(The video above is from writer/director Kiara Jone's Kickstarter campaign for her first feature film, Christmas Wedding Baby. Jones raised $50k in a little over one month's time.)
On Thursday, July 30th the BlackStar Film Festival kicked off it’s fourth year of celebrating cinema that focuses on work by and about people of African descent–especially within a global context. Each year for four days, the festival highlights work from “emerging, established, and mid-career directors, writers and producers working in narrative, documentary, experimental and music video filmmaking.” Festival attendees also get to enjoy panels and special events for the city’s community of film lovers, creatives and storytellers.
One of the featured films in this year’s lineup is Christmas Wedding Baby, which will screen on Saturday, August 1st. Simply put, the film is about three sisters who struggle to find happiness during the holiday season after the youngest sister finds out her first love has been hired as her wedding photographer.
However, the film’s writer and director, Kiara Jones, best described it on the Kickstarter page of the film’s successful crowdfunding campaign: It’s a film about what happens between people and not just to them. There’s no, opus, no soapbox, no secret message, just a window into the lives of 3 fantastically complicated women and the men that try to adore them.
I had the opportunity to chat with Kiara about the film, her successful $50k crowdfunding campaign, the production journey and the woman behind it all. Check out the interview below and then click here to see the full screening schedule and get your tickets.
Ladies and gentleman, say hello to Miss Kiara Jones…
Sincerely Syreeta: Kiara, tell us how your love for storytelling and film began?
Kiara Jones: My parents were big on reading. I read a lot as a child–A.A Milne, Dr Seuss, Grimms filled the lonely spaces. I loved the characters and can remember savoring pages and holding out on the final chapters so the stories wouldn’t end. I started writing my own in elementary school and the power of it was thrilling. I get to name the characters, decide what they do and how it all ends? Intoxicating.
SS: Haha, we certainly would have been kindred spirits as kids! So how did you get into screenwriting, cinematography and directing?
KJ: I started my career in Broadcast Radio and Television. I had my initial training in the Air Force. I was an evening news anchor and had my own radio programs in Turkey, Panama and Honduras. I loved news and finding interesting ways to relay peoples stories to our audiences. That’s also where I honed my cinematography. It’s much harder to capture action as it’s happening than it is to set up, stage and light a performance. It made me very fast at figuring out the best place to put the camera to tell a story. After broadcasting, I went into corporate media in Las Vegas. This was a great experience as it helped me learn to interpret words into visuals and forced me to translate other peoples ideas into my own vision. Though I had a wonderful career in Las Vegas, I wasn’t happy living there and wanted to tell my own stories instead of lending my talents to other people’s missions. I thought film would be the best medium to tell my stories and use my skills. I applied to the Graduate Film Program at NYU. They accepted me and the rest is history.
SS: Wow, what an intriguing start to a wonderful journey! Now, you were able to shoot and produce this film through a Kickstarter campaign. What made you decide to go the crowd-funding route, and what were some of the pros and cons of it?
KJ: Kickstarter and all of the crowd funding platforms are excellent conduits for receiving money. Note I didn’t say generating money. If you’re going to use one of these platforms, I highly recommend you’ve already done the footwork and know who your donors are and what they will contribute. The platforms sort of legitimize your fundraising and give your supporters a place to contribute. There is a cost involved, so you loose a bit of money. However they give you great communication tools and a project timeline that lets you keep your donors updated.
SS: It’s imperative that one be strategic when it comes to crowdfunding! So tell us what the filming process was like! Any memorable moment(s)?
KJ: Filming was a complete marathon. We shot on location in Jacksonville, FL and our first obstacle was getting the cast and crew in from NY, LA and Atlanta. The day our caravan with our equipment truck, our crew and our supplies, was supposed to leave, New York city had the biggest snow storm in a decade. The crew got out, but the equipment truck and our talent were delayed. We were slated to start filming in 3 days. Sixty harrowing hours later, the truck arrived at 6pm Sunday evening, but we were still one cast member down as Stephen Hill was on his 3rd day of being stuck at the airport. We shot the first scene of the film at the Airport on day one. Just as we had the first scene set, who comes strolling through arrivals but Stephen Hill. He was so happy to see us, he thought we were there to pick him up and didn’t realize he was in the shot. When Stephen walked into frame I knew God was with us and we were going to be ok.
SS: OMGoodness, I think I would have been ready to pull my hair out. Kudos to you and the crew! Speaking of them, what were some general things that you looked for when casting? And what was it like ultimately working with them?
KJ: Our entire cast is brilliant. This is truly an ensemble where every actor in every role is significant and moves the story forward. Casting is one of the most difficult and important decisions a Director makes in the creation of a film. Not only should the talent fit your vision for the character, but they must also bring their own special essence that brings the character to life in a way that no other actor ever could. I had many options building this ensemble cast, but also the distinct challenge of building a family, four women who really felt like mother and sisters, and their male counterparts that had to both compliment and counter balance the women.
At the heart of the film I cast two exceptionally talented actors Frances Turner and Stephen Hill as Charlotte and Isaac, a couple that’s on the brink of self destruction. They were both in my very first film Basura. This was one of the great privileges’ of being an independent filmmaker. Hollywood would have wanted a more recognizable “name” in these two pivotal roles, but I was able to choose talent based on known ability over notoriety and pay forward the work these actors have done with me in the past. Their chemistry and understanding of my voice as a writer anchors the film. I cast them first and they were the cornerstone for my casting decisions. I had tremendous help from Casting Director, Marishka Phillips who lead me to both Kimberley Drummond and Sawandi Wilson, who play leads Andera and Gabriel, first loves who reconnect on the eve of Andrea’s wedding. Both had played smaller roles big Hollywood films and were eager to fully flesh out these characters. They bring a playful innocence to the drama that captures one of my earliest inspirations for the film, infatuation. She also brought in young Anna Marie Brown, who I’m excited to watch grow as she develops as an actor.
Director Kasi Lemmons, who has been a wonderful support of the film, recommended Lisa Arrindel Anderson. As soon as I heard the name I knew she would be perfect for eldest sister, Lori, and prayed that she would accept the role. Lisa is so committed and a comfort on and off screen. She has a nurturing spirit that brought warmth to her character and calm on our set. She was truly a blessing. I literally found Maria Howell scouring the internet for black female actresses. I was stumped after casting in three cities, to [find] the sexy, sassy, unapologetic mother of our film, Mirands. I saw her photo and got this tremendous feeling of inspiration. I was like, “how do I get in touch with her?” I called my Producer, Ralph Scott, and begged him to find her. As serendipity would have it, she had the same agent as Lisa Arrindal Anderson, who loved the script and were recommending her. When you see Maria play the role of Miranda, you can’t imagine anyone else as that charachter. That’s the magic of great casting.
SS: It’s so awesome how things come together despite all of the plot twists that life throws in! You never know where and how the journey will lead you…
KJ: Our casting on location in Jacksonville, Florida lead us to Rita Manyette who plays our syrupy sweet wedding planner and sexy Jason Vendryes who plays the opportunistic, Kendal. There was great talent in North Florida and with help from Martini Shot Casting we filled out many of the supporting roles with Floridians adding authenticity to our Jacksonville based story.
One of the most difficult, but smartest decisions I made in the casting was placing my son Micah in the role of Zacky. When I wrote the script, I used many of his antics to develop the character, but by the time we shot a year later, I thought he was too old for the role. My idea was to have a smaller, more controllable, arm baby, not a walking talking, “uncatchable” 2 year old. After many auditions, I realized that God had gifted me the best possible option and more importantly, I knew I could deal with his crazy mother. Micah is unforgettable in the film and I’m personally thrilled that I captured his precious spirit on film.
SS: It’s so wonderful that you’re dreams have created room and opportunities for your son and his beautiful spirit to shine! So what were some of the personal challenges that you’ve faced throughout the production of CWB and how did you overcome them?
KJ: Where to begin? The hardest part for me has been wearing so many hats. As an independent filmmaker, only you can green light your film and only you are fully responsible for finishing it and delivering it to your audience. I was the Writer, Director, Producer and Editor on Christmas Wedding Baby. I don’t recommend this to anyone. I simply didn’t have the financial resources to hire a professional so that I wouldn’t have to walk through the process. Because of my previous work, I was able to seduce some exceptionally talented collaborators to come on board. I had 5 NYU trained killers on the team. Those relationships are well worth the price of film school. My crew was tiny, but powerful. Without their support I wouldn’t have made it through the film. My Executive Producer, Chann Harris, not only provided financial support, but came to Florida during production and drove, brought meals, filled in the gaps where things were needed. My Mother, who is also an EP, let me turn her home into a production office for 6 months. We housed crew there, held meetings, I had wardrobe hanging on every curtain rod in the house during pre-production.
A really smart decision that I made was hiring a Brand Integration Specialist. Anne Stimac from AMAC placements came on board and brought the production value of the film up to another level. I didn’t have a budget for her service so I reallocated money from production design, locations, wardrobe, HMU, production–everyone [and thing] that would benefit from this service. That decision paid off 1000% as you can see her contributions in every frame of the film. David Tutera Gowns, Desigual, Underarmor, Coca Cola, Lionel trains, Pandora Jewelry, the list goes on and on….
SS: So now that all of this hard work has been put in by so many, what has the public’s response to the film been like?
KJ: The public loves the film. I think they’re surprised at how deep this “romantic comedy” goes. It’s very relatable. Family dynamics, relationship drama, self realization, these are all common issues that cross race and gender. It’s most rewarding for me is when I hear people quoting lines from the film. That means we got it all right. For someone to remember a line means: the script was good, the actors delivered, we shot it well, we cut it right and it presented well. Gold star for everyone on the team.
SS: A gold star indeed! And how has the film shaped you for the better as a woman, business woman and creative?
KJ: I think womanhood has shaped me more for the film than filmmaking has shaped me as a woman.
SS: Ooooooo nice, now that’s a line I’ll remember and it’s not even in your movie! Haha!
KJ: Women have always been great storytellers. We are wonderful multitaskers and magnificent auditors. I delivered my son before I delivered my first feature and the experiences were very similar. Lot’s of anticipation, great expectations, unexpected difficulty, amazing support from friends and family, many, many prayers and a result that’s far from what you wanted, but better than you ever imagined.
SS: Speak, honey, speak! Haha! So let’s be upfront with the SS audience, as always: why should we go see it?
KJ: It’s so important that we support films made by people of color. Support Black Films! Support Black Film Festivals! #BlackFilmsMatter
The struggle is hard enough without an audience and strong grassroots support. If you don’t like the work, that’s fine. Tell the filmmakers, tell the programmers what you want. We want to hear from you. Don’t let the title fool you: Christmas Wedding Baby is a deeply introspective family drama tied up in a tasty, commercial wrapper. The performances in this film are outstanding. This film explores the challenges that women face while respecting the plights of men. We talk out loud about the evolving gender roles and the pressure that society and our families place on all of us. We are all really proud of the work and the accolades the film has received from the Director’s Guild of America, The Black Reel Awards, BET and festivals around the world.
SS: Black films and Black Film Festivals must be supported–no doubt about that. And congratulations to you all! What’s up next for CWB, Cultivated Films and Kiara C Jones?
KJ: It’s Christmas all summer long! We are screening in Philadelphia at the BlackStar Film Fest Saturday August 1st, then we are the opening night film at the African Diaspora International Film Festival in Washington DC on August 23rd and the closing night film for the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago September 3rd. We are also working on our deal with Netflix and hope to be streaming this holiday season.
A wonderful film I produced for Director Marco Coppola entitled The Nearest Human Being is in post [production] and should be out next spring. I’ve just begun preproduction on my next feature currently titled Manhattan Millionaire. The film is about a man who is fighting to keep his family together as he struggles to keep up appearances living in “Money Fakin’ Manhattan.” I plan to film next spring and am working on financing now.
I’ll see you at the screening of Christmas Wedding Baby on Saturday evening, loves! Can’t wait!
– Sincerely Syreeta