Conversation with John C. Williams, Co-Founder & Executive Director, of Reel Works

John C. Williams, Co-Founder & Executive Directorof Reel Works is an award-winning film and television writer, producer and director. Reel Works is an organization providing free filmmaking programs to inner-city youth in NYC. Their Annual Benefit Gala (April 16) is a fundraiser for the organization, and also a chance to honor industry leaders who are paving the way in terms of diversity and representation. This year they will honor Hasan Minhaj (Netflix’s “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj”), Ruth E. Carter (Academy Award-Winning Costume Designer of “Black Panther”), Michael Houston (CEO of Grey Group), and James F. Lopez (President of Will Packer Productions).

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Before the upcoming Annual Benefit Gala, we talked to John and here are the excerpts.

What does REEL WORKS mean to you and why do you think it's important?

Reel Works is a community where teens are mentored by professional filmmakers to tell their stories and have their voices heard.   It’s a powerful combination that changes young lives and reaches millions with their remarkable films. As teens discover a passion for filmmaking, they learn about careers in media.  In fact, over half of our graduates make careers in entertainment.

I am proud that nearly two decades, Reel Works has contributed to building a more diverse workforce in the film industry.  We really believe that when you change the storytellers, you change the world.

What are the primary challenges for your organization and how can people help?

Reel Works is focused on building stronger partnerships with filmmakers and craftspeople to mentor and support our filmmakers.   We are also seeking stronger partnerships with media and production companies to create opportunities for our young people to build pathways to careers.

What has been the most satisfying thing/incident as part of your journeyThe most satisfying part of this journey has been watching young people develop and mature as young artists and citizens.  Students often stay with us throughout high school and into their young adult years. At first it’s about telling a personal story.  Through that process a passion is ignited - leading to a lifelong journey of growth and discovery through filmmaking. Seeing our young filmmakers on stage after screening their films is the way I personally recharge my enthusiasm for the work.

How do you pick the honorees and why these people?

This year, we will be celebrating Change Makers, whose accomplishments in various industries have made an indelible cultural impact and encourage our students to envision a future where their voices are represented and respected:

  • James Lopez, President of Will Packer Productions for reinventing the American mainstream in film and television.

  • Hasan Minhaj for mercilessly taking those in power to task through humor to engage and awaken audiences of all backgrounds

  • Michael Houston, CEO of Grey Advertising for bringing a new generation of leadership to the creative renaissance in marketing and advertising worldwide

  • Ruth E. Carter - Academy Award Winning Costume Designer for Black Panther - the first African-American to win an Academy Award in that category.  

What is your message to all budding young filmmakers and storytellers?

First -  Be an active creator rather than a passive consumer of media.  The world needs to hear your stories.

Second - This is a great time to pursue a career in entertainment - especially in NYC where there has been an explosion of production and post production jobs in recent years.  

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John C. Williams, Co-Founder & Executive Directoris an award-winning film and television writer, producer and director whose credits include independent shorts, features, documentaries, television programming and corporate communications. Prior to founding Reel Works, John created original television for WNET/Thirteen, Oxygen, WE: Women’s Television and Metro Channels. John has produced numerous major market television commercials and independent films. John holds an MFA in Film & Television from New York University and a BA in English from Boston University.

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Reel Works is an organization providing free filmmaking programs to inner-city youth in NYC. Their Annual Benefit Gala (April 16) is a fundraiser for the organization, and also a chance to honor industry leaders who are paving the way in terms of diversity and representation. This year they will honor Hasan Minhaj (Netflix’s “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj”), Ruth E. Carter (Academy Award-Winning Costume Designer of “Black Panther”), Michael Houston (CEO of Grey Group), and James F. Lopez (President of Will Packer Productions).

Students of Reel Works are from all over New York, and over 50% go on to be employed by the entertainment industry. Their programs develop students as young artists and citizens and help them graduate, get into college, and launch careers in media.

Previous honorees include “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, Alex Gibney, Danai Gurira, Phoebe Robinson, Gabourey Sidibe, Jeffrey Wright and more.

For more details, checkout the link below
https://www.reelworks.org/

Chat w/ actor Jeff Lima - "it’s an actor’s responsibility to be involved"

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Jeff Lima, is a New York City-based actor who is best known for his recurring role as Leon Cruz on NBC’s Chicago Fire.

Jeff got his start in theatre at the age of 11 after gaining acceptance to the “by audition only” junior high school, Tito Puente Performing Arts Academy. Jeff was immediately immersed in the teachings of Meisner and Stanislaski with ambitions to secure a seat in a premiere performing arts high school. His tenacity and diligent preparation earned him a seat at the Talent Unlimited High School where he’d study theatre all throughout his high school years. Fortunately for Jeff, preparation met opportunity. The year right before high school, Jeff landed a role in a short film titled ‘Gowanus Brooklyn’, which would later become a feature length Oscar-nominate film. He embarked upon his high school years having already starred opposite Ryan Gosling in ‘Half Nelson’.

During his tenure at Talent Unlimited, Jeff was not allowed to audition for any professional productions, as is the case with most Manhattan performing arts high schools. His insatiable approach didn’t allow him to align himself with the aforementioned school policy. Jeff would often sneak to auditions and one in particular would serve as the catalyst he’d been hoping for!

During an audition in which Jeff spent about an hour with the director and producer during a first session, a spectator observed from afar. At the conclusion of the audition, that spectator followed Jeff to the elevators and asked that he submit his headshot and resume to her agent for consideration. The spectator would go on to win the 2015 Emmy for best Actress in a Comedy Series… it was Gina Rodriguez!

Having remained a client with the agent to whom Rodriguez introduced Jeff, he secured a commendable amount of work in film and television. Jeff has guest starred on CBS’s Blue Bloods, Netflix’s The Get Down, and NBC’s Taxi Brooklyn. He eventually landed a series arc on the HBO mini-series Show Me A Hero and currently recurs on NBC’s Chicago Fire. 

Jeff hopes he can be as influential as many of the educators he’s come across. He is a founding member of the Achievement Lab After School and Summer Camp, which serves 150 at-risk children, annually. Currently, he is shopping to finance short films penned by serious filmmakers. His goal is to identify films that are prevalent to today’s society, and to see the films to fruition.

We talked to Jeff, and here are the excerpts:

  • What do you love about being an actor?

I love that I can be a catalyst for someone feeling an overwhelming emotion. Those instances wherein we’re consumed with feeling are scarce. We don’t feel enough. We go through life being numb.

But in those moments in which we’ve fallen in love like Glen Close in Fatal Attraction or when we’re stuttering from shock after cheating death like Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, we’ve reached a level of living that is incomparable.

I love that the art of acting affords this to me. If I can stir an audience’s inner being, I’ve done my job and I’m happy because I know how rich it is to be moved by a performance. As an actor, I get that platform.

And, as an actor, I love having a makeup artist- and if you’ve judged me for that- wow!

  • Why do you think it’s important for actors to be involved in social issues? What are the causes/ things you are passionate about?

Without trying, actors influence. This holds for both actors who take action and those who are ok with inaction. None of those two approaches are more powerful than the other. For that reason, it’s the actor’s responsibility to be involved.

A certain somebody recently made the decision to break their career long silence on politics and it resulted in a surge in voter registration.

Our convictions on all issues are probably as unique as a fingerprint. Whatever our convictions are, we should be part of that conversation.

Something that plagued me as child was bullying. Here I am years later, an actor, and I’m active in the discourse on bullying. It’s my social responsibility. I can affect change.

  • Whats your practical advice, based on your own experiences, for other aspiring minority actors.

I always ask myself if I belong in certain rooms. I’m sure folks who aren’t part of a minority group don’t feel this way, at the same frequency.

Now here’s the issue I take; if I’m part of a minority group and I’ve merited access, then I must be pretty darn good. But I struggle with the practicality of this theory. Too often I’m inundated with thoughts that lead me to believe that I am not deserving. Instances in which I walk into a room not questioning myself are rare but feel great.

Being part of a minority group means overcoming a lot of hurdles but it really makes all the difference in the world to remember that you belong exactly where you are. Your work has earned you the right to be in that place. Embrace it.

  • What are your favorite films and filmmakers?

I like a lot of old movies. Its hard to find someone who will sit with me to watch Sophie’s Choice, Scent of a Woman, and other oldies.

Oh my god- I’m obsessed with Stanley Kubrick. I could watch The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut everyday! His films are hypnotizing. Maybe I just like an eerie movie score!

  • What’s your most favorite and least favorite things about NYC?

My favorite thing about NYC is that you can literally walk to any audition, in character, drilling lines, and no one will look at you twice. We all assume the next person is crazy.
My least favorite thing is the parking. The parking restriction signs are like reading an algorithm. There’s a fire hydrant every 20 feet and the traffic agents are relentless- God bless them. You don’t know true heartbreak until you’re running late to an audition and realize your car was towed.

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Here’s the full audio/podcast of our conversation with Jeff.

Chat w/ Faraday Okoro, director of 'Nigerian Prince'

NIGERIAN PRINCE, directed by Faraday Okoro, is the first winning film from AT&T Presents: Untold Stories created by AT&T and Tribeca. NIGERIAN PRINCE follows Eze, a stubborn first generation Nigerian-American teenager, and his cousin, Pius, a desperate Nigerian Prince scammer. After Eze’s mother sends him to Nigeria against his will, Eze retaliates by teaming up with Pius to scam unsuspecting foreigners in order to earn money for a return ticket back to America. The film is currently in theaters and available on demand.

We had a chat with Faraday, here are the excerpts.

  • How did you come up with the idea for this interesting and compelling tale of deception, passion, and self-discovery?

o    The idea came to me while I was working in a computer lab in college. I realized I could tell a story that was both thrilling and personal. 

  • What was the most challenging and most rewarding part of making this film?

o    For me, the most challenging part of filmmaking is finding funding. The most rewarding part is screening the film.

  • What role does being from an immigrant family, and being a person-of-color play in your storytelling?

o    It plays a huge role. I want to tell films that not only included people of color; I also want to portray them honestly.

  • What's next on your plate?

o    I’ve started working on several new projects. Since I’m still developing these films, I can’t talk about them just yet.

  • What are your favorite filmmakers, films, and TV shows?

o    The Remains of the Day, Schindler’s List, The Thin Red Line, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Animal Kingdom, Michael Clayton, The Apartment, The Verdict, Half Nelson, Chinatown, Dr. Strangelove, Jackie Brown, Crimes and Misdemeanors, just to name a few.

  • What's your practical advice to other aspiring filmmakers and storytellers?

o    I think aspiring filmmakers should learn about the history, craft, and business of filmmaking, and watch as many films as they can. Also, I think aspiring filmmakers should soak up as much knowledge (politics, literature, sports, music, science, etc.) as possible in order to tell stories that are thought provoking and entertaining.

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ABOUT FARADAY OKORO

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Faraday Okoro is a New York City based Nigerian-American filmmaker. Named after Michael Faraday, a 19th century English physicist and chemist, the idea of pursuing a career in science has been instilled in Faraday since birth. Though, despite his upbringing and name for that matter, Faraday was inspired to pursue a career in filmmaking after watching 20 minutes of the film Road to Perdition.

He graduated cum laude from Howard University, a historically black college in the heart of Washington, DC. At Howard, he was awarded the Trustees’ Scholarship, which allowed him to attend college tuition-free. Currently, Faraday is completing an MFA in filmmaking at NYU’s Graduate Film Program, where he is a recipient of the Peter D. Gould Scholarship.

Faraday’s debut short film Full-Windsor has screened in 14 major film festivals, including the Los Angeles Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival and the Montreal World Film Festival. His short film Blitz premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival and was also selected to the Palm Springs International Shortfest. Additionally, his work has aired nationally on PBS Television and GaiamTV, and is streaming online via Indieflix. In 2016, Faraday was included in MovieMaker Magazine/Austin Film Festival’s 25 Screenwriters To Watch list.

Faraday is the inaugural recipient of AT&T / Tribeca Film Institute’s ‘Untold Stories’ prize, a $1 million production grant intended to support underrepresented filmmakers in the making of their first feature film.

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You can listen to the full chat/podcast of our conversation with Faraday below (updated 10/26).

 

Chat w/ Sara Zandieh, director of SIMPLE WEDDING

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SIMPLE WEDDING starring RITA WILSON, had it’s world premiere at Los Angeles Film Festival this year. It’s a romantic comedy about a young Iranian-American woman and the lengths she goes to in order to appease her parents and their need to see her settled down.

We had a chat with the co-writer and director of the film, Sara Zandieh. Here are the excerpts.

- What was the most challenging and most rewarding part of making this film?

Working with a limited budget is a huge challenge so when you overcome it, it’s rewarding. It forces you to be crafty and economical in how you execute the story. I worked hard to create a strategy with my shot choices and directing technique that would be compliant with our production and 20 day shoot. Since I couldn’t have all the jibs and cranes that I wanted, nor copious days to shoot, I designed a “simple” approach to the film language of SIMPLE WEDDING. The scenes in Nousha’s world—her apartment, her time with friends—are all handheld because her world is more “free.” The scenes with her family, we shot all on sticks to create a more formal shot language to speak to her parent’s world and contrast with hers. The shot language then changes again after one pivotal scene (I won’t give it away, spoiler alert!) I also tried to focus on my actors—one of my film’s greatest assets— to ensure we got the best possible performance for each character. These simple strategies made story and production work with our budget. Bringing my story alive within these constraints was one of my most satisfying accomplishments as a director. It was like solving an epic puzzle.

- What was the casting process for the film like? How did you find Rita and what was that experience like?

SIMPLE WEDDING is a mash up of the rom-com genre and the family comedy. I knew that I needed a great ensemble cast to pull off the familial world of SIMPLE WEDDING. This is the type of script that is all about character, character, character. I had Rita Wilson in mind for the role of Maggie from an early stage of writing. I had seen her most recent work on Lena Dunham’s GIRLS where she played a colorful mom character. My great casting director, Meghan Lennox, also suggested Rita. Given that the movie is both a multi-cultural story and a female story, it seemed like something in her wheel house and when she read the script, she liked it. In our initial conversation we clicked on so many levels. We both had multicultural upbringings and big ethnic families. We talked about how we had a similar experience in high school. We just connected on a heart and soul level and I think that’s what made the experience of making the film so magical. It was a heart and soul effort with so many wonderful, kind-hearted people. Rita is generous, good-natured, smart, talented, and spirited. She is truly a “model citizen.” I loved working with her everyday. It was such a joy. Rita also connected me to Shohreh Aghdashloo who I always dreamed would play Nousha’s mother, and then what was just as incredible was that Shohreh pulled in her husband, Houshang Touzie who I always hoped would play Nousha’s father. I knew this particular combination would be special for the Iranian audiences because they haven't been on screen together as a husband/wife couple for a long time. My entire cast Tara Grammy, Christopher O’Shea, Maz Jobrani, Peter Mackenzie, James Eckhouse, Rebecca Henderson, Aleque Reid, Angela Gibbs, RJ Hatanaka, Keon Alexander, were the best. We turned into a real family on set.

- How was your experience at LAFF?

It was fantastic. The film independent family and everyone at LAFF were super supportive, positive and professional. I really appreciate that they were willing to support my film and by extension my interest in making commercially viable films with diverse characters and storylines. They showed a wide array of films, great documentary films, fresh voices, and had great panels as well. We also had an amazing red-carpet premiere where Rita and her husband Tom Hanks attended. My entire family was there and sharing the moment with everyone I love felt amazing. Tom was so generous with my family. I think everyone posted a selfie with him on social media the next day. It was a special and lovely night. 

- What's next for you?

I would love to direct a studio comedy. If someone were to give me the “golden keys”, I know I could revamp a studio script so that it played with lovable, three dimensional characters, and a compelling “heart and soul” story. In the meantime, I’m developing my own pilot about a mother/daughter breaking bad and a new feature film comedy about a female con-artist. Both are comedies with drama.

-What are your favorite romantic comedies and favorite filmmakers that inspire you? 

My favorite romantic comedies are “The Apartment”, “When Harry Met Sally”, and “Annie Hall.” I also love the silent era comedy filmmakers like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Llyod. It’s hard to name my absolute favorite filmmakers, there are too many to name, but I can think of a few that have been particularly helpful in the last few months. Alexander Payne for his satirical wit and complex, tragicomic characters. Mike Nichols for his ability to work across a wide range of genres and for his skillful direction to get the best out of his actors. He’s an actor’s director and I aspire to be the same.

-What's your message to other aspiring filmmakers and storytellers?

It takes years to get something across the finish. Choose a story that you are passionate about so that you can take it all the way. Love your characters, know what you are saying and why it's important. And most of all, don’t give up! Making an independent feature film is like pushing a truck up a mountain. There’s no question it’s hard and it might seem impossible, but if you take it one day at a time you’ll find a way!

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You can listen below for the full interview with Sara Zandieh.