Monday, April 23, 2018
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Director Amanda Marsalis Makes 1st Foray Into TV Series With "Queen Sugar"
Amanda Marsalis
Filmmaker, who’s handled by Backyard for spots, reflects on golden opportunity to work with Ava DuVernay on OWN show
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Director Amanda Marsalis--who made her indie feature debut with Echo Park at the L.A. Film Festival in 2014, and is active in commercials via production house Backyard--has made her first foray into TV series with two episodes of Queen Sugar. Marsalis directed episodes 5 and 8 for the dramatic show’s current second season. Episode 5 premieres this week on Oprah Winfrey’s network, OWN. Winfrey is an executive producer on Queen Sugar.

Marsalis follows a number of women directors who have broken into the television ranks via Queen Sugar as series creator Ava DuVernay has committed to female filmmakers for the entire run of the show, thus far spanning seasons one and two. Most of these helmers had little or no prior TV experience, having come largely from the indie film world. At last month’s Producers Guild of America (PGA) Produced By Conference in Los Angeles, DuVernay noted that all the season one directors on Queen Sugar have gone on to be heavily booked in TV. In fact, said DuVernay, none of the season one directors were available for season two due to commitments on a wide range of projects, including Victoria Mahoney who was helming a pilot for ABC, and Tanya Hamilton who was directing an episode of Greenleaf. DuVernay noted that Mahoney is booked on TV projects until Feb. 2018.

Adapted for TV from the novel of the same title by Natalie Baszile, Queen Sugar follows the lives of a black family, centering on three siblings: two sisters, Nova Bordelon (played by Rutina Wesley), a journalist and activist from New Orleans, and Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), a woman who, with her teenage son Micah, leaves her upscale home in Los Angeles and moves to the heart of Louisiana to claim an inheritance--an 800-acre sugarcane farm--from her recently departed father; and their brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a single father struggling with unemployment and an absentee, former drug addict mother of his child. 

Marsalis feels gratified to have gotten the opportunity to work on Queen Sugar, noting that her career has enjoyed support in the past from DuVernay whose company Array handled theatrical distribution for Echo Park, helping to promote the film when it hit cinema houses in 2016. DuVernay was also one of three signatories on Marsalis’ application which earned her membership in the DGA. 

Ideal launch
For Marsalis, Queen Sugar proved to be the ideal show for her to delve into series television. “The creative is there,” affirmed Marsalis. “The stories are there. You are put in a position to succeed. From Ava on down, it’s a talented, supportive family of actors, crew members, writers and filmmakers.”

Marsalis very much valued the opportunity to work with cinematographer Antonio Calvache who lensed both of the Queen Sugar episodes she directed. “I’ve been a big fan of his work,” said Marsalis, citing such Todd Field-directed features as In The Bedroom and Little Children, as well as the DuVernay-directed pilot for Queen Sugar. “Antonio is a very giving collaborator.”

Also contributing to a successful diversification into TV was Marsalis’ multi-faceted career experience, starting with her work as a commercial still photographer. “You have to take into account a lot of people’s opinions as a commercial photographer, collaborating with clients and creatives. You’re on an assignment, a script which wasn’t yours from the beginning so you’re working with others to do justice to the original intent, what’s needed to make the project successful.” Marsalis has also shown this collaborative knack in branded fare, including a fashion film for handbag design brand Clare Vivier featuring actress Mamie Gummer, who earlier starred in Echo Park, as well as Backyard-produced ad fare for AT&T and playful lifestyle commercials for Kotex.

Marsalis credited Backyard with taking a leap of faith in signing her in 2015 for spots and branded content. “They looked at my work as a photographer and in narrative [including Echo Park]. I had very little experience in commercials when they took me on. They saw potential in me and made a commitment to growing and supporting me as a commercial director.”

The experience on Queen Sugar, continued Marsalis, enables her to now bring another dimension back to her feature, spotmaking and branded content endeavors. “I was struck by how talented the actors on Queen Sugar are, actors who have lived in their characters this season and last season. I learned from them. It makes me excited and inspired to push myself on that side, collaborating more deeply with actors. Having 20 years as a still photographer, things come naturally visually and stylistically. Queen Sugar has given me confidence and a deeper understanding of actors, and how I can best team with them.”

Akin to the supportive camaraderie she enjoyed on Queen Sugar, Marsalis benefited from another experience looking to generate opportunities for women filmmakers--her being selected a couple of years ago to be part of the inaugural class of Fox Studio’s Female Director Initiative. The group consisted of some 20 directors whom she described as “amazing.”  She formed a bond with them. “We continue to serve as a resource for one another. ‘I’m looking for a DP. Do you know anyone? How do you deal with this or that situation?’ It’s a great way to compare notes and help each other. These have become lasting relationships.”