The future of production lies in a new type of hands-on mentorship that hadn't previously existed in our industry.
My entire career, I’ve been incredibly passionate about how I curate my projects, and I’ve fought to ensure that we get the best possible talent involved at every stage. What’s changed for me in the last five years, however, is a growing sense of purposefulness in that selection and a different criteria by how I view success.
This shift started with a two-year collaboration with queer filmmaker Matt Lambert from Prettybird. I grew up a very confused, closeted kid in a small town in Canada. I have amazing parents and always had close friends, but I also felt different in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. And there was no one in popular entertainment I could see myself reflected in. I had been a fan of Matt’s work for a few years before we worked together. I was attracted to the intimate subjectivity he brought to his characters - people I’d never seen depicted with such humanity on-screen. There was also a fearlessness and lack of shame to everything he was making, which I loved. As our collaboration grew, I also saw first-hand the very deliberate choices Matt made in terms of the crew he wanted behind the scenes, and how bringing in underrepresented talent could shift the entire energy on set.
With a few big projects this year, it feels like I’ve been able to take everything I learned from that collaboration with Matt and push it to a new level.
The first of these experiences came with Meta’s 'Skate Nation Ghana,' a film about the rise in skateboarding culture in Ghana, which was produced by Love Song, Daniel Wolfe and Kelly Bayett’s new production company. In discussing how we’d approach telling this story in a way that was authentic to Ghanaian culture, my executive creative director, Thom Glover, and I knew there was a huge opportunity to do something different, and we both wanted to use this film to drive real change in the industry. Leah Donnenberg, the producer leading the project with me, did a huge amount of research on the local film scene in Accra and on directors from the West African diaspora, and we all had multiple conversations about possible director collaborations that could bring this story to life.
In exploring all possible avenues, we reached out to Daniel, a trusted close collaborator and mentor to young directors. We’d heard he was about to launch something new. While discussing the project with him, he proposed a unique directory structure: three young directors from the West African diaspora (Bafic, Elliott Power and Justyna Obasi), each with a unique perspective on the material. (In a wild bit of organic synchronicity, all three were already on Leah’s director list.) Within that structure, Daniel would function as a creative executive producer across all parts of the production, a resource for both his directors and our team. Using his name and experience, he then assembled an A-list team of collaborators to support our directors, with Robbie Ryan and Deepa Keshvala, as directors of photography, Paul Watts, as editor, and The Mill’s Dan Williams all part of our core partner team.
In Daniel’s new role as creative executive producer, he expanded his job description into a very hands-on, active director mentorship. He created a safe space for his young directors to grow, learn and push themselves forward, while having his years of experience to draw from. And for our team, he created a safety net around the job to ease any potential worries about working with new talent.
When it came time to look at director options for lululemon’s launch of 'Footwear,' our experience on 'Skate Nation Ghana' built confidence and created an opening for our creative teams to look at young directors in a new way. We had heard that Melina Matsoukas was about to launch de la revolución, her new creative collective of young directors, photographers and artists of color, and she had this incredible young, queer, Black, Oscar-nominated experimental documentary filmmaker named Sophia Nahli Allison as part of that group. Although Sophia had never directed a commercial, I could see in her work everything we were looking for in a creative partner to lead the film. Because of 'Skate Nation Ghana,' I had a successful proof-of-concept production model in place that I could use to pitch Sophia to our team. The plan was that Sophia would be our director in every sense of the word, but Melina would be on the pitch calls with us and she’d attend a few key client meetings (including the pre-production meeting). She’d also be available to Sophia throughout the production, giving input, weighing in on edits and lending her expertise to the team. That turned out to be a smashing success for us and our film.
As I first experienced with Matt, this new way of working can extend beyond who’s in place behind the camera to also include the structure of the production team. As part of the same skateboarding campaign for the Olympics, we also produced a film directed by FKA twigs called 'Longboard Family.' That was my first in-person shoot coming out of covid, and the experience of being on set with twigs and the Object & Animal team was pure joy. This fully diverse and exceptionally talented team of underrepresented, behind-the-camera collaborators created an energy unlike anything I’d previously experienced. With executive producers Morgan Clement and Emi Stewart, along with twigs and director of photography Stuart Winecoff, we worked to set up the job on a foundation of trust and allyship. A conscious decision was made by every crew person to have this be a new type of experience for us and our predominantly underrepresented cast of long boarders. Because of that, our set was a fully safe space where no one was asked to mute themselves in any way, and that energy translated to the visual poetry seen in the film.
Given everything we’ve all been through in the past two years, there’s so much discourse about effecting change. But what Daniel, Melina and the Object & Animal team are doing with their hands-on mentorship is creating a fracture in the system. Using their individual successes to create opportunities for new voices to be heard puts forward a new model for how to make work and, ultimately, bring about real systemic change. This concept isn’t performative allyship; we’re making more interesting, more representative work. I gravitate to people who strive for inclusivity on the set, and these are the kinds of productions I want to be involved with.
For me, film craft now extends beyond concept and construction - team building and the overall experience for everyone involved improves the quality of the work.