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Life and Work with Kiana Woodson and Vanessa Westbrook

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kiana Woodson and Vanessa Westbrook.

Kiana and Vanessa, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
Vanessa – The starting process of this film was almost 3 ½ years ago. I remember I was at work and Philando Castile had just been murdered and it was everywhere. I remember, I was watching all of the coverage and feeling like people overlooked the overall issue and the effects of his girlfriend and daughter, who were in the car. So, I was started researching one day and I came across the Willie Lynch Letter and when I got home I told her what I had researched. She & I had been continuously talking about Philando, so this turned into a deeper conversation and we started developing from there.

Kiana – We were roommates at the time and I just started my MFA program at Savannah College of Art and Design. Through our conversations about Philando Castile, the state of being Black in America, and the Willie Lynch Letter, I knew it was something I wanted to tackle for my thesis film. The was the start of our filmmaking journey together.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Kiana – A smooth road? Ha!

Vanessa – Not at all! The script had to be changed so many times before we got the final script. The 1st script was nothing like what you see in the final version. We almost didn’t have a house just a day and a half before shooting and the house is the centerpiece for the whole film. Then, there’s money. You can never have enough money.

Kiana – Yea, raising the money was definitely a challenge. Our film’s overall budget was around $15,000 and it’s definitely something I celebrate for achieving. Outside of the money, we had challenges with insurance falling through, crew members falling through, and balancing between preparing for shooting and still working a full-time job. It’s one of the most stressful periods in my life.

Vanessa – If there was any advice I would give I’d say let go of your expectations. I am still learning that myself. Things happen in the most conventional ways and it’s almost never going to play out exactly how you think. Be open to the experience and whatever it has to offer.

Kiana – I second that! You just have to keep pushing and don’t give up. Just like Vanessa said, it usually won’t go the way you picture it, but in my experience, it will end up being better than you could have ever imagined. The house we found after losing our original house was more spacious for filming, closer for crew which saved us money, and looked better on camera.

Tell us about your work. What do you do, what do you specialize in?
Kiana – I am a Director and Writer, but a great majority of my professional life was in Branding and Marketing. I was a Digital Media Coordinator and Brand Manager for a natural hair and skincare brand for five years. Branding is a love of mine, but Filmmaking is truly my passion. In 2010, when I made the decision to study filmmaking and storytelling, I made a promise that I would dedicate my life to shedding light on the unseen and giving voices to the underrepresented narratives. I want to inspire Black and Brown people globally, pushing us forward – showing the world truly who we are. I am super proud of what Vanessa and I created with Willie’s Letter. It’s a film that makes you think and sparks discussion, especially amongst Black viewers.

Vanessa – I’ve worn many hats over the years. I started off in the music industry in marketing and ended up going into the beauty industry and through that I started creating original digital content for a few major brands. While I enjoyed both the music and beauty industry, I felt like I was growing in a different direction. I started taking writing classes to develop my interests. From there, Kiana and I began collaborating and that has grown into a great partnership between us. Now we are preparing the film for the festival circuit to get the film a full feature and we are developing several other projects for Television and Film.

Kiana – As for what sets us apart, I think it’s our backgrounds. I am Jamaican-American, raised by a Jamaican Immigrant mother. I spent my formative years between North New Jersey and Georgia, which are two totally different worlds. Vanessa’s life was also split, starting in Brooklyn, New York and moving to Decatur, Georgia at 8 years old. Our goal is to bring the southern landscape to screen, whether coming of age or with women protagonists at the forefront. We’ve seen California and New York, but how often have we’ve seen Georgia.

Were there people and/or experiences you had in your childhood that you feel laid the foundation for your success?
Kiana – I would say that one of the childhood experiences that set me up for success was watching how hard my mother worked. She’s a nurse and you could tell she absolutely loved what she did. Also, she supported every dream I ever had and never forced me into anything. She truly gave me the freedom to see where my passion was and she fostered it.

Vanessa – The women in my family for sure. My mom, because she’s seen me grow and develop and no matter what I wanted to do she always supports me. I don’t always like everything she says, but sometimes it’s what I need to hear. My grandmother, as well. She was one of the executive producers of the film and like my mom she always supports me. She’s very smart and I admire that about her. They are two people I’d hate to disappoint because I know they really believe in me.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Willie’s Letter – 2019, DP: Blair Winders, Dir: Kiana Woodson, Color: Jeff Spott

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