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Kaliya Warren: “Be excellent, in whatever you do”

This is a very literal industry. It’s very difficult to convince investors and gatekeepers that you can direct something, unless you directed something just like it before. As artists, we naturally want to explore, and not be boxed in. I had made several shorts that were well received — but they were all very different in tone […]

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This is a very literal industry. It’s very difficult to convince investors and gatekeepers that you can direct something, unless you directed something just like it before. As artists, we naturally want to explore, and not be boxed in. I had made several shorts that were well received — but they were all very different in tone and scope than my feature. So after writing my script, I needed to raise money once more, in order to make a proof-of-concept. If your funding opportunities are limited, be strategic and invest in a short that will help you reach your goals.


As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Kaliya Warren.

Kaliya Warren is an award-winning writer and director. She was a top-five finalist for Tribeca and AT&T’s Untold Stories competition, and her pitch for her feature Expatriates received the 50,000 dollars Audience Award. She served as both director and cinematographer on her proof-of-Concept for Expatriates, shot on location throughout South Africa, Mozambique, and Ethiopia. She was hailed as one of fashion brand Veronica Beard’s “Ones to Watch: Directors on the Rise.”

A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, her short The Grown-Ups was nominated for a National Board of Review award, and was an official selection of HBO’s Urbanworld Film Festival. Her dance film Revelation was selected to show in IFC’s Short Attention Span Cinema Series. Warren directs branded work for clients including Delta Air Lines and Amazon, and is a member of commercial production company Committee LA. In 2019, she directed the new season of supermodel Ashely Graham’s talk show, Pretty Big Deal. Most recently, Warren co-directed an editorial documentary for The Nation magazine, on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

In addition, Warren worked as the Behind-the-Scenes Director of Photography on Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, and In the Heights, produced by Lin Manuel-Miranda. She is a member of IATSE Local 600, International Cinematographers Guild.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in the Midwest. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and my family later moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. My parents came from fairly different backgrounds; my dad is black and grew up in Detroit during the birth of Motown, and my mom is white and grew up in small town Wisconsin. They’re both very civic-minded people, and I think that’s had a great influence on me. They met as recreation workers for prisoners in the late ’70s. Essentially, they created these rehabilitative programs for prisoners through the arts, sports, yoga, and so on. Dedicated to the idea of rehabilitation, as opposed to punishment.

My mom went on to build her own business and health club for women. As a kid I spent a lot of time in the nursery there, which was for both staff and members. So my mom would always be close by, even when she was working late. Subconsciously, it probably implanted in me that there was no conflict in being a woman and pursuing your career and your goals. In hindsight, I’m really impressed by how she managed so much simultaneously. It couldn’t have been easy.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a kid, I was fairly introverted, and spent a lot of time making up stories in my head. I would imagine myself as the heroine in these adventure stories. Initially, I tried to realize this by pursuing acting — small local commercials, regional theatre. But by about 10, I better understood the concepts of writing and directing. I realized that that’s what I truly loved. Along with our friends, my sister and I put on a home production of Rapunzel. I couldn’t have cared less about being the star — I just wanted to make sure that everyone knew what they were doing. Someone needed to hold this all together!

Throughout high school, I did whatever I could locally. Writing, making documentaries with my school’s AV equipment, apprenticing from theater directors. I even helped curate a “Girls in the Director’s Chair” Film Festival, at Minneapolis’s Walker Arts Center. It was my dream to attend NYU for film, and I did so as soon as I graduated.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Upon graduating from film school, I was really struggling with writing a feature script. My writing tends to come from a personal place. And, truth be told, just not all that much had happened to me yet. I wanted to make movies about journeys and adventures, but I hadn’t been on many myself.

I went to Uganda for a summer, and I met these guys who were taking an incredible motorcycle road trip from Scotland to Capetown. Eventually, this inspired my feature Expatriates, which is about a woman of color taking a similar trip solo. The character is much more badass than me; I don’t ride a motorcycle, and I’ve never been on a trip of that magnitude alone.

However, in making a proof-of-concept for the film, I found myself in some very similar situations to the character. I went to South Africa to film sizzle reel shots of motorcycles in various landscapes. Due to budget constraints, I located scouted solo, via a road trip around the Western Cape. I ended up on this incredibly twisty, steep, gravel mountain pass. It was near sunset, and it was so cinematic. I knew I needed to get to the other side of the mountain before dark, but I couldn’t stop myself from pulling over to take more location photos. My car’s tires got shredded from the gravel. I had to drive down the other side in the dark, at about five miles per hour. As a result, I translated aspects of that experience back into the script. And when I came back with my crew, I was extremely prepared. Not just in terms of angles and lighting, but in terms of safety needs and constraints.

So, my life has become a strange cycle of art imitating life imitating art.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I had heard that as a PA [Production Assistant], you were never supposed to sit down on set. You were always supposed to be on alert, ready to work and assist. I really took that to heart.

When I was 20, I was interning on a doc shoot with a pretty famous director. He was conducting a very serious sit down interview. As we start to roll, he starts waving at me vehemently. I had no idea what he wanted me to do, or what I was doing wrong. I realized that everyone was motioning for me to sit down. I was so mortified. I learned that I was right in the subject’s eyeline, which is a huge mistake on a film set. It’s incredibly distracting for whoever’s on camera.

The larger lesson I learned was about setting the environment for your talent and subjects, and putting them at ease. As the director, you need to create a space where they can feel comfortable, where they can thrive.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Director Kasi Lemmons (Harriett, Eve’s Bayou) has lifted me up, and recommended my work to a variety of programs. In particular, I learned that her recommendation was a strong factor in my becoming a finalist for the Tribeca and AT&T competition. She also provided me with key feedback on my script, and is always generous with her time. She’s an amazing mentor to a number of rising female POC filmmakers. She knows the importance of clearing a path.

Another woman who helped me very directly was named Shani Landell. She gave me my first paid work as a director, which opened so many other doors. I had just started freelancing, and I was really struggling financially. I had done plenty of short films, but I couldn’t get hired to do branded work, because I had never worked for a client. It was the Catch 22 of “how do I get experience, if every job requires experience?”

Shani worked in Delta Air Lines’ video department, which handled their corporate and social media videos. I met her at a film festival, and she told me to email my reel to her boss — and to not be afraid to follow up. Specifically, that I follow up once a month, until he gave me a chance. Once he did give me a chance, she privately gave me advice on how to figure out my rate. I would have been lost without her.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

My advice is actually passed on from Kasi Lemmons, who told me “Be excellent, in whatever you do.” No matter how small the job is, or if you consider it a day job — do it to the very best of your ability. Don’t just phone it in. You never know who’s watching, or what opportunities will grow from that.

For instance — my early work for Delta was primarily intended for an internal, corporate audience. But stylistically, I alway approached it from a more artistic, high production value point of view. Even if it was just me and a camera, I would use prime lenses, and shoot it as beautifully as possible. As a result, a lot of my work was used in their wider advertising campaigns. And, it was the pathway to a huge amount of work for me, commercial and otherwise.

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

I’m most excited about my feature, Expatriates. Essentially, it’s about an adventurous biracial American woman on a travel photography project in East Africa, who falls for a British-Pakistani volunteer doctor on assignment in Ethiopia. The film is a feminist love story that explores the West’s relationship with contemporary East Africa, and Neocolonialism in the Millennial age.

Obviously, financing a film has become much more complicated at the moment, with much longer timelines. But I have faith that it will happen once it’s safe to film again, and I’m patient.

I’m also in post on a documentary for The Nation magazine. The film explores two groups that visit historical Civil Rights sites without the South, and how they grapple with our country’s legacy of systemic racism. We shot it back in February, but it’s unexpectedly become very timely. We just released a short excerpt, and I think that it’s resonated. Hopefully, it will be another educational tool in learning how to discuss and confront our nation’s problems.

What drives you to get up everyday and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward? (See below for second question)

Ultimately, I want to make stories that I want to see. I want to see honest, character driven stories, in a societal context that I recognize. I also love visual spectacle, with grandiose imagery and music. I don’t think that those things need to be mutually exclusive. We can be both challenged and entertained.

We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture and our youth growing up today?

Pop culture has such an incredible influence over what we perceive and accept as normal. It has the power to shape people’s biases, and to either validate or invalidate their self-worth.

I want to normalize the complexities of people of color. I want to normalize young brown girls going on solo adventures, and being confident in their independence and self-worth. When little girls see themselves on TV, I want them to see all the possibilities available to them, and how wonderful they are.

When I was little, I would picture myself in those fantasy stories with long flowy hair like Ariel or Belle, who were my heroes. When I got older, my curls grew tighter — and I looked less and less like what society told me was ideal. I hated my hair. It took me a long time to accept myself as I was. This is coming from a place of light-skinned privilege; it’s a thousand times worse for dark-skinned women. When I was recently interviewing young black girls for that doc for The Nation, they told me that they still feel the same way. That broke my heart. How they couldn’t see how beautiful, incredible and vibrant they are. They deserve better.

On the flip side — for young white kids, pop culture may be their only prolonged exposure to marginalized communities. As a result, it has immense influence over shaping their attitudes and perceptions. So we need to be telling honest stories by creators from those communities. And we can’t ask that every BIPOC or LGBTQ creator represent their entire community, in one story or one movie. It’s impossible; we are complex, and our experiences are varied and many. The solution is to continually champion and uplift diverse creators from diverse lives. Not once or twice, to fill a quota — but as a default practice, and way forward.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • This is a very literal industry. It’s very difficult to convince investors and gatekeepers that you can direct something, unless you directed something just like it before. As artists, we naturally want to explore, and not be boxed in. I had made several shorts that were well received — but they were all very different in tone and scope than my feature. So after writing my script, I needed to raise money once more, in order to make a proof-of-concept. If your funding opportunities are limited, be strategic and invest in a short that will help you reach your goals.
  • You learn by doing. The most important parts of my film school experience happened on student film sets, not in the classroom. You experiment and you learn through mistakes and trouble-shooting. Film school provides a safe environment to fail, and mentorship, which is great. But if you can’t afford it, there are still plenty of legitimate ways to learn. Make your own low-budget shorts, and crew on as many films as possible. Build a community of filmmakers and peers, and learn from each other.
  • This might seem obvious — but if you want to direct, learn as much as you can about the camera. In film school, I took a couple camera classes. However, it didn’t come naturally to me, and I decided “I’m not a technical person. I’m more of an actor’s director.” Per my advice above — I didn’t learn much about camera until a client asked if I could shoot a small piece I was directing, and I simply learned by doing. Over, and over and over again. Since I was doing a lot of one-woman band style doc shoots, I learned to quickly assess what a composition would look like from a certain lens and angle. This helped me immensely in my larger narrative shoots. Now I can much more easily articulate and communicate my vision with the DP. I can quickly understand all of the possibilities available to us, as well as the constraints. In addition, a large part of my work has become shooting behind the scenes on major features; including last year’s Just Mercy, and the upcoming In the Heights. After telling myself, “I’m not a technical person” — I’m happy to say that I joined the camera union as an operator in 2019.
  • It’s a cliché to say it’s about “who you know;” more accurately, it’s about relationships. Rather than seeking out advantageous “connections” with powerful people, pursue genuine friendships with colleagues you like and respect. In an industry with 12–14 hour days, people want to work with people they like. And people want to help people that they care about and admire. The most serious financing conversations for my feature have been the result of peer recommendations. They came from real, multi-year friendships, with mutual respect. Colleagues that I came up with, who wanted to help me as soon as they were in a position to do so. Learn to think of “networking” as seeking out genuine connections, and your life will be much better for it. In all ways!

Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

I do my best to meditate and exercise on a regular basis. My schedule can be pretty inconsistent, so it can be tough. When I have those 14–16 work days, I do what’s called the “backdoor approach.” For exercise, that means a 5 minute vinyasa or stretching sequence at the beginning of the day, to get my blood moving. For meditation, that means fitting 5 minutes of mindfulness wherever and however I can.

On days that I do have more time, I do guided meditations, and more extensive workouts. I alternate between cardio days of running and hiking, and days of body-weight and strength building exercises. Having a strong core is particularly helpful for my camera work, and for long shoot days.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The only way out is through.” In creative terms, this has gotten me through many difficult writing and post-production moments. You look at a rough draft or cut, and you can be overwhelmed by what doesn’t work. The only way out is to do the work. Piece by piece, to take the time, to follow the process.

In a larger sense, this can be applied to so much in life. To this current political movement. We can only move forward as a nation and tackle systemic racism if we do the work. If we have uncomfortable conversations and reckonings. If we dissect, address and dismantle what led us here, piece by piece. There are no short-cuts.

You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would bring mental health resources and therapy to those who need it most. Because of how our nation’s healthcare system is set up — comprehensive psychiatric help is often financially out of reach for the marginalized, disproportionately black and brown folks that could benefit most. As a result, mental illness is criminalized. We deal with the problem by arresting people for homelessness and disorderly conduct. We need to place more of our resources into a greater social service safety net. And to better pay those providing those services, to give them livable wages themselves.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I would love to have lunch with AOC. She’s the superhero of our generation. Incredibly intelligent and brave, she inspires each of us to do better. There are so many policy issues I’d like to pick her brain about. But also, she seems like a fascinating person to discuss life in general with.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

Yes! The best way to follow my work is through instagram: @kaliyawarren.

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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