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Roger Ross Williams by Justin Bettman

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Q&A with Director, Producer, and Writer Roger Ross Williams

Posted on March 18, 2024

FotoFocus welcomes Roger Ross Williams as part of the Spring 2024 Lecture and Visiting Artist Series this Thursday, March 21 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Williams is an Oscar, Emmy, NAACP Image Awards, Webby, and Peabody award-winning director, producer, and writer. FotoFocus interviewed Williams to learn more about his recent projects.

Roger Ross Williams is an Oscar, Emmy, NAACP Image Awards, Webby, and Peabody award-winning director, producer, and writer, and was the first African American director to win an Academy Award® with his film Music By Prudence. Williams directed Life, Animated, which was nominated for an Academy Award® and won the Sundance Directing Award and three Emmys. He is the recipient of the Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association, The Woodstock Film Festival Maverick Award, The NYU Alumni Achievement Award, and an honorary doctorate from Lafayette College.

Williams’ production company, One Story Up, produced the acclaimed Netflix food series, High On The Hog, an adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me; the Ben Crump documentary Civil; and the award-winning film Master Of Light. His first scripted feature, Cassandro, from Amazon Prime Video, had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. He also recently released The Supermodels for Apple TV+, which follows the lives and careers of iconic supermodels Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista throughout the 1980s and 1990s; Stamped From The Beginning based on the book by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, for Netflix; and the second season of High On The Hog.

FotoFocus interviewed Williams to learn more about his recent projects.

FotoFocus:  How do you choose subjects for your documentaries?

Roger Ross Williams: I choose subjects based on things that speak to me personally. It’s important to me to have a deep personal and emotional connection to the material. For example, God Loves Uganda is about the religious persecution of the LGBTQ+ community and that spoke to me personally having grown up in the church with a religious father and family. Music by Prudence is about outsiders and people who felt disposed of by their communities, which is also an experience that resonated with me. Cassandro is a positive and inspiring story about a Latino figure from the LGBTQ+ community, and I was inspired and moved by it because I am someone—like Cassandro—who has also achieved and triumphed against all odds in my own career.

Stills from God Loves Uganda (2013). Courtesy of Roger Ross Williams

FF: Music seems to play a role in many of your films. Can you talk about that? How is the music selected and how do you use it in your films?

RRW: Music is extremely important to me when making a film. Whether it’s the score or needle drop music used in documentaries, I always find that music is such a vital part of the storytelling. I enjoy letting the story dictate my choices in music, and I work very closely with the film’s composer and music supervisor to create a unique listening and viewing experience for the audience. For me, the music is just as important as the visual element to a film and I don’t think people always realize [the importance music has] because it’s almost subconscious—it’s not so obvious, but it is key. How I select music is greatly influenced by the story I want to tell, and when I want to play with bringing more or less emotion into the storytelling. I’m a very emotional filmmaker—I really go with my gut when choosing music and I pay close attention to how it makes me feel, and I also consider what I want for the audience to feel and understand. I’m not a believer of forcing emotion on the audience through music; instead, I use music to enhance the emotion.

Roger Ross Williams on the set of Music by Prudence (2010). Courtesy of Roger Ross Williams

FF: High on the Hog (on Netflix) is about Black food culture. How did that come about?

RRW: High on the Hog is based on a book by Dr. Jessica B. Harris, which was optioned by Karis Jagger and Fabienne Toback. They approached me with this idea of a Black historical food series and funnily enough, I had been reading a lot about the newfound popularity of Black chefs. Black chefs were finally being acknowledged by the James Beard Foundation, they were winning awards, there was a rise in Black-owned restaurants, Black food conventions, Black food bloggers—and I thought we could use this series to talk about the history while also folding in how that history has influenced and inspired today’s chefs and Black food influencers. And with my incredible team, we were able to create the very special and unique experience that is High on the Hog.

FF: Was it a big leap making your first feature film, Cassandro (2024)? How does this differ from the documentary work you are known for?

Still from Cassandro (2023). Courtesy of Amazon

RRW: It was a massive leap to go from documentary to scripted work. I co-wrote the script with David Teague, who is an editor on many of my documentaries, but it was both of our first times writing a screenplay. It came with a huge learning curve that we had to overcome. For me, something that also presented a massive learning curve were actors—having to learn how to work with them, direct them, and how to speak to them. To help prepare for that, I was lucky enough to get accepted into the Sundance Screenwriting Lab which offers incredible mentorship by some of the greatest screenwriters on the planet, as well as the Sundance Directing Lab which provides support for first time feature filmmakers. Some of the world’s greatest directors got their start at the Sundance Directing Lab—Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Ryan Coogler, Dee Rees—and many of them came back to advise us and help us understand how to work with actors and the language of actors. I’m so thankful to Sundance for this program that really helps prepare you for being on a set, shooting and working with actors.

But even with the incredible opportunities and guidance I received through the Sundance labs, nothing prepares you for the real thing. As a director, it’s always a challenge, it’s always a learning experience, and you’re constantly exploring different techniques to navigate working with actors. In documentary, it’s normally a very small crew and an intimate environment, but with a scripted film there are hundreds of people and you are the center of it all. You have to learn to work in this collaborative way with all these people and you have to inspire them all, and get them all in line with your vision, and that takes training and experience. I’m so glad that I got that experience while making Cassandro. It was truly life-changing for me.

Roger Ross Williams will join FotoFocus this Thursday, March 21 at 6pm for a lecture at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. This event is free and open to the public with a public reception immediately following the talk.