Black Women Filmmakers Speak is a series curated by Shadow and Act that spotlights women visionaries in film and their inspiring body of work. For the full introduction to this series and an overview of the filmmakers featured, head here.
Hollywood’s story has long been a white, heterosexual male-dominated narrative, and a key goal for #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak is to celebrate up-and-coming black women filmmakers who are taking the simple, seemingly radical step of telling their stories. Working across all genres, these filmmakers all share a love of cinema and an appreciation for the power it wields, engaging what the status quo might see as a kind of new cinema language to not only entertain but also enlighten.
For the series, 33 black women filmmakers from around the world completed a survey Shadow And Act issued in response to a call made earlier this year aiming to highlight black women filmmakers at some stage of development on their first feature films. We then packaged each reply into individual features highlighting these filmmakers and their feature film projects, their fears and hopes as first-time feature directors and their thoughts on a variety of topical matters. That includes what some are calling a new renaissance in black cinema today, the disruption of content production and distribution by streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon and more. Their survey profiles will be published daily (one per day) on Shadow and Act over the next month.
Ultimately, we hope these stories bring new awareness and admiration around these relatively unknown visionaries.
If you’re just joining us, you can catch up on these previous profiles:
The series continues today with Toronto, Ontario, Canada-based Aundreya Thompson. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project to the world.
am an actress who for a short period of time found myself unable to act. Yet, I HAD to do something. As God worked it out, a friend of mine came up with the idea to start an artistic collective where photographers, graphic designers, videographers, directors and talent alike could have an outlet to share our stories and our truths about our diverse communities. It is with and through them that I found the courage to resurrect myself as a writer and producer.
My project, Hot Waters, is a gritty drama that tells the story of a foster kid who as she matures into a young woman finds herself caught up in a tangled mess of abuse and violence. Sophia leads us through an on-screen tour of life after trauma. Like the young women in our communities who face similar issues and are doing what they can to cope or recover, Sophia shows resilience on the uphill climb to peace of mind. Hot Waters also questions the impact that criminality committed by people in positions of authority has on those subjected to their machinations.
Where are you with the project currently?
The script is written and solid. I did a table read and revised it based on the feedback. I have a DP, a first AD and a production designer that I’m confident in. I have the location for where most of the filming will take place. The budget is done. At this point I need to find a director and co-producer, lock in the rest of the locations (very few) and proceed with casting. My Production Designer will take care of putting together the rest of the art department, set decoration and props team. My plan is to film this in Toronto this summer, and by the fall start lining up opportunities and meetings with distribution houses and individuals and companies at festivals.
When did this specific journey begin?
I was going through something in 2015 and writing is usually my outlet for that. I was writing other scripts for specific purposes, but after taking a screenwriting class, this story evolved. And combined with my need to rid myself of and heal from emotional trauma, the fictional Sophia Gonzales and her many troubles burst through.
How many roles are you having to play beyond directing? Are you also the writer? Producer? Editor? DP? Production Designer? Maybe even the star? And if wearing multiple hats, how are you achieving balance?
I am the writer and producer, and production manager of this work. I will be acting in it as well. I achieve balance by pacing things out so they are manageable and not making things too hard on myself, or being too hard on myself if I don’t hit my self imposed deadlines. It requires a lot energy to write, re-write and then hear and visualize what you’ve written. I need to give myself time to process the nuances of each step (writing, pre-production, casting etc) and then also to think beyond being a writer and put on the producer hat. Part of my balance is being pragmatic and asking myself is this viable and if it is, who is going to want it. It helps me keep the stress at bay and my head out of the clouds.
As you work on your first feature, what would be of most help to you right now? What do you need at this moment to get over a hurdle, or to move you forward onto whatever your next step is?
I need people to believe in me, time to work this out and money to make it happen.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
Distribution. Who’s going to watch it and how will I get many people to see it. The rest of it (the film- making process) I’ve figured out before, and I am completely confident I can do it again.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
Which scenes to cut. I had some great dialogue in there.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
The writing came easily for me. My biggest challenge to overcome thus far was getting a group of strangers together to do a table read. I wanted to hear how the script sounded out loud. The actors had to agree to my terms and I had to step out of my comfort zone to do some work to get the space I wanted to read in. It was a bartering deal that came together months before the read was even on the books, and it required me to stretch. The read itself was another a matter. I had to work to keep those actors on point. It was terrifying! But it came together in the end and I got what I needed to make my script better.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything’s been done before, and we’ve seen it all. Agree/disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
It’s distinguishable by my voice. While I watch a lot of pop culture and media, I’m not really influenced by it. I do agree with the adage that it’s all been done before, but I don’t think we’ve necessarily all seen it all. I mean, I’m sure there is a western out there with a similar storyline to the Magnificent 7 that I haven’t watched because the constructs of the film or its marketing was targeted to a different audience. But I did watch and love Magnificent 7 when it opened at TIFF last year. In any event, little things can make all the difference, and in film especially, nuances matter. That’s why this industry excites me so much. Take The Breakfast Club and the pilot episode for Grown•ish – same coming of age story with lots of parallels but Kenya Barris and John Hughes are two completely different storytellers. Rough Night and Girls Trip are another example. Different voices can recount the same story with varied inflections, tones, and emphasis and make it new again. My voice and frame of reference are unique. It’s charisma; that’s why someone or something stands out, and that’s what I do through the page and screen.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it’s made? And realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will have after it’s made?
After the festivals, I am pushing for the film to be picked up a by a distributor and sold in foreign and domestic markets through VOD services. If the third party distribution model doesn’t work (a deal would have to be in place by the time we go to camera) then I will find a sales agent, hire the appropriate publicist and do the leg work of getting it sold myself.
Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project, or at any other time)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?
My whole life has been about challenges. I’ve learned to deal with them. How? Well, pretty healthily compared to a few years ago. The main thing I practice is to speak kindly to myself. There’s that voice in my head that when something bad happens, if I let it, it will stomp my shit into the ground. Now when that voice goes off, I speak to it until it shuts off. I also respect my needs. I give myself what I need or who I need when I need it. Unapologetically. I figure people are going to have something to say either way, so I do me regardless because I have to look out for my needs. Other people aren’t going to be disappointed if I don’t accomplish my goals; that’s on me. So I give myself whatever I need to get through the melee and on track. Sometimes it’s 24 hours to mope; a phone call with a friend to vent; therapy… whatever. I listen, power up and move on.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers… alcohol? What does that system look like, and how much of a role does it play in your life as you strive for greatness (whatever “greatness” is to you)?
Yes, Alcohol helps. There’s no pain that a couple of shots of whiskey can’t fade, even if only temporarily. But my main support system is my belief that, no matter what, God’s got me and God will continue to have me through it all. My family and I are estranged. When I was young, I didn’t know any better, but as I got older, I realized that they are a toxic bunch for me to be around. There are a few friends I depend on to talk to from time to time, but mostly, I realize that everyone is fighting their own battles, so burdening them with my issues is not an option. My faith is huge for me! It’s what keeps me going when I feel like I should give up. It’s what keeps my load light when things get heavy.
How active are you with your use of social media as a tool for any part of the process? Do you think it’s necessary? Do you embrace it?
I’m trying to get better at this. Even as an actor, I’m not about gratuitous self promotion, but I do think sharing projects, as well as pictures and what’s going on with me online are all necessary. Social media is a part of today’s culture. It’s a large factor for how we communicate, so yes, I believe it should be embraced, but my intention is to always be authentic when sharing. I feel like if you’re posting to soothe your ego or seek validation people can sense and repel that desperation.
Are you inspired by what many are calling a “black film renaissance” (in the USA specifically)? Do you buy it? Are you encouraged by the success of films like Black Panther, or the success of specifically black women filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, etc.?
No, it’s not a renaissance. The black film industry in the States was never asleep. It was awake and thriving the whole time. It’s just now getting attention because of films like Black Panther and Girls Trip proving that films about black lives do travel and can be mega successful. That being said, I am encouraged by recent developments and I’m grateful that black women filmmakers continue to open the door wider for those of us coming up behind to get through. I’ll do whatever I can to support them.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion. Do you think all of this will lead to something sustained that will assist up-and-comers like yourself? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
Yes, I think it will. I think we always knew that we all are out here, but now we are finding ways to connect. Things don’t seem so detached anymore. We can engage with each other easily, and the idea itself is spoken about like matter of fact occurrence instead of a rarity. What’s more is that we are busy creating content and building infrastructure to share that content. That’s major. Depending on the studio system is not our only option. It’s also very encouraging to walk on set, or into a production office, or in a wardrobe rental house or where ever and see the faces of people of color working in various positions in the industry. I have no words to explain how for me, as a dark skinned black woman, it is important and affirming it is to see women like Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o, or Anna Diop on screen and winning. I feel like, regardless of what I look like, or what the people around me look like, or what the decision makers look like – I BELONG. With that belief, any and all of us can do anything.
If you’re not in the USA, describe what the film and TV environment is like in the city/country where you live and work. How do the trials (and triumphs) of black women filmmakers where you are differ from those in the USA, if at all? Any desire to move to the USA to pursue your filmmaker dreams?
In Toronto, we have non-profit organizations, each other, and the men who came before us that reached a level of success to help us out. Those factors I think are pretty much the same everywhere. In the States I feel like the well is deeper however, and the resources there are much more vast. I want to travel period, not necessarily settle in the States. I think it’s important to get a sense of how things work in other parts of the world, to expand my knowledge and frame of reference. I like to learn. There’s a lot of talent in Toronto and our proximity to the States makes this an attractive place to be to create. I do feel like there need to be more resources here for filmmakers, and especially filmmakers of color, so we can keep the homegrown talent thriving and competitive. In comparison to the States and the UK, our industry is still young, but Toronto is a bad-ass place to be – after we get our shit together there’s massive potential to grow.
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Apple and others like them, are all now competing with the big studios and TV networks. Thoughts on the emergence of these “new media” platforms, and how (if at all) this new reality factors into the business, creative, career choices you make, or plans you have for yourself? Are you targeting any specifically?
Definitely, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube. I’m patiently waiting to see how Facebook and Instagram’s platforms do though. I think getting on these platforms is necessary, to be honest. Success or “going viral” is how the big studios will notice you and your content. It’s also good business. Not only are you bringing fresh, unique content to challenge stale reboots, you are bringing an audience. There’s room to negotiate with that. You don’t have to take whatever they offer you; you can firmly ask for what you’re worth and easily prove why you deserve it. Then get access to work with people that help you make your content better. The “globality” of online streaming also opens up markets to you that you either didn’t know existed, or initially didn’t think were viable.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Listen to myself; trust myself. Regardless of what the situation looks like, I know more than I think I know, and I got this.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
Because I work in film, in front of and behind the camera, I know how things get done. What makes a show or film great for me is when I’m watching it and I don’t think about how it’s all put together. It’s good when I’m engrossed in the story or the acting, and I believe the world that is created in the work, and that whatever the set of heightened circumstances are in the story, actually exist. If I’m picking apart the location, background, cuts, wardrobe or other aspects of the production, then I tune out. If it’s good, everything is just what it is.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Will Packer and a duo from Toronto – Clement Virgo and Damon D’Oliveria of Conquering Lion Pictures. I love Will Packer’s films – they look good and have a quality finish. The scripts are tight. Based on the look of it all it would seem the films he chooses to make are good investments. I also like Queen Latifah produced films as well. They usually have strong messages. I mentioned Clement and Damon because they started out together at the Canadian Film Centre, and stuck it out for 20 years and counting. They adapted the bestseller Book of Negroes into a 6 part mini-series that aired in Canada and the U.S. Those men inspire me to believe it’s possible to be from Toronto and “make it”. I can do what I want to do and not get lost in the shuffle.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a creative person requires that you “give back,” or tell a particular story, or not do something specific? Why or why not?
I think everyone has a responsibility to the culture whether you’re a filmmaker or not. We are all on this earth together, therefore we all have to do our part to do our best for each other, and coming generations. That’s part of the responsibility of being human. As a black woman I think that’s always been a thing for us – to take care of and nurture others. But giving back doesn’t fall into that category for me. I believe that’s the price we pay for being alive. Sometimes, especially with my career, I will stop myself from being “too hood” or “sexy.” Personally I just don’t want to be seen that way, or have that projected in my work, unless it makes sense for the story. That’s not what I’m here to talk about or be, unless it serves a useful purpose. I tell the stories that are truthful to me. I believe that is my main requirement as a creative.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
Success looks like working steadily as an actor, producing my own content, either written by me or by other great writers I know, optioning work from interesting sources to adapt into plays and new media, casting myself when the project fits, and most importantly, telling socially responsible tales that affect change or at least enlighten people to become cognizant of the possibility. I like being in a position where I can hire people to perform their purpose and do their best work. In that sense, I am already successful. Now, the goal is to level up and do that on a larger scale.
Where can I (and others) watch your past work, if available, and how can you be contacted?
You can see some of my work on my Vimeo page. The first short I ever wrote, produced, directed and cast can be viewed below.
My website is aundreya.com. I am on Instagram @aundreyat.
Anything else you’d like to say that I didn’t ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.
We are all in this together. Different stages, but still together. Just doing our best to get through it and breakthrough. It is imperative that we stick together and realize that the industry is no longer fragmented, but instead we are at a turning point where we are becoming a global community. That’s leverage! We can use these circumstances to propel our careers forward and to higher heights. I feel like it’s important that we build and nurture relationships with each other to effectively challenge the status quo. Thank you for this platform to do so.