Interview with Filmmaker: Michelle Sam

Michelle Sam is a writer, filmmaker, actress, and social justice activist whose work focuses on the ongoing themes of race, sexuality, class, and gender. You can catch Michelle performing with the Women of Color Anonymous (WOCA) sketch/improv comedy group at UCB Sunset and WCCW feminist space in Los Angeles. She enjoys late nights, sunshine, dry wit, and last minute adventures.

What drew you into the world of filmmaking? Specifically screenwriting?

When I was five, my teacher asked the class, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Other kids said ballerina, astronaut, superhero, and etc, but even back then I knew I wanted to be a writer. Along the way, I explored other artistic endeavors– dance, acting, photography, comedy– and fell out of love with writing. At university, we had to write a lot of academic papers, and I lost my desire to write. Rather than experiencing writing as fun, introspective, and liberating, it became exhausting and a chore, because I was so focused on churning out academic papers.

Afterwards, I decided to focus on theatre and acting in England and Ireland, and improv comedy in Chicago. What I noticed when I started getting into the acting and the improv world was that there wasn’t a lot of diversity in the roles. And if it was open ethnicity, agents would submit all their white actors first, before sending a hand full of their token minority actors. I’ve usually always been the token in a room, and it’s disheartening when you don’t see yourself up on screen. I cried when Lupita, Viola, and Shonda won their awards…and I’m a grown woman. Just imagine the little girls everywhere who will grow up seeing people who look like them up on the screen, letting them know that it’s okay to look and be different. Or even better, not even notice, because hopefully it will become the new normal. I wish I had that growing up.

I can sit here and talk about lack of diversity this and lack of diversity that, conversations are good. But I knew that I couldn’t just talk, I had to be about it. Change needs to come from not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera, as well. So I started writing again. It made me feel like I had some agency in the process. It helped me develop a voice and gave me a sense of power in a world that disenfranchises people like me and others. It made me realize that the common thread that interested me the most in all my artistic endeavors was the story. Whether it was how to tell a story with ones body in dance, through still images in photography, or in the screenwriting medium visually.

I once read a quote that stated, “A great writer is one who writes in such a way that shocks the reader about other realities that may be around them, but never thought about”. I want to tell those stories. I strive to tell fresh, diverse stories that have never been heard before, or have been heard before but never in this way, in my voice. I aim to tell stories aboutwhat I know, as well as who I know.

I want to examine life and issues in a smart, funny, dark, thoughtful, absurd ways, highlighting and poking fun at the crazy world we live in. I believe that our human existence is nuanced, multi-faceted, many-hued, immensely complex, yet maddeningly simple. As individuals, our experiences and how we process the world are unique and different, but our basic emotions aren’t. We all feel happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and all the emotions that we have trouble putting into words. That’s what makes us human.

What have you done to grow your skills as a screenwriter? 

I have grown my skills as a screenwriter in a variety of ways. Having a core group of people/writing groups that I trust has been really important, we give each other feedback, share resources, and workshop scripts. It also allows you to build relationships and friendships with other people who are going through the industry and experiencing the same growing pains. I also watch a lot of TV and films, both the good and the bad to see what works and what doesn’t. Screenwriting classes with staffed writers and showrunners has also been a good way to grow skills, but most importantly reading scripts from the past as well as from the present has been most helpful. If you live in Los Angeles, WGA has great resources and an extensive database of scripts available for reading, also most scripts can be found online as well.

Take us through your writing process? 

I aim to write every day. It does not necessarily have to be the script itself, but just as long as I’m writing something, whether it is journaling about my day and what I am experiencing, cool ideas too put in a screenplay, or random dialogue that pops up. I do a lot of prep and imagination work before I actually write the screenplay. Specifically, world building, really delving into the internal and external motivations of the characters, psychology, sociology, knowing exactly how the character will think and react, which leads to an outline. I tend to write more characters driven stories, where the characters make choices, and those results and consequences, lead to more choices, moving the story forward. And if I am really stuck, word associations help me brainstorm and stream of consciousness writing help with my writing process. 

What resources do utilize as a filmmakers?

My community is a great resource. Especially as an indie filmmaker, there isn’t a lot of budget. It becomes about inspiring others with your project, mobilizing people to help, calling in favors to friends and associates, and paying it forward in return.

Grants are also helpful, as well. Surprisingly, there are a lot of small grants around that not a lot of people know about, even though the grants may be modest in amount, getting multiple grants adds up to a sizable amount.

What tips would you give someone who is considering screenwriting?

  • Write every day. It doesn’t have to be screenplays; it can be observations, journaling, etc, but just get into the habit of writing.
  • Take classes in the genre you want to write in. It is a great networking opportunity with the instructors (who are usually either staffed writers, producers, or showrunners) as well with other writers in a similar position. These other writers are the people who you will be coming up with in the industry, and it is always good to be around people who understand the struggle, and where you all can empower one another.
  • Read scripts. It is not enough to just watch TV or films. Seeing how a story looks on page and the formatting is really important, especially for the TV shows and films you are already watching.
  • Know that everyone has a story, it is all about discovering the stories you want to tell that you are passionate about

What is a failure you have experienced as a filmmaker and how did you overcome?

While my film has gotten into festivals, we have also received some rejections from other film festivals.

At the end of the day, you can’t let rejections or perceived failures get you down. It is a marathon, not a sprint. If you are receiving blanket rejections from everywhere, take another look at your work, approach it from a different angle, and use it as an opportunity to improve.

If you are getting both acceptances and rejections, realize that not every piece of work is everyone’s cup of tea, and that is okay! The people that get it, will get it. The people who don’t, don’t. I am aware that the particular work I do–stories that feature disenfranchised people, Black women as the leads, and subcultures that are not represented in the mainstream media–may not appeal to everyone, and that is perfectly okay, because I’m not writing it for the people that don’t get it. There are people out there who will appreciate the stories, and the work will resonate with them. I find that authenticity and vulnerability resonates with people, when they are experiencing art in any medium.

What are you reading right now to help your creativity? What are you watching?

I am alternating between reading and watching really creative and experimental stuff, but also lighter and at times fluffy fare. I’m enjoying the full spectrum of everything. Sometimes I like the artsy fartsy stuff, and other times I need to give my brain a break and go for something lighter.

What am I reading?

I am reading a lot of graphic novels: Persepolis (read this repeatedly), American Born Chinese, Marbles, and so on. And a guilty pleasure, adult fantasy fiction books.

What am I watching?

There is so much good TV out right now. I am watching Atlanta, Fresh off the Boat, Broad City, You’re the Worst, Casual, various web series, and short films.

What’s next for you?

Recently, I wrote and directed a short film, Missed Connections, that has been getting into festivals domestically and abroad. I am going through the festival circuit, as well as working on my next projects. I have a grant to direct and write a web series, African Black Sheep, as well as another web series, called Manic. I will be acting in both, so it will be cool to go back to my acting roots. I am also in the works on a graphic novel, in affiliation to African Black Sheep. While juggling all of those projects, I have two pilots in development through a mentorship program with Lena Waithe. I’m intrigued by different mediums of storytelling and how they can aid in telling a story.

How can we keep in touch?

Twitter: @themichellesam

Instagram: @themichellesam

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