Angel Kristi Williams was born and raised in West Baltimore and began telling stories around the age of 8. “My dad gave me one of those old school VHS camcorders, and I became fascinated with it, and started making home movies. I would just record everything with my family. Just making stories about existing.” As a film maker/director, Williams’ craft has gone through different stages, improving and expanding each step.
Williams took her first photography class at Western high school, and became more fascinated with telling stories. Williams’ was an undergrad at the University of Maryland College Park for the first two years (studied theatre), then transferred to UMBC and majored in film and photography, where she made her first film in 2003. For awhile, Williams’ was “making experimental and narrative films without dialogue because that was part of the program. Learning how to tell stories without words, just using images.”
She wrote her first screenplay her senior year of undergrad, which was the moment she knew she wanted to become a director. “I knew I wanted to have the most control and generate the story.”
Williams went on to graduate school at Columbia College Chicago to get her MFA in writing and directing in 2008. This was the first time she left Baltimore, and Columbia was the first time Williams’ experienced working with a collective of artists to make a film. She graduated in 2012, and eventually moved to Los Angeles.
How hard was it for you to let other people into your process?
Actually, the very first time I collaborated was easy because I was excited. I think it becomes more difficult once you work with someone. You then develop a taste. After that first time, I became very particular about what I wanted for specific skills.
The very first time it was easy because I thought I could collaborate with someone who has more experience in a particular field, and they could help elevate my project. For me, sometimes when you do everything you feel as though you don’t master one thing well.
Working with a cinematographer, I was like ‘wow, here is someone who has been only shooting film for the past 3 years, and has a lot more experience than me.’ So I was excited that they would help elevate my project. I think a good director is really smart about building a team of people who know more than you do, and I think that is something I learned very early. You can really appreciate when you work with other artists that you can trust, and when I do find that, I want to keep working with them over and over again.
How did The Christmas Tree come about?
It started out with me wanting to dedicate a story to my father who died in 2001, and I wanted to tell a story about our relationship, our friendship. I always considered myself a daddy’s girl, and I think a lot of daddy’s girls can relate to this because not only is your father your parent, but also your friend. I wanted to explore what that looks like, so I just kind of started with that as a foundation, and I have a memory about my dad. He would always wait until the last minute when it came to getting a Christmas tree, on Christmas Eve, but the memory I have isn’t tragic or sad like it is in the film. I just kind of started from a memory of him, and it sort of started out as a comedy and then shifted into a drama. Where it came from was really me wanting to tell a story about a little girl’s relationship with her father, and this bond that they had.
What made you want to develop the story “Charlotte”? How was it putting black women/girls in the forefront being a black woman yourself?
It wasn’t difficult for me to write the story, but it was really difficult for me to cast it. A lot of parents have an issue with the content, and I had to find two parents who were open to two little girls kissing on screen. That was a really personal story. I would say it was difficult because it was so personal. Whenever you tell a difficult story, you have the get up the courage to expose that part of yourself. But once I got over that hump, it was freeing, and I was really happy to be able to tell a story about that experience between two Black girls. I think that we see stories about people who aren’t of color like this all the time.
What was that moment to help you get the courage to overcome that hump?
Initially I wrote the script for the class. Immediately, my professor knew that Charlotte was the most compelling and personal story. She challenged me. It was the response to it that made me understand that when I gain the courage to tell things that make me uncomfortable, it’s usually the work that people respond to in the best way.
Who in the industry, famously known or not, is somebody that you look up to personally ?
I really am inspired by Wong Kar-wai, an Asian filmmaker who made one of my favorite films In The Mood For Love. Another filmmaker that I am inspired by is Theodore Witcher who made Love Jones. That’s the only thing he ever made, but it remains in my top 5 of films that inspire me.
Being a black woman, and seeing how important representation is nowadays, how important was it for you to make films for with people that the community could relate to?
It’s been important from jump. I’ve never wanted to do anything but! For me, even when I was a kid making those videos, I was making stories about people who were around me. My family, my friends. So when I transitioned into wanting to do this full-time as a living; I have always wanted to tell stories about people who I knew, and people who looked like me. Those people naturally have been of African-American descent. It was never a consideration, that’s who I am, so it was just inherent. As an artist, I’ve realized the importance of that. I’m definitely conscious of it.
When we were writing Really Love, we weren’t like ‘let’s make a love story about Black people,’ we just wanted to tell a good love story and these characters just happened to be Black.That’s what’s important to me, but I’m never just like ‘let me make a black movie, or let me tell a Black story.’ Those are just the characters that inspire me, so naturally, they are just always there.
How did Really Love come about?
I met my cowriter, Felicia Pride through a mutual friend, who had been trying to introduce us because Felicia is also from Baltimore, and had just moved to L.A. We ended up at a friends BBQ and just started chatting. She told me she had written a screenplay, and was looking for a director to attach, and was really curious about the work I had done. She sent me her script, I sent her my shorts, and the following week we got together and really hit it off. That was the beginning of us working together. We worked on it for 2 years, and then we pitched it to MARCO and they loved it. We developed it with them, and they greenlit us for production.
How would you describe Really Love?
It’s about Isiah, who is this really talented artist trying to break into this really competitive art world. He’s trying to be inspired and create from a place where he’s creating what he wants to create, but he also wants to make a living as an artist. So it’s like, ‘how do you do that when you also need to eat?’ He has this mentor who is also an artist, who tells him he has to create from a place when he’s inspired, but not to make money or a living. He takes the advice and starts looking for things to inspire him, and in pursuit of that, he meets this woman who is from a very wealthy family in D.C., who is in law school and has all her shit together. They fall in love really hard and really fast, and it inspires him and helps him get closer to the world he wants. She inspires him, so his work started to shift, and people starts to notice it.
He starts to get closer to this career that he wants, but in the midst of that, he sacrifices the relationship, and it falls a part. So, it’s like how do you balance the personal and the professional? How do you pursue your first love but be in love? And what does that look like? The story is about these two people who don’t knowhow to be together as much as they want to be. It’s about a young, ambitious woman who has never been in love with an artist, and a young man that doesn’t know how to balance a relationship with his first love (his art).
How was it for you to come back home and film?
It was the most beautiful thing. If I could make every film from here on out in Baltimore, in the DMV, I would. That would be a dream. Just going back to wanting to tell stories about what I know. It’s so interesting because it took me leaving Baltimore to be able to see the beauty in the things I grew up surrounded by. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago and came back, I was really in awe in how the city looked or felt. When I came back I was like ‘there’s so much beauty here.’ It was the first time I was in a place where my family could actually come and visit my set. I left home in 2008, but they’ve never seen me make the work I’ve been doing. So to be able to invite them to set was great! They finally got to see what I do.
What is your own perception of your growth?
I feel like the growth was tremendous. I feel like I am a new person. I feel like I grew astronomically as an artist, and as a human being. Ina way I’m inspired by myself. I think I’m a little bit; like it hasn’t fully set it in yet cause I’m still going through the process. I think that possibly when I screen the movie for the first time, and actually am able to share it with an audience, I feel like only then will it hit me that it happened. I think that I’m still a little bit in shock. I talk about making my first home movies when I was 8. When you have a dream like that for so long, and then it actually happens, I think that there’s a delay in accepting that reality that has been a dream for so long. I feel very humbled, and very proud.