DCFunemployment: Tell the people – Who are you?
I (Christine Swanson) had an interesting and circuitous trajectory. I had a stellar beginning, earning my MFA in Film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I was selected by NYU faculty as the Willard T.C. Johnson Fellow, the most prestigious fellowship given to the student who has achieved high standards in his or her work. CNN identified me as one of the most promising filmmakers to emerge from NYU’s graduate film program since Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee (her directing teacher) – (DCF: no pressure lol). I have developed, written and/or directed movie projects for HBO Films, Magnolia Pictures, State Street Pictures, TV One and Faith Filmworks. I am also a professor at the MFA Screenwriting Program at the University of Georgia as well as an advisor to the Film and Television program at the University of Notre Dame, my undergraduate alma mater. My upcoming feature, “Buffalo Soldier Girl,” is written by best-selling author and 2015 Texas Writer of the Year, Sarah Bird, as an original work inspired by historical facts. The screenplay is also a winner of the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab Screenwriting Competition.
Recently I co-wrote and directed, “The Miki Howard Story” which broke network ratings as the most watched original movie in the network’s history.
DCF: What does being funemployed mean to you & what was your path to funemployment?
CS: Doing what you love, being of service to your community and beyond and making contributions in life while being able to pay your bills (DCF: Short but it holds so much, love it!).
DCF: Who was your first cheerleader?
CS: Besides my maternal grandmother and my father, later in life, my 5th grade homeroom teacher, Mr. Jacobs, saw that I had a deep curiosity and that I asked a lot of questions. He took an interest in me, encouraged me, and inspired me. He even paid for part of my undergraduate college tuition. (DCF: What an incredible teacher!! We need more educators like this who encourage the children they work with!!). He made me see the specialness in myself I did not know I had. Because someone else saw it and then invested in me, I started to see that in myself. I started to believe in my own magic, so to speak. That said, my children are a constant reminder that unless that “magic” can feed them at dinner time, it’s not all that “magical.” Lol. They keep me so grounded. 🙂
DCF: What experiences in your life prepared you for where you are now?
CS: I came to the U.S from Korea when I was 6 years old not speaking any English. I spent many years just observing the world around me b/c I couldn’t speak the language. So I developed a keen sense of observation that helps me as a writer/director/storyteller. Further, being half black and half Korean, growing up in inner city Detroit was a life preparing event/time in my childhood. I always I had to carefully navigate the terrains of being different/not belonging/not fitting in/ not being welcomed a lot (DCF: Sad that this is a common minority narrative, we need to embrace each other more!). That said, what I feel most about those days is nostalgia now. Nostalgia and time have a way of amplifying the good things and diminishing the bad things and I know that part of my strength, my perspective, my perseverance comes from certain hardships in my youth.
DCF: Where do you get your inspiration and/or motivation?
CS: I get my inspiration from my faith which fuels me to be a better person and pushes me to always try to improve. I fail a lot at that. A whole lot (DCF: If we are being honest more of us do but the success is in the continued effort). But- every now and then, I get it right and I’m learning to grow from my faults and struggles. I’m learning to have compassion not only for others, but for myself. It’s a long road, self-reflection. I’m trying to be most mindful of the journey. I’m also inspired by family which includes my husband and children. They make me love, laugh and cry and are reminders of what’s most important in life. That is, the love you give is indeed the love you receive in return. That never fails. Love, that is…
DCF: What does balance mean to you and how do find balance?
CS: Balance is an elusive goal for me but for now it means, if everyone is okay in my family, I have balance. I find it by not over doing things and being in the moment when I can. It’s hard but it’s possible to find the calm in the middle of the storm and remind yourself that whatever is messed up in your life right now that, “this too shall pass.”
DCF: What sacrifices did you have to make to get here?
CS: I was somewhat successful when I first started out in the film industry. I won a lot of awards and I got a lot of money to finance my first feature film. Then it was all downhill from there when I discovered I was pregnant with my first child. One child let to 2 then 3 then 4 (DCF: whooo you are a goddess, 4 children is impressive!!). I ended up taking a 15 year hiatus from film-making. So in one sense, I sacrificed my career to have and raise my children. But as much as I missed making films, I’m so thankful for the path I was forced to take that I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. Now, I am back to film-making and I am blessed to have four amazing children and a wonderful husband to join me on this journey called life. And I’ve discovered, the work is still there except now, there’s a lot more of it so I really didn’t miss anything. Family, is a lot of work and sacrifice but it’s one I’d do all over again but this time, willingly.
DCF: What struggles have you faced as a women in your industry?
CS: Let’s just say all the typical workplace discrimination are generally at play. That said, I don’t approach my work as a woman per se. I’m a director so at the end of the day I have to make my day, my schedule and create great content/art. I’d love the work to speak on it’s own and increasingly, women are at the helm of more stories and they have been and will always be a force to reckon with. So, my goal is to make it better for not just for my daughter but also for my sons. To the extent my sons are loving and respectful to the contributions of women in the workplace and life in general, everyone benefits.
DCF: What is the early advice you didn’t listen to that you wish you had?
CS: Almost 20 years ago, I was approached to be a writer’s assistant on a hit TV show. A representative of a prestigious production company told me that I would be an asset on that show and I should come on board. Well, I didn’t because I was already directing feature films and what more could anyone want than that back then? Well, let’s just say, with the advent of another golden age of TV, I kind of missed that boat at a time that experience could have been useful TODAY.
DCF: What was your greatest failure and what did you learn from it?
CS: My greatest failure was not enjoying the first half of motherhood with zeal and appreciation. I wasn’t always mentally “present” b/c I was thinking about other things, like being on a movie set. I wish I had known that I would indeed get back on a movie set again but that time with my children to enjoy with peace of mind, I will never get back. I learned from that to enjoy every moment I can with my children and the people I love b/c time is always passing. I don’t know how many times I’ve cried watching my children grow and move on in life. They aren’t with me forever so I enjoy them more (DCF: You’ve got to get away sometimes to miss someone). I smell the roses often…
DCF: What is your proudest moment?
CS: I recently finished a movie about the R&B legend Miki Howard and I set out to make a movie that both she and I could be proud of and something the network could tout as a great movie. The movie turned out well, better than expected and everyone was happy with the success. I was too. That said, I am most proud when I see my children thrive and excel. Hard to explain but nothing equals the joy in my heart than watching my children thrive. NOTHING. I have cried watching my children play sports, perform in school plays, even cleaning up their rooms without being asked. My heart is tethered to them for life and my achievements in the workplace pale in comparison to watching their achievements and knowing I had a hand in that. That said, I’m not a crazy helicopter parent trying to live vicariously through them but any mindful parent will concur that you are only as happy as your saddest child. So there is a lot we invest in them that in turn could come out in some marvelous way that makes a parent so so proud all the time. I’m almost in tears just writing this. (DCF: This is beautiful, almost got me crying too and ready to call my mom!)
DCF: What’s next?
CS: I am excited about my next movie I am in pre-production for called “Buffalo Soldier Girl.” Inspired by the true story of Cathy Williams, who disguised as a man, rose from slavery to become the first woman to enlist in the peacetime Army and the only woman to serve out West with the legendary Buffalo Soldiers. It’s an epic western so I’m having fun exploring all the possibilities. AND I love the idea of making a girl power movie that will inspire girls and boys all over. (DCF: Sounds incredible, can’t wait to check it out!!)