Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Swanson. She is the award winning director of films such as Two Seasons, All about You, and All About Us. Her recent film, Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story (which tells the story of the R&B/jazz singer of “Baby be Mine,” and Come Share My Love), broke ratings record for TV One (the network on which it premiered). I spoke to her on the phone to talk about her career and her projects. Below is the first excerpt of my interview with Ms. Swanson (the second part will be up later this week).
What inspired you to get into filmmaking?
I think I fell into filmmaking. Initially, I grew up in Detroit. And oddly enough, I couldn’t go to a lot of different places with friends, I couldn’t hang out, and do things my friends did. But my parents allowed me to go to the movie theaters. They would drop me off and pick me up when I was done. Sometimes we would be left at the theater for hours. I mean five, six hours. In that time, I’d watch movies either back to back to back or movie hop and watch everything that was showing at the theater at the time. So I spent a lot of my teenage years just doing that, and it wasn’t until I was a freshman at the University of Norte Dame when Spike Lee came to campus to talk about Do the Right Thing, I did not know until that moment I had heard Spike Lee talk that people made movies for a living. I was totally clueless about that. When I saw an actual filmmaker, a spark of lightbulb went on and I knew that I want to do that. I kind of followed Spike Lee’s path to filmmaking and I did the same thing. He went to NYU film school after graduating from Morehouse, so after graduating from Norte Dame, I too went to NYU film school and in a serendipitous way, Spike Lee ended up being my directing teacher my last year of film school.
Would you say Spike Lee was your biggest inspiration as a director? Were you able to take any of his learnings from him into your directing?
I would say he was my first role model. That was the first filmmaker I had ever met and seen in person. He has been a mentor ever since I met him…..after I started to get into film, there were other filmmakers I gravitated towards in terms of filmmaking style. I found that I could have a lot of mentors even if I didn’t know them directly. I can definitely watch their work and study it and incorporate it into some of the things that I try to do as well. Some of my favorite influences come from people like James L Brooks, Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers, a few foreign filmmakers as well. One of my favorite films is a French film called The 400 Blows. I love a Japanese film called Tampopo, that was made by a Japanese filmmaker Juzo Itami. I just kind of gravitated towards very just real human storytelling that invited you into the the lives of ordinary people who find themselves sometimes in ordinary and some extraordinary circumstances and you just are curious as to see how they climb themselves out those scenarios. Very classic storytelling on some level.
One of my favorite films that just blew me away was Terms of Endearment. I just did not know how profound relationships and emotions could resonate from a movie in the way Terms of Endearment did for me. Even to this day if it comes on cable or what have you, I stop what I am doing and watch it. I have several copies of it too. It’s one of those films I can’t ever stop watching because it feels new every time. I thought wow, I want to be that kind of storyteller- [to] make a movie that resonates with people in such deep and profound way that they want to watch it over and over again.
I think on some level, (at least based on some of the feedback that I have gotten from some fans of my work) I think a couple of films I have done kind of speak to people like that. Namely the main one is my first feature film called All about You. I have gotten a lot of requests to make a follow-up or sequel to that movie. Now considering that the film starred Renee Elise Goldsberry, who just won a Tony for playing Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton.. Rene is a bigger star than anybody. It just seems like a good idea to revisit that story and see what we can do in terms of a follow-up.
I was looking your films and just how inspirational they are. I particularly related to your plot in “For the Love of Ruth,” in which Ruth struggles with what she wants and what she gets. Is that what attracted you to the story? When you are looking for a project, are you looking for telling a story that’s not being told? How do you choose a story for the projects that you decide to direct or write?
Interestingly for two of the films ([the] first two films I did for TV One) are stories they had already written and they brought me into direct. My job at that point was to figure out the visual language of the storytelling in the most compelling way that I could…. I didn’t have anything specific to do with the writing with To Hell and Back and For the Love of Ruth. I just wanted to see what I could do with the characterization in terms of the directing, to really make an audience want to go on her or his journey. A lot of that is helped by various elements like acting. You can’t beat Ernie Hudson as a lead in a movie, who is a phenomenal actor in his own right with enormous credit as well. So sometimes you are blessed with great talent who can help bring the story to life, and my job is to guide them through the process (or in some cases, kind of get out of Bernie’s way, so he can do what he does in the Bernie way that he does it). And that’s the same scenario I experienced [with] For The love of Ruth. We had an excellent cast. We had Loretta Divine, Denise Boutee, Gary Dourdan, James Pickens Jr. With that level of talent and the opportunity to have fun and play with them, that’s kind of exciting to me as a director, and my hope was that I can elevate the story that again engaged people.
When you go into a movie, do you have a decision on whether to write or direct?
I think the story could benefit from me writing it if that’s how it starts because I’m a writer and a director. The first two movies, like I said, that I did for the network were already written scripts that I was hired to direct. Then the third movie I did for TV One, which was The Miki Howard Story, was the actually the first script that I had a huge hand in the writing of the story. Specifically, writing the story with Miki Howard. Since it was a biopic, it was a unique opportunity to really get the true inside story from the source. So that was exciting for me and that was a great opportunity to utilize my skills as a screenwriter to help get the story strong on the page, then to direct into a movie which then has a better likelihood of being a strong movie as well. Ideally that worked well for me because I see the movie in my head and if it doesn’t match what’s in the script, I can always help it by making it pop off the page so that when you are shooting it, you have a better chance of doing things successfully and economically, not in terms of cost, but economically in terms of storytelling.
One of the things I thought was interesting about The Miki Howard Story is you incorporated her real life friends and acquaintances in the film, including Chaka Khan’s daughter. Did you know that you were going to cast in that respect before making the film?
Not at all….That was a blessing of working with someone like Miki Howard who is a veteran in this business like a gazillion times over. She was the one who planted that bug in my ear. She said you should really look at Chaka’s daughter to play Chaka. Before I got to really know Miki, I wasn’t sure that was the way to go because I was wondering how much acting experience Indira had and lo and behold, if you got to see the film, you see how wonderful she is playing her mom. Miki called that. Again, my job was to direct the performance so that’s as good as we can get it on film … that’s one of the stand out performances people speak about all the time was Chaka Khan’s daughter. So it really worked out well.
That was part of the magic of Miki, knowing in advance who the perfect people are for every role. Even for Gerald Levert, Miki is really good friends with Darius McCrary, and she said that you should really look at Darius McCrary for Gerald Levert and I thought, well it’s Miki Howard, I’m gonna listen…When I met with Darius, within one minute of sitting with him, it was obvious that nobody else could play Gerald Levert but this guy. It totally worked out right. In terms of casting some of the people who are familiar, that came through Miki. We actually did a cameo – it was a cameo of Gerald Levert’s son LaMicah (a lot of it had to be cut out….) and Miki Howard’s daughter plays one of the background singers. So we were able to incorporate a lot of family members from a lot of R&B singers from her day, so that was a pretty cool *wink wink* moment we could incorporate into the movie.
Source: TV One
For the next movie you’re working on Buffalo Soldier Girl you’ll be telling the story of a former slave who posed as man to fight in the Civil War and that’s not something we hear about. Can you tell me how you got involved in this film?
So this is a story written by Sarah Bird, who is a renowned novelist out of Texas (she won Texas Writer of the year) and this particular script won the Meryl Streep writing contest. So it’s an award winning script and that’s being produced by producers…called Pantheon of Women..They wanted to find an African-American female director to direct the movie because they felt like only a black woman could tell the story of a black woman, of a true historic figure, based on a true story of a black woman who left slavery and chose to join the… army and join the ranks of the Buffalo Soldiers. So that’s how it came about. They did some research and somehow they found me, and we talked about it and we really got along.
I read the script and I was kind of blown away because it’s a remarkable script. It’s been around for a long time and nobody could get it made because Hollywood was not necessarily interested in telling the story of a black female protagonist that used to be a slave. I think the climate is changing or has changed now. It seems like maybe a little bit easier to do now, even though we still have to do it on an independent level. The fact is, the story is getting told. I was attracted to the script because it is remarkable. It really is remarkable. I thought wow, I can’t believe this story hasn’t been told, and I think now would be a great time, more so than ever in the past because the climate is better and you have somebody remarkable like Teyonah Parris, who after having just worked with her [on The Miki Howard Story] I feel like she embodies the spirit of Cathay Williams. She is a young girl who forged her own path and made her own way and succeeded in the decisions and the choices she made for herself and Teyonah very much reminds me of Cathay and embodies the spirit of Cathay in that she is very focused and determined.
What stages are you in your filming process? Have you started filming?
We started pre-production; I did some location scouting in Texas. Our goal [is] for fall production start date.
Be sure to check out the upcoming part two of my interview with Christine Swanson, where she discusses her experiences being a female director. She has an interesting perspective on this issue, so stay tuned for that piece coming up within the next week.