culture

W+K Film Series: Tania Taiwo

A W+K Film Series Q&A with writer/filmmaker, Tania Taiwo.

+NYCFebruary 22nd 2021

Tania Taiwo is a writer/filmmaker based in New York City. Her short film, Pharmacopeia, has been selected for regional, national, and international film festivals, including Best U.S. Short, Special Mention (for Stylistic Vision and Emerging Talent) at The Palm Springs International Shortfest, a finalist for Festival International du Film PanAfricain de Cannes, and a SFFILM Rainin Grant Finalist. She is currently a 2021 Sundance / Alfred P. Sloan Artist, working towards expanding the short into a full length feature.

Pharmacopeia is the story of a quirky, Black Pharmacist drowning in student loan debt, who rebels against the system and becomes a drug dealer.

We sat down to talk with Tania about the film. Watch it HERE.

Where did the concept for PHARMACOPEIA begin?

I’m a recovering Pharmacist. And Pharmacopeia was my therapy. I was living in LA around the time marijuana was legalized for recreational use. And everyone had this heightened interest surrounding it, including myself. But as a pharmacist, I’m ingredient-minded. It’s fascinating knowing how things intimately affect the body. And since they say write what you know, I thought I’d take folks along on the ride with me.

Pharmacopeia was birthed out of part fantasy, part reality – the world I see, and the world I hope to see. I know stories of people with $300,000 debt from school loans. Like really! Now mid-career, in complete buyer’s remorse. And with an evolving exploration of the story, I realized the legalization of marijuana can’t be journeyed without recognizing the story of mass incarceration. And mass incarceration has its own deep roots. From corporate interest to corner boys, there’s a story – and it’s never black or white.

How long did it take you to make the finished film?

Five months (pre- to post) and 10,000 hours of google.

In addition to writing and acting in the film, what other aspects of production were you involved in? How did those roles interact with each other (or not)?

I was involved in pretty much every aspect of the film. It was just me and my wild idea. So when I say every aspect, I mean just that. From craft services to sourcing music, crew and talent – you’ve gotta figure that out. The learning curve was steep. And you have to remind yourself – “take off your producer’s cap, or your director’s cap, because you need to be fully present for character!” It was maniacal at times. But, I was not alone. I had an AMAZING team that made the impossible, possible. We were all hungry. And it shows through the work.

They say ignorance is bliss. I had no idea what I was embarking upon when I gleefully said, “I’m gonna make a film.” But truthfully, I enjoyed every aspect of this process – from art direction to lighting (especially), then editing (especially) to color grading (salivating) – it was so beautiful watching it all come together. It was the best, wildest, most exhausting, and rewarding decision of my life. There was a “me” in me that I hadn’t met before then.

What was the most important lesson you learned while making the film? Any challenges you had to overcome during production?

Oh, sweet production – aka “the time when anything that will go wrong, does.” Production challenges your sanity and problem-solving skills. The most important lesson I learned while making this film was to be nimble. If your plan A doesn’t work, there’s another option out there. And it may just be one you like better.

Discover audio is complete trash when you get into editing? Okay – let’s overlap with voice-over. Talent doesn’t show up? Didn’t that PA say they wanted to be an actor? Here’s your shot. In the words of the sensei Bruce, “be water.” Because you may find yourself with an amazing idea in the ninth hour of production. Next thing you know, you’re ordering flags off Amazon, and calling your DP in the middle of the night to shoot pickup scenes. It’s wild. And for me, the creative process never stops.

The chopped and screwed Sallie Mae audio is a central focus in the film – how did you come up with that idea?

I’m from Houston. I grew up on DJ Screw. So it’s a part of our culture. I knew I wanted the film to reflect the annoyance of student loans. I wanted the audience to feel what it’s like to have someone in your ear constantly. And for so many that’s student loan debt, a cloud forever looming, following wherever they go. They find themselves screwed for the long haul in unexpected ways – hence, the chop and screw.

What inspired your career change from pharmacist to ad copywriter?

I’ve always been a creative on the side – fashion line, blogging, podcasting. Pharmacy was for the folks, and I had been over it. I realized so much of my life was something I had transcribed to. So I quit my career as a pharmacist at the end of 2017, and took a gap year to travel and figure out life next. My Eat, Pray, Love trip. In 2018, I was invited to ADCOLOR, and from there completely drank the Kool-Aid. I was already on this journey of writing – and those worlds of advertising and writing poetically found themselves within one another.

You won a grant at Sundance this year!! We know they received thousands of applications for the Alfred P. Sloan fellowship that you won – what did it feel like to be chosen as one of their rare winners?

Effing surreal! I still literally pinch myself. I mean let’s get real, this is my first. But for someone to see your work and believe in you is everything. I’m so grateful to Sundance and Sloan for the opportunity! But before Sundance and Sloan, there were the folks who slid in my DMs, thanking me for telling their story, telling me theirs – urging me not to stop. Because for the first time, they felt seen. I’ve cried snot tears over some of the messages I’ve received. Whenever I get frustrated in this process, I remember them. They are my why.

Any advice you received throughout the process of making the first film that you’re leaning on now as you turn it into a full-length feature?

“What brought you, will carry you. Stay true to that. Your POV is your special sauce, and no one sees the world the way you do. You can hire someone for everything else.” And isn’t that what keeps McDonald’s on top? That flavor only they can provide. It’s okay if you don’t know how to work a boom mic.

What’s next for you and PHARMACOPEIA? (i.e., when will we see this thing on the big screen?!) Haha! If it were up to me, five months! But, things are on a whole other level now. I’m saying next year at a Covid-free theater near you – and I’m sticking to it. With, of course, a special W+K screening. Can’t forget the fam. But first, gotta get the script locked!

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