By Jessiline Berry
January 22, 2016
How writer/director Deborah Goodwin found that the answers were in the questions…
Deborah Goodwin, the writer/director of The Pastor, has seen the film industry from many sides, but the view may be brightest from where she sits now, ready to open her newest film on January 25, 2016 on 500 screens nationwide. Depicting the story of a former gang leader’s spiritual transformation, the highly anticipated event will be presented as a special, one-night engagement by WolfGang Cinema, in partnership with Fathom Events.
Deborah began her career as an actress, and soon segued into playwriting in San Francisco, where she gained the confidence to make the move to Los Angeles and begin a career as a screenwriter.
DBW: You started honing your skills as a screenwriter at AFI. What was that experience like, and how did you ultimately get from screenwriting to directing?
DG: Well, for me, the plays allowed me to see that I wanted to write and that I wanted a bigger scope than what a stage play can offer. I worked as an assistant at CBS, and I was floundering a little bit. I could see that I wanted to write, but I couldn’t really figure out how to start making that happen. And my boss at CBS was very empathetic to my suffering (laughs) as an assistant. And he actually got me my first writing job. He really encouraged me, and I sort of nudged him to put me up for The Crypt Keeper. So I wrote my first episode, and got paid, and I was just so over the moon and excited. And I really thought, “This is it!” And, you know, of course, it wasn’t it. But it kinda was like…oh, okay…it put that bug in me to just really start to pursue screenwriting as something I wanted.
And the AFI program that I was in was for people who had jobs and couldn’t be in classes full time. And my teacher was amazing. He was an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. There was something that I had been writing as a play, and I finally turned it into a screenplay. And it was a huge, huge mess. But he really saw the potential of it. And I was ready to abandon it, so I really credit him for encouraging me to stick with it, and saying that it was different, but that was a good thing. Ultimately, that script ended up getting me into Film Independent. It was the first round of the Screenwriters Lab, which is now very established and wonderful, but that was the very beginning of it. And that was the script that got me in.
DBW: Did you end up directing that script?
DG: (Laughing) I remember we took many, many meetings, and it actually got optioned by an independent company, and a really, really wonderful cast was attached. And it was very thrilling because it was my first project, and the first time people were really taking my writing seriously. And the financing fell apart which often happens. And that was a time when trying to get a 99% black cast happening was…difficult…super challenging. I mean, we had Eartha Kitt, and Lou Gossett Jr., and Anna Deveare Smith. And, ultimately, the financing fell apart and I was devastated. And, I remember, Maud Nadler at HBO, was like, “Why don’t you direct it?” And I was like…what?! As if I don’t have enough problems! But I remember, a year or so later, I kept hearing her voice in my head, and I was like, I really should start directing my own material.
DBW: You’ve spoken a bit about the role that different mentors have played in the trajectory of your career. Can you talk more about the importance of mentors and mentorship, and maybe any ways that you pay that forward in your work now?
DG: Yeah. You can’t do it without that. And it doesn’t have to be the same person that takes you from zero through your entire career. I think you get the different mentors you need at different points. In my case, it has mostly been male mentors, but I feel like, it doesn’t matter. It’s whoever gets you. Basically, whoever sees something in you, or sees what you’re trying to do in a way that you don’t even understand what you’re trying to do, possibly. And that person encourages you. And I really feel I’ve been lucky to have people like that at crucial moments, when I definitely was like…meh…I don’t know…I don’t know how to do this…I don’t know how to keep going.
One of the reasons I joined Film Fatales was to be a part of that kind of community – whether it’s all about people pitching in and, not only offering the small things like…hey I know this sound guy…or I can hook you up with this person…but, really getting to know people, developing relationships, and helping people grow their projects. Even if you’re not ultimately going to be attached, or whatever, you know it’s a continuous loop. And I think that has come back tenfold. I know for a fact, the amount of enthusiasm I feel from people – genuine enthusiasm – and happiness for the good things that happen, comes directly from constantly being on the other side of it, trying to nurture someone else’s dream.
DBW: How does the #DirectedByWomen mission and message connect with your work and your experience as a female director?
Barbara [O’Leary] was the first person I saw on Twitter openly and actively seeking to engage female directors. I just loved the tag “Directed by Women.” It felt more majestic than girl power, and more forceful than women make movies – it was the auteur ring of it. And then, she was just the nicest, most generous person. This year, I’d like to commit to a group of women of varying ages and ethnicity, and document their experience of discovery (viewing films, discussing, etc.), even if it’s just super loose.
DBW: You’ve talked about how you logistically got from here to there. You’ve also hinted at the kind of emotional, psychological torture it can be to develop a career as a filmmaker, and, in my experience, sometimes even more so as a female filmmaker, and a filmmaker of color. Can you talk about those times when it looked impossible, and what you did, or what happened, to help you kind of shore up, physiologically, to keep doing what you needed to do for your career?
DG: Well, I will say, growing up in a house where both my parents were writers who did not get to do that to the fullest extent that they were capable of…my mom, because she died of cancer, and my dad because he wasn’t able to fulfill his real desire of being a novelist. So he taught writing, and he wrote a novel, and he was a ghostwriter, which was something I ended up doing myself. So I never had a glamorized idea of what show business was going to be. The idea of being a writer – it felt like areal job, that was going to be a lot of work, and that really had a lot of uncompensated aspects to it. So, I get in my mind…I think that’s why I chose acting first, because acting was putting on pretty clothes and putting on beautiful makeup, and dancing around, and having a wonderful life. And writing was like…not that…definitely…for sure…because I had seen it first hand. So when it came time to be like…oh, but okay, writing is really my passion…I had a good idea of how un-fun it was gonna be, but I think the beauty of being younger and naïve and just sorta like…I just have a dream, and I just wanna…and not really knowing how things work, can be very beneficial. Because, until you develop the Teflon skin, that kind of naïve, plain old stupidity will take you a long way. Because you don’t hear no.
DBW: How does it feel to have really taken it all the way [through distribution]with The Pastor?
DG: It feels amazing. It’s like having been pregnant for years…and years…and years, and then you’re finally going to give birth. I mean, I have enormous anxiety, because I want it to touch people. That’s it. And now it’s about to touch people, and then you have this horrible moment. I mean…what if no one’s touched by it?! (Laughs) There’s no real comparison to the joy of just, like…finally…now I get to share it.
DBW: How did you dig into a script that had very clear Christian themes? Did you find a powerful, or interesting synergy with your own faith practice that you could imbibe into the film?
DG: Completely. We had a real pastor consulting, who was also in the movie, and he said to me, “Only a Christian person could’ve written this script.” And I was like, “Well, I’m a Buddhist and I’m Jewish”. And we were laughing because he was like, you must have a message. You were chosen to do this. And at first I was kinda like…that’s a little…ya know? But in my heart I was like, it is interesting because I have been practicing Buddhism for 27 years now, and so much of the philosopy that we talk about is that interfaith dialogue. If people can really reach out and talk about the similarities of their faith rather than the differences, how interesting it would be. Because if you’re practicing things from a sincerity of truly trying to make the world a better place, what can be bad about that? Honestly? So, trying to embody what is faith, rather than what is religion. I think that was my fundamental approach. Because we can talk about faith. Everybody can talk about faith.
DBW: Can you talk a bit more about the transformational arc you were working with through the character of The Pastor, and what you want to say to the audience with that transformational arc?
DG: My main thought was…first of all, the question of questioning yourself should be something that is part of your faith journey. I mean, I don’t think there can be a faith journey without having doubts. It was trying to give this character real doubts, and then real obstacles that would test his resolve. Gandhi said you have to kill the will to kill. That’s how you change violence.
DBW: What was your process working with your cinematographer?
DG: It’s a western. There’s always something brewing. You’re feeling that things are coming. That things are gonna catch up with him. The restlessness of the spirit…I personally thought about that a lot. It’s very hard to quiet your mind. It’s very hard to self reflect. So, to see a character kind of struggle internally…I mean, how do you externalize faith? How do you show someone is wrestling with their faith? The way I saw being able to do that was to be able to see it being reflected in the undercurrent around him. Something is always shifting. Just when he’s thinking…oh I got this…then something will shift. And I thought, if we can accomplish that, it won’t feel static.
We wanted these religious paintings to come to life. My cinematographer sent me all those dark, inky, Italian renditions of the devil and people being saved, and being burned at the stake, and the whole parable of David and Goliath…that feeling, the sort of beauty of those paintings, and the drama…to try to reach for that…to try to have that.
DBW: With the job of a director, not only are you steering the ship and everybody is relying on you, you end up being a bit of a cheerleader and therapist for everyone involved, and you have to do it for yourself as well…
DG: It’s so funny because it’s so true. It’s such an emotional journey for everyone in so many ways. I remember, kinda myself, having my own little private meltdown, and going to one of our other producers and basically whining. And he was just like…he just had no sympathy. And it was so great. He just looked at me and was like, “You’re the director. Fix it.” And I was like…he’s right…you know – that’s it. And it was just the best moment. And later on I said to him, “Thank you for being such a jackass at that moment because it was exactly what I needed.”
DBW: Advise the Deborah Goodwin just about to embark on a career in film…coming out of that course at AFI with a script…how would you tell her to set herself up for the long haul?
DG: I would tell her, first of all, to have patience. To have a certain amount of sagacity. Because you’ll look over your shoulder, you’ll look at other people that seem to be doing it so easily and quickly and getting what they want so fast. And it can be daunting because you’re thinking…am I just going about this completely wrong? What is it? And I think part of it is simply, really finding who you are as a storyteller. Your job has multiple angles. And one of them is – is this a story that I can share with a certain audience? You can rely on becoming a storyteller who has a…I don’t want to say an honor…but, yeah, it’s a pact with your audience. I’m gonna make things that are gonna be right for you. I’m looking to give it to you, and you’re looking for it. And I think, honestly, if you’re not doing that then why are you doing this?
DBW: You said, “This question of questioning yourself is part of the journey.” How does that idea relate to your journey as a director?
DG: I think it’s everything. Because you’re constantly questioning your choices. Your ability. There’s a never-ending stream of second guessing yourself. And I think that’s healthy. But keep it to yourself. That’s an internal dialogue for yourself as a storyteller that you can use to become better at your job. But you can’t become better at your job if you don’t get to do your job. And directing is something you can only learn by doing it. Unlike anything else. You are literally learning in front of 200 other people everyday. So the more movies you make, the better you will get. I think, especially as women, we need to roll up our sleeves and make more stuff, and not get hung up on every single thing being the penultimate result of your training and your desire to be good, because you’ll get better. And you’ll find joy and good in what you’re doing right now, and then you’ll be able to take that to the next level, the next time. But there is no next time if you can’t get a project off the ground.
DBW: And there’s no next time if we don’t push past the questioning and the discomfort to have a first time —
DG: — And know that’s a natural part of your process. If you weren’t questioning yourself…if you weren’t asking those things…you would be strange. What kind of artist would you be if you weren’t asking yourself those things? But, don’t let it deter you from doing, in the present moment.
“The Pastor” stars Arturo Muyshondt (“The Two Lives of Maxi Kaplan”), Franky G (Starz’s “Power”, Lionsgate’s “Saw” franchise) Micah Hauptman (“Everest,” Showtime’s “Homeland”), Angelic Zambrana (“Precious”), Victoria Cartagena (“Salt,” FOX’s “Gotham,”) and Pastor Carlos Ortiz. “The Pastor” was produced and financed by Arturo Muyshondt’s WolfGang Cinema, a film production company founded with a mandate to develop and produce cross-cultural stories with social relevancy for multicultural audiences in the US and abroad. Cinematography by Jordan T. Parrott. Production Design by Jimena Azula.
Tickets for the special January 25th one day release event for “The Pastor” can be purchased online by visiting http://www.fathomevents.com/event/the-pastor, or at participating theater box offices.
Deborah Goodwin’s background and training in classical theater in Montreal, led to a full scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, in New York City. After graduating, she pursued acting briefly and found playwriting, received an NEC playwright fellowship and had her first companion plays Body of Myth produced on the West Coast (with Bindlestiff Theater Company). She was accepted into AFI’s screenwriting program, in Los Angeles, where Deborah’s feature script Cherrys was selected for Film Independent’s Screenwriter’s and Producer’s labs and subsequently won Urbanworld Film Festival’s grand jury prize for best screenplay. Deborah decided to build on her stage experience, with her micro-budget feature that she wrote, produced and directed, Vampires in Venice, a horror/fable, with Bill Cobbs (Night At The Museum) had it’s sales debut at Cannes Market 2011. Her second feature, as a writer-director, is The Pastor, an inspirational action-drama with a largely Latino cast led by Victoria Cartagena, (Gotham) Franky G (Power) and Ismael Cruz Cordova. Introducing, Arturo Muyshondt in the title role, will release January 25th, 2016, nationwide with WolfGang Cinema. She is already developing her next feature and serves as a Film Fatales Fiction chapter leader in New York.
Jessiline Berry is a producer, writer/director, and founder of FemmeMaker Productions, an organization dedicated to empowering women in film, both in front of and behind the camera. FemmeMaker also provides script consulting to a diverse roster of individual writers and production companies through its service, Fade Out, which also hosts a variety of short-term writing workshops and retreats designed to connect writers to their characters and inner muses. Jessiline has worked in varying capacities with Character Studies Productions, BET Networks, Bassett Vance Productions, and Lee Daniels Entertainment. The National Black Programming Consortium called her, “a writer/director to watch,” and she is an alumna of the Guy Hanks and Marvin Miller Writing Program (aka, the Cosby Writing Program) and the Film Independent Screenwriters Lab. Jessiline currently teaches television and screenwriting in Los Angeles, CA, and is developing film and television scripts.