Blackstar Film Fest 2023 Interview: Felicia Pride on Thinking Ahead with “Look Back At It”

It’s fitting that “Look Back At It” opens with a disruption. At the end of a date that appears it couldn’t have gone any better, Lanae (Angel Laketa Moore) is all ready to ponder the question of whether she’ll be invited inside by her suitor, but ends up having so many more after a tap on the window by a woman who turns out to be his wife. Being trapped in the car as the two have it out is actually a little less uncomfortable than you might think for Lanae, who has become unfortunately all too accustomed to both shameless men and being thrown into arguments she wants no part of as one sees upon her return back home where she’s teased mercilessly by both her mother (Natalie Carter) and daughter Kim (Nysa Morris), as well as her best friend Tichina (Hadiyah Robinson), who isn’t about to take pity on her, either. Still, Lanae can appreciate that at least they all want the best for her, though she has to wonder what they’re thinking when they suggest hiring an escort to immediately tend to her needs, arguing that the search Mr. Right may be a lot more relaxed after a rendezvous with “Mr. Right Now.”

Lanae may be taken aback by the suggestion, but there’s a refreshing practicality about it that she can’t help but open her mind to and it’s a quality that has made the work of writer/director Felicia Pride so appealing in general, telling the stories of those who been so busy taking care of business that they often forget to take care of themselves. In her previous short “Tender,” the filmmaker could see the obstacles to happiness where her characters could not in the aftermath of a one-night stand where a woman who looks a little too eager to get back to the office after sleeping with a co-worker finds a deeper connection when she decides to give herself the time to stick around, and in “Really Love,” the swoon-worthy romance she co-wrote with director Angel Kristi Williams, where the career demands on an aspiring artist (Kofi Siriboe) and a budding lawyer (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing) make a relationship seem impossible despite their strong chemistry. It’s clear in “Look Back At It” that Lanae won’t have any trouble finding a partner if it’s based strictly on how she looks, but how she sees herself is an entirely different issue, perhaps becoming a little too at ease in the nursing scrubs she spends most of her days in when they offer peace of mind if not a tender embrace.

Pride isn’t merely observing Lanae shake things up in her life in “Look Back At It,” but looks to do so in a bigger way with the short that she intends to expand to a feature and is part of a wider-ranging effort to celebrate Black women hitting their stride on screen and off through her production company Honey Chile. After working on both the business and creative sides of the film industry, she’s uniquely suited to build community and keep it engaged with a wealth of experience not only manifesting itself into rich and carefully crafted stories but a conscientiousness about how best to put them out into the world, aiming to create a path of sustainability not only for herself but so many others and the multihypehnate is set to make a splash this week when “Look Back At It” will screen at Blackstar Film Festival in Philadelphia. On the eve of the film’s Philly premiere en route to a hometown screening at the Honey Chile Festival in Baltimore, which Pride is initiating with the Black Femme Supremacy Festival, the filmmaker spoke about how she made her latest short a family affair and brought local Baltimore artists into the production as well as finding her groove as a director and her love of a great soundtrack.

I’ve heard you say “Look Back At It” was actually something that pushed to the back burner a bit. What was it that brought this forward?

There are certain projects that you have to be ready for, and this project is inspired by my mother, my sister, and my niece and takes place in Baltimore. It is so personal, I felt like I had to feel I could pull it off and do it justice craftwise, but also to be ready since it is a personal story and what I’m trying to pull off thematically is a little bit more nuanced. After I finished my most recent television job, I thought it was time to devote energy [to this]. I had a draft of the feature-length script finished, but it needed a complete rewrite, so I took the time to delve in and do that rewrite.

Knowing that you already had the feature in mind, was the short designed from actual scenes you had in mind or just the general vibe? Because it’s a complete narrative unto itself.

Yes, it was hard because the feedback that I got from my trusted circle for the first draft of the short was, “This feels like the first 15 pages of a feature.” And I wanted it to be something that could stand on its own, so I had to think about what was the story that I wanted to tell for the short film and then what were the important things that I wanted to get across that I knew would be in the feature, so those are the things that I want to get across in the short. From the jump, it was going to be these three generations of these women – and I think that’s the balancing act in the feature [as well]. We have a core relationship in the future, which is the mother and the daughter, but I wanted to show this family unit, and it was balancing how much real estate in the script that I’m giving the various relationships while also maintaining and being very clear on the core relationship. Then I also had to give myself permission to deviate away from the feature to make the short work. It was much harder than “Tender” to write — I was surprised how hard it was, but I was very happy with how it came together.

One of the things that I’m so drawn to in your work is this central idea that life is getting in the way of the romantic needs of the people involved. What keeps you coming back to it?

One thing that I’ve consciously done is how yes, we let life get in the way of our desires — and often I use sexual and romantic desires to be a placeholder for all desires, but then also, how, when we do give in to our desires, it opens us up across the board. I do a lot of that in the feature version where we see how our lead character, Lance, gives into these desires, but it opens up her world, because essentially what I feel like the feature is about is three women choosing themselves, and what happens when we choose ourselves and we lean into our desires, so that’s what I’m trying to explore.

What was it like to find your cast for the short?

It was a beautiful challenge because Lanae, our lead is played by Angel Laketa Moore, a Baltimore native who is on fire right now. She has the song “One Margarita” and she’s an incredibly talented actress, comedian and she creates content. She has the comedic chops, but also she’s a mother, and she has this heart about her that I was really excited to see [in this context]. We originally went out to Angel to play the best friend and then in just thinking about it, I was like, “I think she’s our Lanae” and luckily, she was down to do that. Then we actually then brought on a casting director because we needed help and Amanda [Lenker Doyle] helped us to do a lot of the leg work with finding fresh and established talent, so we had this process of both reaching out and traditional [casting] through tapes. Natalie Carter, who plays the grandmother, is also from Baltimore, and then we have our daughter, Nysa Morris, who’s Atlanta-based, and what I was really proud of and so inspired by was the fact that they came together and they had this incredible chemistry. It was like they were family, and that made my job as a director much easier, but I also feel like we can see that on screen.

We had a table read that was virtual, then a rehearsal of some of our big scenes and then we had a dinner all together that was getting the chemistry together, and once I feel like there’s a foundation of how we are thinking about these characters, I’m hands off because I want to see the playing that happens, and I really just loved all that these actresses brought to the table. There’s some improv in there, especially with [Hadiyah Robinson] the actress who plays Tichina, Lanae’s best friend and she’s one of my good, good friends [in real life] and a fantastic comedian, so we got as many different versions on tape and used the ones that we just loved.

Is it true that this all took place at your aunt’s house?

Yes, I wanted a traditional row home and I wanted it to feel lived in and authentic, and I was like, “[I want something that] looks like Aunt Sondra’s house.” And now my mom has a credit on the movie as a location manager. She calls Aunt Sondra — and we called a couple other cousins who we know live in traditional row homes, but that cutout in particular [that’s in the wall between the kitchen and the living room] just worked out perfectly for one scene.

And that was the amazing thing about this particular project was we were able to bring it back to Baltimore and many family members participated. My cousin Aaron Watkins, who is the son of my aunt, plays the husband in the first scene, and my niece was a [production assistant] and my good homeboy was also a PA. And my mother came to set and watched me direct, standing right behind me. Then there’s just tons of Baltimore artists, and it just felt like family. Now, the bar is set so high in terms of how you want a set to feel and the fact that you’re creating and co-creating with family and friends just felt really, really good.

Something else that also connects your work is I always loved the needle drops. Is music a big part of your process from the start?

I started my career as a journalist who wrote about music, and then I wrote a book about Hip Hop called “The Message,” and I was a teaching fellow at NYU for Hip Hop and education, so I music is a really important part of my life and I cannot write in silence. It has become something that I really look forward to in terms of finding music for my films and placing it. For “Tender,” we used one artist, BOOMscat, all of their music, and some of Asha Santee’s solo music [and Asha is part of BOOMscat]. Then for “Look Back at It,” we have a great composer Summer Payton, and all Baltimore-affiliated artists for the songs. I had the big win of getting those two club songs by DJ Class. Those are songs that I grew up on and I was so excited to have Baltimore club music in the film.

When you’re able to bring together all of these things that you’ve accumulated over the years, is directing particularly satisfying when it can touch on all these different things?

It absolutely is, and that’s how it was [in terms of becoming interested in it], learning that features are a director’s medium and that there are definitely features that I can write and be happy to pass on [to others to direct], but for certain features, particularly that are very personal to me, I want to be a part of the process from start to finish. I realized to do that, I either had to produce and write or write and direct. And it was just mainly more fear than anything that [prevented me from starting out wanting to direct] because I hadn’t grown up around directors. I didn’t go to film school and didn’t really understand, so I automatically told myself it was something that I couldn’t do.

It was in working through that fear and meeting more Black women directors and knowing and understanding that I can do it, I should at least try it. That’s why “Tender” is more simple — two characters, one location — because it’s my way of trying, but not doing too much out of the gate. But I fell in love with the process. I love being on set. I love working with actors. I love putting together look books and working with the cinematographer and thinking about shots. I love post, so I love directing. I really do.

I first discovered “Tender” out of Blackstar. What’s it like getting back there and just putting this out into the world generally?

Blackstar is such an important festival to [feature] underrepresented creatives and marginalized filmmakers and Blackstar has actually shown all of my work, so I feel like Blackstar has been a home and I’m so excited that I’ll be there in person this time because when “Tender” was there, it was during COVID. And this film is a lot funnier than “Tender,” so when I’m sitting in the audience and audiences are laughing and talking back to the screen and enjoying themselves, it feels very communal and just really lights me up. It makes me proud of what we did together. We created something beautiful and we did it, I really feel as a representation of Baltimore, so I’m just really, really proud.

You’re also building something bigger than any one film with Honey Chile, your production company. What’s it been like to start seeing the fruits of it?

Honey Chile’s been something that I’ve been percolating on for a while and really then found the support and the people who are just interested in being a part of it. We look to center and serve black women 40 and over who we call “honeys,” just like myself, in front of and behind the scenes and we want to help make anything by, for, or about honeys, and that’s across audio, TV, digital, film, and books. Our first project was a podcast called “Chile Please,” and it was nominated for NAACP Award this year, which was amazing. Then “Look Back At It” was our second project, and the feature will be our first feature film that we’ll produce, but we have a slate of film and television projects that we were working on.

And we’re building community and audience through our Instagram, through our newsletter, and really looking to be a space for honeys for both their work and their tastes. We’re actually having our first Honey Chile Fest in Baltimore on August 19th, which will be our Baltimore premiere of “Look Back At It,” and we’re making a big deal at the Enoch Pratt Free Library with our first-ever live edition of “Chile, Please Our Podcast” and a curated block of films in partnership with Black Femme Supremacy Film Festival, which is an amazing festival built in Baltimore by Baltimorean Nia Hampton, so it’s gonna be a fantastic event. We’re really excited about doing those types of things as well where we are able to connect with the community and with other creators and filmmakers.

“Look Back at It” will screen at Blackstar Film Festival as part of the Synergistic Short Film Program on August 2nd at noon at the Lightbox Film Center and August 5th at 11:30 am at Suzanne Robert Theatre. It will be available to stream on Blackstar Film Festival’s online platform between August 2nd through 4th. It will screen next at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival on August 6th at 11 am, the Honey Chile Festival on August 19th in Baltimore and the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival from September 14th-22nd.

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