Women’s History Month is coming to a close but we wanted to make sure to highlight a powerful female director, producer and actress named Kelley Kali.
After Kali’s film ‘I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking)’, which she stars in and co-directed with Angelique Molina, premiered as part of the selections for this year’s SXSW Film Festival Narrative Competition this month. We’re excited to tell you that the film won Special Jury Recognition for Multi-hyphenate Storyteller honors. The film follows a day in the life of a young widow, who is struggling to provide housing for her young daughter, while putting on a brave face (and roller skates) to complete her mission of securing shelter for them both. Watch a trailer for the feature below:
BOSSIP’s Sr. Content Director Janeé Bolden interviewed Kelley Kali, as well as her production partner Deon Cole about making ‘I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking). Check out their Q&A below:
Janeé Bolden: The film is incredibly topical, I read that your inspiration was witnessing how homelessness increased so much in Los Angeles during the pandemic.
Kelley Kali: Really the inspiration came from when I wasn’t able to pay rent for several months. Realizing how many of us live paycheck to paycheck. A lot of my friends work in the film industry and the film industry was shut down so a lot of us were having a hard time finding work. Really even if you’re not in the film industry it’s been tough as well and a lot of us if it wasn’t for the moratorium in our city in Los Angeles, I’ve ended up on a friend’s couch or family member’s couch. There’s a lot of us who have ended up in our cars and unfortunately, a lot who end up on the streets. I came to Deon because he’s my writing partner/producing partner and I came to a lot of my girls from USC, we all went to film school together for our masters, my co-director Angelique Molina and my producing partner, Roma Kong and my other producing partner Capella Fahoome, we all got together and pow-wowed on what was affecting us all. Living in Santa Monica, Los Angeles has a really high homeless population but I was noticing there were a lot more women on the street since this pandemic. I mean a LOT. So it was something we wanted to address.
JB: Despite it being such a serious subject matter, there is a lot of comedy in this film, as well as hope. How did you manage to construct a narrative that manages to balance both? There are so many times when Danny could have ended up dead. All of her money is in a fanny pack, come on now!
Kelley Kali: Her whole world is in that fanny pack. It was certainly a collaborative effort. We had to keep our team fairly small to safely shoot during COVID so we knew that we had to keep our crew down to 10 or less. So when I was talking to the team I let them know that we all have to act in it. So we all have to wear every single hat because we can’t cast and bring in outside people and put them into high risk of COVID exposure. We were willing to take the risk because it’s us and it’s our circle, so basically that just allowed us to have a little more freedom with what we were filming and collaboration. So Deon, I remember when we were writing it, the girls were all putting it together he was looking at it while we were putting it together so he was like ‘So ain’t nobody hollerin’ at Danny? She’s skating around in her biker pants!
Deon Cole: Yeah I was just like, yeah you should have that in the hood. Someone should do that.
Kelley Kali: So he was bringing in the male perspective which helped to add more humor to it. It was a group effort to create a balance between the elements of comedy and drama.
JB: Danny is extremely scrappy, doing all kinds of odd jobs to help her raise the money she needs, she’s a woman with drive…
Kelley Kali: It’s just how, in our opinion, how we are as Black women in particular. I mean women period have to be strong and scrappy. Especially if they have kids you have to be a protector. There’s no excuses. You have to get it done by any means necessary. In particular, women of color and even more in particular Black women, we’re expected to always be strong, always be that strong Black woman, always have that stiff upper lip. It really was a reflection of what we’ve seen in our families. Knowing that even when they weren’t fine, they always had to play that role of being tough. Even when they could have used a helping hand or some support. It’s really addressing a lot of mental health issues in our society as well, of how we have to pretend to be okay when really we’re not.
JB: With that being the title ‘I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking)’ we should talk some more about the mental health aspect.
Kelley Kali: It’s that pride we all have. The whole title of the film came about because we were all trying to figure out something and someone asked me how I was doing and I said, ‘I’m fine, thanks for asking,’ but truthfully I wasn’t able to pay my rent at the time. It was getting better at the time we were starting this movie, but it was just innate for me to say I’m fine. I’m good. Nobody needs to be in your business type of thing. It’s this pride that we’re taught. We don’t even know why we do it. It’s just automatic. You just say I’m fine, I’m good, even when you’re not.
JB: How did you two know that you would work well together?
Deon Cole: We were in New York. I was filming a movie in New York for Netflix and Kelley was also on that movie, shadowing the director Leslie Smalls and we just ended up talking about our vision of storytelling and different ideas we had. I tell people all the time, once you find somebody that gets your vision or you get theirs, hold on to that person and that’s what happened. The more we talked, the more I was like, ‘Man she get it, she get it.’ This didn’t feel like we’re coming together on something it’s more like we’re doing what we both think would work. We came together and this is one of many projects that we got that we will be producing. We put it together, put it down and here we are. For our first movie to be out and it gets submitted and selected at SXSW for a premiere lets me know that it’s right. It’s exciting.
JB: Can you talk about the importance of creating your own opportunities and not waiting on an agent to call with offers?
Kelley Kali: That’s kind of how the whole collaboration/partnership started. That’s one thing that Deon had been saying. You have to create your own. You have to take it into your own hands because you can’t wait for people to hand things to you and I was 100% in accordance with that. I’ve always felt that way too. I really feel if I had pitched this movie somewhere like, “Yeah it’s this mother that’s pretending to her daughter that they’re camping. Yeah, no, she roller skates everywhere because that’s her only means of transportation. No, no it’s good. No, there’s people around her but she doesn’t want help.’ I don’t know if too many people would rock with it. They would be like, ‘Oh okay yeah, SUUUURE. That’s cool.’ But because like Deon was saying, he gets my ideas and I get his so we’re like ‘Let’s do it.’ So we’re able to put on to screen something that hasn’t been seen before and that most people probably wouldn’t have seen the vision. So when you’re able to take things into your own hands and get it done, we’re able to have different voices out there and different perspectives and we can’t wait for others to say, ‘Hey it’s your turn.’ We have to take our turn.
JB: The entire film takes place within the space of a day. Was that always the vision that it would be the make it or break it day for Danny and Wes, they’re either going to get this apartment or bust?
Kelley Kali: Yeah when we were all talking about this with Angelique and Roma and Capella and Deon we were all like we didn’t have the money to make it more than a day. We didn’t have enough costume changes. We were like we don’t have enough wardrobe for people to keep changing. We have to figure out how this can happen in one day. I always looked at it like an “Odyssey,” like Odysseus, she is trying to get home to a home, and she’s running into all these crazy wild characters. Brooklyn’s character, who I love, is like the Sirens, who is luring her away. She threw her all the way off. There’s all these characters in that journey to get home in that one day.
JB: I read that you have experience with camping, prior to this film
Kelley Kali: I used to be an archaeologist before I got into filmmaking so I was living in tents in the rainforest, excavating Mayan culture, Buffalo soldiers, all over. I’ve lived in tents for months at a time. Thank God it wasn’t because I didn’t have a home. It was by choice, but there are so many people out there who don’t have that choice, so that’s why we wanted to make this film to bring awareness.
JB: How long did it take you to shoot?
Kelley Kali: We shot for 14 days and we had a few pickups after that, but main production was 14 days from the moment I came to the team. We didn’t have time to write the full script, but we wrote the outline and then a lot of the scenes we improv’d and we did it in a matter of two weeks. Then for post, it took us about six months from having the idea to finishing the film so it was fast. It was rapid speed.
JB: It had to hasve been to get accepted by SXSW. Their deadlines are like eight months in advance.
Kelley Kali: Can you imagine our excitement when we saw that? South By only saw a picture log version because we weren’t done with sound and visual effects and all that.They saw the pure cut without all the bells and whistles and rocked with us and saw what we were trying to do. We love this festival.
JB: What’s next for you guys?
Kelley Kali: We have something we wrote together called “F**k You Jack,” this is Deon’s original concept we came together and wrote together and a production company picked up, a pretty significant production company. I don’t know if we can talk about it yet. Now we’re moving into getting that going and then we have another project coming up and we’re writing another script. We’ve got projects coming up and we can’t wait to talk to you about them when we can.
Are you impressed? We sure are. Remember that name — Kelley Kali. Also congrats to Deon Cole for his recent NAACP Image Award win!