Interview with Playwright/Filmmaker Melody Cooper

melody cooper

We recently talked to playwright/filmmaker Melody Cooper, whose short films THE SOUND OF DARKNESS and The Museum “No to Yesterday” will be featured in our “Matinee Noir: Black Speculative Fiction Shorts” event on Oct. 28! In the spring, Cooper did a month-long writer’s residency in the south of France (thanks to the La Napoule Arts Foundation) to develop a horror TV pilot Sundown, which made it to the second round of the Sundance Episodic Lab, is a semifinalist for the Tony Cox Showtime competition, and is in consideration by Lena Waithe and Eva Longoria’s MACRO Episodic Lab.

Midwest BSFA: Tell us about yourself.

Cooper: Raised in New York by a dad who was a science teacher and who loved sci-fi, and a mom who taught English and introduced me to horror books. I’m an Afrofuturist writer and filmmaker who writes sci-fi and horror thrillers. I trained to be an actor and started out in the theater in New York. I now write for theater, film and TV. I’m a 2018 Athena List Finalist with my supernatural feature script THE SOUND OF DARKNESS, which was also developed by AMC Networks Shudder Labs and the Meryl Streep Writers Lab. I’m represented by Circle of Confusion, the management/production company that produces The Walking Dead and reps the writers of top sci-fi films.

Midwest BSFA: What were your favorite films growing up and why? 

Cooper: I was a weird kid who watched movies very young and loved everything from old black and white samurai films to big musicals to small indies, classic European foreign, sci-fi and horror. When I look back, I definitely loved a great story that was character driven with a unique protagonist who had to fight against great odds. So from my childhood: Planet of the Apes, Star Wars: A New Hope, Alien, The Omen, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Mad Max, The Godfather, Chinatown, Soylent Green, Dog Day Afternoon, Deliverance, Carrie, Don’t Look Now, The Marathon Man and Time After Time.

Midwest BSFA: How did you get into filmmaking? 

Cooper: Through writing. I started out as a professional actress who wrote a play because there weren’t enough strong roles for Black women. That play won awards and was produced several times. Ironically, I started writing it as a screenplay, but convinced myself that I didn’t know what I was doing and switched it to a stage play. My second play was about Rwanda and was seen by one of the few early women filmmakers, Claudia Weill, who invited me to LA to develop that play and suggested I try writing for film. My first screenplay did well in competition and I fell in love with writing for film and then TV. A producer convinced me that I should direct a short based on THE SOUND OF DARKNESS. I didn’t want to direct because I’d never taken a class or done it before. But he told me my vision for the script coupled with a strong crew was all I needed. He was right. The short isn’t perfect, but I learned a lot…mostly that I love directing and want to do more of it.

Midwest BSFA: Was there a turning point for you where you decided this was what you wanted to do as a career? 

Cooper: For writing, it was when my first play won awards and was produced. For filmmaking, it was my first day on set for my short film. It was terrifying and magical and I knew I was in my element.

Midwest BSFA: Who are your favorite filmmakers? 
Cooper: Wow. That is so hard to keep to a short list. In no particular order: Scorsese, Antoine Fuqua, Denis Villeneuve, Ava DuVernay, Kathyrn Bigelow, Kurosawa, Alfonso Cuaron, Haneke, Spike Lee, Guillermo Del Toro, Reed Morano, Ryan Coogler,  David Lean, Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Fellini, Bong Joon-ho, David Lynch, Robert Altman,
Hayao Miyazaki and  Jonathan Demme.
Midwest BSFA: What made you gravitate toward film and not other mediums to tell your stories? 

Cooper: I’m a very visual writer. Stage directors used to tell me I didn’t need to write so much visual description into my plays! And I love movies. Can’t get enough of them. You can even learn from the bad ones. Films stay with you psychologically and emotionally in very deep ways. You can explore so much. I love the theater,  but the kind of stories I want to tell often require a bigger, wider canvas, multiple layers, effects. I’m a world builder, and even though you can do that via the imagination and clever staging, film and TV bring a visual element to my stories that elevates them to another level. It also lasts and reaches a wider audience.

Midwest BSFA: A number of your films have a supernatural/speculative bent to them. What draws you to those kinds of stories? Is there something more accessible, storytelling-wise, about those types of narratives? 

Cooper: For me, definitely. I love the way you can turn the box over in speculative/horror/sci-fi and explore human nature and behavior from a different perspective and through a unique lens. What drives us, what are we afraid of and why, what makes us human? It disarms and disrupts, brings new insights, reveals truths in ways that are unexpected and often much more effective than other genres. And from a Black perspective, how do we see ourselves in the future? How will we reshape our world and the world affect us?

Midwest BSFA: You’re also a playwright. What is your favorite theater performance? 

Cooper: My parents took me to Broadway theater when I was a kid, so I’ve seen A LOT. I think we were the only Black folks in the theater most of the time. I’ll cheat and give you four: Denzel in A Soldier’s Story. Janet McTeer in A Doll’s House. Patti Lupone in Evita. Viola Davis in Fences.

Midwest BSFA: Are there any techniques that you take from theater to use in film and vice versa? 

Cooper: Yes, writing dialogue from theater to film. And economy from film to theater. You can convey an entire page of dialogue in one visual moment or physical movement. And in both forms, I’ve learned to use silence more.

Midwest BSFA: How did you come up with the premise for THE SOUND OF DARKNESS

Cooper: I was online seeing posts about missing Black girls that got few retweets. It moved and enraged me. I started digging and found most Amber Alerts and Missing posts were for white children. I researched the statistics and was shocked to learn there were 64,000 missing Black women and children in the U.S., and media and the authorities do little to help find them. I connected with the Black and Missing Foundation to learn more, and the first images that came to me to write the story were of a blind woman and deaf man hiding in a house together from a dangerous man, and they had to work together to fight him. Don’t know why. Maybe the idea of helping ourselves against all odds.

Midwest BSFA: I donated to your Kickstarter for THE SOUND OF DARKNESS a few years back and was disappointed when you didn’t hit your funding goal! 😦 What did you learn about crowd funding and the like from that experience?  

Cooper: I’m so sorry that didn’t work out! I learned that I have to plan it better for Kickstarter! It wasn’t successful, but on another funding platform, I hit my goal. I ended up using some of my own money and a grant I received from AMC. Even then, I ran out of what was needed to finish the edit. I insisted on paying everyone and wanted a professional level. In retrospect, I’d shoot leaner, smarter, on a lower budget and a script with one location not four. I finally re-cut the film myself two weeks ago to have a better narrative for the story that makes more sense.

Midwest BSFA: You were the winner of the 2018 Grand Jury Prize for Best Screenplay at Urbanworld Film Festival. Why do you think it’s important for indie filmmakers to participate in events like this? 

Cooper: It’s essential to find your tribe, those who accept and nurture your work, whether its science fiction, women’s films or Black film. It was a wonderful festival and so well run. Gabrielle Glore, the executive director, did a great job.  The writers were so well taken care of. John David Washington and Naturi Naughton read the finalist screenplays. I have a great mentor now in Louis Venosta (director of The Last Dragon and Grey’s Anatomy). It was very much a “lift all boats” kind of festival with extraordinary films like The Hate U Give and Pimp.

Midwest BSFA: What was it like being part of the Meryl Streep/Oprah Winfrey Writers Lab and the Shudder Lab? What did you learn from these experiences that has helped advance your career/screenwriting?

Cooper: First, I learned that I can definitely write and that others believe in, respect and want to uplift what I create. That’s huge. As creatives, we often question whether or not we really have what it takes. The labs confirmed that. And then they proceeded to show me how I can improve, what needs to change, how I can make the most of the business, how to build a brand. And this is key: they connect you with amazing mentors and professionals in the business. Lisa Cortes (Precious), Josh Astrachan  (It Follows), Alex Boden (Sense8, Cloud Atlas). I love constructive criticism and working on my craft, and the labs were invaluable. Oh, and they were damn fun. I also did NY Stage & Film and Stowe Story Labs last year and have great friends from all of them. Again, finding your support group is so important, in this case, fellow writers.

Midwest BSFA: What advice do you have for younger black and brown filmmakers? 

Cooper: It’s still a tough business for us, even with Ava, Shonda, Jordan Peele, Lena Waithe and Ryan Coogler out there creating amazing work and opportunities. But don’t be discouraged by stats and numbers or the hurdles. Keep doing the work. Keep working HARD, learning, creating. Make your own stuff. Get together with friends. Let Donald Glover and Issa Rae light your way. It doesn’t have to be perfect or the best. My first short film wasn’t all I wanted it to be, but I made it. I learned something in doing it. Even if you’re a bit of an introvert like I am, try to stay connected. Go to festivals, screenings, readings, conferences. Meet people. MAKE YOURSELF DO IT. Once you have the talent, connections and relationships are what get you somewhere in this business. I can attest to that from Urbanworld. I connected with three producers and two directors who want to develop my work. Know who you are and what you have to offer, and never give up.
For more info on Cooper, visit www.melodymcooper.com

 

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