Paige Polk, a 23-year-old filmmaker based in New York, is starting a new project, Beautiful Things—an intergenerational queer love story about two people of color. According to the Kickstarter, "the film follows Mona and Hazel, with a romance nuanced by motherhood and self-doubt with a Brooklyn backdrop." But Beautiful Things is going to be so much more than just a film. It'll also be a platform for people to learn how they can become independent filmmakers themselves. Polk and her team will be sharing tips and advice from professionals on the film's Facebook page, and they'll be using a public Google spreadsheet to document their budget—so you can see exactly where the money goes to make a film. Her Campus sat down with Polk to discuss the creative process, the transition from college to the real world, and why shared knowledge is so important when it comes to succeeding in the arts.
Her Campus: Could you talk a little bit about Beautiful Things in your own word and what made you want to make this film?
Paige: So the film itself came first because I was writing the script last year. Basically, just ‘cause I wanted to write a love story, and that just kept coming up in my brain. And I was romantically involved with someone who was a bit older and I left the situation feeling very confused. I’d write short stories, and that was never really the right medium. And then I started writing this screenplay for it, and I was like, “this makes so much more sense.” I’ve been living in Brooklyn for the last couple of years, and it’s a very special place, and I wanted to capture the experience of being a young queer person, and a young queer person of color in the neighbourhood that’s surrounded by people of color who’ve been here for generations.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of motherhood, because I’m not a mother but I have a mother and I love my mother. And I see regularly in media that once a mother becomes a mother, they lose their personhood and they become a mother as an identity. And all those other decisions that they’re making—their influence, their impact—is by their motherhood and not by those other very human emotions and desires, like ambition and desire, confusion, self-doubt and guilt. All those things that are very human experiences are no longer are attached to that woman. So I wanted to tell a love story that was queer, of people of color, that shows a mother as a whole human being. This art was my way of figuring out my emotions for myself. So that’s how it came to be.
HC: So, you’re doing the public budget for the film and you’re planning to share tips about how to actually do filmmaking. What made you want to do those things for this particular film?
Paige: Well, I moved to New York and I knew one person living here, and I will admit it was a decision at the time that was a bit rash—and I don’t regret it. I’ve been living here a couple of years, but I’m learning more about filmmaking from the people that live in this borough, the community makers, doers and thinkers, than I ever did in university. And if you don’t have access to those spaces, they are pretty exclusive. If you don’t have access to get there you’ll never learn it, because there’s no other place to learn it than the set.
And so, what’s the way to get as many people as possible access to the resources they need to tell their own stories? I didn’t see it anywhere. It was like, well—I’m going to be doing this, I’m going to be going on this journey with my own self. So it seemed natural for me to document it and share it with other people, because I’m very excited about this film. I think it’s a beautiful story, but alongside that, equally important to me is building a community outside of the cast and crew of Beautiful Things that’s inspiring other people to pick up a camera and know exactly what they’re getting into, and exactly what they need in order to make their dreams come to life.
HC: I think a lot of people reading this article will probably wonder how you get from being a college student to a director. So since you graduated from college, how did you from there to where you are now?
Paige: I majored in Visual Anthropology, which is basically looking at the ways that communities identify themselves, identify with one another, and express their identify. It’s basically a degree in storytelling, and I was in school for about two years on campus. I went to Rice in Houston. And I knew since I got into college that I wanted to study abroad, so I studied abroad for the last two years of my college experience. I was in Peru for a year, and while I was in Peru, I was doing mostly online media and podcasting. So I documented an oral history of Afro-Peruvian elders, predominantly women, talking about their experience being Afro-Peruvian. But I would say mostly that year, I spent it learning from people and listening to people who had completely different life experiences than I was having where I grew up.
I think what I can say is, always be open to listen and listen actively, and don’t listen to have a response. Because there are so many different experiences and stories to be told, and I’ve always been fascinated with the way people live their lives and why. A lot of people just want to be heard. And so after Peru, I went back to school for a bit to finish up some degree requirements. Then I went to Spain and did some more listening. I found myself continuously being looped in with female musicians. I don’t know how that happened—I was so fortunate. They were all loving and talented and provoking women, talking about how they got involved with music and why they were in it. So I ended up making a webseries following those underground musicians that I was meeting everyday—going their shows, having interviews with them, talking about the projects they were making and the collaborations they were making, and why they’re doing what their doing. And the focus is on the work, not on their womanhood but on their personhood.
I would say in this trajectory of me as a storyteller has been focusing on people and seeing the entirety of their experience—to the extent that I have access, to the extent that they let me. And being open to listen and listen first.
HC: When did you move to New York, and what did you do once you got there to get started making films?
Paige: So, I was finishing my last bit of time in Spain and my visa was expiring. And I had no idea where I was moving back to. I grew up in Texas and it’s kinda cool—affordable housing, my family’s there and I love them. But I didn’t feel like it was the next logical step for me with the direction my career was going. I knew I wanted to go into media, so I flipped a coin between Los Angeles and New York City and New York City won. So I was like, okay, when the visa runs out I’m going to New York. I contacted that one person I knew in New York and was like, “hey can I stay on your couch while I look for a place to live while I’m there.”
From then on, I started making friends and meeting people. You can’t really be shy in a city like this, you have to put your whole self into it. Don’t get me wrong, it comes with a challenge, but it’s been worth it 100 percent. There are so many people here that are kind-hearted. There’s this thing about New York being mean. No, people don’t like to waste time, and people keep it one hundred with you about where they’re at and what they’re thinking. But mean? No.
And there are so many creators, there are so many people who want to make stuff just to make stuff. It’s really inspiring to be surrounded by that. So I came here, and I interned for a production company called Chimpanzee Productions. They make documentary films. I learned about them first through a screening of Through a Lens Darkly, directed by Thomas Alan Harris. I fell in love with it. It was poking at the way photography shaped black culture in the 20th century. I emailed him while I was still in Spain, saying, “Hi, I don’t know if you remember me and we never met, but I emailed you after your screening in Houston and I loved your work and it’s really attuned to my thesis I would love to intern for you please, please, please.” And he emailed back, “Okay, when can you be here.” So that’s the internship that started it off. Then I kept emailing people when I saw they were doing work I was fascinated by.
My life is just a series of me finding people I’m fascinated and motivated by, and wanting to give to them in ways that I can so they can give to me in ways that they can, so we both grow together. So now I’m doing the exact same thing with Beautiful Things. This project is a journey for me of discovering all different kinds of things about being a director. I’m growing in that place, but also growing by being surrounded by all these talented creators who also believe in this vision and this mission.
You have to say what you want. If you’re going to ask someone for something, be clear, because for the most part people will say yes if you ask specifically. For example, not, “Do you need help”, but “Can I be your photo assistant? I could be here these days. I love your work.” People respond very well to very clear requests.
HC: What’s been one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in making films, and what did you do to overcome it?
Paige: The biggest challenge in making film is that no one outside of the film industry—this could just be my feelings—but some people don’t understand how much work and time and energy goes into making films. Even if it’s a five minute short, there are so many tools necessary to bring it to life.
Especially when you’re a young artist, you’re not making very much money in the beginning—that’s just the way it works. I don’t believe in being a struggling artist though, that’s just a whole other conversation. I don’t believe you have to be poor to be an artist. But you need resources, and it takes a lot of time and dedication to accumulate them. If you’re asking for money or applying for grants, you have to be on it, and you can’t make excuses for yourself.
When I first started in film in general, I had no idea how much work it would take, because you’re basically working for yourself. You’re starting your own business, especially if you’re doing freelance. I think what’s helped me overcome it is my community of other filmmakers. Even for this project, I reached out to so many people and was like, “Hi, I’m looking for a producer. This is the project, this is what we stand for, this is when we’re shooting. What can you do?” And immediately, same day, people are like, “I love the project, I’ll send this out.” And people do the same for me—like, “Hey, I’m shooting a pilot. I’m looking for a queer identified, most likely bisexual male, person of color, to play the lead for the pilot. Can you send out this cast call like I’d do for you?” Because this is such a hard industry to succeed in, when you find people who are trying to accomplish the same things as you, you try to support them. We’re all just working together, we’re all on the same team. We’re not fighting against each other and that’s why I have no qualms about sharing this information. We should be working together. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel with this stuff.
HC: Who are some of your influences, in terms of filmmaking and art in general?
Paige: So we have to start with the queen, Ava DuVernay. I have multiple quotes from her on my wall. I think she’s incredible. I’m thinking Barry Jenkins—he directed Moonlight, and wrote and directed another film, Medicine for Melancholy, which I watch regularly. It’s on Netflix, and it has some of the most interesting cinematography and very queer writing that I’ve ever seen in a film. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust is a staple of magical realist queer Black cinema. Also, closer to Brooklyn, and closer to now, I would say Terence Nance. He directed An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, which I think honestly is the reason I decided to make my own film. And I say that unapologetically, because it’s one of the most visibly beautiful shorts I’ve ever seen. I love the tone, I love all of it. I think he’s very talented. He’s also in the Brooklyn independent film scene, check him out. He’s has a great productuction company called MVMT—I promise I’m not getting paid for this promotion. But yeah, those are my favorite filmmakers.
HC: Anything else you’d like to add?
Paige: If we’re not answering the kinds of questions you want on our Facebook, because part of our campaign is knowledge sharing, you can message us your questions. We’ll check them out and see if we can answer them for you, because you’re probably not the only one asking the question.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.