One of my favorite things about running Acro Collective is our ability to shine a spotlight on attention-worthy works in progress. Below, filmmaker Chelsea Woods discusses her exciting new project and its ties to a pressing issue in the black community.
1) First, please tell us a little bit about your project, Fog. What is its focus?
Fog tells the story of Valerie, a successful African-American corporate lawyer. To most people, it seems like she has the perfect life — she’s on the brink of a promotion to partner at her firm and her college-age daughter is returning from school — but Valerie suffers from depression and anxiety which manifests itself as a fictional ’90s sitcom that follows her around her house. The film focuses on two days in her life where she is forced to confront her crumbling mental state and the consequences of trying to hide for so long.
2) What inspired you to make this short film? What kind of sources did you draw on?
Early last year, I went through a period of depression. I had been unemployed for months and what started as frustration turned into something much more emotionally complicated. Fast forward to the end of the year — I’m employed, I finished my first feature film script, I’m feeling good — and my mother and I had a conversation about that early part of the year. I finally admitted to her that I was depressed and while she was supportive, she also said “I just don’t understand how a Black woman could be depressed. That’s not in our nature. That’s a white people problem.” And that’s a mindset that is prevalent in the African-American community. The reality is that hundreds of thousands of African-Americans have mental illnesses that go undiagnosed because of the social stigma against treatment. It’s terrifying. So, I decided to write this film not only as a way for me to share my experience but as a way to portray mental illness as naturally as possible. So often mental illnesses are portrayed as epic meltdowns or violent outbursts. The reality of my depression manifested in the moments that were completely mundane — the intense struggle to get out of bed, breaking down as I searched through job postings — so I hope that bringing an honest look on screen can perhaps help other African-American women and men understand what they themselves or someone close to them might be going through.
3) What are your personal inspirations when you conceptualize new projects? What films/filmmakers are among your favorites right now?
When it comes to conceptualizing new projects, I usually start from some feeling or issue within myself. With Fog, it was my experience with depression. With my first short, Elevated, it was the question of racial identity and inhabiting both Black and White spaces authentically. Sometimes it comes from a desire to see just something different. The feature I’m currently developing stemmed from my love of graphic, masculine films like Fight Club and Pulp Fiction but a desire to put a woman in the driver’s seat, to see a woman have that wild adventure where she can cuss, be unladylike, and maybe even save the day.
The list of filmmakers and films that I love is very broad but at the moment I’m especially enamoured with the work of French director Celine Sciamma. She released a film called Girlhood (French title: Bande de filles) last year and it was moved me very deeply. I’d say it was my favorite film of the year. I’m also a huge fan of Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, True Detective), Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ratcatcher) and Jill Soloway (Transparent, Afternoon Delight). Recent films I’ve enjoyed include Mad Max: Fury Road, Eden, and Kingsman: The Secret Service. I try to make sure I watch a wide variety of movies and TV shows.
4) Tell us a little bit about where you started as a filmmaker, and how you got to where you are today.
I was born and partially raised in Pasadena, California, just outside of Los Angeles, and while growing up I actually despised the film industry! I wanted to be an astronaut and go to Caltech to study astrophysics. But around my thirteenth birthday I realized that I didn’t want to be an astronaut, exactly — I really wanted to be a Jedi like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. The Star Wars films had inspired me so deeply and had actually shaped my life up to that point. At the same time, I had an amazing English teacher who encouraged me to write and I discovered that I had a passion for writing for the screen as well as directing and I’ve never looked back. I graduated from the University of Chicago in 2011 and moved back to LA where I worked in television as a costume assistant for shows like Criminal Minds and Agents of SHIELD before leaving that behind to pursue my true passion. Earlier this year I was selected as one of ten directors for the AFI Conservatory’s Directing Workshop for Women where I’m set to shoot Fog next month.
5) Are there any resources out there you’d recommend for aspiring filmmakers, especially for women of color?
The number one thing you have to do as a young filmmaker is to make work and build a portfolio. Now mind you that’s easier said than done, but it doesn’t make it any less true. The best way to learn is by getting any camera you can get your hands on — even if it’s just your phone — rounding up friends or scouring the internet for other folks and going out there and making something. Do not let the word ‘no’ stop you ever. Instead use it as an opportunity to flex your creative muscles and find a new way. Learn your strengths and weaknesses. Always remember that beyond ego and accolades, the true mark of a great film is the story, so know why you want to tell the stories you want to tell. Know that and you’re cooking with gas right out the gate. Women and women of color are among the most incredible storytellers, yet we are massively underrepresented. As much press that’s out there about the predicament of women, it’s important for us as female filmmakers to not let the burden of history keep us from creating a present and future that is fruitful for diverse filmmaking. We cannot let that handicap us. Instead we have to take those statistics and use it as kindling so we can burn through this industry, make something fresh and inspired, and create real and lasting change. It’s not a crazy idea; it’s a reality that desperately needs to happen.
But there are also a lot of diversity programs out there. For women, the AFI Directing Workshop for Women is an incredible opportunity. There’s also Film Independent’s Project Involve which is open to women and men of color as well as members of the LGBTQIA community. The major networks and studios also have programs for writers and directors as well as guilds like DGA and WGA. There’s a lot of opportunities out there but sometimes it means a lot of digging.