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From Photographer for ‘VIBE’ Magazine to Directing ‘Queen Sugar’ and ‘Ozark’, Amanda Marsalis is Living Her Best Life

From Photographer for ‘VIBE’ Magazine to Directing ‘Queen Sugar’ and ‘Ozark’, Amanda Marsalis is Living Her Best Life

Imagine Ava DuVernay’s production company, ARRAY, picking up the first film you directed. That’s what happened to photographer turned director Amanda Marsalis. After ARRAY picked up Echo Park, DuVernay asked Marsalis to direct episodes of Queen Sugar and the pilot of the CW’s Naomi and now this talented director is taking prestige TV by storm. BGN spoke with Marsalis via zoom earlier this week about directing four episodes of the final season of Ozark and how she started directing for television.

What inspired you to make the transition from photography to directing?

I got an email from a friend and Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s daughter. I know Rebecca because I photographed Michelle Ndegeochello for VIBE magazine 15 years ago. Michelle hates being photographed, but she liked me, and she liked the photograph. Michelle and Rebecca were together at the time, so Michelle went home and told Rebecca, “I met a photographer I really liked.” Rebecca reached out to me later and hired me to photograph her for her first book, Black, White, and Jewish. So I photographed her for her portrait on the back of her book. 

We stayed in touch for all these years, and one day, she emails me and asks me, have you ever considered directing a movie? I know these guys are looking for a director. I was like, “Yes, yes, and YES!” The film was called Echo Park. I was in my 30s and lived in Echo Park. It was a story I understood. Iit was manageable. The story was much more sort of a rom-com when I got it. I grounded it. I had 15 days to shoot it and $200,000, and it was all my own furniture. 

I emptied my house and put my photographs on the wall, and all my friends were in it. It was a moment in my photo career where I wasn’t being challenged in the way I needed. It was just a miracle and gift that this person came along and said, “Do you want to try this thing?” Then these people said we have money to make a movie. It’s not like I was paid to make the movie. I mean, I probably gave money to make the movie. We made it and gave it everything we could, and then Ava DuVernay ended up distributing the film. 

That was also a miracle, and then she was just doing the first season of Queen Sugar. I was totally like, “I would like to direct television. Eva. Please, please, I will be so good at it. Just let me do it. I know I can do it.” There’s this sweet spot being a guest director on television of being a visitor, but commanding the set, and the vision within the confines of the structure that already exists. 

I worked in advertising for a long time. I understood all the politics of that, and then I directed Queen Sugar. Then honestly, the fourth episode of television I ever directed was the Ozark season two finale. Wow. Which was another miracle. I went back to season three and then four episodes in season four. Chris Mundy is a dear friend and Laura Linney is my hero. Jason Bateman just tried to get me to quit my current job to work for him, and I said I cannot do that.

That’s kinda cool though.

It’s totally cool, but I was like dude I’m working! I’m working on Kindred right now.

That’s awesome.

I promise I’m not fucking it up. Janicza Bravo directed the pilot. It’s really good.

I’m sure. I love her work.

Me too. 

I love your work as well. Your direction on Ozark was incredible. What was the best part of working on that show?

It’s a three-way tie. It’s between the kindness, respect, and trust that I got from Chris Mundy, the guidance, care, and knowledge given to me by Laura Linney, and Jason Bateman’s technical skills that were heavily influential on me. I love them all very much.

Both Bateman and Linney are actors/directors. How does your direction process adjust when you work with actors/directors on the show?

You’re passing a test every day. With Jason, he would be like, “How are you gonna do this?” And you’re like, “Well, my plan is gonna do this, and I’m gonna come over here, and I did it, you know?”

He’ll be like, “Okay, okay, great.” Sometimes he might be like, “I don’t think you can meet this.” You’d probably be like, “No, I think the reason I do is because, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Then he could be like, “Okay, I see that.” Or you just feel like, “You’re probably right.” depending on whether or not he was. Then Laura is I think one of the most gifted, talented but prepared people I’ve ever seen. 

The music is like another character in the show. How closely do you work with the music supervisor to bring the soundscape to life?

Chris Mundy was a Rolling Stone reporter right before he was a writer. He writes music into the scripts, so you know when you’re going to shoot what the music will be. Some of the music we chose together, but like the NAS episode, I knew for weeks that was written into the episode, so they immediately started working on getting as much of that released as possible.

What is bringing you the most joy these days? 

The actors on Kindred are so insanely talented. It’s a real pleasure and I feel very, very lucky. As a photographer, the idea is that I am a director, a working director. It still blows my mind. Genuine storytelling really brings me joy. So on days where I can’t believe how many pages we had to shoot and it is so frustrating, and I didn’t get this that I want and all these things you remember, you don’t have to be working with some like 26-year-old white man art director telling me to do some shady photo, like fu#k it. I’m happy.

All four seasons of Ozark are now streaming on Netflix. FX’s series Kindred based on the Octavia Butler book is currently in production. 

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