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BPS 168: Sundance 2022 – God’s Country with Shaye Ogbonna

As our Sudance Film Festival 2022 coverage we have on the show today writer Shaye Ogbonna.

When not in pursuit of retro sneakers, Shaye Ogbonna can be found worshiping at the Temple of Story. His most recent feature project is the contemporary western feature GOD’S COUNTRY — starring the incomparable Thandiwe Newton.

Based on a short story by acclaimed author James Lee Burke, God’s Country is a character-driven thriller set in the snowy wilderness of the American West. Thandiwe Newton plays Sandra Guidry, a Black professor living and working in a rural college town. She’s also grieving her recently-deceased mother, for whom she’d served as primary caretaker. On the day of the burial, Sandra discovers a mysterious red truck parked in her driveway.

She soon learns it belongs to a pair of local hunters seeking to enter the forest behind her house. Sandra turns them away politely but firmly – her experience tells her these are not the sort of men to welcome freely into her world. But they won’t take no for an answer, and soon Sandra finds herself drawn into an escalating battle of wills that puts her most deeply-held values to the test.

In the television/streaming space, Shaye is currently developing JUMPMEN — a one-hour drama set in the cutthroat world of the sneaker industry – with Showtime. He is also staffed on Showtime’s THE CHI and JJ Abrams’s DUSTER on HBO. His feature writing debut — 2017’s genre-bending LOWLIFE — opened the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival and became a darling of the genre festival circuit, culminating in its acquisition and worldwide distribution through IFC Midnight.

Shaye’s creative mission is to center marginalized voices within genre storytelling. Enjoy my conversation with Shaye Ogbonna. 

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Alex Ferrari 0:00
I like to welcome to the show Shaye Ogbonna. How're you doing?

Shaye Ogbonna 0:16
Good, doing good. I'm excited. Obviously, it's a big week. And it's it's been a long time coming. So yeah, it's I'm feeling pretty good.

Alex Ferrari 0:24
So yeah, man, first of all, congratulations on being accepted into Sundance, writing a film that's accepted a Sundance. And so it's one of the better ones I've seen at the festival this year so far. So really, really, congrats. But before we get into the magical lottery ticket, that is the Sundance acceptance, and we'll talk all about that. How did you get started in the businessman?

Shaye Ogbonna 0:49
In the business, um, I'd say I officially got started in the business. My first job job official job was in 2019, when I got my first job in a writers room as a staff writer on the limited series evil, which is about Evil Knievel, which contentedly is still in development. But I I'd say my start, I came out to LA about 12 years ago 2009, I got into AFI American film institution. And when I got in, I got accepted as a screenwriter, the way AFI is, if anybody knows anything about American Film Institute, it's a conservatory model. So you, you work in your discipline and your craft, so they accept like 28, directors, 28 writers, 20, producers and 20, cinematographers and also production designers and editors. And the first year, you all work together on your short films. And then the second year, you work primarily on the thesis film, and as the writers were, like working on, like, you know, writing, you know, a couple of features, there was I didn't even like when I got to AFI, I didn't, I hadn't had a plan on on being in television. So I took a TV class my second year, and that just like kind of like really changed. And at the time, it was like the golden age of television, like madness, and Breaking Bad and popping off. And so that was kind of like that was a huge amount of huge effect on me as a writer. That was when I decided I also want to work in TV as well. But when I got to AFI, I had a plan, which was to and this is something I've heard from people that I respect, which is like network across. So when I got the AFI My plan was to like find my tribe. So when I got there, I immediately tried to connect and collaborate with people that I that I work I respected, and who were really cool people. And so when I got there, when I was there, a me and like three other writers and a director formed a collective. And we just started, like, obviously, we were working at AFI, but you know, on our own, we will be writing like short sketches. And we were like doing this stuff while at AFI then right? After AFI, we were still working, we were like, you know, put do our own little projects. And we even did like a web series. And so like those, they don't tell you this in school, but you know, it's generally when you got a school, nobody's offering you $100 million feature or a $5 feature to write or direct and, and the TV industry isn't gonna like, Hey, we got this stabbing job was succession come get it like that don't really work like that. So we are, we were like run and run out of school making our own stuff and kind of like, getting better. And, and working on our own on our own material that kind of got us noticed by different entities, that kind of helped me skip a few steps. Like I didn't, I didn't, I was never read as assistant, I was never really a PA, I never really did the intern thing and so like, just kind of like working in a collective gave gave me the opportunity to work and to get my stuff seen and also get better. And ultimately, like kind of take a different path. And then probably most people take, um, and it was working in a collective that we we put all our resources together and eventually made an independent feature really low budget independent, independent feature called low light, which was a kind of a small crime film, it's an ensemble problem, I can activate it as well. And that was kind of the thing that really kind of like pushed things forward. I think it was been ultimately led me to get representation and ultimately led me you know, to me led me to meeting Julian and ultimately led me to God to God.

Alex Ferrari 4:24
So So you mean to tell me when you show up to La they don't just hand you a ticket to go to the studio and just start writing and get paid them do that.

Shaye Ogbonna 4:33
It was the most surprising thing ever. Like Shane Black like I was like yeah man when is when am I gonna get my like $3 million spec rocky page like my 5 million against the million events like it's supposed to come immediately after I graduate.

Alex Ferrari 4:50
Because they did not recognize your genius early on. I think we all have this problem.

Shaye Ogbonna 4:57
Yes, absolutely. We all have this problem. needs to be rectified.

Alex Ferrari 5:01
Absolutely, absolutely. No question, Ben? No, I find it really interesting that you started off. You were smart. I don't know if he was smart enough. But you, you figured it out that doing it alone, especially as a writer, because writer is a very solitary profession. And writers generally don't. You know, I'm a writer, I've worked with writers. You know, sometimes you've got really personable writers and other writers who just are Charlie Kaufman sitting in the corner. And they're so writers don't generally think about a collective or about networking, or about putting together a team or a group of people like minded people to try to get something made. And that is so valuable, because I think what you just said is, if you wouldn't have done that, you wouldn't have been able to get your first feature made, you wouldn't get your you wouldn't have been able to get your representation, so on so forth. So it was this group that you can all lifted yourselves up. I mean, look, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, they all did it back in the day, they got this group together, and they helped each other out.

Shaye Ogbonna 6:05
And it was great. I didn't even know that like I had already came in with that mentality. But I didn't even know that those guys did that until I like, watched like the Spielberg document that I've heard about it before. But I've never actually seen it I actually seeing images of Spielberg on the Scarface set with like, a, like, in the in the big shootout with a like a mass wall, like Spielberg, like work like big camera on it, you know what I mean? So like, even they, the masters were thinking of that, you know what I mean? So like, yeah, I it was just, it was something inherent. And I agree, as writers we're not necessarily like, it seems antithetical to the way we work to be, like, collaborative. But what happened, like it was a thought for me going through a place like the American Film Institute, or, I mean, I think any, any really good graduate, undergraduate firms will lead the graduate program, if you go like, everybody's on the same level as you and generally, everybody's pretty good. They're just undervalued at that point. Because you're young or whatever. That's the time to like build those relationships and build those collaborations and not try to go you know, network to go go write a query letter to Spielberg has something like that. Because, like, that's, they're not like, I hate to say it, but like, it's levels to this and they're, they're at a different level. Come up with the people that that are like grinding out there with you. And it's, it's it's super rewarding personally, but it gives you pool resources. You know, it money talent, Tom, you're all gonna connections. Yeah, yeah, connections. It's one of my biggest pieces of advice. I'm not a big one advice. But like, that's a big piece of advice that I would give to any really crass person. But specifically, like, writers and directors, like at least what like cinematographers, and other people like you. They're working like all my friends at a DPS, and we're editors, constantly working, you know what I mean? And like, with the writers and directors, it's a little bit tougher to crack. You know, nobody, like I said, nobody's offering you like, a film. Nobody's offering you a TV show. So you have to, like find ways to work, and network and build and build yourself.

Alex Ferrari 8:02
Yeah, I think I think, you know, being in the town like LA man, if you don't have friends, if you don't have relationships, you can't get anywhere, man, you just can't. And that's something that they don't teach you. They don't teach you that at school, even like you don't understand what the value is of those relationships. Because all of my all of my jobs when I first got to LA man, were friends. Before I got to LA, I knew two people, a dB, I need to DPS. That was it. And within I don't know, within two or three months, I was nonstop working as an editor and colorist post supervisor. And then it just started to build on itself because you're like, Oh, this guy's really good want you to do this. But it was all about those building those relationships going to these little parties and like, you know, introducing yourself and all this kind of stuff, man. Do you know, I'll tell you a quick story. You know, Barry Sonnenfeld. Right. And the color and the camera. You know, Barry was the DP on Blood Simple. First, yeah. Do you know how he got that job? He told me when he was on the show. He said, Hey, man, listen, how'd you get involved with the Coen brothers? I went to this party. When I was young. I finished I just got finished doing porn, because that was how he paid off his first camera. I heard about that. Yeah. So that he's like, I'm sitting in the corner, and I look over and then the other corner is this tall, lanky dude. So I walk over to him. Hey, what's your name? Because I'm Joel. He knows I'm Barry. He's like, Yeah, and he's like, I'm gonna shooting this thing this weekend. We're shooting this trailer for this movie that we're trying to get the raise money money for a blood sample. He's like, Well, I got a 16 millimeter camera. He goes, You're hired. That was it. That was um, like, really? And that was the wit and that's how Barry Sonnenfeld and Joel, Joel and Ethan took off. But it was about being you got to put yourself out there man. You're absolutely right.

Shaye Ogbonna 9:44
She's a writer. As writers like you said like a lot of us are like some of us are Charlie Kaufman people but a lot of us are not really super like social butterflies. Some of us are obviously, but you got to like, You got to get out especially in LA. No got to get out there. You got it. You got to network, you gotta meet people, you can be the best writer in the world. But if you just sit in the corner writing like these amazing scripts that nobody's really getting a chance to see it, a lot of times, they're not just hiring you, not just the work, they're literally they're hiring you like they want to be in business with you. And nobody's gonna know that if you like, if you just sit in your room all day, and you're not getting out, you're not meeting people, oh, at least if you're not a big social person, connect and collaborate with people who are who can kind of like, work those avenues for you, or at least put you in situations to like, be the icebreaker in those social security?

Alex Ferrari 10:32
Would you would you at the beginning of your career, if you found a if you found a director or a producer? And you guys are just starting out? I'm like, Listen, man, if you get this produced, and you don't got any money, pay me something on the back end, would you rather have something that's been produced and no money at the beginning? Or a little bit of money? And nope, and nothing gets produced?

Shaye Ogbonna 10:54
There the former like 100%, like I am, I am 1% like the person that that's the way I we came up like very little money, but it's being produced. That is that has a higher value to the industry than then having money and not really having anything out there. That's always been the way but that's that's kind of the way the people that I looked up to that's kind of the way they came up, you know, people like really like just like, let's get it made. Even we'll, we'll make our budget, our aesthetic, you know what I mean? Like, we'll make our resources I study because we're that good as creatives. So yeah, I'm 100% in that camp of just like not having a lot of money and getting out there producing something.

Alex Ferrari 11:35
Now, was there a film that lit your fire to come into this ridiculous business?

Shaye Ogbonna 11:41
I I don't know if there was a specific because the films that are the films that I love or not. Well, I mean, Felipe, for me, like my favorite film of all time, is he I'm on Michael Mann. I just like and I like to write in the crime. I love like prom films and really elevated you know, crime cinema. And so for me, like that's like, that's the film I was like, Man, this is like this is like, you can make something that just like sits with you forever that you constantly revisit. So I don't know if that will say that was the film that got me in the industry. You know what's funny is go like as a kid I always say this is gonna be funny. So rocky four was the first movie I saw as a kid that I was just like, Yo, I wouldn't do this

Alex Ferrari 12:28
If they don't don't Hey man, listen I just had I just had a filmmaker who made an entire movie about the opening of rocky three instead it Staten Island and how it affected him and his friends and stuff like that yeah do Rocky 14 Look there's you could turn on Rocky for right i little you know what you want to hear some funny yesterday in traveling through YouTube. The end fight sequence from Rocky fork came up like hey, do you want to watch the end? I'm like yes. And I just sat there and watched drag rocky fight I've seen that fight a million times. But there's something about what's the lone did man and and with that character and like with Mr. T and rocky and three and four specifically three and four specifically to I enjoyed one is a masterpiece five we don't talk about and then Rocky Balboa was like I can't believe he did it again. Like that was like what?

Shaye Ogbonna 13:23
Yeah, no, I I am a Yeah, I'm a rocky I'm a rocky apologist obviously when when the funding Wood Creek came out I got mad because I was like, Why did I follow? What are you talking about? I'm so bad about that. And then I was like, champion like you know from the moment I saw it, I'm Cree to was a different story because I felt like I increased to I was rooting for Dragos kid I was like no not I was like I didn't Dragos kid to winning in Korea struggles kid had a little bit rougher.

Alex Ferrari 13:55
I would agree with you. I would I would agree with you man. Like he can't have like Michael B's Michael B's often you know in the mansion. He's like man I lost I lost it like you have not looked at you

Shaye Ogbonna 14:09
He would have lost and for you to and the increased three would have been a rematch you all have been able to be like the way I would have done it but long story short rocky rocky rocky before they get reduced is like candy the candy is the candy ones up but there's so much for like don't don't don't like seriously don't sleep on it like the stakes are so low I mean the stakes and rocky for it couldn't be higher. It's literally like we're trying to stop a nuclear war is rocky when Robbie bees Drago he like destroys, he destroys the Soviet Union. Like I'm joking around I'll be it's but I love like for me as a kid watching that. It was just like that was when like you dreaming? Like I remember like watching that putting popcorn in my mouth and play boxing with my buddy. And that was when I was just like, Yo, I want this feeling that I have right now. I want to give this feeling to other people you know. So that's that I remember that had the most effect on me

Alex Ferrari 14:58
See and that's the funny I love that you said that man, this feeling I want to give to other people, that's a really good place to come from, as a writer as a creative that you're trying to give back through your art to your community in one way, shape, or form to the world in one way, shape, or form. As opposed to being a more of egocentric place of like, I need to be big, I need to be this or that. Those guys, I've met those guys, it's hard, man, this business is so damn hard, in general. And if you think I know, you've met them, you know, guys who think their guys and gals would think that, you know, they're the last coke in the desert. And they think that you know, and you know, and you just like, you're doing it for the wrong reasons, man, you're doing it for the wrong reason, you will make it

Shaye Ogbonna 15:41
Now, 100%, like, for me, it is about, like, I always say this, I pray at the temple, the story, I'm a writer, you know what I mean? So like, ego, you know, this happened that God's going to like, for me, like my ego, check the door, especially when I'm collaborating or something that's a personal project with people that I actually love. You know, what I mean? People that I consider, like, you know, contemporaries, or friends, or whatever you want to call it, I leave it about the essence about like, I just, I want to be I want to give some kid or some adult or whoever, like the feeling that I got from watching, you know, from watching rocky for the first time, or watching heat 75,000 times, you know what I mean? I want to give people that feeling. And so that's why I do this.

Alex Ferrari 16:22
Now, I got to ask you, man, because I know there's a lot of young writers listening, how did you keep going all those years, that when doors weren't opening, then doors weren't opening, things weren't happening the way you wanted to. And you just kept your head down, and you just kept going, if I may use a rocky, quote, you know, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. And it's so much it's so true. What did you do to make it through because we're not talking about months, we're talking about years. So there must have been something that you did that made you wake up every morning, like, Man, I gotta write, or I got to do this, and I got to keep going, what was that thing?

Shaye Ogbonna 17:03
I think it was kind of two things. One thing was like, this is gonna sound really like hokey. But you just have to get to a point where you're like, there's no like, you have to, you have to, you have to actually define yourself and declare your, that you are a writer, that you are a director, like a lot of people they like when it is a mental thing, like you'll be you'll be in conversations, and you'll be like, Well, I'm studying to be a director, oh, I'm working toward, you know, making my first you know, you have to mentally like tell you so even if you're working if you're if you're working a day job at a grocery store, or wherever, you have to tell yourself mentally the IMA, right, you know, that like you, you have to approach whatever that day job is got to approach it as it's literally what I do to pay the bills, but like what I am is a writer. So if that means like, I have to like if I have an earlier shift at my job, that means when I get off, I'm writing for the rest of the day, or I get up if I have to get up in the morning and I write so like, the intention is that my day, and my focus is on my crap. And everything else kind of like come second to that. And then like the other thing is, like what I mentioned earlier about, if you have a tribe, if you have a group, y'all hold each other down, like eat like one of you might be having like a lean time and the other like you, we you're constantly for me, what helped me move forward was like, I had these other people that I was for lack of a better word, like Behold, it's like we all worked together. And it was just like, even in our lean times, we weren't making any money, it felt like I was working because even even us just going out on the weekend and making like, just the stupid sketch, you know, by Dodger Stadium or something like that, that felt it feels the same that felt the same way as I felt making gods come to you with with Anyway, do you know what I mean? It's just like, having that group that you're, you're in it together, it really kind of insulates you from those really hard times. And yet, it takes years, but those years, they tend to, like fly by, because you're making progress. You're constantly moving forward, like set be intentionally set kind of like, set a plan, like you know, like, Okay, well, this month, we're gonna make, you know, this little short scene. And then you know, in the summer, let's make like a short film, we'll make a sketch. And then let's start let's let's work, maybe we'll do a web series, you know, like, if you'd like just always like kind of plan and always kind of like move forward take incremental steps with the next thing that's kind of what got me got me through my kind of like, cuz like I said, I didn't have a traditional the most traditional route to where I got that kind of helped me power through that non traditional path.

Alex Ferrari 19:45
And and then that's how you got low life made, like low life was made specifically by you get in your group together, like we're gonna go make a feature.

Shaye Ogbonna 19:52
And literally the way life happened was it was like, it was like, almost like a huge collection of all these sketches We work like a lot of the sketches that we worked on. Some of them were baked into the script, some of the characters we had worked on we had, they weren't good, other sketches. So it was kind of like expanding those characters. So it kind of became this weird universe, almost like an MCU. But you know, our MCU of characters, and it just kind of like came together in this one film. And obviously, like, we were inspired, we were inspired by tamarind, Tito Scorsese's of the world, we all grew up, you know, watching like, those, like on tour, you know, the shade blacks that John was storytelling in a specific space. So it's like, that we were very much influenced by the stuff that we were really into, like, you know, the 8080s, big blockbuster stuff, but also like, you know, Bad Lieutenant stuff like that. Yeah, we were constantly like, you know, pushing each other and moving forward.

Alex Ferrari 20:53
That's awesome, man. That's great. And I hope I hope everyone listening takes a lesson, man, because it's, it's almost like a mastermind. Like it's a mastermind. That is like, you're working with a group of people that you constantly helping each other, but you're also keeping yourself accountable to each other. And even when you're not working, quote, unquote, and not making money. You got to still working on something on the weekends, are you still working on something and just keep you keep exercising the muscle if you will?

Shaye Ogbonna 21:18
Yep. That was what is about. That's what the collective was, to me. It was constantly because if you don't like it, because those years are so lean, if you don't exercise that muscle, if you're not out there putting in the work, then yeah, like, it's gonna, it's gonna be a longer process, all you're doing is you're just really setting yourself up because it's so it's so difficult to break in this. We've all heard the stories, but if you like, you're really out there exercising that muscle, people will see it, people will find you, the industry will find you. If you're out there, like doing like it the way that I approach things. That's how it worked out.

Alex Ferrari 21:51
So when you when did you do like, literally declare yourself a writer because I know for me when I sat down and started writing my first script and my first book, you know, it took me a minute. There's a lot of imposter syndrome that happens in our business, a lot of imposter syndromes. I've talked to the Oscar winners who still frickin have it. I'm like, What, are you kidding? Are you like kidding me? Like you just won an Oscar. They're like, Yeah, but I, I've had directors who are on set. I'm like, Yeah, I feel like security is gonna take me off in a day. I'm like, You made you've made a billion dollars at the box office, like I know. So it's, it's a strange thing. So what was it that thing that fear that you had to break through? To finally declare yourself like, I'm a frickin writer? Because it is it is a conscious choice. It is a conscious choice you make because I had to make it personally.

Shaye Ogbonna 22:39
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I'm sorry, though. I mean, I feel like it was right around the time we did low light. Okay, because I was literally like, I was like, working. I was like, I was literally and I actually like to. So I'm like working. I'm working a day job. You know, making very little money. But I was, but I'm obviously working with my guys. And it was something about when we finally like, we had worked on a low like, we wrote it like a writers room. And we it was some about that first day, when we started like making it at some seedy motel, you know, a Studio City. We're literally like promise happening around so it was like, it was in the air. Like you didn't, we didn't just point the camera and shoot, like, we don't have to make this stuff up. It was that moment where it was just like, my bank account. There's nothing in here. I'm waking up at like three in the morning to go walk and sit and I'm making no money. But I was like, This is it I'm doing that was like it was around the time. I was like, You know what, I'm gonna broke up a bit of my life. But I'm a writer. Like, I'm literally doing this. And from that point on the mentality was different. Like, obviously, like, I didn't come out of low life and immediately get a job. It still took some time. But I from that moment on. I saw myself as a writer, I saw myself as a creative and everything else I did. It was just what you got to do to eat and eat. But yeah, that was it was around the time alone.

Alex Ferrari 23:59
It's so funny, because you said I was the brokest in my life, but I'm a writer. That's a quote. That's so true. And I saw the I saw your trailer for low life and I was like, I know that I know that motel. I used to drive by it all the time.

Shaye Ogbonna 24:15
History I don't even know if it still is still the route but like, yeah, and she had a history and it was perfect

Alex Ferrari 24:22
Oh, no, it's pretty Yeah,

Shaye Ogbonna 24:23
It's out there for the fun things. We had shot everything coming full circle, we had shot part of a web series before so we ended up we were gonna shoot in a different location and all that but we lost that location. And that both was available. Let's go back. You know what I mean? So it was like it was like graduation.

Alex Ferrari 24:38
That's hilarious. Now, you've worked with some writers rooms and you've also worked alone as a as a feature writer. How do you what did you bring from the writers room into your feature work and vice versa? What did you bring into your feature work from your future work into the writers room because it's two very different feel, dude, I mean, writers rooms with a completely different environment, then you just sit down writing. So is there anything you brought from each other to help each other and each other's?

Shaye Ogbonna 25:08
Yeah, I mean, what helped me like I said, I never had never been a writer's assistant, I never really been a PA. So I didn't have professional experience in the writers room, but because of the collective for like the past, like five years before I got that job, we worked like a writers room. So a lot of the habits that I saw in writers room, I, I learned in, in working with my guys, so like, but it would help me because like the imposter syndrome, I'm not big, I'm not I'm not like the biggest like pitcher in terms of like, constantly pitching stuff. Some people, a lot of people in a writers room, specifically comedy writers, and that's really what you're doing. And so I kind of hold that crap with my guys. I mean, when you're, when you're in a group of guys, and you know, we're like, you know, we're like cracking on each other. And it could be really like testosterone or whatever, like, you learn to kind of like to pitch and you learn how to like, sometimes you will have a bad pitch, and it may not work out, but keep you know, it does don't stop don't let it stop you from from continuing to move forward. So like it helped me like when I finally got my first professional writers room, the reason I was able to get that job, and then I was able to kind of like skip a bunch of skip steps and be successful was because I had honed those skills working with my guys on on low light, we literally met wrote low light, like, like a writer's when we broke it, we broke story, we assign each other different sections, and we would love read a section, bring it back. And then we would like you know, edit together, like a writers room. So like that helped me to really make that transition, even though I still felt some imposter syndrome. It got me that first job. But it also helped me make that transition like that was a tough transition. It's like going from like, it literally is like going from high school to the pros as an athlete. So that helped me like being able to, like have that experience with my guys helped me make that transition. And in terms of go from the writers room to the feature, I think it's all about, about process and time management. You know, in a writers, professional writers room, like you're constantly working, you're working against deadlines, like it's got to get done, you know, and you're getting assignments, and it's much more about time management. I think in the feature world specifically, when you're working alone, you generally don't have any, like deadlines you're trying to hit, or you're just kind of like going with the flow. But working in a writers room helped me and I guess you could say specifically with God's country. It really helped with like process and development and breaking story and time management. I think those kind of like different virtues or whatever you want to call them. That's what I kind of took from like the writers room. We're on the road to the future.

Alex Ferrari 27:44
Now, before we get into God's country, man, I need to ask you, what was it like getting the phone call? Or how did you find out that you got into Sundance, I always love asking these stories.

Shaye Ogbonna 27:55
I'm Julian McCartney. He got the call. And then one day he called me. And he was just like, so it is like whenever like good things happen. It's kind of Julie's like so. Um, there's some news. And I weirdly had this feeling I was like, this is around the time that I think they announced this on. So it's kind of like I wasn't like, I hate to say it's gonna sound really I wasn't like really surprised. It was cool. It was awesome. And it's an awesome feeling. But it's also part of me that just like I was like man to work we put in on this particular film, the themes just like the people that are involved in it felt like it was perfect, but son has but you never know. Sometimes these things are political or what have you, whatever. So it still is cool. But yeah, like Julian called me up and was just like, so news. And he was like, we got it to Sundance, and it was just like, wow, take a moment to be like, Could you repeat that? You know, it'd be so yeah. And then be like went out like that me in June when I got grabbed a beard. And it was kind of us just really reflecting just really being like, man, it's been like a five year process. And this is kind of like the culmination of everything.

Alex Ferrari 29:03
Yeah. How long did it take to get to get the movie off the ground?

Shaye Ogbonna 29:07
Um, it's, we mean, Julian met late 2016. We started talking about the things you want to project early 2017 I think 2018 We went to Montana because I'd never been like we shot in Montana and a story set in the Mountain West. So he had been before because he had shot. He had made the short version of the film. So he had been shot in Montana before he had familiarity Montana and his DP. Andrew Wheeler, like he lives he parky part time lives in Montana, so I'd never been so 2018 Go to Montana. That was huge in my process, like being able to go and see the landscape and see the terrain and kind of see the environment. It helped me with me to write you know, to actually write those scenes a lot of ideas that I came up with, I came up with, I came up with when we were in 2018 We went to go to Montana. So 2018 We go to Montana. And we were like, and we started writing the script around that time. And then like, we were going to shoot early 2019. But we just felt like we didn't have enough the fire enough financing to actually do the film that we wanted to do it. So we didn't start shooting until February 2020. So we started talking about the film in 2017. Started working on a script like 2018 We'll start shooting 2020 We might not

Alex Ferrari 30:27
But nothing, but nothing happened in 2020. So it was just a smooth sailing and 2020 for you. Right. And production wise

Shaye Ogbonna 30:32
We started shooting. Oh, yeah.

Alex Ferrari 30:36
It took a second took a second

Shaye Ogbonna 30:39
Trauma man you hit me with the trauma right out. Yeah. So something happened in 2020. Like, literally February bar. 2020 is when the world just like changed. And we were making our movie at that time. And we had about two weeks left on the schedule. We're literally shooting at a mortuary. And we get the we get the call like, yeah, we got to shut down, you know, anyway, he's got to go back to to the UK because the UK might shut down. So she's got to get back and we all had to leave. And it was like, just like you have like the best moment your life and all sudden becomes the most depressing moment if you like. We didn't go we literally went back I think a year to the day, we went back to finish. And it was the greatest thing that happened because it made that year we were home near Julian worked on elements of the script, like we went back to rewriting and we worked on elements of the script that we felt there still were issues that we were shooting in 2020 stuff that we noticed, like do we this could this could be better. We went back and made those things better. And we ended up making a better film and 2020 months, some things got reshot. And then we added we obviously like finished what we didn't get a chance to win. We were there in 2020.

Alex Ferrari 31:42
That's awesome. And that's awesome. Now, um, so So you basically you guys just got together and started writing this concept. Can you talk a little bit about the themes of the film? Because I've seen the film? It's a beautiful film. It's It's beautiful. It's haunting? It's a It's definitely dark. Without question, can you talk a little bit about the themes and how you kind of interweave them into the characters? A bit without giving away too much, obviously.

Shaye Ogbonna 32:07
Yeah, well, the thing about myself and Julian is we're both big fans of the western genre. And the way we kind of like broke down this is I think it's maybe Junior statement is that the Western is American American mythology, America's a relatively young country. And so like, the Western is like our mythology. And also, for us, specifically, the Western I think is where America goes to work out its problems. Like there's a lot of, I've written a couple of like westerns and like, the cool thing about westerns is there's there's, there's themes that you can, like, really spoil westerns and explore from an interesting perspective, one of them is race. And one of them obviously, you can you can explore theme to gender, you can sport themes of inequality, expansion, you know, this is the West, and it's just like the jungle where you can really do some interesting things. So for us, we always approached God's country, like it was a modern Western, and for me, like, for, for obvious reasons, like the idea of centering a black woman or a marginalized person within the western genre, which is like this super American genre, and landscape is just, that's the dream for me, you know what I mean? So like, for me, that was the, that was the, the core of it, and just like, this is a Western. And we can, like, we can approach themes of race, and gender inequality. And, you know, I'm, like, you know, I'm trying to, like, I'm talking with the right word, but I'll give the things away, which is like, you know, things like sexual assault, or we can we can, we can really explore those in this genre. But let's not like, let's not focus on it, like that's not that's not make these themes, we want to approach it from a subtle that from kind of a subtle perspective. So at the end of the day, it was just like, it's a very, it's a really simple story about one character having a dispute with a couple of other characters, but also this character being considered an outsider, in this community. And that's really what the story is. And obviously, there's, there's issues and themes of grief that are being explored in the film as well. These are also universal themes. That's another thing is like less, even though we're kind of like we're exploring these issues. In this particular in this particular project, less like is born from a place of humanity, and kind of like things that feel universal. I think grief is something that we've all experienced or some in some way, shape or form. So it's a sport that for me, it was important that coming into the film, the character is grieving because I feel like you're going to initially identify with the person like that because we've all been through so that's kind of like a kind of like went off on a tangent but for me, it was always like, yes, there's a lot of beads in this film, but let's just approach it specifically from story character a wants something character bees getting in their way, and they got to work it out.

Alex Ferrari 34:57
Yeah, and you've got you've got a great Weird actor from Yellowstone in your in your film? Which I think Yellowstone right now is probably the some of the best television being written right now without without question and if you want to talk about modern Western I mean Taylor Taylor don't play

Shaye Ogbonna 35:15
He's Mr. Modern Western. I'm not gonna lie like I've seen. Yeah, we I mean obviously I watched Wind River you know it's obviously like exploring like I'm the same landscape as God's country. Hello high water you know which he wrote which is probably the best modern Western and in the past few years hmm yeah Taylor's got a lot he knows Texas. He knows like the phone. I grew up partially I grew up with suburban, you know, Houston, okay, but just living in that environment like you drive you drive out of town you drive west you know, you drive a little bit out of the outside of major cities like like that scene and hella hot water we're like, they're like they're hurting the cattle across the river. I try to like it and like Jeff Bridges wait to go around and he says like, it's the it's the what the 21st century and I'm hurting cattle like from a storm. I'm like, Yeah, that's that's really what it's like. And it is those that color those little nuances that that's what makes it feel like a modern Western, you know, like, no country bowl man is another great example. Yeah. Yeah. I love it. I love I love the dollar.

Alex Ferrari 36:18
Yeah, and I just moved to Austin from LA. So well, this is where all the cool kids are hanging out man is where all the cool kids are hanging out. And there's no state tax, but

Shaye Ogbonna 36:32
From Austin to La like I when I when I moved to LA in 2009 I came from Austin. So like, yeah, Austin is like one of the places in the world that I consider home like I love I love the city.

Alex Ferrari 36:43
I love us and then you're right man, you drive outside of Austin. About an hour out. You are not in Austin anymore. Like this is a whole year like you're literally in hell or high water you're in you know you're in Yellowstone. You're just it is a completely different world a completely different everything. But it's it's an It's interesting. It's really I love absolutely love living here man. And, and I got it's so funny because I got hooked on Yellowstone. When we got here, I was like, Oh, I gotta we gotta watch out. I'm like a fat like completely fanatical about Yellowstone and all the stuff that he's doing but yeah, that's what I was really excited to watch God's country man. It's a really great chapter in the films that are being created in this genre. Man, you did a fantastic job. I gotta ask, like, how did you guys get the financing together for this film? And, and was it before Tani or after how did that work out? How did she get involved with it? Cuz she's a fairly big star. Now she's in one of the biggest TV shows on HBO. And you know, she's she's no joke.

Shaye Ogbonna 37:51
Yeah. Anyways, Major. Um, so we the theme like Julian So Julian kind of light was inspired by the way we did low light. The way we did low life was like, we literally made it the pennies we spent together, edit everything we could and put the idea was, this is a train that's leaving the station, partners financial, whoever get on get on board and get out of the way. This thing is gonna start this day. You don't want to get out of the way without waiting enough. So that was the mentality Julian kind of saw that everyone and apply back to, to God's country. And so we specifically wrote for the aesthetic, we we specifically made the film was certain way to where it wouldn't be cost prohibitive, you know, to make it like we weren't making a $5 million movie we weren't right, it looks like that way. But we weren't getting an approach. Like we were writing a $10 million movie or even a $5 million. We approached it as like, like, again, make make the make the movie and the story. Make it make the budget of whatever make it your aesthetic. So we kind of had we approached with that same mentality and like we we were able to find some fun there was a a colleague of Julian's, that that actually contributed enough a significant amount for us to like, make the film in 2019. But at the time, we felt like That wasn't that wasn't enough to really make it the way we wanted to make it so we just waited like let's wait a year and let's start going out to some at the time we were gonna go with just like a like a I hate to say the word like no name actors, but

Alex Ferrari 39:32
Unknown, unknown. Non bankable, non bankable.

Shaye Ogbonna 39:36
Yeah, no bank there we go. Non bankable. We we I don't think we had even like decided yet. We were like literally auditioning nonveg wack. But then we were like, You know what? Let's wait a year. Let's see if we get if we can get some more financing. And then let's just go out to more bankable actresses which is what we did and we spent 2019 offering and really not offering but like looking to see if we could you know, find a bankable actor And we were able to connect with cold iron who ended up being the the production company on the film and he ended up bringing in securing the financing to actually go make the film the way we wanted to make it and actually working with cold iron. We were able in the script went around and the attendee and Tandy attendees agent anyways agent reached out to us and we're just like, this is really really like this, we think this could be good. But anyway, like what do you you know, are you are you interested in her? Of course we like yeah, of course. And so, um, she read it and immediately connected with the material and cut to a few weeks later, like we were meeting me and Julie were meeting with Tandy, Tandy way, ironically, at the same literally the same bar while I met Julia 2016. And we had the first our first discussion that led to God's country, we ended up meet with Tandy like literally at the same place. It was like all like Kismet serendipitous, as they say, um, so yeah, in terms of the financing, like, it was just like, it really was, like, kind of to, to it was like a private a friend of Julian's who's a really great guy that just really like like, you know, supported us as portable you're doing. He invested in it, it was like it was cold iron, they kind of came in with the the rest of the financing. And that was really it.

Alex Ferrari 41:22
That's awesome, man. That's awesome. Well, I know you guys are gonna have a really successful screenings over at Sundance and, and I'm sure I'm sure it's gonna find a home somewhere. I doubt that it won't. I don't think he's wrong, I doubt that it will find a home somewhere. It's I think you guys are gonna do just fine. I'm gonna ask you a few questions. I asked all my guests, man. What advice was it? And I think we've kind of talked about, I'm going to ask it anyway. What advice would you give a screenwriter trying to break into the business right now?

Shaye Ogbonna 41:53
One I've already mentioned, which is like, network across, try to find, try to find people that you can collaborate with that can get that you can actually make your stuff with. I mean, we've seen We've seen it happened with a lot of people who are major force in the business right now. They collaborate with people who are on the same level as them. And they, like we talked about, just work that muscle, and also you're putting stuff out there. And when you put stuff out there, it has a value versus not, you know, just writing you know, you know, writing a bunch of scripts, yeah, you may get better as a writer, but at the end of the day, the goal is to get your work produced. So I always say, network across. And then the second one, I would say, take an acting class. And those is like, take an acting class, or act in something. Like for me, one of the greatest lessons I learned was from acting in the stuff that I was working on to the collective like in my collection, I collected one of our guys, as a director, he's always putting me in stuff. And he always had me playing like the same character, which is hilarious. And so like, by acting things, it helped me it gave me a different perspective, a different perspective on scene work, like a good example was in like, in low light, I wrote this huge monologue for like a character in the script. In the movie, anybody seen a movie that is a character movie, it has a it has a tattoo, that's a pretty that's that's pretty like it's something it's too offensive offensive to a lot of people. But there was like a story behind it. And I wrote this like crazy monologue about what happened in jail and everything and why he got the tattoo. He's like a, he's a recently released copy. And there was this cool monologue and he got on set we realized like, the same work is like, this is too much like it was this huge monologue. And at that time, I got my actor hat on. I'm not I'm no longer writer. I'm like, I'm just like, let's, let's cut. Let's cut this, let's cut this monologue. And let's just make it a mystery. Let's just make it let's just make it the entire movie that no one knows why he got this. People will constantly be asking that question and it's gonna like so much engagement is going to engage me like, why does he have he said wouldn't like it? Because he seems like a really nice guy, but this tattoo. So like, I wouldn't have done that. If I hadn't had my actor hat. It was my buddies who were in my buddies were in the group that are writers they were on set that day. They were like, begging us not to cut this. Like she was like, no, no, no, no, cut it, man. It's like, this is what the movies but I was like, Nah, man, trust me. It's not working. Let's cut it, let's go. And it ended up being like, a great decision that I think really, like took the movie to a different level. So I 100% recommend taking an acting class or acting something. The funny thing is, I think a lot of writers probably originally wanted to act, but they either like there were generally like quiet people or they just they don't have the chops, or they or they were afraid or whatever you want to say. But act like I would definitely like take at least just taking an acting class. I think it will make you such a better writer. And it also will help you with getting your stuff out there. Sure. You're gonna be other actors. You're gonna get other actors to work and workshop yourself.

Alex Ferrari 44:54
Yeah, no, no question, man. I took an acting class and I've been an actor in I hated it. turrible it makes you a better director to because you've really feel the empathy of what you're asking another performer to do. Because a lot of times directors is like, Just Dance monkey dance, like, you know, just like, move here, move there. Like, it's like you don't understand they're open, you have to open yourself up. And, dude, it's

Shaye Ogbonna 45:19
Highly recommended for directors. Yes, please take an acting class or act because yeah, you kind of like, they're human beings, not pieces on a chessboard. So you got to like, You got to learn how to, like, communicate and talk to them. So

Alex Ferrari 45:31
Absolutely! Now, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film business or in life?

Shaye Ogbonna 45:38
Ohh man! I wish you would have gave me log is less, I'm probably patients. Um, that's my thing. I think as there's this mentality coming up, and specifically writers is that you just got to like, write a bunch of scripts, you know what I mean, you got to write a million scripts, and just keep putting stuff out there. And keep an eye. And another thing I've learned as I've, as I've grown in this business, it's about quality, not quantity. So like, patients, whether it's like, instead of like going and jumping on something new, maybe like stepping away, like, I'm a big fan of like, if you're working on stuff, then maybe step away from it for a little bit and go work on something else. And number two, don't just put it out there, don't put something out there. Don't put something out there until it's ready. And that's where the patience comes in. So like, you may work on something. And you may think it's like pretty good, but maybe take a step back, step away from it, and then return to it and look at it again, with fresh eyes. And you might see some things that that you didn't see before that were like glaring issues that now you know, the issues that weren't learned before, but now you read it with a fresh perspective, now, they're a glaring issue. So patience is something that we had to deal with on God's country because we literally had to wait a year to to finish the film. So I feel like in this industry, and in life, it's a marathon, it's a war of attrition. So just like, you know, be patient and and just, like have some result, I think, I think those are the things that will will carry you throughout this throughout this particular industry throughout this particular experience.

Alex Ferrari 47:12
I think the business teaches you patience, man, whether you like it or not, you're gonna you're gonna learn you're gonna learn patience if you'd like it or if you don't like it because you're going to get a lot of like I always say I got shrapnel lots of it from this business you know and that's it that's but when you first come in so where's the money coming? When am I getting my first job? When am I getting like yeah, it's not just the just

Shaye Ogbonna 47:36
I'm still working right I'm terribly successful and I'm still I'm still have to learn like when is this check coming? When is this you gotta be like Look man it's like you don't you don't you don't control the world like don't

Alex Ferrari 47:53
Don't push don't push the river it flows on its own Yes. Now I'm three screenplays that every every screenwriter should read.

Shaye Ogbonna 48:03
Oh, man. Okay. Shane Black's work. So let's go with umm..

Alex Ferrari 48:13
Just Shane' Black work period. Just let that that's that's good.

Shaye Ogbonna 48:16
Yeah, he changed the game like Shane changed the game. Like he screenwriter before Shane was I think was his very title like, stodgy formulaic kind of like you know, really like not exciting you know, the the read wasn't exciting it was about it was literally a blueprint for the movie. And then Shane came through me and made the RE entertaining so any of Shane Black's work I would say re Sorkin's work maybe social network if you want to if you want to like read how dialogue can can push the scene and be careful everybody thinks they sorted everybody thinks they're tearing you nobody thinks they can write great dialogue and we all think that and we I'm sure we all we don't care I think I'm good at dialogue. But if you want to like really like read how dialogue pushes a scene for read read social network resources work and then I want to like I think the default is Tarantino, um,

Alex Ferrari 49:21
But he's an anomaly man like attached to it and then you can't write like, like all you could do is read Tarantino, and just be depressed. Because you're not gonna write like it because nobody could write like a because he's Tarantino

Shaye Ogbonna 49:35
that's why I'm saying this. Why don't want to do that because you're gonna read Tarantino like, it'd be like man, I can't do that or do that and then try to do that you really look bad try to do that. Like there's some good there's some good like TV. Good TV scripts. I would say read.

Alex Ferrari 49:51
Breaking Bad just read Breaking Bad.

Shaye Ogbonna 49:53
Oh, the pilot, the pilot, the pilot the Breaking Bad. Read Yeah, as right as we read some pilots, there's some good eyelids Breaking Bad I Think Fargo, Fargo is a good sopranos madman parentals mad. Six Feet Under six feet under the speedo read like the seminal television work that has like really changed the game. Read it like read the pilot to billions. If you can, you know like I try to be a lot of TV pilots when I can. They're really they're generally really good at setting things up. That's really what pilots are.

Alex Ferrari 50:26
Say, man, I appreciate you coming on the show. Man. I wish you nothing but success at Sundance and keep doing what you're doing brother. Thanks for being an inspiration everybody. Listen to man. I appreciate you.

Shaye Ogbonna 50:37
I appreciate you having me on man.

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