DBW: You had the opportunity to bring your film TITLE VII to Urbanworld earlier this month. Can you take us into that experience a little bit? What’s it like to engage your work with the Urbanworld audience?
NF: What an honor it was to be a part of the Urbanworld experience for the first time as a filmmaker (I was actually an actress in a short featured there a few years ago). As I’ve said through my entire career, if it weren’t for the “urban” film festivals, most of us filmmakers would have never been heard of! And having this opportunity two months out of filming to being a spotlight “Clips & Conversation” program was a real credit to our very focused team. From the invitation to join Urbanworld to preparing for our screening and red carpet (that was a blast!), we were treated with so much care and enthusiasm from festival director/head of programming Gabrielle Glore and producer/filmmaker liaison Aidah Muhammad. They really paid close attention to what the film was about, our filmmaking process (even the fact that we filmed a feature in eight days), and encouraged us to stay in touch when we premiere early next year. Urbanworld—20 years old now and such a signature event on the festival circuit—is now a memorable part of our TITLE VII journey.
DBW: What’s at the heart of your film and what inspired you to create it?
NF: TITLE VII tackles the subject of workplace discrimination but takes it a step further: A boss who discriminates against employees of the same race. In real life, this topic is so taboo that it is rarely talked about, much less seen at length on the screen. I am just now able to talk about it. I had a boss when I was a 19-year-old intern who made my life hell. It was an all-Black office and she was so horrible to me—telling me that I should leave the internship because no one in the office liked me—that I swore to never work in an all-Black situation again. I’ve since let that go, but it took a while!
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned employment discrimination based on sex, race, color and national origin. Yet, discrimination is still part of US corporate culture 52 years later.
The film centers on a Black female CEO who has the worst possible day at work. It is truly, the worst. And—maybe it was of her own doing. She practices same-race discrimination. She does not hire Black people at the office and she comes from a past where she is called “Darkie” at every turn by a close family member. She denies her heritage, thus denies others any opportunity to live freely in their own skin. What was my inspiration to create the film? Other than recalling my own experience, I read a book by Daisy M. Jenkins titled Within The Walls where a Black male CEO clearly kept his Blackness at a distance. I loved that character. I optioned the book from Daisy a year before filming and my four drafts of the screenplay underwent a complete revision by co-screenwriter Craig T. Williams who made the film even darker (excuse the pun!), sadistic and urgent. The nice touch which he thought would be a crazy idea, but he tossed it out there anyway: What if we made the lead character a woman? That was hot. We went for it and so did the cast and crew. In fact everyone in the cast is so committed to playing employees with bad behavior at this toxic office, they brought to life characters I rarely get to see on screen.
DBW: I understand you shot the film in 8 days! Can you share some of the advantages and obstacles? And please tell us about the #FilmAFeatureIn8Days talk you’ve developed to share what you’ve gleaned from that experience.
NF: I am willing to share this knowledge any chance I get! I was prepared to do a microbudget feature due mainly to the fact that FDUFilm at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Florham Park Campus, offered to come on board my next project with student crew, equipment and locations at no cost to production. Lucky me! So filming summer of 2016 was not a long-range plan which meant my schedule was tight. The original idea was to film in 15 days. But as we got closer to production—possibly 45 days from principle photography—I talked to a very encouraging screenwriter/director and told her quite candidly, “Even with the resources, we’re going to be out of money halfway through this shoot…filmmakers have done features in seven to nine days before, right?” She said, “Hell yeah! And you could do it too!” This is my friend Leesa Dean. I said, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to film this on an eight-day schedule.” She gave me the confidence but in a quick Google search I didn’t see too many examples of people sharing their experience for me to sustain that confidence. I was nervous, but I had no choice!
What I did keep finding was the legendary story of Roger Corman filming Little Shop of Horrors in two days. My takeaway from his experience: Film the play. I had talented actors on board. I love directing actors. Successful microbudgets are rooted in character dramas. We had the ultimate character drama. I told my actors in rehearsal (and we maybe had six days total of rehearsal), “If you mess up a line, keep going. I’ll catch you on camera somewhere.” We had two cameras but we were not a two-camera shoot. We only had one set of lenses! But I knew I had to give my actors the confidence through discussions about those character bios and objectives. They had to know the meaning behind all of their lines. Just go for it.
How did we film in eight days? A majority of our scenes were done in one to two takes and my talented student AD took the schedule and ran with it—including giving me good options on where to go next. Outside shots were done in two days, and inside shots (in the air-conditioning, thank goodness—it was July!) were the six days following. But there was so much going on in the script that even though the story takes place over the course of one day, each day had a different scene and camera move to film. So I hope that kept it interesting for the cast and crew.
Ultimately I have to give kudos to our DP Cybel Martin and lead actress Chicava HoneyChild. We were moving so fast. Cybel would set up our camera plan but ask me those important questions such as “What motivates this dolly shot? Let’s do a runthrough of this scene so we can see what this character is trying to convey here, etc.” The week before we had one day with the crew to run through the more “difficult” camera shots—but they functioned so well as a class that they knew their equipment and classmates, so technically we were good. During the rehearsal we had cast on set running some of the more difficult scenes, so the following week there would be some “familiarity” with the office. And, as on most shoots, we filmed out of sequence. More than a few times, Chicava would be the one to say, “I just came from the scene with ____ and I’m still not over it. I don’t think I would say this to him at this time right now…” and stay on continuity with those emotions like no one’s business. As an actress she had to go to the extreme every single day of filming. Probably the toughest part of #FilmAFeaturein8Days was the marathon of stress and high energy. For other “tidbits” yes, I’ll be doing workshops in a few places over the next few months, but follow the hashtag on Twitter as well and you will get even more out of me. It was an education! But I’m proud to say, we did it!
DBW: What can you share about the process of engaging with your cast and crew that inspires you as you look ahead to your next directing project? And do you have another project in the works yet?
NF: I don’t have another feature in the works yet. My hope is this microbudget will finally get me on set as a working director in episodic television. Yes! I’ll let you know! For now my focus for TITLE VII is to get into festivals, get strong reviews (fingers crossed), have people purchase the film or watch it on TV and enjoy it (and please send us those reviews as well!) and host TITLE VII Town Halls so that we can bring communities together around TITLE VII issues. Our film has race discrimination, sexual discrimination, age discrimination, comedy and death. You name it, it feels like we did it. Ultimately we know there will be something in it that will strike a nerve. And the actors are so good and the editor, Veronique Doumbe, kept that pace moving so well, it will hopefully be a dramatic piece with heavy replays.
That being said, did the cast and crew have a feeling we may get this far? We had a few cast members who were with us early on leave the project because “Eight days, Nicole?” was a concern. I have to say the cast we ended up with whole-heartedly knew we could do that. The students, on the other hand, may not have had that confidence. They work together all the time. They know they are skilled. But they did not know me as a director. Now the film chair was really good about having me meet with the students eight months before and visit campus frequently for updates, production notes and meetings, but there was an element to our shoot that taught me, if everyone is not fully on board 100% you will feel that in the air as a director while working. I had to protect the cast and my small key crew whom I brought (DP, Script Supervisor, Makeup/Hair Artist) from feeling there was low confidence in my abilities. Did I have to put on an act? Not at all. I am a hard worker. I LOVE preparation. But I’ve lived a life of having to prove myself first in order to get the surrounding players to believe in me so this was not new. It was more difficult in this situation because for about 26 years at my day gig as an editor, I got comfortable with people knowing my skills, accepting my ability in my role, and our discussions center on the work at hand, period. But in front of college-aged crew and the professor, I didn’t ever think I’d have to defend the way I work to get a project done. Maybe it was an oversight on my part, but if we are all there to put the best film possible in the can, when is there time for any distraction? It was stressful, but we got through it. I would just share my experience with anyone who will listen, you have to have 100% confidence that you’re following a leader who knows what she’s doing. She has your best interest at heart—for the film to show off what a great collaboration looks like. If there were any other motivation, chances are the film is not meant to be.
DBW: When you look back on the making of Title VII, are there things you’ve discovered about yourself as a filmmaker? Hidden strengths that have revealed themselves?
NF: I actually was making the film knowing I was going to have major surgery 20 days later. I was in physical pain every day. I don’t want to now say, “Yes! I can make a film while carrying around a bucket-load of fibroid tumors so I can do anything!” but I think I was just reaffirmed that when there’s a job to be done I’m there to do it.
In my marathon 17 years of independent filmmaking as a career documentarian with small crews, making a narrative indie feature was crossing the finish line. A major difference I noticed right away was that narrative films—if they involve more than 10 people—are mainly about people management. That was new. That was very new to me and it felt like there weren’t enough hours in the day. In fact, my actors could probably confirm that more rehearsal time would have been most welcome! But for me as a director it was about the actors owning those roles. Let’s clear up any questions about your objectives, your past and your relationship to everyone in the room. Our cast—and 90% of the work is casting—just got it. And those who have seen it really take their hats off to them. I am truly grateful.
DBW: Who are some of the women film directors whose work particularly inspires you as a filmmaker?
NF: Mira Nair always takes the lead in my list of favorites. I love that she loves brown people and brings beautiful stories of her culture to the screen. And years ago I helped produce a spotlight program on her from New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) and I offered to edit her clips together. When I did, she said, “Nicole, you know my films better than I do!” Images just stick with you, you know? Allison Anders’ Grace of My Heart is a masterpiece in my book and her raw storytelling with previous films featuring the neighborhood girls leading up to that were an inspiration…Jodie Foster is fun and an actor’s director for sure. Jane Campion is amazing. But even new young directors like Dee Rees and, of course, the beautiful images of us from Ava DuVernay are something to be celebrated. And, since I now want to head into episodic television directing, the talented Neema Barnette has always been on my radar as well. I have a blast talking about documentary directors who are my sisters in the genre in which I grew up too. There are too many to mention without leaving some out, but please visit our Black Documentary Collective Fan Page and you’ll see when to catch us on PBS or in the educational space!
DBW: Thanks so much, Nicole, for talking with us about your work. Great to connect. Keep us posted as you move ahead with this and other projects.
NF: Loved speaking with you and LOVE all you do, Directed by Women!
To find out more about Nicole and her work, please visit her website.