April 2002
Vanessa's Turn : An Interview with Vanessa Middleton

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Vanessa's Turn : An Interview with Vanessa Middleton

In the last few years, there has been an abundance of female directors on the rise. Some have made commercials, short films, documentaries, and feature films. Vanessa Middleton is one of these directors. After years of writing for television shows such as the Cosby Show, she has her first film, 30 YEARS TO LIFE, coming to the big screen. The film has won numerous awards throughout the festival circuit and hopes to capture the same reception with the public. The film stars Melissa De Sousa, Allen Payne, Tracy Morgan, Erika Alexander, Paula Jai Parker, Kadeem Hardison, and many more. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Vanessa shares her vision on the film.

WM: After years of writing, what led you to become a director?

VM: I started out in television, where writers are an integral part of the development as well as the execution of a story. In the feature film world, scripts are heavily re-written at the discretion of studio executives and the film’s director and writers have to get special permission to even visit the set during shooting. I couldn’t imagine putting the time I like to put into developing and executing a story concept and not being able to see it through, so I decided to direct.

WM: What inspired you to write the script for 30 Years to Life?

VM: They say you should write what you know, and this being my first feature film script, I told a story that was essentially an amalgamation of the experiences I’ve had trying to be a positive and successful adult in the pressure cooker of younger generations that imply the sooner the better.

WM: With this being your first film, how did you attract such a well-known cast?

VM: They really responded to the script, which was a vote of confidence for me and helped give me the energy to do all this.

WM: Was getting financing for the film a challenge?

VM: Yes, but that is the case with any independent film. What has been shocking to us (myself and my production team) is the challenge in finding funding for distribution. Even after the film was complete, got into Sundance, got strong reviews, and great audience response, no one wants to put up that type of funding. It makes no sense, because at the distribution stage, you get your money back within a matter of months as opposed to years with production. Everyone wants to back the dream (production); no one wants to learn and invest in the true nucleus and the power of the business (distribution). It makes no sense to me.

WM: What other challenges did you face during the filmmaking process?

VM: As with any independent filmmaker, you never have enough time and you never have enough money, especially on your first film. But I have an amazing production team and cast and we all got through it. So I guess the toughest challenge is to stick to what you’re trying to accomplish and fight to see it all the way through, no matter how much or how long it takes.

WM: After traveling through the festival circuit and winning many accolades, your film was bound for the big screen; but it was long process getting here. Why so?

VM: We thought we’d be bound for the big screen, but a distribution deal did not happen. However our audience response via the festival circuit and Blackfilm.com screenings told us that we deserved a theatrical release so we expanded our production company to include distribution in order to make it happen.

In the meantime the last five “black” films released are “All About the Benjamins” (New Line) starring Ice Cube, “State Property” (Lions Gate) starring Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel, “How High” (Universal) starring Method Man and Redman, “The Wash” (Lions Gate) starring Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and “Bones” (New Line) starring Snoop Dogg. Each of these companies turned us down.

It’s a scary time right now for people trying to tell stories about black characters or simply using black actors. If you’re a Will Smith or a Denzel, you have a little more leverage. But if you’re not on the big budget mega-star level there is absolutely NO desire to tell good stories. There are so many talented, attractive, and charismatic black actors who aren’t working because Hollywood is hiring rappers – in starring roles - so they can attempt to track box office receipts based on record sales. They don’t care about telling a good story or the quality of the performance.

However, I have yet to see Colin Farrell or Luke Wilson lose out a role to Fred Durst or Kid Rock. With them it’s about art; with us, it’s about the bottom line.

WM: As a female director, do you find it harder to get things done within the industry? Is it much harder being a black female director?

VM: I don’t define myself by my background. Unfortunately, falling into certain categories can mean you have to work harder or adjust your game a bit. But I just focus on what I’ve got to do, not why I’ve got to do it.

WM: What's more at ease, writing or directing?

VM: Obviously writing because that’s my background and where my experience lies. But I find that the stronger the script, the easier it is to execute, so through my writing I should become a better director.

WM: What are your plans for the future?

VM: I will definitely continue doing exactly what I’m doing. I have more experience and hope to have more financial backing as I go on. Because I’ve had to learn the distribution part of the process, I’m no longer one of those filmmakers who is trying to get Hollywood’s attention. I know how to get to my audience directly. And that’s the ultimate goal, so that’s what I’ll continue to do.