continue the conversation. It clearly made them uncomfortable once they realized what they were saying. Never once did I feel comfortable coming out as non-binary in that place of employment. Suggesting to a host to try and phrase a sentence in our scripts using “they” instead of “he” produced eye-rolls and sighs. Like I was talking to a 30 or 40-year-old child. 

It’s a delicate dance, trying to talk to individuals operating from a place of ignorance like that. You honestly want to get through to them, but it doesn’t always work. Now, I just don’t feel a need to put up with it anymore. And I don’t put up with it when I see it happening to other people in similar situations either. It’s something I’m deeply passionate about and it can’t be separate from the work that I create.

Kris Mendoza:           So there are boldly racist, sexist, and bigoted comments, but then also, these microaggressions which, as you said, people sometimes just giggle at and let it pass thinking it’s harmless. That’s another double-edged sword because defending against a microaggression can make you look like you’re blowing up about a small thing. You’re damned if you don’t say something because it makes that seem ok to the team, and damned if you do say something because you get labelled as someone who’s hard to work with, right? 

Aly Spengler:            Exactly! And I’ve gotten that before, but it’s more important to remember: microaggressions are never small to the receiver. Sometimes the person making that comment has no idea what they are saying and how it affects other people long-term. Mental f***ing trauma is real. I would be in our production studio predominantly by myself, every day, for almost three years – my own AC, G&E, audio tech, etc. Then my hosts would roll into the space and just outwardly sling microaggressions like a performance because it “riled” each other up and it got laughs among them, even while the camera rolled.. and that was just really difficult to-

Kris Mendoza:           Stomach.

Aly Spengler BTS 05
Aly Spengler

Aly Spengler:            … stay silent. And yeah, stomach. And that right there was a difficult dance because I was doing something I loved, I had a weighted position, and I was thriving. I had a department of almost 20 people, we had five full-time editors, multiple producers, a handful of hosts, etc, and only one shooter. I was the camera department. We were creating so much, but with the weight of-

Kris Mendoza:           Verbal abuse.

Aly Spengler:             … it was a lot. I eventually spoke out to HR and sought guidance on what was being said. I let them know what was happening and that some people were making puppets out of these marginalized demographics and that I was a part of this community so I was finding it very difficult to be around those people. I was let go two weeks after going to HR. I had gone in the hope that they would help me talk to these individuals and let them know that this wasn’t okay. I had just gone through my yearly review a few months prior to visiting HR and that had gone very well. I had never been put on any type of probationary period about my performance in my role. They also did not disclose with me their reason for letting me go. Enter, “the queer in a corporate setting” experience.

Kris Mendoza:          That’s really a shame. It’s hard to say if they cited your visit to HR or told you why you were let go, but obviously, that sounds highly illegal.

Aly Spengler:            Being in that studio, with no windows and only one door.. people came in, made their little comments, and of course, HR never heard about it. It was a place that addressed me as, this female.. non-binary.. this queer… this non-straight individual and by stating the problem, I was seen as the problem. I feel like it put an X on my back and they basically found an easy way to eliminate the-

Kris Mendoza:           Friction.

Aly Spengler:             Yeah. So, that’s what I mean by a double-edged sword.

Aly Spengler BTS 02
Aly Spengler

Kris Mendoza:           It doesn’t sound like you were disrespectful in how you spoke up. It wasn’t like you barged into HR and yelled and complained. It sounds like you composed yourself and figured out a way to report it.

Aly Spengler:             Yeah, it was a pretty emotionally draining and vulnerable one-on-one with her. I feel like that’s something a lot of people still have to put up with, whether you’re in a corporate setting or not. Whether you’re a female, a person of color, or any historically marginalized individuals, it’s sadly always something that you carry and I question if my straight, white male counterparts ever feel it.

Kris Mendoza:           Sadly, I think that’s the privilege they enjoy, having never been made to feel like the minority in the room in any way, shape, or form, right? It will take initiative and time for the general establishment to be more open and accepting. 

Project Forte is all about allyship and it’s not just necessarily about a friend speaking up, but how important is it for victims to share.  Maybe it is a straight white male that hears it and is not okay and says something, how powerful is that?  How important is it to have other people stick up for you on these instances?

Aly Spengler:            It’s incredibly important because it will make that individual, who’s made to feel like they’re just complaining, feel validated. It’s sad that it’s been constant decades of yearning to simply feel accepted by your peers, to feel like you need permission to be

Aly Spengler BTS 01
Aly Spengler

Kris Mendoza:           I spoke to another Director of Photography who is a part of the LGBTQ community and wears it loud and proud as part of her cause. I expected her to say she experiences a lot of discrimination but was actually very much surprised to hear that her experience was in favor of the film community, noting that it is more diverse and accepting than corporate industries. From your experience, what is it like to navigate as non-binary and wear this cause on your sleeve and advocate within this industry?

Aly Spengler:            Don’t get me wrong, this was one huge, long experience with one specific company. I love the film world because it can be a super diverse group of people and harbors many creatives and artists, who tend to be really open-minded people. I have noticed, however, that some departments repeatedly have the same demographics of people being hired in them, like the camera department, or G&E for example… have a lot of white cis-men. For some reason I still mostly see women being hired as makeup artists and stylists when I happen to know plenty of women, non-binary people, and trans individuals who are exceptionally talented in these other departments. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve only recently come out as non-binary but for years I identified strictly as a gay woman. Being nonbinary doesn’t exclude your very real gay or lesbian experience. I feel like, on certain sets, men have let their hair down around me and have gotten really comfortable with their vernacular – basically what I’m getting at is I’ve had men say really sexually explicit things about other women to me, because well, “we’re on the same team, right?”.

I had a producer quote to me, “Wow. It’s so cool to have a lesbian on set because it’s like having one of the boys.”  This was my first time working with him. On a travel shoot. 

Aly Spengler BTS 07
Aly Spengler

Kris Mendoza:           I would assume that as an off-colored compliment, a clumsy attempt to find common ground, right? He’s trying to build camaraderie with you, but it has the exact opposite and, incidentally, negative effect, of making you feel even more uncomfortable when maybe he was trying to make it seem like, “We can be cool. We’ve got this thing in common.”  And I think it seems rooted in ignorance at the end of the day. People are sometimes taught that men and women are so different they can’t relate. I don’t think they mean to create exclusion, but maybe they’re trying to preempt it – though it’s coming from a lack of understanding, and not necessarily animosity. For him, this is cool and novel because he just hasn’t had that much exposure to it and it’s almost a neutral level of ignorance. In terms of that, how often do you find yourself having to educate people?

Aly Spengler:            It’s not my job to educate people or be their encyclopedia but I often find myself having to stop my job of creating in order to do that, to address that ignorance. My problem is when people don’t want to educate themselves by absorbing or staying open on their own. It’s when you introduce these new ideas like, “Hey, that person goes by they/them. You should use those pronouns.” And then they roll their eyes and sigh. Those are the people I will go a little more toe-to-toe with because it’s just pure stubbornness. 

Kris Mendoza:           Absolutely. As the head of a department or a leader on set with other folks under you, do you constantly have to gauge the team’s sense of credibility or validity to what you’re saying and your position because of your gender or your age? Do you ever find yourself having to prove yourself more when you’re in a leadership position?

Aly Spengler:            At times, yes. Anticipating having to prove myself and my worthiness within my department position is more of a mental hurdle than anything, but once I’m actually working and leading, I’m thriving, and I feel confident. I feel like I was brought there for a reason, so I try to hope and trust that it wasn’t just to check a box or to meet a quota, but that I was brought on because the team was excited about what I can contribute. I decide to trust that we have like-minded goals and views on what we want to create together. At its core, that’s still one of the biggest things that draw me to this industry, when people who you meet, may butt heads with, or find you are vastly different from, come together to make something. We’re all there for the same reason because we love this work, the creativity, and the camaraderie. I live for and love crew camaraderie.

Aly Spengler BTS 04
Aly Spengler

Kris Mendoza:          Have you been able to work on a project with LGBTQ subject matter and have the right crew and people telling all these authentic stories in front of and behind the camera? Have you ever been able to bring your love of filmmaking and advocacy for the community together in a project?

Aly Spengler:            I’ve never truly been able to bring it all together fully like that – where crew, talent, and content are in line authentically. Damn, wouldn’t that be amazing? I’ve yet to have the opportunity to bring it full circle. 

Kris Mendoza: What needs to happen for this acceptance of non-binary people, LGBTQ community, not just on set, but in general?  You might look at the film or television community as a microcosm of the larger society, but obviously these microaggressions, these scenarios are happening elsewhere and almost more aggressively outside of our industry now. So at least in terms of the language of film and being on set, what needs to happen to have more inclusivity and diversity on set?

Aly Spengler:            I think it all comes back to the hiring process, and then truly listening to the people who you hire and their experiences. The people who are in charge of creating these crews and bringing people together maybe need to expand their Rolodex a little bit. Don’t just always go to the white guy with the most expensive camera because you know he’s going to crush it, but if you also know that you have other people who can build this department who haven’t had the opportunity who are equally as talented, take a little more chance.

Screen Shot 2021 06 04 At 9.23.16 AM
Aly Spengler

Hire us because you know that we’re talented and you feel confident in what we can contribute and don’t default back to the same choices because it feels safe. Don’t perpetuate the cycle.

Kris Mendoza:           Take a risk and get out of your comfort zone.

Aly Spengler:            Have difficult conversations. And more importantly, listen to other people. Accept their stories, learn from them, and grow together. 

Kris Mendoza:           I really want to thank you for your time. It’s been very, very insightful.

Aly Spengler:            I really appreciate you reaching out to me, especially with us never having worked together. I don’t know if you’ve worked with a lot of the people that you’ve interviewed.

Kris Mendoza:           Not necessarily, and this has been a great experience to meet people that we haven’t worked with yet. I hope to have the opportunity to work with you now that we’ve connected and follow you more closely. I hope your story is not just relatable to those that have gone through similar experiences, but for those that haven’t. It’s eye-opening for folks who want to become good allies, develop a little intentionality with hiring, and have insightful dialogue like this. That is crucial.

Aly Spengler:            It’s only going to make people feel a little more welcome wherever they are. 

High Hopes

Project Forte: Mel Soria

Screen Shot 2021 05 27 At 1.20.34 PM
Mel Soria photographed by Kate Feher


Mel Soria (he/him) is a two-time VMA winning director now living and working outside Philadelphia.  He cut his teeth in Hollywood, assisting directly to filmmakers who would provide mentorship and mastery over the craft.  Taking that rare and hard-won education, he branched out on his own, developing a niche in music video as a challenge in short-form storytelling.  This week on Project Forte, Mel shares that wisdom of experience with us, along with some chilling anecdotes which diagnose the stark truth behind industry “norms” and how they are perpetuated.  Mel has faced the challenges of immigration with ambition, discernment, and hope.  He has maintained an exuberant charm throughout these hardships, bringing only positivity to set and demanding that the industry recognize excellence over race and gender.




Written and Edited by Kate Feher


Mel Soria:                  My name is Mel Soria.  I’m known as the greatest… Nah, just kidding – I am a director, primarily in music videos, with a lot of experience in narrative.

Kris Mendoza:         World Famous! How’d you get your start in the industry?

Mel Soria:                   Well, it was kind of accidental even though it makes a lot of sense now…  So, of course, I’m Filipino American. My family immigrated to the States when I was five from Manila. We lived in Queens, New York and as a child, we would sometimes go to this Wendy’s in town where they shot Coming to America – the McDowell’s place. They had a long hallway with photos of stills from the film, and I was like, “What are these?” When my dad told me, it was the first time I understood, A: people actually make movies in real places, and B: we were now living where people made the movies. Cuz when you’re a kid living in the Philippines you always think movies were made in faraway places.

Kris Mendoza:         “Hollywood”

Mel Soria:                    Exactly. I realized, “Oh, America is the place where they make movies. We now live in America.” Later, I learned to love Coming to America because I was old enough to finally understand the satire, and of course, it reminds me of New York – which represents my family’s immigrant story.

Happy Song
Mel Soria

I was very artistic growing up. I could draw, and I assumed I was going to be an architect because that was the ‘legitimate’ job you could do with drawing. I really wanted to be a comic book artist, but I’m sure my parents, being Asian immigrants, thought, “Yeah, we didn’t sacrifice so you could draw comic books.”  So, I went to Virginia Tech which has (I’m wearing the hoodie right now) one of the best architecture schools in the country. I was pretty ambitious and took all the architecture courses ahead of schedule, but eventually, my advisor said, “You can’t take any more classes in the program. You’ve got to catch up and take some of these foundation classes like math, history, and art electives…”  But because it was so late in that semester, there was only one available class that I could get into which fit my schedule, and it happened to be a film class. 

It was the only film production class that the university offered, taught by a man named Jerry Scheeler. He was a National Geographic cinematographer who retired and moved to Blacksburg – where Virginia Tech is located. He was like a real-life 6’3” Indiana Jones.  During his career, he traveled to exotic locations and filmed some groundbreaking wildlife footage. He was so cool. One day he was showing us different film stocks: 16mm, 75mm…  and while we were looking at a strip of 35mm, someone noticed, “Oh, there are some boats in these frames, what movie is this from?”  He said, “It’s a short end from TITANIC. One of my former students is now an assistant editor in LA, and while he was working on it [Titanic] they were throwing these out so he sent me a few feet…”

When we heard that, my classmates and I…well, our brains exploded! We were in the middle of nowhere in western Virginia thinking, “Wait, so you’ve got a direct line to Hollywood? We thought working in movies was impossible unless you were born into the industry?” Even more amazing was that Jerry was so practical and matter-of-fact about it…he gave it to us straight, “Filmmaking is like any other job. You go, you start at the bottom, you apprentice, you work your way up.” 

But growing up outside of Philadelphia, and in New York, you don’t think Hollywood or filmmaking is an option because you don’t live near LA. You’re from an immigrant family. You have no contacts in the industry, so you don’t think it’s a plausible, practical thing, but having that instructor encourage us, saying, “If any of you want to move to LA and make movies, that is 100% doable. You just execute these steps,” so well, that changed everything.

I thought, “Forget architecture. I want to make movies.”

Ted Talk
Mel Soria

Of course, I called my dad later that week and he said, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen. You’ve got to finish your degree. You’ve always wanted to be an architect since you were a kid, that’s what you should be doing.”  But I was already hooked. I started planning to go to film school. I switched my architecture degree to industrial design so I could graduate earlier, and then I went to Florida State for film school, which is a graduate conservatory program. From there I moved to Los Angeles and started my career. 

For a person who didn’t even know filmmaking was a possibility, the minute I found out, I was all-in. I didn’t want to design bathrooms for skyscrapers…I’d rather get coffee for producers, as long as I was on a movie set.

Kris Mendoza:          Once you landed in LA, what was it like starting your career?  LA is a pretty diverse city in terms of the film scene, so what was it like making connections, breaking in, and being kind of a young gun-hungry for work there?

Mel Soria:                   Well, I’ve always believed in the idea of apprenticeship, to learn by the side of a master, someone with experience…I think it’s because I have a background in all these art forms like architecture and martial arts – I know it’s a cliché – that have traditions in passing on knowledge directly from master to student. But to me it makes so much sense, you work with people who have experience and they teach you the ropes so you don’t make their same mistakes. It gets you to where you want to be faster. I was a child of immigrants, so I knew I wasn’t just going to LA and the doors were going to just swing wide open for me – I instinctively knew I needed help. I actively decided I was going to be “an apprentice” and that the closest equivalent for that on a movie set was an assistant to the director – like a personal assistant, not an AD, but a person who got them coffee and drove them around and handled their schedules. With that job, I knew that eventually, whether that director liked it or not, I’d get to know the ins and outs of their process.  As a director’s assistant, I would be a fly on the wall in meetings and rehearsals – learning.  

But let me make it clear – there isn’t a big demand for director’s assistants in the industry, I just told myself, “This is what I’m going to do. This is how I’m going to do it,” and so I started looking for that job to apply for. 

Mel Soria pictured Left

Luckily, my best friend from Virginia Tech called me after I graduated from film school to say,  “My cousin, who’s about 10 years older than us, he’s a Hollywood screenwriter and now he’s shooting his first movie. Maybe he can help you out.”  So, I got an interview with the cousin just for a meet and greet. We got along well and he was like, “I think you’re cool and your bros with my cousin so that’s a plus. But this is a low-ish budget movie, so there’s no money for a director’s assistant. Which I totally understood – I was just happy to meet someone actually working on a movie.

That same day, after our meeting, the director and I were making our way out to the lobby when in walks: the movie’s producer. The director introduces me and as we were chatting one of the office PAs comes in late with everyone’s lunch order, like 30 minutes after lunch. He walks over, gives the producer a sandwich and says “Sorry I took so long, here’s your lunch,” but it was the wrong order. The producer scratches his head and says to me, “You know what, I think I can find the money in the budget to hire you.” The PA comes back out and the producer says, “FYI, man, you’re fired,” because he messed up so badly.  I know this isn’t the nicest story – that I got my first job through someone losing their job – but it also kind of taught me the lesson: Hollywood is “the pros”.

Kris Mendoza:          There’s a very slim margin of error.

Mel Soria:                   Yeah. It’s the equivalent of being in the NFL. Even for the scrubs on the bench – nobody’s slow in the NFL, no one is weak. It’s the best of the best. There’s a baseline standard of excellence, and I guess that ingrained the idea that I have to perform perfectly at minimum and then all these other things will have to build on top of that: friendships, connections, and talent development. 

That’s how I started, and so for two or three years, I was an assistant to five different directors, three women and two men, which also showed me a lot of gender dynamics and what it meant to be a minority as a female in the industry.

Hollywood is run by assistants. Being one taught how the whole industry worked, warts and all. It was a perspective you never learn from film school. That’s how I cut my teeth.

Screen Shot 2021 05 27 At 1.20.48 PM
Mel Soria

Kris Mendoza:           So, talking about apprenticing under someone else, what’s that like in terms of your own development as a director? At what point did you start working on your own projects?  Did other working styles help shape your voice as a director?

Mel Soria:                    So, for three years I was just happy to be going from movies to television shows, then to more movies. I would be assistant to a director while in production, and then when the movie was in post they didn’t need me but would pass me to another director once they were self-sufficient.

That’s really your “in” when a fellow director recommends you.  You get to be known as someone who knows what they’re doing and knows how to act. But after three years I realized, “Oh shit. I haven’t directed anything. I haven’t shot anything in three years.”

I was at a family holiday, I think Thanksgiving or Christmas, and an Uncle asked what I was doing –

Kris Mendoza:           – What are you doing with your life, Mel?

Mel Soria:                 Yeah! And I said, “Oh, I’m a filmmaker,” but my younger brother immediately cuts me off and says, “That’s not true. He doesn’t make any of his OWN films. He helps other people make THEIR films.” And as much as I was annoyed I thought, he’s right… Like I said, at the time the last thing I directed was three years old on Super 16 and all of a sudden everyone was shooting digital on RED cameras. So, that was an impetus to start making my own work again. 

I always had a nagging feeling in film school that they were teaching us how to make movies, but not how to make careers. I knew there were things about the politics of show business we didn’t know…soft skills about navigating the industry which we should learn. By working with those directors for years, I learned those skills and I felt more confident. I got to take a peek behind the curtain, and I understand, Oh, this is how the sausage is made but also, and more importantly, the stuff I know foundationally is, in fact, accurate.

So, I took the leap and decided to stop taking jobs for assistant work, which was maybe super ignorant. It was like I stepped out saying, “Oh, stop the presses everybody. Mel’s ready to direct. You can start hiring me,” which wasn’t happening. Just crickets, you know?

Mel Soria

Luckily, at the same time, my younger brother was in a rock band that got signed to Columbia Records. They needed a music video but they only had $500. Initially, I was unsure, but my girlfriend at the time encouraged me saying, “If you think you’re good enough to make a full-length movie, then you should be able to do a tiny music video. Like, If you can’t do a music video then you really don’t know what you’re talking about.” That became the challenge and so then I wanted to do it – besides it’s not like I had any other offers lined up.

That was my first music video, and I shot it all myself on rented gear, documentary-style on the road with the band. And from then on, things snowballed and I got other music video gigs because bands know each other, so they see one band do something and if it’s a great video they’re like, “Who the hell did that? How did they afford it? Who directed it?” 

Incidentally, one of my brother’s bandmates, a guitarist named Brendan Walter, retired from music to become a filmmaker.  We teamed up and now we co-direct a lot of music videos together. He has all of the instincts needed to work with musicians and over the past six, seven years, we’ve balanced each other out, learning from each other.

Kris Mendoza:          Who are some of the artists you worked for, and where has that led you?

Mel Soria:                 We’ve made videos for bands like Train, which is contemporary rock, and then for younger audiences, bands like New Politics, Panic! at the Disco, and Fall Out Boy. In 2015, we won Best Rock Music Video at the MTV Video Music Awards for a Fall Out Boy video. And in 2019 we won another Best Rock VMA with Panic! at the Disco for their track “High Hopes”, which was the song of the summer back then. We’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve been nominated for four VMAs, which are kind of the industry mountain top for music video awards, and we won two. The first time we won I was like, “Okay, we’re done!”

Kris Mendoza:          We’ve made it.

High Hopes
Mel Soria directing “High Hopes” with Panic! At the Disco


Mel Soria:                 Not only that we made it, but we thought, “We can’t top this. We’re not going to get this lucky again.” But music videos are too much of a blast to give up and each one has its own unique set of challenges – you can never completely master the art form. More importantly, you realize music videos are one of the most difficult forms of filmmaking to consistently get right. It really is a test for the director. Music video filmmakers are like the Navy Seals of film because compared to movies or TV you only have half the time to shoot twice the amount of content, but also at a fraction of the budget from what it was in the ’90s.

You and I, Kris, we grew up in the ’90s. If we were music video directors in the ’90s it would be way more dope. Back then, music video premieres were more of an event – you got to go to TRL at Times Square…

Kris Mendoza:          Make $100,000 for a video.

Mel Soria:                 At least. Back then rates were so much higher – not so much today. But I still love making them [music videos].

Champion 2
Mel Soria on the set of “Champion” for Fallout Boy

Kris Mendoza:           Where do you draw your inspiration from, whether it’s for music videos or narrative?  Is there one source of inspiration or many?  How do you get these concepts?

Mel Soria:                 For me, the secret weapon – which maybe I shouldn’t be saying, though it is kind of obvious – is that I moved back to suburban Pennsylvania and it put me in a different creative mindset. If you’re not living in LA, then you don’t out driving in Beverly Hills seeing Ferraris, you’re seeing mom & pop shops and watching families go to high school football games.  It was a shift back to normalcy from LA, to ‘Americana’.

Being here makes it really easy for my imagination to get back into a “hopes and dreams” mode  – like when I was in high school. This is really helpful, especially since I have a lot of clients who cater to that demographic: high school, early college.  My concepts are heavily influenced by living in suburban America and that sense of place makes it easier for me to connect to them. Sometimes I’m asked to come up with a concept for a song about “leaving the nest, going on some grand adventure, or meeting the love of your life.” And Bucks County is a romantic place, like an Andrew Wyeth painting – amplified by the fact that I first felt those hopes growing up here as an adolescent – – it’s easy to bring myself back to that emotional space and come up with ideas.

Bulletproof Picasso
Mel Soria directing “Bulletproof Picasso” with Train

Also, when you direct multiple videos for a band, you build a relationship with them and get in sync. You get the vibe they’re interested in and meld that to what you’re interested in. So in that sense, coming up with ideas is a lot easier with musicians you’ve worked with a lot.

Maybe it was hard for me to come up with ideas living in LA because it’s a place where people make movies, so your ideas tend to be less about real-life things.

Kris Mendoza:          To an extent, you have to take yourself out of the industry environment to recognize or expose yourself to things you wouldn’t normally see throughout the course of your day or week.

Mel Soria:                 Right. Exactly. They don’t shut down your suburban neighborhood to shoot a film in PA. In the past 15 years I’ve seen a lot more content, be it Film or TV, where characters are actually filmmakers, and I think it’s just because writers in LA see other writers in LA and that’s where they get their ideas from. Here in PA, my neighbor is a long-haul truck driver. My other neighbor is military. Another neighbor has kids in middle school. These are real stories, all around me. They remind me what it was like to play football on Friday nights. It’s all that stuff I think Springsteen still pulls from, you know he still lives only 20 minutes from where he grew up-

Kris Mendoza:           Asbury Park, New Jersey. You dropped a big name, so I’ll drop another: What was your relationship with Ridley Scott and his production company like?

Mel Soria:                 Oh. I was an intern at RSA, which is Ridley Scott and Associates, their music video and commercial arm. In LA, RSA was the building directly next door to Scott Free which is Ridley Scott’s feature-length television arm, and because of that, the interns were just interchangeable. They’d tell us, “Go next door and serve lunch, the intern there is on a run.” I was only there for a couple of months in 2008, but it was my first introduction to how a top-tier production company operated.

Ridley was like this mythic figure.  He would walk by and all the interns would whisper… it was like seeing Dumbledore… 

I remember at the time he was in pre-pro for Robin Hood and as an intern, I was going to different rooms stocking water bottles and cleaning up after meetings or whatever, and upstairs they had this massive model of one of the castles in-

Kris Mendoza:           Nottingham.

Mel Soria:                  For Nottingham, yeah! Because I studied architecture, I was also really interested in the production design, and recognized Arthur Max walking around. He also production-designed Gladiator and a lot of Ridley’s stuff, so I was like, “That’s the production designer!”  in a hushed tone and people were like, “Who?” [jokes]

Production designers don’t have groupies, so he was super accessible to talk to, it was great. But of course, I had to move on because companies like that have such deep benches and just being an intern there didn’t mean they would ever offer you a job. 

Kris Mendoza:           You were almost just as excited when we met, I think you said “It’s refreshing to meet another Filipino in filmmaking…” I share the same sentiment. There are more of us out there than you think. What’s your opinion in terms of the level of diversity, not just on the Filipino end, but how the industry is seeded? How does that affect the product we put out? 

Mel Soria:                 I never saw the hurdles within my education and my career as being linked to race heavily. Actually, I thought of it [my race] as an advantage just because I was raised understanding how competitive I would need to be – that’s just how immigrants think. And that practical mindset is really helpful when you’re dealing with so many dollars going in and out of the bank and that’s what really drives the industry. For a regular Hollywood set it’s 100k a day to operate – just to have people show up, have catering, and to shoot. Whether you get all your shots or not – you still burn 100k. So the ability to be excellent at your job is your most valuable commodity. Whether you’re black, brown, or whatever, you have to be excellent.

Young & Menace
Mel Soria directing “Young and Menace” with Fallout Boy

Now, that being said, I may have been drifting through the world rather naively because I didn’t want to believe that race was so much of an issue – although, we now know through study after study, that it actually is. From my experience, it’s more complex than that, you see a lot of the time it’s not just about race —  the film industry is very old school in the sense of it still being about “who you know.” Not necessarily because they’re trying to exclude people, but because the stakes are so high you hire people who you personally know and have experienced production with.  You trust them because you’ve worked with them before, and there’s not much incentive to risk a job on someone unknown. You think, “Okay, if my head’s on the chopping block this person isn’t going to let me down.” 

And that, in my view, really explains why a lot of past Hollywood seemed to be one color: white.  They were the people from affluent backgrounds, (filmmaking isn’t a cheap sport) who got fed jobs out of film school. They came from families that had the money and security to send their kids to an arts college – or at least they came from backgrounds that were more forgiving if they initially failed at whatever creative endeavor they chose to pursue. It all perpetuates from the socio-economic stratospheres of the privileged – which of course is related to race in this country.

That’s what I saw in LA. You know, interestingly enough, LA has one of the highest concentrations of Filipino in America so I saw a lot of us on the street, but on set, I was like the only brown person.  

Champion 1
Mel Soria pictured Left with Fallout Boy

In truth, I wasn’t aware of any biases until I started working for female directors in the early 2010s. I was an assistant to three female directors and I understood then, just by being a fly on the wall, that they were being treated differently than the male directors. I remember working on a movie, I’m not going to mention which, but I was the assistant to a female director. The producers for that film were these Old Hollywood cats who made all their movies in the ’70s. They were producing this one as kind of a last hurrah, something they thought they’d do with their buddies one more time and “let some broad direct,” you know what I mean? 

Well, during principal photography we would wrap for the day and those producers would go get drinks at a restaurant like in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and invite me to tag along. At the time I thought it was great until they started discussing which scenes to cut or why they shouldn’t spend extra money on a set, and I thought  Wait a minute. The director needs to be in these conversations. They’re not even considering her. It occurred to me that when I was an assistant to male directors, those men would be invited to these outings. 

At the same time, being an assistant to the director, I understood that power meant you could enact change. One or two of my bosses would specifically say, “We’re going to hire more of a minority group,” and nobody would challenge them. All anyone would care about is “Can they do their job? Are they excellent?” 

In America, racism has been one of our biggest legacies. But ironically, if you talk to any soldier who’s fought in combat, race doesn’t fucking matter. You just need someone to cover your back or have a sharp aim. I think that’s true in almost any industry…especially when there’s stress and the stakes are high: color fades.  The problem is, once that stress dissipates, do we continue to see the world with the same sense of egalitarianism, meritocracy, and equality in our hiring practices so those we work with when times are tough are diverse? Probably not. 

Death Of A Bachelor
Mel Soria directing “Death of a Bachelor” with Panic! at the Disco

Once I became in charge of my own sets and my own stories – I mentioned co-directing a lot of these music videos with my friend, Brendan – well, we actively try to layer in diversity with our cast and crew hires, but we just never use it as a rule. Our litmus test is: Is the person excellent at their job? If they are then no one’s going to complain or question why that person has been hired.

Now, I’m going to say something but it’s kind of terrible, still, this really happened so it’s important.  We were casting for a video and a lot of these conference calls at the time were just audio, so you couldn’t see anyone’s race on the call… My name is Mel Soria and for most people, that name has no ethnic associations, so you can’t tell I’m Filipino.  Well, on one particular call we were casting for a Western-themed video, and the female lead we cast was of Indian descent, as in the subcontinent of India, not Native American.  Then one of these executives says, “Hey, Mel. We’re really excited about this video. You’ve got a great cast. It’s going to look amazing, but it’s kind of funny because you picked the wrong kind of Indian for this Western.”  

I asked, “What are you talking about?”  and he said, “You picked an Indian with dots, not feathers.” 

We were just so shocked on the call that when we hung up we were like, “Did we just hear what we heard?” And then I realized this guy didn’t know that I was brown. 

So of course, a week later we get on set. I’m directing this thing and I tell my AD to let me know when the label people show up. They arrive and stand over by craft services wearing suits or whatever, of course. I walk over and I start picking up food and it doesn’t even register in their brains that I could be somebody. I just look like one of the grips or PAs.

Then the AD walks over and pulls us together saying, “Oh great. We’re all here. Here’s our director, Mel…”

I’m like, “Yeah. Remember me? I was on that call,” and I could see their faces go white. They realized they were talking to a brown person on the phone…

Kris Mendoza:           They were like, “Oh shit.”

Mel Soria:                  Yeah. But I did that on purpose because what really has to happen is that they recognize they fucked up and behave better.  I also set up that moment because a lot of times record execs will show up and want to tinker with shit on set by making “suggestions” but this guy just wanted to get out of there. So it was like killing two birds with one stone. Racist exec shits his pants and leaves my shoot alone.

Kris Mendoza:           Hopefully those folks have evolved. For the industry, I think there’s still a long way to go.

Mel Soria:                 Most definitely.

Kris Mendoza:          What are some things that need to happen in order to have more diversity on set, in front of, and behind the camera?

Mel Soria: The one thing I would say is key is: cultivate young and new diverse talent. It’s not enough that you just hire someone who is of a diverse background that you kind of don’t know and put them in charge of a set or department out of nowhere. My life experience in this industry is all about mentorship and being ushered in, and I think that’s really what we should be doing. It might not happen overnight, but the truth is minorities are going to have a much more stable foundation where it’s almost impossible to remove them because you’ve been building them up for a long time throughout their careers.

So, it’s all about hiring a diverse PA and then also making sure that they don’t stay a PA. They need to get moved up to a second assistant or a first assistant or an operator or a production supervisor, and that builds the ranks. More importantly, what matters most to anyone looking to hire a skilled person in the industry is that they/their crew has experience.  You can’t argue with that. They can’t afford to not make money, and they can only make money with people who are excellent at what they do.  The only color that matters onset is green.

Mel Soria

Mentor and promote from the bottom up, because as you know, for a lot of minorities, there’s nothing worse than when you hear about someone from your minority group that drops the ball because they were probably brought up too quickly and expected to do way more than they should have, where their white counterpart would have never been forced to grow up so quick. How many times have we heard about a white-straight-male director who’s made flop after flop and they’ve been given chance after chance and they’ve gotten better and better? I think for minorities you can’t have a flop first movie, but if you’re a white person who’s spent years working up the ladder and making friends in powerful places you can-

Kris Mendoza:           There’s a very small window for failure because we’re still proving ourselves in our market.

Mel Soria:                 Proving ourselves. Right. Yeah. So, you can help that by just cultivating the talent for a longer period, and it gives them so much more advantage: knowing how the system works, how to build their strengths and maneuver. Part of cultivating your excellence in the industry is building Institutional Know-How. It’s about maneuvering your way through the network by using soft skills and leveraging social connections you’ve established over time to capitalize on your actual hard skills or talents. 

Kris Mendoza: Thank you for joining us, you did a very good job sharing your experiences.  Those anecdotal stories give us a nice slice of what is out there on bigger sets, smaller sets, and the lack of level of diversity.

Screen Shot 2021 05 20 At 6.54.30 PM

Project Forte: Jason Chew

Screen Shot 2021 05 20 At 7.05.49 PM
Jason Chew photographed by Kate Feher


Jason Chew (he/him) is a Director of Photography from Brooklyn, New York who studied at Carnegie Mellon and NYU, completing a Master of Fine Arts in Film Productions from the Tisch School of Arts in Singapore.  This week on Project Forte, Jason talks about the importance of operating outside a comfort zone to achieve goals and being open to growth within those zones and communities. He shares a valuable experience, suggesting that life within the United States may offer one way to understand yourself, but opening yourself up to more cultures and experiences can broaden your perspective even to your own identity.  Dive in with Kris Mendoza as he and Jason also discuss the evolution of APA and what distinguishing changes motivate both filmmakers to look to the future with a little hope. 





Written and Edited by Kate Feher


Jason Chew:              I’m Jason Chew (he/him) based out of Brooklyn, New York. I’m a Taiwanese-American Director of Photography.

Kris Mendoza:           How’d you get started, Jason?

Jason Chew:              I think the main starting point for me was this 72-hour shootout in New York which was specifically for Asian-Americans.

Kris Mendoza:           Was this with Asian CineVision?

Jason Chew:              It was with Asian American Film Lab.

Kris Mendoza:           And did you have any film background prior to that? Or did you just sign up for that and get right into it?

Jason Chew:              Yeah, I was interning at DCTV which creates documentaries in New York, and I had a few friends from high school who were into filmmaking, so we rented cameras [from DCTV] and shot the 72-hour shootout. And actually, we won that year, which really kicked us off because we were like, “Oh, shit, maybe we—-“

Kris Mendoza:           “Oh, I think we’re good at this!”

Jason Chew:              “Maybe we’re awesome!”  Then, obviously, you realize that there’s so much more to learn and that’s such a little tiny competition. But it was great to have that much encouragement right off the bat.  I started checking Mandy and Craigslist and working on independent sets. People would post a job for a gaffer and I’d be like, “Yeah, I’m a gaffer.” I just wanted to keep doing this work, however I could.

Kris Mendoza:           Fake it till you make it.

46278103 327712394727479 5975820016180941167 N
Jason Chew pictured left

Jason Chew:              Fake it till you make it, yeah. I’d be on set, and someone would say, “Hand me a Kino.”  I’m like, “All right, I’ll be right back.”  – No idea what a Kino was. 

I just found out that I really loved on-set collaboration, and that led me to apply for the NYU program in Singapore.  I knew at that point that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Kris Mendoza:           That’s awesome. I didn’t know NYU did a program out there … Is that an MFA in Singapore?

Jason Chew:              Yeah. It was such a weird program. It was only alive for two years before I got there, without an undergrad supporting it. All the funds were coming from New York, and they just started this graduate film program in what people consider one of the most censored countries in the world. But still, we had all this freedom.. all these cameras. People had this attitude, “Hey, you’re from NYU, come film.” 

There wasn’t a really huge film market there, so we were welcomed. We did what Americans do, we came in and did whatever we wanted and they let us.  It was a great conservatory to be a part of.

Kris Mendoza:           How long was that whole program?

 MG 3860
Jason Chew

Jason Chew:              It was a three-year program 

Kris Mendoza:           You lived in Singapore for three years?

Jason Chew:              Yeah and I met my wife in Singapore. It was really one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life because other than growing up in New York and going to Pittsburgh for school, I hadn’t experienced a lot of travel.

Kris Mendoza:           Gotcha. And I’m sorry, what’s your ethnic background?

Jason Chew:              So my family’s Taiwanese.

Kris Mendoza:           And in Singapore, they speak pretty good English, right? It wasn’t that hard to get around?

Jason Chew:              Yeah, perfect English. It was very easy to get around.

Kris Mendoza:           In terms of living there for three years, well, it’s interesting, it leads to my next question but totally puts a whole new spin on it because I was going to talk to you about the approach to Asian-American filmmaking and Asian cinema or Asian-American cinema in general, kind of those two banners. But it’s interesting because you cut your teeth and learned filmmaking in Asia as an Asian-American and came back. You seem like you might have two perspectives on what that’s like in terms of Asian cinema and Asian-American cinema. I guess, first off, how do you think those two things differ in terms of subject, genre, approach, style, etc?

Jason Chew:             In terms of my Asian-American identity, I didn’t come to terms with it until I went to Asia. I thought I was finally going to fit in because everyone looked like me, but that’s when I realized, “Oh, I’m actually super American.” 

In America, people are so adamant that because you look Chinese you must be Chinese. Not realizing that culturally you’re American just with a Chinese upbringing. 

Screen Shot 2021 05 20 At 7.05.35 PM
Jason Chew, Director of Photography. Photograph by Kate Feher

I’m that hybrid: made up of what and how my parents taught me mixed with the American culture and society I was raised in. I think it really helped me get closer to understanding who I was, and that, of course, affects what you do in filmmaking. Originally I thought “I don’t need to represent Asians. I want to represent everyone.  Why does it need to be about the Asian-American identity?”  But, now, and I think we both realize this, I understand no one else is going to represent us if we don’t.  

Kris Mendoza:           Yeah, if we’re not telling these stories, who is? The people who have started telling our stories aren’t doing it super authentically or giving it justice.

It’s interesting to hear about the path you took to Singapore and back. I had no idea about that. Since you witnessed story-telling there, could you share how you have seen Asian-American cinema evolve thematically?

Jason Chew:              Back in the day, the types of films I watched were Asian-American, like Better Luck Tomorrow. I think that’s just a matter of who was creating the content because for me, growing up on the East Coast, there were very few people telling those stories. 

Kris Mendoza:           When I was in college going to APA classes, there were a lot of “Asian-dash-American” people asking themselves what that dash meant for their identity. I think we’re evolving away from that … and, interestingly, you mentioned Better Luck Tomorrow which I think was ahead of its time. Being Asian had very little to do with that plot, and it showed where we were heading.  In today’s cinema, we’re seeing a refreshing shift of Asian-Americans working in front of or behind the camera… Asian-Americans who just happen to be doing regular things. I think that’s the kind of representation we’ve been pushing for. It’s not so much these stereotyped deli owners or math whizzes or silly sideshow comic relief type characters, which were our roles relegated in cinema for decades.

49704409 304234376951266 4700221023216719535 N
Jason Chew pictured right

Jason Chew: I think back to Ang Lee with Wedding Banquet telling his Chinese story in American, but it wasn’t a Chinese-American telling a Chinese-American story. 

Kris Mendoza: Hearing you say that makes me think about the broader picture, the larger problem of the recent uptick in hate crimes against Asians and the rise of the Stop Asian Hate movement.  With everything that’s going on, even as an Asian, we can’t help but look at Asians as a monolith.  We’re thinking, “Here’s Ang Lee, his story represents everybody,” and it doesn’t even seem to represent Chinese-Americans in general, even less so Taiwanese, Korean, Filipino, etc.  So understanding the true diversity within one assumed monolith broadens the scope. There are just so many different immigrant stories rich with the struggle of diaspora, you can’t just look at Better Luck Tomorrow or even Crazy Rich Asians as representative of the Asian or Asian-American experience. The diversity is not even nuanced, there are very black and white differences from culture to culture that you don’t really see from the outside looking in. You just see Asians on screen, right?

Jason Chew:              You just need to see Asian-Americans doing normal-ass-shit, and maybe then people will understand we’re just normal people. Do you know what I mean?  So we don’t have all that stereotype behind us – 

Kris Mendoza:           – Like when an Asian guy walks into the scene and there’s a gong sound

Jason Chew:              Yeah, there’s that book- It’s called Chinatown Interior that I’ve been reading. It talks about roles that Asian-Americans have played throughout time, and I think it’s “why did we need to be all these characters?”  Why enforce a stereotypical accent when I speak perfectly fluent English?  Of course, many other cultures have gone through that, too.

Kris Mendoza:           These spaces, these pigeonholes, we’ve been corralled into were really created by very white-driven perspectives on Asians way back in the day. Whether it was intentionally racist or not, it grew and perpetuated racism by providing the caricatured stereotypes.

Jason Chew:              It happens similarly when men write female characters, which has been detrimental for a long time, because they’re only talking about certain things that men want women to talk about. There’s definitely room for all these more nuanced stories.

Screen Shot 2021 05 20 At 7.06.15 PM
Jason Chew behind the scenes on “Feeling Alive”

Kris Mendoza:           Yes, we can see now how important that authenticity is, people telling real stories of what they’ve come to know and understand in their lives as opposed to someone else just filling in the blanks there like Mad Libs. 

Jason Chew:              Well, Asian people are getting more roles but I still see them as sort of “kung-fu” roles.  Warrior, Mortal Combat and Shang-Chi are all coming out. Those stories are great, and entertaining, but we also need, I think, the other side of that. More dimensions.

Kris Mendoza:           So speaking of another side, we’re talking a lot about representation in front of the camera here. What is your perspective on behind-the-camera Asian-American representation?  And I’ve noticed, you sometimes choose to work on very Asian-American-driven sets, and then some work opportunities are not so diverse. What have you noticed about the  divergence between Asians choosing film as a career path versus other avenues which seem more “Asian-parent-approved?”

Jason Chew:              Asian-parent-approved, Ha. I think it’s really about who’s giving us the opportunities to work our way up or to learn more? I’ve spoken with Union camera operators who say, “Yeah, it’s mostly old white guys in that union.”  And it’s cyclical because if you want to be nominated as a future member, you need someone in the industry to back you – so who is doing all the backing?  I’ve been fortunate to get work on a lot of these sets, but production companies like yours, are the key. You have the funding and the freedom to put together a team of diverse, talented, and hard-working people.  Yeah, it’s really about opportunity, I think.

Kris Mendoza:           Is there a limited amount of opportunities and a seemingly endless supply of people trying to get into film?  I’ve had a couple of these conversations, and it seems like there are no shortage of Asians or Asian-Americans out there trying to stay busy and be on set and work on films, but they’re just a very small population compared to the larger population of filmmakers. It’s always refreshing to me when I meet other Asian-American filmmakers. It’s like, “Okay, cool, so you also defied all the odds of cultural expectations and here you are doing it full-time and doing it successfully.” What are your thoughts on that upbringing and those expectations of what a typical Asian-American career path should look like?  Do you think that will be pervasive in the generations of our future children? 

Jason Chew:              I don’t know what a typical path will look like, but I know that media is constantly changing, and I see a lot of talented people on YouTube, making their own content. There will be different paths, maybe not necessarily as narrative filmmakers but as content creators. Those ideas are changing, too. Maybe our generation thinks, “We need to make movies, we need to make TV,” but this next generation thinks, “We’re making TikToks,” and some of those people are already making a lot of money doing what they’re doing.

Kris Mendoza:           That’s true.

Screen Shot 2021 05 20 At 7.06.05 PM
Behind the Scenes with Jason Chew. Photograph by Kate Feher

Jason Chew:              Being on set as a PA and falling in love with it, that’s already ingrained in me. That’s the kind of stuff that really gets my juices going.  Seeing actors perform on set, or for me to be behind a camera: those are magical things. The way to go is creating plenty of opportunities for people like me to explore those worlds, even just to see if that’s something they want to try out. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s different for the new generation.

Kris Mendoza:           It’s a balance of accessibility and exposure, without sharing the idea or the possibility of filmmaking, you don’t even know it’s a viable career opportunity.

Jason Chew:              Right. Coming from my background, nobody said, “Hey, did you ever consider filmmaking?” No parent said that. They were more supportive after I got into NYU because they thought, “At least you could teach afterward, you know? … if you really screw it up.”  There was a fallback option in their minds because of the quality of my degree.

Kris Mendoza:           What does it take to be successful in this career path and have longevity in the game?  You’ve been doing it for, it sounds like, at least over a decade. But what are some thoughts on how to break into the industry and also stay in the industry, whether that’s through the lens of being Asian-American or not?

Jason Chew:              Yeah. I’ve definitely taken all kinds of jobs because, obviously, some gigs pay better than others. You have to be able to find something you can do well … I started out ACing a lot, and doing branded content –  I don’t know if you know The Kitchen or Apartment Therapy.

Kris Mendoza:           Yes, I do.

Jason Chew:              One classmate pulled me into some work creating food branding videos. Together we climbed our way up. At Apartment Therapy, we worked with brands like Target, Pier One, and Walmart. We got a good sense of the client-side and how to really tailor a good product. Building relationships, I think, is key. I was really lucky that my friend pulled me into those jobs, where I could start supporting myself in a way that allowed the opportunity for other more fulfilling work.

36113668 217150529101226 2806810670383759360 N
Jason Chew, Director of Photography

Kris Mendoza:            What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve encountered or mistake you’ve made that has really defined who you are today? Or really, what’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

Jason Chew:              Understanding yourself, determining what you want to make has been both a hurdle and a lesson to learn. One of the most challenging things is understanding what your opinion is but also creating the self-security to put it out there without being vulnerable to rejection.  Being confident enough to think, “This is what my opinion is, and hopefully people are receptive to it.”  Let people know who you are so they can be honest and open about wanting or not wanting to work with you… because that’s fine. And that really is one of the hardest and most important factors, finding relationships in which you really connect. Only then can you make something that’s better than both of you and more than what you could imagine alone. Also, at the same time, you have to have a good time while doing it. You know what I mean? 

Kris Mendoza:           It’s easier said than done, right? Not only finding people in-line with yourself, but also finding people who challenge your thoughts in art and subjectivity.  You don’t want a group of friends that are all exactly the same and who just agree with everything you say. You want them to challenge your ideas, make them better, and improve your art through debate. So that’s also the tough part, too, right? You want someone to vibe with but also challenge you.

Jason Chew:              Yeah. Like you said, it’s an art and it’s all subjective, so everyone’s going to have different ways of making a film or telling a story. But to want to help another person tell that story or make it the best it could be without replacing it with their vision… that’s where love comes in. When you can say “I want to support you and make this better.”  No, that’s not easy to find. I’m lucky to have found that on some projects.

Kris Mendoza:           Is that what keeps you coming back, what keeps you passionate about making films?

Hayu Z Manim 12
Jason Chew pictured right

Jason Chew:              Yeah. It’s the process of collaborating. This pandemic has obviously made it very difficult to do some of that work, but being on set and talking about ideas – whether you’re discussing a way to light a scene, establish the mood or the tempo – those are the things that really excite me.  I love to bounce ideas.

Kris Mendoza:           As a DP you are in a position to hire folks and give opportunities. Through what lens are you able to focus on the right people? Are you heavily considering age, race, gender, etc?

Jason Chew:              I definitely now lean more towards hiring people of color or LGBTQ people, because if I can give that opportunity, I will. 

Kris Mendoza:           And do you find it hard to find qualified people?  How much harder do you have to dig and look?

Jason Chew:              I think it’s become less and less difficult as I get more experienced myself.  You don’t get to be on bigger sets unless you’ve proven yourself, so the people I work with now are up to caliber. 

Behind the scenes with Jason Chew


Kris Mendoza:           Did you have any early role models even just when you first started? In terms of aesthetic or style, was there any Director or DP whose movies inspired you to further pursue this as a career?

Jason Chew:              Yeah. Back in the day, it was probably Spielberg. But later, once I went to school, I discovered more Asian directors. Oldboy, Park Chan-wook. And Bong Joon-ho did Memories of Murder. The Coen Brothers were a big influence. I felt like you could basically learn something from every director, but I especially liked a lot of thriller-style directors.

Kris Mendoza:           Bong Joon-ho won best director last year and this year we have Nomadland, which is not an Asian-American story but, heralded by Chloe Zhao. Minari  is doing so well too, and for me that goes to show that we must be putting more Asian-Americans and Asians in leadership positions. How is the future looking to you?  You came into this field with very few Asian-American or Asian influences and now there’s more. What do you think the next generation looks like for Asian-American cinema and filmmakers?  They have a new jumping off point which you and I didn’t have 10, 20 years ago?

Jason Chew:              Hopefully what will happen is that younger people will be inspired to not just emulate these directors and writers but be motivated to create something for  themselves. They might take what these directors did and actually find something in themselves that they can bring to the world. Think about Wong Kar-wai. Everyone was just copying Wong Kar-wai all the time, and eventually stopped to think, “Okay, we got to stop making knock-offs of all these other films and just start to learn how to find our own voice.” I think these directors have.

Kris Mendoza:           I love that, it’s very hopeful in terms of the next generation of filmmakers and how they could do even more.  What’s next for you?

Screen Shot 2021 05 20 At 6.53.11 PM
Jason Chew on the set of A Father’s Son

Jason Chew:              Oh, I want to talk about A Father’s Son. It’s a short film by Patrick Chen, based on Henry Chang‘s novel, Chinatown Beat. Basically, he got Henry’s blessing to take the characters in that world and made an adjacent short film. It wasn’t based on any specific story in the novel but involved the detective Jack Yu, who is searching Chinatown for the family of a young hoodlum who was murdered. 

Kris Mendoza:           You worked closely with Pat, can you say anything about his approach to that story?

Jason Chew:              Maybe not specifically the approach, but my experience goes back to the subject of opportunity. When I met Pat, he was doing a screening of three films at the MOCA, the Museum of Chinese-Americans. I’d met him there, so when this project came up, A Father’s Son, he took me on as the DP. For him to reach out to me was obviously a huge pledge to me, and not even once, because after other people found out about the project, he didn’t push me aside.  He could have easily thought, “Oh, I could get all these other DPs now, maybe more experienced…” but he stuck with me. Giving me that opportunity to shoot this film, that was a big thing.

Kris Mendoza:           What kind of circumstances.. What kind of stars need to align for things like that to happen? Is it the catch-22 of this entire industry: you can’t get experience without a job, you can’t get a job without experience? There’s a certain level of trust you need to create instantly for someone to offer an opportunity like that. 


Jason Chew:              Yeah. I had been making short films already, but being in the community, being visible definitely helped. Go to events and talk to people, and show them you can bring something to the table.

20936 862509946098 494048 N
Jason Chew

Kris Mendoza:           Be visible but then make sure that you’ve delivered on it at the end of the day in order to move on to that next step. You can only fake it till you make it so much, I guess.

Jason Chew:              Yes. I worked a long time making these underground, low-budget short films. But there was a little bit of chemistry with Pat, and that was the final spice I needed. We talked a lot about Hong Kong cinema and ideas he had for the films and those things also got me excited. We quickly built up that relationship. At a certain point,he must have known, “Okay, you have to be the person to make the film. You were there from the inception, and we’ve been talking about it all this time.”

Kris Mendoza:           I’m excited to see it, I watched the trailer. It looks like very high production value and packs a lot of punch, so I’m very much looking forward to it. You’ve got a lot of good buzz coming off of this project, anything else to look for in the near future?

Screen Shot 2021 05 19 At 11.20.02 PM (1)
Jason Chew

Jason Chew:              Yeah. There’s going to be some documentary work, maybe with Patrick again. I work a lot with an artist called Treya Lam, and we’re doing a visual album with her. I think, for me, one of the other most important things is just writing your own content, like being the seed of the content by finding more time to just work on yourself and your stories. I think that’s important.