Exclusive Interview With Nzingha Stewart (Original Director Of “For Colored Girls…” Adaptation)
In light of all the conversation/debate we’ve had on this blog recently about Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considred Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf - specifically on his recent casting announcements, and the furor over assumptions of how he may or may not have taken over the project from writer/director Nzingha Stewart – I thought I’d reach out to Nzingha, who, by the way, is a fan of this blog, and see what I can learn; but not only to find out what’s going on with the For Colored Girls… project (because she’s not at liberty to speak freely about it in detail), but also, I wanted to find out about her, Nzingha Stewart, the person and the filmmaker – subjects, it seems, have been mostly ignored, as the blogosphere has instead chosen to focus almost solely on the Tyler Perry fiasco.
So, thankfully, Nzingha granted me an interview! And what follows below is our Q&A session, which I think provides some necessary awareness of her that’s been missing all along, since most of us first heard her name last year, when the news about Tyler Perry’s assumption of the For Colored Girls… project livened up the web with lots of chatter.
In it, you’ll learn about how Nzingha got her start in the business, her previous work before attempting to adapt For Colored Girls…, projects that showed promise but were never fully realized for one reason or another (like one that was optioned by Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment production company), her handling of the For Colored Girls… project (including her involvement in it currently; yes, she’s still very much involved, even though we all thought that she was out of it completely), life as a black female filmmaker living in Los Angeles, how she defines her brand of cinema, what she’s been working lately, what she has coming up (including both TV and feature film projects), her recent get away to Costa Rica to finish a script she’ll be directing with Gabrielle Union attached to star, and much more… So, without further ado, read on below (obviously S&A is me, and NS is her):
S&A: I read that you got your start directing music videos for various hip-hop and R&B musicians. Is that really how it all began for you, or did you do something else prior to that, which led to music videos?
NS: I went to NYU, but not for film. I was in the Gallatin School where you could design your own major and designed a philosophy major with a thesis in Chaos and Order – that’s pretty much you’re average day in Hollywood. I could have just moved here early and saved myself four years of school.
While I was there, I interned for music video directors which led to me becoming a treatment writer for Brett Ratner, that then led to me writing treatments for the music video “class of 95″ – Hype Williams, Darren Grant, Steve Carr, etc…
Some of those directors were really supportive when I started directing and helped me get a rep, let me use their vendor accounts to shoot independent videos, etc… in particular Brett Ratner, who I still credit for helping me get started as a filmmaker.
Around 2001 I had a big year with some MTV & MVPA nominations – Common, Sunshine Anderson, Bilal, etc… and could stop writing for anyone else and became a full-fledged music video director.
My web page has a bunch of the videos I’ve done on it if you’re interested. It’s www.nzinghastewart.com.
I wasn’t thinking about features back then, I really loved music videos. I was working with artists that I loved (Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Common, Eve…) and getting to indulge my love of cinematic imagery without having to worry about tying it together with a story. But then of course, had an idea for a screenplay, sent it out, and it was immediately optioned by Overbrook, which made me start to consider a career in feature film. Ultimately, the script wasn’t produced, but it was the one that gave me the feature bug.
S&A: Your IMDB resume shows that you’ve directed a short film titled “The Marriage Counselor,” but not much else. And I’m not sure if you realize this, but “The Marriage Counselor” IMDB page links your film with Tyler Perry’s stage play of the same name, making it appear as if you directed one of his plays, which isn’t the case, I don’t think. It was all sort of puzzling to look at your page and find that, given all that’s transpired since then.
NS: Yeah, I don’t know how to change that IMDB thing. “The Marriage Counselor” was a short film I did that had nothing to do with TP’s stage play.
S&A: How did you get your hands on “For Colored Girls..?”
NS: I originally optioned the play and Ntozake was wonderful and supportive. I wrote a draft and attached the actresses you mentioned (Angela Bassett, Alicia Keys & Sanaa Lathan) so a studio could really see it as a film (it being such an experimental work). I’m now an executive producer on the project and am so happy that it is going to see the light of day. Its a beautiful work that deserves to be supported.
S&A: How faithful was your adaptation to the original work?
NS: It’s probably better for me not to talk about my version of the script because I don’t want it to take away from the version that is being produced now. Especially since the most important part of the story is that a movie based on a book of poetry about a group of nameless black women is getting made.
S&A: So, now that we all know that you’re not going to be making “For Colored Girls…” what have you been doing since then? In general, how are you living? You used to be in New York, and I’m guessing you moved to L.A. to pursue a career in film. Are things working out for you as you expected/hoped they would?
NS: I always miss NY, but moving to Hollywood was the right decision. Writing work has been pretty phenomenal and I definitely consider myself lucky. I sold a show to NBC (that eventually wasn’t produced because of the infamous 5 days a week of Jay Leno), but it opened a lot of doors and gave me confidence in myself as a writer. I then wrote a script for Outlaw Entertainment (the producers of Training Day and The Ugly Truth), when and if that’s produced, I’m attached as a director as well. And, am now writing (and slated to direct) “The Vow” for Lifetime starring Gabrielle Union, and being produced by Tracey Edmonds. I’m also polishing a comedy script with a huge comedy producer (can’t say their name until we finish signing the paperwork), but they produce the kind of movies with Steve Carrell and Jim Carrey. I’m attached to direct that as well.
I still direct music videos and commercials (I completed 6 commercials in January and am now editing a music video for Alexandra Burke, Simon Cowell’s new artist) because even with all of the writing work, nothing beats being on set.
Between directing and writing, I’m one of the lucky few that gets to make a real living at their craft. It hasn’t always been that way and I don’t take it for granted. I just traveled to Costa Rica for a few weeks to finish the script I’m contracted to Lifetime for, and while there, felt pretty emotional to be at the point in my career where if I want to pick up and leave the country for a few weeks because I don’t feel like writing in LA, I can do that. I know how hard it is for artists and I am grateful every single day.
S&A: How would you describe your brand of cinema – specifically, are you drawn to any specific genres and/or kinds of stories?
NS: I’m really drawn to great characters over any particular genre. The show I sold to NBC was a half-hour sitcom, my feature comedy has a white female protagonist and is kind of “The Jerk” meets “40-Year Old Virgin”. The Lifetime project is a romantic comedy based on a book by Essence editors Mitzi Miller, Angela Burt-Murray and Denene Milner. I’m also developing a dramatic musical with the producers of Chicago and Hairspray. The project for Outlaw is a “teen-genre movie,” and I’m developing an independent horror/ love story that is already financed and is a strange, cool “zombie love story.” So, as long as there is an opportunity to tell a story about a group of characters I fall in love with, I’m on it, regardless of genre.
S&A: As a filmmaker who happens to be black and female, with so few actually working in the biz today, and in the history of the biz, and with competition seemingly so stiff, how do you motivate yourself to keep at it, fully aware of the challenges in front of you? Or is that not even something you think about? When you walk into meetings with producers, do those age-old stories we’ve all heard about, happen to you – for example, the white producer telling the black filmmaker that they need to “blacken up” their screenplays, or to cast white actors in roles meant for blacks, because black faces don’t sell the way white faces do, etc, etc, etc?
NS: It really has never been a problem, in terms of competition. I think black people are always so scared of each other as competition, when the truth is when one of us does well, it helps all of us get our projects made. I think the same thing about female filmmakers. The real struggle is always when you go through those periods where you get a bunch of no’s or you get close on something and it goes away, but I’ve learned that in a game of chicken with the universe, you usually win. So often, I’ve had to make a conscious decision that even if it’s painful or it’s a struggle, I’m going to do this anyway, and usually within a few weeks (or once literally within minutes!) the universe will give in, and say “you win.”
In terms of the “blackening of screenplays” I’ve never been in that position because if I’m in a room, then they’ve seen my work and know, I’m not that kind of filmmaker – Take a look at the Bilal video or the Common videos or even Dashboard Confessional on my website and you’ll see what I mean. If they want some coonery, they’re not even going to take a meeting with me and vice versa right from the start.
I always try to approach things based on if I love it and if it’s worth fighting for. And then the discussion never becomes about race, but about whether things are right for the script or if they serve the story. Sometimes, the disagreements are so fundamental that it’s better for me to walk away or the studio to decide to go with someone else, but those disagreements haven’t been about race, they’ve been about story.
S&A: Are you strictly a writer/director, meaning would you rather be like a Woody Allen and only direct from scripts that you write, or are you open to being a director-for-hire, like an Antoine Fuqua, for example? And if the latter, have you put limits on yourself on what you’re willing to direct or not direct?
NS: Most of the projects I’m writing now, I’m also attached to direct. If we can make the schedule work, I may be directing the indie movie I mentioned earlier, and I didn’t write that one. -That’s another project that race never factored in any of the discussions. it’s a white writer, and the producers are white, they were just big fans of my music video work. They knew I was black before approaching me, but they want the movie to feel the way my music videos feel, even though the videos they’re referencing are largely black, and the cast is largely white.
S&A: And lastly, a question that comes up often – how do you define “black cinema?” We often discuss the label, and if it’s something that can be readily defined with a list of characteristics, or if it’s best not to define it. Your definition or thoughts on that?
NS: That’s tough. I started to say when it’s written and directed by black people, but I don’t know if I would even characterize at least two of the projects I’m working on now as “black cinema” since they have white leads. But I definitely think of myself as a black filmmaker.
Then I started to say “Black cinema” is when it stars black people, but are Will Smith movies “black cinema”? Is Beverly Hills Cop?
What about the projects that feel like minstrel shows to me, but other black people love them (and that’s not a criticism of the audience, my mother LOVES those movies)? They’re definitely “black”, but “cinema?” They’re more like a business idea than an art. So I don’t know… Hopefully, we’ll have a real definition soon because it’ll mean enough black movies are being made that we don’t need to reach backwards to answer that or think about one or two filmmakers that only represent a portion of what we can do to be definitive.
Alright!! That’s it folks! I thank Nzingha for her time, and for answering these questions thoroughly! Often I get these short sentence answers, and I’m glad she was wordy and forthcoming. So, get to know Nzingha Stewart, because I think we’ll be hearing more about her in coming years… at least we hope so! And, of course, once we know more about any of her upcoming projects, you’ll also know!
For now, as she verified, she is still involved in the For Colored Girls… project, in an executive producer capacity. Also, you can read read up on her Gabrielle Union project which we profiled last summer on this blog HERE. I think that was the very first time Nzingha’s name was mentioned on this blog, and my first time hearing about her.
Also, check out her blog HERE, where you’ll find all the commercials and music videos she’s directed, including this one – Common’s The Light:
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