For this alumni spotlight, I got the opportunity to interview Angel Kristi Williams, Cinema Directing MFA ’15. Here’s a bit about Angel.
Angel Kristi Williams is a filmmaker born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has screened in art galleries, numerous festivals around the world and garnered the attention of Participant Media, before completing her MFA at Columbia College Chicago. Her short film “Charlotte,” won the jury awards at Atlanta and Sarasota Film Festivals. Angel is a 2014 Film Independent Project Involve Fellow, where she was the recipient of the Sony Pictures Diversity Fellowship. Her feature directorial debut, Really Love will premiere in narrative competition at SXSW.
So now that you’ve made your first feature, can you think back and point out what were the valuable experiences at Columbia that influenced the way you went about directing the project?
Sure. My time at Columbia and working with actors, and being close to actors with theater training and Chicago really influenced my process of working with actors and collaborating with them to further develop the script and to push the story as far as I can. So, a lot of my practice of how I like to communicate with actors and just preparation; a lot of that began when I was studying at Columbia. So, for instance, one of my directing professors gave us this book to read, “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” a Lagos Egri book. There’s this one particular section that talks about character and the bone structure of a character and, when I’m writing and when I’m in production, I’m constantly referring back to that and building upon that and sharing that with the actors so that they can be as informed as possible about the characters that they’re digging into. And that started while I was in Chicago.
So, going back in time from that point, why did you choose to get your MFA at Columbia in the first place?
I fell in love with Chicago so I only applied to graduate film schools in Chicago. I came out the year before I was applying and visited School of the Art Institute and when I got to Columbia, I was just really impressed with the curriculum and how different it was than my experience in undergraduate school which was very interdisciplinary. The program in my undergrad was designed so that I wrote, directed, shot and edited everything that I ever made and Columbia was the moment where I was exposed to: what does it look like to make a film with a crew where you have a production designer and a cinematographer and an editor and all of these people who are bringing varying levels of expertise in different areas to help you create the thing that you’re trying to make. And it was just really exciting to me to be able to focus on writing and working with the actors.
Having had the Columbia experience but also being entrenched in Chicago, how would you advise prospective students and current students about how to take advantage of not just going to Columbia but being in Chicago while they’re learning to make films and making films.
I would definitely encourage prospective students to take advantage of all that the city has to offer. I mean I miss the theater, live music, and the food. It’s just a really special city that’s just very rich in the arts, in music and all of that informed what I was writing while I was at Columbia. So, I made sure that although sometimes it would be like, “Okay, I’m gonna have to stay up all night and edit this project” but I tried my best to really explore the city as much as possible. Also, as I’m studying film, there’s so many talented actors and getting to know the actors is really important and I would strongly encourage people to go to the theater.
Something I find very fascinating but also kind of worry about is that the diversity of the Columbia program can be very shielding from what the reality of the industry looks like. So was your transition into the “real world” kind of a culture shock compared to what your experience had been in Columbia, and how so if it was?
Well, I think no matter what you’re studying, the transition of being in an environment where that is sort of what you want to do and going out into the world and competing with people from other schools, from other cities can be a culture shock but also a reality check. I think a lot of people come out and think you’re gonna make your first feature right away. A lot of people aren’t ready to make their first feature fresh out of film school and I think that, for me, that was a reality check; that I still had growing to do as an artist and in terms of figuring out what my voice was. The beautiful thing about being in film school is the access to equipment but also resources and collaborators. Once you finish film school, you never have an opportunity to make work in that way again where everyone is just hungry and you just have all these things and talented people at your fingertips who will work for free and I think that really taking advantage of that and learning and growing and making mistakes as much as possible when you’re in film school is really important. If you just go to class, all of a sudden you finish film school and you think you’re ready to direct Black Panther or Atlantics and it’s like “No.” You have a lot more things to learn and skills to hone and I think that if you create as much as possible while you’re in film school, you can get a bit ahead of the curve.
You talked a bit about having time to hone your voice after you graduated before getting the chance to make your first feature. Can you give advice as to what you think people should be doing between graduation and getting their first film made that’ll really help them continue to build their skills.
You should be writing, you should be reading, watching a lot of films, finding mentors, shadowing, on sets, making music videos and short films. Just whatever you can do to have the opportunity to work with new actors and really build upon all the things that you gained from film school. I would say those are the things that I did. I made music videos. I shadowed. I did a mentorship program. You know what I mean? I met other filmmakers, I wrote short screenplays, I saw a lot of films. Just really try to take in as much information as possible so you can figure out: what are the stories that I want to tell and how are these people that I admire doing these things well.
As someone who fell in love with Chicago when you moved here, what influenced your decision to move out to LA instead of staying here?
See, at the time I was finishing my MFA there ironically wasn’t a lot of film and TV producing in Chicago. Of course, when I left, then all the shows came. But, I didn’t really see a film industry there. So, I felt that I personally wanted to go to New York or LA. And at the time, I had a friend who had done her MFA in LA and had built a community over the course of her time doing an MFA and I came to LA to visit, so I connected with all these folks who were other Black women and filmmakers of color and I was like, oh okay, there’s a space that I can create that is independent and supports the type of movies that I knew I wanted to make. So, that’s ultimately why I decided to make the change.
When I talked to you last, which was over a year ago, you talked about making a [Black] romantic drama because there weren’t a lot of those that existed at the time. Now that If Beale Street Could Talk and The Photograph have come out in the past year, how are you feeling about your place in the zeitgeist as your film as about to premiere as a romantic drama?
I’m excited. The more of these films get made and the more that they resonate with audiences, the more opportunity I’ll get to make films because I’m really drawn to making films about love. And it excites me when I see them put things in the stratosphere because it continues to open more doors for me.