A teen comedy might not seem like the most obvious vehicle of social justice. But we all live our lives according to stories that we first learn elsewhere. It is, therefore, a serious disadvantage to grow up without any protagonists you can imagine wanting to become. In 2015, there is still a dearth of complex characters of color in Hollywood films, particularly women. Lauren Domino and Angela Tucker are making their teen comedy Paper Chase because they want to change that.
For a long time before they met, mutual friends had been telling Domino and Tucker that they would like each other. “People kept saying we had to meet,” Tucker laughs, “and I was like, ‘She’s just the one other black girl with glasses.’”
She meant at work. Tucker had just left Arts Engine, a New York nonprofit that created social issues documentaries; she had been there for eight years, since graduating with an MFA in directing from Columbia Film School. “But then,” Tucker says, “we hit it off. Everyone was totally right.”
Domino, who is a decade younger, was just starting at Arts Engine. She grew up in a family of jazz musicians in New Orleans. “Art was all around me,” she recalls. “But for some reason I had a block on thinking that I could create art myself.” She worked as an administrator at the New Orleans book festival, and at several large scale events in San Francisco and New York before getting her job at Arts Engine. When she met Tucker, she remembers feeling electrified. “She was the first person in my life to say. ‘I think that you’re a natural producer.’ I thought, ‘Here is this dynamic black woman who is going to take me under her wing.’”
Cut to a few years later, and their friendship has become a focal point of their lives. Shortly after meeting, they began collaborating. Domino field produced the second season of a web series that Tucker created, called Black Folk Don’t. Each episode explores something that African Americans purportedly “don’t” do. Tucker stitches together talking head sequences from a diverse cast of characters, with comic, and sometimes startlingly poignant effects. The take-home is that stereotypes about racial abilities, or inabilities, have less to do with anything innate than with long and complicated histories where the personal and the social intersect. Also, Black Folk can do anything. (In one episode on yoga, we hear a yogi who practices at a studio in Harlem joke: “It’s a centering, it’s a calming, it’s a stress reliever. And who needs more stress relief in America than black folk? We’ve been through a lot.”)
Domino helped Tucker with several documentaries, and took a position at Columbia, as the director of their annual film festival. But after a time she had to leave New York. She moved back to New Orleans. “It was wild,” she says. “I had been in New York, working at an Ivy League School. I came back to New Orleans and couldn’t get a job to save my life. I was living at home, and getting rejected for jobs at Whole Foods.”
Meanwhile, Tucker was thriving professionally but starting to feel restless. A native New Yorker, she had lived in the city all her life. “It was time for me to experience living somewhere else. I knew I also wanted to have an experience directing a fiction feature film and this was the only way I could imagine doing it.”
She moved to New Orleans, took a job teaching screenwriting as an adjunct at Tulane University, and convinced Domino that they should make a feature film together. After several months of writing they came up with the script for Paper Chase, about an African American girl from New Orleans, named Alicia. A STEM nerd, who builds robots in her free time, Alicia has just graduated from high school with a scholarship to the fictional Kensington University in Atlanta. She panics when she learns that her full ride does not cover her dorm and dining hall fees. The movie tracks her and her mother in their desperate attempts to raise the cash they need. (After many twists and turns they eventually scrap it together by throwing a huge party.)
Domino and Tucker had both worked on documentaries. (One that Tucker made in 2011, Asexual, about people who profess not to experience sexual desire, is now streaming on Netflix.) But they both felt a strong pull toward the teen comedy genre. “For the both of us, teen comedies played a large role in our love of film,” Domino tells me. “It was part of how we bonded. We watched these films and wanted to be able to relate, but there were no characters of color. It would be awesome if there was a teen comedy with girls who looked like us and who were three-dimensional characters, who weren’t just trying to get a boyfriend and a makeover.”
Tucker notes that there is a robust tradition of romantic comedies starring African Americans and aimed at African American audiences. The Best Man or the Think Like a Man franchise, for instance. But those movies are for adults. “When you think of teenagers, there are hardly any. And when you see films about African American kids it is usually just…” She stops short of using an adjective like “objectifying,” “patronizing,” “exploitative.”
In our entire interview she does not say anything directly negative about anything. But she identifies the problem clearly. “It’s just ‘Poor them and their sad sad lives.’ It is really important for us for our movie not to be like that.”
Lauren agrees: “We want to make the movie we would have wanted to see.’”
The problem was: Where would they find support for it? Even well-known black writers and directors often struggle to get studio financing. The makers of Twelve Years a Slave, The Butler, Selma, and Top Five all turned to independent producers, black investors, and crowdfunding. So Domino and Tucker started a Paper Chase of their own. It lead them to Kickstarter. Over the past year and a half, as they developed this project, Kickstarter has been growing their film division. The company has 115 employees currently based in New York; but has been hiring people from festival and production backgrounds, whom it uses as curators and liaisons with the independent film world. Dan Schoenbrun, a Film Outreach Leader at Kickstarter, knew Tucker from his previous job at the Independent Filmmakers Project; Domino had met him at the New Orleans Film Festival. “He comes to a lot of different things to talk to people and was really adamant that if you’re thinking about starting a campaign you should start with him,” Tucker explains.
In some respects, the services that the site provides are roughly analogous to those offered by more traditional agents. Kickstarter helps the filmmakers they choose to showcase shape their campaigns. They advise them on the language they should use to tell the story of their film, and the story of why they want to make it; they provide advice on the project video and the rewards that the filmmakers should offer to supporters. In return, if the fundraising effort meets its goal, the site gets five percent of what is raised and charges between three-to-five percent for credit card processing fees. If not, no money changes hands.
Increasingly, Kickstarter has been trying to transform the site into “a place for people to get noticed.” David Ninh, who recently arrived from the Lincoln Center Film Society, runs a press list. He and Schoenbrun “tip off” traditional agents, festivals, and producers. Many of the dynamics of what make a project work, however, ultimately remain mysterious. “It is definitely feast or famine,” Schoenbrun says. If a project reaches 20 percent of its goal, it has a 79 percent chance of reaching the full amount. But many fail. Sometimes, those that fail end up coming back. (One of the company’s highest funded campaigns ever, which was to raise money for a drink cooler, originally failed to raise $80,000; the founders came back with a redesign and request for $40,000 and ended up raising $14 million.) “It ends up helping people rethink the project,” Schoenbrun says. “They see Kickstarter as a way to market test.”
Domino and Tucker are optimistic that crowdfunding can help them get the resources they need — and that they will find an audience. They believe that the default racism and sexism of Hollywood has led studios to overlook the huge demand that in fact exists for complex stories about black women.
Domino emphasizes that the point is not just to raise the target — in their case, $50,000. To date they are a little over halfway there; they have received donations in increments ranging from $1 to $2,500. Domino says it is like a full time job. Managing social media. They have had some success by simply assembling a list of other filmmakers and creatives they admire and tweeting at them. They were thrilled to get donations (and retweets) from Tavi Gavinson and Miranda July. They both emphasize that the point is not simply to raise money. “The question is how can we build a community around this film before we even begin this journey from production to completion,” Domino says.
Tucker agrees: “The more backers we have, the more people we have who will advocate for the project once it’s out in the world, people who will be ambassadors.” They are also using their campaign as a platform to promote #createincolor. A set of interlinking social media accounts, on Instagram and Facebook, #createincolor documents the wide range of people of color working in creative industries. The goal is to make these workers visible, and easy to find, as a first step toward redressing the long term exclusion of people of color from Hollywood and other creative industries. In other words, to make it more difficult to make excuses. “So often you hear people say that there are no creatives of color, but there are.”
Domino’s voice turns urgent as she explains. “Now we can say, ‘Oh we have one, his name is this or that.’ You can’t be this lazy, those excuses don’t cut it any more.
“Of course the Kickstarter campaign is about this film, but it’s also about this issue. ”
To learn more about Lauren Domino and Angela Tucker’s vision for Paper Chase, go to their Kickstarter campaign.