Are You An Aspiring Filmmaker? Award-Winning Creator Lena Waithe Has Advice For You
Filmmaking is not just about having a great idea, it’s about finding the right team of collaborators, being able to process feedback, and of course, knowing how to pitch a project to investors. For many Latinos and other underrepresented communities these resources and opportunities sound unattainable, but prominent creator Lena Waithe, along with the AT&T Hello Lab Mentorship Program are fighting for inclusion within the entertainment industry.
Lena Waithe is an Emmy® award-winning actress, writer, and producer, and has worked in shows such as Showtime’s The Chi, BET’S Boomerang, and Netflix’s Master of None. When she’s not working in front of and behind the camera, Lena can be found working with AT&T Hello Lab Mentorship Program where she serves as Lead Program Mentor for the next generation of up-and-coming artists. The program supports amplifies the creative voices of people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community; whose struggles hit close to home for Lena.
In a recent interview, Lena Waithe gave us some insights into what it takes to make it in the entertainment industry. She talked about the need for representation in entertainment, her work with the AT&T Hello Lab Mentorship Program, and her own creative process. Lena’s taken many projects from idea to execution over the years and knows first hand how pivotal inclusion and mentorship can be for young writers, directors, and producers.
Why do you think [diversity and inclusion in Film/TV] is so so important?
Lena: Well, I am a person of color, I am a woman, I’m a queer person, so I guess I instinctively believe in inclusion, it would be odd if I didn’t. But, even people who don’t look like me have to believe in inclusion. I think that’s really the ticket. I think that once everyone believes in inclusion as important, then it will be. A lot of people like me, believing in inclusion is part of the territory, but ultimately, everyone has to see it that way, even if they aren’t “othered.”
With inclusion as the driving force behind the AT&T Hello Lab Mentorship Program, Lena immediately gravitated towards the program and developed a deeper connection to the participants.
In your own words, what is the AT&T Hello Lab Mentorship Program?
Lena: The AT&T Hello Lab Mentorship Program is really about illuminating voices that we really haven’t had a chance to hear. It’s writers and directors getting opportunities to make short films, and tell stories that often aren’t told. And I think it’s really important to me, it’s really important to the community, that we hear these voices and these stories. I’m really grateful that AT&T is putting their money where their mouths are.
What can brands like AT&T do to change the lack of diversity in entertainment?
Lena: I think what AT&T is doing right now is a way to change the whole game, so I think more brands can be like AT&T. In terms of doing programs like this, and doing mentoring, and really putting your money where your mouth is.
When Inspiration Strikes
For an award-winning writer and producer like Lena, it’s hard not to wonder how she brings so many thought-provoking and intriguing stories to life. We were excited to hear her take on the creative process.
Do you think there’s a secret to getting an idea out of your head and onto paper?
Lena: No, if there was, someone would bottle it up and sell it. It because I think everyone’s process is different, but everyone’s process is valid. …And eventually you’ll start to do it well, and some people are just anointed. Some people have something, whether it be Spike Lee, Jordan Peele, or you know, Spike Jonze is great. Some people just have that thing that you can’t teach, but they nurture their creative spirits. I think that’s what it is.
Pitching Ideas, Creative Process, And Giving And Receiving Feedback
Getting an idea on paper is one part of the process, but Lena explained to us how she takes her ideas to the next level by collaborating, taking feedback, and pitching her work to the right people.
Do you have any tactics for [pitching your work]?
Lena: Really, it’s to not pitch, it’s to make it a conversation. If it’s something that’s good, people will recognize that. But, I don’t necessarily like that word because I don’t like to tap dance or pitch my art. If you get it, then you get it. If you don’t, then let’s not do it together. That’s usually the advice I give people: don’t pitch, have a conversation.
Do you have any tactics for [pitching your work]?
Lena: I mean, maybe it’s the people across from you don’t look like you. But, that may not be the best excuse either, because a lot of interest art has been made over the years with execs who don’t look like the artists. But I think that maybe hard work for some, but ultimately if your art is good, it doesn’t matter if the people across from you don’t look like you. They can relate to it on an emotional level.
Can you talk about how you balance feedback with your own creative vision?
Lena: I use feedback that makes sense for the project, in my opinion. And that’s usually what most artists do, some might not. But, for me, it’s about listening to feedback that I can decide what is needed and what will work. And try some things to see if it works, and if it doesn’t, to maybe go back to the original thing. But I think the conversation, too, is really important and that’s a skill to learn. When it’s good and when it’s not, and when it works and when it doesn’t. That also takes a lot of time and energy, and trial and error.
The life of a project extends beyond just the writing and filming – as Lena explains, a significant amount of work goes into production. Not only do directors work on set, but they also work closely with editors to take the creative vision to the finish line.
What can a director do to reshape how we see diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry?
Lena: I think a director can hire people in a way that includes everyone. I think a director can change the industry if they have an inclusive crew.
What are some challenges you see a young director facing working with these experienced actors?
Lena: But, really, the best advice I can ever give to any director, whether you’re working with experienced actors or not, is to always instill confidence in not only the cast but the crew. You gotta make sure that they know you’re driving the ship in a way that, you know, it’s not going to be the Titanic. And, you know, just practically, I like working with fresher faces just because they’re just happy to be there, you know what I mean? But when you’re working with more familiar actors, they often times, if they feel like they have more experience than the director that can be a little tricky. Because they sometimes feel like, “well, I know better than you kid.” You know what I’m saying?
Do you feel like you can strike a balance between a director’s vision and yours as a producer?
Lena: If I’ve hired the director, then I usually trust them and let them do their thing. I’m a little different in that way. I love directors, I love working with them, I gotta trust their instincts.
Why do you think an editor is so important to a project?
Lena: Editors are really talented people who help to tell the story, they’re the last ones to get their hands on it. Editors and directors have to have a really good bond, have to trust each other. So, yeah, directors and editors are really important to the process.
Wrapping A Project
Wrapping a project is a team effort and as Lena points out, it comes down to trusting your instincts as a writer, director, and editor.
When wrapping a project, how do you know when a project is wrapped?
Lena: I know if a project is complete in my gut, also the director. But, yeah, the director, when they say “Yo, its good. It’s done.” You gotta trust those instincts, I always trust my instincts. And the director’s instincts.
Lena Waithe has established herself as a phenomenal creator in her own right and has also made it a point to share her wisdom with the communities she belongs to. With several successes under her belt and a remarkable work ethic, Lena is the embodiment of what AT&T strives to nurture through the Hello Lab Mentorship Program.
Make sure to follow along as we continue covering the exciting the AT&T Hello Lab Program, and see these films be brought to life!