Filmmaker in Focus: Vashti Anderson
Vashti Anderson was born in Wisconsin to a mother from Trinidad and Tobago and an American father. After doing her undergraduate degree in Wisconsin, she moved to New York. She enrolled in New York University’s prestigious film school, where she worked with Spike Lee, among other filmmakers.
In 2005 Anderson made her thesis film, Jeffrey’s Calypso. Shot in Trinidad, it tells the story of a young Indo-Trinidadian man, Jeffrey (Dino Maharaj), torn between following in his father’s footsteps and working as an accountant, and following his dream, which is to be a calypsonian. Matters are further complicated when Jeffrey breaks race and class boundaries and falls in love with the free-spirited Kala (Princess Donelan).
Anderson was recently in Trinidad to work on the script for an as-yet unnamed feature film, set here, which she hopes to make next year. I met up with her one morning at a bistro in Port of Spain, and as she sipped coconut-flavoured tea (“We don’t have this in New York”) we talked about her new project, the making of Jeffrey’s Calypso, and why it is even successful filmmakers still have to hustle to get their films made.
Jonathan Ali: What is the purpose of this trip?
Vashti Anderson: The purpose of this trip is to work on my new screenplay, which I’m in the process of writing—I’m doing drafts right now. I wanted to come here and spend some time and kind of soak in the life and especially the pre-Carnival spirit. So I’ve just been meeting with people, working on my script, making observations.
JA: And what’s the film about?
VA: It’s inspired by this period in time when my entire family would come to Trinidad—my family from the US, Canada, England—we would all gather at my grandparents’ house every year and have this particular experience being together. My grandparents have now passed away, so that is never going to happen again. The house that was basically my second home growing up is no longer; we’re selling it. So I wanted to write about this and also incorporate themes that I like to write about, which are race and class, and also music—calypso and soca have been a strong influence on my life. I’m doing some research to incorporate elements of Carnival, also.
JA: When you say your family, you mean your mother’s family.
JA: Could you talk a bit about your background?
VA: I’m half Trinidadian. My mom is from San Fernando. My dad is American of Norwegian descent, and I grew up in Wisconsin [laughs].
JA: You were born there. Born and raised there.
VA: Born in Wisconsin. I now live in New York. But I’ve also travelled around. I’ve lived in India and England as well.
JA: And what was it like growing up the child of a Trinidadian mother and Norwegian-American father in Wisconsin?
VA: It was interesting. It’s strange to be viewed as an outsider by every single group you belong to. Wherever I’ve gone in my life, because I’m mixed-race, and mixed-culture, I was always different, and those differences became apparent in many ways. That experience has made me really interested in the diaspora and post-colonialism. And because I grew up in Wisconsin, [where] we didn’t have a Trinidadian community, going to Trinidad every year had such a strong influence on me, the development of my identity and how I see the world.
JA: It’s interesting you say that. Ian Harnarine, who was here last week doing pre-production on his film, Doubles with Slight Pepper, when I interviewed him he said pretty much the same thing, which is that growing up in Toronto there wasn’t much of a West Indian community at the time, and his yearly visits to Trinidad gave him what you’re saying you got.
VA: That’s it. I actually talked to him about that. I think I would be a very different person if I had grown up around everybody like me. And I think because I didn’t it’s shaped me in a certain way that’s not always easy, but it’s interesting.
JA: Was there any particular moment growing up that made you decide you wanted to be a filmmaker?
VA: Um, I think [when] I realized I wasn’t a good actor [laughs].
JA: Was that your first choice, acting?
VA: No, my first choice was to be a dancer. I love dance; I love watching dance performance. But I’m also enthusiastic about acting; I’m also interested in writing, photography, the visual arts, painting—and all of these things kind of converged in filmmaking. I had this realization in high school that this was probably something I should do.
JA: And where did it go from there?
VA: I did a filmmaking undergraduate degree, and I did South Asian studies, because I was also interested in my cultural identity. This was at the University of Wisconsin. And then I moved to New York with the sole objective of working in film. I had never been to New York before, but I knew I wanted to get the heck out of Wisconsin [laughs]. I worked on independent film productions and television productions and did a graduate degree in film and screenwriting at NYU.
JA: Was NYU’s programme as challenging as you thought it would be?
VA: It was definitely challenging. I was influenced by Bollywood films—this type of storytelling that has so many genres within one film. So I was kind of experimenting with all these different stylistic techniques. I think the most challenging part of my film-school experience was finding my voice, becoming confident about my voice, and becoming confident about my point of view.
JA: When it came time to make your thesis film, you decided to make a film set in Trinidad. Could you say what it’s about?
VA: The film is called Jeffrey’s Calypso. It’s about a young man who’s stuck [in life], following in his father’s footsteps and working at the big oil company. Jeffrey’s at a point in his life where he has to stand up and be a man, gain his own identity and independence from his father. And the way he does this is through this secret passion for old-time calypso music. It turns out his dead grandfather was a performer. He finds all of his grandfather’s old clothes and transforms himself. This idea of transformation is another thing I’m fascinated with. In every single film that I’ve made the protagonist has undergone some kind of transformation. There’s something that I really love about that—an internal and a visual, external transformation.
JA: Was there an autobiographical element to the story, in the sense that it’s about a young person finding his creative voice, and trying to find his true identity?
VA: Maybe [laughs].
JA: You’ve never considered that?
VA: No [laughs]. I mean, I really like writing male protagonists. Maybe it’s so that I can separate the character from myself and be more open in my writing. You might be right!
JA: How did you cast the film?
VA: I had seen [Merchant and Ivory’s] Mystic Masseur. Dino [Maharaj] had such a strong presence. He had a very small role in the film—he played a taxi driver. And the minute I saw him, his presence was so strong; he had something so special about him, I thought, I need to meet him, I need to see if he’s right for the film. When I met him, I knew that I wanted him to be Jeffrey. I saw Patti-Anne Ali in Mystic Masseur as well. And then I contacted Danielle Dieffenthaller. I didn’t know her but I did some research and I knew that she was making [the TV serial] Westwood Park. So I e-mailed her and I said I’m making my thesis film and I need help with casting. And she said, “Come to my office and I’ll call in these actors for you.” She was so generous to do that. And it was because of her that I met Princess [Donelan], who was amazing as Kala.
JA: What was the shoot like?
VA: It was great shooting here, although there were challenges at the time. We brought a lot of our own equipment. I shot on film, on super 16mm; so we brought all the negative with us too. But everyone here was really cool. I’m excited about shooting here again.
JA: The film had its local premiere at Che Lovelace and Peter Doig’s StudioFilmClub, which is where I first saw it.
VA: You were there?!
JA: I was there.
VA: How come you didn’t say hi?
JA: I probably did and you don’t remember! I’m sure I must have. I don’t remember either.
VA: Do you remember me doing this really dorky introduction to the movie? I was really nervous, because this was the first time a Trinidadian audience was going to see the film. I was hoping that they would like it and find it funny and all that stuff.
JA: Was that the experience?
VA: I think so, unless people were lying to me [laughs]. It seemed to go really well. I got very positive feedback afterwards, and watching it with that audience I heard the laughter, at the right points. I heard the reactions; it was good.
VA: Had your family seen it before then?
JA: No. My family was there. My grandmother was there. I remember the night, it was pouring rain and she had walk up the steps to go in, and she said, “I don’t care, I’m going.” It was really nice that she came.
JA: And when you’ve screened the film internationally, what has the reaction been like?
VA: It’s been positive as well; people really seem to like it. I was happy to see audiences from different cultures connecting with my characters. While I grew up in America, I’m influenced by the culture here. With Jeffrey’s Calypso, and with my next film, I’m trying to create characters and stories that reflect an authentic point of view. I think so far audiences have proven to me that there is an interest in these two worlds and in my point of view as a Trinidadian-American.
JA: Could you talk about the music in the film, the calypsoes?
VA: I love old-time calypso, and I was looking for a composer to do original songs and score for the film. NYU had this list of music masters [degree] students who were interested in working on our films, and I saw this person’s name, Kenyatta Beasley, and I thought, “Oh, that looks like a good name” [laughs], knowing nothing about him. So I called him and I explained that I was looking for work in the style of old-time calypso. He’s from New Orleans; he’s a brilliant trumpet player, and he had never heard old-time calypso before. So he did his own research and one of the things that he said is, “Oh, so I have to play everything flat.” And that is the way old calypso sounded, slightly flat, you know? And so he got a few of his musician friends together. My cousin Allison and I wrote the lyrics to the songs and he recorded them in New York. He got a friend from Grenada—who was kind of faking a Trini accent—to do the singing. I think it worked out really well, I think the songs sound really good.
JA: Whenever Ian Harnarine screens Doubles with Slight Pepper to an international audience, the two questions he always gets asked are, one, “What are doubles?” and two, “What part of India did you shoot this?” And he has to explain the history of the Indian presence in the Caribbean. Is this something you find you’ve had to do a lot, not just for the film, but as a person?
VA: Yeah. Not with this film, but as a person, all the time. People are very confused by me being half-Indian, and that same half is Trinidadian. And I have to explain to a lot of people where Trinidad is, what its colonial history is, its history of slavery and indentured servitude, and how the Indians ended up here. So for that reason, because I felt this total unawareness [of us] as a people [laughs]—which I think, you know, if nobody knows who we are, we’re not going to have a voice, and if we’re making these films and nobody knows what to do with them, or how to categorise them, or how to interpret them, we’re not going to get our work seen. So part of what I wanted to do with Jeffrey’s Calypso is integrate certain cultural elements. So the tassa scene, I wanted to include, because I wanted to include Indian drums; you know, certain elements of the language, certain elements of the lifestyle and the culture I wanted to make sure was in there so people would see the multi-faceted culture that we have.
JA: So what happens next?
VA: Full force working on the script over the next couple of months, going into fundraising and casting for the movie, and hopefully shooting by this time next year. That’s the goal.
JA: What’s the scene like currently in the US for independent filmmakers in terms of funding? Now of course we have these online fundraising platforms, Indiegogo and Kickstarter and so on.
VA: I think it’s much more promising in terms of terms of that. I have many friends who’ve raised money—raised significant money—on Kickstarter. And I think if you have a good video to put on, people become interested, in you or in the subject matter.
JA: Spike Lee used Kickstarter for the new film he’s making. Because he still maintains—and it might sound disingenuous to some people—but he still maintains how hard it is for him to fund the projects that he wants to make.
VA: I think that’s true. I think that that’s true. I think established directors still have to hustle, especially ones with a strong voice, like Spike Lee.
JA: So what does that say for the truly independent, first-time feature filmmaker?
VA: It’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s definitely not an easy career path. But it’s something that I feel I must do. If I looked back on this and didn’t see that I made it or I tried or I put in significant effort, I would be like, “What was I thinking?” It’s something I really have to do.
You can watch Jeffrey’s Calypso, for a fee, here.