AFI FEST Presented by Audi: Angel Kristi Williams on REALLY LOVE
Watch with us! The World Premiere of REALLY LOVE begins on Oct. 16 at 7:00 p.m. PDT. GET TICKET
Following the film at 8:45 p.m. PDT, Academy Award® Winner Barry Jenkins leads a conversation with filmmaker Angel Kristi Williams and actors Kofi Siriboe, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing.
Angel Kristi Williams is an award-winning director/writer from Baltimore, Maryland. With a background in visual art, photography and experimental film, her work embraces silence and the power of the image to tell a story. REALLY LOVE stars Kofi Siriboe, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, Uzo Aduba, Mack Wilds, Naturi Naughton and Suzzanne Douglas and was produced by AFI alumni Mel Jones (AFI Class of 2010) and edited by Steven Pristin (AFI Class of 2014). This well-crafted script by Felicia Pride and Williams is complemented by an impeccable soundtrack and incredible art.
AFI spoke with Williams about her feature directorial debut and the importance of representation in front of and behind the camera.
AFI: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your film REALLY LOVE. Can you tell us about what it’s like to have your world premiere at AFI FEST?
AKW: It’s a huge honor. I moved to LA eight years ago, and AFI FEST has been one of the things I look forward to every year. I have seen a lot of really beautiful films from around the world at AFI FEST, so to have my first feature premiere here is unexpected – and just a filmmaker’s dream. It’s a really special moment.
AFI: REALLY LOVE is set in gentrifying Washington, DC, and follows struggling artist Isaiah and law student Stevie as they hit crossroads in their careers and their relationship. What inspired you to tell this story?
AKW: I met my co-writer Felicia Pride through a mutual friend about five years ago. We met in a very chill setting, we’re both from Baltimore, and we just started talking. She’s also a novelist, and she told me she had just written her first screenplay, which was a love story, and she was looking for a director. She sent the script to me, and it was the first script I’d read that I wished I had written. I had read scripts written by other writers before, and when you are a writer/director, a lot of times it’s really hard to collaborate with a writer who you share a sensibility. I knew right away that it was going to a really great collaboration and that it should be my first feature.
The setting was in DC and I grew up in Baltimore, so I was really familiar with the characters and the language they used. I recognized them, and they sounded like my friends and family. I think that when you are telling a love story, it inherently becomes your story. Over the course of our collaboration, what was her story became both of our stories. I was kinda lucky – the collaboration was seamless, and people don’t always have that luck.
AFI: One of the themes in the film is this dichotomy between art and commerce. How do you feel it affects your characters or even your own real life?
AKW: As an artist, any artist, but particularly a Black artist in film, which is one of our most expensive art forms, and the fine art world, I think you’re often trying to balance your ambition and passion and the things that you want to make and how those things can sustain you. But the sustaining piece always has to be decided by someone else. There is this entity that exists that is deciding whether it is of value or not. And for Black artists and artists of color, it is often really difficult to balance having our point of view and our stories being valued.
Because I went to art school and I thought I wanted to be in that world, I really wanted to show with Isaiah’s story the difference between how his white counterpart is five steps ahead of him even though their skill level is unmatched. I really wanted to draw attention to that, as well as the role that curators and the media play in determining how successful or unsuccessful we are. I wanted to explore what you have to do internally, what that work looks like, in terms of creating what you want to create, but also creating a place for yourself in terms of having this be your profession that keeps a roof over your head.
AFI: We recently spoke with your producer, AFI alumni Mel Jones, about increasing representation in front of and behind the camera for Black women. What do you feel the industry can do better in terms of representation and expanding the scope of who gets to tell stories?
AKW: What we can do better is hire more women, hire more Black people. My entire film crew was predominantly Black or people of color or women. I was really intentional about that, and I made sure everyone knew. For me, it’s never been this thing that’s been difficult to do. I think what’s difficult to do is exclude those people. I think that it’s really about what are your intentions. I was telling a story about two Black characters in love in a Black city and I really wanted to create the environment offscreen that I was trying to capture onscreen. And it was a beautiful thing.
I went back to Baltimore/DC in the neighborhood that I grew up in. The community was a part of our process. We invited the kids in the neighborhood, and I’d let some of them sit at the monitor. Some of these kids, they had no idea what it’s like to be on a film set. Now having had that experience, they may think, “Well, I can tell my own stories someday.” That was something I didn’t have. I just somehow from a very young age wanted to tell stories. It really is about creating impact.
AFI: Being back in the environment you grew up in, can you talk a little bit about what that was like for you in terms of approaching the story and making it feel authentic?
AKW: I think when you are setting up a film there is always a conversation that has to be had about – so this is where the film is set and here are all the places where we could shoot it that are not that place. And from the beginning, the whole team was really clear that we have to go to this place to make this movie.
For me to go back home and to make this film that was very personal, it meant a lot. It added an additional layer to the story because, all of a sudden, you could bring all these collaborators, especially the actors, into this place. The city is very much a character of the story as well, and that was super vital to be there.
AFI: The film stars Kofi Siriboe, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, Uzo Aduba and other incredibly talented actors. What was the casting process like for your film?
AKW: The casting process was one of my favorite parts of the experience. I love my casting director, Kim Coleman. She worked with Spike Lee a whole lot – she’s a Black woman also from Maryland – which was intentional but also a complete coincidence. We started the process of identifying people, and I got to meet so many incredible Black actors, whose work I’ve admired since I made my first short film. Even the people that I didn’t work with on this project, we’ve continued a relationship, and I’m super excited about other things in the future.
Kofi was always someone who I had in mind, but originally our shoot dates were a conflict with his QUEEN SUGAR schedule. But then, as the production universe would have it, our schedule pushed, so he became available. Immediately, we met and right away I knew – there was something special about meeting him. We just had a really good connection and energy, and I felt like he really understood what I was trying to do with the story.
One of the most fun things was to figure out who the love interest would be. My casting director sent me a tape of Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, who I had never heard of and I hadn’t watched her show LOVE IS – which was her first role in an American production. She was completely new to me, and I saw the tape and said, “Wow I have to meet her.” I brought her into the room to read with Kofi and their chemistry was undeniable. I turned around and all the producers were mesmerized.
AFI: What were some of the influences that helped shaped the visual identity of the film?
AKW: One of my biggest references is LOVE JONES – that was the first movie that I saw that made me want to fall in love. That is one that was a huge influence, but also IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. I just love the pacing of that film and the color palette and how Wong Kar-wai uses music to tell the love story. I saw NOTHING BUT A MAN in grad school, which is an old black and white film starring a really handsome, young Ivan Dixon. What is common in all of those films is they’re all these really beautiful, really simple love stories. And for me, the thing that was so striking about LOVE JONES is it was the first time that I recognized, “Wow, we can really as Black people exist onscreen in a different way.” There doesn’t need to be trauma or any violence. We are worthy of just existing and being in love. So those are huge references.
In terms of the visual palette, my DP and I talked about using color as a metaphor for the characters’ journey. We always knew that when they meet and fall in love, we wanted the film to be very warm. They meet in the summer and we shot in the summer – and it was so humid – we wanted to capture that on the screen. We also knew that we wanted the film to start out very warm and as their relationship changes and transitions, the film starts to cool off and gets gray, and we move into the fall and the winter and that’s a parallel to what is happening emotionally in terms of their romance.
AFI: What do you hope the audience takes away from seeing REALLY LOVE?
AKW: I hope that they feel something… I hope that they recall one of their own experiences with love. I think that we all have that love that, even if we don’t end up with them, everyone has that special being that you never forget about that makes this very indelible mark on your life and helps you grow and become who you are destined to be.
Watch the World Premiere of REALLY LOVE on Oct. 16 at 7:00 p.m. PDT. GET TICKET