I want to be in a position to share film industry information as properly and honestly as possible to those who are starting out as I once did. Being able to share that understanding for me is key. I want to send the ladder back down to those who seem to need it the most… As I continue to learn, I want to be able to pass along that knowledge to the people who can draw inspiration from my experiences in the film business.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Richmond Obeng, a narrative and documentary filmmaker. His very first documentary, Some Sort of Judas, enjoyed over one hundred thousand views on the TVO network in Canada in its first week. It chronicles the life of Kevin Williams and Mark Moore who grew up in Toronto’s “Jungle”, the violent neighborhood of Lawrence Heights, sandwiched between a busy urban freeway and a high-end shopping mall. Obeng is working on his next picture, about the life of Leslie Wagner which was based on the book Slavery of Faith: The untold story of the Peoples Temple from the eyes of a thirteen year old and her escape from Jonestown at 20 and life 30 years later.
Thank you so much for joining us Richmond! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? What prompted you?
I was always a media kid growing up. I remember looking for YouTube videos and searching online for how to shoot film. It was my obsession to hone my skills and craft. In 2011, I joined York University in the Sociology Program and began researching about the plight of people and viewing society from a micro level. As exciting as these new studies were, some days I would rather spend hours in the library looking up books on the film industry rather than do the Sociology work I was assigned. In that year, I decided to give the film world a shot and was ready to pursue it. My life has been forever changed for the better since I made the choice to pick Film over Sociology.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
My first ever short film was made in 2012 and I was working part time in a low paying dead end job earning minimum wage. I had to save a couple of thousand dollars in a few months just to get the ball rolling. I booked people without having the money. I pitched the project so many times until people became invested in the project so that I didn’t have the opportunity to bail at the last moment. I would call people and tell them that I would need them for a certain period of time not even knowing how or if I could pay for it. I wanted to be able to keep my word and have that accountability to keep my integrity. What that meant to me is that I could not back out by default. I wanted to be the sort of person that people could legitimately count on. I knew if people expected me to achieve it, then it would happen. That’s eventually how I made my first film.
In the world of filmmaking, you have to keep to strive in order to prove yourself. Everything is a passion project, and it takes a lot of work and time to get where you need to go. Crew needs to be paid and money needs to come out of your own pocket and this cycle continues on and on for quite a few years. You have to be willing to invest a good chunk of money and countless hours of time to make it happen. In my case, a couple thousand is what kick started my first project. All of these risks eventually led to greater awareness about my capabilities from my film Industry colleagues. Success came from knowing that they viewed me as having become better and smarter over time. Discipline and pride is what prompted me to keep at it even when no one was watching. That sort of pressure and the opportunity to rise to the challenge is what I’ve kept in my work ethic even to this day.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
What would I do if I wasn’t doing this? Nothing comes to mind. I tried to do other things besides film but nothing fueled me, so as difficult as it was, I had to follow my passion. It is a skill that happens over time. When you actually do get big work, the majority of what you need to do is problem solve. There is so much risk management involved. We solve problems all day and grit is needed to persevere. I always honor my word, even if I have to postpone it, it will be done. Once I can see that someone is invested in my project, I know that it is up to me to uphold the agreement.
I once lost the main subject (character) in our film and I had to book a flight in order to assure they were still committed to my picture. We hardly had the money to book the flight but the individual continued to ignore the phone calls we made. I paid attention to my intuition even while concerned about our minimal budget and made some difficult last minute decisions to hop on a flight to find our guy. This ultimately saved the project. We were able to film the individual’s story and it was exactly what I needed for our important meeting because we knew if we had gone into that meeting without our main character attached, they would have pulled the plug on the financing and the green light. Knowing how high the stakes were is what prompted me to act.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
There is a saying in the industry. Whatever the excuse it, the reason is, no one cares, we just care about the results. That is just what it is. It isn’t personal. However we achieve it, we achieve it. We always have to find a way to pull the trick out of somewhere. You have to cry, breakdown, get back up, take a break, you need to come back prepared to give your A game. I don’t like to leave things unfinished, I like to get to the end. It is the ego within me that drives me and that inner competitiveness saying, I want to win.
How are things going for you today?
Today I have the good problem of having too much to do. We have been getting our next script organized over the last six months. Mentally, I am in a great place. Yes, as a filmmaker, we are always awaiting that one big break which sometimes causes a lot of stress but I am here to balance life with the implications to take things one step at a time.
My goal was to alleviate those financial stresses and find one thing to focus on and then work through it. You think to yourself, “what is the most important thing that I can do today towards my financial success while fulfilling my objective?”
For a decade now I was interested in the whole Jonestown, Jim Jones story as I had watched and heard so much on the topic of people who had joined a cult like environment . I said to myself one day I want to so something about that. I want to delve deeper into the minds of people who are coerced by false prophets. I was doing some research and started to Google Leslie Wagner who had released the manuscript Slavery of Faith, about her time at the People’s Temple as a 20 year old disciple. I looked her up and found some website that I kept returning to. I messaged her and we began communicating. When I sent Leslie Some Sort of Judas, she said that it was important that we meet in person. I was only one of a million people hitting her up to hear her story. I brought the book for her to sign and when she looked inside of it, she saw all of these markings and notes inside of it and saw that I was doing some research about it. Many people were flaky she admitted, and didn’t want to work with them because they seemed full of promises and very little action. She said so many people had approached her with all of their big Hollywood talk about what they were going to do with the project, but flaked out completely. I felt very blessed to have been given the opportunity to sit with her and build a relationship. We are figuring some things out to try and bring her story to life. My brainstorming partners Lindsey Addawoo, Jason Miller and I are tirelessly working to make this a reality.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you first started working as a film director? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I find it funny now, but at the time I had messaged a big producer that I met on Facebook and I decided to fly out to LA to see if I could meet with him. I figured it would be great to network with him and pick his brain about the film industry. This could potentially be the big break I needed. Despite several online communications, when I got into town, he never picked up the phone to answer my calls and I ended up staying at a crappy motel in downtown LA. The guy was super busy and why would he spend time talking to me when he could be working. I didn’t have much of a portfolio then, just dreams of becoming a well known director. I walked around LA waiting for him to call me back. I said to myself, “I’m waiting for this guy to pick up so that I can go into this huge fancy office building and learn the ropes…” But that never happened. It gave me humbling perspective. You have to work everyday to raise your value and your brand so that you make it worth people’s time to want to meet with you.
I came back to Toronto with a winner mindset. You have to earn things by lots of hard work! You can’t earn someone’s trust with a few good conversations. Actions, execution earns trust.
What do you think makes some directors stand out more than others? Can you share a story?
When a director is able to manipulate a story that affects your emotions that is pretty spectacular. I like to think about what I like to watch. Is it the production design, the characters, the lighting, the story, the script? Filmmaking allows you so many ways to manipulate and manage a story. I think about what makes my film stand out and what makes it amazing.
Everyone has one thing that makes them special. What is it that I want to watch? Is it the story or the characters’ lives or both? Humans are voyeurs and I am no different. Filmmaking gives you so many elements to tell a story and I look for ways in which to stand out. I want people to declare that is a Richmond Obeng film, like they might say, identify a Tarentino, Aranofsky, Scorcese or Spike Lee film.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the industry of film making to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would say that it is important to enjoy your moments while creating art. We’re not doing brain surgery or saving the world here, filmmaking is a privileged art form. Just breathe through it. A lot of times, you might feel like everything is coming down on you. Not getting something right in film is not going to end your life or career. Just have fun with your time. Also, relax. Take time to have a conversation with someone with a completely different perspective to calm your nerves, and once in a while go and do something that has nothing to do with film. You can’t make clean, honest decisions when you are stressed. Take a breather and go again after.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My message is to help people learn to stay the course and to never give up. If you keep striving for greatness things will always work out. I want to give people hope and I am privileged to do this by leaving a legacy of my work in print, which is pretty awesome.
Year after year, as my work gets better, I can prove my worth in the industry and allow people to garner inspiration from my actions and the stories that I would like to tell about the plight of people wherever they reside. If you stay the course, eventually things will materialize in your favor.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want to be in a position to share film industry information as properly and honestly as possible to those who are starting out as I once did. Being able to share that understanding for me is key. I want to send the ladder back down to those who seem to need it the most. I would love to be in a place where I am comfortable sharing my journey and my resources to help make that happen. As I continue to learn, I want to be able to pass along that knowledge to the people who can draw inspiration from my experiences in the film business.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
A massive thank you to Yitzi Weiner and to my publicist, Kojenwa Moitt at Zebra Public Relations for this amazing opportunity to share my story!