Interview: Really Love Director Angel Kristi Williams

August 25, 2021

Really Love, the new feature from director Angel Kristi Williams and co-writer Felicia Pride is a gorgeous evocation of the richness of Black love, culture, and urban life, via the story of Isaiah (Kofi Siriboe, “Queen Sugar”), a struggling artist, and the enchanting woman who changes his life, Stevie (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, THE PARADISE SUITE). Set in a gentrifying Washington, D.C., the film offers an incredible tapestry of music and art, from visual artists like Meleko Mokgosi and Chanel Compton to the songs of Ari Lennox and Kamasi Washington.

Read on for our interview with Williams, in which she discusses working with her director of photography on the color theory that informed the film’s palette, explains her process for connecting with her cast and crew on a story, and shares the Spotify playlist that kept her inspired during her creative journey.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WIF: You’ve shared that this story had been with you for a long time, since you were—I think—seventeen. What was it, exactly, that you were most interested in capturing in this story?

Angel Kristi Williams: Yeah, well, I mean, one thing that I’ll say is that Felicia brought this love story to me. But my first experience with love was at the age of 17. So, what was important to me when Felicia and I decided to collaborate was, I sort of grew into that process. I had to become comfortable with being vulnerable enough to allow my own experience with love to be a part of the story. And once I fully allowed that to happen, that’s when the film got financing, that’s when I found my actors. That’s when, you know, everything just began to fall into place. But, you know, I think artists tell very personal stories, [but] there’s a wall that—especially when it’s about love and heartbreak—you don’t want to, you know, sort of put your business on front street.

But I learned that not being willing to do that was blocking the film and my process. And so the film really broke me open in some of the best ways. I walked away from production feeling like a new woman. What was important to me is to just show, like, Black people living and breathing and working and creating. And there’s no trauma; they’re just tying the space that they’ve created for themselves, that they feel facing. That, for me, was the most important.

WIF: What sorts of things were you saying to your department heads to convey what you were hoping to get out of the final project—whether it’s with the colors or the lighting or the music and the sound? Because it is so rooted in a look and a certain feeling.

AKW: We use color theory. I’m forgetting—I’m blanking on the artist’s name, but it was this psychology of color that my cinematographer, Shawn Peters, shared with me very early on. And the ironic thing was that when I read it, and it describes just how different colors embody different emotions and how you can use color to embody different emotions. I was unconsciously choosing those colors, not really realizing what they represented. And then once he shared that with me, then that became sort of the the language; that created our color palette.

WIF: Your cast received a special jury award for performances at SXSW. Can you talk a little bit about what you think characterizes the way you direct actors? What’s your approach?

AKW: The way that I approach working with actors in this film, Really Love, it really raised my bar in that regard because, just the level of trust that we all had across the board. I mean, there was just so much trust. And I’d like to, you know, build the world for the character, like even outside of what’s in the screenplay. So I made playlists; I sent them history on D.C. And in the film, Steve is a Howard alum, so I wanted her to really understand what it meant to be a Howard grad and what it meant to live in the city and what the culture felt like and what it looked like and what the language sounded like. So, I was trying to just give them so much, so that they could dig in and create these full characters. And so for me, process is about everything, everything that happens before you even get to set. And those conversations, just about character and story, and what’s important, I think really gave them the freedom and also allowed them to trust me that what we ended up creating was something that feels—I hope it will feel full for people, and rich.

WIF: How long did you actually have with the actors before you started filming? Did you have an extensive rehearsal period, a getting-to-know-each-other period with all of the cast?

AKW: Oh no, not at all. I mean, Kofi was still in production on Queen Sugar. So a lot of that work, it would happen in between setup. He would call me, we would FaceTime while he was in New Orleans. I was in Baltimore. We would just talk about character. I would send him Spotify playlists that he could listen to. Those conversations kept growing and building. Every time we had a conversation, we would continue where we left off. With Yootha, my producers made it happen, that she could come a few days earlier. So, she actually came from Amsterdam—I don’t remember how many days, but it was enough for her to like, go to a go-go and to stay in an apartment and see… you know, she had never been in D.C.

And it was really important to me, for her to at least plant her feet in the city and see what it felt like and what it smelled life. It’s an independent film, so you know, they are doing these things because they want to do that extra work. Not because we had all these resources to make that happen. But they were just really passionate about the process and what they needed to embody the characters.

WIF: Do you tend to work with the same crews often? Where are you finding people that you work with?

AKW: Yes, I’ve definitely loved working with the same people over and over and over again, like my producer Mel Jones. [Director of Photography] Shawn Peters; we hadn’t worked together until this project, but he and I have a lot of mutual friends and I was an admirer of his work. But yes, I have so many collaborators in Baltimore. I have a collective of artists that are in Baltmore. But this project also introduced me to my composer, whom I’m never gonna let go; my costume designer; my head of makeup, Ngozi [Olandu Young]. I remember calling her and I was like, “I’m coming to Baltimore. This project has no money.” I asked her to recommend someone and she was like, “I’ll do it.” And was like, “What?” You know? And we went to high school together in Baltimore.

I think that, as artists, we spend so much time creating work that, I think if you can have community in [that] work, that it just makes the process so much better. And I think that process is more important than the product, you know what I mean? For me, just having a particular kind of collaborators is like, number one, supreme for me.

WIF: Let’s talk about the music in this film and how crucial it is. How exactly do you work with your music supervisor or with your composer? Are you bringing songs to them, saying, “I want this song in particular,” or, “I just want something to sound like this; this is the kind of sonic landscape I’m trying to create here”?

AKW: So, I love music. I listen to music all day long. It’s such a huge part of my process that the reason that the playlist even exists is because when Felicia and I were still working on the screenplay, I needed music to help me imagine the film. I was listening to different things to turn to that mindset. But also it’s hard for me not to imagine what things sound like. I was trying to sort of figure out, well, what type of music does he listen to? What type of music does she listen to? What types of music would they listen to together? And what’s his music sound like when they make love for the first time?

For me, all of those things were important. And so they were in the screenplay. And so, when my music supervision team came on board, I shared with them the playlist, which is now ten hours long, because it was growing over the course of two years. And I still, you know, listen to that playlist.

It’s funny, some of the music that was on that playlist is in the film. I heard it, like many, many years ago. And then, of course there were things like, “Angel, we can’t afford this. We don’t have the budget for this.” My music supervision team was amazing in that they listened to that playlist. They read the screenplay and we had conversations. So they also brought so much new music to me. I was like, this is a D.C. story. Like, let’s get some local artists in here, you know what I mean? So we got, you know, Ari Lennox, April + VISTA, and Oddisee. People who are making great, great music, but also just kind of embody what it means to be from this particular place. The music is like one of the things that I’m the most proud of.

WIF: What was the process of taking the script to market and pitching it to places like MACRO, who ultimately said, “Yes, there’s a home for this here.”

AKW: One of my other producers, Aaliyah Williams, she and I were friends. We met through a mutual friend when I first moved to L.A. And she, at the time, was COO of Digital at MACRO. She was the one who walked the screenplay into MACRO. I was on the set of my producer, Mel Jones, who had created and was directed a web series that MACRO was financing and producing. I was on her set, shadowing her, and Aaliyah and I just started chatting and she was like, “What are you working on?” I was like, “I think I’ve found the screenplay that I want to be my first feature.” And she was like, “Well, what is it about?”

I said, “You know, it’s Love Jones meets Blue Valentine set in D.C.” And she was like, “I need to read that.” It was December, and you know, in December, like around the 15th, L.A. shuts down, and nobody’s coming back until like, the second week in January. So I hesitated to send the screenplay, but that next morning was a Saturday. I said, “Angel, send her the look book and send her the screenplay.” Thinking, she’ll get to it when she gets to it.

And on Sunday morning I had a voicemail and an email and she said, “So, I wasn’t ready to read the screenplay, but I looked at the look book and it was so dope that I said, ‘Let me just read, like, the first ten pages.'” She said, “I read the first ten pages and I couldn’t stop.”

She said, “What are we doing? We need to make this now.” And so she gave the script to Stacey King, Charles King’s wife, and she read it and told him, “You have to read it.” After he read it, it took him, I think, about two months, which was the most excruciating two months of my life. And he read the screenplay and asked Felicia and I to come in and pitch it. I left that meeting feeling full and feeling like that story was in me at that point. And the next day, I get a call and they’re like, “We have Charles King for you.” He gets on the phone and he said, “Never before have I been so impressed with a filmmaker’s vision for a project, and I’ve met a lot of filmmakers.” He said that MACRO wanted to fully finance this film.

And then we started the journey, and we were in production a year later.