HBO: Where were you coming from when you applied to the HBOAccess program?
Pete Chatmon: I had applied to HBOAccess in the previous session and did not get in. Then I made a short film, Black Card, that got picked up as part of the American Black Film Festival. I applied again and was fortunate enough to get accepted.
Kevin Lau: I started out as a film distributor, and learned the business side first. I came out of Columbia’s film program with a thesis film, Made in Chinatown, a period drama set in late-’60s L.A, that went on to win NBC’s Short Film Festival. Through that I was encouraged to apply to the directing program.
Kate Marks: I had worked in theater as a playwright and director. Then I did three short films in film school, and a short film afterwards as a fellow at Film Independent. When I got my second interview, I was coming out of the first trimester of being pregnant.
HBO: Part of the interview process for finalists was explaining how you’d direct several different scripts, created by the previous year’s writing fellows.
Kevin Lau: I pitched on two scripts, a comedy and drama, about what my directorial vision would be, and how they could be distilled down to 15-minute standalone pilots. I prepared a week or two for those. Given my dramatic roots, I latched onto the drama they sent me, and I was super-nervous about pitching on the comedy – but they really seemed to like it because that’s ultimately the one they gave me, F**ked Up.
Pete Chatmon: The one I responded to the most was Lady Bouncer. There are questions about identity: What is it to be a woman in a male-dominated profession? Trying to have that conversation in a comedic fashion while getting some action and drama in there was exciting for me.
Kate Marks: I made lookbooks for each one of those scripts. I was particularly drawn to Manic, the one I ended up getting. I identified with the main character’s obsession with over-achievement. In high school that’s something a lot of kids go through. Everything is riding on getting into college and it pushes them into extreme mental states. I was really drawn to experiencing the school through Aurora’s eyes. Because she’s medicated, I wanted the look to have this hazy quality to it.
HBO: The HBOAccess experience also involves getting notes from executives. Was that intimidating?
Pete Chatmon: That was one of the things I was excited about with the program.
I’ve made two features, five shorts. I do branded content for my production company where I work with clients and agencies. I’d never worked closely with executives giving notes, and had the opportunity to mold the work around that collaborative experience.
Kate Marks: I think it’s a special skill to get a note, interpret it, and get to the bottom of what that note is pointing to. They often push you to find something you wouldn’t find otherwise.
Pete Chatmon: It was very rewarding and in projects I’ve done since, HBOAccess prepared me very well for what that experience would be like.
HBO: Having had the experience of making your pilots, what would you say makes the HBOAccess experience unique?
Kate Marks: What’s so phenomenal about this program is that you get to make something in the studio environment. You’re adapting your own process to that. It’s an amazing opportunity and skill to develop.
Kevin Lau: HBO really puts their money where their mouth is. They put up a $100,000 budget so we could create and direct something for them. It was like a mini-television/bootcamp/studio that I don’t think other programs necessarily do in the same way.
Pete Chatmon: I’ve been in other directing programs, trying to find as many opportunities as possible, but the HBO experience of making something was different – taking it out of this theoretical conversation, finding specific lessons that I know made me more successful.
HBO: What were some of those lessons?
Kate Marks: To hold on to my process while following the studio’s process.
Kevin Lau: Believe in yourself, believe in your instincts. They’re the reason why you’re in this program. Trust your judgment, and if you go astray, it’s there to guide you back.
Pete Chatmon: You really have to approach directing television so that you’re satisfying your creative impulses, but also giving the network multiple ways to put a scene together. It’s a valuable lesson to learn early on. You don’t want to put people into a corner where they don’t want to be creatively.
HBO: What opportunities did HBOAccess open up? And what’s next for you?
Kevin Lau: It was life-changing getting to know all the people in program, and getting all their support. A lot of HBO opened their doors to me. The relationships that were created in this program don’t necessarily end here. And I just got my first staff writing job on a USA show called Damnation.
Kate Marks: Manic went to the Tribeca and Nashville Film Festivals, and I’ve been shadowing director Scott Ellis on Divorce. I’m working on developing a web series – and I’m working toward making my first feature.
Pete Chatmon: Just this March I got an opportunity to shadow on Ballers. That came because the executive mentor attached to Lady Bouncer covers Ballers. Last week I directed a show-within-a-show segment for Insecure Season 2. And I booked my first episode of Black-ish.
HBO: Do you have any advice for young filmmakers or interested applicants?
Kate Marks: Keep making work — you get into the program based on the work you’ve made. And know what it is about yourself that makes you distinctive.
Pete Chatmon: Don’t paint by numbers. Your originality shines through and gives you the best opportunity to be seen and for others to see the value of what you can bring.
Kevin Lau: Put your head down. Keep learning. Be humble. And you’ll eventually get there.