Q&A With Nzingha Stewart: Changing the Face of Filmmaking

nzinghastewartphotoNAACP award-winning director Nzingha Stewart recently debuted her second made-for-television movie, Love By the Tenth Date, on the Lifetime Network featuring Kelly Rowland, Meagan Goode, Kellee Stewart and Keri Hilson.

Her repertoire of works speaks for itself, as she keeps a busy schedule directing new episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and The Catch.

How long did it take to develop the concept of “Love By the Tenth Date” to the production of the film?

Like everything in Hollywood, it goes in spurts. It sounds like I’ve been working on it forever, but I would start to write it as a half-hour pilot. It took me maybe a month and half to write it as a half-hour. Since nothing happened for a little while, I did some other projects.

What was your experience with Lifetime directing the new movie?

With Lifetime, we did With This Ring with Jill Scott and Regina Hall. It went well for them, so they asked if we had anything else, and I said I have this ‘half-hour thing.’ They said the best format for them right now is a two-hour movie. It took another three months to come up with how do I make this a movie from a half-hour comedy — creating characters and storylines to keep it going for that long and to make it better than it was.

Throughout the process, it was probably a year of prep, casting — not consistently because I was shooting television shows in between, but we’ll cast somebody, wait a little while awaiting Lifetime’s approval. We’ll rewrite some things and wait a little while. In Hollywood, you just learn to keep a lot of different things in the fire until everything comes to fruition. It takes patience.

Luckily I kept myself busy directing a lot of television shows.

What was your inspiration for these characters in the film? Was it intended for them to find love by the tenth date?

It was an arbitrary number that I just made up. If you spend 10 dates with somebody, you’re in a relationship. I think it probably subconsciously came from me and a couple of girlfriends who felt at times when you go on three dates with a guy and they’re great, then it’s ‘iffy.’ It kind of falls apart or you go on five dates with a guy and they’re great but the phone calls start to slow down. What’s that magic formula to stop when everything’s great, then it fizzles and disappears and you don’t know why?

Love By the Tenth Date Cast
Love By the Tenth Date Cast

We’ve seen Lifetime cover various faucets of programming — is this show and others centered around characters of color, a way of going beyond the general market of viewers?

I don’t think it takes a genius to see when these Black shows are made, they do well. There is an audience and there’s a hunger and our stories are represented. Whether it’s a souvenir series like Luke Cage or a drama such as How to Get Away With Murder, we want to see ourselves on TV, we want to see ourselves represented. They just let a filmmaker write a movie that’s an original and take a risk, whereas big Hollywood is more reluctant to do.

Your background has been connected to directing some of our more favorite music videos. We see the same trail that young filmmakers take to transition into films. What has been your way to accomplishing this goal?

Directing music videos is probably the very best way that I personally feel I could’ve gotten into. Everybody has the thing that they’re good at — some people start as extras. Some people start out as writers and the words are important. For me, coming from music videos, it’s so important to master certain things visually so that the audience stays interested — understanding the value of wardrobe, lighting and interesting camera angles.

The role of women of color is growing in Hollywood. We see Shonda Rhimes and OWN giving Ava DuVernay power to bring in more women behind the scenes. What has been your experience as a Black female filmmaker?

What’s sometimes asked of us as African-American women to support films, they also should support us. It is extremely important. I have firsthand experience in knowing that all I need is a chance. Just get me into the room, I know how to do the work. So often, access is a problem.

How do you create balance for yourself to make sure your sanity isn’t compromised?

Sometimes I can’t. I just did a long vacation in Morocco, but that was the one vacation out of the year. I’m starting to rely on help more — hiring assistants, getting people to help me with the day-to-day things — to have time to get dry cleaning or grocery shopping because I’m on deadline. I’ll be up writing for 19 hours.

The people who are my true heroes, they don’t have a lot of balanced lives. They like what they do so it’s OK to do it often. You look at certain filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, who is 80-something. He’s always working on his next film — always taking meetings, reading and prepping, but he loves what he does so the balance comes from that.

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