We sat down with the incredibly talented writer/director/actress/producer, Sujata Day (Insecure, Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl), to discuss her journey to getting her first indie feature film, Definition Please, made as well as how she got her start in the industry. For all you indie filmmakers out there, definitely don’t miss out on Sujata’s advice. More below!
How She Got Her Start: The Acting Bug Bit Hard
My first big break was definitely The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl but let’s take it way back for a second. I grew up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania and had a very good childhood. Started doing musicals and plays in middle school/high school. I was in a musical called Show Boat.
I had a very teeny-tiny roll playing a southern lady, as you do as an Indian woman. And I was nervous and excited. You’re learning songs and you’re learning dances. And that first night when we went up, it was a full theater, I said my one line and the audience laughed.
And every night after that when I said my one line, the audience laughed. And when I heard that first laugh, I was like I’m going to chase that laugh for the rest of my life. And from that point forward, I manipulated and planned my life so it would bring me to Los Angeles.
Sujata’s Roadmap to Los Angeles
I went to Case Western University in Cleveland, got my engineering degree. The summer before my senior year, I worked at a consulting firm called Accenture.
And after that summer, they offered me a job and asked me where I want to work, and I said Los Angeles.
I left after graduation, moved to LA, and started working at Accenture full-time. The best thing about consulting is that you don’t have to work unless you are put on a project, so I just made sure that I was never put on a project.
And in the meantime, I hustled with acting: took acting classes, got headshots, took meetings with agents, went on auditions. I might have worked maybe two weeks out of that entire year I was at Accenture.
Accenture ended up going through lay-offs and I got laid-off. But I already had all my pieces in place in terms of an agent and going on auditions. And right after I left Accenture, I booked three national commercials in a row.
Twitter, The Land of Opportunity
So that was the beginning of all of it and then a couple of years later I met Issa Rae on Twitter. I had joined Twitter with the specific goal that I was going to meet creators and writers.
I started following a handle called Film TV Diversity and they would tweet out creatives to follow. And Issa was one of them. Both of us had like two or three followers at the time. We started following each other, she tweeted out that she was looking for someone to play her best friend on this web series she wrote (The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl).
I got the audition, which was at her house. Super shady. I pull up to her house and I look over and I’m like ‘oh, no I got an audition through Twitter and it’s at a house, this is how actors get killed.’
I did the audition anyways and then I left and a couple hours later she said I got the job.
Sundance to Feature Film
The end of 2016, I am participating in my first Sundance screenwriting lab three days after the election. We’re all devastated, we’re all crying. I finish the Sundance labs, I had never been to the actual Sundance film festival before and decided to go to the festival for fun.
My friend Justin Chon’s film Gook was playing. I go to the premiere, watch the film and start talking to Justin about the movie and he said, “I just did it. I got my own money together. Friends, friends of friends, family. We just piecemeal the movie. We shot it and put it out”.
And I was like that’s what I’m going to do. So I got back from Sundance and started writing Definition Please throughout 2017.
In 2018, I started soft pitching the feature to producers and production companies I already had relationships with. It was a tough road in terms of pitching a feature film with a prominent South Asian American cast, a very South Asian American family story.
And even though people said that it was such a beautiful script and such a beautiful story they would end with this isn’t for us. That was 2018. Then in 2019, I went back to Sundance just to watch the films and be inspired. Justin’s second film, Ms. Purple, was at Sundance and once again he scrapped it together and I was like wait why haven’t I done this.
The timing worked out really well, I had just gotten a TV show back from a studio and got paid a huge chunk of money for it. This all happened while I was at Sundance.
I was like ‘oh my gosh, I just got this check, I want to make my movie,’ so that was the first money into my movie.
After Sundance 2019, I decided to text my actor friends that I wanted to be in my movie and just started casting it. And I jumped right into pre-production because I wanted to start shooting June 1st.
Come hell or high water, no matter how much money I get, I wanted to start shooting then. That’s what we started prepping for and the cast and crew came together, found my Director of Photography (DP), Brooks Ludwick, who I just worked with on an independent film called Blowing Up Right Now.
Brooks and I started having DP dates where he’d come over and watch movies that I was inspired by and we’d talk about the type of shots that I like. And that was the beginning of it all.
The Road to Indie Finances
The thing that really helped was that I was the first money into my movie. Something I know that a lot of writers are discussing right now on the internets, I’ve seen, is how do you get your feature film made. You know what it is, it’s TV money. You use your TV money to put into your indie feature film money. A big studio isn’t going to finance your indie feature film.
So that’s exactly what I did. And then it was a matter of coming back from Sundance and telling everybody I knew, everybody I was having lunches with, everybody I was having coffee with and pitch meetings with: I’m shooting this movie, you or anybody you know, would they be interested in investing. Part of that was that I had everything together as well. I had my script, I had a look book, I had an investment pitch book, I had investor contracts together. I had a lawyer jump on the project right away to put the contracts together for me.
Investors want to see that everything is in place. So I had these six or seven documents that were sent to potential investors.
You have to have all of that stuff together. You need to have all these pieces together. People who invested knew where the money was going to go. A lot of them are POCs. Some are childhood friends from home that are not in entertainment that wanted to support. And that’s how we got it together.
On Why the Indie Film Route
It goes back to us having the ability to tell our own stories. I’ve thankfully been through really positive situations in terms of selling shows to studios. Luckily for me, it’s always been an amazing, awesome process.
My executives are always great. But everything takes so long. Development takes so long. Getting the deal together takes so long.
For me it was more about taking the Justin Chon route and getting the money together and doing it right now. Whereas if you take the route of setting it at a production company, casting it, having all the executives say yes to the cast, there’s just so much red tape in terms of not doing it yourself.
And I was just like I want to make this movie this year. I’m going to make it my way with our money.
Definition Please, written/directed/produced by Sujata, follows a former Scribbs Spelling Bee champion who must reconcile with her estranged brother when he returns home to help care for their sick mother.
Check out the trailer: