We sat down with Nakia Stephens, the award-winning screenwriter and producer who, through her independent screenwriting label Damn Write Originals, has partnered with aspireTV to bring a fresh slate of honest, contemporary African-American centered stories to the world. Born and raised in Atlanta, GA, the Savannah State University alumna used her HBCU education in Mass Communications to travel the world, visiting Shanghai, Beijing, Ghana, and of course Los Angeles as a student of storytelling. It was these larger than life experiences she credits with giving her the courage to take control of her own fate, establishing her Damn Write Originals label in 2014. Since launching her label, which chiefly focuses on content serving women and people of color, Nakia has had more than 20 screenplays produced to screen, including popular projects like Suga Water(2017), Cream x Coffee(2017), and Novella(2018).
A: So what makes Nakia Stephens tick?
N: I am driven by possibility. Just knowing that it is possible to be anything I want to be, whoever I want to be, and create whatever I want to create? That makes me excited!
A: Can you remember what movie first got you interested in a career in film? Did you see yourself reflected in it?
I first saw myself reflected in film when I was about 7 years old and I first saw the movieEve’s Bayou. Jurnee Smollett’s character, Eve, was a little independent black girl with so much personality and gusto and I felt so connected to her character because I saw “ME”. That film is what made me fall in love with storytelling, dialogue, and complex characters. I would watch it over and over again and it’s still my favorite movies to this day!
A: How do you feel that your projects allow black people to see themselves reflected?
With the stories I tell, I place black people at the forefront and I always aim to be authentic with dialogue and character development. I feel like my films allow black people to see themselves in the way my characters walk, talk, dress, make love, grieve, laugh, envy, etc. – I feel like black folks can connect with the stories I tell on a deeper level.
A: Tell us about Damn Write Originals. What is it exactly and what led you to form the company?
Damn Write Originals is a screenwriting label made up of a team of indie screenwriters that create space for marginalized stories to be told. I formed this company officially in 2014, out of the necessity to house my independent work in a more professional way. Since then, it has grown into a collective of writers and creatives with the common goal of making dope art without waiting for permission.
A: Define the vision of the DWO brand
The vison of the Damn Write Originalsbrand is to give voice and face to stories that go against the grain. We aim to ascend and humanize women and people of color via storytelling.
A: What sets DWO apart from other production companies and/or creative labels?
Like our name sake, Damn Write Originals, is original. We work hard and we do our very best to execute within the highest realm of excellence using whatever resources we have to tell stories and promote our brand. We keep the culture at the very core of everything that we do and we make sure to maintain integrity and authenticity while doing so.
A: How would you describe your creative process?
It depends on what I’m writing. Sometimes I start with a general concept or a scenario I’m curious about and other times I’ll start with an interesting character with a unique background. The ideation process is different for each project but overall, I do a general “Vomit Outline” where I just write note every idea I have and then a beat sheet of key story beats and from there I just flow.
A: What are some of the other projects you’re working on now?
Right now, I’m working on a really fun Digital Series called Southern Fried Riceand I am outlining a few powerful stories, gearing up to bring some dope content to aspireTV.
A: What are some of the projects that you recently launched?
In 2018, Damn Write Originalsreleased one short film every month. The stories range from Black Romance to the Zombie Apocalypse. We wanted to release a collection of short films that could showcase our ability to tell a story across many genres and sub-genres. I’m very proud of what we were able to create in such a short amount of time with very little funding. Fan favorites include: Novellaand Noise.
A: What setbacks or obstacles have you had to face as an indie filmmaker? Has being a female creator of color had an effect?
Particularly, no/low funding and ageism, but one monkey don’t stop no show! Honestly, I have been embraced as a female creator of color especially amongst my small but mighty community of filmmakers here in Atlanta (on a larger scale not so much, the marginalization is real). Ageism is still a constant issue. Many older industry people are hesitant to give young “inexperienced” creators an opportunity because they don’t believe we’re capable or think we haven’t done enough which is funny because how do we get “real experience” if you don’t provide “real opportunities” for us to do so? Also, ageism sometimes comes from young people as well who, because we are peers, assume that the relationship is not a professional one and that they don’t have to treat your project as they would a bigger budgeted project.
A: What are you most excited about regarding your partnership with aspireTV?
Mostly excited about bringing fresh, new content to the platform! I believe myself and the other writers at Damn Write Originals have unique perspectives and value the art of storytelling so much that our passion exudes through our work.
A: You’ve been commissioned to create the first short film for aspireTV’s programming. Tell us a bit about the project, how the process has been for you and what you hope type of impact are you hoping to make with Tre.
I am extremely excited to partner with aspireTV with this project! When I was brainstorming ideas, I immediately knew that I wanted Black men to be the focus of the next film I created. I wanted to tell a story that would put a spotlight on Fatherhood and the generational bond between black men and black boys. I decided to do so through the lens of a young boy on a journey to understand legacy and identity.
A: What do you see in the future for DWO?
I see multiple development deals with networks and platforms that align with our mission. I see adding more amazing writers to our labels and building a Damn Write writing complex in Los Angeles and Atlanta for writers to learn and grow, I see workshops, screenings, awards, panels. I see expansion and elevation for Damn Write Originals. I’m manifesting and claiming all of that!
A: What advice would you give indie filmmakers just starting out?
Create! Don’t wait on someone to give you permission, do what you can with the resources that you have. Don’t make excuses and for the love of God, DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH. No one is going to give you the answer, No one is going to give you a map. Create your own path, put forth the effort to figure out the information you need to excel and GET IT DONE. You are responsible for your own success.
aspireTV’s first original short film, Tre, in partnership with Damn Write Originals premieres on Father’s Day, June 16th at 8 PM ET on aspire. Click here to find aspireTV in your area.