You directed the web series Brooklyn Is In Love and the films Mad About The Boy and Lover’s Game. How have your previous works come to influence your latest feature, The Haunted Mind of an Insomniac?
I’ve always been a fan of love stories of all genres, and ironically, horror terrified me. For some reason I wanted to face the fear and go for it. I’ve always been a fan of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and I deeply admired his work because he always found a way to include romance in his storylines. Honestly, he’s the reason why we have defined films of that nature as “thrillers.” The Haunted Mind of an Insomniac truly came to me after the second season of Brooklyn Is In Love and Lover’s Game, but it needed more development at that time. In 2012, I put it on the back burner. I wanted to write a story about writers. I feel that all writers are insomniacs—at least I am. I would find myself fantasizing a lot and dreaming about stories before writing them on paper. It’s weird. I know. Artists are all weird in a way and I think that makes us unique. There are times when we face a dramatic event, whether it’s through love, loss, or a painful breakup. Writers always find it therapeutic to express that in our work. That’s basically how I created Insomniac. The main character, Terrence, is trying to move on after his wife and son’s deaths, and I wanted to create an environment for this film that immediately subjects the 1950s culture of Harlem. The setting was important to me and I love New York. Being a native New Yorker, there is no other place I would have wanted to produce this film.
Can you tell us about Insomniac? How has the film evolved during your work on it?
It’s definitely evolved. I feel that I’ve grown as a writer and as a director over the years after Lover’s Game. It was the first time that I was able to work with an assistant director and actually have a full crew on set. As soon as the actors go into wardrobe or hair and makeup, they immediately become these characters that I have written for them, and it just takes my breath away. It makes me proud to be an artist and work with such talented actors.
You’ve been working on Insomniac for the past two years. What difficulties have you encountered along the path to completing the film and how have you dealt with them?
It all boils down to funding and timing. It’s very difficult to work quickly while having a day job. There were moments where I was offered multiple opportunities to produce, including for director Jay Palmieri for the short film Lea, which was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. He’s a brilliant director and produced a film called Taste. We’ve been friends for many years and this was the first opportunity for us to work together. After his success with Taste, which was screened at over 30 film festivals all over the world, Jay has truly evolved over the years. I thought this was perfect timing for us to collaborate. Lover’s Game screened at several film festivals. Our lead actress, Crawford Collins, won a Best Actress Award at both The Mount Vernon Film Festival and Hudson Valley Film Festival. It’s hard balancing all of this, but I feel that the success of these previous films will definitely help push Insomniac to where it needs to be. Timing is everything in this industry. The more you wait, the better the advantage at times.
In Insomniac, your visual style has changed from your previous work. You combined documentary-style structure with photography and special effects. Can you talk more about the inspiration behind the visuals and the specifics?
It’s funny that you mention it. I was just in an interview the other day for Bronxnet at Lehman College and the interviewer mentioned that as well. Being a native New Yorker from the Bronx, I’ve always loved New York. It was only when I was 26 that I truly fell in love with Brooklyn. Brooklyn, in 2009, was much different than it is today. It was a very deserted and beautiful place hidden in the shadows of glamorous Manhattan. It was the hub for artists and it still is. It was the place where I started my career as a documentary director for the series On the Scene, where I interviewed unsigned artists in New York, Boston, and Pennsylvania. Eventually it branched off to the UK, interviewing for 6 Day Riot. Then I thought, let me create a narrative drama series called Brooklyn Is In Love. I love incorporating documentary style in my films and showcasing New York City. I’ve always considered New York as my lover, and I have a deep, close relationship with this beautiful place. I always find the need to have to showcase it to the world. I want my films to be my diary—an open book of how I visualize the world.
The subjects of your stories seem to be interwoven with dark psychological themes and yet also have hopeful, romantic elements. What inspires you to make these kinds of films?
I think what inspires me, or has inspired me in the past, are fabulous creators such as William J. Bell, who was the creator of The Young and the Restless, producer Aaron Spelling, Nora Ehron, Willard Carroll, Douglas Carter Beane, Shonda Rhimes, Darren Star, and Lisa Cholodenko. I’ve always been a fan of soap operas. I think I get that from my mother because she watched every series produced by Aaron Spelling and worshiped the creators of The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful. Soap opera writers are the best in the business. To be able to write a storyline with new developments and have it run for over 40 years is a gift. I always want to create films that are different and make you curious about life, and to create characters who share similarities to audiences that watch my work. Whether you are a man, woman, straight, person of color, or in the LGBTQ community, you will find a character you can relate to in every role I write or produce.
You seem to be attracted to stories with complex female protagonists. What elements are important to you when portraying women in film?
I think women are amazing because of how many roles they can play on film. I’ve always wanted to write about “real women.” Women who are non-traditional. For years, women have been subjected to being the housewives or characters that gravitated towards the men in their lives. I want to create storylines of strong women and to show a sense of equality in film. For years, actresses had to be fronted with roles that sexualized women as a way of strength. That’s why I deeply admire Shonda Rhimes. She shows that women in television can be the character that runs a company or the character that can balance being a working mother. She also portrays women of color as doctors and lawyers and these are professions we don’t usually see them doing in films and television.
How do you manage to juggle all your creative hats and stay focused?
A lot of coffee. It helps.
What kinds of characters and stories would you like to see more of in film and on TV? Is there an area that you believe is being overlooked?
Yes, I feel that actresses of color need to be shown in a more positive light on film and television. For example, if you watch reruns of Law and Order, or if you watch several Tyler Perry productions, women of color are portrayed as being loud and angry. We are not that way at all in society—or at least I’m not. I feel that it’s heavily stereotyped. A series that I’ve grown to appreciate is Being Mary Jane, which has been ignored over the years by the Emmys and is a beautifully produced and written show. I think we need to start praising shows like Being Mary Jane that take us out of the norm and showcase real women.
You mentioned that you see networking and moving ahead in the film industry as a kind of game. What advice would you offer to women filmmakers for playing that game as they plan to make the leap from directing shorts to a feature?
It is. Sadly, it’s all a game. For minorities, we have to work twice as hard in the film industry to be noticed, and even though we’ve had a lot of accomplishments, we can’t erase history, nor how long it’s taken us to get there. How many outstanding black actresses and actors did not live to see the day where black performers received Oscars and Emmys? I’m glad that doors are finally opening. It makes me feel proud to be in “the game.” I feel that it’s a game that we can become good at as writers and directors. It’s the game of the tortoise and the hare. It may take you a long time to get to your goal in life, but you will succeed. You have to believe that you will and continue to have faith in yourself. That message is directed to all women filmmakers. Keep fighting and never give up.