Interview: Jade Jenise Dixon – Director, Actress and Writer

Posted: September 25, 2009 in film/tv, interview
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Jade Jenise Dixon

Date of Interview: 09/25/2009

© 2009 Clayton Perry

Jade Jenise Dixon is the owner of Stepping Stone Productions, LLC, and Utopia Films, Inc.  She is also an actress, producer, director, writer, and casting director.

Dixon’s latest work, Truth Hall, has garnered eight film festival wins and nominations, including a “Best Director” win at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York City, in addition to a “Best Director – First Feature” Award at the Pan-African Film Festival.  A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Jade Jenise Dixon’s work has been compared to that of Spike Lee, a fellow NYU alumnus.

Upon the commercial release of Truth Hall, Jade Jenise Dixon managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on the early influence of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 stageplay For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, the current climate for female African-American directors, and the need for film to address overlooked social issues.

Clayton Perry: As Truth Hall transformed from the written text to the silver screen, you wore several different hats along the way. You served as the writer, the director, the producer, and even an actor. How difficult did you find it to manage all those pieces?

Jade Jenise Dixon: I was told in the beginning that it was going to be a difficult thing to do. I didn’t find it difficult. It really depends on the team that you have, and I had a really wonderful team. I had a wonderful DP [director of photography, Pierre Chemaly]. My first AD [assistant director, Frank Faucette] was very attentive as far as when I was actually on set or actually in character and not actually being the director. They were very good at managing the role that I would normally manage. Of course, there were a couple of times that I would be in character, doing a reel cut. But after a couple of days it all worked itself out, and I actually found it to be not very difficult. I used to be a cheerleader captain, and one thing that I did was to visually arrange people so that it looked pleasing to the eye for our competitions. I didn’t find it any more difficult than that, really.

Clayton Perry: One of the things that I admire most about Truth Hall is its willingness to tackle taboo social issues dead-on, especially within the African-American community. The film addresses two, in particular, with a heavy hand: HIV awareness and homophobia. Why did you feel compelled to incorporate those two themes?

Jade Jenise Dixon: Well, I did feel compelled to tell those stories because first of all, they need to be told. We, as filmmakers, I feel like we have a responsibility to tell stories that matter. I always wonder why people choose to tell the stories that they tell, which is probably why you’re asking me the question. I chose to tell it not because there was any personal experience, but because of what I see. I see people that feel like their spin is less than the next person’s spin because of whatever they’ve been ingrained with, whatever they believe. So I wanted to show or tell the story that points a finger at everyone, to show that everyone is part of the human race and that no one’s standing is less than someone else’s. I actually did have a friend who once said to me, “Hey, I’m a lesbian.” She thought that she couldn’t get HIV, and I thought that was very interesting. I just didn’t feel like that could be true. “Why are you exempt, and no one else is?” So I did some research and found that the research hasn’t been done, and there are a lot of people out there that falsely think that their group is exempt. There’s no group that’s exempt. I wanted to bring that out, as well.

Clayton Perry: Well, my favorite line from Truth Hall was also included in the trailer: “Sometimes you gotta go through the dark to get to the light.” As an African-American female, there’s obviously hurdles that you have to go through in the business, especially to get into the director’s chair. Is there a period, along your journey, where you felt like you had to go through the dark to get to the light?

Jade Jenise Dixon: Oh, absolutely. I think with everyone’s career or in their lives, we all have to go through some amount of disappointment, some amount of confusion or just maybe uncertainty before we actually get to that light at the end of the tunnel. I think that’s what learning is. And yes, I’ve been through not getting roles because a main actor got roles, or not getting the financing for my film and it’s fallen through. It’s finally, at the end of the day, getting the financing for my film and getting the film done. I feel like that’s kind of the way it is in life: that just about everyone has to go through a period where it feels like it’s dark, but you go through that and eventually, you get to the light. You get through the light, but we’re able to appreciate that light because we’ve gone through the dark.

Clayton Perry: When you review not only your career but the black film landscape, how do you think the climate has improved over the years for black directors and female directors?

Jade Jenise Dixon: I think it’s improving. It’s continuing to improve, but I’d like to see a lot more female directors. I think now with the advent of digital technology and HD we’ll see a lot more, because we’ll be able to show that females can actually produce and direct a quality product, and we won’t need Hollywood’s permission to do that. I think that’ll continue to advance. As for the climate for these African-American films in general, it’s definitely improving. We have a lot more African-American men behind the camera. We have a lot more African-Americans acting at the Greenlight Films. So that, I think it has definitely improved, and I like the fact that there are different genres. There’s a filmmaker for the church-going audience. There’s a filmmaker for people who like drama. There’s an African-American filmmaker for horror. We’re not limited anymore, and I think that’s how we’ve made major strides in the last couple of years.

Clayton Perry: From a director’s standpoint, what’s the challenge in making and marketing an independent film that’s also catered towards an African-American audience?

Jade Jenise Dixon: It has been a journey. We have been very fortunate to secure distributors like Image Entertainment and One Village, because without that kind of marketing, it is very difficult to get a movie on the shelves or out into the mainstream. We did a year of film festivals, of special screenings, and I think you do have to do that in order to make the film appealing to studios and other distributors. You have to go out there and create buzz. We did special screenings for PRIDE festivities, all kinds of special screenings – depending on the group that wanted us to come to the city. We also did all the major film festivals — Pan-African Film Festival, the International Black Film Festival, Urban World. At film festivals is where distributors like Urban World and Light Image will recognize our film. The first film festival that we actually won was International Black Film Festival in Nashville, and I think that’s what really put us on the map. That’s really how we got our distribution deal – by getting our first award, getting distributors interested and ultimately getting Image Entertainment involved. Now we have a marketing campaign where there’s dollars behind the film to run television ads, and ads in magazines. Now it’s flying off the shelf, so we’re really grateful for that.

Clayton Perry: When you look back on the entire Truth Hall experience, what are you most proud of?

Jade Jenise Dixon: Oh, there are so many! This was such a triumph for all of us. We shot it in such a short amount of time, and on our last day of shooting we had to really cut a lot out. There’s a scene where all of the girls are in their bridesmaids’ dresses, and that scene is really a lot of the movie. You just don’t know it because it’s broken up with things that happened at the wedding reception and flashbacks. But if you were to just see that scene, without any introduction, it’s like a really large part of the movie. And it was a lot longer. The last night of shooting we had to sit down and decide what to cut out. So I went through and I really marked up that script in a way that I didn’t think anybody would be able to follow me. But my cast, they were just so prepared. And all of them are serious actors — they may not be well-known names, but they’re all working actors.

Clayton Perry: Is there a particular memory from the set that shines bright?

Jade Jenise Dixon: I sat down with them and I gave them what I thought was just a mess of, “We need to skip this. We’re going to kick this out. We’re going to go back to this. We’re going to have two cameras and one camera’s going to shoot Nicholas [Demps] and the other camera’s going to shoot Tamara [“Gingir” Curry] and they just got it. That was an eighteen-hour day. We basically applauded after that day. I remember when we had the cast and crew screening, Nicholas said to me, “I didn’t know what to expect from that last scene, because I know when we shot it, we were all over the place,” and he was just so impressed with how it turned out. I thought that was a good moment.

Clayton Perry: During your high school and college years, your theatrical work always managed to incorporate Ntozake Shange’s stageplay For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. When were you first introduced to this work and what does it mean to you on a personal level?

Jade Jenise Dixon: Oh, that’s a great question because For Colored Girls is probably my favorite play. I was introduced to that in high school. I went to Northside School of the Arts in Atlanta. One year I decided to ask our performing arts coordinator if I could direct For Colored Girls. He was unsure because he had never had a student direct a production. So I went to my actual acting teacher and asked him about it, and he thought it was a great idea. He liked my work. We had done a few student projects within our class walls, but nothing on a large scale. But he liked what I had done and actually fought for me to be able to direct it. So I auditioned people in high school and ended up putting on a huge production. It was standing room only. It was all over the radio in Atlanta. Standing ovation. It was the best experience of my high school career. Of course, if you’ve read my bio, you know I did that again in college. I directed it and starred in it for the Stella Adler Conservatory. And also we put it on at Musical Theatre Works. I just have to say that play means a lot to me because it shows so many different colors of women and so many different stories. There’s comedy, there’s drama. All women can relate to that. So it’s definitely one of my all-time favorites.

Clayton Perry: I’ve been hearing buzz and rumors that there’s going to be an upcoming theatrical release of For Colored Girls. How interested are you to see that on film? What do you think about other stage plays that might be well-known historically and bringing those back on film?

Jade Jenise Dixon: I think it’s wonderful. I’ve seen Dreamgirls on stage, and then they did a great job with the film version, too. And I have heard the buzz about For Colored Girls, and I’m super-excited. I hope it’s done well. I can’t imagine that it won’t be. I know they’ve had a couple of different directors attached to it. I’m sure whomever they choose will be the right person for the job. I’m super-excited to see it come to the big screen, and I just hope that they capture the passion of the women the way I saw it. But I’m sure they will. So yes, to answer your question, I’m excited about that.

Clayton Perry: Various media outlets have compared you to Tyler Perry and you have also been regarded as the female version of Spike Lee. How do you feel about those comparisons?

Jade Jenise Dixon: I am deeply humbled because Tyler Perry has several number one box office hits. And Spike Lee is an icon in the industry. I’m still climbing and making a name for myself, so I’m deeply privileged to even be compared to people like that. I think the reason people are comparing us is because first of all, with Spike Lee, his creativity. He has a specific style of art, and early in his career – with films like She’s Gotta Have It – he had his own style. And people look at Truth Hall and they see the flashbacks and how some of them are colored differently and some of them have a little haze around them. There’s a specific style to what I’m doing. It’s not necessarily a movie that you’d go see. And then if you see my next movie, you should probably be able to tell that I’m the same director – kind of how it is with Spike Lee. You can tell what his movies are like. I think that’s what makes a good director, is you can tell their style, and they have a unique style. As far as Tyler Perry, they’re comparing us because his brand is that he writes, produces, he directs and he stars in all of his films. I guess up until Tyler Perry – and then I think Eddie Murphy did some things where he was all these different characters – but it’s really rare that someone is able to pull all of those things off. So now that these things are happening with Tyler Perry, people see a parallel when they see someone else doing that. So I think that’s quite a comparison. But I’m happy they are.

Clayton Perry: Like Perry and Lee, you are the owner of your own production companies – Stepping Stone Productions and Utopia Films. From a business perspective, how important was it for you to form those two, and how have they aided you along the way? Also, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s the inspiration behind the companies’ names?

Jade Jenise Dixon: Stepping Stone Productions has been very necessary to me. You can’t really do business, and not have a legitimate, incorporated company. That’s one of the first things I learned, is that people won’t want to do business with you unless they can look you up and see that you’re legit. That is my film production company. That’s the company that I’ve used for all of my film productions. Utopia Films is my film distribution company. Before we got the deal with Image, I did a small, self-distribution for Utopia Films. Right now, the Truth Hall soundtrack is on Utopia and the actual movie is being put out by Image and One Village. So that’s what those companies are, and they’ve been very, very instrumental in getting this practice rolling. I came up with the names because Stepping Stone is kind of self-explanatory. I think everything in life is a stepping stone to the next level. You complete one thing in order to get to the next. And that’s how I feel with Truth Hall, the first feature film out of Stepping Stone Productions — that it’s absolutely my stepping stone. I’m able to get into venues that I was never able to get into, wearing one hat – just the actor hat. So it’s been a complete stepping stone to the next level of my career, and I thought that was a perfect name for it because I believe everything is a stepping stone. Utopia Films was named because my mom had a company called Utopia, back in the day. It was a whole different company – it wasn’t a film production company. It was something that she was passionate about, and I always liked that name and I always liked the passion that she has and what she did. I sat down with her and told her that I wanted to name my company after hers because I followed her passion for it, and I wanted to honor her with something that would reflect how passionate she was about her kids when I was very, very young. And she was happy about it. So that’s where Utopia came from.

For more information on Jade Jenise Dixon, visit her official website: http://jadejenisedixon.com/

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