Entertainment // March 24, 2014

Hollywood is much like playing the tables in Las Vegas. Success takes a touch of good fortune and a great deal of skill. Lena Waithe has both. A Chicago native, this Writer/Producer has taken the LA scene by storm. Just this past year, her film “Dear White People” graced Sundance audiences, her web-series “Hello Cupid" charmed small screen viewers, and she dropped a preview of her upcoming series “Twenties”– on which she’s partnered with Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit Productions. And just this past weekend “Dear White People” was acquired by Lionsgate and Roadside Pictures. Waithe’s future is bright and she’s been sure to bring fellow creatives and close friends along on the journey. After returning from Sundance’s whirlwind, which she self-described as “life changing,” Waithe took a few moments to chat with me about her creative vision.

MW: At what point did you realize you were a writer?

LW: I knew I wanted to be a television writer when I was 7. I saw a different world and I thought, whatever this is, I want to be a part of it. I was a child with a vision – always a big reader. I loved writing and television. So, this combined my favorite things.

I studied all the greats and great television can transcend time. It’s one of the reasons I take such pride in what I do.

MW: Is there a common thread in the stories you tell?

LW: Honestly, I think I’m really good at writing female relationships. Whether they be familial, romantic, platonic, or messy. I like writing about the relationships that women have with each other.

MW: If you could accomplish one thing with your voice, what would it be?

LW: To do what A Different World did for me, for someone else - allow people to see a better version of themselves and help them realize that the world is bigger than their backyard. A big thing too, is that I’d like to hold up a mirror to reflect the faces that are looking at it. I really want people to feel a connection to the characters that I write.

MW: Where do you think current programming is lacking in that regard?

LW: I think there’s a lot of aspirational stuff, which is fine. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t require characters to look inward. Usually, when you see a show that’s well done – it has a great impact because it’s really about flawed characters that are self-aware and are really trying to improve themselves. It’s about them trying to be better people. And I think that’s every human being’s journey. That’s why people hook into these characters more than these glossy characters with these fabulous lives.

MW: What creatives have helped influence your process?

LW: A person who really is my all-time hero is Susan Fales-Hill. She started out as an intern on The Cosby Show and Dr. Cosby thought she’d be a great fit for A Different World. I got a chance to sit down and have coffee with her. She’s very classy, and played a huge role in setting the stage for Mara Brock Akil and Shonda Rhimes. She has influenced my whole career. When we finally met, it was full-circle moment for me.

MW: What has been the most difficult part of your career and how did you overcome it?

LW: The difficult part is writing and rewriting bad scripts when you first start. That’s the hardest part. Everything you do isn’t going to be as great as you want it to be – it’s just not. That process of learning how to take notes and trying to find your voice – that’s hard. All this stuff about the industry, everyone is going to have a tough time. This is a hard business period. But to me the hard part is the internal journey to continue to go on and become the artist you want to be.


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MW:Advice?

LW:Be great in whatever it is that you do. If you aren’t great at it, then everything you’re doing now should be working towards becoming great.  When you’re great, good things will happen.

To those of you who jumped ahead to find out what’s next for Ms. Waithe, she kept things close to the chest. Good news: she says that great things are “brewing,” "Twenties" has found a home and Justin Semien ("Dear White People") will be involved, and there’s a secret project in the works with Issa Rae. It’s nice to know that the house doesn’t always win.



Follow Lena on Twitter: @hillmangrad

Published in Entertainment
Thursday, 13 December 2012 20:58

Documentary in the Making: One Day I Too Go Fly

Kickstarter // December 13, 2012

As children, our parents read to us and immersed us in fantastical worlds to lull us to sleep. My mother would read  “Where the Wild Things Are” to me. Growing up, we learn that stories can take on many forms, and that sometimes, the most inspirational and uplifting stories are true.

A year ago, fellow USC film grad and friend, Arthur Musah, approached me about partnering on a documentary, One Day I Too Go Fly. Arthur, a Ghanaian, came to America to study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  After years of working at Texas Instruments, his desire to share stories with the world brought him to USC.  One Day I Too Go Fly, originated out of his need to show the world a new Africa and how foreign students, like himself,  adapt to a new culture and find ways to contribute back home.  The film would document the lives of 5 African students pursuing their undergraduate degrees at MIT.  

I’m not African or an engineer, but this story definitely resonated with me. Unfortunately, I was sure that if I asked any of my friends what they knew about Africa, they’d definitely make a comment about the turmoil and hardships. I wasn’t sure, however, what they could tell me about youth in Africa, what their educational needs were, or what the future of Africa would look like with a booming young population looking to have influence. One Day I Too Go Fly struck me as an opportunity to tell a small part of this story.

This documentary is not going to be a rags to riches tale. Each of the students we are following has a varied background. They hail from Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Tanzania. For some, they are the first in their families to pursue higher education. Others are continuing in the footsteps of relatives before them. The one goal they do share is the desire to make a difference in their communities.

One Day I Too Go Fly is a living, breathing story. It continues to change as the undergrads grow in Boston and take what they’ve learned back home. In our first year of production, we’ve seen our students struggle through new classes, make new friends, and we’ve even had the opportunity to go back to Nigeria with one freshman, Phillip. Our project is unique in that it spans the students’ entire undergraduate careers. We won’t complete production for 4 years. As a producer, that’s an obstacle. Our costs are relatively low, but we have to be prepared to fund our project through post-production, which could make this a 5 year endeavor.  We may not be able to secure firm partnerships until our story is more flushed out—at the two year mark.  

On top of all of this, both Arthur and I have full-time jobs. We’re forced to balance the needs of this project with other responsibilities. Thankfully, we have a wonderful team of advisors: Mark J. Harris, an Academy Award winning documentarian, Helen Elaine Lee, a Professor of Fiction Writing at MIT, and Kate Amend, a Sundance Lab Editing Advisor. Our advisors have provided a tremendous amount of knowledge.

As independent producers, we’re tasked with finding funds for our project.  We’ve managed to raise over $22,000 on a crowdfunding site thus far.  We’ve applied to countless grants and will continue to do so.  Festivals have been kind enough to show our teaser, we’ve reached out to the press in an effort to share our story, and when the time comes, we’ll follow through with our outreach plan, seek distribution, and submit to our finished film to festivals. For now, we are growing as filmmakers while we witness our students pursue their dreams.


For more info about One Day I Too Go Fly:

KICKSTARTER LINK: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1820684617/one-day-i-too-go-fly-documentary-production

WEBSITE: www.onedayitoogofly.com

FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/OneDayITooGoFly

Published in Current

March 12, 2012

When you think about women in Hollywood you probably get an image in your head of a woman in a long flowing evening gown, draped in jewelry and posed on a red carpet. This is because the majority of women in the entertainment industry have a place on the red carpet, but not many seek a place among the shot-callers of Hollywood. According to an annual report by the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University, women comprised 18% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2011. 18%. That’s it. In an industry that is all about creativity and conveying emotion, you would think there would be more women running the show. So, what is it about Hollywood that compels so many women to transform, inspire and shine on screen, but so few to do the same from behind the camera?

To get a little insight into this I spoke with Hollywood veteran Troy Byer Bailey. As an African-American woman, the success that Troy has enjoyed as a director, writer, and producer is extremely rare. Throughout her career she has worked with everyone from Francis Ford Coppola, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry to Prince. Troy got her start at 4-years-old as a child actress on Sesame Street. That’s right; she was part of the original cast that chilled with Big Bird. She then went on to secure roles on other huge productions like Dynasty and The Cosby Show. Her success as an actress was growing, but she made the switch to being a content creator and wrote her first screenplay, B*A*P*S*, which ended up being the first starring role for Halle Berry. While Byer didn’t give up acting completely, she did begin to focus on other talents, like writing and directing. She wrote and directed Love Don’t Cost A Thing, Let’s Talk About Sex and wrote for the TV series Soul Food. Some may wonder why Troy would choose to leave the limelight and move behind the scenes, but Troy says “Acting wasn’t going the way I wanted. I had other interests. I wanted to transform.”

This from a woman who managed to transform time and again for millions to see, on the set of classic films like The Five Heartbeats (a personal favorite) as Baby Doll, Eddie Cane Jr.’s faithful wife, and in huge blockbusters like John Q. But Troy had caught the writing and directing bug. She says her love for directing started as early as on the set of Sesame Street, “I especially loved sitting on the cameraman's chair and learning how to shoot the various scenes.” But why don’t more little girls dream of growing up and directing movies? According to the same study by San Diego State, the number of women working behind the scenes on the top 250 domestic grossing films increased by only 2 percentage points from 2010 to 2011. Although the numbers seem to reflect a boy’s club atmosphere that may shut out an African-American woman, Troy says that she never encountered any discrimination. “I haven’t had any trouble getting stuff out there. Do your own thing. If people like it they will accept it. Those lines are getting blurred and dissolving in the sand.”

While choosing to take a more authoritative role in the creative process made Troy an anomaly, it didn’t make things easy. She says that the version of B*A*P*S* she wrote didn’t end up on screen. Influences from director Robert Townsend altered Troy’s original vision, making it more of a “buffoonish” comedy rather than the empowering message that Troy had intended. “The Black American Princess is me… It’s you,” she explains, “There is a lot of value in comedic relief, but what is more important: success or authentic representations?” Troy’s struggle to have her genuine portrayals of women translate on screen has become her mission. She is now interested in telling only remarkable and diverse stories, like Girls of Summer, a film she has in the works about the first African American female basketball league and Ex Free, a film based on a book she wrote about recovering from heartbreak. Hopefully, with the recent success of other female writers and directors like Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker) and Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight), female writers and directors like Troy will enjoy more creative freedom. More female directors means that more of our stories will be told.

After literally growing up in the Hollywood limelight (Whoopi Goldberg was her babysitter and Alvin Ailey her next door neighbor) and moving on to writing and directing, Troy has seen it all. So what does she have to say to other women thinking about making moves behind the scenes in entertainment? “Have a plan. My downfall was I was constantly waiting for someone else to validate my existence as an actress. It took me a long time to realize that I am the only one who can validate my existence, and if I wanted to exist then I would have to create.”

Troy’s plan is definitely one to model a career after. She now writes books and screenplays in addition to being a public speaker and radio personality. She says that directing is still her favorite part of the business, “I love working with actors, creating a color palette for the film, working with set and costume designers, the director of photography and overall the collaborative process of directing. It's fun being a part of a team committed to creating a specific vision.”

It’s wonderful to hear of anyone in Hollywood--male or female--striving to create diverse and unique material. Because of her mission alone I consider Troy a success. She, on the other hand, has other ideas, “I never want to feel like I've made it, I've arrived, [and] this is it. I love Steve Jobs' quote; ‘Stay Hungry! Stay Foolish!’ That being said, I am proud to live as a Starving Fool!”

Published in Entertainment

March 12, 2012

When you think about women in Hollywood you probably get an image in your head of a woman in a long flowing evening gown, draped in jewelry and posed on a red carpet. This is because the majority of women in the entertainment industry have a place on the red carpet, but not many seek a place among the shot-callers of Hollywood. According to an annual report by the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University, women comprised 18% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2011. 18%. That’s it. In an industry that is all about creativity and conveying emotion, you would think there would be more women running the show. So, what is it about Hollywood that compels so many women to transform, inspire and shine on screen, but so few to do the same from behind the camera?

To get a little insight into this I spoke with Hollywood veteran Troy Byer Bailey. As an African-American woman, the success that Troy has enjoyed as a director, writer, and producer is extremely rare. Throughout her career she has worked with everyone from Francis Ford Coppola, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry to Prince. Troy got her start at 4-years-old as a child actress on Sesame Street. That’s right; she was part of the original cast that chilled with Big Bird. She then went on to secure roles on other huge productions like Dynasty and The Cosby Show. Her success as an actress was growing, but she made the switch to being a content creator and wrote her first screenplay, B*A*P*S*, which ended up being the first starring role for Halle Berry. While Byer didn’t give up acting completely, she did begin to focus on other talents, like writing and directing. She wrote and directed Love Don’t Cost A Thing, Let’s Talk About Sex and wrote for the TV series Soul Food. Some may wonder why Troy would choose to leave the limelight and move behind the scenes, but Troy says “Acting wasn’t going the way I wanted. I had other interests. I wanted to transform.”

This from a woman who managed to transform time and again for millions to see, on the set of classic films like The Five Heartbeats (a personal favorite) as Baby Doll, Eddie Cane Jr.’s faithful wife, and in huge blockbusters like John Q. But Troy had caught the writing and directing bug. She says her love for directing started as early as on the set of Sesame Street, “I especially loved sitting on the cameraman's chair and learning how to shoot the various scenes.” But why don’t more little girls dream of growing up and directing movies? According to the same study by San Diego State, the number of women working behind the scenes on the top 250 domestic grossing films increased by only 2 percentage points from 2010 to 2011. Although the numbers seem to reflect a boy’s club atmosphere that may shut out an African-American woman, Troy says that she never encountered any discrimination. “I haven’t had any trouble getting stuff out there. Do your own thing. If people like it they will accept it. Those lines are getting blurred and dissolving in the sand.”

While choosing to take a more authoritative role in the creative process made Troy an anomaly, it didn’t make things easy. She says that the version of B*A*P*S* she wrote didn’t end up on screen. Influences from director Robert Townsend altered Troy’s original vision, making it more of a “buffoonish” comedy rather than the empowering message that Troy had intended. “The Black American Princess is me… It’s you,” she explains, “There is a lot of value in comedic relief, but what is more important: success or authentic representations?” Troy’s struggle to have her genuine portrayals of women translate on screen has become her mission. She is now interested in telling only remarkable and diverse stories, like Girls of Summer, a film she has in the works about the first African American female basketball league and Ex Free, a film based on a book she wrote about recovering from heartbreak. Hopefully, with the recent success of other female writers and directors like Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker) and Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight), female writers and directors like Troy will enjoy more creative freedom. More female directors means that more of our stories will be told.

After literally growing up in the Hollywood limelight (Whoopi Goldberg was her babysitter and Alvin Ailey her next door neighbor) and moving on to writing and directing, Troy has seen it all. So what does she have to say to other women thinking about making moves behind the scenes in entertainment? “Have a plan. My downfall was I was constantly waiting for someone else to validate my existence as an actress. It took me a long time to realize that I am the only one who can validate my existence, and if I wanted to exist then I would have to create.”

Troy’s plan is definitely one to model a career after. She now writes books and screenplays in addition to being a public speaker and radio personality. She says that directing is still her favorite part of the business, “I love working with actors, creating a color palette for the film, working with set and costume designers, the director of photography and overall the collaborative process of directing. It's fun being a part of a team committed to creating a specific vision.”

It’s wonderful to hear of anyone in Hollywood--male or female--striving to create diverse and unique material. Because of her mission alone I consider Troy a success. She, on the other hand, has other ideas, “I never want to feel like I've made it, I've arrived, [and] this is it. I love Steve Jobs' quote; ‘Stay Hungry! Stay Foolish!’ That being said, I am proud to live as a Starving Fool!”

Published in Entertainment