Filmmaker Christine Swanson is back! Directing two films, back to back, for TV One. Now airing, “The Book of Ruth” and “To Hell and Back”. Both films were written by Rhonda Baraka. In a relaxed, though exhaustive conversation I had with the filmmaker, which follows below, we learn of Christine’s film industry experience, her thoughts on “Black Cinema,” what drives her and much more.
Tanya: What brought you to TV One?
Christine: TV One called me out of the blue. Sounds crazy but that’s exactly what happened.
Tanya: To ask you to direct the first film- To Hell and Back?
Christine: Yes. They decided to embark upon a modern story based on characters in the Bible. The head of programming there, D’Angela Proctor, said that when they decided to do these stories, she said, I want to get the girl who did All About You. That was a movie I made, gosh, like 14-15 years ago. That’s what she did. She thought of me and called me and hired me. Needless to say, I was more than glad to do it, although I had some reservations because, as you know, I’ve been on the home front for a minute. I had to wrap my mind around putting that director’s cap on and mind you, only a director’s cap, because typically, I write and direct. This is my first foray into just directing something that somebody else wrote. That’s how all that came about.
Tanya: Did you enjoy the experience with To Hell and Back?
Christine: I’m going to be honest with you. I immensely enjoy any experience directing. I’ve never hated it, and I’ve had bad experiences. At the end of the day, I just feel like I’m supposed to be on a set. I’m supposed to be working with creative people. I’m supposed to be working with actors and I’m supposed to be manning a project in this capacity. It’s interesting. Some people are swimmers and they’re born to swim. They’re like fish in the water. I will definitely say it’s someplace that I feel at home. The experience was immensely pleasurable, however difficult on so many other levels but nothing that wasn’t insurmountable. You can figure everything out.
As you know, on a film set, we’re all glorified troubleshooters, really, as directors. It’s not if a problem arises. It’s when. How are you set up to deal with them as they come, when they come? Not if they come. I don’t know. Honestly, on so many levels, I feel like motherhood has prepared me even better for directing than film school because all it is is troubleshooting and dealing with different personalities and emotions and trying to make everybody happy and at the end of the day reaching your own personal goals and agendas. On a lot of weirdly surreal levels, it was very fluid and natural for me to just step right back into directing.
I thought about it and I just thought, gosh, I have a lot of gratitude that I feel it towards D’Angela particularly. I think her being a female and a person of color and for her to be in a position of power like that and just decide to hire me, it’s not something that typically happens in those conversations. How brave of her and how brilliant of her on so many levels because I think we created a great movie and I think the network is happy with it. I was happy with it. Everyone I worked with was proud of the work.
It’s just interesting in light of the climate that we’re in, with all these kinds of surveys about the dearth of female and minority directors which is odd to me and I always scratch my head. I’m like, gosh, I have an MFA in directing. How is it that they can’t find people to direct stuff? Maybe it takes someone visionary who is in a position of power. My question is, why does it have to be someone who’s visionary to do something that simple? In my head I thought, if I had the energy to do so, and maybe you can relate, we need to start like a movement and call it: #JustHireHer. She’s there. Just hire her. Stop all this nonsense about not being able to find appropriate people to direct because, I know people who get episodes of television who come off of being the script supervisor. You know? At the very least, let’s not pretend like there aren’t women out there like myself with MFA’s who can direct if given the chance.
That’s the weird predicament that I was in. On the one hand, I have an immense amount of experience, as you know. On the other hand, that experience doesn’t necessarily equate to opportunities. When this opportunity came, it was … I don’t know why but you feel like, just to represent your race, your gender, your whatever. I have to say, I was given all the right tools, the right people, the right talent. When you’re set up correctly, it’s really hard to fail.
Tanya: How was it directing Ernie Hudson?
Christine: You know, I didn’t know what to make of it at first because I’m not … I’m trying to think. I’ve directed actors of his caliber, from Ruby Dee to Morgan Freeman. Every time I direct, I encounter such … What are they? They’re walking legends, right? You kind of take pause and you wonder, okay, what do I do? There’s nothing that I can bring to the table that’s going to equal their knowledge and their experience. Most times, you just humbly approach them and ask, what is it you need? They’ll tell you or they won’t. Nine times out of ten you just get out of the way. You just let them do their thing.
That was my experience with Ernie. He put on a clinic in To Hell and Back. He really did. I’m talking this guy was in every single scene and the emotional gravity of the story and of the character, I mean, it’s so heavy. I even wondered for him, is he going to be okay? Can he do this? Can he handle it? Every single scene. I never saw him get tired or frustrated or weary. He just came with it, with a great fresh attitude and as you saw with the performance, just gave it his all and left something remarkable on television, that I think we can all say is quite commendable.
Tanya: You also directed Loretta Devine in the Book of Ruth. How was that experience?
Christine: That was the same thing. I’m like, gosh, TV One, they’re coming with it, bringing A-list talent like that. The thing about Loretta Devine is like, gosh, she’s Loretta Devine, right? We’ve all seen her work and I’m in awe of her, so same kind of thing. All right, how are we going to approach her, and finding out she’s just so sweet and loving and approachable. She reached out to me and she’s like, hey, let’s meet together. We met up at the hotel and hung out and laughed and giggled, she just made my life and my job easy. Really, as we talked about character and expectations and what have you, you already know you’re in good hands with these actors. Quite frankly, I would say they probably should have been more concerned with who’s this director, you know? They’re so experienced and they know what they’re doing so my job is just to kind of nudge them in a direction here or there, but pretty much, like I said, create the canvas for them to do what they do best and stay out of their way.
Loretta Devine is … Let me tell you something. Loretta and Ernie, I don’t know. They have been doing this for a long time, and to see each of them bringing freshness and creativity and just a little extra something to without dialing it in, which you kind of expect maybe with people who do this all the time, day in and day out. I’m telling you, for me it’s a lesson. Always be on your Ps and Qs and never take the opportunity to do something creative for granted. That’s what I learned from both of them.
Tanya: How was working with Gary Dourdan?
Christine: Gary left an impression on me so deep that I haven’t forgotten about him since. Honestly, I didn’t know much about Gary. I heard something here and there. I knew he’s on some show about CSI and I vaguely remember watching him on A Different World, right? Something told me, don’t do research on him because I’m very particular about not prejudging people. I’m not like that anyway. I didn’t want anything to get into my psyche about people because I want to meet them, form my own opinion based on where they are.
Gary, I cast him pretty late. Typically, I like to talk and meet with actors face to face well before we start shooting. Gary, I didn’t get to meet at all until, honestly, the first day of shooting. That’s not the situation you typically want to be in, but I made sure I had some face time with him and in doing so, I just let him know where I was coming from. I just got a sense of who and what he was and then you got the AD screaming in your ear like, we need to go. We need to go. My first encounter with Gary was the first scene, pretty much, between him and Denise Boutte. I honestly did not know what I was getting or going to get. I promise you, that first take that first day with those two together, I just knew. I’m like, okay, I’m going to put my seatbelt on and I’m going to enjoy this ride, because we’re about to go some places. That’s honestly how I felt.
That’s honestly how I felt with Gary. He’s just so grounded like that character. I didn’t even see it coming. I just didn’t know. Then when I knew it, in that first scene, I was like, I knew and at that point, it was just all good and trust. I’m like, all right. We’re about to do something here and I got really excited. More excited, in fact, and as I got to know Gary, I feel the reason why I’m particularly connected to him is that he’s a pure artist. He seems an artist to a fault in ways that we look at our artistic friends and we shake our heads sometimes at the things that they do but then we give them room because it’s so brilliant, you know? He is that kind of artist.
He’s a singer. Really, I would say his first passion is singing, not acting. I’m not sure there are a lot of people who know that. He lives in Paris. He got the heck out of dodge and now his full-time residence is in Paris. He goes to India to help doctors with support on journeys to help poor village kids. These are not things people would know about him, which is why I’m so thankful I did no research on him because I didn’t want to know anything about him. Gosh, he’s a consummate artist in ways that I can only aspire to be. That’s why he’s left this indelible impression on me, because … I don’t know. I just feel more myself when I’m around other creative people. The opportunities to do that on a film shoot, as a Director, unfortunately are few and far between. Let’s just say, I think we connected artistically and I would love to work with him on another project very soon.
Tanya: It sounds like your experience with TV One has just been outstanding. I know that you’re accustomed to writing and directing your own films, but transitioning, taking on a TV project, it sounds like it’s been rewarding as well.
Christine: Absolutely. You know, when I started out in this industry, I did so as an independent filmmaker. As you know, the world of an independent filmmaker, we do it all, right? We write, we direct, we edit. We put the whole project together. This was a little different in that I didn’t have to do a lot of the heavy lifting to get ready for production. Once I submitted my director’s cut, I didn’t do any lifting in terms of promotion and the final release of the project. On some level, it’s very gratifying not to carry that burden, that load from start all the way to finish. TV One, on every level, they’re very hands on, very much involved, and very much here to make a statement and I think they’re going to be here for the long haul and they’re going to come out swinging because I think they have projects and movies and programming that’s really going to connect with their target audience on a higher level than they have in the past.
Tanya: I’m going to switch gears just a little bit. You talked about film school. With your experiences thus far, would you recommend film school?
Christine: Well, again, I came up in an era. I want to say mid-90s where if you wanted to become a filmmaker, that was the path that you took. Now, mind you, people still worked in the film medium, which on so many levels, was very cumbersome and not as acceptable to the masses. That’s the way that I like to go, personally, in the late 90s and early 2000s. Today, with the onset of technology and media that’s become so successful, I’m not sure that the film school route is necessary unless you have the luxury of time, resources and the mental acumen to put your life on hold to spend 3-4 years, I’m talking on a graduate level, to study filmmaking. At the same time, I just don’t think there’s anything ever wrong with studying your craft if afforded the opportunity. I just think it’s a luxury now whereas before, for me, it might have been a necessity.
There are so many colleges, undergrads and on a graduate level, that are offering film curriculum that is as good as the education that I got at NYU. They’re trying to rival and match that kind of education that we both got. Some places are cheaper than what we paid. I wonder if it’s necessary in terms of carrying a certain debt load and still, you still have to get your own film made. You and I know that the money that we paid for film school, you could probably go make a movie with that. It depends. If you have the skill set and you’re confident in it, then I would say gamble on yourself. Go make that project. Make that short. Another way into the industry is really to work your way up, but I would say that’s more so on the TV side, but TV is the name of the game now, it seems. I don’t think it’s any coincidence.
Think about it. The turnaround … It used to be it would take years to make a movie and then get it out for distribution and blah blah blah. I shot that movie in a month. It aired the next month. Things are changing rapidly. I would seriously give a lot of thought to how one would approach a film education. Even for my own kid. I have an older kid who’s very much interested in filmmaking and he’s already talking about trying to go to NYU for undergrad. I’m thinking like, wow. He’s in 8th grade. By the time he gets to undergrad, I wonder what is it that they’re going to teach him that he won’t already know. He’s doing summer school and studying film courses, taking film courses in summer school just for fun. It’s just more rapid. Education, access to technology, the pace of delivery, and then outcome. Given all that, who has time to take 3-4 years out of their lives to devote specifically to film school? I just wonder. I don’t know.
Tanya: I wonder, as a woman, what has been the biggest challenge that you face or faced in trying to honor your voice or to become a creative?
Christine: I think everything that I’ve ever done that’s gone out into the marketplace resonated with a specific audience or target audience that I try to reach out to, even to the point of doing really well financially. Case in point, my first feature film that I made called All About You. I just got a tweet from someone the other day who told me that when it first came out, they watched it over 100 times and they still watch it once a year and they know every line verbatim of the movie.
I think an interesting theory that I experienced with that film is that, in so many ways, I felt maybe in hindsight, maybe I was a little bit ahead of my time, but I knew back then … What year was that? I think 2000-ish. There just used to be an urban audience, right, and it just was all mashed up together in one urban audience, right? Well, back then, I knew that there was a certain segment of the “urban audience” that felt hungry, so literally, that spoke to them specifically. I knew that they would respond in kind by showing up with money.
That specific audience that I identified was the Black female audience. It just brought a history. That Black female audience also tends to all attend church. Let’s just say there was an audience, this demographic of Black women who had some recognition or idea about faith. Let’s just say that. I knew that this audience existed so I purposely made All About You specifically for this audience. I was like, I’m going to do a romantic comedy that is not going to offend this group of women, and yet at the same time, make it satisfying enough to make them want to see it over and over again and tell their friends about it. That was what All About You was. Because I knew that this audience existed, I had no qualms about making this and it’s a multi-million dollar movie, made at the highest level, shot on 35, blah blah blah.
The difficulty that I had with that job was that no distributor at that time wanted to pick it up for distribution for a variety of reasons, but the one that stood out mostly was that they said specifically that there was no audience for this movie, that it was actually too soft for the urban market and I was just scratching my head because I was thinking, they’re way off. They don’t know what they’re talking about. But who’s going to listen to me, Tanya? You know? Who’s going to listen? Nobody did because every person who actually had the power or the ability to make a decision whether or not to distribute this movie happened to be a White male. Their thing was, there’s no audience for this movie.
Mind you, nothing could be further from the truth because this is why TV One, BET, and all these networks that actually cater to women are thriving, because women come to the box office with money. And Black women, particularly, of a certain income level, education level, all have disposable income that they want to use for entertainment purposes. I saw it as such a big missed opportunity for the industry, distributors, and obviously myself. For the life of me, I just scratched my head and I’m like, gosh. Well, maybe they’re right. But, in hindsight, they were all wrong. We ended up … We four walled it. We took it out to urban cities. Every one, tickets sold out, you know? And it became word of mouth … People would come back and bring people. I’m just scratching my head. I’m like, how the hell are people missing this?
Long story short, when All About You came out on DVD, it was distributed by Jeff Clanagan, who runs Code Black. At the time, it was their highest selling, record-breaking DVD to date, which when a DVD does as well as it did, as that particular title did, with no massive marketing campaign, it’s all by word of mouth. If you had that level of word of mouth, what could that have translated into on a theatrical level? Money. To me, I feel that the biggest barrier for me, has been trying to convince people who are not necessarily attuned to the audience for which I want to create product. I think my point was proven right many years later, when another filmmaker came on the scene by the name of Tyler Perry, who did the exact same thing. He created product for Black females who go to church, and look how well he did.
I don’t know. Did he do well because he… There’s a myriad of reasons why Tyler succeeded, because I think he brought his own financing and I think on some level, money talks, so that worked out in that way. Given his success, you can see however many years before when I did it, and I was trying to target the same audience, and everyone said that audience didn’t exist. I think he proved my point correctly that not only do they exist, it’s a financially lucrative demographic to tap into, and they still are today. It seems like Black women, on so many levels, are constantly being overlooked and disregarded. On the creative side and on the business and marketing side as well. I think things are changing now, so you know. Yeah, that has really been my biggest barrier, trying to convince people to be current and forward-thinking in terms of creating content for people who will show up and pay money to see it.
Tanya: Along with that then, what is your opinion on the state of Black cinema, whether you think there is that or isn’t that. What do you think about the current slate of films that we’ve seen?
Christine: My feeling is that something shifted less than 5, 6, 7 years ago. When I started as a filmmaker, I was an independent filmmaker. You could put a movie together. You could get distribution and either have it released theatrically or DVD, but there was a way to have your content seen. DVD was very instrumental and helpful for filmmakers. The DVD market has pretty much died for independent filmmakers. That’s not a viable option anymore. Now, the only point of release for theatrical films is through theaters and that has become overly competitive, if not darn near hard to launch a theatrical release with the proper campaign that will require a certain budget.
Now we’re looking at a whole different landscape and climate, right? The kinds of movies that are going to get made, whatever the type, are going to be high-profile, tentpole movies that will garner or engage the largest number of audience members as possible, right? I would say that is where, let’s just say, urban filmmaking is going as well. Nobody is willing to gamble on … We used to have those smaller mid-range movies. There was a plethora of them, right? Those movies have more or less gone away because that’s a gamble on the part of studios to take in terms of being a return on investment. That has trickled down to movies as well, for again, the urban market. That’s where I think TV’s gaining ground, because pretty much everybody, urban or not, has a TV in their home and a lot of people have cable. I think that’s where we are right now, where big profile movies with Black people, maybe by Black people or not by Black people will be the ones that tend to get made purely for financial reasons.
That’s what we’re looking at. Some can be creative. Some can be purely commercial. Some can be both, but that some, I don’t think will include a lot of titles. I wonder if we were to count how many pure “Black” films came out last year, we could probably count it on one hand. If that’s the case, that’s pretty dire, if you ask me.
Tanya: In terms of, film school, there was a network, kind of a linkage of Black students with what was called The Leagues at NYU. Did you have an expectation of that in the film industry and if you did, do you see evidence of a Black, kind of, pulling together or networking, taking care of one another, or helping one another in the industry? Certainly I have that with you, but I’m curious to know what your thoughts are about that.
Christine: I think when we were at film school, that particular network was necessary and vital to our survival. That’s something that we look back on fondly and perhaps [inaudible 00:33:36] maybe that was the training ground for … Let me just talk about me, about my naivete on some level. Because we had such a strong sense of camaraderie, it was nothing to call up so and so and say, hey. I’m doing some pickup shots and I need a grip and you had a grip. That was probably special and unique for that particular time.
Now, I would say, fast forward to the industry as a whole, I think that camaraderie exists and I’ll tell you why. There’s not anyone that I see of color that I’ve wanted to approach that I have not been able to approach in terms of access. As you and I know, I’ll just think about it, and typically if I don’t know them directly, there’s somebody I know knows them, right? There is that kind of inherent camaraderie or community that exists. The flipside of it is, 9 times out of 10, they can’t help you. They’re in the same boat you are. They’re looking for their next gig too. That’s the situation that we’re in, in the industry as a whole.
You think, okay, what can somebody do for me substantively? You know, you may not get a lot of that because I honestly think a lot of people are looking themselves to get something substantive too, to move onto the next project or what have you. But, I think what you can get if you try, and if you approach things the right way with the right project, and given that they know that you’re serious, just think about it. I have tons of people approaching me with scripts and projects that they think that’s a good idea, that they think I can get made. You just have to explain to them, that’s probably not going to happen. I’m a smaller filmmaker, right? If they’re approaching me like that, imagine the number of people approaching somebody who’s even slightly famous.
I don’t know. There’s something so … What’s the word? About our industry that’s so dreamlike that anybody thinks that if you can dream it, you can make it happen. Hollywood is like a destination of the masses. Everyone has this kind of, I don’t know, striving mentality where … It’s like the Gold Rush. I’m going to go West and make my dreams happen. On some level, I’m not sure that that didn’t happen to me. But once you get here, you realize, ain’t a lot of gold. A lot of people have died trying to get gold and boy, I sure am hungry. Where’s my next meal coming from? People, I think, have to deal with the fantasy vs. the reality. The fantasy of this is, if I can just get my script to Denzel, then I’m set. I’m telling you, filmmakers like me, we think like that, right? I actually did a movie about it. It’s called All About Us, where they were like, oh, we just have to find Morgan Freeman, get him in our movie and then our careers will take off.
Then you think well, if I’m a person of color, I can reach out to another person of color. Surely they’ll help me. I would argue 9 times out of 10, whoever you’re looking at on TV, if this show just got canceled, they’re back to the grind and hustle too, just like you. I would just say, if you’re serious about it and you’re in it for the long haul, you’re going to hit a lot of walls before you actually make a hole and break through. Yeah, there is camaraderie, but I think it’s there mostly after you make it, truth be told. After you have some kind of a project that has some buzz about it and you’re trying to cross over to the other side of working filmmaker as opposed to aspiring filmmaker, then the access to that camaraderie is more readily available. If you’re on the other side of that, it’s going to be harder. A lot of people are just a little suspicious or suspect and they’re trying to get their projects going too.
Tanya: I just want to move more into, now you as a creative and more your person ideology and philosophy. I wanted to know because I remember in film school, that you were the go-to person. You were like the godmother for the leagues and people really saw you as a rock when we were all at NYU. I just want to know, does that same ethic that guided you at NYU or guides at least how you interact with me and other filmmakers that you help, is that in your artwork in anyway? Is that in your film in anyway? Is that in what you create in anyway, a kind of ethic of community or caring?
Christine: Being at NYU and having worked with artists at the highest level, I’ve seen different types of creative powers at work. The awesome thing about film school at NYU is you can figure out your own voice and who you are in the midst of chaos, because that’s when you can really feel your voice, when it’s challenged. I came away from NYU and I think I was most appreciative of our community there. To the extent that I was a rock or not. I happen to be a very fluid person by nature, meaning if you come to me, you’ll go through me, and you’ll walk away with something that I’ve implanted in you, and conversely, something that you’ve implanted in me. This is how we built community. It’s never about what you can do for me, and I walk away and never give anything back.
I feel like in my naivete, I took that mindset out into the real world and quite frankly, I got crushed. I got crushed and heartbroken time and time again because that was the expectation that I had based on the experiences that we created as a community at NYU. As I approach my creative work, I do know this about myself and what I want to do. I’m typically a strong person by nature but through age, if you can blend strength with wisdom, gosh, it’s a better combination. Just being strong. You can be strong and you can get buried. Trust me. But couple that with some wisdom, and you know how to channel that strength in a way that’s more conducive to your creativity.
I find with projects particularly that I want to make, because there are projects that I’m passionate about, and thankfully, I have remained passionate about them, some for over 10 years. Some for 14 years. I’m like, why am I passionate about it? Because it’s my voice. It’s my heart. It’s my soul. I realize, nobody can do this or tell it the way that I can tell it because a part of me is [inaudible 00:43:09] to this project. That kind of filmmaking makes me excited.
I think it’s few and far between. Remember, that’s kind of like the auteur. I don’t know if that is as prevalent today as it used to be. I’ll tell you this for a fact, because one particular script that I wrote, I was so passionate about and mind you, I gave this script to a Producer. At that point, I’d already directed two feature films. The Producer loved the script and he was like, you know what? I’m going to take it to a studio. We’re going to attach a director, and we’re going to get this puppy made. I was like, whoa. Time out. Why are you going to attach a director? I’m like, I’m a director. It never occurred to me that somebody would separate me from my baby. From my perspective, it’s like I give birth to a child that I expect to raise, right, and somebody in the delivery room yanking it away. Okay, we’re going to give this baby to some other parents and let them raise it. You’re sitting there like, what? What kind of weird universe am I living in?
How I approach my creative projects is like the way that I gave birth to my babies. They experience a gestational period where I nurture them and I take care of them. Finally, one day I give birth to them and I raise them. You look at this child and you say, she looks like her mom. Yeah, because that’s my kid! Or she looks like her dad. Yeah, because that’s our child. I’m committed to what I write and then direct in the same way that I am committed to being a mother. It’s like I can’t separate who I am from what I do.
I found that even directing a project, that the way that I created them is the way that I was at NYU. A glorified community organizer, right? You know? I got everybody together and I’m like, all right. We need to collectively support each other and what do you do best? Okay, you need to call such and such because needs this person who does what you do best. What does that person do? Okay, that person needs to call … so on and so forth. That’s how I feel as a Director. I feel like a community organizer. I realize Obama was all that. I’m not saying I’m Obama, but let’s just say a community organizer where I partner, or I’m in relationship with an actor, with a DP, with a production designer, with costume, with wardrobe, makeup. I’m in relationship with them. I’m like, okay. Let’s put our resources and energy together and come up with what you think your idea of this is because I want to hear it.
Certainly, I don’t have the best ideas in the room and I often tell people, if I have the best ideas in the room, I’m in the wrong room and y’all need to run away. It’s not fun and it’s not safe. I know that my muse is stirred up in the company of all those creative entities. That, to me, is what perfect filmmaking is. It’s not just collaboration. It’s a community. That’s how I feel about when I even write scripts.
I have a script that I’ve worked on for 5 years. I will have what I think is a finished draft, right? But I always say the final draft won’t be written until my cast is near me and I have input from the actors, the producers, and sometimes the DPs. They have different ideas that they bring to the table and I welcome them and I take them. That’s the perfect way to process for me, is to ignite other people’s passions and allow them to have a table or a forum to express that. That’s how I approach my creativity.
Tanya: Who’s your favorite filmmaker?
Christine: He doesn’t typically fall in the typical film school type auteur/filmmaker/personality model. I will say, to this day, James L. Brooks is my favorite Director. James L. Brooks directed Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News. I think Terms of Endearment changed my life as a storyteller in terms of the possibilities of what you can do emotionally. Great actors, with great lines and great storytelling.
Tanya: Do you have a favorite film?
Christine: I have several. 400 Blows, Cinema Paradiso, My Life as a Dog, Goodfellas. Like I mentioned, Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News. Another film that … It’s funny because … Tootsie?
Christine: That was kind of remarkable for me. In hindsight, it was really interesting because that was an early take on the man in female clothing. I didn’t think about that, Tyler Perry made popular, but that was done brilliantly, right, in Tootsie. Then there are some films I have, one particular film that will go on my all-time favorite films is, it’s called Madadayo by Kurosawa. The translation is, I’m not ready yet. It was the last film he made before he died. Something about that film struck a chord with me that I just haven’t been able to shake loose.
It’s visually stunning and I think, from what I’ve read about it, is that it’s probably his most emotional and deeply personal film. I think that resonated with me because Kurosawa is a master in and of himself, right? This is a film that spoke to me. I’m particularly drawn to deeply personal and emotionally, just some kind of emotional resonance. That’s the realm or range I like to hang in. However successful I’ve been at it, that’s what I want to strive for too, going forward. Kurosawa aside, James L. Brooks and Sydney Pollack, there are like … There’s a comedic side of me that I’m excited to explore going forward, that I’ve kind of suppressed because coming from NYU, I was thinking I had to be a serious filmmaker but I don’t. Get to know who you are and what you’re capable of doing.
I think there’s a lot that I can explore in comedy that I would be great at as of late. Bridesmaids did that for me. When I saw that movie and I’m like, how is this possible? This totally silly, stupid movie on so many levels is also so engaging and emotionally resonant and relevant to where I am in terms of where I am with storytelling. That’s an arena that I’m going to knock down next.
Tanya: Three final questions. I was fortunate enough to meet your amazing children. You have 3 sons and a daughter, who’s the youngest amongst these very charismatic, intelligent and wonderful boys. I’m wondering what do you think is the most impactful thing you’ve ever done for your daughter?
Christine: I think the most impactful thing, and I’ve thought about this as a mother. I have 3 boys. When I heard that I was going to have a daughter, I was scared. Just say that, because I’m like, what do you do with a girl? I know what to do with boys. I think the most impactful thing that I’ve ever done for my daughter is let her be who she is, to leave her alone. I’m like a tomboy to the core. If you ever catch me with nail polish on, someone has drugged me and put it on while I was sleeping. My daughter is a girly girl. That’s just who she is. That’s how she was born. She relishes getting a mani-pedi. For me, I would never do that because that’s not me.
One time, for her birthday, I took her and her best friend to a nail salon and they had a mani-pedi party for them as I sat in the background and watched. I didn’t get my nails done. I just allowed her to bask in her pleasure zone. She loves dressing up. She loves dresses. She love shoes. I have a couple pair of Nikes that I wear everyday. I’m not at all threatened by who she is and I don’t want her to be influenced by who and what I am. I want her to be her and I’m comfortable being me. I think giving her that space to grow and nurturing who she is has been the greatest thing that I feel that I could do for her. Even to the point where, like I said, I don’t even like nail salons. I don’t even like being in them. But for her sake? I will take her. It has forced me to do things that I would not typically do, but I would do that for her because I think that will allow her to flourish at the highest level and allow her to be happy and proud of who she is.
She even said, mom, are you going to wear that? I’m like, do you think I should change or do something different? I’m open to her suggestions. I think that’s why I know God has a sense of humor, because he gave me her. To the extent that I can nurture who she is, is to the extent that I will have succeeded as a mother.
Tanya: God leads into my next question, which is, when do you experience God or when do you feel God or when do you know God? Whatever that means for you, when are you in a moment where you know or you feel it.
Christine: Hopefully without coming off overly church-y or cliché even, I’m not sure that there’s a moment when I don’t experience or feel God. It’s just like, it’s like the color of my skin. It’s just there. I don’t put it on. I don’t dial it in. I don’t change it. It’s just, I wake up, I’m in this skin. I feel like that’s like, not my second nature. That’s like my first nature. I would say, more pointedly, I feel like I experience God’s something, God’s hand or God’s presence even more acutely when I am around people that I can help in some way. I don’t feel complete unless that’s given. It’s odd and it may not be something tangible. It could be a hug. It could be a smile. It could be a kind word.
I just feel like, it feels most God-like to me and maybe selfishly fulfilling for me, to be able to walk away having given a part of myself to someone for whatever reason, and that’s just a part of my Godly nature, but that’s not exclusive to people who believe in God. I know people who are wonderful givers who are agnostic. That’s not the point I want to make but I just feel more acutely aware of God’s goodness when I’m given opportunity to go up to other people in some capacity. It doesn’t have to be great, like I said. It could be something small, but I just feel like I walk, I live, I bask in the presence of God and I can tell you when I am most acutely aware that I’m not in his presence is when I feel anxiety and stress and anger and hatred, and that’s when I know that I have walked away from my center. I always have to bring myself back because that’s where I start out.
I don’t know. That’s just how I roll. It just gets better when I’m in community. That is why perhaps when we were at NYU, maybe I picked that role is because that’s what I am naturally and that’s what I love to do. I love people and I particularly love people that have a place in my life for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s for a long time. Sometimes it’s temporary, but I just always feel like there’s something that I can give and in return, it’s all mutually beneficial as well. It’s in giving that you receive.
I’m also working towards a Masters of Theology degree seminary school part-time. I think about these questions a lot. We need to do more giving instead of more wanting. Tanya, you know some of my trials and tribulations in this industry, but I’ve always felt no matter what, you never go wrong giving freely. Never. There’s nothing bad that ever comes from that. As long as you’re not giving with improper motivation. Some people might call it karma but I do believe on some level, things come back to you. At the end of the day, I can sleep at night. That’s how I would like to roll. Admittedly, I’m not always there 100% but that’s the lofty goal for me to try to achieve and particularly in this industry, where I’m running against …
I just see a lot of people who are in the same current space as I am. There’s so much that they want to say. There’s so much that they want to share and express creatively and doors are just shut on them constantly. There’s a lot of rejection. I think it’s right. I’m not saying I’m the person to do it, but I think we call collectively, artistically, need to create a community so we can remain sane. What would we do without that? There has been precedence of this in the past of artists killing themselves. Look at Van Gogh, you know. Anyway, because creative people are so emotionally wired, I think. Our highs are so high and conversely, our lows can be so low. We really do need a community, and I think I would love to help foster a community that’s more about giving than always about receiving and what somebody else can do for them or what certain opportunities can do for them. Instead, let’s look at what can we do for each other and try to foster and create that kind of community like we had at NYU.
Tanya: Which brings me to my final question, which is all tied up into this. Thinking about Thea St. Omer, who died alone, but knowing her, she was in a happy space. She was in a space of creation for herself. She was about to open a shop, a tea shop, which is a beautiful thing, but I think about her. I think about, her death haunts me in that she died alone. She was a Black woman filmmaker. My question for you is, what is your hope for Black women filmmakers? And, whatever else you’d like to say, and that’s going to be my final question.
Christine: Well, as you know, Thea was a really good friend of mine. I would say that fortunately, a couple years before she died, I got to spend a lot of time with her. Thea would go MIA. She would just be gone and I would have to track her down and find her. A couple times I did that and one time, I found her at Syracuse as an adjunct professor and I found her email address and I was able to contact her. We never lost touch. That was just the kind of person she was. She was a loner but never lonely. That’s just Thea.
I personally, as a Black filmmaker, female particularly, it’s a blessing and sometimes it feels like a burden but not an unworthy burden. I’m from the school of tough times and tough circumstances create character and resilience. For some reason, God saw fit to make me who I am, doing what I do. This is my hope for Black female filmmakers, is this, I would love to see a greater sense of camaraderie and community, where we look at each other as peers and equals and sisters. Not so much as competition. I’m not saying that’s what happens. I don’t know. What I do know, in terms of my own personal journey, is that I wish I could have had more mentors, more people that I could have talked with during the difficult times, who could understand my plight and my struggles, my questions, my desires, my ambitions.
I’m not sure that I had that readily available, but I say this, and I’ve said it before. Well, you have officially met the change that I want to see. I will be that person. I think I’ve always been that person, I’ve just been a little bit undercover, at home raising my kids, but since I’m certain to peek out from the covers, I’m like, there’s nothing about me that has changed in terms of that desire. It’s to be that encouraging person just to talk to, who’ll listen and not judge and who will actually help, and they desire to give whatever it is you need to get to where you need to go. That is my calling, on some level, I feel. It’s not to just make movies, my goodness. If that was the only thing that I was supposed to do in life, what a terrible poverty of ambition.
I think in being allowed into this position as a director, as a writer but particularly as a director, and having access to a lot of people in different capacities, it’s like I’m able to form community again. I’m able to interact. I’m able to talk to people and engage, and that is what I would love to see. More engagement of Black female filmmakers, and not this vacuum where only one or two are working, which is just astounding to me that this is happening on some level. Let’s open up the floodgates and let all our voices not only be heard but be encouraged to flourish. To the extent that that does not exist, then I’d like to be that. And to the extent that that does exist, I’d like to stir that up even more. That’s my take on that.
Tanya: Alright, that’s it. Thank you so much.
Christine: All right, girl.