Listen to Writer-Director Shaun Mathis on Episode 1 of the Forward Filmmaker Podcast
Welcome to the first episode of the Forward Filmmaker Podcast, which shares stories and advice from a new generation of filmmakers bucking “traditional” industry norms. On this episode, host Max Sanders interviews award-winning writer-director Shaun Mathis. A former novelist who went to Atlanta on a whim after watching Entourage and pivoting into film, he has directed everything from crime features to documentaries to rom-coms. He has worked on 34 film projects…just in the last year.
If you want to tune in as we release new episodes and support Shaun and the show, please subscribe, rate, and review Forward Filmmaker on Apple, Spotify, Google, Amazon, or wherever you get your podcasts. Here’s an abridged transcript of Max and Shaun’s conversation.
Max Sanders: Welcome to Forward Filmmaker, a podcast from Filmhub. I’m Max Sanders. You may know me from my podcast Buzzn’ The Tower, where I discuss my favorite 80s films. But this one is different. The film industry is changing, and filmmakers must adapt. On Forward Filmmaker, we’ll be talking with directors and producers about the pains and opportunities facing the modern filmmaker. Joining me today is writer-director Shaun Mathis. He is a YES-to-everything kind of guy. On this episode we’ll hear how he defies the laws of time and fearlessly moves across genres. Shaun, how are you today?
Shaun: Yes sir. I’m freaking awesome. How are you?
Max: Fantastic. So going through your film catalog, I just love the diversity. You have documentaries in Miles in the Life. You have office workplace in The Fired Writers of Tyler Perry Studios, you have crime drama in The Plug, rom-com with The Threesome, and music videos like Take Over Your Trap. Where does the passion for taking on such different projects come from?
Shaun: When I started out, one of the things that I said, and this is actually a mantra I had when I was writing books – I wanted people, when they saw or read a piece of my work, I wanted them to feel like they were meeting me for the first time. So every project that I do, it has to be different. I can’t stay in just one lane and just do action. You know, when you watch a Michael Bay film, you know what you’re gonna get.
Shaun: Explosions, save the world, big stuff, cheesy-ass dialogue. You watch a Scorsese and you know you’re going to get Italian mob dramas, ya know, crime stuff, and nothing’s wrong with that. I’m just not the person that stays in – I don’t eat white bread everyday. I might want brioche. Right? I want oatmeal bread. So I think the audience is like that too. Now, because there’s so many options out there, people want to watch different things. So for me starting out, I had to get everybody. So I had to do one film over here, one film over here, and one film over here. So yeah, that’s where it comes from.
Max: Do you ever get any fear from that? What’s your brain telling you?
Shaun: My brain’s telling me to man up and figure it out. It’s really my alter ego inside, he’s telling me, ‘Let’s figure this out. If you’re gonna do it, we gotta do it right. So we gotta figure out how to do it.’ Right now I’m gearing up for a coming-of-age film called “Eighteen.” And I’ve never done a coming-of-age. So I had to do a lot of film research on coming-of-age films to look at shot selections and discuss tone with my DP and my AD to figure out how is this coming-of-age going to translate to where it looks like a coming of age. So the only fear is not doing it. The only fear is not doing it because I’m scared. Nah, f••• that.
Max: Now for those who didn’t know, you started as a novelist from Connecticut, and now 11 years into being in Atlanta, you’re a foundational filmmaker in that community. Walk me through that journey and how you got here.
Shaun: Well, I was living in Philly. I was managing a sneaker store, and I always wanted to be a writer, but everyone told me that writers didn’t make any money. And when I looked around, everyone around me, you know, growing up, and even in my adult life, everyone around me were worker bees. So I was like, ‘Shit, maybe they’re right.’ So after going to school and getting a job, I’m making all this money, and I still wasn’t happy. And I was like, ‘F**, I’m writing this book.’ And my friends was like, “Man, who are you to think you can write a book?” You think you’re better than everybody else?” And I was like, “Nah, I just have the story in my head.” So I wrote the book. And I toured with it for seven months, I did every festival from like Maine to Florida, every Black book club, independent bookstores. And I sold 100,000 copies. Holy shit, right? Because I used to do music. So selling a book, or getting a book out there, is no different from selling a $10 CD. You just have to get out there and do it. So you gotta, on weekends or whatever, after I did my nine-to-five, on Saturday and Sunday, I was I was driving around, or I was taking the bus to another city, and I’m doing a festival. And when I’m done with that festival, I’m going to the independent bookstore in that city. When I’m done with that, I’ve already hooked up with the book clubs in that city. So I’m selling books all day. The hustle is no different, right? So, because of the success of that, I knew what to do for the next book. So I ended up writing two more and having the same success. For my third book, I’m on the bus, I’m going to work. It’s cold. It’s a cold Philadelphia day, and I’m listening to Drake’s “Successful.” And I was seeing the beginning of my book in my mind as movie scenes. We call it a cold open. And it had never happened with my two previous books. So I ignored it. So every time I was sitting down to write the story, I would zone out and I would come, and it was in terrible script format. And I would have to erase everything and put it in novel format and focus. And I said, ‘OK, the universe is telling me it’s time to move on – it’s time to do film.’ And I had never considered film. Ever. So I tell my best friend, Ben, he was in Atlanta, and I say, “Hey Ben, um, I’m moving to LA.” And he was like, “For what?”And I was like, “Imma do film. So Imma write movies.” And he was like, “Nah.” He was like, “You don’t go to LA. Not right now.” And I was like, “Why?” I’ll never forget this– he was like, “LA is the NBA. You have to get drafted to go there. You need to go somewhere and play college ball first. Make a name for yourself, and then get the call.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s kinda dope.” So here I am, I’m in Philly. New York’s an hour and a half away, so I figure, OK, let’s go to New York. So I spent some weekends in New York and learned that New York filmmakers, and that whole community, there are tight*. They don’t just let anyone in. You can’t just walk up and say, “Hey, I wanna do this.” It was none of that.
Shaun: So Ben said, “Come to Atlanta.” And I was like, “Atlanta? They don’t do film in Atlanta.” And he sent me this link of all these films that was being shot in Atlanta. Now mind you, this is like late 2008, or early 2009, and I was like holy smokes. So I made the plan. I put plans in motion to move to Atlanta, and I moved in 2010. And it took me three years, until 2013, until I actually got into film. At the same, I was a single dad. I was fighting for custody of my daughter, which I ultimately won. So once I had that secured, I got into film, and I met just a bunch of people that were open arms from day one. So because I was accepted off rit, I was that way with everyone else that I came into contact with. So pouring into other people, being of service to other people starting out, and also putting out great content, has allowed me to become that fixture. That’s how it happened. I never thought I’d get to this point. My only mantra was: All I want to do is make the same amount of money in film that I was making with my nine-to-five. Anything else was extra. I had no idea that I’d become that guy. You know, it’s dope, and it’s scary at the same time, but I’m here for it.
Max: So who were those guys for you when you went down to Atlanta?
Shaun: [Director] Qulanda Moore. So quick story: I come to Atlanta with all this money, right? I don’t know what to do with it. And I was like, ‘I want to get into film. What’s the best way to break into film? Oh. I know. I’m gonna own a bar. When all the celebrities come in, I’m gonna say I do film and yeah.’ So I met this guy Vince that actually had a bar. And we chopped it up over drinks, and two weeks later I’m the co-owner. I’m now managing owner of this bar. But it’s wild because two months later, I meet Qulanda. This five-foot-four little girl, just graduated from Georgia State, walks in and says, “Hey, I’m doing a movie. Can I shoot in your bar?” She had to be what, 26 at the time – maybe younger? And I was like holy. She comes in with three women with her, her producers and stuff. Everything’s so organized. So I’m watching her do this. I end up dating her roommate, who I’m still with ten years later. So I’m watching her create this film, and I’m like, man, if she can do it, I know I can. Every question I had, she answered. We actually formed a group together – me, her, and another producer formed a company together. And we actually helped fund each other’s projects. So they helped fund “Threesome.” I helped fund “The Single Life” and “The Single Life 2” and “Monarch Mentality.” So it was Qulanda. It was John. It was my business partner Justin. Allen Parks and Shyneka and 2 Chainz’s over at Street Execs. Those are the people for me that helped me out and was like, “Alright, if you’re gonna do it, let’s do it.”
Max: Do you think it’s unique to Atlanta? Because you were talking about New York’s film industry, and everyone’s like, “Gates up.” And in Atlanta everyone’s like, “Come in.”
Shaun: Yeah. It’s wild. Because when I’m on Clubhouse, I just see the Arkansas film community, or so-and-so film community, I jump in and see what’s happening. Because, you know, I shoot all around the country. So I want to be able to know people when I go to another state. And the common theme is nobody helps anybody in these other cities. Because you can come to Atlanta and it’s all love. Like all love. I have a writer’s room that I conduct every Thursday night on Zoom, and I have writers from Oklahoma, Florida, Virginia. And a lot of these guys have come and visited me. And I’ve brought them around to our film community everybody’s like, “What are you doing? What do you need? When are you coming back? We’ll come to Arkansas.” And everyone’s like, “Wait, what? You don’t even know me.” And it like, it doesn’t matter. We’re all creatives. We’re all trying to get it. So let’s get it. So I think it’s unique to Atlanta. I don’t know why it is, but it just is. And I love that it is. Because I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if it wasn’t.
Max: So do you think you’re Shaun Mathis – Atlanta staple for the rest of your career?
Shaun: Oh yeah. I ain’t going nowhere. I love it here. I love it here.
Max: How’d you learn the distribution game of filmmaking?
Shaun: Trial and error. So traditionally it’s like you make a film, you go to a festival, you meet distributors. Your stuff gets bought. And no. One percent of films get bought. One percent. That means 99 percent of films being done will never see the light of day or never be purchased or never get distribution. I didn’t know that starting out. So with “Threesome,” which is my first project, you know, we had to do probably 100 or 125 film festivals. And we won maybe 30 percent of those festivals. The ones we won, no one was like, “Hey, let’s develop this series.” Or, “Let’s bring it here.” I didn’t get that. I got a trophy and a goodbye. And I was like, “What the f•••. This is not what I was told was going to happen. I won.” So I had a friend, Aleshia Cowser, she runs Jackson Eyeam Cinema, another staple here in Atlanta – and I missed her from the beginning – she helped me out a lot as well. We still work together from time to time. She was like, “You need to go to AFM – American Film Market.” So what I learned taking The Plug to film festivals is that the street stuff doesn’t do well at festivals. I was very uneducated about how festivals work. So I was like, OK, “The Plug” isn’t festival worthy, even though it’s good. So I said, well, a documentary it is. So I finished “Miles” and we had planned to go to AFM. And me and Jabari [Hayes, the subject of “Miles”], we go to AFM and it’s meetings, meetings, meetings. And a lot of distribution was bullshit. Or a lot of distributors weren’t even distributors. They were sales agents. So I’m listening to these people, and these deals don’t sound right, or the process doesn’t sound right, and it just didn’t fit for me. And the thing that I learned about Netflix was, if you’re an independent, if you don’t have anybody major attached, those Netflix deals are like $25,000, no residuals. No backend. It’s a one-time payment for X amount of years, and that’s it. And I was like yah, nah. Nah. I’m not doing that. But now what I’m learning is, because now we’re in these content wars, so all these other smaller streaming services are popping up, and you know, we have our content with all of them. Because, who was it, I think 20th Century Fox just bought Tubi or Pluto – one of them. So my title is associated with 20th Century Fox now. I’m learning that all these smaller ones, when they pick my title up, no matter what the upfront payment is, if the backend is good I’ll sign with them in hopes that these giants will gobble those up, and my titles will be with those giants as well. So I’m planning for two, three, four, five years down the line. You know, today’s over. I’m not worried about today. I’m worried about down the line. So that’s kind of where I am.
Max: So are you going to be an independent filmmaker for life?
Shaun: I don’t know. You know, one day I’m like yah, one day I’m not. I don’t know. I like the freedom to do what I want when I want as an independent. As a major, everything I’m about to say about a major is a guess – I don’t know because I’ve never done anything major. You know, the deal would just have to be
Max: Did you ever think you’d be here at this point?
Shaun: Heck no. Nah. As confident as I am about me, because I didn’t know what this looked like. When I started out, I still had a 9-to-5. You know, I had a job, I had that security. So going out to do this full-time was a gamble. I just thought that I would put out cool stuff, and I’d make some money, and I’d be OK. But I never thought I’d be where I am now.
Max: But I’ve heard you don’t believe in luck, though.
Shaun: Yeah. Yeah. I’m fortunate. Let’s say that. Not lucky – I’m fortunate. Because I put in the work. So if you put in the work and the quality is good and you have good relationships and the content was good, then this is what’s supposed to happen. I just couldn’t see it at the time. So yeah, I’ve been fortunate. I have a great team around me that trusts my vision. If I say I want to go left, we’re gonna go left. And it has been good.
Max: When you go to your team with your next genre and it’s something you haven’t covered yet, what’s the process?
Shaun: I watch movies similar to mine. The closest film related to Eighteen, or not even related to it, but the look and the pacing that I want to go for is “Peanut Butter Falcon” with Shia Labeouf. I f•••ing love that movie. I rarely watch movies twice. I watched that movie twice. I just loved it. And I was like, “That’s what I’m doing. That’s what I want. I want that feel. I want that look.” So I look at films similar to what I want to do and then I say alright, I go to my DP, I go to my first AD, and I say, “This is what we want to do. This is the look of it. Let’s break this down with our script and figure it out.” Mostly my DP will take on the look of it. My job is to make sure that the actors perform, right? So it’s really good that I can tell my DP - I have two – I can say, “This is the look, this is what I’m going for.” They’ll do shot lists and colors and themes and all that kind of stuff like that. I focus on the talent and we come together and say, “We’re gonna go with this. OK, for this scene, this shot, this is the emotion I need from them.” We just work in tandem.
Max: So it’s safe to say you love the process?
Shaun: Yeah, I love the process. Because I learn something all the time. And that’s the coolest part about being independent, I think. I have the ability to learn. And make mistakes with my own money. And not have to worry about f•••ing up someone else’s. Right? So that’s the cool part. Yeah, I get to figure this out, and now I’m learning. Now I know how to do this. Now I can take this back to my writer’s room, or I can pour into my AD or my mentees how to do it. And they get to skip all the mistakes because they’re getting it from me. So yeah, the learning part, the development part, is just as good as watching the final edit. It’s like, remember where we were, and this is what it turned out to – so yeah, it’s dope.
Max: So what’s the most valuable mistake that you’ve made?
Shaun: The most valuable mistake that I’ve made would probably have to be, it has been minor, I had a bunch of females that were my producers – my girlfriend, Qualanda, Jennifer – they were casting the lead guy. I wanted one guy. They wanted the guy that we ultimately got. And the guy just did not perform. At all. And I was so upset. And I said, “This could have been better if we had a better actor.” So I’ve learned to listen to my team, because they’re there for a reason, right? I put these people in a place for a reason. But if I feel it in my gut I have to go with it, regardless. And I used to not do that because I didn’t want anyone to feel some type of way. But at the end of the day, this is all on me. So I’ve learned how to communicate, “Hey, I get what you’re saying but I’m going this way, and this is why I’m going this way.” So I do explain it to them. It isn’t just my way or the highway. It’s like, I explain it to them why we’re going this way, but I have to trust my gut. So now, going forward, even with the scripts that I choose, it’s a gut feeling. I have to listen to that. That has been the most valuable lesson that I’ve learned.
Max: So do you ever let the actors, if they’re like, “I want to do it one way,” would you let them try it?
Shaun: Oh yeah. Absolutely. If we have the time for it. And if they stay within the frame of the character. Right? So when we were doing The Plug, I hired two comedians that were friends of mine – Tre’ Williamson and Justin Mitchell. Trey played the security guard in “The Plug.” Justin played the Uber driver. So I trusted them as comedians. And they’re really good actors. They know their stuff. They know to stay within the parameters of their character. So yeah. There has been other stuff I directed when I’m talking to the character, talking to the actor, and they suggest something, and if it’s in the frame of who the character is, I let them do it. And a lot of times these actors come to me with an idea from a character point of view not because they want to do it personally. So when they’re talking from a character’s point of view, it’s like alright, let’s just try it. We can waste a take or two. Come on. Let’s just do it. So yeah.
Max: What would you change about the movie-making process if you had a magic wand?
Shaun: Gatekeepers. If I had a magic wand, I’d make the playing field level for POCs. Women and POCs. This industry is still dominated by White males, and I would love everybody to be on an even playing field. There’s enough space in here for everybody. And I don’t think it should be ruled by a select few and those select few trying to tell our stories. You know, I would never write a Nazi concentration camp World War II story from the lens of a little boy that was in Nazi Germany, right? That’s not my story. I’d probably direct it, but I can’t write it. I probably can’t even direct it, right? But I think when you have these big studios and these gatekeepers and they’re putting out TV shows or films that we really didn’t ask for, or that shows us as monoliths, or that shows us as one way, that irked me. Because you can change the perception of a person visually – faster than music can. Like when I watched Forks Over Knives in What The Health, the next day I was a f•••ing vegan. When we did the premiere for Miles, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. But what people took from that is that individuals that went to jail do deserve a second chance. If they had the support, they probably wouldn’t go back. I changed someone’s perception of a situation. That’s the power of film. So I don’t think that power should be held by the select few that doesn’t represent our society as a whole. Right? So yeah, magic wand, everyone’s equal. Boom. We all have the same opportunities. The same financing. The same distribution. We all are equal in getting these stories out there.
Max: Do you feel with technology and people learning quicker, it’s moving incrementally in the right direction?
Shaun: No. So the gift and the curse of technology, right, ten years ago, or 15 years ago, I couldn’t be an independent filmmaker. With cameras and everything, it just cost too much. The gift now is that it’s affordable and I can be an independent filmmaker. Anybody can be an independent filmmaker. But that’s the curse. Because you have people that decide “I want to make a movie today,” and they haven’t gone through no education, they don’t know the process, they don’t love and respect this art form. And they just put some shit out. And I’m really talking from my community. I see these terrible, terrible f•••ing films. I see more terrible films than I see good ones. And what that tells someone is, “Atlanta ain’t that good” and “the POCs in Atlanta aren’t that good.” So with technology, like I said, it’s a gift and a curse. The ones that are good, are doing it well, great. Like Bobby Huntley and Shaquayla Mims and Chase Walker are doing it well. And those guys. But for everyone one person who’s doing it well there’s 100 of them putting out trash. And this is where, I don’t like using the word “gatekeeper” in this instance, but this is where there needs to be some kind of checks and balances. You can’t just say, “I want to be a doctor today” and go start operating folks. There’s stuff that you have to go through. You have to get certified and educated and do a residency and all that stuff. I can’t just walk into a courtroom and say, “I’m a lawyer.’ But music and film is this industry where you can just wake up one day and just do this shit and not be good. But that is detrimental to everyone. You know? I had people telling me, “No, not this way. This way.” And guiding me through. And I listened. Whether I was using my own money or not. I listened. I took those steps. I’m still constantly educating myself. I still take classes. I still work under other directors. I’ll jump on as a first AD or a PA any day. Because I’m watching these other directors. When I was in Albany, I got hired as a sound guy. I got promoted to first AD. So tomorrow I’m doing sound for a friend of mine who did a project that I directed last year. Like yeah, let’s do it. So it’s those things that a lot of folks don’t do. They want the glory. And if you’re doing it for the glory, it’s never really going to be right. You have to do it because you love to do it.
Max: Is that the central piece of advice you’d give to filmmakers starting out?
Shaun: Absolutely. Hell yeah. When people are like, “How do I get like you, Shaun?” Learn. Don’t stop learning. And ask questions. A lot of people are afraid to ask questions. No ask questions. But you have to learn it before you can do it. And stop shooting films with no budget.
Max: So you clearly have that ingrained in you. Say you can go back in time to young Shaun and tell him one piece of movie advice. What would you say?
Shaun: There isn’t any. Everything I learned, I learned right on time. No I lied – I lied. You make me think, Max. What I would tell young Shaun is “research festivals first.” Because I spent a lot of money submitting and traveling to festivals that didn’t benefit me. And had I researched the festivals – the past winners, what their theme is this year, what they go for – I wouldn’t have wasted that money. Or wasted that time traveling. And festivals, they typically have a theme every year. They don’t tell you what that theme is, and they’ll happily take your submission money. I tell new filmmakers if you’re gonna go the festival route, first you gotta know what you want out of the festival, right, and is this festival for your work. Because there’s no point in me submitting a festival like Miles to a festival that caters to, I don’t know, missing children, or, I don’t know, domestic violence. My project wouldn’t work there. But because they’ll accept it doesn’t mean I should submit. You really have to do research on these festivals before you submit to them. You’ll waste a lot of money and time. And be disappointed. That’s what I would tell young Shaun. I’m super selective when I do film festivals now. If they’re not Oscar-qualifying, I don’t do them. That’s just me. So I learned a lot with film festivals.
Max: So let’s take the Shaun creator hat off and put on Shaun as a film fan. If you could get one movie tattoo, what’s it gonna be?
Shaun: It’s Shawshank. I’m getting the prison tattooed on me. I’m getting the prison or the Andy Dufresne tattooed on me.
Max: Oh yeah? I would think you’d get “Get busy living or get busy dying.” That seems like your mantra. And who is your dream actor you would want to work with?
Shaun: My dream actor I’d want to work with, I want to say there’s two: Ray Liotta. Man, I love Ray Liotta. And John Leguizamo. I want to work with everybody, but if you could tell me, “Here, Shaun, you have the budget to pick the two right now,” it’d be those those guys, man. Ray has played the cop and the mobster. I would put him in something different. And that’s my thing. I like to put actors in roles that we haven’t seen them in or we rarely see them it. So it would be something completely different. And with John Leguizamo, he’s so diverse. He’s almost done everything. You’ve got To Wong Foo. You’ve got Empire. You’ve got Spawn. What? So John has done everything, right? But yeah, it wouldn’t be a cop thing. Nah. But I’ve found that when I go out and I cast actors, they’re always saying, “I’ve never had a role like this.” So they appreciate that and are looking for something like this. They’re all down to do it. I have a reality star, Mimi Faust, who’s on Love & Hip Hop. This is her last season. She wants to get into acting. So I gave her a role completely unglamorous. Unglamorous so she could really show her acting chops. So people would see her in a different light. And she was all for it. That’s the thing. When you want to work with these folks, being able to give them something – and most actors want a role that they’ve never done, or a role that they don’t do too often but they like doing.
Max: What are you working on right now?
Shaun: Right now we’re in pre-production for a feature film called Traffickers. So my first AD, she wrote this film, and she’s also going to star in it, so we’re shooting that. I mentioned Eighteen – we’re shooting that. Then I have a documentary that I’m doing called My Black Poly Family. It’s a documentary about Black polyamorous couples and relationships. Then after that, I’m really in this doc space. I love docs. So I want to do a documentary on Dr. Malachai Z York I don’t know when I’ll be able to do that. Then I want to do that this year after I do My Black Poly Family, but we’ll see. And then I have a series called Dr. Doc Knockboots. I came up with the idea – there’s a Nas song called Dr. Knockboots. It’s about a hood sex therapist. So I took that and crossed it with the guy from House to create this character. It’s a comedy. So I want to do that later this year, early next year. And then I’m sure I’ll get hired between now and then on other things. So we’ll just see.
Max: Where can people find your stuff or reach out to you?
Shaun: I’m most active on Instagram – filmmaker_shaunmathis. If they want to see my work, my work is on Amazon, Tubi, Aspire, BET, YouTube, Vimeo – just Google my name.
Max: Well Shaun, thank you so much. I can’t wait to Google Shaun Mathis 50 years from now and see an IMDB list that will make my computer malfunction because it’s too long. On the next episode of Forward Filmmaker, we’ll be talking with writer-director Courtney Daniels, who shoots entire films from a single location: her bedroom. Subscribe, rate, and review #ForwardFilmmaker on Apple, Spotify, Google, or Amazon, or wherever you get your podcasts.