By Cherra Hampton-Mitchell
I had the pleasure of interviewing filmmaker (and my high school classmate) R. Shanea Williams after the screening of her short film, Paralysis, at the Afrikana Independent Film Festival in Richmond, Virginia, back in September. Paralysis stars Nia Fairweather as a photographer who suffers from a sleep disorder. After moving into a new apartment, she fears she is being haunted by a supernatural entity. Paralysis marks the third film from Vision 75/80 Productions, Williams and producer Anthony Davis’ production company. Paralysis just started making the film festival rounds this year and has already been an official selection nine times and won two awards: A Best Actress in a Short Award (Nia Fairweather) at the Las Vegas Black Film Festival and a Best Screenplay Award at the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival. It’s a juggernaut of a short film that is keeping its makers very busy, so I am grateful to Ms. Williams for taking the time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about it.
BGN: How did you get into filmmaking and when did you realize you wanted to pursue it as a career?
R. Shanea Williams: Well, I’ve always been a storyteller. That started when I was around seven years old. In second grade we were given an assignment to write a story about anything and I couldn’t stop writing. I think my story was the longest in the class. The filmmaking part came probably around the time I was 11 or 12. I had seen Do the Right Thing and I was just kind of blown away that Spike Lee directed it. I’d never seen a black person directing something, then I saw a picture of him and I just couldn’t stop staring at it.
Something kind of just shifted in me. I can’t really explain it, but I knew then the type of stories I wanted to try would be on screen. That was definitely the beginning of my true love for just cinema and cinematic storytelling. Screenwriting was how I started it because I really couldn’t afford a lot of video equipment. Going to NYU for graduate school was a turning point because that’s when I knew how serious this was and how I started to try to find my voice as a screenwriter. While I was there, I took a filmmaking course called Visual Storytelling, and that was the first time I had really kind of stuck behind the camera and tried to create an actual story. I was like “ok, maybe I can do this.” That was really the first push and I made my first short film in 2010. Now it’s 2016 and I’ve made my third.
BGN: So speaking of the films…I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two of them, Contamination and now Paralysis, and there seems to be a common thread of fear and mental health. What made you want to explore those topics on film?
R. Shanea Williams: Mental health is something very close to me. It came about organically in a lot of ways once I started with Contamination, and actually before Contamination, I had written a screenplay called My Heart Skips a Beat and it got into the top five finals at the Urban World Film Festival Screenwriting Competition and that was about mental illness. Although it had a lot of things that I wanted to fix, I realized in that script that I really did want to talk about mental health in a real way, especially in the black community. When it came time to shoot Contamination, I had just come out of a pretty bad break-up with an ex-boyfriend, I was isolating myself, and I just felt like I was in a dark place. I frequently washed my hands and I said to myself, you know, there’s never been anything done on OCD and I was trying to think of something really creative in a way where I could shoot a film in like one location and I thought about the idea of a woman who would be afraid to leave her home.
I started to research OCD and mental illness in that light; this story just kind of came together. From there I realized that after going through so many film festivals, people really responded to this film and to mental illness in the black community. I feel like that probably really stirred something in me and I said “Oh I have to keep going. I think I really have something to say about this.”
Friends and family members very dear to me suffer with various things. I myself have battled anxiety for the past 15 years and also episodes of depression. I spent much of my life being very ashamed of it. So this is just a way to kind of end that silence. When it came time to do Paralysis and this idea of doing a psychological horror film, I said this will be a way to kind of explore mental health and mental illness in the black community but in a very different way.
BGN: So is that a subject that you plan to continue to explore in the future?
R. Shanea Williams: Yes, as it feels true to the story I definitely plan to continue. I have a couple of ideas of projects in my mind now and they definitely center on mental illness and mental health. I kind of feel like I’m guided as I create, so as long as I still feel guided on this I’ll definitely still continue to try to shed light on mental illness in the black community.
BGN: One of the things that I really liked about Paralysis is how subtle it is. I think we’re really used to horror movies containing a lot of gore or jump scares or, you know, having a very obvious antagonist and that’s not the case with this film. Was that by design?
R. Shanea Williams: I love horror films. Psychological horror is one of my favorites and I personally think the mind—what we imagine and what we create within our own minds–is the most terrifying monster. I felt that by using tension and suspense and dread and uneasiness…I think those things kind of stay with you longer than just seeing someone get their head chopped off. I always find that the movies that resonate with me are ones that have things that linger and kind of get into my mind.
I remember very clearly telling my sound designer that I didn’t want typical horror movie sounds either. I wanted him to make the film have an ambient kind of feel to it so you’re anticipating, but you don’t really know what’s coming. I feel like in a lot of horror movies the music will tell you what’s happening that moment and it feels very on the nose. I feel like just by creating a subtlety with sound, we’re kind of with Jessica on this journey. It just feels like a more organic story about someone really struggling with sleep paralysis and mental health issues than the typical psychological horror thriller.
What I thought was really interesting about our screening is how many people say that they’re not a fan of horror but they love this. They only think of horror in one broad stroke and when we don’t know about something like sub-genres, I think people are really missing out.
BGN: I don’t want to give too much away about film for the people who haven’t seen it, but the color palette of course plays a really important role in the film and there’s that one particular scene with the candles where there’s this reddish glow in the room. I feel like that was our first hint that things were going to take a turn for the main character. How much work went into the colors and aesthetics?
R. Shanea Williams: A lot of work went into that. I’m giving a huge shout out to my set designer, Ashley Gibson, and also to my cinematographer, Adam Richlin. They really understood my vision and how color and setting play a role in the actual film. You’re right, that particular moment when we see this red light, this night light that she has in her room, that’s kind of one of my few little classic movies shout outs. In a lot of the great classic horror movies the color red kind of lingers.
I even told my wardrobe stylist, Rashi, we could just have a little red in something she’s wearing and if you look at her socks there’s little red in those socks. I just feel like color does play such a huge role. It’s a subtle role, but it plays a really huge role in how you perceive the film. The day scenes are really bright and the night scenes are really dark and really dreary. I feel like those are both playing in a way on Jessica’s living consciousness.
BGN: I saw a little nod to Dario Argento there with the red.
R. Shanea Williams: Yes! Somebody else pointed that out. I wasn’t literally doing it because of that, but it’s something that always stays with me. In really, really well done horror films the color palette is always really exquisite and really interesting and contributes greatly to the film itself. If you notice there’s a lot of blue in her room and I always thought about this idea of her talking to her father about having a sense of tranquility even though that’s not what’s happening within her. Just showing that color a lot was important to me.
BGN: Did you find it difficult to film in small spaces?
R. Shanea Williams: We didn’t really have a very large crew but there were enough that people were standing everywhere. It can be a bit challenging when you have your crew there, but I find those type places to really bring out that sense of driving claustrophobia. So it’s a great opportunity to be creative.
BGN: Paralysis is currently still making the rounds on the film festival circuit, so what are your next couple of stops for people who want to see it?
R. Shanea Williams: Alexandria Film Festival and the Ax Wound Film Festival in November. Those are the next two stops coming up.
BGN: What’s next up for you project wise? Anything you want to share with the BGN audience?
R. Shanea Williams: I’m writing and I’m creating and that’s all I can say at the moment. I’m just enjoying the ride that Paralysis has been. We shot it a year ago in October, so just still kind of processing this incredible journey that the film has been on. You’ll definitely be hearing from me in a year or two at least, give me some time.
BGN: Where can people go to support your work?
R. Shanea Williams: There’s the Paralysis fan page on Facebook: (https://www.facebook.com/ParalysisMovie/), the Vision 75/80 Productions website (http://www.vision7580.com/), and they can follow me on Twitter (@rshanea722).