Middle of Nowhere

As a female African-American director, do you feel at all limited in the types of films you can set out to make? Or any pressure to make a certain kind of movie?

That's a great question. No, I don't feel like I can't make anything I'm interested in making. And, am I going to have studio support? That's a different question. Can I make anything I want to make, do I have the ability to do whatever I want to do? I believe I do. But, will I have support in an institutional way, in terms of a corporation giving me money to do it, is a different question. I think that's the case not just for me as a black woman, but for any filmmaker, or any artist that wants to do something. We can, but will we be supported is a different question. I don't feel limited in the kind of stories that I can tell. I like telling stories about black women. There's something really important about stories about black women and girls, being told by black women. I think that's going to give you a different reflection, as opposed to an interpretation of what our lives are like. So, we have a lot of films right now, a lot of black women or black girls that are told from the point of view of someone that's not us, and it just needs to be really clear that that is an interpretation of who we are, as opposed to a reflection of who we are because the person making it is part of our group. 

"There's something really important about stories about black women and girls, being told by black women."

I know that you filmed for only 19 days. Was it difficult filming over such a short period of time? 

It was. You know, you look at a film like "Lincoln." Spielberg. Pushing a hundred days. So, yeah that's millions of dollars – tens of millions of dollars – being spent. We didn't have a half a million. So for the scale of what we did, I could have used a couple more days. It really would just allow us to have more takes, and explore things more. But ultimately, you know, my first film was shot in 15 days, so I gained 4 days. So, one day maybe I'll get out of the teens! (laughs)

For the role of Ruby, did you set out to cast an unknown actress as opposed to a familiar face, or did it just end up working out like that?

I was just looking for the best actor. And I felt that even though we had the opportunity to cast some people of note, someone that you'd know, for me I was just really looking for someone that had a vulnerability with a strength – a very specific strength and vulnerability that I thought Emayatzy brought in spades. So I think it's just really a lesson that the best actor isn't always the actor that we know, you know what I mean? We were really just allowing ourselves to be open to finding the right actor. But it's tough. I was lucky that my financing wasn't contingent on casting, so I had more freedom. I could pick whoever I wanted. A lot of times you're restricted to certain names to get the money, but luckily for us that wasn't the case, and I was able to just go with my gut and I'm glad I did. 

How was it for you working with Emayatzy on "Middle of Nowhere"? What was your creative partnership like as director and actor?

I think for me, the key was that when I cast her, I really liked her as a person. And all of our collaborations were rooted in that recognition of a kindred spirit – just a woman that was an artist, but also has a lot of integrity and dignity in her choices that she had done up to this point. This isn't her debut because she couldn't get any work. It was her debut because she chose not to take lesser work, and she was waiting for a specific kind of part. So, yeah, I just really thought she was an amazing person. For me, the collaboration was just sort of rooted in you know, a respect for who she was. And she gave me that mutual respect. If that's the core of it, then you approach talking about scenes from a place of collaboration rather than, "I'd like you to do this." You know, it's more, "How do you feel about this?" and "I think this." And, so it was really lovely. It was really cool.

And for my last question, who are your influences? Directors, writers, whoever...

I'm really influenced by a director named Haile Gerima. He came from UCLA, a film student like I was, but maybe 50 years ago. And he's now a professor at Howard University in D.C. And he's a black filmmaker who has made very personal films, very political films outside the studio system for decades. He really kind of stuck to his guns and always directed films that were his vision. No notes from anyone, no one trying to guide him, like "It might be better this way." Sometimes his films are challenging or difficult, some of them are accessible. But the bottom line is he has expressed his vision consistently for decades and I think, really beautifully. I love his work and I love what he represents.