Whistler Film Festival 2018 Interview – SKIN IN THE GAME director Adisa

“The film is really about a parents worst nightmare. When a fifteen year old girl named Dani meets a young man online and decides to meet up with him – all hell breaks loose. Unbeknownst to Dani it is really not what it appears to be and she gets abducted into a sex trafficking ring. Her mother running out of options and with little help from the police seeks out her estranged high school friend Lena who was once a prostitute and they go looking for Dani in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles hoping to find her before it’s too late.” Director Adisa on SKIN IN THE GAME which screens at the 2018 edition of Whistler Film Festival.

Congratulations on your film playing and welcome to the wonder that is Whistler Film Festival! So is this your first time here and are you planning to attend your show?

This is my first feature film at the Whistler Film Festival and I am super excited to come to Canada and screen it. It’s a dream come true and showcasing at WFF will provide great exposure for the film.

When was the moment you said to yourself “I want to get into the movie business” and what have you worked on in the past?

I can remember quite vividly the moment I decided to get into filmmaking. Even though I had grown up watching movies and had a great fondness for them, I really didn’t see myself making them until I watched the films of Spike Lee. As a young African American male growing up in West Oakland, California his films spoke to me and his distinct signature made a great impression. Seeing Spike Lee do it gave me the impetus to pursue it. I also wanted to convey the Black experience through our gaze and make socially impactful films. I ended up going to NYU film school, Spike’s alma mater and after I graduated I did every job I could find to immerse myself in the filmmaking experience from production assistant to sound mixer. Ultimately working my way up to directing and producing.  

My recent documentary took me to war torn Sierra Leone, West Africa where I directed and produced a film on child miners and I did my first feature SKIN IN THE GAME last year which is having it’s Canadian Premiere at WFF.

So how did this movie come together?

I started developing the script for SKIN IN THE GAME two years ago once I found out about the horrors of human trafficking. It took about a year and a half to write. I was fortunate enough to get the script in the hands of Howard Barish who runs Kandoo Films. Howard produced the Award Winning documentary 13TH, alongside Netflix, and he also produced Ava DuVernay’s early features and had just started an initiative to fund smaller budgeted indie films with new emerging directors. Howard felt equally passionate about the subject matter and decided to produce it. We prepped SKIN IN THE GAME for six weeks which is a fairly short amount of time and we shot it in sixteen days which is also pretty fast. There was a time in pre-production when I thought we may have to push the shoot. We were going into the last week of prep and we still hadn’t secured our lead actor. It was a pretty nerve racking experience. We were scheduled to shoot in one week and still hadn’t locked anyone in.  Then one day as I was out scouting locations, my casting director Matthew Lessall told me about Erica Ash. Erica was perfect in so many ways and I love her work, but she was scheduled to shoot another film that overlapped ours. I think I must have prayed day and night over the course of forty eight hours. In the end, we were able to work everything out – but it was very harry for a while.

During the shooting I had a lot of fun. I really feel like I’m in my element working with the actors and collaborating with the Director of Photography, Production Designer and crew. The action and stunts were challenging just because of the budget and time we had to shoot them in.  Also, I hadn’t really done acton before so there was a bit of a learning curb as to how long everything would take. I literally had to shoot the films fight finale in six hours. Howard, our producer had confidence in me and we were able to pull it off. It’s mainly due to Howard’s experience in making these kinds of films that really supported the entire process. Howard used to be a first AD so his experience goes far beyond to average producer. When our AD got sick and couldn’t work the last two shoot days, Howard stepped in and on both days with an incredible work load, we finished early with time to spare. I was lucky to have him produce my first feature.

We actually finished a rough assembly of the film in six weeks. That’s pretty fast also. My editor Alex Ivany cut it and it was his first feature as well. I think it went pretty smoothly because we met up prior to shooting and worked with a storyboard artist to sketch out some of the more complicated story sequences. I also brought him in early so we could talk story and editing style which I think helped a lot. The ending of the film is new and I actually came up with it on the last day of filming. Alex kept telling me that he felt our supporting character Violet needed to appear one last time. I kept thinking about it, but by that time we were deep into filming. It never left my mind and by the end of the shoot, I found a way to incorporate her back into the story – one final story beat.  For the most part, I work like this. I trust my team and I remain open to the people working around me. I share my vision and then I take in suggestions and I decide as a director whether it’s good and valuable to making the story better. That’s the main objective – making the story the best it can be.

We ended up having our US premiere at UrbanWorld Film Festival in NY. It was a great night filled with excitement and anxious energy. Up until then we hadn’t screened the film so I was nervous about how it would be received. I knew I liked what we did, but the audience is always the proving ground. It is through the audience that you can determine if you succeed in getting across your story and weather they got enlightened or enjoy the experience.

The crowd loved the film and it was very encouraging. It was a gratifying moment for me. My family being there made it even more so because they know how long I’ve been working on being a film director.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What is your drive?

It takes me a long time to select a project because I have to feel connected to it somehow. With human trafficking I just wanted to sound the alarm because many people don’t really know it’s happening right here in America. I also have two daughters so it touched me in a very personal place. My motivation was doing a great film that captured this life and honoring the survivors. When I make a film, I usually go all in with the research and taking to people. I lived with this film for two years. The people I met and situations I encountered became apart of my life and even now as we show the film, I still feel deeply committed to the people and community looking to help these girls. The feelings run deep. I don’t think that will ever go away because the subject matter won’t go away. The hurt human trafficking has created; the pain, families being torn apart, the suffering of the victims, and the countless unsuspecting girls that are being preyed upon.  So for those reasons I keep going.

So if you were to pick one moment that you would consider the biggest challenge of making the movie, along with the “a-ha, we GOT it” moment, what would each of those be?

My biggest challenge would probably be getting the film financed. It was difficult to find support for a film of this kind. First off it’s about human trafficking which is a very taboo subject and secondarily I am a first time director and investors are usually very leery. Kandoo Films and Howard Barish are unique in that they are used to doing socially conscious films like VENUS VERSES which deals with Title nine and gender equality in sports and the Award Winning Netflix doc 13TH which deals with mass incarceration so we were able to get it to them.  

Could we get technical for a second? For my tech-savvy and filmmaking readers, I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was photographed.

We shot the film using the Sony F55 and Fs7.  Howard owns both cameras. They are pretty self contained over at Kandoo Films so we had everything we needed to make a solid film. My DP was Kira Kelly. She shoots the TV show QUEEN SUGAR and shot the Netflix doc 13TH and is the first African American woman nominated for an Emmy. The film is beautifully composed and she did an amazing job. We wanted to keep the film edgy so we referenced the films MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER. We also watched the french film A PROPHET for it’s gritty and raw cinematography. We shot 90 percent of the film hand held. We wanted an uneasiness in the frame and a sense that anything could change in this unstable world. We also shot the film in and around LA using practical locations and in many cases like the park scene shot in “The Jungle” trafficking and gang activity actually occurs.  The world of human trafficking is not pretty and really depicts harsh violence and darkness so we wanted to stay true to that reality. We wanted to give the viewer an immersive experience of stark realism.

After your WFF screening, where is the movie going to go next? Theatrical? Online? Any dream screenings or exact theatre in mind?

After WFF we are going to continue on our festival run. We’re hoping to show the film in LA next and after that either sell the film or distribute the film though Kandoo Releasing after the New Year. Howard is working with his team to give the film it’s best shot at reaching as many people as possible and being successful.

We do have a lot of people out there looking to be inspired and work in the industry in one way or another. What is a piece of advice that you would give to anyone looking to get into the motion picture business?

There’s a tendency to think that because we see lots of people picking up a camera and making films that it’s easy. We live in an instant gratification Youtube video generation.  If you want to excel at a high level, really study the craft, take classes, watch YouTube videos which are great but also read books and ask a zillion questions of people already doing it.  You don’t necessarily need to go to film school, especially with the exorbitant tuition prices these days.

Start making small films and then challenge yourself incrementally. It’s important to take chances and make mistakes in the beginning. My biggest lessons came from making mistakes. The bigger the mistake, the bigger the lesson. By doing this you’ll gain confidence.

Find a mentor, it will save you a lot of time and wasted energy. I never really pursued one until much later and I could have really benefited by having one.  It took me a long time to get into writing, but besides learning the craft of directing, learning how to write a screenplay puts you in a greater position to succeed. It allows you to generate your own material and it will also help you become an even better director.

There’s also a tendency to fantasize about coming out the gate and being successful like Ryan Coogler or your first film going to Sundance and getting a big studio deal. I hate to be the one to bust your bubble but that’s not realistic thinking. It only really happens to a very small few. The other 99 percent of us, myself included, take it day by day and film by film. Hard work is it’s own reward and it will eventually pay off. Even if it takes you fifteen years after graduating NYU film school like me to make your first feature film.

Not everyone is cut out for it, but if you really want it, don’t just do it for the fame, money, or accolades. Those things are nice but I would suggest doing it because you have something to say. Do it because you want to make a difference and because you feel the call to be great and for a purpose. For me it was a desire to see Black images reflected on the screen and to tell the multitude of stories that exist in our community that never get told.

And finally, what is the single greatest movie you have ever seen?

SCHINDLER’S LIST always stands out for me. I saw it at a time when I was questioning my own abilities to be a filmmaker and it inspired me tremendously. Steven Spielberg is a master filmmaker and that film stands as a great achievement. The story is powerfully gripping and all his craft as a storyteller is on full display.


This is one of the many movies playing at this year’s Whistler Film Festival. For more showtime information and on the festival itself, point your browser to www.whistlerfilmfestival.com!

One Reply to “Whistler Film Festival 2018 Interview – SKIN IN THE GAME director Adisa”

  1. Looking forward to the West Coast premier!

Leave a Reply