CRAFTWORK: Cheryl Dunye’s Advice for Filmmakers

Cheryl Dunye

Pioneering Filmmaker Cheryl Dunye (Watermelon Woman, Stranger Inside, The Owls, and now… Mommy is Coming!) is featured in this interview by Reel Black.

Cheryl provides insight on being a plural person as an artist, on choosing art school verse film school, and how artists influence cinema.

Here’s a transcript of the video:

Advice for Filmmakers, with Cheryl Dunye

What I tell my students, who want to become filmmakers, who want to race into Hollywood: Check why you want to be there. You want to be in Hollywood? WHY? Is it to make films? To screen write? To be up around stars? You don’t need to make films to do that. There’s other ways to do that.

But if you want to be there to change, to story tell, to build your body of work, and have an impact on the world, you don’t have to do that in Hollywood. You can do that here in Philadelphia, or, where ever. I mean, with the new age of technology, and the internet, and VOD (video on demand), and all these forms of YouTube storytelling, and FlipCam storytelling, you can be anywhere. And some of those things are taking over Hollywood.

So I think every young filmmaker should question where they want to be. WHY they want to be there. You know, if you want to be making music videos, hip hop, whatnot, do it with your own community; that’s what’s more important to the people that are going to matter. Rushing to Hollywood to try to do it, you’ll be one in 500 people who are trying to get in the door with with so-and-so to make their video, and good luck to you.

So I think it’s stronger to be the Big Fish in the Small Pond, or have a strong body of work that says something. They’ll come to YOU. So I really tell filmmakers to do that. And I also tell young filmmakers: you don’t have to go to film school. I went to art school. And art lets you become a plural person. Filmmaking makes you choose: writer, director, cinematographer, lighting grip, whatnot. Behind the camera, in front of the camera, whatever.

Art tells you how to THINK. And I think those are the things that tell you how to perform and be a part of a roll. So I really encourage people to sort of question that film-school-thing. You know, if you WANT to do it, definitely go for your graduate degree or whatnot.

Filmmaking is, and I don’t say Writer/Director I say Filmmaking, is more than just writing and directing. I think you need to have those chops, I think you need to know how to be on your feet, and know how to sacrifice things. I didn’t get the shot that I need; how am I going to creatively build this up? A Writer/Director would be like, “I can’t… we have to go re-shoot.”

But as an artist, you’d be able to be like, “Okay, let’s put some red up, let’s cut-away to something else that’s creative, or, maybe we’ll make a parallel to something that my grandma did, or some picture about my past to my family in the south, or whatever… that’s what I’m talking about. How to think.

There’s actually a huge body of work coming out there with those sort of people, one person I look to, I would say, in this mode that I’m in right now is Isaac Julien from the UK. He’s always been an artist; every time I see him, he’s like “Cheryl,” with this thick accent, “Why are you trying to be a director? You should go and make art, you’re an artist.” And I”m like, “You know, you’re right.” So, now I’m at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and I’m a professor in the film program there, and I’m teaching people how to make art.

I’m saying: Okay. You want to rush to make something for Sundance. But there’s so many sections in Sundance; the narrative part, whatever, but there’s also my friend Shari Frilot, who is the curator and programer and inventor of this section called New Frontier, and it’s merging cinema art within that context of Sundance. And it’s blowing up. People can go see any Hollywood movie, and people watch television and see wonderful, artful things. But if they’re going to pay money to go see a film festival, you want to see something original. Groundbreaking. Moving. Inventive. Experimental. And it’s about being an artist where you can take those risks. And make work, and have an influence.

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