Let’s hear one, if you don’t mind.
Sure. I’ll give you one. So, I sold a horror movie. I’ve always loved the horror/thriller genre.
Me too, I’m excited for that!
Thank you! As you know, there are not a lot of Black people in that space. Jordan Peele broke through in a major way with Get Out, which I love was inspired by. I’d already said prior to Get Out coming out, when people would ask what I’d want to do next–this sounds random because people don’t think of Black women and horror–but I was like, I want to do a horror movie, and not only do I want to do a horror movie, but I want it to be with Black women. So people were like, “That’s an interesting combination.” One of the execs who passed on it, his issue with it was: “Do Black women watch horror movies?”
Oh my god. [Laughs]
Exactly. [Laughs] He was just like, “I don’t think that happens.”
How do you maintain your composure? You just said that and I emoted like oh my god! Because it seems so silly.
It is silly and usually I have a better poker face, but I did react to it because I was like, “Do they? Yes! Yes we do!” Like, I can tell you that as a Black woman, and also there’s a well-known fact that when you roll up to the Black theater in the cities it’s full of Black people screaming at the screen. We’re actually really interested and really engaged in horror movies, as much as white people are. We aren’t targeted and we aren’t being given those opportunities to have Black talent in them, but we definitely go to see them. Even with Get Out, he was like, “Well Get Out is different.” That’s always the thing people say when something does well, that it’s the exception. I know that not to be true, but the justification that everybody gives is that Get Out is the exception, or Girls Trip is the exception, instead of it proving that Black people do watch horror, or that Black women can be in big comedies.
Anyway, that one just recently happened. People just don’t get it and a lot of it is because they live in a bubble and they don’t go outside of their world or they don’t know Black people or people of color. The idea that Black people like a certain thing is really foreign to them. They’re the ones deciding content and they should be more knowledgeable about these sorts of things, but I’m still getting surprised by someone’s ignorance.
Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me. For other Black women that want to break in, you’ve been very upfront about the process and the years it takes to secure a Girls Trip or a Get Out, but for someone who wants to get into the industry through writing, what would your advice be?
The best thing to do to break in is to hone your craft. Whether it’s writing or directing or producing, just hone your craft. That came from years of putting on shitty plays at Stanford and writing shitty drafts of scripts. There’s been a lot of good stuff that I put out there, but there’s been a lot of stuff that people will never read because it’s on my laptop and it’s awful. You have to sometimes write really bad things in order to write really good things. The practice that it takes can go over years, or some people can just be natural and it can happen really quickly, but don’t underestimate how important it is to be really good. The second thing that’s important, because Hollywood is very much about who you know, is internships. There are a lot of people of color that truly do want to give back and help, and I’m definitely one of them. I’m signed up to be a mentor for several organizations and whenever I can, I try to hire people that I’ve mentored, and I go to speak at a lot of different events, and I go to reach out to people that way, but no one can survive out here without some kind of mentor. I’ve certainly had people that took me under their wing, and you have to pay it forward. So, be really good at your craft so it makes it much easier for people to want to vouch for you and send your work out and partner with you and work with you. But also I did a lot of internships and not-that-great labor just to make relationships.
What was the collaborative process of writing Girls Trip with Kenya Barris?
It was very tricky and nontraditional because he was doing Black-ish and I was on Survivor’s Remorse. We honestly had very little face-to-face interaction. It was a lot of before work, after work, at lunch conversation. You’d try to sneak and be like, “Hey did you read this scene, what are your thoughts?” and sending stuff after hours. It was kind of chaotic to get it done.
Were there any moments in the script that didn’t make the film?
Not any major moments. There are jokes that didn’t make it, and in a very early draft, Dina had a love interest. I think we just had too much going on in the script, so we ended up losing that over several drafts. I’m trying to think of something else…That’s crazy, actually. It stayed pretty true to that original draft. There’s stuff that was added, like the grapefruit scene wasn’t added until much, much later.
What was the catalyst to adding the grapefruit scene?
That came from Will Packer, actually, because of that really popular YouTube video. I think Kenya and I were a little like, “Uhhhh, do we really want to do this?” My Mom and her church friends were going to see it and I was just imagining that and I was like, “Oof, I don’t know!” I was like, “Black ladies are going to go crazy and write me open letters about how inappropriate it was.” So I was just freaking out, but what’s really smart about Will Packer is that he knows what audiences like and how far to go. The response to it has been overwhelmingly positive. I haven’t received any open letters, my Mom and her church friends thought it was scandalous, but they still laughed.
That’s good. [Laughs]
Yeah! That ended up being not as awkward as I thought that it would be.
What was it like to be on set and interact with these acting legends in our community? Was that a dream come true for you?
It was. It was really…surreal. We went through quite a journey casting it. There were a lot of people that either said no or they weren’t available. There was a point where I was like, “Is this movie going to get made?” The studio wasn’t going to make it unless the right cast signed on to do it. Regina Hall was one of the first to sign on. So I went through my freakout with her and then when Queen Latifah and Jada signed on, I was like, “This is a crazy good cast. I’m really really excited.” I thought about them in Set It Off and how much I love both of them. I missed Jada being in comedies. She’s done Bad Moms but it has been a while since a part really allowed her to shine. I flipped out. I was like, “Oh my god! Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith are doing this movie!” With Tiffany, we had written with Leslie Jones in mind for that part. That obviously did not end up working out, but Tiffany just…For me, that’s a writer’s dream, to write a role like Dina and then to see what she did with it?! It was just incredible. I got be on set and see a lot of it live and I was like, “This is magical.” Really, really special.
How long did it take the project to come to fruition?
It was pretty quick. I would say total amount of time, from getting hired to write and it going into production, about a year. That’s fast, by movie-making standards.
The Regina Hall monologue at the end had my movie theater on the edge of their seats. What was the process of writing that? Did you have to dig deep and constantly revise?
That one did not really change from the first draft to the end. They were 100% almost the same. I heard Universal hired us because of that. That was always part of our pitch when we sold what we wanted to do with this movie. I wanted it to be a love story between women and I wanted it to be empowering for her at the end. I don’t know, I love the idea of a woman–especially in her 40s, but it can resonate with women of all ages–betting on herself and being okay with starting over. I remember writing this in that monologue because it was truthful to me at the time. A lot of us believe it’s better to be a in a bad relationship than to be alone, and it’s something I’ve grappled with. We’re so afraid of being single and not having companionship and not having that plus-one, that we deal with a lot of shit we shouldn’t deal with. That is a legitimate fear that a lot of people have and I’d gotten over that fear and I thought that was a powerful way to end this movie. When I wrote that monologue, it came from the heart, and it stayed the same because I think people felt it off the page, that it was coming from a real place. The way Regina delivered it is how you want it to be delivered. You felt it. I started tearing up when she finally comes clean and looks at the Flossy Posse in the audience. They really captured this speech.
Congratulations on The First Wives Club. I also know you’re working on a Misty Copeland-produced TV show about ballet. What’s the difference between writing for film versus TV?
I find that writing movies are harder, to be honest. TV is a more collaborative medium, so you get to work with a lot of different people and they contribute ideas–you’re not really trying to figure out what the movie is on your own. With features, you have to really tell a fully realized story in two hours or less. In TV, you have the opportunity to slow things down and let things linger. It’s really hard to introduce characters and make people care about them in two hours or less. People underestimate how hard we had to work to put in so much information about the Flossy Posse in the beginning of the movie so that by the end you felt like you knew them and they were your girls and you really cared about them. You don’t have that many pages or that much time, especially in a comedy. Comedies are not supposed to be over two hours. I’m sure you’ve seen movies where you aren’t invested in the characters. It’s hard to get people to be invested in a story really quickly, so I think features are probably harder.
When you are working in TV, what qualities do you look for when trying to build a writers’ room?
If First Wives does go and I do get to hire a room, the people I would like to be in the room are people with a lot of life experiences. I know that sounds basic, but there are a lot of people that haven’t been through anything and don’t have much to say or talk about. So much of good television is just talking about your experiences and the things that you’ve been through. I’m definitely going to be looking for people that have relatable stories, interesting stories, any background that could be fun or useful for a show like First Wives, and then also, really funny people. I like to read scripts that pop off the page. If someone can make me laugh from reading their script, I’m like, “I want to meet that person.” It’s really hard to get a laugh in writing. And then, because I do want it to feel authentically New York, I’d love to get a couple of New York-based writers as well.
What is your approach to writing jokes? It’s hard for me to imagine the things that come out of Dina’s mouth on the page and making sure that translates. How do you know when the joke is working or when it isn’t?
My style of writing jokes is naturalistic. I’m not great at the network sitcom type of jokes or punchlines. I’m used to writing jokes that relate to the character being funny, so if comedy comes naturally from a person’s behavior, that’s easier for me than saying, “Okay, a joke has to come in here.” A lot of the stuff with Girls Trip that people found really funny was just things I found funny in people. Like with Dina, it just made me laugh to think about a character who assaulted someone at the beginning of the script, and is getting fired, but is asking for time off. That just made me laugh ’cause that’s really dumb. I thought less about, “What’s the joke going to be in this scene?” and more like, “That’s a funny situation to put this character in,” and then wrote from there. We even said early on that Dina would break a bottle and threaten Stewart in the middle of the hotel.
Were there any improvised moments or were pretty much all of the jokes written the way we see them on screen?
A lot of the jokes are there, but a lot it was improvised as well. Especially when you have someone like Tiffany who does stand-up. She’s incredible at taking what’s already there and elevating it and making it ten times funnier with her add-ons. She did a lot of good stuff on her own.
What’s your writing process? For example, do you need a glass of wine and a favorite album to want to write? How do you flesh out your characters so that they’re multidimensional?
It’s a long process for me to discover the characters. I usually start with a germ of an idea. I’ll be like, “This character I want to be this age,” and usually what helps me is thinking of an actress, even if it doesn’t end up being that person. Thinking of an actress that kind of embodies what I’m physically going for, the sound, how they talk, all of those things, and then writing from that perspective. What usually happens is that, as I continue to write it, I discover the character more and more, whereas some people do all the preparation up front with the characters. They do character charts and all that kind of stuff to figure out personality. I tend to do the opposite. I tend to find it in the script, which sometimes makes it harder, but I like the idea of discovering the character and not being beholden to previous ideas I had. I allow the script to take me in a certain direction.
As far as getting in the mood to write, sometimes I wake up excited and I’m ready to get to work. Then sometimes, writing is the worst thing ever. Legit, you do have to drink a glass of wine or have a cookie. Have some kind of like, culinary reward for getting through. I’ll be like, “When I get through with this, I’m going to happy hour.” Certain days I have to play mind games with myself to get through it. Usually the treat is alcohol or cookies.
Do you still have acting ambitions? Do you want to direct? Where do you want to go from here?
Yeah, I’m directing a movie next year but one of the shows that I’m going out with, I would be acting in. We’ll see. It’s really early in the process, but I definitely miss performing and would love to be able to write something for myself and other Black women to be in.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how writing is a means to an end. Especially for a lot of Black women in the industry, you can kind of write your way into these spaces. Do you see it that way?
Writing is the most powerful currency you can have. I encourage everyone to learn how to write because it’s the most powerful thing you can do. The only reason I’m getting to direct a movie is because I can write. If you have a script people want to make and you say, “I won’t let you have the script unless you make me the director,” it just gives you a lot more power. That was really helpful for me, becoming a director, but also [as an antidote to] acting, because you don’t have to sit around and wait for opportunities–you have the power to create them. It’s hard to tell everyone to learn how to write because not everybody can do it. If they can’t write themselves, the second best thing is learning how to produce and aligning yourself with a good writer.
I imagine securing money as a producer is pretty difficult.
I mean, I was writing Awkward Black Girl as well, but I was the producer of it. It was a lot of work. But what ended up happening is that if you can license or sell something that you’re a producer on, you can make money that way. You’re right, it’s not as easy to make money as writing, but some people are just not writers and if some people are like, “I cannot do it,” producing is the next best thing, and you have to learn how to sell a story. Work with writers, work with actors, and learn all different aspects of production. It’s hard, but there are different ways of getting around not being able to write.
Thank you for the interview. Congratulations on all your success, I’m proud of you.
Awww, of course! Thank you! ♦