Category - Reel 2 Real

The Dream Team Directors

Dream Team Directors Bayou Bennett & Daniel Lir are a husband and wife duo who live to inspire and empower people in the film and entertainment world. They talk with ATM about their YouTube show The Dream State and success stories from people in different industries.

 ATM: How did you all brainstorm for this show?

Daniel: We have always wanted to host a show. We felt there were so many potential barriers in accomplishing goals in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. We really wanted to give people a road map. Sometimes there is so much confusion as how to do this. We wanted to take away the mystery and confusion from the entertainment industry, and to bring bigger and better understanding, inspiration, and empowerment in this area. This was our initial idea.

Bayou: We mentor a lot of filmmakers. I was a Professor of film-making at New York’s top schools. My favorite thing is being able to inspire other artists to make their dreams come true. We realized we wanted to inspire all artists, not just filmmakers. This is what we do with our show. We bring on fine artists, graffiti artists, musicians, fashion designers, actors, and filmmakers. We like to show behind the camera as well as in front of the camera that this is how these top creators have done it.

ATM: What have you figured out the top components as to how these people working in Hollywood have reached success?

Bayou: I keep hearing over and over to be optimistic. When barriers come up you cannot focus on them, but you just keep going and creating.

Daniel: Each story is an individual one, which is what makes it so interesting: their passion, purpose, and persistence. Devine Evans was a story that really captivated us. He really wanted to be in the music industry. He was at a point when he was homeless and living at an airport in Atlanta. Evans would go there every night to sleep. He just kept being persistent and he met people. It is also about meeting people. Now he has worked with Justin Timberlake, Dr. Dre, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna. He would say it was about creating and educating himself on technology. He does so much preparation on every project. He kind of thinks about what could go wrong and troubleshoots so nothing will go wrong. He just really knows his technology very well. Everyone is different.

Another interesting person was Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari and Chuck E. Cheese. We brought him in to show artists how to think big. How could it be manifested at the biggest possible level? Maybe it is not making a small indie film. But, how could I go from being like Ryan Johnson who directed an indie film called Brick to directing Star Wars? Nolan really taught us step by step how to do this. He did not really have the money or the backing. They just had this idea that “they would never be as crappy as they were last year.” They just kept advancing and advancing. They did it through passion, optimism, imagination, and creativity.

Bayou: Jason Dohring from iZombie and Veronica Mars said it is also a business. You have to promote as an artist. You sent out your head shots when things get slow. You keep doing it and this will get you a job. He said today it is great that you do not have to get in front of the right people. You just have to make the most amazing film that can go viral on YouTube.

Daniel: He also said people ask about “how do I get an agent?” He said the first thing you should be concerned about is, how do I become really good?

ATM: How can a person turn constant rejection into resilience?

Bayou: We have been in the industry so long. Daniel started in New York City. He always found a game in it and recreated himself. We always would recreate ourselves. We had a film called “Text Me” that film got into film festivals all over the world and is viral. We created this on our own when things were slow. You get more creative when you have time on your hands.

Daniel: The things that we did when we did not have jobs were the things that pushed our career the farthest. For actors when they have a lot of rejections, they say screw it and produce your own film. Empower yourself. Do not depend on others to give you that “yes.” It might be based on looks, tall or short, blonde or blue eyes.

ATM: How would you define success?

Daniel: Being successful is being influential. I have heard many definitions of success, this is the best one for me which I got from top street artist, Chaz Bojorquez.

Bayou: I also think it is when you are happy at what you are doing, and you feel like every day is not like work. We are going to a location scout for our music video. It is not a job for me, it is fun. It is hard work. It could be a 12-hour day when we are shooting. It will not feel like hard work because we love what we are doing. When you get to continually do what you love doing, you get to make a difference in the world. We only do content that makes a difference in the world, uplifts people, has messages, and makes people feel better. It feels better to be able to choose this as a creative artist.

ATM: When did you all individually find your own purpose to inspire in life?

Daniel: For me, it was only recently in the past. We did a project about food rescue with this organization called City Harvest in New York. I also worked on this film called Carbon Nation, which was a solution to global warming. Only then, did I really see we could do something about the state of the planet earth. After this, many of our projects had something to do with making the conditions better. Working with someone like Oscar Nominee Mark Ruffalo made me say this guy is so passionate and is using all of his power to make things better in the world. Like changing policies and changing our behavior in oil.

Bayou: I was a film-making professor and dancer. Earlier than that, I was experimenting in my Master of Fine Arts with visuals. Film-making kept coming into my universe. I said this is what I should be doing because I can mix all of these things together. As a Director, you are directing the whole process and as a teacher, you are directing your whole class. As a dancer, you are creating aesthetics from costumes to makeup. My purpose of being a filmmaker is to uplift, inspire, and make a better world. I will reach these billions of people through being a filmmaker. This was my whole goal as a filmmaker.

Melissa Leilani Larson on her film ‘Jane and Emma’

Melissa Leilani Larson takes historical figures Jane and Emma from 1844 and creates a film that explores their friendship. Her film Jane and Emma shows how race is infused in a friendship and how listening plays a vital role in all of our lives.

ATM: Is this movie in any way like your relationship with God?

Melissa: Yes. My female friendships have been very important. Sometimes this has been the way I realized God is aware of me. Sometimes I feel like I am alone in the world. I remembered that I have very good friends that are there because God cares about me.

This is what is going on with Jane and Emma, it is that they have a connection to God. It is in this connection with God that they have a connection with each other. If people have this connection, then they will find the film relatable.

ATM: How many years did it take for this film to come about?

Melissa: There were a lot of meetings and a lot of people who have invested their time in this story. It was two years in February and then we shot in March. We are looking at about 2 ½ years. I have been working on the script for a long time. It is good though because there are a lot of independent films where people would just write a script fast and then go “Hey I wrote something.” They will go and shoot something. It has been nice to have the time to develop it even though there have been times where I would have liked to put it down.

ATM: Were there any implications about race in this script?

Melissa: They are historical figures. They are both real people who lived in Novo, Illinois. The film takes place in 1844. Jane Manning who is the protagonist is one of the first black Mormons of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. She joins the church in Connecticut. She and her family decided to travel from Connecticut to Illinois, which to me is not a big deal. To them, they went by sailboats. They got kicked off the boat in Buffalo, which is still 800 miles away. They decided to walk the rest of the way. It is a good testament of faith.

Race becomes an important part of the story. I worked closely with two black women and they are very close to Jane. She has become a historical icon for them. I am not black. I am Asian. Learning about Jane has been very important to me. They are both struggling with different things. Jane is trying to find a place this faith. She wants to be on the level with everyone else. Jane finds friends, but some are prejudice. It is difficult.

Emma is in this very weird place where her husband, Joseph Smith, is the founder of the Mormon church. He is a very complicated person. He is attractive to some people and repulsive to other people. She is dealing with this interesting thing where she has to share her husband. These two women find a connection together. This film takes place the night after Joseph Smith is murdered. Emma is in a state of distress. Jane is trying to be an anchor to her. Emma needs to learn to appreciate how hard it is to be black in America during 1844. People are going to see this in a modern context as well. There are some of the same problems with race, but we are dealing with it in the church in history. There are still problems today in our society that we did need to work out.

ATM: How do you think we should work out these differences in our society today?

Melissa: It is almost basic when I say it to you, but it is one of those things that people do not do, which is to just listen. These two women over the course of the film learn to listen to each other and feel the pain of the other. This is the starting place. A lot of the people that we have in our society both in the church and outside of the church, just like as Americans, we can really be roused up and we do not listen to the other person. Someone asked me, “What do you think is between these two women?” It starts with listening. This is what we need to do first. You cannot really appreciate what the other person is feeling until you are saying.

ATM: What is one of your best friend female friendships?

Melissa: My female best friend. It is funny because I never thought about it this way. My best friend is really awesome because we talk all the time. Sometimes it is just texting. I was in Salt Lake City. Two years ago, she got a job in California. She lives in LA. I used to go to her house all the time to hang out. She got a big fancy job. Now we do all our communicating on the phone. I do go out there and visit a lot. It was a really good excuse when we had a screening in LA to go see her.

Communication is just an important thing. She is one of the first people if not the first person I can call and say, “Oh my God, this happened and how do I deal.” She is really good at being calm when I am not. And say, “Okay, take a breath. I need you to think about this.” She is also the first person to tell me that I am crazy brilliant when I feel like the worst writer in the world. She is like, “No. No. You are good at this. Do not quit.” I get this from her in the way that she does not hesitate. I hope I can be this same kind of support to her. We are different. She is a mom and has kids. I am a single woman that is just working all the time. There are things that we like to do together. It is probably good that we have jobs and that she has a kid. Otherwise, we would probably just waste time.


The Panamanian International Film Festival in Los Angeles Artistic Director and Founder, award-winning Actor-Director-Producer Carlos Carrasco

ATM: What are your daily duties as the director of PANAFEST by the Panamanian International Film Festival in Los Angeles?

Carlos: Oh my God! The list is long. You wear a lot of hats when you are producing something like this. We finalized the programming, which means selecting the films that are going to be in the festival and arranged them in some form or order that makes sense. There’s a timing for everything and for getting everything put together. So, we got that done. My co-director was in Spain and we worked long distance trying to make time because we were nine hours apart. Sometimes we talked when it was 4 o’clock in the morning. She is young and can do these kinds of hours. We also had to get all the branding correct for everybody on the materials they are putting out. We had to coordinate with the venue and the technical people down there…  There are just a lot of things to do.

ATM: Where did you gain your leadership abilities?

Carlos: Whenever I am in a situation, I end up being the person that everyone refers to: “Ask Carlos”, or tell me “You do it”. Someone told me a long time ago: “There are two kinds of people in the world: There are people that lead and there are people that follow.” I am just a person that leads. I have been in this position in different circumstances many times. This goes back to when I was in New York for 13 years. The last 6 years while I was there, I was the executive director of a non-profit organization for Latin actors. This was handed to me. They did not know what to do and thought that maybe I could fix it. There I was around for 6 years. I got the grants and the programs going. I produced all of their activities.

Then, I finally moved out to Los Angeles. I wanted to focus on being an actor. I got involved just as a member in a theater company out here that focused on classical theater. Sure enough, little by little, they needed someone to do this and someone to write that. Just in the last three years, I was with this company administering. I left this and started another arts organization, which has an art collective of actors and directors. We do different projects. Everything from putting out plays, to poetry readings, to doing short films. I ran this as well, and when I left it just fell apart.

I enjoy producing. Producing is a challenging endeavor, but it is challenging in the fact that it involves a lot of creativity. When you are producing something, basically you are solving problems. Every day you get up and again something else happens. A director quits…or the venue says you cannot have acrobats. Every day is about being creative, coming up with ideas and solving whatever comes up.

ATM: What can an emerging filmmaker from the backgrounds that The Panamanian International Film Festival represents learn from you?

Carlos: I would encourage any young or emerging person to create his or her own projects. I wish I had started doing this myself earlier in my career. I think people that get into this industry do so thinking somewhere along the lines [someone] is going to take them by hand and take them to the Promised Land. This is not necessarily the case. You really must put in the work and the effort. You must figure out what you want to be and how you are going to do it. I want to say this, especially in film. Nowadays with all the advancement in technology pretty much everyone is making films. You can even make one on your phone. I have seen people advance their careers by using a piece of technology and creativity where they just sat down and made it themselves. You have to show up.

I think Woody Allen said this: “You have to show up.”  Short films are a great calling card for someone who is just starting. I am producing this event in conjunction with another gentleman who is also very involved in short films.

ATM: Name some creative aspects that are seen in you as a director and as an actor.

Carlos: As a director, because I am an actor and have a background first, one of the things I most enjoy about directing is working with the actor. This has been my experience as well as a film actor. The directors have gone to film schools and learned about the dolly shots and the cranes. Also, what does an actor go through? What is an actor’s process? How do you support the actor? How do you get them to where you want them to be? I try to apply this when I am directing because I am an actor. I know what is involved and I also know about the insecurities. I have found that in the doing of it that, apparently, I am very good at it. People have always come up to me at the end of projects and told me how much they have enjoyed it. As an actor, I most enjoy the language. I have studied a lot of literature before I trained as a classical actor. You can take everything else away as long as the language is clear, and the story rises in terms of the language.

ATM: What could a first timer who is attending PANAFEST expect?

Carlos: A lot of variety. We have 40 films from about 12 different countries. This year we have been grouping them by themes like comedy, relationship comedy, immigration, and documentaries. It is remarkable how much good work is out there. A lot of what we are trying to do is expose the artist and build networking opportunities for as many people as we can. We have 16 hours of screen time. We discovered that focusing on short films gives us an opportunity to expose more people. Our shortest short is about 2 minutes and our longest short is about 20 minutes long. The average is about 12 minutes of length for the films. We have gotten comedies. There is a couple of cases about immigration that are just heartbreaking. We have a couple of feature-length films. We have an action adventure film. We also have a wonderful feature-length film from Panama about the West Indie cultures.

ATM: What are things about your love for acting that you are still learning about?

Carlos: The learning never stops. The literature changes because actors are depending on writing. It is always a challenge when you come up across new material. Acting is an ongoing experiment. You cannot label anybody. There is no one set way on how to approach an actor’s part. You must use language as a tool. There is voice production. There is always a process going on and always something to learn.

ATM: Throughout your whole acting career, how has acting influenced or changed you are a son, uncle, and as a man. What about acting have you taken and implemented into your own life?

Carlos: Acting has been my life. I have been doing this my whole adult life and it has formed many decisions in my life. Little decisions. Big decisions, like where I live, and whether I would get married or not. I appreciate that I have had the ability of having been able to pursue what was really a calling for me. When I was growing up in Latin America, there were only about four honorable professions you could go into: lawyer, pharmacist, computers, or priest. God forbid you chose anything else. It is just not this way anymore.

I struck out on my own. I had a little bit of a rebellious streak. No one could tell me what I could and could not do. The fact that I pursued acting influenced my life completely. Acting took me to the United States and out of Panama. I could not have made it there. Acting was nothing; there was no industry there. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship that changed my life. All of the decisions that I made from the time I was in school onwards had to do with striving to achieve my goal.

Queen Sugar’s Director Shaz Bennett

Shaz Bennett is one of the powerful directors picked by Ava DuVernay on OWN’s Queen Sugar. Bennett talks about her episode that aired in this current season called A Little Lower Than Angels and her upcoming independent film Alaska Is a Drag.

ATM: Are you standing on the hill where the famous Hollywood sign is?

Shaz: Next canyon over, but I can see it from here.

ATM: Interesting. Express your time directing on this show.

Shaz: This season Ava created for many of us an opportunity to get our first steps into television directing. For me, I knew I wanted to prove I was worth the risk. Even though, I’ve heard Ava and Kat talk about how it’s not a risk, they’re hiring strong directors. Coming into the show I was already a huge fan. I had seen every episode. I have known the show runner Kat Candler for a few years and DeMane Davis a long time, who is the producing director. I have known both from the independent film world. I felt comfortable with them as collaborators. A lot of the season’s themes and stories are written by Kat, Ava and the rest of the writers – my job as a director is to make sure, I know where we are in the season arc and make sure I’m setting up and giving them what they need for the rest of the season. Talking to Kat initially and in the tone meeting was asking about how far and what they wanted from each scene.

Each episode is one part of a 13 hour movie in many ways. I was conscious, that I had a lot of big moments for each of the lead characters. Charley finding out Davis had another child, that leads her to the bar to meet Jacob. Blue finding out that his parents aren’t getting back together. Nova and Remy on the lake. It was a big episode. I asked the actors to trust me and that I was going to take care of them. We talked through the scenes. I wanted the lake scene to be quiet, isolated. A moment for these two characters who have known each other their whole lives but don’t get to talk like that alone. It was the beginning of a possibility.

The scene with Charley in the bar is one of my favorites. Dawn-Lyen is such a magical actor. Charley works for control. And none of her plans were working that one day. She lets down another guard in order to get into control again. I love the scene of her crying on Jacob’s shoulder. I love the end of the episode with her in the bathtub crying alone. All of the actors are so strong. They can take a line on paper and add all the layers.

I love the scene with Ralph Angel and Benny in the kitchen too – both those actors brought so much to that moment.

ATM: Why do you feel you are considered a strong director? 

Shaz: I’m a collaborator. I love actors and aspire to add to the cinematic conversation always. As a film programmer, I can’t help but draw on the million films I’ve seen but as a director and storyteller, every shot, every moment has to tell the story first. I hope that’s what I bring as a director.

ATM: How did you foreshadow how your career would plan out?

Shaz: My whole life is self-taught. My first job in film was at 14 years old taking tickets at the Sundance Film Festival. I took copious notes from every Q&A I saw and when I saw a film I loved that resonated with my soul. I asked the filmmaker what your influences were and then went out and found and watched all the films and broke them down — shot by shot — what worked and how it felt to me. I was a film nerd who later became a film programmer.

ATM: Describe yourself as if you were not yourself.

Shaz: I hope someone that didn’t know me well would say what my close friends would say: Loyal. Kind. Exacting. Driven.

ATM: Why do you think the title A Little Lower Than Angels was decided for this episode?

Shaz: I love this title. Every season I understand that Ava selects the titles – this year, the titles come from a Maya Angelou poem. Thematically, it felt right because the three main characters are all at a crossroads. You might make decisions that are not perfectly in line with how you want to be in order to help you get to the next place. We make decisions that are from our heart. We’re all a little lower than angels.

ATM: How does this episode show children’s naivety toward their parent’s relationship?

Shaz: Ethan is such an incredible actor. This was a very personal story to some of the writers. When family members go through a divorce/break-up there comes a point where the children must become aware of it. You are always hoping and dreaming your parents will get back together and be perfectly aligned, even if in your gut, you know it’s not true. Blue is in that place in the scene with Hollywood eating the chicken. “Chicken Cheers” – which was s a little improv line from Ethan. He’s so sweet.

Earlier, he asks his mom when are you coming home? He is testing everyone to see what is really going on. Then at the picnic table with Hollywood and says, “when will my mom and dad get back together?” Hollywood doesn’t respond. But, Blue is getting the answer. The end where they are sitting together. When we filmed this scene, we wanted Blue in the middle. We wanted Ralph-Angel and Darla on the sides of him. Metaphorically they will always be there for him, but in this moment. They can’t be together. Such a heart breaker. Blue had to realize he wasn’t going to get the dream he hoped for.

ATM: “What happened to the forevers.” Express the emotion you believe this line is supposed to evoke.

Shaz: When children are coming to realize nothing is forever. It’s such a big concept. When Ethan said that line “but you said forever”. We all melted. The plan was to get married and stay together. But, it didn’t work out. They weren’t lying. Life just got ahead of them. For Blue, it’s like you promised me it would be forever. It is just such a heartbreaking moment. All of us were like this at one point. I still am. When we thought someone would be there forever – and then they’re gone — through death, end of a relationship, or the end of a friendship. You go in with those intentions but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

ATM: How did you want to exhibit the mood modifications of Charley’s character in this episode?

Shaz: Dawn-Lyen and the writer Chole Hung and I talked about the full arc – knowing that in the end, she’s going to be alone in a tub washing way the entire day and everything that had happened. So, each scene it was just remembering where we were and what’s next – to play the layers. First, she’s getting teased by her son and his friends about the Almond milk. It leads to this revelation from her ex-husband – then to calling her family. None of them are around to meeting up with Jacob. That split-second decision is the catalyst to the end. There were two break-downs written in the episode. One at home after Davis leaves and one in the bar with Jacob. We wanted these two breaks to be different. Collaborating with the DP Antonio Calvache we shot them differently and gave Dawn-Lyen the space to make them work.

ATM: How did you want to highlight a female’s vulnerability?

Shaz: Charley very rarely strips away everything. She is always so put together, in control, and knows what is happening. Dawn-Lyen was very excited about this scene. It was a side of her character we don’t get to see often. The vulnerability She strips down and gets into the tub. Washes her face and just sits quietly alone. She’s starting over in some ways. She rebuilds this character throughout the rest of the season. I am excited to see what happens next season as a fan. I love where Charley went this season.

ATM: She is figuratively washing away the hurt and the pain.

Shaz: Yes. I love the line where she says, “When do you hit bottom.” She says this to her ex. Like is there going to be enough? A part of this is about how much do I give over to you. When do I stop dealing with this shit? Dawn-Lyen intuitively knew how to play it. I gave her small little notes but often it’s just about seeing the full arc.

ATM: Why do you think women are more emotional submissive in giving men a change in relationships or in marriages?

Shaz: It is so true to how family works. He is the father of her son. It is hard to cut someone out of your life when they are so intertwined into your family. He is going to be in her life, so how she handles it is the story. I felt like it was her moment of saying to Davis that you need to get out of my life for a while — in this episode. I need to erase you and you are not helping me. But that’s now. Who knows where it will go next season. Ava, Kat, and the writers are always talking about family. And about how women see family. It is sort of ingrained in us to keep the family together and give a second chance to someone who does not deserve it. Like later in the season when Charley says to Remy – Nova and I are forever. Such a beautiful moment of sisterhood.  I love this show because of all of the complications that go into family and relationships. Women see more nuances in others. We’re self-reflective that helps us as directors because we can identify with the characters, even though it may not be our own personal story.

ATM: Are you saying you are a complex woman/person?

Shaz: Yes. Women are, and we see nuances in friendships, relationships, siblings, mothers, and fathers. I cannot make a statement that men do not.  I know in general with the conversations I have had with my female friends that they can see both sides of a story. Whereas, men would say hey that is wrong, fix it. Women see the nuances. Nuance and layers are at the core of great story.

ATM: What is the moral behind your recent from film Alaska Is a Drag?

Shaz: I made my feature film to explore gender. Why/what makes masculine/feminine powerful. I grew up in place that was stunningly gorgeous on the outside but can also be isolating and violent for anyone who stands out in a crowd. I liked the idea of a character who lives and thrives in the collisions of male/female — gay/straight — fantasy/gritty. At its core ALASKA IS A DRAG is about survival and found family. It’s a drag origin story and power that comes from all the above.

ATM: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being self-taught in film through empirical observations? 

Shaz: I can only speak from my side, but I see a lot of advantages in being self-taught and breaking down films and TV shot by shot — because you get a sense of what’s working for you — even if it’s abstract you are developing your own personal style.

ATM: Did the effects of how women and men were seen in this culture affect you growing up?

Shaz: I grew up with four brothers and one sister and our mom and dad did a great job of making us feel equal — with so many kids — that was my tribe for a long time so it wasn’t until I moved to LA and later NY when I felt the expectations of women and men, but by that time, it was too late — ha! I have better days and worse days when society norms weigh on me, but I try not to give those limitations space in my heart and soul.

ATM: What would America look if this was a matriarchal world where men were the minority/marginalized? 

Shaz: I think it’d be so fair and equitable. Women in my experience aren’t trying to take everything — they’re more willing to move over and make space for everyone.

ATM: Why did you link the noun fantasy and adjective gritty together?

Shaz: To me, they’re two sides of the same coin. The times in my life when I had the least and was struggling to survive were also the most inventive — I daydreamed about getting out and beyond.

ATM: What has Ava DuVernay systematically taught you about being a woman in the T.V. industry and a director? 

Shaz: Ava is just an incredible role model for this business — every meeting I got in — I channel my inner Ava — or at least what I imagine my inner Ava to be — if a door is closed to you — open your own doors. And a big thing that stuck with me — the day I was flying to New Orleans to direct my episode — I emailed her to thank her for this opportunity and she responded immediately saying she remembered that feeling and to take it and make sure to give it to someone in the future. What a beautiful way to live an incredible way to approach art and business. So grateful for the chance and I can’t wait to succeed beyond hers and my wildest dreams, so I can do what Ava did for me to more artists.


Life with Angie Wang

Chinese American filmmaker Angie Wang reflects back on her young adult self and talks about her nonprofit organization.


ATM: What made you decide to put this film out now?

AW: It took me four years to put it up.

ATM: Why could you not get it out?

AW: I am a first-time filmmaker and it is an indie film. The original route is going through film festivals. We had a hard time getting it into festivals. I was baffled that we did not get into any. I was getting feedback about it not fitting into a category or box. They did not know where to put it. They would say, “Well it is Asian, but it is Urban.” I was like, “You mean black.” This is code for black. This is a universal story. They would say, “Well, it is unusual. We do not know where to put it.” It was very frustrating, and I felt very demoralized. The big Asian festivals were more home for us. They embraced it and understood the story. My PR guy always says, “Movies ripen.” I had to wait for it to ripen.

ATM: What made you comfortable to put your life story out there?

AW: A thousand years of therapy. Ha-ha. It is a funny thing when you get old. My old ass does not give a fuck. You start to care less about what people think. I kept thinking this was an important story. I talk to a lot of girls about shame and feelings about being sexual abused coming from “lesser privileged backgrounds.” I had to be honest and forthcoming about my own demons for them to come forth. When going to beg white neighbors for money dealing with my nonprofit. I found they were pretty renascence to go there emotionally. They would be like, “Shut the fuck up. Here is the check.” They did not really want to sink into the skin of these kids and understand where they came from. I realized there is a real lack of empathy in this world. A part of it comes from technology and we are living in silence. I was raised on television and film. This saved my heart and mind. I really do feel media is going to be a powerful force. Besides us having a lunatic in office. It will help us find our empathy and humanity.

ATM: How hard is it being a Chinese American woman in film and not being a nonwhite director and writer? Just how hard is it in this industry for you?

AW: It is really fucking hard. I am used to it being hard as a woman of color. I remember my father telling me as a young girl that “you are a minority twice. You are Asian, and you are a woman. You also do not have a shit ton of money. You are going to have to play better, faster, and stronger. You going to fight harder.”I have never stopped to think about it. I did not stop to think, “Oh, I am a woman of color. It is going to be really difficult.” I was like fuck it. I am going to kick the door down. It is very challenging. It is a tough industry regardless. It is even tougher when you are a minority. You have to get very gritty and you have to get help. There are people that are open to helping people like us get their voices heard.

ATM: When you were a drug dealer in college were you even aware of what your actions? Did you know the significance of what you were doing?

AW: You know I did not stop to think about it. I was just a foolish young child. I look back and say you were so fucking stupid. This movie was my way of sitting my 18-year-old self-down and to slap her across the face to say, “fucking idiot.” Also, to say you can grow up to be a really nice person and have a nice life. You do not have to live in this reckless fashion. I did not stop to think about the impact of what I was doing. For me, it was like, “I feel bad about myself. I want to have money. I want to be as good as everyone around me. I think I am going to make drugs.” Looking back, I see my frontal lobe had not even engaged. I was pretty stupid.

ATM: Was your 18-year-old self-having fun or were you just wanting to fit in? Was it like the more you made the ecstasy, the more people liked you because you had the drugs?

AW: I always felt like an imposture. I learned how to speak and be like them, but I never really felt like them. There was a lot of insecurity and isolation that came with this. In the Chinese culture, you do not tell your business. I would walk out of the house and my father would say, “We do not tell our business, right?” I would respond of course not. I think it locks you up in isolation and shame if you have trauma in your background. I see this regularly with the kids I work with. I was hiding who I was. I was always trying to fit in. I was like, “Hey if white people want my drugs, then I will charge them up their ass.” I had no problem taking their money. Then I realized we had more in common then I thought.

ATM: Did you have laughable or tearful moments when writing about your 18-year-old self? Explain the writing process for this film.

AW: I looked like a fucking crazy person. I decided to sit back after my therapist suggested I write. I sat down to write a journal entry, and this led me to have a crazy idea to write a script. I wanted someone else to write this script for a while. Then that little voice said, “Just sit down and write the fucking thing yourself.” It took 10 to 12 days. I was looking like a totally crazy person. I was in sweatpants, no showering. I was muttering to myself, crying, and laughing. My daughter was like what is wrong with you. I was in a very cathartic process. The process of writing is not linear. You cannot sit down and be like ABCDEFG. The creative process is fragmented, and it flows. I thought to take a break while behind this computer or take a walk. I thought if I had smelt something, then it would be a reminisces of something I smelt from 4th grade. It was such a great journey to tap into all this. The rewrites are hell. It took me 10 to 12 days to get the first drafts done. I was rewriting until the day of shooting.

ATM: What did people who did not know you think about this script?

AW: A lot of jaws dropped. People were like, “Whaaat?” I was living in a very beautiful neighborhood. I was lucky enough to live in a safe, but also secular, hegemonistic, and wealthy suburb. I always felt like an imposture. I moved away from here for several reasons. People realized why I did not fit in once knowing my story. My background was so different. I ride Soul Cycle a lot. I invited a lot of the people I ride with to my screening. A lot of them were like holy shit that was your life. A lot of them did not believe this was my life.

ATM: Did transforming this from paper to film to the theater help you basically love yourself more as a person?

AW: Yes. I have been working for years and years to accept, like, and love myself. I think seeing myself or a lens of myself through a 52-year-old woman allowed me to have more empathy for the kid. She did a lot of stupid shit. She was also damaged and broken. She had beaten herself up to do better. It allowed me to dive into another people’s story. I still pop into screenings to feel the work of other people. We share this experience. It brought me closer to humanity and to have a tighter voice for myself. This makes me a kinder person to others. I am still a raging person sometimes. It is an ongoing process.

ATM: What was your career before film?

AW: I sold software, technology services, was a hunter, founded a nonprofit, and then I had this idea of being a filmmaker. It sounds different when I say it. This has always been my life. My friends say they cannot believe this.

ATM: How did you get the woman portraying you to exemplify your younger self for the film?

AW: She actually stayed with me during pre-production at my house. It was not like she was going to jump into my skin and be me. She brings her own heart and soul through all the experiences. It is an interesting process for her to bring life into this character from being on a page. On the screen, you see a little bit of me and a little bit of her. This makes it more complex and a richer experience.

ATM: Are there new things you have figured out about your past self that you did not realize? When you saw the film did you notice it differently than before in your life?

AW: I had a different perspective on the tunnel scene. I did not perceive this scene as a rape until my AD was like we are filming a rape scene. I thought it was not a rape scene and that she was just really drunk. It was shocking to me because they were staring at me like, “No, it is a rape scene. You were driven down to a tunnel and fucked.” I thought whoa. I was a progressive woman, a young child who was trying to live life. I still wore the burden of this experience. I had to say if this happens to my daughter I would do something about it. It was a real eye-opener experience. It gave me more empathy to learn about the girl’s experience who I talk to in my nonprofit. I could see in them that it would not be okay, but I could not see this for myself. It was a huge experience to let go the burden of this.

ATM: What did your family and daughter think of your past?

AW: They said it did not really happen. I was not forthcoming and coming home saying, “Guess what I did?” My cousin knew about it. He said the less he knew the better. He knew the details. My daughter and I have been living with it for four years. We can now use it as a talking piece. It was a little shocking. My cousin also said it was kind of like reading your journal. This was very challenging for them to watch. They did not want to see me fucking or getting rape. You have to accept it at the end of the day. My sister is not happy about it. She does not talk to me.

Trevor Long’s ‘Seeds’

Battling inner demons could be a part of a lot of our daily issues. Living in a world where your real desires cannot be explored because of societal norms. Trevor Long worked with his brother in the horror indie film Seeds. Long is also a recurring actor on Netflix’s Ozark.

ATM: How did the film come about?

TL: My brother created the story. We had to hire a writer. He wrote it with me in mind. I ironically loved the script when I got it. I was doubtful I could pull it off, to be honest with you. I was a little afraid to take on this part, to be honest.

ATM: Why?

TL: It was so different than anything I have done. There has very little dialogue and it is very internal. It was dark, and the subject matter was not easy. I had a lot of questions about it. I have never carried a film to this size. I am in the entire film. I had normal fears. I did not know if I could do this. I wanted to do it, but I had questions. I said get a named actor and I’ll play the brother at one time. I did not know. I was scared to do it. It worked out.

ATM: How is it playing in a film with less dialogue compared to others?

TL: It was a challenge. I had to prepare a bit longer on this on to get into this inner life. A lot of it is inner. I really started to prepare 3-4 months before shooting. I knew it really well, but I just had to go into this imaginary world to feel the demons he was facing.

ATM: What head space or environment does a watcher have to be in for this film?

TL: This is a good question. What head-space did you in have to be in for this film? I am curious.

ATM: I was in a curiosity head-space. I read the synopsis and thought it was deep.

TL: That is interesting. You have to be drawn to this sort of material. There are a lot of people who cannot stand the film and there are people who love it. You have to be curious about this film as you said. I like films that mess with your mind a bit. If people do not generally like this type of stuff, then they might not like it. People should just go and watch it. I do not think it is going to be for everyone.

ATM: Explain the opening scene with the young girl walking on the rocks.

TL: Marcus was with the young woman and he is acting out his desire that is buried. Obviously for his niece. You do not what really happens. Some people think it is Lily. It is not supposed to be her. He is acting out on his desires that are secretive. He is trying to deal with them. We wanted to keep it ambiguous and prerogative.

ATM: How should a person deal with their inner demons?

TL: They should probably go to therapy. I am not a fan of people acting it out in a way that is going to hurt someone. It is interesting. We had a sex therapist who deals with real-life people that have these issues. She said we really captured the reality of people who have desires that are taboo or unhealthy. She has clients that discuss these issues. They are attracted to someone they should not be. They do not act on it a lot of the time. We have all faced a desire that is not really societal correct. We navigate it through a way that is healthy to deal with it.

ATM: What was one of your most interesting scenes to shoot?

TL: This is a good and interesting question. I loved the innocent scenes with his nephew. He is tucking him into bed. The love scenes in contrast to the darkness. I love the scenes where he shows real love and care as an uncle. This is an interesting contrast to a man who battles this circumstance.

ATM: Why is the title named Seeds? How do seeds relate to the story plot?

TL: This is a good question. We had the title from the beginning. This seed has been planted in Marcus. This is a metaphor about the creature planting a seed in him and giving birth to creatures coming out into him.

ATM: Let’s move on to your role in Netflix’s Ozark. What does your character Cade’s in destructive choices say about fatherhood?

TL: It made me think about fatherhood a lot. I looked a lot at my own fatherhood and how I am as a father. I have a nine-year-old. It helped to deepen it and understand fatherhood. I thought it was a positive thing to explore. Fatherhood is not black and white. I think am a bad father at times. I am not doing what Cade is doing. Every father I talk to do thinks that they are screwing their child up or not doing the right thing. You might see fathers that look great on the outside, but everyone is trying to do the best they can. Cade is very self-centered. He is trying to do the best for his family the best he can. This is the way he is. No one wants to be a racist or a criminal. This is just all he knows.

ATM: Explain the atmosphere and experience on the sound-stage.

TL: The soundstage is a synthetic environment. You might shoot a scene in the trailer that is on the soundstage. You cannot let the sound distract you. It is different, but you have to focus. It is fun. I prefer to be in a real environment, but you have to do it.

ATM: How do you feel about the way the two main characters are living their lives now?

TL: It is very compelling because we can relate to them. They are likable people. He put his family in a bad position by doing what he is doing. Do I think it is right? No. Do I think it is healthy? No. Do I think it is a bad choice? Yes. It is compelling because they made this choice and cannot turn back. They are trying to save their family. Cade is also trying to save his family in a destructive way and far more abusive. They are doing things to put their children in danger. You root for them because they are fair decent people in this circumstance.


Joan Jett: A Bad Reputation

Director Kevin Kerslake talks with ATM about his new documentary Bad Reputation. The documentary is centered around the ups and downs of Rock ‘n’ Roll singer Joan Jett career. With the film heavily inspired by the music of Joan.

ATM: What does this film observe about the rock culture during Joan Jett’s time?

KK: Joan spans over a lot of eras. The era she first started in was definitely male dominated. This has not changed that much. There has been a little more female pop artists. These are people who are already a part of our culture. Her cracking into the rock world was endlessly difficult. It felt like men and women were threatened by a woman who wanted to plug in and own her place in the universe. She did not do what was expected of her. Joan broke in during an era that was heavily acoustic. All the females were singer and songwriters. All the other females did not have that alpha dog aspect to them. Joan plays this role and people still find it threatening. Her popularity is definitely a testimony that people do respond to it. It seems to be an endless struggle in terms of what is going on in politics today.

ATM: Why a documentary on Joan Jett?

KK: Joan’s story is so epic and cinematic. All the stars aligned where it came time to do her story. A lot of these issues had to go next level in terms of music and politics in our culture. There was this implication to tell this story and the topics. There was a need to touch upon the story she experienced throughout her life. She was defiant and persistent. This is a story for all ages. I was honored to be the one to tell it.

ATM: Express the moments in editing.

KK: Documentaries often start in the editing room. You see what exist with a lot of parts in the story. There is a lot of reading. You decide the people who you want to interview once you have a grasp of the material and the story you want to tell. They check in to see the battle plan and what the story needs. There are a lot of phone calls to get people on board. You are talking to people about things that will end up in the film while a camera is in your hand. It is pretty erratic with a documentary in terms what you are doing.

ATM: How did this film teach you more about women needing equality?

KK: It should be an even playing field. We are conditioned to know there are more male artists than female artists. This is not more of the amount of the material created by men and women. It is a lot more even. The world is made up evenly of both sexes. It is fucked up that over 80-90% of music is sold by men.

ATM: What about her daily routine or beliefs spoke to you?

KK: Joan stuck to her guns and knew what she wanted to do. She was put on the planet to do one thing. As someone said in the film, “she has Rock ‘n’ Roll in her DNA.” Everyone should be doing this even if it is a career or hobby. You should nourish life on this planet. Certain things do not allow this such as economical cultures. Joan was persistent and sticking to her guns about doing this. It is a big aspect of her game.

ATM: Name one song from the Runaways that you learned or connected with.

KK: Cherrybomb is awesome. I like the song Wasted. This was written when Joan left the band. She comes into her front woman duties. Joan sings it with a great snarly voice. This was a point in time when Joan came into her own. She had a lot of success before this. This song was emblematic at the time to turn on the jets and really took off.

ATM: How can a man perceive Joan singing during a male-dominated period?

KK: I would hope men have respect for her. We all have respect for her doing this. I would love for men to say, “Fuck yeah girl.” This is how it should be. You have to have respect for someone who put this much devotion into their craft and talent. A lot of people are just threatened by this with a woman singing at this command. I come from a world of music and everyone had a lot of respect for her.

ATM: What is your background in music?

KK: I stuck my teeth in music videos. I come to from a music family. My grandfather was a music composer and wrote pop standards in the early 20th century. I played in garage bands that never got out of the garage. I still really love putting the film to music. I got out of film school when music videos on T.V. where coming onto the screen. I got pulled into working in this medium with amazing bands. I have always been around bands and music. I love to express this love for music and championing it for change. There is not a better world to play in than this.


World Channel’s ‘G is for Gun’: Its Message On Taking A Stand at School

Seems as if there is a mass school shooting every few months. These mass shootings have allowed new policies to be set in schools for the student’s safety. Julie Akeret explores this issue in her co-directed documentary G is for Gun.

ATM: How did this film allow you to transform into a better director?

JA: This is a good one. While working for the last three years on G is for Gun, I think I became a better listener, which I think translates into being a better director. I went into this film thinking that we would make a piece about both sides of the debate, but my own personal perspective deep down was that it was a bad idea. In general, I don’t like the idea of fighting fire with fire and when we made our first trip to Ohio, I thought it was going to be a bit like the Wild West, the kind of place where gun culture rules and moms go to the supermarket packing heat. But that’s not what I found. I didn’t see one public display of a gun, and important people we talked to who voted for the safety measure shared a regret that things had gone in this direction. The bottom line for many school officials is that, if they are worried about increasing security but are dealing with a decreasing budget, they feel that guns are their only option.

I think film-making is about having an exchange with a community. And listening carefully to what is being said is the filmmaker’s difficult job. A lot of my films in the past highlighted a personal or communal struggle despite difficult circumstances. Since the election, and what I perceive to be a growing divide in our world, I’m more interested in exploring the grey area where there may just be the possibility of finding some common ground.

ATM: Why do you feel schools went from allowing their teachers to hit students to now allowing them to wear a gun for safety? How did we make this transition?

JA: This is a response to what has happened in education. There are some really big issues involving school structure, policy, and standardized testing. These issues have created a certain tension inside schools and lack of attention to students who are on the verge of trouble. These predominantly white male students who have shot up schools are suicidally depressed. They have records dating back to their early stages of disruption. The schools are bigger now, and have less mental health services. These kids shoot to prove themselves. They have been horribly bullied themselves. They do not care if they get killed. They want to go out in a blaze of glory. They have been treated like losers their whole life. They would rather get negative attention than none at all.

This is a toxic environment for students. I also have a big problem with standardized testing in schools. I think a lot of it is done to figure out who has been left behind academically. But teachers do not have time to get to know the kids when they spend endless hours in standardized test preparation and then evaluating the results. This needs to go. The money that goes into this testing should go into mental health. The ratio between school counselors to students is like 1 to 500 in our country. It is inconceivable to think schools are supposed to function with this lack of mental health care. I am so glad I am not in school anymore. Sandy Hook started this whole move to arm teachers. There is less money going into the school budgets than ever. This causes schools to respond in any way they can.

ATM: What is it about guns that intrigues these students? I am not condoning the mass shooter, but why guns? When these students pick up guns they plan to shoot it. No one picks up guns for fun. Could they pick up something less violent and harmful?

JA: We did an interview with a guy who trains law enforcement all around the country. His name is Lieutenant David Grossman. He trains law enforcement in all types of shootings. He wrote a book tiltedKilling, which was nominated for a Pulitzer’s Prize. Grossman was a psychology professor at West Point for a number of years. This interview was interesting. We asked him what he thought about all of the school shootings. He said that it had to do with the proliferation of video games. There are a number of popular video games that are extremely violent. Games where players receive points for killing and rape. The more violence you commit, the more points you get. This, combined with suicidal depression and sleep deprivation are, according to Grossman, the ingredients leading up to a potential shooter. Their wiring is off to begin with and they get positive reinforcement for violent behavior. These kids are also not doing well in school or socially.

ATM: What happens to the teachers who want to take it upon themselves to use the guns in a negative way against the students?

JA: That hasn’t happened yet and let’s hope it never does.

The goal of this film was to present both sides of the guns in schools debate. It would have been much easier to make a film on one side. We wanted to show both sides because we need to have a conversation about this. To make a film that said yes or no to guns in schools would have been a mistake. Industry peers at screenings still perceived it as pro-gun-piece. One friend asked to see my NRA card. There was a real concern in her voice. Another person said we have gone too far with being fair. I was taking notes at the screening. Should armed teachers appear less heroic? Should we see more footage of the teachers looking confused at the gun range? This is not what we saw. One of the distributors compared our film to something that Trump said about Charlottesville. Trump said: “there are good people on both sides…” So basically, from the superintendent of schools to the teachers who had volunteered to be armed responders in schools were being compared to neo Nazi’s.

In general, I don’t think we should have guns inside our schools. But I am not totally against a school deciding to do this in their district. Especially struggling schools in rural areas that have no other options.

Akeret wants this film to have a lasting impact. The kind of impact that facilitates a conversation about the pros and cons of teachers as armed responders. This film is currently screening in NBC’s Meet the Press film festival in Washington, DC.


A Trans-Woman’s Justice?

True crime is becoming the new topic in the documentary sector. It is about merging investigation with storytelling. Filipino American Filmmaker PJ Raval adheres to this but took a different direction. In his documentary, Call Her Ganda, Raval follows the family of a trans-woman named Jennifer Laude from the time of her murder to April 2018.

ATM: How did the participants in the film become sensitive to sharing details about this murder? For instance, Jennifer’s mother?

PJ: I met the attorney early on at a panel discussion in the Philippines. She had trust in me with my previous work. I told Vergie this was something important the world needed to see. I kind of felt me as Filipino American should not do this, but rather a Filipino. I got comfortable with it the more I thought about it. I was a person coming from both sides. I wanted to use my skills as a storyteller and filmmaker to aide this movement. I wanted to have the family’s blessings and support. I knew the family would be the focus. I could not make this film unless having the support of the Laude family. You have to work up to them telling you things. They understood my reasons for wanting to make it. I am a Filipino American and a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

ATM: You take the audience step by step of when the murder happened. You even provide specific times. This gave it a CSI feel to it. How did you want the audience to convey the expression of this time chart?

PJ: You want to be cinematic and embrace the elements of storytelling. It is interesting to actually go through the events of Jennifer being discovered dead. Instead of having someone just telling us this in the News report. It was important to present it this way. These are the little known facts we do know. This is presented in a procedural narrative eye type of way. This was the basis of the legal evidence. This evidence went into the trial. This is based off the journalistic reporting Meredith was able to uncover.

The news reports gave you a response, but never the specifics. They just told you a trans woman was found dead in a motel room. This is it. They do not talk about the things that led to it. They do not talk about the potential intent of how this happened. It was important for me to show the starting point. This is not a crime drama. This is very big in the documentary world and their series. Everyone is focused on true crime and investigation. This film follows the story of those trying to get justice. I want to take the viewer into their experience of obtaining justice. Meredith and Vergie are telling their story of what they learned through Jennifer.

ATM: Talk about the title of this film.

PJ: This title does not quite translate to U.S. Culture. This word does not mean only pretty, but it also stands for physical beauty. It also alludes to dignity and inner strength. Everyone in this film had inner strength in order to take on the U.S. as a foreign superpower in the forms of justice. This all revolves around Jennifer. There will always be attempts to question her character and undermine her life. She was a poor Filipino trans woman. I wanted to start off the film by talking about a beautiful human being who was murdered.

ATM: How can Jennifer’s story give people more knowledge about this situation and lifestyle?

PJ: There are several things. I hope the film humanizes Jennifer and makes someone understand her experience. This is where the film becomes powerful. It helps you walk in someone else’s shoes. You have the ability to understand Jennifer from a more intimate, personal, and deeper level. You cannot get this from just reading the News report. You hear the way Jennifer’s family talks about her. She has her own dreams and ambitions. These were unfortunately cut short. I realized in editing that every scene was tied to Jennifer somehow.

Jennifer Laude’s life was cut short on October 11, 2014, in Olongapo, Philippines. Laude was a transwoman in an environment that did not provide trans individuals with equal opportunities. Her most convenient answer seemed to be working as a sex worker. One night she left her fiancé’s home, went out with a few friends to never return. Laude’s mother’s anger and pain are addressed in Raval’s film.

Elizabeth Stillwell: LIZZIE

Elizabeth Stillwell produced and financed the film Lizzie. This psychological thriller stars Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. The film addresses the conspiracy around the deaths of Lizzie Borden’s parents. We see more about how the societal norms influenced her motives and decision making. 

ATM: What was your prior knowledge of the Lizzie Borden story?

ES: Weirdly…nothing. I went straight to google before I even read the script and the top 5 search results showed Lizzie Borden’s name synonymous with Chloë Sevigny’s. It was clear to me it would be an incredible story, but, almost as enticing, a team of amazing were women backing it. It definitely lived up to those expectations!

ATM: Explain the energy around the suspense presented in this film.

ES: Bryce Kass wrote such a powerful script that our director, Craig Macneill, took to the next level. No one really knows what happened in the Borden house, and our film presents Lizzie Borden as a woman tied down by so many societal and familial constraints. Humanizing her and following her journey up until the murders really pull you into the story.

ATM: What were your likes and dislikes about the time era in this film?

 ES: I remember reading this script and thinking, “Wow- this happened in the 1890s? It feels so current.” Lizzie is suppressed by the men in her life – her father who controls her everyday life and frequents Bridget’s room in the middle of the night, and her uncle who seeks to steal her inheritance. It’s always liberating to have a story told where the women fight back.

ATM: How different were the social norms compared to now?

ES: It’s interesting to see that, while a lot has changed, we haven’t progressed the way one might think. We have a long way to go.

ATM: Do you feel the social norms influenced Lizzie’s murder?

ES: Assuming you are asking about what drove her to commit the alleged murders, yes. That’s how this film seeks to humanize her. She’s not some psychopath who picked up an ax and decided to kill her parents. Under her constrained circumstances, she lashed out!

ATM: How does this film present women? Men?

ES: The women steal the show in this film! All of the characters, male and female, in LIZZIE have a strong presence and role to play (acted by a ridiculously talented cast), and no character is completely innocent in this tale.  And, if I were, to sum up the film in short, Chloë so powerfully delivers to us “Men don’t have to know things. Women do.”