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.