Indie Filmmaker Khylen Steward Talks Dreams, Confidence, And Women Of Color In Film: BUST Interview

by Cameron Airen

I spoke with the wonderful Khylen Steward, an independent filmmaker who recently created Creative Protest Films. Khylen shares about her big dreams in film, her recent experience at Sundance, women of color in film, and how she’s gained confidence as a woman filmmaker. I know she will achieve her big dreams and continue to be a powerful force in the entertainment world.

You are the creator of Creative Protest Films. I love what it’s about. Tell me more about Creative Protest Films and what inspired you to create it?

Thank you! Creative Protest is the production company and collective I run. We are in principal photography for our first feature documentary, but also work together on freelance video + audio projects around town. Our projects so far have been centered on capturing concerts/performances and interview-based events.

A big inspiration for starting Creative Protest was my coming to the realization that I was at a point where I wanted more out of my career. I think a big impetus for that was watching Ava DuVernay do her thing with Selma and meeting [directors] Amma Asante and Gina Prince-Bythewood at different times at work in 2014. I don’t think I had ever seen a simultaneous spotlight on so many women doing what I had only dreamed about doing. They were all such strong forces in their respective rights and meeting two of them really did something for me. So from then on, I think I just started to figure out that while my dreams of making films were going to be hard to reach, they were definitely within reach.

Around that time, I started wanting and reaching for a lot more. I needed work that really fed me creatively and I had, artistically and emotionally speaking, just gone as far as I could go at my previous job. I grew a lot at that job, but it was just time to move on. To start achieving what I felt like I needed to achieve as an artist and filmmaker, I decided I couldn’t wait on another company to hire me. I started pre-production on the feature I’m directing, left my position at my job, and took up freelancing full time. In pre-production, I met my awesome attorney who connected me to the man who is now my amazing business partner. Through him, I really learned that there is strength and value in numbers — if you have the right people — so we’ve been rockin’ ever since. He’s brought on several people who are now the core group of artists we use during production and for freelance projects.

As anticipated, things haven’t been easy, but good or bad, everything’s definitely been a lesson and/or a blessing.

How long have you been an independent filmmaker and what led you to be one?

This is my first film and I began pre-production in Fall 2015, so I’m pretty new to the game. I graduated from film school and have been working as a videographer and designer for a few years, so a desire to work on bigger and more challenging projects led me to independent filmmaking.

What films are you currently working on and what are they about?

I’m directing, editing and co-producing a feature documentary called Started From Scratch: The History Of Atlanta’s Pioneer DJs. In a nutshell, it’s a DJ-focused origin story of hip-hop in Atlanta. It’s a lot and I’m terrified nearly all the time, but the experience definitely has been and will continue to be an invaluable one. So far in life, the things that I was scared to do but did anyway have always turned out to be the greatest moves for me.

Started From Scratch: The History of Atlanta’s Pioneer DJ’s (Teaser) from French Spencer on Vimeo.

You went to Sundance this year (2016). What were your impressions of the films you saw there? Which films are you excited about and why?

Overall, I think there were some real gems at Sundance! I’m excited for people to see the heartwarming, beautiful direction of The Fits, the excellent comedic performances and hard work that writer/director/actress Clea DuVall put into The Intervention, some of the absolutely stunning visuals in The Birth Of A Nation, the game-changing, brilliant writing in WGN’s Underground, the incredible sweetness of Southside With You, the quirky and relatable situations in How To Tell You’re A Douchebag and the ambition and fantastic editing in Miles Ahead.

What were the highlights and best parts of Sundance for you?

Meeting Ava DuVernay and Maxwell were, for sure, two highlights of my trip. What made those encounters so special were that they were both so nice. Like many people, especially Black women in film and entertainment, I really look up to Ava DuVernay for many reasons. She is one of my (s)heroes, so in a way, she and her work are very close to my heart. The fact that she was so sweet and present when I was talking to her meant the world to me.

I’ve been listening to Maxwell since I was a kid, so I literally grew up on his music. I’m a big music fan, so that’s another thing that’s close to my heart. His being so welcoming and generous with his time made my year.

Besides those two encounters, it was a constant high to meet new people in the industry who genuinely love film. Queuing up for a film 1-2 hours early and having deep, intellectually stimulating film-related discussions with the people around you is an incomparable experience. Making new friends, catching them on the street in between screenings and having 45-minute discussions on the film you just saw is a special experience. Maybe 10 years from now, I doubt that I’ll be able to list most of the films that I saw at this year’s Sundance, but I will always remember the experience of getting to go to Sundance.

You also work as a freelance videographer and editor. Tell me more about what you’ve done, are currently doing, and hope to do in the future as a freelancer?

Individually and with Creative Protest, I shoot events and edit recaps for Sales and Promotions teams for individuals, small companies and big companies. I still have a great relationship with my last job, so a lot of our freelance work comes from them. I have also done behind-the-scenes video and photo for a show on Bounce TV called Saints And Sinners. That was a completely new experience. I learned a ton and I’m better for it. As a freelancer and as a filmmaker, I really just hope to work on projects where I can do some or many things that I’ve never done before.

I’d love to hear you share about the importance of women of color behind the scenes and onscreen. And what has your experience, as a woman of color, been in the film world?

Sure. First, I think that major movies and television can have a big impact on the way that society functions and how people relate to one another. Film is a form of mass communication. Simply put, the purpose of a movie is to convey a complete and convincing story and message about a world that I, the viewer, don’t have first- hand access to. Even if the story is about something completely fictional, like the Harry Potter world, it is the job of the filmmaker to convince me that the things he/she is showing me are truth and could very well happen in that world. In non- fiction or non-fantasy/sci-fi films that are set in our real world, I think that a big part of making movies convincing is reflecting an accurate representation of who and what is really in the world. The world has so many different types of people. To mostly have only one or two types of people in every major movie, thus only having one or two types of perspectives and messages, is a misrepresentation of our world. It is not convincing. To me, that hurts the medium.

So my short answer to your question is: in order to make things more convincing and more representative of the world we’re living in, there has to be a variety of talent on screen and behind the scenes. That includes stepping aside to let women of color step up to the plate to tell our stories and knock shit out of the park. It will make the art better.

My network and the bulk of my experience is in the radio and music industry, but the time I have spent there and in the film world has been pretty positive. I know that may very well change in the future when I get into bigger things.

You’ve been talking on Twitter about feeling more confident in your work and owning the title of filmmaker. Tell me more about the importance of women owning titles like director, writer, producer, etc. What has helped you gain more confidence and how can women, in general, feel more confident in their work as filmmakers?

I’m a big believer in the “if you can see it, you can be it” mindset. I think that you have to be able to see yourself in these roles before you can effectively carry them out. Building that type of confidence is a hard process and it often doesn’t take place overnight, but I think owning those titles, especially for women, helps to make the journey a little easier and survivable. Knowing that you can and you will do what you want to do — be it directing, producing, etc. — is half the battle and really gets and keeps the ball rolling. If you know in your heart that you’re a filmmaker/writer/producer, I think you’re a lot more equipped to bounce back when,inevitably, someone says something sideways to you about your ability to do your art.

For me, gaining more confidence came from making mistakes. I know that sounds backwards, but I think it’s important to realize that making mistakes is inevitable and that every one should be a lesson. These lessons don’t shield me from making mistakes again, but it’s satisfying to know that my next mistake will be a different and better mistake. It’s satisfying to know that because I did this one thing incorrectly, I am more informed and am now one step closer to achieving my goal.

How can women, especially women of color, be given more opportunities that are fruitful and fulfilling in the film industry? What needs to change?

I don’t really have a definitive solution for this, but the overwhelming, racist patriarchy has to go, first and foremost. It’s old and it’s tired and I think most of us are over it. That’s not going to change overnight, so while I don’t think women of color should stop trying to work in the mainstream film industry, I do think that we should also give a serious look at creating our own lanes. Additionally, I think that women in more visible positions using their influence to reach out and help uplift and propel other women, á la Oprah or Ava DuVernay, are a good look for a couple of reasons. One, they are actually giving other talented and deserving women opportunities and two, they are leading by example. So if we use those two as examples, they not only respectively created their own lanes, but they also used their position and stature to help other women.

What are some of your favorite films/television shows that include diversity and how do they do it “right” and how can they improve?

I watch a lot more TV, so off the bat, I’d say Master Of None, The Walking Dead and Orange Is The New Black. In addition to just having casts that are racially and culturally diverse, I think these shows celebrate their characters’ differences in really unique, smart, lovely ways. Characters are allowed to just be people instead of having an ***ALERT, THIS CHARACTER IS NOT WHITE*** arc, which is nice. I would like to see more insight on Michonne’s character on The Walking Dead, but overall, I think these three are good examples of TV shows that pretty much get it right.

Who are your favorite artists/filmmakers? Who have been your mentors?

I have a lot of favorites for different reasons. I’ve always loved the vivid characters and super stylistic, hip, classic films that Spike Lee has given us. From shorts to features, Ava DuVernay just has a special touch that I love. F. Gary Gray doesn’t get enough shine, but I love his versatility. Steven Spielberg, Spike Jonze, John Cassavetes, Darren Aronofsky, and David Fincher are all immediate cinema heroes of mine as well. To me, they’re legends and masters of cinema. While their résumés are a bit shorter, I already consider Dee Rees and Ryan Coogler to be masters of cinema, too. Their work is so intricate and smart and I’m a superfan. I’m very excited to see what they do next.

I don’t have an official mentor, but I learned a lot about different aspects in entertainment from my colleagues at CBS Radio. Even though I wasn’t really a “radio person”, working there was really an invaluable experience.

Image via Creative Protest Films’ Facebook page  

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