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From ‘Awkward Black Girl’ to ‘Harlem’, Director Shea William Vanderpoort Has Manifested His Intention

From ‘Awkward Black Girl’ to ‘Harlem’, Director Shea William Vanderpoort Has Manifested His Intention

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Director Shea William Vanderpoort met Issa Rae and Tracy Oliver on the recommendation of a friend of a friend over ten years ago. They needed a cinematographer for Awkward Black Girl. Shea had decided to take a year and say yes to everything, and, once he read the script, his yes was enthusiastic. 

When he met with Tracy Oliver for dinner before coming on board, she said that she wanted the web series to be as much like a television show as possible. When Vanderpoort showed up on set, he met Rae, who was directing as well as acting. He looked around and saw that it was a ten-person office scene. He asked where the rest of the camera crew was, and he was it. So, Vanderpoort utilized his background in indie film doing everything on his own, and ten years later, the cinematographer is now a working director who is in high demand with several television credits under his belt.

BGN spoke with Vanderpoort via Zoom on Monday, February 27, 2023, shortly after the episodes of Prime Video’s Harlem (Episodes 6 and 7) aired about his inspiring journey.

What was the most valuable asset you brought to Awkward Black Girl?

My understanding of the craft in terms of all of the elements, directing cinematography, and editing. They had good ideas and the performers; they just needed somebody who was handling the technical aspects and some of the creative aspects because both Issa and Tracy are so creative and so dynamic. They would just want to flip it and do a genre change, and a lot of people can’t really do that if they don’t have that experience. Luckily, I did. I played around with just doing whatever and being adaptable. 

I slowly started editing and doing cinematography. I was camera operating and then oversaw all post-production, started to co-direct with Issa, and eventually solely with the director for the end of Season 1 and all of Season 2.

It sounds so simple and easy but I’m sure it was challenging.

Yeah, you know, we weren’t being paid. So we were trying to find ways to make money on the side.

I read that at that time you had a mountain of student loan debt, and you and your girlfriend had just lost your house. In the face of all of that, what made you decide to keep going in the entertainment industry instead of just quitting? 

It’s just what I truly love, and ultimately it’s what makes me happy, so it didn’t matter if it was stable or not. I just had to do it. It’s what kept me going. There’s this fire inside that doesn’t really ever go out, no matter how hard things are. I’m sure it’s unhealthy at some points, but I just can’t help it. I have to create. 

I have to be a part of collaborations with people that I get along with and am inspired by, which keeps me going. We had synergy immediately. I know it seems like we just did this thing and it popped off and happily ever after. No, it was very, very hard work. There were constant hurdles that we had to go through. But it was that camaraderie and that partnership and the belief in one another that inspired us to keep going.

We used to go out and get, usually, Asian food every week, and talk about what we were gonna do. I remember just saying to Issa and Tracy, “We three together, we could do anything. Whatever we say. Whatever we commit ourselves to do.” I really truly believe that we can do anything. We had a dream of having Donald Glover on one of the episodes, and we were like, “This doesn’t even make sense,” because truly we were three people filming in rental spaces and on the street. We were just like, ”Hey, Donald Glover should be in our show!” And he ends up in the season finale just by asking. Apparently, his sister was a fan of the show. And he’s like, “Oh, yeah, I heard of that through my sister,” and he was just cool enough to be a part of it.

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How did you make the transition from cinematographer to directing?

Issa was in every scene. I think directing becomes increasingly more difficult appearing in every scene, and she was adding her large contribution to the scripts and the creative. I gained trust. It was weird because I never asked for any of those things, I was just trying to be helpful. I show up, forget about my desires, and try to fit in where I can add value to the situation. It happened organically. I don’t recall asking for the position. We just all settled in our positions as we were working together, and that was the beauty of all of us being selfless. What was most important for us was getting the story across.

So when you came on to direct two episodes of Harlem, what was your approach?

I just like to show up, see them on the day, and have it be organic. I don’t like to force anything. It’s like that Bruce Lee quote, “Be like water.” I like to be in the flow. I used to play music and it was a similar situation. Be prepared, know what you’re doing. But then if something happens, you can easily adjust without thinking. I hope that the way I present myself shows them that I am genuine, positive, and approachable as possible.

What’s next for you?

A Disney show called Saturdays, based in the roller skating world in Chicago. I was really excited about this because it came out of nowhere. I directed an episode of First Wives Club, and one of my fellow directors from that season, who didn’t even know me, suggested me because she just liked what I did. It comes out in March.

What part of directing brings you the most joy?

I’m a craftsman who’s obsessed with camera moves and all of these technical things. Aside from all that, the most important thing for me is the human connection. Making friends through all of these difficult dream-crushing experiences — through the challenges, you forge these friendships. Production is so difficult, there’s so much on the line. The stakes are so high that you’re immediately thrown into the trenches of a battle. 

There are all these situations where people can show you their best or worst sides. And when you see people constantly giving you their best, the Tracy Olivers, the Megan Goods, the Grace Byers, all of them just constantly being put in these situations that are tough and then showing you they’re even better than you imagined and having the strength and perseverance to get through all of it with an authentic smile — that’s my favorite part of directing. Getting to witness all of the joy and the beauty of friendship and human connection throughout.

Harlem Season 2 is currently available on Prime Video.

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