Pan African Film Festival 2023 Interview: Stephanie L. Malson and Malaika Paquiot on Taking Off with “Getaway”

You’d be forgiven for being convinced you’ve entered a warm hug upon arriving in Jamaica in “Getaway,” the warm and fuzzy feeling entirely tactile when the balmy haze that greets June (Melissa Kay Anderson) and her son Leighton (Ian Smalls Jr.) coats the lens as if it were a cozy sweater. It seems particularly inviting for June, welcomed to the islands by her cousin Grace (Kaci Hamilton) after living in the U.S. for ten years to pursue her education and raise Leighton. Giving her young son a taste of sweet-sop might make him never want to leave, though she had her reasons when she made a decision to bring up him abroad just as she has her reasons now for wanting him to reconnect with his roots, disturbed by what she’s seeing in the news with unarmed Black men being brutalized by police and unsettled that Leighton has already taken part in active shooter drills when he’s barely arrived at elementary school.

It could be that the grass isn’t greener on the other side, though it couldn’t appear any more lush in the Caribbean in writer Malaika Paquiot and director Stephanie L. Malson’s deeply compassionate dramatic short, finding June in the throes of a difficult choice bound to change the trajectory of both her life and Leighton’s when considering making a visit back to where she grew up a permanent stay. Even before arriving at a resolution, “Getaway” captures something lasting, at least for audiences when June’s longing to feel at home is far more complicated than simply planting her feet somewhere. Toggling between her experience in America and Jamaica, one can see the pride June takes in having built a life for herself completely independently yet as hard-won as all her achievements have been as a single working mom, she isn’t about to let it get in the way of what’s in the best interests of Leighton.

With “Getaway” recently premiering at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles en route to a bow at the Toronto Black Film Festival this weekend, Paquiot and Mason kindly took the time to talk about going the extra mile — or miles — to arrange a cross-continental production for the 21-minute film, the seeds of their collaboration in promoting the work of others and seeing their first film up on the big screen.

How did the two of you join forces on this?

Malaika Paquiot: Stephanie and I had been working together for over 10 years as part of ARRAY, a film collective that was started by Ava DuVernay, [as] ARRAY Maverick captains. We would get together and we came to know each other through that partnership as we were strategizing how to promote these films. Stephanie and I were in a writing group along with Felicia Renee and we had an informal challenge from Ava at Sundance [where] we’re like, “We’ve got to get our stuff out there.” So I had the idea for the film and already had been getting feedback from Stephanie on some of my other writing, and she had been doing amazing work visually, so I knew that that’s who I wanted to direct this film. I knew she would understand the nuance of these characters, and come to it with a kind of care that I needed for my first film that I was writing and producing.

Stephanie, what got you excited about this?

Stephanie L. Malson: To be honest, what was most exciting for me was the collaboration. We are all in some ways starting in our own creative endeavors, so to have the opportunity to collaborate with a peer was something I’ve been doing professionally in a lot of ways, just supporting other people’s work, so this was a no-brainer for me.

It’s wildly ambitious for a short – for starters, it involves shoots in North Carolina and Jamaica…

Malaika Paquiot: Not smart, not recommended. [laughs]

How did it come about in that sense?

Malaika Paquiot: We shot this in Wilmington, North Carolina, but the beach in Wilmington does not look like Jamaica and I honestly did not know another way to tell this story. It was born out of an argument, really, about where my son should be. I was born in the US, but grew up in Jamaica and I knew what life could look like there and this story [was weighing] heavy on my heart and because I have that familiarity of living between the two worlds, I didn’t know another way to do it justice.

Stephanie L. Malson: To add to that, it was my first time directing a film and I think we both just leaped, but I don’t I feel like there was maybe there was a better way to do it. For me, this was a great learning experience overall and it ended up working out well.

Malaika Paquiot: Maybe COVID had us with a lot of pent up [energy as well], like we’ve just got to go. There was just something for the both of us, [where] we were just like, “We’ve got to just do it and we’re going to push through and keep going.” COVID had everyone thinking about their life and like the things that they want to do and get done, and that probably played a part in it as well.

One of the only good things to come of that time, I guess. How did you end up with your cast?

Stephanie L. Malson: We worked with Honeyhead Productions and they really helped us find great talent in the North Carolina area, and we wanted to cast Jamaican actors if possible. Melissa Kay Anderson was always going to be our lead because we have a relationship with her via ARRAY and she’s Jamaican as well. Kaci Hamilton we found through the casting process and when we paired Kaci and Melissa together in a round of auditions, their connection was automatic and that really that sold us because we needed there to be a bond immediately between all of the actors for this to work in a short amount of time.

For Ian, we had a couple of young actors and to be six or seven, [he] was extremely professional and well prepared, able to adjust to my direction [quickly] and this was all virtual. Also, he had missing teeth and I loved his little lisp at the time, so there were a lot of really endearing qualities about him and on set, Ian was a star in that he didn’t need a lot of direction and he was also attached to the [other] actors, so it was easy to jump on to Melissa and treat her like his real mom. We had just had a really strong, talented cast to help carry the vision for the story. We spent a week in North Carolina, and we all stayed close together, working day in and day out together for those interior scenes and I think that’s what formed the bond across the crew as well as the cast, so by the time we got to Jamaica, we were ready to work and finish things up.

What was filming in Jamaica like? That’s got to be an exciting part of this.

Malaika Paquiot: Jamaica was great because there’s some things that you can only get in Jamaica and in some ways, it was challenging. Because we shot during COVID, there were restrictions in Jamaica. We worked with Mint Creative, a production company down there, to get an amazing crew, but once we got there, we weren’t really able to do anything for 48 hours [because of the COVID protocols], and that part of just sitting for me as the producer was a little bit challenging. The weather for those 48 hours we were waiting there, the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, everything was lush and it was beautiful, but the day of the shoot, it was pouring. We woke up in the morning and I wanted to cry, like, “You’ve got to be kidding me because we only had like one-and-a-half days that we were supposed to shoot in Jamaica.

So it was a lot of start and stop [where] it would start showering, we’d cover up everything, go under the shelter and come back. The other challenging part [was having that take place when we were filming] some emotional scenes, so mother nature gave us a run for our money, but Jamaica was a lot of fun, just from a bonding perspective.

It has a beautiful dewy look to it now. That may be the bad example of this, but when this takes on a life of its own, are there things you may not have expected that you could get really excited about?

Stephanie L. Malson: Yeah, we had a scene which is [now] in this version more a part of a montage, where Leighton, June, and Grace are on the bed [in Jamaica] and that was unexpectedly the most emotional scene between the actors. Kaci and Melissa were in full-on tears, but this wasn’t necessarily my direction, but I think they felt the weight in real life of what that [pivotal moment] meant for these characters. That was just a beautiful experience to see just how much they took on the role and poured [themselves] into that moment. Then Ian jumped into that scene and he almost helped them get through it, just in the way that he responded to what he was hearing.

The actors in that moment just shined for me. I was not expecting the way that they responded. Most of that scene was improvised and we didn’t have dialogue necessarily for them. We just let them have the conversation and allowed it to happen as it would, so that was really cool and what that scene taught me, just from a first-time director perspective, was how to care for actors in these vulnerable moments. It sparked me considering what am I putting actors through and how can I help support them emotionally through these challenging scenes that we’re requiring them to push through.

You take a little pressure off them with some savvy use of sound design in some choice moments. What was that like to play with in post?

Stephanie Malson: [laughs] I’m laughing for a lot of reasons. We had a huge learning curve, at least to try to help the sound designer come up with an idea of what direction to go in and Jon Williams did the sound design and the score, creating pieces from original music for the film. But to be honest, that was challenging. We worked on sound design for almost six months and I was learning from Jon while Jon was trying to get an understanding of of what we were looking for. Now I feel like I have a better sense of what could work in scenes.

Malaika Paquiot: I was involved in post as well and I was leaning on advice from Matthew Keene Smith, who is a prolific producer, when we would come across these situations where we’re like, “Okay, so what are we supposed to do now? Or what do people need?” Then I would also pick the brain of Jacqueline Olive, an award-winning director, and some of the advice we had gotten was just to watch other films and listen, giving folks things to work with. Once we got into a groove of finding similar sounds that emoted what we were looking for, then things started to go a little bit faster. Now I feel like what I need to do is if I hear something that I like any time I’m watching a film, I’ll just have a running list of sounds that I can bring to the next project. [laughs]

What was it like getting to the premiere?

Stephanie L. Malson: It was beautiful. Watching our film with the other films was great. It was a really well-curated block of films and all of the films were Jamaican or made by Jamaican creators and that curation alone is huge, because it’s rare, right? We don’t normally get a block of one kind of culture because there’s not a lot of people from the islands making them or that’s just not how films are paired together, and having that experience, meeting another woman filmmaker who directed one of the other films, was great. But just from a basic dreams come true [perspective], it’s a big deal for me to see my film on a big screen. That sounds small, but I think it still matters and it’s something I never imagined possible. It’s something I always wished I could experience for myself as a director, so to see a film that we made through all of the challenges on a big screen with my friends and an audience [walking in blind], all of that was really amazing. Sometimes we rush through these experiences because it seems like it happens all the time for filmmakers, but it doesn’t, so to have this opportunity to premiere it in L.A. and for it to screen in the theater was huge and we got a chance to have a conversation about the film afterwards that was amazing, so I’ll never forget that experience.

Malaika Paquiot: The whole experience has been surreal. I had moments where [in] those early days on set, I would have to just go excuse myself because I was so overwhelmed that so many people were coming together to bring something to life that were thoughts in my brain I had written down. So the fact that it got accepted to not one but two film festivals so far — Pan-African Film Festival, which is an amazing festival, and then Toronto Black Film Festival, was just icing on the cake and it’s cool to work with your friends and make something. We’ve been sitting with it for so long, now we’re at the point where we’re gonna get reactions from people and see how they respond to it, so I’m super excited.

“Getaway” will next screen at the Toronto Black Film Festival on February 19th at 3 pm at the Carlton Cinema.

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