After a successful 2018 season, AT&T's announced today that they've brought on Lena Waithe—the Emmy-winning writer-producer behind Showtime's The Chi, BET's Boomerang, and more—has been brought on as the Lead Program Mentor for the 2019 edition of AT&T's Hello Lab Filmmaker Mentorship Program. The program, which kicked off in 2017, was designed to help filmmakers from underrepresented communities work on their craft, as well as giving them platforms like DIRECTV to showcase their work.
For the 2019 Program, five screenwriters will have a piece financed and produced by AT&T; Lena will be pairing these writers with up-and-coming directors to bring their visions to life, with an emphasis on a diverse pool of participants of women, people of color, and from the LGBTQ+ communities. Each of the mentees in the program will be given access to the entire process from top to bottom, allowing them to talk to everyone from casting directors to higher-level executives. They'll be given a real look at the world of filmmaking, from idea to finished project.
Lena recently took the time out of her busy schedule to speak with Complex about previously her work in the Program last year, the importance of getting your hands dirty in the learning process, and what Hollywood truly needs more of.
How did you to get involved with the Program, and what it was about the program that you were hype about?
I think that what excites me so much is that me and my executive Rishi Rajani over at Hillman Grad, we really are big into not just mentorship, but we're always searching, looking for new talent. We found that we had a lot of really cool interesting directors in our pocket, a lot of really cool writers that we knew that we were trying to put on shows and help get their shows made.
Every now and then you get a writer/director who is amazing, but there's just not that many amazing writer/directors out there. I wanted to do this the right way. Because of [our working relationship last year], they were kind enough to say "Look, you really found something special, and you seem to know a lot of these people, why don't you do all of them next go around?" That's what we're really excited about, is to really put this together in a really cool way so that we can [find] even more writers and directors. That, to me, is really exciting.
How involved are you with the mentees that are selected?
It's a bit of a team effort. Rishi, who is really out in the trenches and out there every single day while sometimes, like today, where I'm in the writers room working on The Chi as we started on season three, so where it stands we're like I have to be focused on that, and he is always like, “Hey Lena, this is a person you should know, this is a person you should check out, I think we should give this person opportunity to do it,” and I'm like "Oh great, love it, that person's great, love that person” or sometimes I'll say “Hey, I don't think that person's ready yet, do you have any other options?" And usually, when those scripts are done I'll take a look at them, read them, give my thoughts, give my feedback, and then what we really try to do is [get] people who are great, o we don't have to babysit. I think there's this sort of weird misconception that just because someone is new, they usually don't know what they're doing. It just means they haven't gotten an opportunity yet to show their stuff.
Look, not everybody succeeds, sometimes people falter, and we have to pick up the pieces and make sure everything is cool. It's really on us to take people that are responsible, take people that are ready, take people that we've been following for a few years. It all works hand-in-hand, but we don't put them on the position unless we know that they're ready for it. For me, yes, we're sort of mentoring our program, but in essence, it's helping us.
The industry is constantly looking for people of color, women, people who are queer, people who are not able-bodied because they know it's almost like a mandate—you can't just have a bunch of white guys directing your shit. Everybody has to be on their A-game because if somebody's a new person, they're coming in, they're hungry, they're ready, and they've got a story to tell, I'd rather go with that new person with a new, fresh perspective, who is coming ready to work.
What's it been like working with Sean Frank, your mentee from last year who's since gone on an episode of Boomerang?
He is someone that I saw on Instagram, initially, and was really impressed by it. I then met up with him because he lived in New York. He's really a great example to show the studio, "hey, this is what he can do," and [his short, Further Away] was a wonderful piece of content to show off his skills.
This year, you're bringing in a more musical element to the Program, with an incentive on finding unsigned producers and musicians and working on music videos. What drove that expansion?
The big thing we're trying to do is we are trying to help bring music videos back. We have some amazing directors that also could use some shine. To me, it's sort of like a two-fer. Kill two birds with one stone, where you hear a really beautiful song, and we also want to really elevate the music video, because I feel like so many music videos are so literal. They go straight down the middle; there's no real plot put into it.
Back in the day, the real artists used to get movie directors to do their videos. RIP John Singleton, he directed Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time" music video. I was like, "why not have these budding feature directors, TV directors, bring their aesthetic, their visual ideas to these songs?" This is a director who has a vision [working on] your song. More often than not, you're going to get something very cinematic, very unique, because they think in a cinematic way. It's really exciting because I always love matching up certain artists with certain directors where you were about to go "What? That don't make sense." And then you get something really unique and really fresh that comes out of it, so we're really excited for people to see that.
For more information on AT&T's Hello Lab Film Mentorship Program, head over to their website.