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On blending art and social justice: my short film, “Lost”

A still from my short film

A still from my short film

Recently, I took part in a conference at Princeton called “Ferguson is the Future,” which blended speculative artists with social justice activists for a magical weekend of sharing and dreaming. Whether it was on panels or only in our minds, as artists we all confronted the question of how we might use our art to broaden our impact in true life world-building.

Days later, I took my iPhone to a local hiking trail and started shooting a short film called “Lost”–about a woman, you guessed it, who gets lost on a hiking trail while she’s trying to find her office team-building retreat. (I actually got lost three times shooting the film, but that’s another story.) The woman happens to work for a private prison company, and the rest is…well, you’ll see.

Because I love horror, my idea was to shoot a found footage-style movie–but I also wanted to add a social justice theme highlighting an issue of critical importance to me: mass incarceration. The United States has imprisoned more than 2 million of its people, giving us the highest incarceration rate in the world. This national tragedy has resulted from systemic bias against minorities, particularly with harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders in the nation’s “War on Drugs.” (Read more about mass incarceration HERE.)

I am a novelest-turned-screenwriter who has had scripts optioned within the Hollywood system, and in 2013 my husband/collaborator, Steven Barnes, and I co-wrote and co-produced a crowdfunded short zombie film called “Danger Word,” starring Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott. I’d had the benefit of being on director Luchina Fisher’s set to see how all of the pieces fit together to turn a script into a film.

But “Lost” is the first time I’ve directed or acted in a film myself. My reasoning was simple: I was fired up, I wanted to tell a story, and I didn’t want to let the lack of a budget, director, crew, cinematographer or actress stop me from making a film. I’ve written about how much fun I had shooting book trailers in my previous post, and this would just be a like a trailer–except longer. (I will blog more about the logistics of making the film on a future post.)

I’m fortunate enough to have an iPhone 6 with iMovie, and that was all I needed. In the hands of a more seasoned director and editor, the iPhone CAN create cinema quality films. (The Sundance darling “Tangerine” was shot on an iPhone 5S.) In my case, I wanted to tell a simple story that would both entertain and inform, primarily through social media.

All of my work, including my novels, has a certain spoonful-of-sugar-helps-the-medicine-go-down quality. History, for example, is often at the root of issues my protagonists face in the present. As I mentioned at Princeton, I was raised by two activists: civil rights attorney John Due and the late Patricia Stephens Due, who spent 49 days in jail for sitting in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Tallahassee, Florida–along with her sister, Priscilla, and a few other students from Florida A&M University. I was raised at my parents’ knees with stories of individual courage in the face of great odds to try to build a better world.

My mother, Patricia Stephens Due , arrested in Florida in 1963

My mother, Patricia Stephens Due , arrested in Fla in 1963. CREDIT: Florida Memory Project

But my parents never scoffed at my dreams of being a writer, even when I was writing about talking cats or children stowing aboard space ships rather than stories of racism and struggle. As my mother often told me, the civil rights orgnanization the NAACP always invested in the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch because its leaders understood the importance of images in creating a brighter future.

Filmmakers like Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X) and Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowehere and Selma) have been deeply inspirational in the ways they combine art with messaging. And Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, about the killing of Oscar Grant by transit police, helped spark a national conversation about police abuse before Ferguson.

As we all discussed at Princeton, Afrofuturism–or black speculative fiction–lends itself particularly well to questions of dystopia and societal change. Whether it’s the near-future bleakness of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the alternate slavery history in Steven Barnes’s Lion’s Blood, or the sumptuous world-building in N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season, speculative literature arms readers with a lens through which to view–and, hopefully, to improve–the world we live in.

Often, my work serves as more indirect allegory. But “Lost” is very specific.

Pioneering science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany has said in an interview that he did not set out to “change the world” in the science fiction he began publishing in the 1960s–and yet, his very presence as a black writer and the casual conversations around race, gender and sexuality in his work were revolutionary. As I said in a recent interview in “The Guardian,” even today the presence of characters of color in fiction (and film) feels revolutionary because we have been erased for so long.

Steve and I wanted to make “Danger Word,” a black horror film, because we were tired of the same old horror tropes that often rendered black characters useless, spiritual guides or purely sacrificial.

But “Lost,” for me, is taking a social justice message one step further–I wanted specifically to address how the black middle class has been asleep on the growth of mass incarceration, even as it affected many of our own families. Whether it was because of shame, indoctrination or helplessness, it took too many of us far too long to realize that prisons had become The New Jim Crow. (I used that term in my 2008 novel Blood Colony, where lifegiving blood from immortals was treated as an illegal drug. And Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand the breadth of mass incarceration.)

We are at a crossroads as a nation. With more growing awareness, President Obama’s recent visit to a federal prison (the first by a sitting president), and bipartisan support for criminal justice reform on the street level and beyond, we can all unite to make a difference. Here’s a petition you can sign today to urge lawmakers to embrace criminal justice reform.

Left to right: DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, author Daniel Jose Older, and me.

Left to right: DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, author Daniel José Older, and me.

No one film, or book, or song, will change the world. To me, the true heroines and heroes in social justice are those who are willing to take to the streets, as my mother did, and face arrest, or worse, to raise awareness. Having the chance to meet Ferguson activists DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie was among my high points during the Princeton conference. (Here’s a link to the Ferguson panels. I spoke on Panel #1,)

Fired up from Princeton, with “Lost” I was ready to amplify my social justice message in a short film. And, hopefully, create a short that would also be entertaining enough that people would share it whether or not they care as passionately about ending mass incarceration as I do. Horror or “Twilight Zone” fans, for example.

I hope you will enjoy “Lost.” If you do, please spread the word. And as an artist, consider the ways you might introduce large and small revolutions in your own work–even if it’s only in a single brave choice, a character from an ignored community, or a tiny nugget that will encourage your audience to think about our world beyond your story.

Tananarive Due is an American Book Award winner who teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. Join her email list to hear about free gifts and webinars for writers. Upcoming webinar: “Avoiding the mistakes new writers make” (Friday, Oct. 9)

 

 

 

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Danger Word: how my first short film is giving birth to my feature screenplay

Update 7/13: The My Soul to Keep feature screenplay I wrote with my husband, Steven Barnes, is finished and being shopped. 

In December, I posted here that I was going to begin working on a My Soul to Keep screenplay (with husband and collaborator Steven Barnes).  Today, we’re on page 73.

A novel's journey to the screen. (Old drafts.)

A novel’s journey to the screen. (Old drafts.)

Progress hasn’t been easy.  But as Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College, I’ve been inspired by teaching talented students, guest speakers like director Ava DuVernay, and an Octavia E. Butler Celebration in March that featured a Black Science Fiction Short Film Festival and shorts like Pumzi, Wake, and The Abandon.  I’ve also had interest and input from directors and producers.

But since My Soul to Keep was in development at Samuel Goldwyn Productions and Fox Searchlight in past years, I understand that there is a long road between a producer’s query and a movie.  I have lost author friends who never lived to see it: Octavia, L.A. (Leslie) Banks, E. Lynn Harris.

Several other screenwriters have written drafts of My Soul to Keep in development, but Steve and I had never written our take.  I realized that emotional factors were blocking my writing progress.   It was so difficult to coax my Muse out to play when I couldn’t promise that the writing would be anything except a long exercise toward disappointment.  As a screenwriter on other projects, I’d been down that road before.

Then Steve and I decided to co-produce our first short film, Danger Word:  15 minutes on a shoestring budget.  We’re flying to the rural New York location to begin the shoot in two days–and it has already changed everything.  Taking control of my creative process in the film world has coaxed my Muse out again. (To learn more about Danger Word and how you can support this film, please click here to see our Indiegogo page. Our deadline is approaching!) 

The idea to do a short film came out of the blue.  In the wake of the Octavia E. Butler Celebration, other filmmakers were also inspired to pursue funding for their projects: M. Asli Dukan, who is in post-production for her groundbreaking black science fiction documentary Invisible Universe; and Atlanta writers/filmmakers Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade, who recently completed an Indiegogo campaign for their steamfunk short film Rite of Passage: Initiation.  (Trailers for both were screened at the Celebration.)

Suddenly, we believed.  We had an audience.  We could do it.

You can do it.  Sometimes artists forget those four simple words; the very words that propel our art.  But between HD video and crowd funding, the film landscape has become more accessible.  It isn’t easy by any means, but it is easier. (Our preproduction campaign in progress, for example, has been powered by social media, primarily Facebook.)

Danger Word stars Frankie Faison

Danger Word stars Frankie Faison (“The Wire”)

Enter Danger Word.  That was the first piece of prose I ever wrote in collaboration with Steve, so it’s only fitting that it will be our first film together.  Originally published in the Brandon Massey’s 2004 Dark Dreams anthology and re-imagined as an episode in our 2012 YA horror novel Devil’s Wake, it’s the story of a young girl and her grandfather who have survived the zombie plague in his wooded cabin–and how an outing goes terribly wrong.  Rural location. Two main characters.  My friend Luchina Fisher had just directed a short film in 2011, Death in the Family, and she was excited about directing Danger Word.  The first day I floated the idea on Facebook, a prospective cast member wanted to see a script.

And in the midst of the duties of a producer–everything from fundraising to helping with decisions about casting to the makeup/FX artist–Steve and I have steadily been working on My Soul to Keep.  We will finish our first full draft soon.

If you haven’t read it, My Soul to Keep is the 1997 supernatural thriller that launched my African Immortals series: it’s about a 500-year-old immortal, Dawit, who breaks away from his secret brotherhood to find love with his daughter and wife, Jessica.  It’s a thriller with a love story at its core.

Why has Danger Word helped so much in the creation process for My Soul to Keep?

Because as a novelist who took up screenwriting later in my career, I struggled with the notion of spending weeks or months on a project that might never see the light of day.  Sure, I wrote drawers of unpublished fiction when I was learning my craft, but I’d been spoiled by book contracts and the certainty that someone would read my work.  Since most screenplays are never produced, period, screenwriters don’t have the luxury of that certainty–or even that likelihood.  Twelve drafts later, a project might die in film development–and that’s if you’re lucky enough to get twelve drafts.

And screenwriters of color face obstacles that make a tough industry even tougher.

But watching Danger Word come to life–hiring a veteran actor like Frankie Faison to star in it,  watching an excellent team assemble around a story about a girl and her grandfather–has convinced me that I can make a film.

And if I can make a short film, I can make a longer film.   If I can make a longer film, I can make My Soul to Keep one day.

My Muse likes that idea just fine.

Learn more about Tananarive Due at www.tananarivedue.com 

To contribute to Danger Word, CLICK HERE TO GO TO INDIEOGOGO 

To see the panel of authors at Spelman College’s Octavia E. Butler Celebration of the Fantastic Arts on March 21, 2013, CLICK HERE for the YouTube video.  (Panelists included Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Sheree R. Thomas, Brandon Massey and Jewelle Gomez.)  

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Writing & the Art of a Good Scare

 

I try to sound sympathetic, but secretly   the stories are music to my ears.

I couldn’t sleep.  I had to put your book   down for a while.  The cover was so  scary that I had to take if off.  I can’t look at dead leaves the same way.  My husband dressed up like your character and scared me to death when he jumped out of the closet. (He’s a keeper!)

The great Harlan Ellison once advised me to avoid labels like the plague, and I know some readers are forced to argue my case at their book club meetings.  The scariest book I’ve ever read may be Toni Morrison’s Beloved, alongside novels like Pet Sematary by Stephen King.  Horror is just a label.

But I like to write scary stuff.  I don’t know why.  If I want to write about a woman in a difficult relationship, her lover is an immortal.  If I’m reuniting a character with her grandmother, Grandma has been dead for years.  I can’t help myself.  Sometimes I wish I could.

Often, the supernatural element is more gentle and metaphysical, but once in a while I set out to give readers nightmares.

Original hardcover: My Soul to Keep (1997)

It’s not an easy task.  Novelists have to compete with real-life headlines and everyday turmoil that are far scarier than anything we can dream up.  Haunted house—so what?  The bank just foreclosed on your house.  Your boss just laid you off.  Your parent is in a nursing home.

The challenge of writing scary fiction, I think, rests with the very thing that appeals to us as readers and writers:  We’re looking for an escape. No matter what else happens to us over the course of our lives, we won’t have to confront a demon that can possess us.  Most of us, anyway.    Horror fiction scares us in a safe context.  As both a writer and a reader, I look to characters unfortunate enough to land in these books for tools about how to behave when the world caves in on us.

My favorite experiences as a writer are when I can make myself cry…or scare myself.  The crying is easy—I’m a softie.  I can find myself bawling as I write a scene a reader might encounter without the blink of an eye.  Whatever pain I’ve pricked might be purely personal.

But if I scare myself…chances are, I’ll scare the reader too.

The scariest book I’ve written may be a novel called The Good House.  It’s my only book about characters facing a force that’s Evil through and through—so evil it had to be put to sleep hundreds of years ago, and my characters accidentally woke it up.

Every writer of scary fiction has a different philosophy about how to scare the pants off of readers, but I’ll use The Good House as an example of what worked for me.  (And bear in mind that many of these tools are useful in creating engaging fiction across the board.)

1.)    Create characters your readers believe.

This is probably the most oft-ignored rule in bad horror movies and fiction.  You can create the most frightening concept imaginable, but if you don’t have real people to unleash it on, your readers will yawn.  Who would read a 300-plus page novel about a dog barking outside of a Pinto unless they really cared about the mother and son trapped inside?  (Cujo.) Ask Stephen King how important characterization is in creating horror fiction.

While I was writing, I tried to make the protagonist in The Good House especially vivid by pinning up a photo of Angela Bassett, after whom my lead character was named.  I tried to infuse my book’s Angela with the brittle strength Bassett conveys in so many of her movie roles.  The rest was just trying to imagine how I would behave if I found myself in her horrible predicament.

2.)    Delve into your own fears.

This might sound like a no-brainer, but sometimes writers do everything they can to avoid touching the heart of what frightens them.  The Good House was chock full of real-life horrors:  A friend’s sudden loss of her teenage son.  A story from a shaman about a demon gone wild.  A bizarre newspaper story about a man who drowned his son in front of his playmate.

Most of all, I was grappling with intense feelings of isolation during the six years I first moved away from my family, job and friends in Miami to live in the Pacific Northwest.  I expressed my own sense of rootlessness in a character with similar feelings, only amplified.   It’s no coincidence that I wrote my first supernatural novel, The Between, after experiencing 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.  (And that hurricane later showed up in my novel The Living Blood.)

3.)    Create a real world.

On one level, your readers are daring you to scare them.  They’ve hunkered down into a mindset that says I-know-this-isn’t-real-so-there.  A short prologue that introduces your supernatural element or gives them a tastes of the horror to come is a fine hook…but after that, slow down and take your time.  Ground your story in the mundane aspects of life we all know and recognize…and then slowly begin to show your supernatural hand.  By the time your readers realize you’ve roped them into believing the unbelievable, it’s too late.  They’re stuck on the ride.

Also, give your characters—and your readers—time to breathe.  One thrill-ride after another will desensitize them for the moments you really want to count.  Slow down.  Add some levity.  A quiet dinner.  A love scene.  Then…gotcha!

4.)    Steer clear of movie clichés.

The Good House has elements of both a traditional haunted house novel as well as an Exorcist-style demon…but I didn’t set out to imitate anything I had seen before.  My challenge was to try to re-imagine familiar concepts and make them my own.  In her last novel, Fledgling, Octavia E. Butler delved into vampire mythology with her own unique interpretation, drawing on her skills as a science fiction writer.  In my view, far too many writers set out to write horror fiction because they’re inspired by movies rather than the route any good writer should follow—reading a lot of good literature and developing a unique voice and perspective.

If you’ve seen it a million times before, so have your readers.

Don’t watch horror movies, except for fun.  Read, read, read.

Note for screenwriters:  This applies to you too.  If you want to write horror scripts, READ horror scripts.  And Oscar-nominated scripts.  And any quality scripts you can get your hands on.

I wrote three drafts of a screenplay adaptation of The Good House for Fox Searchlight with my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes. My creative breakthroughs as a screenwriter during that time came after reading scripts like Josh Olson’s A History of Violence, Alex Garland’s 28 Days Later and 12 Monkeys, by Chris Maker & David and Janet Peoples.

Watching the films is cool too, but I learned far more from reading the screenplays before and while viewing the final product.

Where’s the movie version of The Good House?  So far, still on paper.  In my imagination.  Like most film projects, it fizzled out, awaiting a new home.

But meanwhile, Steve and I are collaborating on our first horror novel together—a zombie novel called Devil’s Wake.  (It originated as a short story, “Danger Word,” we published in an anthology called Dark Dreams, recently reprinted in The Living Dead 2.)

And yes, it’s going to be scary.

*****

2015 update: The Good House is currently optioned again. My newest short story collection, Ghost Summer, is on sale now. My YA zombie series with Steven Barnes, Devil’s Wake and Domino Falls, is also available now. WATCH the short film adapted from “Danger Word”: www.dangerword.com.

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