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Director Sontenish Myers Wants to Convey the Most with the Least Words


The director, recently signed with Great Guns USA, tells LBB's Zhenya Tsenzharyk about being medium agnostic, keeping her directorial muscle flexing, and exploring identity across genres

Director Sontenish Myers Wants to Convey the Most with the Least Words

The NYC-based writer, director, and photographer Sontenish Myers has lived in Jamaica, Thailand, and Italy; she also calls China home. Her Jamaican-American background and global perspective inform and inspire her already award-winning work. Taking a critical lens to the question of identity from a young age and in her academic pursuits, Sontenish has always questioned how people come to see themselves; how identity is formed and produced. It’s a theme she returns to often in her work, though she chooses to fuse these big questions with her other obsessions - narratives of a hero’s journey, magic and fantasy elements, and the variety of art she finds on Tumblr, which she calls “the purest form of social media left on the internet.” 

Though her work is often political and in conversation with the state of the world, Sontenish is conscious to avoid elements of ‘trauma porn’ that are prevalent in visual representations of racial injustice, slavery, and their intersection with women’s issues. Instead, by looking to the fantastical, taking a more nuanced approach or embracing silence over dialogue, she can explore those same issues with a more delicate, artistic hand. Sontenish works across genres, fusing elements of sci-fi and fantasy, drama, and dark comedy in her projects. 

Cross My Heart, the 2018 short film, follows an American teen girl as she visits her family in Jamaica; there, she learns a secret that forever alters the way she sees her loved ones. The film was screened globally and won the Alexis Award for Best Emerging Student Filmmaker at Palm Springs International Shortfest. Sontenish also recently directed and edited the music video Stolen Fruit for Tank and the Bangas - a dream-like ancestral fairy tale of dance and memory. Stampede is her first feature film, currently in development, with the story following a young girl confronting her telekinetic powers, set on an American plantation in the 1800s. 

Today, Sontenish speaks with LBB’s Zhenya Tsenzharyk about what film school taught her, what she hopes her students will take away from their studies, and why she’s “obsessed with centering young girls and young Black girls in heroic, supernatural adventures.”

LBB> What made you decide to become a filmmaker?              

Sontenish> I had this narrative for a little while where I used to think of becoming a filmmaker as this unexpected career choice. Now when I look back, I see all the pieces in the puzzle and the natural combination of my past work that influenced my career. I painted a lot when I was a kid, and I was an obsessive documenter. In high school and undergrad I was really into diversity and inclusion work - it was a more novel term. I was obsessed with this idea of identity and how what we see on screen influences how we see ourselves, and how we see each other. I thought that I was going to get into academia. When I moved to China long-term, I was still obsessing over those ideas. 

When I was living in Beijing, the trial against George Zimmerman was happening. It was a very sober, strange time to be so far away from home. I remember I was on the phone with a friend, just glued to YouTube watching the trial. When the verdict was announced - not guilty - I felt washed over with this feeling of invisibility. It was a surreal moment of clarity for me. I knew then that I wanted to have a more active part in the stories that are being told about us. Critique was no longer enough. I needed to be a part of the shaping. Not long after that, I moved back to New York and interned at New York Women in Film & Television, which was a game changing space to be in. From then, I made some amazing mentors, got on any set I could and eventually applied for film school, which is when I went to NYU.

LBB> As a director, what do you look for in a script? What sets a good one above others? 

Sontenish> Clear intention. Opportunities for catharsis. You know those scenes in films that just stay with you? Long after you’ve watched them? I imagine many directors look for a piece of themselves in the script. Reflections of their ongoing curiosities; experiences or dynamics familiar to them. I pay attention to who the heroes are in a story, I gravitate to characters we haven’t seen enough of on screen. There are also themes that I'm addicted to. I love tales of tension and wonder, and tales of friendship and loyalty. I love the classic hero's journeys, but injected with characters and worlds that we don't get to see enough. I am also obsessed with the mentor archetype, so I love seeing that show up. I'm drawn to stories about characters who might have lived a smaller version of themselves but were pushed to have to choose a life larger than them, to honestly meet their full potential. For example, ET, Pan’s Labyrinth, or Beasts of the Southern Wild.


LBB> Where do you turn to for inspiration? What kind of stories and visuals appeal to your aesthetic sensibilities? 

Sontenish> I turn to a couple of different places. Sometimes it is returning to those “Aha movies” that you saw yourself in early in life. Lately, I'm finding myself returning to the children’s books and folktales that captivated me when I was a child. I feel like it's a part of every childhood to be obsessed with the Egyptians and Greek mythology, but I'm working to build my knowledge past that to mythology of the African diaspora, especially that of the Caribbean There are these two illustrators who are giants in the illustration industry: Leo and Diane Dillon. I'm obsessed with their illustrations. They illustrated children's books and sci-fi novels through the 70s, 80s, 90s… Sometimes I just look at one of their illustrations without context and my brain immediately starts to cook up stories and scenes for movies. I'm very drawn to artwork that gives me scene ideas just by gazing upon them. Christopher Myers just had an exhibit called The Hands of Strange Children and I was blown away by the hybridity of his work. 

I also live on Tumblr. People try to say that Tumblr is dead, but to me Tumblr is the purest form of social media left on the internet. I stumble upon photographs and art on it that I feel I wouldn't have normally seen in other places. I find a lot of artists that way. Inspiration is like a balance of return — as well as seeking out the new. I like to return to things that first inspired me as well as seek out new work being made.


LBB> Your background is Jamaican-American, and you’ve lived in China. How does a multicultural lens help/influence your work? 

Sontenish> My dad is Jamaican, and my mom is American, so I feel I have a foot in both worlds. Being Caribbean-American is a very specific viewpoint that I'm continuing to reflect on. I'm in the middle of writing a film about an immigration story that takes place during three different points in time/decades. I think spending time in Jamaica very early on in my life immediately expanded my worldview, which I'm grateful for. In terms of living abroad and travelling to different places, I've lived in Thailand, Italy, and China — China being the longest. I see China as a home now, and it got me thinking about the universality of human behaviour. Travelling gives you more intel. 

As someone whose parents are from two colonised countries, it was fascinating taking in a country that had never been colonised by Europeans. Through visiting and respecting other countries, we learn about what we share, what we have in common, and how much can be communicated with very few words. I have had the deepest conversations with human beings where they spoke a little bit of my language, I spoke a little bit of theirs, and we made it work. The richness of those conversations stick with me… I imagine that blends into my filmmaking as well, where I'm trying to figure out how to convey the most with the least number of words.

LBB> You’re a film school graduate. What were the main lessons you learned and how do you apply them in your work? Do you think film school is essential for aspiring filmmakers?

Sontenish> NYU was really fast-paced and I learned new lessons every single day. I think about my teachers like Alex Rockwell, who really taught me how to be visual first with my storytelling and not to rely on dialogue. Kasi Lemmons has taught me and continues to teach me a mountain of things, but I remember early on in film school she taught me to resist being results-oriented, and how it can compromise the creative process.

Being a filmmaker is such a long game and making a single film is such a long process that you must find joy in each step of the process. Otherwise, you're going to have a really hard time. She taught me that a lot of directing is about shedding self-consciousness and learning how to be fully present with the alchemy that's in front of you on set. Ken Friedman taught me how to write for the screen — you write what only the audience will see, and you must discern when it’s appropriate to write in a more literary style. He taught me the mechanics and the craft, and I’m so grateful. Mick Casale taught me tension and how to build it. A lot of times in early stages of writing shorts, you’ve written a dramatic plot point/scene that you think belongs in Act 3, but what happens when you push that moment earlier? Suddenly you have all this new real estate to push your characters further outside their comfort zone. He taught me how to keep pushing myself and invite more tension into the script. 

I believe being studious is essential to filmmakers. Film school was the right decision for my personality. The beautiful and irritating thing about film is that there's no one way to become a filmmaker. So you have to venture into the unknown and forge your own path. And when you think you’ve reached a certain level, there’s always uncharted territory ahead of you and room to grow. It’s an intimidating gift.


LBB> As an adjunct professor at NYU’s Graduate Film school - what’s the one thing you’d like your students to take away from their studies? 

Sontenish> That filmmaking begins in process and preparation. Not on set. I teach editing to first-year graduate students, and I try to lovingly remind them that if someone gets to make a good film, they’re very lucky. In a way, even if you make a “bad film”, you’re very lucky. 

Because in order to determine if a film is “good” or “bad”, the filmmaker’s intention must first be clear. What did they set out to do/make? What I'm trying to teach my students is what needs to be in one’s creative process to strive toward a clear film, so that you can have enough footage to shape a clear story. Then they can go from there and build all the things that make it an experience. 

LBB> You work across genres, from comedy and drama to sci-fi and fantasy. In Stampede, an element of fantasy (Lena’s telekinetic abilities) is intertwined with a narrative about slavery. Why did you choose to combine magic and realism in this way?

Sontenish> When I came up with the idea for Stampede, it was at a time where I was thinking a lot about the original sins of what is now known as the United States. There was a certain election going on (in 2016), and there were a lot of people who were shocked about what was happening and who was supporting a certain candidate. Which confused me, considering our country’s history. Simultaneously, I am obsessed with centering young girls and young Black girls in heroic, supernatural adventures. I asked myself, “Can I do both here?” Stampede centres a young girl named Lena who has supernatural powers in a very complicated place.

This film was also me trying to practise talking about this period of America’s history outside of what people refer to as “trauma porn.” With this film I’m clear about my disinterest in the physical trauma and instead I’m focused on the psychological power dynamics. At the end of the day, we're watching this young girl grappling with the decision to shy away from her power or to embrace it, and the dangers of either choice. It has all those archetypes that I mentioned that I love, those Merlin-like characters, shapeshifters (those you don’t know if you can trust), allies: all these people you meet along the way that fuse you into the hero that you're meant to become.

LBB> Your latest short film, Cross My Heart, premiered to much acclaim. Can you tell us a little more about its themes and what working on it was like? 

Sontenish> Cross My Heart asks the question, “What happens when someone you love hurts someone you love?” And in that type of situation, how do you determine the right thing to do? It's set in Kingston with a Jamaican family. An American teenage girl visits her family and learns a secret that changes the way she sees the people she loves. There are a lot of ways I could have made the film, but I wanted to focus on this relationship between these two cousins and an event that challenges their relationship. There were a lot of different ways the movie could have turned out.

There are themes of loyalty and friendship in the film, and how to go about maintaining it in the face of life’s curveballs. I enjoy telling stories about Black girls saving each other, betraying each other, and reconciling with each other. Working on the film was probably during one of the hardest times in my life. I kept the process very quiet because I didn't really want folks to know I was making it until it was in the can. The film is very fictionalised, but it comes from a personal place, so it was a tricky time. I'm grateful for the people who trusted me to direct it. I had an amazing producer and an amazing cast. My aunt so graciously let us film in her home, a home that I partially grew up in. Again, it was a really difficult time, but I was so supported and I'm very grateful for that. 

Not long after the film was made, #MeToo really started catching fire. So the film took on a relevance that I didn’t see coming. 

LBB> You've mentioned the 2016 election and the #MeToo movement, and the work you made during those periods. Do you feel like you need to acknowledge or respond to political events? 

Sontenish> There is something to the Nina Simone quote, “An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” For me, it’s my artistic liberty or licence to do so directly or indirectly. Yes, in the case of Stampede and Cross My Heart, I am directly addressing these issues, but sometimes I just want to tell a fantasy story that just happens to have "x” type of person at the centre, and that to be enough. Or maybe it's a fantasy film, but it has Afro-centric folklore, whereas most of the folklore we see in big budget films is very Eurocentric. I imagine that in some way politics is inevitably going to be embedded in everything that I make, because every piece of art is somewhat political, whether you’re aiming to or resisting participation in it.  

LBB> Thinking about your career so far, which project has taught you the most? Why?  

Sontenish> With every project, I'm always trying to improve upon myself in how to be a good collaborator. I strive to be the type of director that folks want to work with, and I use every project to figure out how to be better prepared. I was at a Nightmare Alley Q&A and I’m always hearing how Guillermo del Toro thinks of everything — there's nothing he hasn't thought of — but he remains extremely welcoming of input and collaboration. That’s my goal. Because if a collaborator asks me a question I don’t have an answer for, I’m like, “It's my movie. How have I not thought about that?” I don't like being in that position. I want to think of everything, but I also want to work with dope, talented human beings who have their own point of view to help elevate the work. I felt that way working on Stolen Fruit, the music video. I loved working with Maya Taylor, the choreographer. She was amazing and really understood the vision. I loved working with cinematographer Bron Moyi who came in with his own ideas, which is my favourite type of person to work with. The strength of the video is because of so much intentional, supplemental collaboration. 

Cross My Heart taught me that I'm comfortable with silence. I think that’s going to be a defining characteristic in my work going forward. Silence has a wonderful sound, but that doesn't mean I want my whole movie to be silent. It is contextualised by what precedes it and what comes after it. I guess that that's the editor in me showing. 

LBB> Looking to the future, what's upcoming for you? Any dream projects you’d love to work on? 

Sontenish> We’re casting for Stampede right now and the hope is to shoot later this year. I’m also still on a high from the music video. On top of the joy of making things, I want to keep my directorial muscle moving, to keep expanding and refining my process - I’m eager to tell stories. I’m inherently medium agnostic so I’m down to work on another music video or a commercial. 

I’m really open, but I’d love to direct a music video for artists like Chika, Yebba, Ari Lennox, Mereba, Silk Sonic, Solange… I hope to continue to work with Tank and the Bangas. I just went to their show in DC and it's one of the best concerts I've been to in my life. The showmanship was just incredible. 

On the brand side, I would love opportunities to tell stories that have a bit of fantastical elements in it for the brand. I love Dee Reese's Walmart commercial - The Box. There’s this little girl playing in a Walmart box, and she has this whole fantasy world in the box in the middle of her parents’ living room. There is also a Burberry commercial that came out recently where all these people are wearing Burberry and taking a fantastical flight across the field; those are the types of things I want to make.

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Great Guns Los Angeles, Thu, 14 Apr 2022 09:45:00 GMT