news Why Lena Waithe Has Built a Producing Empire on First-Time Filmmakers

March is a big month for Lena Waithe and her Hillman Grad production banner. Yet, Waithe’s four films, all debuting within weeks of one another — “A Thousand and One,” “Kokomo City,” “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” and “Chang Can Dunk” — have virtually nothing in common. They range from a Sundance drama to an experimental documentary to a biographical HBO doc to a Disney+ teen movie, wavering widely in genre, tone, studio, and subject matter.

Well, almost nothing in common. All four films are the feature debuts of their directors. Incubating talent and giving them a shot has become an ethos for Waithe and Hillman Grad, something that has allowed the company and Waithe’s brand to blossom since launching in 2015.

Waithe’s producing success dates back to 2014, when her first project as a producer on 2014’s “Dear White People” also happened to be the debut film of Justin Simien and provided breakout roles for Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, and Tyler James Williams. The lessons she learned from that film have carried over as she’s now championing filmmakers like A.V. Rockwell, whose “A Thousand and One” picked up the U.S. Narrative Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance. Rockwell’s relationship with Waithe was not a happenstance of good luck, but a relationship and mentorship years in the making.

“I invested in that movie. I put my money where my mouth was in that movie, because I believed in her and I believed in her voice. Sometimes we believe in somebody that the industry doesn’t believe in just yet,” Waithe told IndieWire during a recent interview. “I’m always looking for, who’s got something interesting to say and aren’t afraid to say it, and in their own way? Even if that’s gonna piss some people off, because sometimes art does that. But we don’t have a fear of that here. It’s really more about, do you have something to say? Is it worth it? Do you need support?”

In the case of Rockwell and “Chang Can Dunk” director Jingyi Shao, each directed an episode of Waithe’s “Boomerang,” while others that have come up through the ranks at Hillman Grad, including Radha Blank or Melina Matsoukas, have followed similar trajectories, having each made their debut feature under Hillman Grad.

It’s only a matter of time before some of the people Waithe is working with now become household names. Hillman Grad is adapting a book by author Jacqueline Woodson, Waithe is hopeful that the company’s recent investment into theater with Jordan Cooper’s Broadway production “Ain’t No Mo'” can soon inspire a filmed version of the play, and Waithe is also getting financing together for a biopic on Sammy Davis Jr.

In the meantime, Waithe is hard at work on the sixth season of “The Chi” on Showtime and tells IndieWire she’s got some other writing projects in the works. In speaking with IndieWire ahead of SXSW, where “Being Mary Tyler Moore” is premiering and “Kokomo City” is also screening following its Sundance premiere, Waithe discussed what draws her to talent, how she feels about a looming writer’s strike, and what the future has in store for fans of “The Chi.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: These four films on your slate are all incredibly different projects. How do you go about crafting a slate like this, and what do you want that to say about the Hillman Grad brand?

Lena Waithe:
I was recently catching up with my former boss/mentor/big sister, Gina Prince-Bythewood. We were chatting and she asked me, “What is your formula?” I actually hadn’t thought of it that way. Because we don’t really have a formula at Hillman Grad. It’s really about, does it grab us? Is it something that makes us jump out of bed in the morning to work on it? Is it something that we don’t mind the battle that we have to fight to get it to where it needs to get because we love it so much.

That’s how we feel about “A Thousand and One” and about A.V. Rockwell. She obviously was a fantastic filmmaker who we’ve been working with for a long time. Also, these things have been built over time. For example, A.V. Rockwell, we saw her short film “Feathers” years ago. Rishi, he was like, “I want to champion filmmakers like this.” And he showed me her short “Feathers” and I was blown away by it.

Teyana Taylor embraces Aaron Kingsley Adetola in a still from A Thousand And One

“A Thousand and One”

courtesy of Focus Features

She basically came to us and said, “This is the movie I want to make,” and sight unseen, we were like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” It’s all very much about working with people that I worked with before who get what I’m trying to do. And it just came together really beautifully.

With “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” which is a documentary and not a biopic, though I thought about doing it as a biopic. But after meeting with her widower Robert Levine and spending time with him at their estate in Connecticut, I was just like, “This is a documentary.” I wanted to get a sense of who she was. Because I read her memoir when I was in high school, and I was very fascinated by the fact that she as a person was so different from her persona, but it was so influential with the characters she played. So being a student of television since I was young, I was so fascinated by this woman who was sort of the Jackie O. of television, yet was not what people thought she was.

It’s about who we’re drawn to, who we think is interesting, and who has a unique story to tell, because we all know there’s no such thing as a new story. Everyone’s telling the same stories, just through different lenses. And what we like to see is, how is the lens we’re seeing the story through something that we feel like we need to champion. If we do have a formula, that will be it, but there’s no tea leaves. It’s just a matter of what speaks to us in the moment.

How are you identifying that talent? What is it that draws you to certain people, and how are you working to identify what the next wave of talent is?

I’m certainly not alone. I have a wonderful team. We have Rishi [Rajani], obviously, who is now CEO of Hillman Grad, and we have Naomi [Funabashi], who is the head of our film and TV department who has a great eye.

What I’m looking for are people that are looking for what I’m looking for, which is, there’s something there. There’s a visionary there. There’s somebody there that I think has something to say. That’s really Radha Blank before “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” I’ve known her for years. She and I were just friends. And I was always fascinated by just her as a person in the world. So I was like, I’m assuming you would make a great movie. She had worked on “Empire,” on “She’s Gotta Have It.” She’s worked alongside legends, but I was in my mind, “she’s a legend.” She’s someone that needs to step from behind these people and have her own moment.

I want to be inspired by somebody. I want to be like, “I like what you’re doing. I like that choice you made. That’s cool.” I really am a believer that birds of a feather flock together, so I always want to be around folks that have a similar mission. It doesn’t have to be the same. We don’t have to have the same goal or have or have a similar way of getting there. But are we interested in trying to do a similar thing? Do we want our art to really permeate, and do we really want it to to get people thinking, get people talking and to change the perspectives?

How do you split the difference between working on independent projects and on studio films while trying to maintain your independence and creative control?

I’m always going to stick up for what the filmmaker wants. I’m never going to tell them, “This is how you should do something.” Even if I look at something and say, “I would have done that differently,” it’s not mine. It doesn’t say written by Lena Waithe. It was produced by me. It’s my job to make sure that the person who was sitting in the chair, that is the visionary, that is the creator. I’ve got to always make sure that they feel good about it. Because that’s why I wanted to work with them. It’s because I believe in their vision. I don’t mind being the liaison or my amazing team to say, this is what the filmmaker needs.

Whether it’s a big studio thing or if it’s a small independent thing, whatever winds up on the screen, the big or the small screen, does the person who says it’s created by, directed by, written by, can they stand by it, or do they feel like they have to compromise in a way that the art doesn’t feel like their’s anymore?

(from left) Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) in Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas.

Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) in “Queen & Slim”

Andre D. Wagner/Universal Pictur

If it’s “The Chi,” if it’s “Twenties,” if it’s “Queen & Slim,” I have to be the last word. If it says my name on it, it’s a different kind of way. But by the way, even if I’m a producer on something that people don’t like, it’s my name on it, so I’m probably gonna get the hit, even if I don’t agree with what the filmmaker wanted. But that also comes with territory.

Do you feel you’ve evolved as a storyteller to the point that you’re gravitating more toward producing than writing or acting?

I’m definitely building this career as I live it. I never sit down and think, how can I be here and do this?

It is my job to now help people get that opportunity that I was able to have, to work alongside Aziz Ansari. That was a big opportunity for me to be able to sell my first show with “The Chi,” and now we’ll be making our sixth season premiere this summer. That’s unheard of these days.

But I’m still writing. I’ve got stuff up my sleeve. I’m definitely not putting the pen down anytime soon.

How does the slate look right now?

The slate is getting lean in a good way. Sometimes we’re not afraid to make the point, we could not get this up the mountain. We’re not getting the kind of movement on this project that we need right now. So we’re never afraid to put something down and say, “Hey, we can’t get this done. We won’t get this done at this moment. Let’s put a pin in it and circle back to it when the time is right and focus our energy on things we are able to get moving.”

I think that’s a big superpower of ours. We’re never afraid to admit a little bit of defeat. This is not going the way we want to go, it’s not the movement we want to have, so we don’t just let things sit or fester. We really are about what can we actually get done? What has movement, and who else do we have that’s helping us get the rock up a mountain, which I feel is what getting a movie made is like.

What are your thoughts on a potential writer’s strike? Do you think one is going to happen?

I don’t know. I just know it’s about standing with my guild. Whatever we decide, the majority, we got to rock with each other. The union is about unity. So we got to be together. I’m really proud to be a part of the guild, and we got to do what’s best for the guild, whatever that means. I still have to listen in, and I’ve done my reading, but we have to talk amongst ourselves and stand with each other.

I was not a part of the guild [during] the last strike. I lived through it because I was out here as an assistant, but I was not a guild member the last time the strike happened. So, you know, if one does happen, this will be my first time experiencing it as a guild member. But that can be a part of business. That’s something that just goes with the territory, and it’s something that we as an industry are very aware of. This isn’t new, it’s just like, it’s not new. It comes with it.

David Alan Anderson, Sonja Sohn, and Jason Mitchell in The Chi.

David Alan Anderson, Sonja Sohn, and Jason Mitchell in “The Chi”

Parrish Lewis/SHOWTIME

What are some of your challenges and hurdles as you see Hillman Grad evolving?

The hurdles are just about adapting, making sure we adapt to what’s going on, adapting to the audiences and their viewing habits. It’s always about being adaptable, that we can deal with whatever comes and still continue to keep our intentions the same, that we really want to support visionary creators, filmmakers, and people that ordinarily, the industry doesn’t know what to do with or wouldn’t necessarily get the chance.

How are some of the leadership changes and cutbacks at Showtime affecting the work that you’re doing on “The Chi”?

We’ve been very blessed, Chris McCarthy, everybody at Showtime and above and beyond have been really great. We’re in the middle of filming our sixth season. We’re in the middle of writing it. I just gave notes on episode 607 last night, so we have nothing but support, and we also feel very confident for reasons folks will know very soon. But we feel really good. It’s really because of our amazing, I call it “The Chi” community that really show up for the show, spread the word about the show, talk about the show. And what has happened with our show that has been unheard of is the ratings have gone up every season since Season One.

But we really give credit to our amazing audience and our community that show up for the show, and the network can feel it, they can see it. I’ve gotten those calls from them in terms of how happy they are about how we’re doing in the numbers and how the subscriptions have been doing so well. Let’s just say this: they’re gonna reward the amazing “Chi” community, the amazing “Chi” fanbase for their loyalty and for their enthusiasm. They’re gonna get a wonderful reward. And I’m grateful for it as well. That being said, we know that there are changes happening, but we feel very secure.