Otoja Abit is a New York based filmmaker who started out as a Division 1 college basketball player. He then went ino acting where he's played alongside Al Pacino, Chris Noth and even played transgender pioneer Marsha P Johnson in Roland Emmerich's Stonewall.
He took those experiences onto his new path as a filmmaker. His first film Jitters was an award winning short that played in several festivals nationwide. His very next film was a feature film A New York Christmas Wedding and it is playing on Netflix now.
Otoja sits down with us to tell his story about how he went from the basketball court to Netflix.
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Welcome to Episode One of once upon a film industry where we do a deep dive into the life stories of film industry professionals. I'm Steven Lloyd Bennett Aye I'm Al Lopez today we have for you a tow Jay Abbott a Tojo has been acquired by netflix and is out right now. So without further ado, I told Jay Abbott and we are here with Otoja Abit. Yes. Am I saying that correctly? You say the perfectly. Otoja Abit is a an accomplished filmmaker. Otoja he just finished a film and distributed a film and it's called what Otoja A New York Christmas wedding dope. Yeah, we'll get into the film. We're gonna get into how you made it and all those things. But first, let's get to know Otoja. A little bit where you from? What's your background? And how's your background influenced your filmmaking? Oh, that's a fantastic question. I'm born or raised in New York, New York City, son of immigrant parents from Nigeria. Basically, my parents came here to America immigrated for a better lifestyle. My dad had a scholarship to NYU as students for college. And from there without education, my life would still be there in Nigeria. So he came out here. My mother had my sister and I and moved to from Brooklyn, to Queens, played basketball in high school and St. John's University, Division One major school and after that, I always had a passion for the arts, but also knew that when I graduated in 2003, the economy was going down. So I mean, I am sorry, from St. John's does a and when I graduate, the economy is going down. And I basically had the opportunity to either try to find a job doing who knows what are really pursue my main, my main career goal, which was to be an actor. And from their advice, my friend that said, you have 40 years of life to work, do what you want to do right now. And that was acting. And from there, I started to act so incremental progress ever since I did some commercials did some feature film spot some TV spots, and I had a wonderful opportunity to play Marsha P. Johnson, a true pioneer in the LGBTQ movement, and under Roland Emmerich, Master disaster Hollywood director, and I learned a lot from working with him and other people. And then I decided back in 2017, to write my own script to kind of highlight what I can do as a director or writer, people won't give you money for your first feature film. So you have a short film, and my short film intruders that I wrote, directed and produce until a lot of festival Who wants some festivals. And here we are. And I actually met your Stephen with your foot with your film at Phoenix, which I thought was my first film festival, actually. And I was amazed by by the experience that people can go to a festival and just watch movies all day and talk about it. And no one wants to tune the subject. So I kind of really enjoyed that. Yes, that was really awesome. That was a what, two, three years ago? 2018? Yeah, so tell us 18 Yeah. Phoenix Film Festival. We were out. Yeah. And the All B lacks type show which ended with it did a really good job of curating to was really, really good. That was they were like, just reaching out and trying to get a black audience. So they had just like a black short film block. And yeah, we're just afterwards we're all just hanging out together all the black. In the corner, just hanging out. There's like six of us. We literally, I think it was at the screening. Yep. Next thing, I'm sitting there. Yeah, we just sat right next to me. And I was like, Oh, another black guy. You know what's funny about it, too, because in your film, you had Chris chalk, I interned at Labrynth Theatre Company, and Chris chalk. That's why I got to meet him back in 2010. Now, but this amazed that, you know, having yourself out there and Los Angeles Film having a short film in Los Angeles, and you have in New York City actor out there. Yeah, it was just kind of cool to see that people say the small world and smaller business was kind of cool to see that, you know, people that I know and, you know, our black community are able to kind of we all know each other, basically. And that's really good to kind of be aware of that, especially when my my first first film festival. Absolutely. And I think the the industry is smaller than we think especially the black community. It's correct. We all kind of just know each other either through six degrees of separation or something like that. Um, so what was the one thing that if it had not happened, you would not be where you are today? Um, that's a very good question. I think the one thing that I have not happened if I wasn't born, but that's just being silly. But I think if I never had the opportunity to work on Broadway, I didn't mention that. But in 2011, I assisted directed a Broadway play called Championship season, it was a play about basketball players who are reuniting 20 years late after high school championship, and they're talking about where that life has gone. And it's a play written by a white male with an all white cast. And you know, having someone like myself as a black actor wanted to be a part of it. There's no way I could do that at the Broadway level. But our director Gregory Mosier, who was a stunning, brilliant man, he brought me on to work with him. And basically, being a former division one basketball player, I was the one to kind of encourage or give the real realistic type of backgrounds what it is to be a basketball player at a high level. So the cast evolved, Brian Cox, Jim gaffigan, Kiefer Sutherland, Jason, and Chris Noth, and all those guys with me like the little brother and it was a real team environment that I didn't experience since I left basketball in college. I never thought of spirits in the acting world, because an acting you're by yourself, try to get one job to the other. But being a part of that the Broadway level will give you the confidence that the fears that I have, or fear that every other actor at any level has to because we all want to do well and perform. That's fantastic, actually, that they took you under your wing and stuff like that. Yeah, yeah. What position you play? I played a wing forward. I'm six, I'm six, four and a half. So I'm like the tallest of the guards, and the smallest of the big men. So I mean, I got into acting. I had to always say that as an actor, I'm 663 and a half as not as an actor. I'm six, four, as an modeling model. I'm six, three and a half and basketball player I'm 6'6. Because, you know, on paper, there are the heights range as a different type of levels and people get intimidated by things on paper rather than reality of something just being tall. Right, right. What what uh, what high school did you go to? Number two Archbishop Malloy, high school Catholic. Ah, yeah, I went. I went to Christ the King. So Oh, there we go. Your Royal we were Yeah, we were rivals. Oh, yeah. I Omar cook. When I was in high school, he had like a 50 point game at Malloy. I mean, yes, really good. Great. Did you Lamar Odom, Lamar Odom. Speedy Claxton. Oh, yeah. Yes. Ask about New York City basketball legends. Yeah, definitely the sports in New York City, these Catholic school programs, they were legendary. So you know, you get into one of those. And then from there, people can really solidify who you are your talent based on the school you went to. And now my first son really, really realized because I went to public school growing up, that going to a good High School could determine your future. And that was my mindset, with almost everything I did in my career, you know, you have one thing that kind of puts you in a position for the next one. So So how has your acting spirits influenced your directing? Because I started as an actor as well. And I could tell it's, it's great. Yeah, for me, my my experience as an actor really, really got me to understand what directors are looking for. And I got to know how to talk to directors as well how to talk to actors, because I know how important is for an actor to kind of get a backstory to get an attention, what are they doing, what they need to let the need to prepare for a scene. That's director and I think one that anything me being an athlete helps my director because I know how I'm only as good as my team, you know, so either my dp has to be on top of it. My my gaff has to be a top fit my editor, I know, everyone has been the same page with one clear goal as a coach. So I think that for me, helped my director more than anything, but as an actor, I just got I understand actors, I get it. I'm not intimidated by an actor, wanting to be in the moment and get sidetracked. And then you know, we'll emote in a way where as a director who doesn't know actors are going through things, they might be taking a bath ticket personally, you know, it's almost like when you're rehearsing scenes in theater, you're in a room for about three weeks trying to figure out what this play mean. And I missed that a lot with direct and film. But I just know that the two films that I've worked on my only two films, we took the rehearsal process really seriously. And that really got gave us the ability to freedom to perform when it comes to the day up. It's almost like now is game time, basically now now we have now issued now the cameras are rolling. Now we have more people here, do what we did in rehearsal. And now let's get going. What moment did you decide or what inspired you to jump from acting to film directing me? What what what triggered that? Well, what triggered directing, for me was the opportunity to really have it really be but tell your own story, and try to find a way to get more into the industry rather than acting because as an actor who is six foot four, black, and also who might not, might not be known, it's difficult, you know, I have to wait. And I'll get these roles for Nigerian immigrant or a security guard or what I hated the most basketball player, I'm fine being the best bass player in New York City, and I'm casting every basketball role of the city. But after a while, I started seeing some of these films, these castings. And you'll see these actors who don't know how to dribble a basketball, and they're given these jobs because they don't have to dribble a basketball on camera. They just have to kind of have the perfect wardrobe. And I realized then it's an unfair playing field. And now here's an opportunity for creating your own work. So I wrote a feature film, while Working on Broadway. And I was inspired by just being in my creative, creative people. But the high level working on a play and going through a text that's the same plays ran for the past 30 years and going through that text and kind of figuring out what the punctuation mean here with the economy in here, I started realize the power of writing and skill. And from there when my first feature, and with my first feature, I said, Hey, I wrote a feature. At this time Lena Dunham hit into her first series on HBO and like, why if her Why not me, and I realized because Lena Dunham comes from, you know, all respect to her, but because my family that, you know, they know a lot of people and Judd Apatow, the cosign really helps. But me being a New Yorker, who will he wants to pursue something and just being someone who's new to the business? How do I get in there in that way. So I wrote a feature film, people felt like they couldn't really fund it, because they don't know what you could do as a director, even as a writer. And I thought we write a short film, and I had an idea about a marriage. And I wrote the short film, and I thought, if I could write and direct it, and act in it, it's almost like a calling card, what I can do as an artist, so I did that my first time directing film, and, you know, the film short film did pretty well. And I was very surprised, not how well it did. I'm very surprised how much at home I felt in directing my choices, visually, my choices in the right and my choices, and it takes the pacing, I was really I was really, I was really surprised that that could translate from my mind onto the screen and have people kind of taken in that way. And then from there, it's kind of just been the thing where, you know, there's any opportunity to direct more out, you know, as we have to say, Yes, I just jumped at it, basically. And that's nice. I got to be through the feature film. Good, good. And through that journey, like what, what, what, what was the biggest fear that you face? Because that's, that's a huge jump, right? Yeah, mentally, you have to be strong enough to say, you know what, I'm gonna go do this, this is what I want to do. And, you know, I don't care. If I fall on my face, I'm gonna get right back up. But so what were some of those fears? Yeah, the biggest fear for me was to not even just get it right in a way of her Ah, you did her You did it. But just to make sure that's good. You know, like talking to talking about initiatives, how it turned out to be something that was that was good for me. But it being good for me was good for the people that just believe in that I had to I had to hold myself and my work to a certain standard. And, and I say this a lot to other people, where, as black artists, we don't we don't have the luxury to kind of fail early on. Because do we get these opportunities to take advantage of them right away, I mean, take advantage of them and say that we belong in this room. So my biggest fear was doing something and realizing that you don't belong in this room. Now. That's what I really was very fearful of having that be a thing. But luckily, with the different accolades we've had, and the idea that my temperament or my tone, or themes as a black artist, stands out, because it's different because of my experience. My upbringing, you know, again, I have immigrant parents, I played basketball. I was an actor. Now. I mean, directly, I write my own story. So my personal experience is bringing that as a directing does directly to my style is something that I think makes me stand out from the rest. And I gotta say, the jitters? Yeah. I've been to a lot of film festivals. And that was one of the short films that actually remember it. You see, I see dozens and dozens of shorts. Yeah. And most of me forget to be perfectly honest. But that one, I was like, Oh, you didn't see it coming until I get it. Do you have it anywhere? Is it? Yeah, I know. It's on Vimeo. We have our 12 minute 37th version on Vimeo. And then we have the director's cut on Amazon 30 minutes, 51 seconds. And I only say that because you know it with a short film, people give you notes. It's like a you don't need to seen or take this out. And it's like, what's a short film is only 15 minutes. Like, no, you take it out, and it'll be a different film. And it was, but yeah, I like the version 1351. But, but 12 and a half, we first did get into some film festivals. And we're thinking, why not? And you're like, cut it down, cut it down, cut it down and do that. And oh, it doesn't matter. But we have two versions. Nice. Nice. So you did this. And then two years later, you are now out with a new york Christmas wedding guys get on Netflix right now. Yeah, yeah. Get on here. Has the New York vibe with it? Yeah. Yeah. We need that. We need a film like that. Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. It's funny, as you mentioned, that this contest will be you know, we had distribution for the past couple of months. But as you know, with film festivals, that you can't have distributions, like Yeah, but now we're all online. So we have to keep the secret. But um, in the end, it's kind of like, whatever, we're on Netflix, we're gonna be on Netflix, we're gonna it's gonna happen. And it's like, well, that is awesome. Congrats, man. I really appreciate that. And I say that because everyone is kind of everyone's excited. I'm excited too. You know, I know how good the film is. I think our film should be long enough flicks, but it's just surprising to feel like an actor or any of the athletes coming like oh, yes on Netflix. Great. Now it's like, now what's the next thing? I wasn't gonna mean? Like, what's my next job? You know, that's where I'm at right now. But I got to take some time and enjoy this as people, I tell them, no one can explain the back end journey to it but yourself, you know, what, you what, what it took to get there. And this is like, this is like the dream scenario, right? Because a lot of filmmakers don't have that experience where they make a short, and then they make a feature. And now it's on Netflix. Yeah, like, that's uncommon. So it had to happen is like, you literally almost won the lottery. Forget about that. Because, you know, like we said, should it was my first short film, and then after that, my next film was a feature, which is kind of like, Whoa, but, you know, two films and you know, two places and I with the feature is testament to my producer, Ian Phillips, who, after we did shitters, he said, and no disrespect any short filmmakers out there, but he was saying that you know, you did it, you prove that you could do something to tell the story in a way where some people take about three chance to get there maybe even more, but you did it you have to graduate a feature filmmaking now and like, I mean, I just made one film, it doesn't matter. You did you did a good film where? Yeah, somebody could get better than shooters. But what you have as a common Carnage shooters is a good example. We could do as a short, now you make a feature film and that type of push. You know, I don't you don't, you have to have the right person kind of push that push you to do that and trust them. And my producer Philips, he was definitely someone who I knew he had the right intention. He knew that a feature film should be the next thing you do no matter what. Because if you get stuck in a short circuits, the short cycle and there's nothing wrong with that. But you know how hard how hard the work is and beat you're done. You might just get up. It's another level. Basically, the short film industry is an industry in itself. Yeah. And you can get stuck in that cycle. It's like a carousel. Yeah. And you think, Oh, I'm gonna make another shot. I'm gonna make another shot. I'm gonna make another short. But you have no like, intention above that. And you're just making shorts. Yeah. And then what? What are we doing here? So then, so after a while, I feel like it's important that you take the next step. And yeah, I'm very glad you did. A New York Christmas wedding. It's your first feature film. It's a Christmas movie. Yeah, yeah. That's rare. Like a lot of people don't decide to make a Christmas movie. Yeah, with their first feature film. Usually it's like, okay, I'll make a Christmas movie. But you made a Christmas for your feature film. And it's a different twist on it. So let the people know exactly what it's about give a little preview. And how did you come up with the concept. So a near customer database, it's a film about a woman who's engaged to be married to a very successful man in Manhattan. And she has a hard time around the Christmas Christmas time because of the fact of her best friend passed around that time her mother passed around that time. So to her father, so Christmas, she equates to loss. And ironically, her fiance's parents who are very, very wealthy, a black family at that, they want to have a Christmas wedding because it's something that people don't do enough. And she totally against it, but since they're paying for it, she kind of has no say. So she closed for a run one night in New York City and mother to a strange type of person. And the person kind of tells her how good love is around Christmas. If she hasn't no idea what he means if she wakes up the next day, sort of in Manhattan, she wakes up in Queens, now in this alternate world, engaged to be married to her best friend who died who's a girl. So now we're balancing these two worlds. So now she has a guardian angel, who was a strange man, New York City that she's based experience with her life would be like, in Queens rather than Manhattan if she married her best friend who was a girl. So she had I don't know quite a feeling for her best friend. But she was younger. And now she's living her truth. Self is someone who's married who's getting married to a woman. And in this alternate world, they are trying to get married in a church and the church isn't allowing them because in reality, the Catholic Church isn't so supportive of having marriage within the church. They're supportive of gay people. So from there, we're exploring those themes. And there's a twist ending there's twists and turns in every part of the film, but it's basically a woman trying to is torn between a lot of lost and new love. And how did she follow her own heart and take you to the middle to long winded answer, but I get to get kind of excited. But the film came about where our producing partner Corey Apted with conglomerate media, she saw the jitters. And I always look out for passengers because that's like a Trojan horse. So she saw and she really liked it. I really liked the idea of what we did for a budget. I really liked the message of the film. She saw that decided, can you make a film like shaders, but for the Christmas genre, because there aren't many films out there, but the Christmas genre film with a type of tone that you portrayed? And of course it said yes, because you always say yes to everything when you first starting out. And she wanted four things you wanted a New York City, New York City, she wanted a wedding in a church, a same sex couple and Christmas. And then she gave me those four things. And I went to start writing a treatment. They literally made the title. Yeah. And I and I and I literally I wanted to make jettas into a feature because, you know, here's an opportunity people like shooters, like I said before, make make good as a feature. What makes you so good is the fact that it's a finite amount of time, it can't be spent anything more, because it wouldn't seem realistic to the fact it's a short it's perfect short story. So use a similar themes and similar type of idea to make that flip the genders instead of a men male, make them into woman leads, and they're off to the races and made it happen. You know, it's a very personal film to me, Chris wedding because it talks about the idea of being from Manhattan and feeling like you don't belong, you know, going back to Queens feeling at home, and also feeling about the ideas of like, what would happen if you had a chance to do it over and a lot of people when I tell them about the film, they kind of relate to that. And I feel strongly that anyone who watches the film, who has a beating heart would really relate to the film and have some emotion. So you acted and directed in this film, and wrote and wrote and produced the film. Yeah. The process of doing that is, I'm sure very difficult. I my very first short film, I gave myself like a little part, but since then, I've not been acting any of my films. guys feel like it's too much. Yeah. What's the process? Did you have a strong the system director strong ad? How did you Yeah, beat me for, I guess, primarily, because with Judas, I, you know, I wrote threat to that producer to act on that too. But it was I was the main lead. And going back to the same death rehearsal, you rehearse over and over and over again. So when I got to trust, my dp, say, I'm gonna do this, just catch what I'm doing. And, you know, I trust you. And he said to me, and maybe it's like a, maybe it was a definitely a bad idea. on my part, he's like, you know, I never had a director never looked into my camera, and just trust me that way. You know, I really liked that experience. And I realized, Oh, shit, I should have been on it over shoulder. Magic should have been checking up on him. Right, but he really experienced, I could have gave him the freedom to kind of really do what he does, and not have to say, do this, do that. And so, when we did our Christmas wedding, I wasn't going to act in the first. And we had a low budget, I asked some people if they want to be a part of it. And you know, you have the friends that kind of say, yeah, I'll do it, send it to my agent and all this other stuff. And I was kind of just like, you know, as an actor, I want to be in it. But I also know, to your point, a lot of people would say be willing to see you not in it, because we want to see your your visual director rather than you. And I get that. But then after a while the capital is written, basically, with my type of temperament. So I thought it was cheaper and easier to kind of worry about one less person, if I find a minute, you know, to kind of convince someone to be a part of my film and go through all that. I don't want to do it, I'd said, I'll just play the part, make it easy for everyone. And also because I was so work with all the actors, and I just knew that it was easier for me to work with, you know, our lead the affair, whether I'm over here writing rehearsal lines, or has director but also, I can rehearse lines with her as the actor, and she kind of understands it. So it's all like the theater aspect of things. And for my feature film, I just wanted to also have another corner card that I could write, I could direct I can produce and I could act and it's all in here. But luckily, it's more about the female leads than myself. But you know, definitely a minute. I will say this near farewell. There's actually a friend of mine. I don't know if I actually Yeah, he told me that you know, her started. Yeah, we talked about Yeah, yeah, we met each other in a play called Harlem coffee shop, but the beacon Theatre in 2005 such a long time ago. But um, how did you get involved in the affair? Well, because she's honestly one of the best actresses I know. Yeah. Yeah. And I and I support that. And I say that tenfold And clearly, because, you know, her being leading the film, you know that that's something definitely I didn't take lightly. I'm basically with Nia I, she, we we were in a we're in a reading together Labyrinth Theatre Company, in 2010. That's where I actually met the director Gregory Bolger directed Broadway, we're in the same reading and you know, it's my first time now it's an act of starting to see other actors in our type of world. That's first time seeing this beautiful talented abroad just truthful, young actress and I'm just floored by her just reading cuz how, how good she was. I remember she's so damn good. Yeah, I remember talking to her after the reading. And I said, I said, you know, being so I'm not saying I'm being honest, but you know, you should be doing a lot of TV I got her face is so symmetrical face so true. And her eyes are so you know, so telling them like if you don't want to TVs and movies, not realizing if that was you know, demoralizing enough, but just I'll just be an honest man, you should be on TV all the time, like what's going on? And she you know, she took that kindly and we kept we kept in touch here and there. And Nia is really, really good at communicating. So she said that the newsletter should always update people and then not only to stay sane contact, just know what's going on. So having the feature film Chris's wedding, I had the opportunity Luckily, because of Corey and our producer, where now we have a low budget film. Now I'm in a position where I can build my own team and I knew that if I reached out to different type of actors with agents and managers and different type of Guardians to them, this type of experience will be a true family experience. So I mean, I've haven't seen Nia for the for nine years. I just emailed throughout the bliss ahead. You remember me? You know, we did a play together, I wrote the script. Can you read it? You know, I have you in mind, and hopefully you would like it. And she's the only person I send the script to. She read it. She liked it. said yes. And then we started casting from there. So I mean, literally, I worked to her once. And then from there, I just kept her in mind. And as many people I worked with that I kind of always remember. Wow. I mean, if we could do something together, that'd be great. Or if I have an opportunity to kind of recommend you out, that'd be great to know better recommendation to have your own film. Yeah, same dig, Zack same process where, you know, I work with you once and I'm like, I'm gonna bring you in tonight. Sometimes an audition, I just give you the script of like, this is for you. Please do it. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And then you know, it's funny because a lot of you know, now I'm able to kind of send the film to people in our industry you know, people that would never answer emails an actor but when you're directors different story. So now now, you know people always like how did you cast is How do you do? How'd you How did you do this, how to do that. And like he's all friends. He's all talented actor that don't get a chance because, you know, you're blinded by your W Emmys or ucaas, even though talented, but his actors out there that deserve chances, basically, and you know, better feature film and to have Nia needs done a lot of work before but I have her as a lead in a feature film. With this type of genre, I mean, something that she'll hold on to forever. So I'm happy that we have the experience together. So if you can, getting into the house of the film, yeah. If you can disclose what was the process of financing the film? Yeah, well, we so we started off basically with the producer, they said, We would like to do this film for a low budget film. And the money that they were saying was more than I thought, well, I'd have seen I thought, Yeah, great. But then I realized I needed shooters for 15 minutes. That was me. I believe that was like 20 grand or so. So I realized I was 20 grand for jitters. Yeah, yeah. Is that a lot of that a little? That's, that's a lot. I mean, 20 grand from like, shooting and posts. And then you know, festivals on it stuff. I mean, that's a submission. Yeah, that can add up. It all just added off. Basically, I thought at first we could shoot Joe's for $5,000. You know, that's usually my bad attendance usually. Yeah, that was blown in the first day. And then my producer, Ian Phillips is like, you know, do not put more money into this film. You know, you have friends who will support you, making sure you start a Kickstarter fund, and, you know, get money that way. Don't put more money into this film. And he was right. Because, you know, it's hard to kind of ask friends for money, because all the time, you know, they're like, Oh, no, the email from Steve. There we go. You know, to me, yeah. Oh, my God. Yeah, I've done three crowdfunding campaigns each time, I feel bad. I'm like, Man, I'm harassing these people. But but but but but but what we did what we did for that was great, because we shot one day, the church was nine pages. And that was a majority of the film. And we did a trailer from that. And from there, people saw, don't even ask about money to show me what you did already. And to help us finish it. So that was that. So then, with the feature film The producers came in. So we have this money here, here. Here it is, Can you do it? I said, Yes. The intention is supposed to be really, really low. And then we wrote it. And a lot of people say it's very ambitious in my writing to write a christmas film to be filmed in the middle of summer with snow and all that stuff. So how do you do that, but, um, we had ironically, we had a luckily not ironic, we had a crystal come on board to play one of the roles and as a favor to myself, and you like the script, and that kind of brought more people on board to realize this is a real thing, rather than something that he's making he's making with his friends. So he came on board, and that kind of helped us with the budget a little bit more. And we had more investors come on board. So we had basically, when Chris came on board, it became more of a legit film that can be seen, rather than make it something to say we made something. So I'm in the budget still low, but the fact that a budget goes by pretty quickly, because now you have more than five people working on a set, now you have a crew of about 35, who they all believe in your vision, but in the end, it's a job to them, they want to get paid, you know, I mean, for me, I mean, I'll I'll won't get paid for my first feature but for them, they're like no, I working 14 hours, you need to be you need to pay me which is all that paid, but it's just that that that was your mindset going again, rather than the fact of like, we're making a film for friends and family, you know, they're like, No, we want to get paid. So that was good sales mostly private investors through these producers. They went found private investors and yeah, and then got into and then and also, you know, I had to be Be mindful to that. How good I wanted the film to be I had to also put some of my money into it, you know, and, and that's also because I believe in it. That's one thing. I remember one time I had a filmmaker who, who I knew and he did a short and he was surprised that you know cuz, you know, doing a film festival circuit. It's like, how do you pay for For this stuff, they How did you pay for all this stuff? And Chris was the producer at the time with a short film jitters. And he's a filmmaker. How do you How did you? How do you get into all these places? Chris give you money? I first of all, no. Second of all, I believe in my film, so yeah, I'm gonna, I'm gonna do any of that can't get out there. I think for some people, if you can't put your own money behind it, not all of it. But if you can't put your money behind it and say, This is what I believe is good. And I think this will get to the next to the next level, then what are you really doing? You know, because who's gonna invest in you rather than yourself? Exactly. Got to invest in a good point. Yeah. and invest in yourself. You know, this is like, this is a business. Yeah. Hundred percent. Yeah. And I think a lot of artists, I think you I'm not sure if you were thinking of this prior, but this is actually a very good business decision by you to make your Christmas wedding and literally call it near Christmas wedding. Because you're gonna get distribution. What needs a Christmas movie? Yeah. Especially a movie with with LGBTQ plus slant. It's like that slant. It's very much a LGBTQ movie. You You're gonna get distribution in some kind? Yeah, I mean, that's what I was hoping, you know, we fought about the title a lot in the beginning, because I thought, you know, I'm a part of a film collective. And you know, as you know, when you deal with your filmmaker, friends, it's like, oh, this is it. This is too plain. This is what someone would like, that's not from New York City has to be more artistic, you know, so we've had these ideas of different games. But in the end, in the end, it's just it is what it is, if someone will read that on paper and say, I want to watch it, hopefully, you know, they know exactly what they're getting, rather than trying to trick them with some type of artsy name. So we're just, you know, we're doing something I think, for the masses, more or less, and, you know, at for a low independent film to make like a Christmas feature. Hopefully, we get some eyes on it. And I guess before, it's also the story as well, right. So like, love. I mean, love plays a huge part during Christmas. It's going to touch a lot of people's hearts during during the Christmas time. Thank you. And so can you can you walk us through the, like the journey of Okay, I have the film, and how do I get it seen? Yeah, once once we once we finish a film and you know, and I mean, honestly, we finish filming August 9 2019. So we literally learn was 15 months ago, basically. Yeah. I mean, that's an our producer, she wanted it done right away, because she knows how it goes. In a film world, when you have no money and you wait for film to get done for three years, four years, it takes someone to your point to have that business mindset and not think it has to be perfect. You know, she's just like, No, I'm gonna done. So you know, we just got it to post right away, she wanted to take it to Sundance or show it to some people actually went out there. And you know, there are some cards exchange, but nothing really happened. And then COVID happened. And, you know, we realized that, you know, we have something that we filmed something, maybe we had the momentum and we could get this done and be ahead of the curve, because we have something that in a way where people would need content. Now that was very, very clear. So from there, we send it to people to look at it, you know, we had friends who were in different companies, and they had their own idea about the film, they felt that we needed this and that, you know, and also what's going to interesting for people to know out there is that when you make a feature film now you have people that will clam onto you because now there's middle people that they look at feature filmmakers or feature films as money grabs to not in a bad way but they want to help you out because you don't know it's your first time. You need a sales agent, it's your first time you need to do this as a lawyer you need me to do this you need me to do that. And a lot of people do that with the feature films because there's a lot of back and then it can be sold who knows where worldwide the shortfall will hopefully get us where people to see but feature films even how bad it could possibly be somewhere in Indonesia will buy it for about $100 and divide that up amongst 50 people who knows the other mean so your films definitely is a business and I learned that because it's it's it's it's a business people could definitely make money from feature films if they do it right. And from there we went to different distribution companies, some of them didn't really like the film as much and some of them really liked the film a lot and we paired up in marvista Entertainment and I'm very happy with marvista because I've seen some of their films before and Christmas time and I'm like I like their films and I thought when they anything I'll be happy to film get some TV because I want to be able to flip through the channel and show my mom love run TV because my mother till this day always asked me what do you do for a living? But I'm okay mom, look what TV you know, but what do you do? What do you what do you get when you're getting paid? That's for me as an actor for life, but I think definitely no marvista was very they love the film marvista felt that they love the bond between the man and the woman they also love the idea of they also love the idea of the messaging about love. And they also love the idea but the reality of for some people Christmas time isn't all happy go lucky. Some people will deal with loss and that's very apparent in our film that if you Double loss. There's you can relate to this film in a way, because it's not as bubblies, New York, it's gritty, it's urban, you know, he had that type of field. And I think 2022 we have two female leads who are 22 years old. They're real people who look like real people who are beautiful and stunning. But you know, there are people with diverse cultures, you know, you have a priest. And also because of the Hallmark and lifetime, the whole battle about having LGBT films, LGBTQ plus films are, you know, part as part of their canon, they were picking those films, so we had the perfect film for them. But our film could have been a little bit too racy for them. So there was a there had to be a perfect partner out there, I realized that this film's checks a lot of boxes, and we kind of need it to be placed in our can and our slate, and my VISTAs I looked at it and then brought it to Netflix and Netflix said as a should. Yeah, let's do business. So here we are. Nice. So how did you get connected with marvista? So Mar Vista, we have our producer Cory app. And you know, I praise her because she would she she was referred to my best through another friend. And it goes to show you you get one referral, but you have to have the product. And this is this is corys This is corys you know, it's just this is our baby that we made together this film. And she totally went she wanted the film to be seen. And you know, she had high hopes, you know, she wants to film to make $50 million. You know that that you want someone like that on your team. It's not just like, we made a film now Yay, cool. A Pat in the back for that. No, I made a film I want it to be seen. I wanted to get out there. I want it I want I want I wanted to do well. And also the mice, I went to business so coy but to marvista the referral, they saw the film, they kind of bond together and then that now now now this film would make their bond even better for future projects for them. I think it's like it goes to show like you it's a business. You can't You can't get stuck in. Like, as an artist you start off especially with your first feature film, you got to make something artsy and sound like super esoteric and out there. And sometimes that's fine. Sometimes it works. I mean, Spike did it. I mean, so. So but sometimes it doesn't work. Yeah. So you have to have that business mindset. because like you said, there's going to be people out there who are going to be trying to make money off you. Yeah. Because they realize, Oh, you have the product. Okay, cool. Yeah. So it's important that you you build your resources, and you build your connections. And you build your business mindset, I think is extremely important. Yeah. And that's why I thought you know, more than anything I thought, okay, now I could go back to you know, your film festivals with a feature film and like yet meet what people and network and talk to people in the feature space. But then, when COVID happened in the festivals, right, Berg won't be a thing anymore. I was surprised how much the black film festivals are really getting behind our film. Because, you know, my other producer, he was like, you know, just be aware that to your point. Christmas films aren't going to be in festivals, because that's not what Film Fest was a for, you know, they sell them. They sell them outside of film festivals about film festivals. One thing that I'm more gritty with this one that you know, but to have your ABF your urban world, the Martha's Vineyard, it really say no, no, we love this film and the story. And we're seeing a story from black artists about the culture that you don't normally see. So be a Christmas or whatever, we support this. And that that made me realize there's an audience out there that I know for this film, because I grew up watching Christmas films, with my mother, I love them. But I never get to see a reflection of what my life is like on these films. So nice. This film, hopefully for the younger generation out there, or even people who are just older. You know, like I said, there are people that see two women getting married in a church. And they must be they might be in the 70s for Christmas. You know what I mean? That that's the type of emotion of feeling good, a lot of people that would really respond to this film in that type of positive way. So ABF American black Film Festival, how has that propelled the film? Was that one of the big catalysts? Yeah, that was our first that's where we had a real premiere. And virtually, basically, they did it first. And that that that festival was great, because they had the film available for free worldwide. It wasn't just in USA, so and Neil will always say that you don't have to understand how important it was to have my family outside the US or have friends in London or her friends. I have my cousin Africa watch the film at the same time to have the type of opportunity and ABF brought that type of platform for everyone. It legitimize a film and legitimize people to realize that Yeah, we heard he made it. This is a real this is real. It's really happening. You know what I mean? Right? And I think and I think more than anything I joke around, it's like to my friends, you got to see the film for free early on. So I started getting other places just realize I told you guys you know, people yeah, watch your film watching them watch your film. They didn't ever watch it, and then they come to you a year later. Hey, Steve, where's that link? Again? It's like flat screens. Yeah. My friend. Well, it's on Netflix. Yeah, you finished a feature film. You are shopping it around to get it. Picked up, right? Yep. What was the most worrisome or discouraging part for you when you're shopping it around? What was what was going through your mind as a director as an actor as a producer? Well, as an actor, my my, as a person really happened for me am I got to really do the scene and leave it alone and walk away. You know, usually, as an actor, you kind of go over your mind, I do that right, do that wrong. But on set, I was walking around, you know, acting and scenes then grabbing clipboards and papers for actors to sign you don't I mean, like I was doing, I was doing what I can to get the project done. But when we were done with where we dealt with posts and trying to get the film distributed, the main thing that was I was going to my mind is, I just hope that one our investors get their money back, because I know if that happens, then it makes the next film a little bit easier to ask for money. And I just hope that this film could be something where nothing that people would see by hope people respond to my first time directing basically, it's it's, you know, I didn't I don't have these experiences to kind of like I said before, I can't, I don't have the luxury to fail and just elegy first time, you know, it's okay. But, you know, a lot of people invested in me for my first time and I really was really started having some fears. And people started saying no to the film at Film Festival, saying no, where shit is there going to be the audience for this. And luckily, with patients, and our producer always has good karma, you know, it came to the point where, you know, right now, people are thinking about Christmas in February, but come May, they're they need they need, they need content, and you have some that's already proven, it's done. And also, as a director, it's proving that you could do something at a low low budget level, but so execute in a way where if you have more money, other things will happen as well. But you did the best with what you could do. And I think what anything that kind of helped me get over my fear and realized you made a feature film, you know, don't Don't be so even hard on yourself. Don't, don't, don't don't knock the idea that you got to make a feature film. It's done. And it'll find its home because on paper, it looks good. What you did from what your experience with shooters, people know, you can do a good thing. And in the end, the script was good. So yeah, my biggest fear was making sure people will like the film, and hopefully it gets the right place to get their money back. Would you shoot them with camera? We shot? We shot it. Ah, we shot an Arri Alexa. Nice, yeah. Yeah. And you know, that my dp was saying is that, no, we need this camera because we'd have to worry about lighting, you know? Yeah. Point. Lighting is this. You're fine. Yeah, in the dark. That's nothing for people don't know. Arri Alexa is low key industry standard, kinda. And then the red is right behind it. Yeah, like a one a almost. Yeah, and there's a few other cameras, but um, Joe, you made a movie, and that's awesome. It's gonna be on freakin Netflix. So that's badass, man. It's absolutely awesome. Can I just ask you guys, I mean, I it's hard because I I'm excited. I'm thrilled. I just I think, I guess because as an independent filmmaker, you just know, you just feel that your film will be seen now I think or it just that. The industry is like, Oh, it's on Netflix. So that's good. You know, it's, it's just so hard to understand. You know, it's on Netflix. But now, when I email people at HBO say hey, my films on Netflix, they've been looking at different light. And I mean, it's like cuz I'm gonna reach out to people Hey, my films or Netflix my first book, bla bla bla, oh, but I, yeah, I just wanna keep on growing getting better. But people know that. You know, he's working with it without us and, you know, jump on, jump on the train or wait for the next one. I don't know. It's just, it's just a weird holding place, I guess. I think I think To be honest, I think this is the next step. Like you just getting to Netflix is the next step. Like you just jumped up because like you said, you can just email HBO and be like, Hey, listen, my last film was on Netflix. This is my next thing, you know? Yeah. And that goes into my next question is what is your next intended project? Because I feel like for people out there, the most important thing in this industry is when you're done with something someone's always gonna ask what's next? Yeah, you're gonna people gonna interview is saying that and then people behind the scenes are gonna be asking producers are gonna be asking. Yeah, distribute what's what's next? Yeah, so what's Do you have anything next? Yeah. I mean, yeah, I had to have something next because, again, I have my and also, my producer, Ian was saying, you know, you have to know what's next. Because he knows the business notes. People ask what's next. And that's the hardest thing you want, you want to sharpen and baby this christmas film. But in the end, you have to get back to writing get to get back to this commit to that. So I wrote them an anthology series based on jitters. So basically, the short, the short film anthology series where you have different moments in your life and I have differentiated scripts. So I have jitters as a proof of concept as at the marriage story. They have other stories about how do people overcome jitters in their life and basically, the themes are undertones of it. So I have different short scripts put together to make one anthology series I have that. I also have a spec pilot that we produced a couple years back about. It's called Harlem nights by bassel players who don't make it to the NBA. And what happens when the whole lies, they've been told to worry about school to worry about jobs, you're gonna get to the NBA, and then you'll buy us a house when they don't make it. What are the life like now, you know, so I have that. And I also have my first feature film that I wrote during Broadway. It's called on coupling. It's about a younger man, an older woman, and the idea that they don't grow apart, they just grow up. So it's like an uncoupling storytelling or romantic romantic type of film. I have that feature film that I wrote them, I want to I want to do badly, but people, you know, people will see what they say. They also were looking at other projects that were just trying to create more like TV options, but the whole thing I just feel as if the more I could say in a meeting and what people kind of grab and pick what they want. So just a lot of reading and a lot of writing, basically. But I have those projects that are ready to go right now. It's just getting the right people behind it to say, we'd like this. Let's go. Nice. Nice. And ironically, and ironically, this two weeks ago, I directed my first music video, man Yeah, yeah. What genre It's uh, it's basically like country rock. country rock. One of my one of my one of my friends is artist named Queen v. Veronica. Veronica cower. She was actually in Chris's wedding on our film. And she, she said, You know, I wanted to do this, this video for my song about when a half that study about voting and you know, getting people out there in New York City being strong, then like, I never dreamt the music. But it before, when she said, You know, I trust you, I trust what you can do. And you know, we shot in two days last week, and we're gonna release it later this week. And I think it's good. Again, to my point, my first music video, I just knew when to tell a certain story and kind of have it be clear to match your song. And I think we did it well enough, where hopefully, just give me the option of like, I could start music videos too. So I would do a short film, you have a feature film, they've a music video. And let's keep trying to grow that slate because I think too, as directors, as you would know is that it's good to make feature films and things like that. But you have to make money too when you have a family so freakin so you have to start showing that you can tell the 32nd stories because in the end, that's how people me spike does it. So you can't shame it. You know, some people make their money doing commercial. So you guys are doing stuff like that as well. No, you know what, I really admire your hustle, man, you you you appreciate you're hustling you're hustling you're in, in the grind making things happen. I love the fact that you say you said earlier you know yeah, you know, I'm gonna say yes. Yeah. I'm gonna say yeah, yeah, I could do that. No problem. And you know, the fact that you already have things in the inventory ready to to give to people when they ask you the question, you're ahead of the game. And you know, I'm a big fan of basketball. So I tie a lot of it into the methodology and the in the learning of basketball. Yeah, yeah, just teamwork environment of, you know, getting getting a team all aligned. And on the same page. I'm the point garden, you know, this is your role. This is your role, then we're going to set up the triangle. And, you know, it didn't work in New York. No, but I mean, it's a it's, you know, it's I'm just commending you on that, because that's awesome. And great work, man. The hustle going and we see the progress and Okay, super happy for you, man. Thank you, man. That means a lot, man, you know, because like I said, you know, to keep on working and hopefully, someone sees it and realize that, hey, he's working. And let's, you know, we give other people opportunities to be given a Dunham opportunity right off the bat, you know? Yeah, Listen, man. Listen, I mean, you're the next Lena Dunham at this point. Look at your Netflix. There you go. Just kind of off a little bit. But I want to get your opinion on this. Seeing that the era that we're in now, like last weekend, I watched I I may destroy you. I watched a Lovecraft country and I saw 40 year old version. And I'm like, are we in the do we just slip into like a black golden era of like, are we slipping into that? I feel like we kind of are because for myself as well. opportunity to start open up like really quickly over the past few months. Yeah. So do you think that this is something that's that's happening right now, I do believe it's happening. And I believe it's happening more because we're seeing these stories being told that are authentic to the community, rather than having, you know, a black director telling, you know, a black director directing an episode of something we're seeing these black stories like, like 40 or 40 old version, if you would, if you were to kind of like pitch that 10 years ago. Go. No, no one would say yeah, his money. Yeah, no way. But I think right now people want authentic stories and and I love watching these films that are just like I'm seeing my cousins in these films I'm seeing, you know, my friends in each films I'm seeing Yeah, I'm seeing, you know, because because our whole life you watch films or TV wanting to be that white actor who like to do the cool thing, but to have people seeing like, wow, I want to be able to like fight aliens and you know, and come back home and have some grits. Yeah, I mean, it's like, I just feel like thing for our so I I want to be a bit of to kind of be someone from a Hispanic household and know that it's okay. My parent, my father thinks it's okay that if I learned my best friend who's a girl, you know, I mean, like, we have to kind of see that stuff. And I and I commend those decision makers are the wrong word, I come into people at the higher level that are realizing that, okay, let these people who are coming up tell their story of us to support the Wrath of Khan trying to make it seem as if we know what people want to see, because we did data 15 years ago, right? Exactly. That's the hard part. Now, people are people going by data, and they know who goes to the movies, they know who watches things, but in the end, give them another option. And that's why that's, that's, that's for me, where I kind of hope I could be I could thrive in some way. Because my whole life, like I said, being a son from immigrant parents, and being a bass player that goes into acting. My whole life is the other option, basically, you know, I'm, I see things in a different way. That's not it generic, you know, I played basketball, I would change, you know, girls. I mean, it's like, yeah, I see things in like an emotional way. And I think for me, that kind of, I have a different way of telling the story. And I think if other other producers out there who were able to kind of tap into talent, and emerged out of people, whoever they may be in their own unique voice, to your point by having different speech show, when different speakers say about you, could you introduce yourself to the industry. And my first feature says, I'm tell a story about Christmas and uniting in love. And if that's what I'm going to be then now the industry knows that and hopefully they can kind of pivot me in a way or give opportunities that can kind of cater to that. Yeah, absolutely. As long as you stay, you know, true to your morals and true to your, your craft. I think you have no problem with that. Yeah, you'll be perfectly fine. So for what what advice would you be able to give to a young filmmaker who wants to, you know, is basically just trying to break into the business? Yeah, the advice I would give to any young filmmaker or any filmmaker, period, because there are some people who are older than us that are still trying to switch careers and make it happen. So it's right, I don't think any and any advice device I could say is just to really believe that what you want to do as a passion and really do a full on, you know, like, I luckily, when you're younger, you're able to kind of, like ascend with me, when the economy went down in 2008, there's no, there's no plan B, I mean, you started from nothing, if I'm going to make if I'm, if I'm gonna make no money looking for a job in finance, I'm gonna make no money. So my passion, basically. So I think that that young filmmaker, that filmmaker in general wants to kind of really see it through, just keep going, keep going and don't say no to opportunities. You know, if you're asked to direct a reading, that's not even if you're a filmmaker, and don't even think something on camera, but they know you could direct, you know, learn how to work with actors in a reading format. You know, if you want to learn how to direct like, you know, have even even even just, you know, I just, it's just keep on just being creative and keep on reading, keep on being a part of the business in some way. Because, in the end, your knowledge will help you align. You'll find these type of ways you can get into the business and always help other people out too, because people always remember that like I said, I met Nia Fairweather through a reading because we all were artists working for doing A reading for a theatre company. And that's where I met my director Gregory Mosier. And that's what got me on Broadway from a small reading, you know, but with that said, just just always keep going. Never say, respect yourself, but always say yes to things. But you know, just make sure that you always and also as filmmakers to always watch films, keep on watching a film, watch bad films, watch good films, just watch films always have an opinion about what you're seeing. Absolutely. So the LGBTQ community and this movie, how you think the community is going to embrace this film and and your perspective on it. It's it's funny because I, because I was in Stonewall, directed by Roland Emmerich, and I played Marsha P. Johnson. You know, I had that whole, quote, unquote, you know, blowback, because the fact that I was a cisgender male who played this trans pioneer, you know, and it opened my eyes a lot to the storytelling and how much you have to be respectful of the LGBTQ plus community because these stories that have been told they don't see them often. So we mentioned before about a black Renaissance. There was a while but it was like an LGBTQ Renaissance, but it was a renaissance in the wrong way where you're having these different types. have, you know, white actors, I guess playing people who were not white, but they're still getting the acclaim because they got to play these roles. So I think for myself, I got to learn a lot. I got someone in a line that's learned how, while getting through the shoes of Marsha p Johnson are the heels if you want to say, I got to, um, I got to really respect and see the similarities in us as people and be seen those similarities as people I got to really understand and see how the world could be different if the main thing that unites us, especially when it comes to you know, Pride Month is love. So I I hope people when they see the film from the community from any any any of any community, they realize that the film is mainly about love. It's not, yes, there's LGBTQ plus type of, you know, type of background to it, but the main preference love and that's why I didn't want anything that stands out for all of us. And the hard thing about films about the queer experiences that they label them as queer films. So if you're, if you're not a queer person, you feel like there's no reason for me to watch this film. Right. But I think with our film, queer, straight, rabbit or even a.on the floor, you know, you know that there's the aspect of love you can relate to. And you might be surprised that Oh, wow, I saw two people, same same gender, same sex, having a relationship and normalize it. I think that's what genders kind of did for a lot of people. And they were surprised that if I could see two people in a room and normalize something, then if you do that in a christmas fashion, just to be for more, more than more than just one specific type of group. And I think that's what we're hoping to get. I think it's really interesting, too, because like, the same thing with black films. Yeah. Like, you'd label it a black film why people like oh, it's not for me. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I'm just not gonna watch that use. Like if I see like a crazy rich Asians came out. Yep. It was a it was Asian film, but I was like, No, I'm gonna freakin support this. So I'm gonna go see this film and check it out. And I loved the fact that there was things in there I did not understand. And I had to, like, look it up later. And they didn't explain it. I was perfectly like, I heard of Mahjong. I know exactly how it was played. When that final scene when they're playing mahjong, and I was like, sort of correlating to the conversation they were having. I was like, I don't understand that. But I love that. Yeah. Yeah. It's like watching you ever seen Rami? Yes. I love Rami No, love it, I may destroy you is the same way where there's things in there that they they're not explaining to, but they're just living through it. And you have to just experience it. And on the flip side, a lot of people have to deal with that deal with that as black people being with white shows or anything like that, you know, we we don't we don't know what it's like to live on a yacht. But I guess we have to learn the experience. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I just, I love that. And I just love the way I love the direction that film and TV has gone, especially TV. Yeah, it's going in a really interesting direction, where we're getting a lot of unique, original stories. And I'm glad you made this film. I feel like it's it adds to that canon as to the direction that we're going. I appreciate that. 30 years from now, 30 or 40 years from now, when we are old man, looking back, what would make you happiest about your career? Wow, great question. 30 years from now, looking back to my career. What makes me happy is that I would have projects, film, or television that honestly reflected where I was in my life, with every type of project. So jettas is one and that was very personal to me. Chris's wedding is personal to me where I can be like, okay, I remember exactly what it was like writing that making that people want to know what was it like at that point in my life, this is it. So I hope I'll always create always stay true to my, my voice as an artist. I will always tell things that are personal to me, that reflect a look back on my life through a film because film goes on forever. And I would love to have one to film bars. I was awesome. totally appreciate it, man. Thank you guys. I really appreciate it. Looking forward to your next projects, man. Thank you, man. See you soon. Thank you. I told you. Hey guys, check out the tojust film on New York Christmas wedding on Netflix now. He's also on Instagram at all habit. And you can find us on Instagram at once upon the film industry, where we highlight up and coming filmmakers. dm us to see how you can get your film showcase on our Instagram holla you're hurt.