Known for her unique storytelling and commanding perspective on camera, the gifted director and writer shares her journey to becoming a flourishing media figure in film. With her debut, “Alaska Is a Drag,” “Queen Sugar” on Oprah Winfrey Network and “Billions” on Showtime, she is part of a new generation of women in filmmaking who have a profound story to tell.
LASM: You’re originally from Salt Lake City, Utah. Are there similarities between you and the main character from “Alaska Is a Drag?”
Shaz Bennett: In many ways, the character Leo is me. I’m from a small town in Utah, and I never really feel like I fit in. Even though Utah has gorgeous places, I just wanted to move to New York City to become an international superstar but I didn’t have any money.
I’m a hustler and my friend said I could move to Alaska and work in a fish cannery to make $50,000. So, my friend and I drove up there. We lived in our van and sliced fish all summer. It was one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had and one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. I didn’t make $50,000, but I made enough money to enable me to move to L.A. first, then New York.
When I read it [the script], it resonated with me. My sister had cancer when I was young, so there’s a whole storyline in the film of these two siblings taking care of each other. It’s kind of taken pieces of my life and combined it with made up details or events.
LASM: When you were writing it [“Alaska is a Drag”], did you expect it to go as far as it did? Or were you just enthralled in this creative process of expressing yourself?
Shaz Bennett: No, I’m a dreamer. Even when I was making it, I was like, “I’m making this little independent movie. And then we’re going to turn it into a TV show. And then we’re going to make a Broadway musical.”
LASM: There are 42 women that have directed throughout the six seasons of “Queen Sugar.” From this there is what people call the “Ava Effect.” How would you describe it?
Shaz Bennett: The “Ava Effect” for sure is one thing that always stuck with me. Even way back when Ava was a keynote speaker, she was talking about how women and people of color rarely get the chance to talk about directing. They are always asked about what’s it like to be a woman director, what’s it like to be this and that. And what’s so amazing about “Queen Sugar” all the directors are women, so there’s no question or need to prove that we can direct, and there’s something so freeing about that. That’s one of the things that I often think of as the “Ava Effect”. I want to talk about craft; I want to talk to another director about this sisterhood of women directors that Ava created, Amanda Marsalis, DeMane Davis and Cat Kandler and Aurora Guerrero. We’re all friends and sisters.
LASM: Is there anything that you tell yourself when you feel like you want to give up?
Shaz Bennett: Something that goes way back for me is that my mom, one of the first female journalists at the Associated Press, would always say, “Never let anybody tell you to be quiet, and never let anyone make you feel less than.”
Sometimes you just have to remind yourself, like the power stance that people do when you go into meetings. I always take deep breaths [and say] you know, “Stand your ground. Make yourself known.”
LASM: Is there anything that you want to touch on?
Shaz Bennett: I am so excited about “Sovereign,” which is a pilot that we sold to NBC. It’s co-written by myself, Sydney Freeland and another incredible woman director from the Navajo Nation. Ava DuVernay is producing and developing it with us, as well as Bird Runningwater. It all takes place on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. It’s fun to think of a way to put characters you don’t get to see very often, like Native Americans, in a regular family drama.
Another thing you don’t always get to see is just people living. I often use “Queen Sugar” as a touchstone for that. One thing that I love so much is that it’s just a family in the South. And their story is so important, valid and full of drama. It doesn’t have to always be a fight or battle for everything. It’s just actually people living. In a sense, it’s a very simple story about a family.