At the Bar with Shequeta L. Smith

I recently received an email from writer/director Shequeta Smith, founder of Rayven Choi films.  While watching the Oscars, she kindly granted me this interview after I watched her highly amusing short film, The Takeover (2013).

I was so flattered when you reached out to me – how did you find me?

I was surfing the web for blogs that catered to black women and found your wonderful blog.

It’s such a pleasure to have you at the Bar.  What are you sippin’ on?

Girl I'm sipping on some H20 on the rocks. lol. I don't drink soda or alcohol.

Tell us about yourself. Where are you based?

I'm originally from Salisbury, North Carolina. Moved to Los Angeles exactly nine years ago. I can't believe I've been here that long since I still feel like a visitor. I'm based in Los Angeles. Moved here to pursue screenwriting and I've been hustling for it ever since.

For those of us who don’t know you very well, you are a writer and director. How’d you get started in that?

I've been writing since I can remember. Started out with raps, poems and short stories. Freshman year in college I wrote a play about the light skin vs dark skin issues my family used to beef over back in the day and my English Professor read it and thought I should pursue screenwriting. I ignored her advice for about three more years and then the writing bug came back to me right before I graduated. I wrote a TV spec just to see if I could do it. Then I decided to write a screenplay about this model who discovers she's HIV positive and it landed me as a finalist in Sundance Filmmakers Lab. I didn't actually get selected into the Sundance Lab but that made me take it seriously. I started directing about five years ago because it allows me to control how my words are translated onto the screen and I really like to interact with the actors.

So why’s your film company called Rayven Choi?

At the beginning of "The Takeover" the comic book cover with the three females are three graphic novels/screenplays that I'm working on. The girl on the right is Rayven, the girl in the middle is Seven, and the girl on the left is Angel. Rayven Choi is the first of three that I created. She's the heroine in the second screenplay I ever wrote which was loosely based on a trip I took to Korea while in college. Just like her, when I returned to America from Korea I saw the world differently. I think she's such a dope character so I named my company after her.

I just watched The Takeover, starring the beautiful Chrystee Pharris. How did that project come about?

Girl, it was a mix of things. First of all, the dating scene in Los Angeles is pretty dry for black women. So one day me and one of my best friends out here decided we were going to try out online dating. So we sign up for this dating site and then it happens...nearly every black guy that I would even think to send a hello message to had some kind of disclaimer on his page that he ONLY likes Asian girls, Hispanic girls, pretty much anybody but a black girl. Needless to say I was offended and decided to exit stage left with the quickness. It's one thing to be ignored or discriminated against in person, but there's just something extra on it when it's happening on the World Wide Web. lol. A few weeks later, me and that same friend were out at this lounge in Hollywood where we were pretty much just people watching. There were a lot of attractive sistas there and plenty of handsome brothas as well. But for the most part, none of them were really talking to each other. The guys all seemed disinterested until these Kardashian wannabe girls walked up. Suddenly, the guys woke up and started surrounding these girls just how they do White Tisha in the film. After this, I knew I had to write something to address what's happening out here in La La Land. I thought it would be fun to do it as a bodyswap film since it's something me and my roommate from college, who is white, used to kick around.

Could you elaborate on your discussions?

The discussions we would have would be more about white privilege, which she was very aware that she had, and how it was such an advantage. We would talk about what would happen if we switched our names on our resumes just to see who would get called in for an interview. We would watch that Eddie Murphy Saturday Night Live skit where he goes out as a white man over and over again and laugh about it and discuss it. When I took black history in college, she was right up in the class with me. She's now happily married to a nice white guy we met at a Lil John/E-40 concert (long story lol).


It’s very well done. You did a really excellent job with this project. How long did it take? 

Thank You. I started writing this in October. Finished it in November. Did casting and found locations for it in December. Shot it in two and a half days over the MLK Weekend in January. And we just released it online on Valentine's Day. So it was done very quickly. I'm still trying to catch my breath.

The LA dating scene sounds horrific on both ends. Seeing things from “White Tisha’s” perspective in The Takeover really creeped me out. How did you come by such insight?

I've come by such insight by living in Los Angeles for the past nine years and having a gang of friends around me who witness it on a daily basis. lol.  As I mentioned before, I'm originally from the south where men talk to you, look at you, and ask you out at the drop of a dime. Los Angeles is the total opposite of that. I mean when you really think about it, this is the place that people move to so that they can pretend to be someone else for a living. So I guess the behavior of the men here shouldn't be too much of a surprise, yet it still is. lol.

What’s it like working with actresses like Chrystee Pharris and Teyana Taylor? Are they hard to get a hold of?

I've known Chrystee for several years now. So before I even started writing the script we were hanging out at an event and I mentioned to her that I was about to start writing this project and I wanted her to be in it. She was down from the very beginning and here we are. I've actually never met Teyana but when I started writing "Rock the Mic" she was the only person I had in mind. She fits the character Octavia so well with her girly but tomboy attitude and I'd heard her flow on some video and thought she can really rap. This was way before the record deal with Kanye or the shoe deal. I spoke with her manager to get her on the project and yes it's very hard to get a hold of talent directly and even harder to make them believe that your project is worth their time.

From our prior conversations, you indicated more projects were underway. What topics do you like to explore? And whom do you plan to feature?

I have multiple projects that I've written but there are two that I'm actively pursuing. One is a comedy called "The Gestapo vs Granny" which takes place in a retirement home. The lead character keeps getting kicked out of retirement homes until she ends up at this particular retirement home where the residents beg her to stay to help them get rid of the Resident that they all hate and call The Gestapo. The other film is called "Rock The Mic" and revolves around a battle rap competition that takes place at a high school. I like to think of it as a House Party for this generation. I have Teyana Taylor attached to the project and just trying to find the right investors at this point.

Wow!  You've been rubbing shoulders with some awesome people! What other projects do you have out now?

The Takeover is on my Youtube Channel and I have another short film called "The J.H. Gunn Project" that I shot back in '08. My main focus right now is just to get things for "Rock the Mic" moving because I think it's going to be a really fun project that fans of real hip-hop are going to love. I want to bring fun back to our movies. If I'm not shooting "Rock the Mic" by the end of the year, I have an idea for a web series I've been kicking around for a while so that will probably be the next thing I'll shoot depending on what happens with Rock the Mic. I also own a t-shirt company www.offmychesttees.com that keeps me pretty busy. Actually all the graphic tees and glasses in the movie were from my site.

And since you do your own tees, do you illustrate for real? Or did someone else do the artwork in the film?

I do really bad sketches or picture collages that outline what I want that my artist takes and makes into all of the illustrations you see in my artwork. I'm very picky too and look over things with a fine toothed comb which I'm sure my artist hates but he's been rocking with me for several years now so he definitely gets me.

Way to hustle!  As I said earlier, The Takeover is really well done. Who are your influences, and how would you characterize your style?

My influences are those writers and directors who take it to the next level and who pay attention to the small details. Folks like Luc Besson, Jin-gyu Cho, Kasi Lemmons, Spike Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, Andy Breckman, Shonda Rhimes, and Steve Franks. I would characterize my style as warm, smart, feel good funny.

Viewers of color are generally skeptical towards Hollywood and concerned at the glaring lack of representation. What are your thoughts on Hollywood politics?

I can sit here all day and talk about how political and cliquish Hollywood is and how some of the same filmmakers who I've supported in the past have downright ignored my film and haven't had two words to say to me since it's release, but I won't. lol. I think the politics that happen in Hollywood, when it comes to blacks, hinders us. I think we should be and could be so much further in this business if we really put our minds together and selflessly helped each other. However, that doesn't just apply to Hollywood, that applies to us in everyday life. Sometimes it feels like we're conditioned to root against each other and when you have that going on it's very hard to start any kind of movement to get a better representation of us in this industry or any other industry for that matter.

You mentioned looking for investors. How else do you get funding for projects?

"The Takeover" was funded by the bank of Shequeta. lol. If you're not paying for it yourself, I've seen quite a few filmmakers have success with the Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns but most are only able to raise a portion of the monies needed to finance a film. Other than those two methods, the only other way besides selling your project to Hollywood (if you can even get the project to them) is to find your own investors to finance the film.

I meant what I said about wanting to definitely see more of your work. How can interested parties like me support your projects?

Well I come from corporate America so I know that when it boils down to it, it's all about the numbers. So you can support me now by getting as many people as you can to watch the film. I'm thinking about doing a fundraising campaign in the next month or two to raise money to help further develop "Rock the Mic." I'm gonna shoot a really dope video that shows everyone the energy of what that film is gonna be like. I'm also working with my artist on the comic book for The Takeover. I will keep you posted on that.

Shequeta, thanks for stopping by the Bar.

And thank you, Ankhesen!

Comments

  1. Ankhesen, thank you for introducing me to yet ANOTHER phenomenal individual.

    Shequeta, thank you for an excellent interview. Now you all will excuse me, I have a short film to watch and bookmark. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I enjoyed the film and glad to know a fellow North Carolinian did it!

    ReplyDelete

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