As our second collaboration with Stay True Philadelphia through our then subsidiary Philly Photo Studio, we organized a canned food drive in the Fishtown/Port Richmond community by hosting a “Photo with Santa” day, wherein bringing canned goods would be the only ask for families looking to get photos with Santa. Students from Stay True came and helped gather cans and participated in arts and crafts with the children that came through. At the end of the day, more than 500 cans were collected to benefit Blessed Sarnelli, a soup kitchen in the neighborhood.
Project Forte is a compendium of interviews tuned to the frequency flowing from creatives working within the Philadelphia film industry. Our goal with this initiative is to promote a continuing conversation around the responsibility we have as storytellers and to amplify marginalized voices deserving of recognition and opportunity. The project bears witness to their unique experiences, issuing a sense of empathy and honor for these leaders and their innovative teams. Each story, profound and vulnerable, sheds light not only upon the status quo but also upon ways to challenge it respectfully. By exposing their struggles and successes, these industry professionals have compelled others to ally around each other in solidarity, recognizing that there is space for everyone, and proven tools to create safe sets for collaboration within our community.
Our final interview for 2021 features the incomparable Artina Michelle (she/her), a Liberian-American filmmaker who reminds us that “cinematography is 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.
To me, cinematography is the rhetoric of film. It’s the visual language, and that’s something that really interested me. After that, I bought a camera. I taught myself how to edit. I finally took the plunge. I picked my major which was film and media, and told my parents. They saw I was so passionate about it, so they actually did support me to my surprise. I started interning for FreshFly. After that, it’s just history.
Kris Mendoza: That’s right! I don’t know if you remember how we met, but you were renting our studio. Then, I think it was Greg Heller, who was working with you at FreshFly, who had come to Maestro to edit right around the same time you arrived. You guys saw each other in the hallway and I thought he must have been a Temple student with you. It was such a coincidence…
Artina Michelle: Oh yeah, I forgot about that!
Kris Mendoza: That’s Philly production world for you, small world. Was that 2014?
Artina Michelle: It was! I’m surprised you remember the year.
Kris Mendoza: To that end, walk us through your work since? In what way did film school equip you for the workforce and really starting a career out there?
Artina Michelle: Yeah. I would say one of the biggest things I got out of film school was a network. I got a chance to connect with different people. A lot of my peers are doing some major things. I’m super inspired by them.
Kris Mendoza: Yeah it’s a safe space to put yourself out there and find different pockets of people. I always say to folks working in Maestro, being a people person is just as big of a part of this business as being a technician or creative. Getting along with people, and having them remember you, pulling you onto other jobs, giving you opportunities and stuff. In that regard, I think it’s worth noting. Are there any people, whether it’s companies/organizations that you feel really helped you open up new networks and start to try new things? I know you mentioned FreshFly is one of them, but how does one transition from student trying to build a network, to being known for a position, and then getting calls and getting work?
Artina Michelle: Oh yeah. I would say it was FreshFly, then Maestro, you all really hooked it up, and Carron Willis at Alkemy X. I think my network got much bigger through PA-ing with Alkemy because I met Marcus Clarke, a talented director, who ended up getting me on the set of Creed II.
That was a formative moment for me. I was doing the best that I could on those jobs – they had me on background and stuff – but I was also already doing DP work as a side hustle. So by the time I got on Creed II, I was already nearing the end of accepting PA work… then, someone got me really upset on set one day and I was like, “I think I’m over it. I think I’m better than this.”
I was like, “Let me just go talk to the DP real quick, and tell him I’ve been inspired by watching him work.” I was going to tip my hat and go. But just through having a conversation with him, that turned around. That day I was told I got moved to the camera department as a camera PA. That got me specialized in what I was actually interested in which was camera work.
Kris Mendoza: Was that a turning point for you in terms of specialization and the like?
Artina Michelle: Oh, I’ve always called myself a DP from the beginning. Even when I was interning, I was like, “I’m a DP, I’m a cinematographer.” I knew that, but when I first went into the industry, it was as if I couldn’t say that. People advised me not to say it.
Kris Mendoza: It felt like it was a title you had to earn?
Artina Michelle: Yeah in a sense.
Kris Mendoza: It’s interesting. Right? There’s an older DP that we work with who you know, and he mentioned, to this day, he doesn’t feel comfortable calling himself a DP. He is “the camera guy” because of the pressure and the weight that he felt like came with the title, but I think there’s a lot to say about just owning it and saying, “This is what I am, and these are the kind of jobs and stuff I want to be known to for and get called for.”
Why did you decide to draw a line and take only DP work moving forward?
Artina Michelle: Oh, wow. To be honest, it was a twofold thing. I was reading this scripture in the Bible, the parable of the talents which talks about how you should not bury your gifts, but use them. At the time, I really would sit with myself and think, “I’m still learning.” I’m ever-learning. I’m ever-growing, but at the same time, I don’t need to wait to take the leap. I know that I have the capability to have this title, regardless of what the industry was telling me at the time.
I think that goes hand in hand with what you’re talking about concerning identity too. It’s something that you have to find within yourself – to say, “This is who I am, and this is who I’m presenting myself to the world to be.” One thing I found helpful at that time in my life was that I got to PA for a female DP – Oo, actually I don’t like using the word female to describe women.
Kris Mendoza: Non-male.
Artina Michelle: Ha, right. I should say I was on set with a woman, Julie Kirkwood, and she was a DP from LA. I just didn’t see a lot of women DP’s in Philly at the time, and our B-cam operator was also a woman too. Basically, seeing them just added fuel to the fire.
Kris Mendoza: Digging into the experience of not seeing a lot of non-male representation on the set… it sounds like you felt it drove you to be even more forthright in your mission to become a DP, yeah? Had you seen that as a main obstacle?
Artina Michelle: To be honest, my gender didn’t really cross my mind when I was choosing my career. I’m confident that everyone’s path is different. Everybody has different ways to get to their destination, you know? I had the confidence that if this was for me, that was going to be true whether I’m a woman, whether I’m black, whether I’m young, you know, or something else. If it’s mine, it’s mine, and no one can really take that from me, basically.
Kris Mendoza: How do those circumstances all factor into creating you, the artist? Do you find yourself gravitating towards certain projects? Do you find yourself being comfortable on certain sets? Are you picking and choosing who you work with? How does all this factor into the creative approach?
Artina Michelle: Yeah, that’s a good question. Even with confidence, it’s definitely challenging. When I was learning about lighting, it was hard to be around a whole bunch of guys who were grips and stuff, especially having smaller arms like I do. That’s not a woman thing, that’s an Artina thing (jokes).
I think I was there for the knowledge, but definitely had to deal with a lot of male ego and people who were trying to fight their way to the top. People are crabs in a barrel when you’re in a small market. Then for me recently, or when I defined myself as a DP, I had to find my voice within what I wanted to do because now I’m making creative choices.
I realized that in film school, I was taught a very Western-centric way of thinking about film that didn’t resonate with me, to be honest. What I was told was good, I didn’t think was good.
Kris Mendoza: Is this from a story sense or technical approach?
Artina Michelle: I would say story. Technical was good, but… There are certain films that are American classics which I don’t find…
Kris Mendoza: There was zero cultural experience for you. As an American, you’re like, “None of this resonates with me whatsoever.”
Artina Michelle: Exactly. When I would get a chance to speak in my courses, I was made to be the issue. “You’re the person who doesn’t understand high cinema,” basically. The culture that I come from is much different from the people who are creating these things. It’s not to say that my opinions, or what I would want to see, or what I would want to make is wrong or lower class cinema, but it’s just… an untapped perspective basically. I had to realize that my voice is important and it’s comprised of my varying identities as a Liberian American, as an artist, as a black woman, and more.
Kris Mendoza: Only you can tell it, right? Quite frankly, with a lot of culturally driven stories, if you’re not telling it, who is? Someone may opt to write it, but if they don’t come from that culture, they may miss key elements or moods. I’m not necessarily getting to the point where, for example, only Filipinos can tell Filipino stories, etc.
But – it’s no secret that in the last year and a half or so, The US has become super race conscious. Some call it race guilt, this move toward intentional calls to hire minorities. I don’t know if it’s the optics that scare them into action or if there really is authenticity behind it. Do they actually want the right crew for this – to understand or appreciate it – or do they have their eye on a quota? Ultimately it opens the door for a lot of minorities in this filmmaking space regardless. It’s interesting because I think about it through the lens of being qualified. You talk about this inner validation, external validation, but ultimately it’s who’s qualified to tell what stories and who’s qualified to aid in the telling of it?
I’m curious to hear what your perspective is on this.
Artina Michelle: Yeah, It’s interesting because for me, I didn’t get an influx of jobs carrying the pretense of needing a black DP. I probably got maybe two jobs simply because the talent themselves said, “Hey, I want to see someone who looks like me on the other side of the camera.”
I’m learning that there’s just a long way to go. Last year was a revelation for a lot of people, but for my community, it was stuff that we were saying and experiencing for so long. I still feel that sometimes people’s advocacy comes off performative. It can be a little shallow without a deeper understanding of other cultures, other identities and experiences. I do think that, for the most part, we’re on an up trend though.
Kris Mendoza: Hopefully it sticks…
Artina Michelle: Yeah, exactly. I think I’m a little bit more cynical than others are, maybe. I just want to see longevity, but what I am interested in honestly is just the awakening that’s happening within black artists as well as other cultures and communities of artists. Basically, Americans and all our variations, like Liberian American, Caribbean Americans, Asian Americans, Black Americans… I just love that there’s a Renaissance of art that’s been going on for us.
The independent projects are the ones that I’m interested in. Recently, I was called for a shoot about black women who are preparing to deliver their children in the middle of America’s black maternal health crisis… that’s a story that needs to be told, and I believe that it can only be told from the perspective of the women who are going through it, or at least can relate to it.
Kris Mendoza: I think that’s a good segue then in terms of independent projects – can you talk a little about the documentary you’ve been traveling to Liberia for? I think it’s been a few years in the making. Can you give me the high level overview, and where you’re at, and what you’re accomplishing.
Artina Michelle: I started working on This Too Is Liberia at the end of 2018. I was fresh off the set of Creed II… and I just got rejuvenated by all the diversity that was on that project, for example seeing Steven Caple Jr., who is a young black man from Cleveland, directing.
Kris Mendoza: Non-female.
Artina Michelle: Yeah, for us to witness someone in this generation just killing it and making a project of that caliber, I got really excited.
I already planned to go back to Liberia at that point. Naturally, I wanted to create something there. I thought it’d be a short project, but I discovered that Liberia has a surfing counter-culture that is growing so I started connecting with that community.
Then I went for it.
Initially, I went to Liberia for a month and started filming. I connected with my family over there – connected with my culture, my identity in a way that I’ve never done before.
Then I came back, thinking I would get a whole bunch of grants and everything would work out how I wanted it to, but instead had to wait a whole year and some change to go back to Liberia. It was during the pandemic that I actually went back for the second trip. That was fall 2020. I stayed there until February 2021. Now we’re close to the finish line. Thankfully, we just got approved for a grant a few days ago to finish the last bit of principal photography.
Kris Mendoza: Congrats. What have you learned as far as documentary filmmaking when it comes to you as an artist throughout this whole journey?
Artina Michelle: So, so much… The journey with this film has been impactful because I’ve been documenting this story for the majority of my 20s. I think that timeframe in anyone’s life is just… There’s a lot of growth. It’s been a lot of reconnection and learning about my family and about my history.
When I first started it, I was super excited. I was thinking, “Okay, this is going to be my first feature. It’s going to take a year tops.” All I wanted to do was show my homeland, and so, in a way, it was all about me.
Then, when I met the surfers, I learned that it was bigger than me. I wanted to do it for them. I wanted to showcase the people who were in Liberia, who stayed after the war. I realized they are basically my counterparts.
At that point, I started to put more pressure on myself. I was like, “Oh, this project needs to be good, and I don’t know if I can deliver.” I realized I had a fear of failure, and what I learned most through the documentary so far is overcoming fears and not letting fear rule me as an artist or even as a person.
Kris Mendoza: The game got big when you realized you really had something there.
Artina Michelle: Yeah, seriously. I was like, “Oh, okay. This is actually looking like it can be something.” Then I started to get fearful that it wouldn’t happen, that someone else, some Europeans – I know the French, in particular, do films in West Africa – would come in and take over the story. That became a fear of mine.
Throughout the project, I began to experience a lot of rejection, not getting the grants I was applying for. I was like, “If we don’t get this money, I’m not going to finish this project…” That rejection process really taught me a lot.
Then 2020 the world stopped. I thought, “I can’t push anymore for this doc. I can’t even leave the country. I can’t even leave my home, what now? What do I do with this time?” So I learned to let go, and that’s actually exactly what I needed.
There’s enlightenment on the other side of fear. Now I know, if I’m afraid of something that basically means I should go in that direction, to address it. Whatever my fear is, my treasure is on the other side. It’s just an indicator.
Kris Mendoza: And now you’re just rushing towards your fears?
Artina Michelle: I don’t know about rushing, but I’m definitely more inclined to use it as…
Kris Mendoza: As a Motivator?
Artina Michelle: Yeah, as a motivator. There we go. Now fear is more of a motivator.
Kris Mendoza: That’s super powerful to mentally unlock that for yourself and also empower yourself rather than be too paralyzed to do what’s next. You talked about the fear of failure, and conquering fears, but also, it’s important to note that the creative process lends itself well to learning from failure, embracing failure. I think that those things go hand in hand.
When you look directly at rejection and failure, it makes you a better artist, a more resilient person at the end of the day.
Artina Michelle: It hits differently, fear of rejection, when it’s art that you’re creating, that you’ve become a part of.
Kris Mendoza: You’re more vulnerable, right?
Artina Michelle: Yeah. It’s very vulnerable, especially when the project is close to your heart like that, it’s close to your growth, and your identity. You may have people say, “We don’t believe in this right now.” And that’s tough but, that rejection is also creating the project, because every time I got rejected from a grant, I had to go back and revamp, rethink it.
Kris Mendoza: You asked yourself, “Why did I get rejected? What can we do better?”
Artina Michelle: Yeah, those questions are needed. I think all of it is needed for growth.
Kris Mendoza: Absolutely. So where can we find more information on this particular project? And also, there’s one other project that I’ve been following… Can you talk to me a little about Dear Philadelphia?
Artina Michelle: Yes, you can find more about the doc on my website, ArtinaMichelleDP.com there’s a tab for This Too is Liberia.
Dear Philadelphia… That started with the director, Renee Osubu. She is originally from London but would spend her summers volunteering with kids in North Philly. I met her through a friend of mine who I was going to church with at the time. He told me Renee was looking for a DP for her project. Originally, Dear Philadelphia was a photo series that she intended to turn into a short film.
It was true vérité style filmmaking. We were just rolling around and capturing people in North Philly. Renee didn’t tell me at the time, but she lost her father a few years prior to starting the project. It just so happens, the series is about black fathers in Philadelphia. I guess that was a turning point in her journey to make this project. I really was just there to help but every time I watch it, I tear up because I know that it was made with love.
I started out with them during the first half of production, but I had to leave to focus on This Too is Liberia. Then, she brought on Luis Lopez, a DP from San Diego. I was happy that they kept going. I had to bow out but I think that was the best thing that could have happened because Luis definitely did his thing on it.
I was still able to pop in on them throughout the summer, shoot a couple shots here and there. That’s how organic it was. It would be like, “Here’s a camera. Oh, you’re here hanging out. Grab some shots.”
Then it ended up just being massively successful and way more than we thought it would be. It is her first film and her first short. To me, watching that after being in the game for this long, and knowing how difficult it is for people to even just finish a short, let alone have it reach this level… I’m just like, “Wow. All glory to God.”
Kris Mendoza: And this is out for people to watch now, or it’s still running a festival circuit?
Artina Michelle: Oh, yeah. Dear Philadelphia is now available to watch on Vimeo Staff Picks. Aftering premiering on the British Film Institute online player. It had an International premiere at Sundance, screened and won at Blackstar Film Festival and is now an Oscar qualifier.
Kris Mendoza: I love to hear it, a lot of good stuff happening. Thank you so much for joining us and best of luck!
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?
I realize the impact of losing parts of your history. It affects what you know about yourself, how you view yourself, and your level of confidence, especially as a Black person in this world. How does a queer Black kid feel like they’re seen and accepted if they don’t know about Bayard Rustin, who wasn’t mainstream news coverage until now. He was a queer civil rights leader working alongside Martin Luther King?
So that next year, I decided to interview Black people, and investigate their untold Black history. I think there have been many half-truths spread in schools, but we learn it outside in our communities and from our families by hearing the personal histories that changed them. We live in a very anti-Black world. And then this is a very anti-Black country, where every day you’re told overtly or covertly, that you’re not good enough, that you’re a criminal, that you’re too much. We are consistently told these lies about ourselves. So I wanted Black people to share the stories that changed how they viewed themselves, and how it got them where they are.
Kris Mendoza: Where did you start looking for those stories?
Sofiya Ballin: So I put together a dream list, and pitched it to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and they loved it. We kept it Philly specific with a mix of celebrities like Jazmine Sullivan and Marc Lamont Hill and also everyday dope people. I don’t know if you know the actor and activist Jesse Williams..
Kris Mendoza: Yeah, I do.
Sofiya Ballin: A lot of people don’t know he went to Temple and he taught in Philadelphia schools, so he was perfect. I said, oh Black Thought, it’d be great to have him…. and all of these people said yes! Black Thought talked about reading Cheikh Anta Diop’s work and realizing, “I don’t come from a ‘dark continent’. I come from a continent where math and science was innovated.” Jazmine Sullivan talked about Negro Spirituals and how the messaging and music impacts her, not only as a singer but as a songwriter, to be intentional about the messaging she puts in her music.
Kris Mendoza: That’s inspiring, is there a repository where all these exist?
Sofiya Ballin: You can find the independent installments at blkhistoryuntold.com. Those first two installments would be on Philly.com. That year I produced it with The Philadelphia Inquirer and it had a great response. I was getting letters from the penitentiary to the nursing home. Second year, I introduced themes… I did it through the lens of Black joy. That’s when I had Malcolm Jenkins, a former Philadelphia Eagle, and Sonia Sanchez.
At the time, this was 2016, I was one of the few young Black reporters at The Inquirer. I had to compromise, ask for permission, explain things, and create a vision that, to me, didn’t fit how I wanted it to be or how I, as a Black person, felt that Black people would want to be depicted. I wanted to get out from under the restrictions and focus on the work, so I aimed to introduce film and produce independently down the line. I think film is so incredible, just capturing the emotional attachment we have with our history and our identity. It’s so sacred.
A lot of these revelations and these interviews are very emotional, and I wanted to capture that and show the beauty of that. There are so many times when I’m interviewing people, and hear, “For the first time I saw myself as someone to be revered – For the first time, I saw myself, my people, in a different light – For the first time I feel like I have a better sense of who I am.”
Kris Mendoza: It’s interesting you say that, right? Because some of these people, they’re already celebrities, and influencers and politicians in the limelight. So for them to share those moments for the first time is very telling as to who’s controlling the narrative and what’s out there; not only for the general public, but for fellow Black folk to consume. It’s very important work, what you created, can you tell us about getting it to video?
Sofiya Ballin: So after the second installment in 2018, as the project began winning awards, the newsroom became more supportive of the project and wanted to plan for the next year… And I said, “I quit.”
Kris Mendoza: What did that feel like?
Sofiya Ballin: It was the scariest, boldest thing I’ve ever done, but I wanted to protect the project. Also, I was growing, myself. I wanted to introduce video work, and that wasn’t where The Inquirer was at that time. I managed, by the grace of God, to produce the project independently, still as portraits and text but without the salary I had, and fully self-funded.
For my second independent installment, I linked up with the Brooklyn Nets to do a New York specific series. It was so wild. I got an email at 5 am.. And when I tell you, I read this and I thought I was going delusional. It was an email from the former CMO Elizabeth Brooks, writing to say she has been googling untold Black history, and wanted to tell Black History in a more intentional way. Similar to the Christmas tree analogy, she didn’t want it to just be the same thing, every year.
The Brooklyn Nets had the capital for me to bring on a photographer I really admired, Joshua Kissi, who then brought on a DP, Emmanuel Afolabi, who I now still have a working relationship with. And once I saw the stories expressed with emotion, through music and video, I couldn’t go back. I think the medium just complemented the project so beautifully and the audience was able to connect better.
So that’s how I got into the film industry – I had no experience or academic background in film production. It was a challenge. I had a larger team of people behind the project at The Inquirer, a 200 year old company with wide reach and resources and when I left, it was just my photographer, myself, and my friend (Temi Oyelola) was a graphic designer. As the project gained more support, I started slowly building my team up to 13 people. I learned how to produce and direct, made some expensive mistakes but I also know I have great instincts. I think that it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s really, really beautiful work.
Kris Mendoza: Hearing about your trajectory is so important, because the value of storytelling – whether you’re writing for a newspaper or teasing out for video – is preserving the voice and experience of a person. A large part of Project Forte is telling your story as it connects to the ones you are working to tell, like every story is important and adds to the fuller understanding of the human experience.
Sofiya Ballin: Yes, sure the project has some household names, but I’ve also had everyday people. It’s important to treat the story as valid no matter what your tax bracket is. No matter what your visibility level is, the purpose is to show that though we are different we also share similarities that are part of the Black/African experience.
It also helped that we were a young Black crew, and I do think people felt more comfortable sharing their stories fully in that space.
Kris Mendoza: I’m glad you bring that up because there’s a question, not only around which stories are being told, but who is qualified to tell them. There’s no shortage of Black people, Asian people, or Brown people in this field, they’re only lost in the sea of the status quo, which just so happens to be very White-male driven, not even in an anti-White or anti-White-male approach. It’s present in examples of big budget Hollywood films coming out about Asian experiences: the cast may be billed as an all-Asian crew and maybe it’s filmed in Asia, but when the director at the top is “someone-Goldberg” it seems like they completely missed the point. What if Do the Right Thing was made by a White director and not by Spike Lee, it’d be completely different, right?
There’s a respectable way to tell stories of other cultures without having to be in that culture, so I’m not saying these films fail to make a difference, but I’d certainly like to see change reach the more powerful positions.
Sofiya Ballin: Yeah, I’m always shocked whenever I see these documentaries with “White hipster guys” going to Haiti or Thailand-
Kris Mendoza: “White Savior” tropes
Sofiya Ballin: Yeah. I’m like, “Why are we still doing this?” It’s upsetting. With Black History Untold there have been really powerful moments shared because our crew created such a welcoming and comfortable environment just by being Black and open to hearing the story. We interviewed a man for our Revolution Series who was wrongfully convicted of a crime and spent over 20 years behind bars. He said, “Some people get caught with drugs and all they get is a slap on the wrist, but if you or me …” And when he said “you or me” he was acknowledging us behind the scenes. That we too could have been in a similar situation. It was a simple acknowledgement that expressed that he knew we understood him. It was something really small but I took note of the fact that he felt he didn’t have to explain too much.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve noticed that people hold back in certain ways if there isn’t that level of familiarity and understanding. You feel like you can’t be fully transparent. There’s a direct link between the environment and crew, to the raw, honest material we get.
Kris Mendoza: That’s a huge point.
Sofiya Ballin: When I did pitch the project the first time, I had a hard time with The Inquirer… I said I wanted all Black people on the project and they were like, “Great, and we can add white people and Asian people and have them talk about Black history…
I had to be more specific and make it an identity series. Black history impacts Black people in a very specific way, and that’s what I want to explore. For some reason, when it comes to discussing our culture and our history there’s this need to diversify it. I think it makes it feel like less of a threat to people who are caught up in their white guilt. But that’s not my business.
Historically in the press, Black people have been misrepresented or underrepresented so at the very least, let Black History Month be a time where we hear Black voices. Oftentimes, when our stories are not told by us, you can tell. It feels like an outside gaze. It can present as exoticization. The stereotypes and sensationalized versions of Black people are what’s presented. It’s an idea of us. But it’s not us. When we tell our stories, with full agency, it feels like home. For some people, these stories are home. When people watch our work, it hits a chord in them, it speaks to a place inside that only someone who is of that experience can understand.
And again, it doesn’t mean that someone who isn’t of a specific culture can’t help create something great. Especially if they’re intentional and do their research. I think that different people have different perspectives. But we have to get to the point where we have all those seats at the table, before we can really have that conversation. Because right now, only white people have had that chance in America. It’s mostly white men in the director’s chair, right?
Kris Mendoza: I dig. You mentioned the word exoticize, and I see that as connected to another issue. For corporations, it could become performative and miss the point. Having a diversity division makes a company look good, but once they push all our people of color to the forefront and take all their photos, posting everywhere… Will it continue every day or will it become another Pride Month or Black History Month? Will this behavior be sealed off into the realm of “special occasion” which we forget during the “normal” day?
Is it the lesser of two evils, to see it as performance and accept it anyway because of the good it still does?
Sofiya Ballin: That was a big motivator for my project, because the way we celebrated Black History Month, felt very much like, “Oh, the time has come. So let’s just put this up so the coloreds can be happy.” It doesn’t feel intentional.
Kris Mendoza: It becomes a Hallmark holiday.
Sofiya Ballin: Yeah, it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel personal. And therefore, it defeats the purpose of helping others learn what really happened in this country and is still happening. Personally, I don’t do something just to do it. I’m very intentional about every decision that I make. And when you talked about performative actions and the lesser two evils, it reminds me of something Martin Luther King said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
Sometimes, unfortunately, it becomes this thing where you have to mandate it before it becomes natural for future generations. I still think in many ways we’re in a place where inclusivity has to be mandated and is treated as an obligation at many companies. Something I heard in the journalism world a lot when people were talking about diversity, I’d hear “We can’t find them. We can’t find them.”
Kris Mendoza: Like there’s not enough?
Sofiya Ballin: “There’s not enough!” (they say) And yet I know so many of them! And they are so ridiculously talented, right? And overqualified!
A lot of these newsrooms can feel like a white boys’ club. And I think that people just look for people with backgrounds like theirs. What J school did you go to? Or what film school did you go to? Instead of realizing one, not everybody has all those resources…
Kris Mendoza: It becomes very homogenous very quickly if you’re not trying.
Sofiya Ballin: Yeah. One: not everyone has access to those universities, to those networks. And two: culturally, different people have told stories and passed down history in different ways, you know what I mean? And just because it may not be an important story to you or it’s not told in the way you’re used to, doesn’t mean it’s not a story within a community or that it’s not told well. Space needs to be made for that.
Kris Mendoza: Exactly. Let’s transition into some of the stuff you’re working on now and what’s next for you. I read your bio and loved that line – a dose of trap and a sprinkle of Black girl magic. We’ve talked a lot about your project and your approach to winning space for Black people, but you have not once really mentioned even being a woman in the midst of all this. What’s that extra layer like? There’s a quote I’ve seen a lot recently, stating “The Black woman is the most disrespected person in society.” Can you unpack how that relates to you and how does that reflect in your work?
Sofiya Ballin: That’s such a deep, deep question. And that’s a Malcolm X quote.I think that I’ve realized more as I’ve gotten older, through the many ways that I am treated, that there’s a sensitivity growing within me over this. Especially when it comes to directing. That is the big one, because not everyone takes well to a woman leading.
Kris Mendoza: Black or not, just women in general.
Sofiya Ballin: Women in general. And being a Black woman adds an extra layer. I have to get myself out of it and remind myself, “Sofiya you can’t be mousy. When you want something done, say it… be firm about it.” But I have such a great team because they encourage me. My camera ops, Lou Peluyera , who’s a good friend of mine, will be like, “Sofiya, it’s okay. You’re good at this. You know what you’re doing. Just be confident.”
And then I think when you add being a Black woman as your leader, especially on the business end, people will really try to take advantage of you. And people will really try to low ball you for your work. I have a lawyer friend who I’m constantly having to reach out to, to work with me on contracts, or to make sure I get paid because I have, in the past, done work for someone on good faith that they would pay me or pay me my worth.
So I’ve learned that doesn’t always happen, right? And I’m like, this is what I learned in my African American studies classes. This is what I’ve been writing about. But I’m living it, right? I’m actually watching people tell me they want to pay me nothing or a really low rate, but then in the next breath telling someone else they’re going to be paid more. That is disrespect.
We produced Black History Untold: Love , our 1 hour and 10 minute doc and interviewed 13 couples, and we did it in three or four days. It was a lot, but it was planned to a T. So it was very exhausting production, but also exhausting because of the mental demands of “bracing myself” sometimes for how people would combat or communicate with me… people outside of my team.
To be honest I might have to take a break this year, because it was just so much. We saw what happened May through June with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It pushed me that year because I was like, “People need to talk about Black love.” But also with Breonna Taylor specifically, I was reminded of this woman named Oluwatoyin Salau. She’s a Nigerian-American woman I wrote about in the Washington Post, who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed. I did so much research involving how many Black women and girls are missing, it’s this trajectory of…
Kris Mendoza: It’s a pattern.
Sofiya Ballin: Yeah, it’s a pattern of erasure and disrespect. And it’s not because you don’t have a voice, but because people don’t want to listen to you. Oluwatoyin Salau said she needed help, before she was kidnapped. Breonna Taylor was killed in her home. And the reason why people kept pushing her name, is because so often when Black women and girls are killed in general and by the police, people don’t really rally around them the same. And why is that?
It’s a lot to be thrown into the understanding of this bigger picture and suddenly see my place in it, noticing how people are talking to me. I’ve become more and more sensitive to it.
Being a Black woman is an absolute gift, especially as a storyteller. Ava DuVernay has a quote about how as a Black woman you can… It’s almost like you see everything, right? I know what it’s like to be a woman, I know what it’s like to be a person of color. And that finds its way into my stories.
I wouldn’t trade being a black woman for anything. I hate the way the world treats us, I think we deserve better. We do a lot of incredible work, and we don’t get paid for it. We don’t get recognized. But I think that it’s truly been a gift to my storytelling and my life, especially the way that it’s made me really see the world. What I’ve experienced behind the scenes, I can take that and put that in my work, creating something specific to that.
Kris Mendoza: So, as you were saying in the beginning, this is where you draw your strength from. This is what motivates you. But I do see, when you talk about that Black girl magic, this is the source… It’s kind of like your blessing and your curse of what drives you, why you are so outspoken.
As an artist, and as a writer, as a filmmaker, I definitely think that identity as a Black female can certainly be a thumbprint all over your work. There’s no separating your identity from your work. No matter what, if it’s very culture focused, female focused or not, I feel like everything is very strongly through the lens of what only you can tell.
Sofiya Ballin: I think as a Black woman in this industry, in journalism and film, in any industry, shit, it’s so important to be confident in yourself. And it’s so important to trust. And I say this all the time but trust your vision and trust your voice. And it’s something that I’m still working on because the world won’t validate it, right? Even with this project in the beginning, I was told, “It’s not going to work. It’s just not.” When I left my job, the first thing one of the editors told me was, “I think this is a horrible idea.” I have to constantly push and prove my bankability, prove the value of my work.
Kris Mendoza: You’re wearing a weighted vest with everything you’re doing. A double weighted vest even – when everyone else is running.
Sofiya Ballin: Exactly, exactly, exactly. And that’s why Black women get the title of strong all the time. Because they’re carrying around that extra weighted vest. But every time someone compliments a Black woman on her strength, I’m like, “That’s a time that she’s struggled and you or someone else didn’t help carry the load.”
And that’s where I think the ally-ship comes in. And I think Black women try to do that for each other.
Kris Mendoza: Last question here, what’s next for you? What’s on the slate for Sofiya?
Sofiya Ballin: Yeah. I’m in such an interesting place entering this film world. I’ve mastered writing and I still want to keep doing this project. I’m just trying to solidify the system, if that makes sense. I think that I’ve been very integral to all of the pieces and I want to get to a point where it kind of runs itself. So for the future, I think that I’m going to be refining Black History Untold.
I’m also writing the script for a short film that I’m really passionate about. It goes into Jamaican culture and being first generation. I really am a storyteller of all the mediums. And now I think the next step is figuring out how to become an octopus, and how to do a little bit of all of them. Because that’s when I feel my happiest and that’s when I feel like I’m living my true purpose.
Hector David Tapia (he/him) has been working as a Director and DP in Philadelphia for over two years since moving to the United States from Mexico City. This month on Project Forte, he sheds light on the uniqueness of Mexican cinema as it hinges on the idea of a compact, multifaceted crew who thrives by innovating and problem-solving out of creative necessity. This is slightly different from the larger American machine, which can afford increased specialization due to enormous budgets and crews; and therefore, less departmental interrelationship. As witnessed by Hector, many who contribute to Mexican cinema are rewarded with resourcefulness in exchange for the passion they must pour into overcoming each obstacle. True to that experience, Hector brings every skill to bear when on set, trusting in his fellow filmmakers and inspiring camaraderie. It takes a connection, an opportunity, and a yes to open doors, and his story is no exception. Read on to hear more about Hector’s journey so far!
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?
Hector Tapia: That’s an interesting question because throughout the years I discovered it really goes back to my childhood. I always saw my dad grabbing the camera, like all the time. For example, at Christmas, he would wake up really, really early and wait for us with the camera ready to see that Santa Claus had come and then he would capture our reactions. That was a constant image that I’ve had stuck in my mind since my childhood. But, my only dream and goal at that time was to be a professional soccer player. I had tunnel vision for the sport until high school. Eventually, things with soccer got complicated and I lost interest in pursuing a professional career when I was in my senior year and it’s funny cause that’s exactly when filmmaking entered the frame for the first time when we had this final project assignment to craft a video. I think that was my first official approach toward this passion.
There were three or four of us on a team and we could do anything we wanted, we had complete creative freedom. So we filmed at a friend’s place and I remember recording and somehow “directing” him. It was like an “I’m having a nightmare” kind of scene. I remember saying or feeling like a really interesting exercise to me. To be honest, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it but it didn’t matter because I think I internalized the main message: “I enjoyed filming a movie”. Back in 2002, we didn’t have access to nonlinear editing software like today and we figured out a way to edit that piece. I think we just recorded the TV screen and then we would basically edit on camera. That part was really tough and tricky for us, but in the end, we delivered the final product so it was a success.
Moving forward, I went on to college and studied engineering for a year. Just as I was realizing that was not for me at all, my older cousin was also switching from his engineering major into communications. He said to me, “Why don’t you try this too? Maybe you like photography.” I was really frustrated with my engineering major and that question really inspired me to look back at the camera and that previous experience of making a film made all sense, it was like: “Yeah, I think that’s what I was looking for this whole time.”
And I really liked the program and what the career offered at the time, cause it’s always changing. The only thing I regret is the fact that it was going to be a huge extra cost for my parents, a whole year of tuition to the trash but they were really supportive as always. They made me and helped me feel comfortable switching to a creative career. Then, within the first two years, I met a friend who needed me to edit and retouch photos for her, and I realized that I really liked that creative process as well. She connected me to her boyfriend who was a producer at this TV network and luckily they were recruiting. He interviewed me, it was like a quick stand-up interview, I remember him saying “You seem like a good fit” and then he walked me through the door of the Executive Directors. I was so nervous but that second interview went well and the next day I showed up and started editing my first TV show. I was really lucky to get that job.
Kris Mendoza: Nice. What was the industry like in Mexico City at that time? Is it a totally different animal from the United States?
Hector Tapia: I mean, some people say that it’s really a closed circuit –
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.
Kris Mendoza: It sounds like you were doing a lot of Post at that point, but as far as Mexican, the U.S., or even global filmmakers, who were some folks that you were following and being inspired by?
Hector Tapia: I know it’s gonna sound cliché but definitely one of my main influences was Alejandro González Iñarritu when he released his first feature: Amores Perros, in 2000. It was very impactful to me. I remember watching that movie 10 or 15 times with one of my best friends in high school and it just woke us up. We thought, “Wow, this is something new. This is amazing. This is Mexico.” We memorized almost entire sequences, dialogues, and scenes. It had such a raw texture, visually innovative, super complex scriptwriting, and great performances. It was a complete boom and success in my country. That movie revolutionized and changed Mexican cinema forever. Because, back to my childhood again, in the early to mid-’90s, Mexican cinema was garbage, I remember going to the theater with my family to watch “La Risa en Vacaciones 5” a prank movie saga, they made like eight movies, all exactly the same: actors, jokes, pranks, places, and songs. At the time we laughed a little, but now I look back at that era and it’s like: “What the hell happened to those Mexican filmmakers? Then, a few years later, we all saw Iñarritu, Arriaga, Cuarón, Del Toro, Lubezki, and many others raising their hand and the rest is history.
Back to Amores Perros, at the time I was just a pure viewer, you know what I mean? I didn’t have this bias of being on set or of being a cinematographer, yet. I wasn’t analyzing the technical aspects of the movie. I was just like into-
Kris Mendoza: – Drawn into it?
Hector Tapia: Exactly. I just let myself absorb it. That was my first big impact and big influence. Then also, I really liked Y Tu Mama Tambien from Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki. Those guys were my biggest influences starting out and still, they are.
Kris Mendoza: Very cool influences and I should say even without knowing too much about Mexican cinema, it was very clear to see at the time that they were inspiring and inspired by a global zeitgeist. I know Iñárritu did Babel in the early 2000s, but I feel like it wasn’t really until 2014 when he did Birdman that he became a household name.
So, using this as a jumping-off point, let me ask you: what makes Mexican cinema unique? Are there some elements or approaches within Mexican storytelling that differ from other cultures in terms of filmmaking?
Hector Tapia: I would say first that Mexican filmmakers are great problem solvers and they are driven by their passion, so they always find a way. The budgets for Mexican films also tend to be smaller which encourages a lot of multi-tasking and creativity. That’s one of the main differences between U.S. and Mexican filmmakers. For example, in Mexico, most of the time one person will cover a lot of roles while here in the US it’s really uncommon to see that, it is definitely more structured here at all levels of production cause everyone has a specific role. I think it can be seen as an advantage for a Mexican filmmaker, because if you don’t have the budget, you are going to try a thousand different ideas to get your project made and learn so much from each experience.
Kris Mendoza: Yeah, you get resourceful very quickly when you don’t have the budget.
Hector Tapia: Exactly. And we are like that, we don’t let any obstacle stop us. And you know, we have this beautiful ability to connect, and that aids in our resourcefulness. Sometimes you have to make friends get the shot, whether that just means talking to the police in a hectic and crowded location to get them on board, knock doors to see if the neighbors allow you to come in to get the shot from their balcony, or even helping someone in the crew solve a problem.
Kris Mendoza: When we talk about resourcefulness and smaller productions with really high value, the first person that comes to mind is Robert Rodriguez. Obviously, he’s American-born but of Mexican descent, and shot a lot of his early work, like El Mariachi, in Mexico. He did a lot with very little.
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!
Kris Mendoza: What’s it like being in a relationship where you are both in the same creative field? I’m so curious to know what it’s like to live and breathe creativity, art, and film production at home and even work together in some regard.
Hector Tapia: That’s a very interesting question because it was really hard at the beginning, but we evolved and balanced. We met at this TV channel in Mexico City. She and my sister were both editing and they became best friends. That was how we connected and then we started spending more time with each other.
Melanie is a very talented filmmaker and storyteller, while I’m more focused on the visual realization. She’s always telling me, like, ” You have to focus more on the story.” Then I say, “You have to focus more on the visual ” [jokes] I think we push and also complement each other really well, but in the beginning, it was a little bumpy trying to meet halfway.
Sometimes when we’re together, there’s a little healthy competition, and I have to remember that one is not better than the other, we only have different styles. Also, when I started focusing more on cinematography and directing, she started to focus more on producing. She and one of her best friends and colleagues have now founded their own media company here in Philly and our talents and styles can be combined and complementary.
But it’s also really nice to see that we can accomplish and deliver projects of our own. It’s not, like, all wonderful. Obviously, we have some friction sometimes when we’re stubborn about our approach. But we’ve arrived at something really really sharp and true to what we want with this project you mentioned earlier, Dear Sofia, which is about our daughter.
Kris Mendoza: I bet it would be totally different if you were both directors or both DPS. Your nuanced differences mean you can complement each other and also enrich each other’s work in terms of open constructive critique.
I know personally, I would have a tough time opening up my creative vulnerabilities to my significant other, let alone wearing two different hats with them. When you’re working on something as personal as Dear Sofia, how do you switch on work? Any advice for couples in the same field?
Hector Tapia: It’s really tough because sometimes, for example with this project, we’re spontaneously being inspired by something interesting that Sofia is doing. I have to follow my impulse to just grab the camera and start. It’s a matter of seconds to switch the hat, being a parent and then a filmmaker. We do like to keep our work separate for some of our other projects.
As far as advice, I would say probably the word would be humbleness if that makes sense from both sides. It’s important to set aside your egos. Rather than battle, you listen and ask questions out of love and respect for the other. You have to be open to hearing them and learning them, which helps you to know each other’s weaknesses and talents in terms of storytelling. When you can share like that first, you find out that you really can have some separation and be in charge of one part of the process while they are in charge of the other. You trust each other with the talents you see in them.
It really helps to always approach the other with a respectful suggestion, and not tell them they can’t do it. I find myself asking “What do you think about this mood for the scene?” or “What do you see if this is the direction I want to go?”
Kris Mendoza: I watched the trailer that you both posted and was very moved by the visuals and the story, so I can see each of you in it already. Just to touch on your daughter’s personal experience a little, I’ve had experience with the diagnosis of autism in the family and what that can mean for your relationship with your family, especially your wife. Talk to me about how that project came to be and how it’s evolving.
Hector Tapia: We’ve been filming for almost a year, because it’s entirely dependent upon Sofia’s mood, and some days we only shoot one or two scenes. It’s been a learning curve, and of course, we have two different processes regarding Sofia’s autism. Melanie has her own way and I think I go a little bit slower than her. My acceptance of the diagnosis, I mean. It’s going to be almost two years now. She was diagnosed back in September 2019, and for me, it was really tough to understand because my daughter is so wonderful.
I began processing by minimizing her behavior. I was in denial, saying “no, to me she’s, like, a neuro-typical little girl.” I wasn’t embracing her difference, but Melanie helped a lot with my process. She did a lot of research, read books, and subscribed to Autism groups on Facebook with other parents who were sharing their experiences and knowledge. While she did that, I was mainly focused on my work but then I realized that it was not going to be good enough for me and for Sofia. I started to get more and more involved and then I suddenly became inspired to use my camera to help me see what I needed to see: Sofia.
I told Melanie that it will be really helpful to me if I just start filming her, just be with her on and off camera and explore what happens. She agreed and so we talked with Sofia. She loves to watch videos. Actually, I edited a video for her every year for her birthday and it makes her so happy. She always likes to watch them a thousand times and memorize her words or “dialogues” in each video. In terms of filming the movie, which is more of a docu verité, we always ask her first, because sometimes she doesn’t want to film and isn’t in the mood and we must respect that. It all started a healing process, working on this film with my family. I’m always editing some sequences and going through the footage and then I see things, looks, reactions, and behaviors about Sofia that I wasn’t aware of, so shooting this movie has been really insightful in terms of that and also therapeutic for me.
It’s important to ask yourself what your motivations are when you do something like this. Personally, I’m always checking in to make sure I am doing the right thing or asking if I’m being selfish by making my daughter a subject. Do you know what I mean? It’s a very difficult situation, internally for me. But Melanie, our parents, and our family, have all been really supportive about that because they can see we are doing this out of love for Sofia. We don’t want to expose her. So far, we’ve agreed that we would not show tantrums or expose her to ridicule because she wouldn’t be able to say that is ok to film.
Kris Mendoza: I can see you’re concerned about exploiting your daughter’s story and situation, but at the end of the day, I think it sounds like your hearts are all in the right place. You’re really documenting for her, and for your family, which is something I’m totally used to. My dad documented every waking step of our lives growing up and always had a camera.
I think you are blessed with the opportunity that you are actually a professional in the industry so you can capture these moments and turn them into art. I think if other parents and families can get anything out of your message, it would be hugely impactful for those who are experiencing their journey of acceptance with an ASD diagnosis. I am looking forward to seeing more of it.
It seems like you’ve really sunk your teeth into the Philly scene, working with a couple of different production companies. What makes you do what you do? Why do you love it? And what’s next around the pike for you?
Hector Tapia: What’s next? I want to film and film and keep filming for the rest of my life. That’s what I want. Regarding Philly, I love working with Kyra Knox, a very talented emerging director and producer. We are actually shooting her first documentary feature and also I really enjoy working with you and your team at Maestro. I’m so happy that you consider me for the work you are doing. I’m excited to see what Philly has to offer this year and as I expand my career. Also, I’ve been shooting documentaries in LA and would love to shoot more in New York. I’ve been pretty lucky. Obviously, I want to keep filming in Mexico. I recently sent one of my latest short films to top festivals around the world, it was proudly shot and produced in my country. I really want to be like I am now, you know, filming, editing, applying to festivals, traveling, filming again but this time more and more interesting projects, better stories and characters. I get a sense of belonging just from grabbing the camera. It is my vehicle and my key to knowing the world and to connecting with more people.
That’s what I dream of. That’s my everyday obsession and it’s happening. I’m living that dream one day at a time, one project at a time.
Amanda Mazzone is courageously embracing a rapid shift toward the creative industry as a writer, producer, and actor. Undeniably suited to these arts, it is surprising to know that Amanda is only newly inspired, particularly by her experience working on Block, with Carrie Brennan – a Project Forte alum. Understanding the power of telling one’s story, both Carrie and Amanda have risen to the challenge of sharing their experiences, not only for their own expression but also to help others find company and closure. Tune in below to hear about Halfway to Fifty developments and to share in Amanda’s history and humor.
Written and Edited by Kate Feher
Amanda Mazzone: Hello, I’m Amanda Mazzone, but in the creative space I go by Amanda Francis. I am a writer, creator, producer, and actor…always last. I’m whatever I need to be. I like to think of myself as an Asian Phoebe Waller-Bridge [Fleabag] in the creative space, writing my own stuff and collaborating with folks along the way.
Kris Mendoza: Tell me a little bit about how you got started in this industry, where you’re at now, and what you’re working on.
Amanda Mazzone: I am currently in New York. I moved here to work in foster care, which is just completely outside of the film industry. But along my way, I met Carrie Brennan, who’s from Philly, and a brilliant and amazing queer filmmaker. When we met, she was still in the writing stages of Block, and I was immediately drawn to her story. I’m queer. I hadn’t come out to my family at the time, so the story especially spoke to me. But more impactfully, I befriended Carrie, and if I’ve learned anything in this industry, it’s the importance of having a wonderful support team and I knew that I wanted to be a support for Carrie in that space. I was able to help her by embodying that hype man, the T-Pain, of production, and worked alongside her as a production assistant, mostly, and just by being a good friend along the way.
Block inspired me into action. I’d never thought of myself as a creative person, though I was always assumed to be – I had friends and a community in the space – but I was always way too scared to dive in. Being on that set changed everything for me. A few months later I decided to write my own story about being queer, being Filipino, and to focus on mother-daughter relationships, which all meant that her story inspired me to tell my story.
We’re currently in post-production for that web series so, that’s how I got started in the industry: through an inspiring, supportive, and creative friend community.
Kris Mendoza: What was it about Block that attracted you to the project?
Amanda Mazzone: I always joke about that but it really was just… Carrie, you know? She’s effervescent. She knows how to connect with people. And when she first pitched me on the story, I thought, “You’re bizarre. Is this going to be an animated block following you around? Like, is it its own character?” But lo and behold, it is its own character: an actual, physical block, which really demonstrates Carrie’s humour. And it’s something that I think a lot of people can connect with, even if they don’t necessarily have a coming-out or coming-in kind of story. It’s just that heavy weight on your chest which a lot of people have a hard time talking about. Block is starting conversations and allowing people to see themselves within a narrative, making their own stories feel finally relatable. Of course, as soon as I understood the whole narrative of Block and what it could do for folks, I was 100% on board. I knew it could change people’s lives.
Kris Mendoza: You know, that’s the power of the film medium. It creates empathy and brings people together. So many people have their own personal stories and think they’re alone, like what they are feeling is concentrated only within themselves and that “No one else is really going to care”. When you put yourself out there in this kind of medium, making yourself vulnerable, you start to realize so many other people connect and resonate with your story. And the hope is, I noticed for Carrie, to inspire others to feel comfortable and live their own truths.
You’re doing that now with your own project, are you able to tease that a little and talk to me about the approach?
Amanda Mazzone: Oh yeah, it’s not top secret! And you know what? You’ll learn more about me, Kris, there’s no secret in my life unless it’s about my mom [jokes].. then it’s always a secret to her.
My story’s called Halfway to Fifty. It’s a mini web series, so five episodes, each around five minutes. I began writing in March at a time I was feeling super inspired and creative so I was able to get it off the ground fast. I formed a skeleton team from some folks who worked on Block, actually. Talk about having friends in the industry and being on that set… I was able to collaborate with so much of the Block crew. We got Hillary Hanak to DP, Heather Monetti on sound, Kelly Murray directing an episode, and Sierra Schnack directing the other four. It was a really cool collab.
Halfway to Fifty is about a woman named Amanda, loosely based on me, and her relationship with her mom. The two are exactly 25 years apart. It kicks off with Amanda realizing that her mom had her when she was 25, a child. And Amanda’s living in New York, exploring her queer, bisexual identity in a very whitewashed purview, while her mom, who we call Mother Gothel, is in the Midwest (Wisconsin), and has this relationship with Amanda where it’s mostly on the phone or on Facebook, monitoring her every move. So the subjects involve being queer and Asian, but also touches on social media, the autonomy of having to be an adult, upholding family values, and finally “self-realization.” There’s a lot to resonate with, hopefully.
Kris Mendoza: There are so many important notes to unpack. Let me start with something I can easily relate to myself, being Asian and Filipino, because that presents the lens through which these subjects are approached, right? That’s sort of your first identity. I don’t know how it is in your family, but I know it’s a very Asian and Filipino thing to just never have the sex talk with your parents. You don’t talk about things like that. So I’d imagine coming out and announcing that… is maybe harder to communicate in this culture than others. Is that something you focus on in the story?
Amanda Mazzone: Yeah, a hundred percent… Those conversations aren’t familiar, I can definitely say, in my life. I can’t tell you the last time my mom and I had ever gotten close on that subject. In this web series, it jumps right into the middle of all of that. Amanda has already tried coming out, is in that stage of, “I’ve told you a thousand times, and yet you still cannot hear me” kind of space. And Amanda’s mom is very much like, “I’ll pray for you, Ging. I’ll pray for you”. You know? Amanda never asked for those prayers, but she still thanks her mom for them. So there’s a kind of reverence and respect that you need to have toward what your family does understand.
That’s kind of what we sit on in this web series, what I focused on, is that respect. But also again, where’s the limit according to your need to be heard? Just because you’re family doesn’t mean you need to bend to every will and uphold every value, especially if it collides with your life. Another aspect of my history which plays out here is that my mom remarried. I’m a first-gen Filipino in the U.S., but my mom remarried to an Italian white man who is now my stepdad. I call him Papi, Kevin, but he’s from an Italian, White, Conservative family in Wisconsin. So over the past year with Black Lives Matter, coronavirus, there were some-
Kris Mendoza: Stop Asian Hate.. Throw all of these things into a bucket.
Amanda Mazzone: Yeah, no rest… A lot of stuff just came up with family, I’m sure a lot of people can resonate with that right now. I found that the white side of the family was, in person, so polite. Conversations were so like, “Oh, how are you? How’s New York? Blah, blah, blah”. But on social media, it was nasty. People were commenting with guns blazing, showing angry emoji faces as if that was a threat. I wanted to take that and write about it. So you’ll see similarities in the series loosely based on my life where I had my white grandpa, the “patriarch” of the family, coming at me on Facebook, which is just crazy. I didn’t mean to put my grandpa on blast for calling me, a brown girl, a racist, but that was just fundamentally not possible in the context that was going on, so I called that out.
And it involves my mom, who grew up in the Philippines, moved here when she was 23 and assimilated into an American culture. She accepts and acknowledges the fact that I grew up American, but I still have her cultural roots. She couldn’t step up and defend me in that space because her voice was being drowned out from the “patriarch” of the Mazzone family. That put a strain on my relationship with her. I didn’t feel like I was being supported or backed up. It was less about my own queer identity, or my political views, or my personal life at that point. We were on two completely different planes, and we can build a bridge somewhere, but we’ve got to start having conversations about that. And even if it’s a sex talk or anything like that, it’s just so hard to bring that up in Asian familial spaces.
Kris Mendoza: And it’s tough, too, because a lot of the negative stereotypes exist concerning female Asian immigrants that come to the U.S., specifically speaking about your mom’s generation and my own parents’ generation here. The stereotype that they’re submissive because they are soft-spoken and things like that. It’s almost like she feels she doesn’t have a voice, even though at the end of the day, I’m sure there’s a large part of her that disagrees with a lot of the other side of your family. The pressure blurs lines in terms of what you believe in, what you want to just make peace with, and ultimately what you’re going to speak up for.
All those things swirl about before even injecting gender identity, being queer, or even the kind of creative work that you do. It’s definitely a divisive climate these days.
I guess I’ll turn to a more hopeful, positive question now. How do you feel film, media, and television spans this conversation? Do you make a point that you can build a bridge, or that there’s no convincing someone, especially your grandfather who’s probably lived his entire life believing certain things… Is there no changing his point of view?
It’s hard to accept that someone in their 60s and 70s is prepared to turn 180 degrees unless there’s some crazy life-changing event. Can your story build a bridge? Can his love for you help him to better understand, at least a little bit? Is that effort the saving grace amidst the turmoil we’ve gone through recently? How is film helpful in approaching, softening these conversations, and opening doors?
Amanda Mazzone: Ah, those are good questions. I think film provides a space where you can find community and visibility where you want to. That’s a double-edged sword though, right? And the way that media and film and all the ways that we’re able to entertain, it’s like a science now, right? To mess with algorithms and kind of manipulate what you see. But if you’re not manipulating any of that, and you’re just kind of interacting with the things that interest you truly and genuinely, then I would hope that you find folks, people of like-mind, who can inspire you and make you feel heard and seen. I think that’s the most positive, uplifting thing that media can come to. It’s just such a tricky landscape still. As a younger person, I thought I could change everything through social media. I thought I could inspire my grandpa. I could teach… “Are you telling me, Mom, that if I don’t comment, or if I don’t respond to him, he won’t learn something?” But lo and behold, kind of holding true to what you’ve mentioned, Kris, it is hard to talk to anyone who’s sedimented in their ways. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, especially when an old dog gets on a new social media platform, like Facebook.
And my Lola, it was really funny, she’s not on Facebook at all, but she heard what was going on. She’s in the Philippines now, she Facebook Messages me and she goes, “Ging, why would you trade in your dollar for a white man’s two cents? Mathematically, that doesn’t make sense.” And I was like, you know what, Lola, you’re right. I’m going to take a step back, and only interact with the folks that build me up and support me, and pick my own battles. You don’t have to throw yourself at every divisive comment or post that is out there. And yeah, I think, again, the hopeful positive piece is that you find folks that believe in you, support you. And even if they don’t agree with you, they are able and open to having conversations.
Kris Mendoza: I think oftentimes the written communication is more effective than a verbal one, because in a moment of heat you have so many feelings about X, Y, and Z, that all of the logical facts don’t come out. Instead, you can take an expressive medium, like film and television, in which you’re able to carefully plot all these points and carefully express emotion. It may be a better medium to sway someone’s opinion, or at least get them to think outside their boxes. I think two people shouting at each other or commenting on social media, putting each other down, that’s not going to change anything.
I saw a funny meme that was like, someone’s Facebook rant changed no one’s political view ever, right? People rant all the time, but it’s not going to do anything. But watching a piece of film or hearing someone’s story, that’s the kind of authentic, real-life relationship that’ll expand my mind or make me think differently. If its a well-executed story that sticks with someone for just a day, whether that’s someone who’s been living in their own way for years and years or someone that’s on the fence to being like, “I believe in this, but I’m conflicted because of religion or culture to believe this,” I think film storytelling is a good way to shed a light in someone’s mind. You say it’s a double-edged sword and it is, absolutely. You’re making yourself vulnerable and you’re putting yourself out there in a vast landscape. You’re telling your story in a place where it can be equally rebuked or accepted, but the latter is too valuable to forsake.
Now, I have seen Hillary Hanak and Kelly Murray posting about Halfway to Fifty. So, I see that production is happening on this. What’s next for the film? What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?
Amanda Mazzone: Yeah, so right now, interestingly enough, I’m dubbing myself a creator, writer, and editor. Production on Halfway to Fifty is wrapped, it’s fully out the gate, kind of in record timing. We’re currently in post and I’m editing it. My goal is to get this out in July, probably hit YouTube mid to end July, which is a very fast turnaround. And after Halfway to Fifty’s out and the world can see it, which I’m beyond excited for, the next thing on my brain is moving. I’ve lived in New York City, Brooklyn specifically, for the past four years. And Halfway to Fifty is kind of my kiss, and nod, and gift to New York while I’ve been here. Being here was meaningful because it took me a really long time to find myself in this creative space.
I’m very, very proud of my team, myself for once, for writing this, and getting this through production. It’s truly magic, what film and crews like this can bring to a project. And so, yeah, it’s my kiss goodbye to New York, and the next adventure is Los Angeles. I’m moving out there with my partner and we’re planning on making another web series. I’m currently in the writing stage, it’s called Friendly. It’s about queer relationships, because after three months of being together and now moving somewhere totally sporadically, it’s kind of playing on lesbian relationships that move way too fast.
I’m also setting into stone my first short called Lola, about a Filipino grandma and how she plays such an important role – Filipino grandmothers always play such under-appreciated, heartbreaking, or hilarious roles. I want to tell a story for all Lola’s out there. And so, those are some big upcoming projects after this that hopefully will keep me busy for the next year or two.
Kris Mendoza: Those are super exciting projects you’re working on. It’s definitely great to see you tackling all this head on and I’m sure it’s certainly not easy telling these stories and opening yourself up. But in terms of writing what you know, what’s true, and expressing yourself, I think there’s no better way to do it and share your story with the world than the way that you’ve approached it. I wish you the best!
Amanda Mazzone: Thank you for listening. You’re such a grand listener! Having this opportunity is really, really cool. I appreciate it.
Carrie Brennan is a filmmaker working in New York and Philadelphia, who got her start exploring stand-up, but her chops in storytelling through writing, acting, and producing her own experiences. Carrie’s golden rule is to tell the truth and in doing so, model its possibilities for those who struggle to find their own. This month on Project Forte we look to LGBTQ+ stories, of which Carrie is a valiant protector, and the parade couldn’t have come at a better time! This community has experienced many evolutions of persecution and Carrie reminds us all that we can be proud of the progress seen today, while constantly pushing forward. Her message is one of hope for all communities to feel safe in their expression, their identities, and their future.
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.
We are actually hosting our first in person premiere this Pride month on june 22nd! We’re going to show the film, followed by a Q&A with the cast and crew, and we’ve got a DJ lined up as well, so we can kick off pride and dance the night away.
Kris Mendoza: And where can people buy tickets, or is it open to the public?
Carrie Brennan: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Tickets are on sale! Blockthefilm.com/tickets, and It’s on our Instagram Bio. I’m just really grateful that you gave me the opportunity to talk about a thing that I love. I love this stuff so much –
Kris Mendoza: I can feel it! I feel the passion coming out… It’s infectious! So now, tell us how you got started in this crazy industry?
Carrie Brennan: Good question. I started off wanting to do stand-up comedy, actually. I quit business school my sophomore year of college and did a bunch of stand-up around the philly area- just hustling to as many open mics and student films as I could. I was out in California for a little bit, graduated college, and then went to an acting school called Playhouse West Philadelphia, and that’s when I fell in love with storytelling. It really kicked off from there and I started studying the craft of acting and just really fell in love with the production process and what stories could do to people… how it could make a difference in their lives..
Kris Mendoza: And you are a champion of telling LGBTQ+ stories! Can you tell me a little bit about why and how you’ve made that your mission?
Carrie Brennan: I think that my specificity comes from having experienced the pain of living in the closet, and the sense of realization and security that I felt from seeing people that reflected who I truly was on screen. When I was in 7th grade, I sort of started getting inklings that I might be gay, and with that realization came SO much anxiety. And terror. And fear – fear for mostly, what is my life going to look like? I couldn’t see a future for myself. I felt so trapped by this thing that I never asked for or wanted, and felt like there was no way out, really. Until one day, I saw these two characters on Grey’s Anatomy finally understanding their love for each other . And it was so visceral for me, because not only were they gay characters, but there was a woman on screen who looked like me. Blonde, blue eyes, long hair… I had never seen a lesbian that was feminine before. I just about spit my drink out. And in retrospect, that’s really the power of showing characters on screen who truly express how beautiful and diverse our world is. Right? So really, that changed my life. That was the first time that I realized I could be okay. I mean, I didn’t come out for like 10, 15 years, but I always had that example. It was this thing that I carried with me. I was just really moved by it, honestly, and so, when I did eventually come out at 23, I wanted to just tell stories that would inspire people like I was inspired in seventh grade. I think that’s where it comes from – wanting to tell the truth.
Kris Mendoza: That’s amazing, in terms of seeing something of yourself on screen. Just last month we were talking to a lot of Asian American filmmakers and, yeah, we didn’t have a lot of role models ourselves. To find a handful at that age like on Grey’s Anatomy… And if I remember correctly, she wasn’t a lesbian in the beginning of the show, right? She came out halfway through, so it’s incredible that her character was given the safe space to realize a fuller, more honest version of herself and to be celebrated for it. For that to be depicted on screen for someone in grade school to see as, I would say normalized, right? It’s probably very empowering and validating.
Carrie Brennan: Yeah. And actually, you hit on something so important, which was not just a gay couple, but a lesbian couple that looked like me in a way that modelled a future for myself. Because in seventh grade, I couldn’t picture a future for myself past 30.
I remember my friends wanting to go to a fortune teller in that year – This is such a random thought – but I wouldn’t go because I was so scared on a very deep level that the fortune teller would say, “Oh, apparently reading your palm, you’re going to be gay. You’re going to marry a woman and you’re going to have this number of kids.”
Kris Mendoza: Haha, You didn’t want them to be there for that.
Carrie Brennan: Yeah, exactly. I’d be like ohhh no I wasn’t ready for that, but that’s why it’s so important not only to have LGBTQ films, but make those films with LGBTQ+ characters who are not just white. It’s not enough to just to make a white male lead gay in a script, and call it a day. We’ve got to create LGBTQ+ films that actually represent what we actually are, and how diverse and beautiful our community really IS.
Kris Mendoza: Absolutely. Can you talk about why it is so important that folks within the LGBTQ community be the ones harboring this narrative and telling it themselves as opposed to people who aren’t in the community?
Carrie Brennan: I think the best storytelling hinges on telling the truth – the ugly, messy, embarrassing, vulnerable truth. It’s not to say that straight people can’t tell LGBTQ+ stories, but what’s the intention behind it? Are you trying to check a box? Are you trying to be “good?” What about this story is personal and important to you? Why do you really want to tell it?
I’ve met straight people who have told incredible LGBTQ+ stories, and straight people that have absolutely butchered LGBTQ+ stories and hurt people along the way. It’s so delicate because these are people’s lives you’re dealing with. Just as much power as responsibility, or whatever that spider man quote is…but the people who work on LGBTQ+ films and do a great job always have some sort of very very deep personal connection to the struggle, or the celebration, or the community. Without it, there’s no motor.
Kris Mendoza: Absolutely. Can you tell me a little about your personal work? What are you most passionate about in terms of approaching a project, collaborating with people, and sharing it with the world?
Carrie Brennan: I love writing slice of life LGBTQ+ stories that ultimately inspire people to see the best in themselves. That is my motor, that’s my north. I’ve always erred on the side of writing from my own experience or from stuff that has happened in my life too..
Kris Mendoza: You write what you know.
Carrie Brennan: Yeah! Exactly. And I’m really inspired by slice of life movies. I love when everyday things are cinematic like, for instance the shows Fleabag and Broad City. You get to open up someone’s brain and see, “Oh yeah, this is what’s going on” and recognize how relatable it is to your own experience.
How I choose movies and projects usually goes like… If I know in my gut it’s something that will inspire people to see the best in themselves and love themselves and it’s queer and it’s personal, AND got a great crew, then I know it’s something that I’m going to work really hard on because I care about it.
Kris Mendoza: I don’t know if it’s happenstance, but it seems intentional that you choose to work with.. not only other LGBTQ people but a lot of… well, the most women I’ve seen on a cast and crew, which is just amazing for a project. What are your thoughts on the current representation you see in this industry, not just behind the camera, but also in front, as a producer, writer, and actor? You see both sides of it.
Carrie Brennan: I think we’re “good, getting better.” I think the progress that we’ve seen in the past, even just two years, is good. I have definitely had more people asking for female crew members specifically, which is great. But I have friends directing commercials who are still, 9 times out of 10, the only women on set of more than 100 people. I think the biggest room for growth is the intention behind WHY we want to see more women on set. I think real progress will be made when people realize that certain stories are actually meant to be told by a woman not to check a box, but because the female eye might elevate the story.
Monica [O’Hara] and I wanted women on our crew because it was the best way to tell this story. We found our crew naturally. These people were in our lives and as I would tell them about this project they’d come on board saying, “this is something that I resonate with on a personal level, on an emotional level.” I would meet with a friend, and she might tell me about going through this really tough time – so I’d share – “Here’s what I’m trying to do with this story.” Those interactions came from the heart. Those women shared emotions or feelings about it, and it just came together that way.
Kris Mendoza: I definitely stalked you prior to this interview, and you posted recently about your aunt in terms of… I don’t want to take your story away from you, but in terms of someone who helped navigate and help you find a community. I think you said when you were seven she was going to… well, she knew she needed to be around for you at a certain point in your life. Unfortunately, I think there are some people that don’t have someone like that in their family or a role model at all, so can you talk to me about this person being, not only a family member, but also just being someone who helped you navigate that part of your life?
Carrie Brennan: I love that you saw the pride people story. I think that’s awesome. Growing up, it was always just “Aunt Mary Ellen and Amy” – my family wasn’t so pride-forward in the sense that we were marching in parades, but it was what it was. I think towards the later years, I knew, in a way – on a very deep level, that she knew, and I was like, “I think she’s on to me.” She would ask me things like, “Oh, anyone new in your life?” instead of saying, “So, any guys-
Kris Mendoza: Do you have a boyfriend? Yeah.
Carrie Brennan: Yeah. So on this very deep level, I was like, “Oh my God, she knows.” And I didn’t even really know at that time. There was a consonance. It showed me the importance of having a role model who is not only like you, but also who has a loving relationship themselves and normal ups and downs like anyone else. I think you just need one person to show you that you’re not alone. It’s astronomical what it can do to a kid’s life. I think I would be a lot worse off had I not had my Aunt Mary Ellen and Uncle Paul to just show me the way without showing me the way… without saying, “Hey kid-
Kris Mendoza: “This is how you’re supposed to do it.”
Carrie Brennan: Yeah. And “I think you’re gay.” And when I did eventually come out to her, it was just a, “Great! amazing!” – such a positive thing. It was like, “now you’re going to be able to be a deeper level of yourself, a freer version, and I’m so excited for this and for you.” It was like a celebration versus a death. And that’s what I think scares so many people about coming out: they think all they know is this life, and it’s frightening to give all that up for a hope that it could be better. When you have someone to look up to, and just to know that hey, this is possible, it can make all the difference in the world.
Kris Mendoza: That’s empowering. So, you posted that she said, when you came out, “Pack your bags, you’re going to P-town?” What is P-town? What happens in P-town? I want to know!
Carrie Brennan: Yes! P-Town, it’s called Provincetown, P-Town for short. It’s just a very gay beach town. And they have this one event every year called Baby Dyke Weekend, and it’s where all the young lesbians come down for a beach weekend. It’s literally like Mardi Gras. It’s like gay Disneyland. At the time I was still living in West Chester and I didn’t really have many gay friends, and she just said, “Get your shit together. We’re going.
We’re doing this. We’re going to go down to the beach. I’m going to introduce you and to just get you into the community.” And it was amazing to just be surrounded by people that were like me. She knew from the time I was running around in my backyard as a kid -I had a snapback hat and my brother’s Jordan Jersey like a huge dress on me. She literally leaned over to her girlfriend and was like, “Someday, she may need us.” And her girlfriend was like, “Yeah, maybe.” And it was like this joke, but however many years later, it was true. And I always say, like, my mom gave birth to me, but my aunt gave birth to my soul. She’s like my soul mom.
Kris Mendoza: And this is your mom’s sister?
Carrie Brennan: Yeah. My mom’s sister.
Kris Mendoza: Yeah. How fitting!
Carrie Brennan: I know, right?
Kris Mendoza: Are there people in the film and television industry that are, whether they’re loud voices or not even in the LGBTQ scene, is there anyone who inspires you or you aspire to?
Carrie Brennan: Yeah. I would say off the bat, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer inspire me so much, even since I was in the closet during college. They’re the writer/ producer/actors who started this TV show called Broad City, which began as a web series. They just put it up on YouTube and the community grew from that seed. They didn’t have a lot, but they were so resourceful with the things that they had, and they paid people in pizza – like classic – just pulling stuff together to tell stories. They’re hysterical.
It was picked up by Comedy Central where they played larger than life versions of themselves and they just used what they had. They are role models to me in the sense that they work their asses off and they tell the truth. Abbi actually did an episode towards the later half of the series in which she came out, but she did it in such an off the nose way, talking about hats like, “I always thought you were a hat girl.” It was just so great the way they did it. I’m so inspired by them.
I’ve met Abbi a couple of times just in book signings and stuff like that. She is exactly who she is all the time. She doesn’t change for anyone, and I just think that’s really hard to do – especially when you have such a big following – to not lose yourself or get overwhelmed. It’s a dream of mine to work with her some day…of course gotta just throw that out there right into the universe.
Kris Mendoza: I don’t think people realize that this is not just on the LGBTQ side, but ethnically and gender-wise too. I’ve been talking to a lot of different folks who say, “I didn’t have anyone to look up to when I was younger in the industry,” or “I didn’t see myself in it.” Now they are, themselves, in the industry, realizing maybe it’s not just kids, it could be peers also who are looking to you for inspiration as a role model. It’s good that you’ve made it part of your mission, part of who you are.
So let me turn it around full circle here. You’ve been doing this for a little bit now, telling stories you’re passionate about, telling stories that you know, writing things that are near and dear to you. How often does it cross your mind, the responsibility or maybe privilege that you are a role model, not just for a young, aspiring filmmaker, but for any young person who may not know how to navigate this new part of their life?
Carrie Brennan: I think about it all the time. I think about it every day. I will stop when every kid born into this world no longer has to hide who they love or question their self-worth based on who they love. That’s where I’m at. Whether it’s 2020 or 2080, whatever. That’s my motor. That’s what keeps me up at night. That’s what I’m working for.
So, I feel really honored. I feel hella privileged. But I’m still trying to navigate it myself. It’s still a struggle for me. After I came out, I was like, “Oh, well, I’m good. I made Block. I’m not going to have any blocks in my life now.” And I remember my therapist laughing and being like, “Oh honey, you haven’t even started dating. Get ready.”
Kris Mendoza: Ha, that’s so great. I can sense your passion, your pride in finding yourself and moving on to help others. It’s inspiring for me, so what does this month mean to you? How have you seen it evolve and become more visible? Has it become a hallmark holiday?
Carrie Brennan: It’s definitely changed over the past few years, turning away from a corporate check about history. The coolest part about this pride is that it feels less like a season, like Christmas where we all see green and red for a while. It’s not like rainbows start shooting out of places just because it’s June. This year feels a btt different. like everyone is taking a second to understand the why of what we’re celebrating. That’s what’s made this pride month feel richer, in a way, because people are taking the time to learn about Stonewall and what people went through in order just to love, just to experience what it’s like to love without fear.
Kris Mendoza: Can I ask you why there’s a difference this year, in your opinion?
Carrie Brennan: I think a lot of it started with the Black Lives Matter movement last year. People were looking at their privilege and saying ” ok,There are other people here, and look how far ahead I am just because I’m White or just because I have money or just because I don’t look like this person.” There’s a deeper richness that comes from trying to unpack that and realizing the world isn’t just straight white men. There are a lot of layers to it and I’lll be the first to admit im on step 1 of a thousand ringed ladder though, but working towards it.
Kris Mendoza: I’m glad you made that connection because I’ve listened to a lot of diverse stories and there’s definitely a binding struggle. I do think Covid and quarantine brought a lot of people silence and the opportunity to question life and look for more meaning. Me Too, The Black Lives Matter, and Stop Asian Hate movements have all come to the surface in recent years, so that silence became a tipping point. I think that’s ultimately where we are, and I hope it’s just the beginning in terms of people being really intentional and conscious of it. The next step is what communities, companies, and politicians do about it.
Carrie Brennan: Yeah, that’s really what’s important. It’s a wild, wild west right now in all aspects of life, but we needed to shake things up so, so badly. 2019 was like… everyone was on a hamster wheel, refusing to slow down. It’s like trying to get someone’s attention, but the world was not stopping for anything. And then COVID hit and we were quarantined, with all the variables of life held still and it’s just like you’re floating in space, Right? We suddenly had time to look at what was really going on.
I think The point of understanding our history in pride month is not to shove it down people’s throats and not to show straight people that they’re bad.
The point of it is to say, “Look at how beautiful this LGBTQ community is – how bad things were that the Stonewall riots had to happen.”
And look how far we’ve come even in the midst of all that noise. These people were willing to risk their whole lives just because they knew their truth. Their hearts were so strong! That’s an amazing thing, and that’s worth celebrating. So, hell yeah, we’re going to celebrate! We’re not going to do it just because it’s June, we’re going to do it because WOW! And I think that’s a passion that comes from learning and understanding, so potentially – everyone can join in with pride, and celebrate that progress, but also join with us in continuing to fight for progress as well!
Kris Mendoza: And with that, I want to wish you a Happy Pride Month!
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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: … 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.