Saturday 12 May 2012

Interview with Kai Soremekun

For those who don’t know her, Kai Soremekun is an award-winning writer/director/producer who created CHICK, a comic drama series that employs a superhero as a metaphor for exploring human potential. 
   CHICK follows Lisa, a woman disillusioned with her life, who finds her way into a secret academy where people train to become superheroes. This simple idea quickly developed from one short film into a multi-platform interactive webseries.
   I ran into Kai on Twitter last year. She proved to be energetic, humorous, creative and courageous. Given the opportunity, I couldn’t resist asking her a few questions.

*  Where were you born and grow up?
I was born in Hamilton, Canada.  I grew up in Toronto, Canada.

*  Tell us a little about your family life and your school years. 
My dad (Samuel Olusoji Adesola Soremekun) was from Nigeria. He hustled to come over to North America and studied to become a physician. My mom is from England. She came over to Canada on a whim. A friend told her Canada was in desperate need of nurses. She was going over and asked my Mom to go with her, so she did.
   My parents worked at the same hospital in Hamilton and met playing tennis. They moved to Toronto when I was a few months old. Most of my childhood years were spent in a suburb of Toronto called Thornhill. My mom quit working when I was born, so I was lucky to have a stay-at-home mom throughout my childhood. I am thankful for that 'til this day.
   Throughout most of my school years I leaned towards maths and science. I would get drawn to more artistic disciplines occasionally, a graphic design class here, an acting class there, but I never felt comfortable in those classes. Basically I felt inadequate and like a loser. I think it had a lot to do with coming from a more academic-focused household.
   Towards the end of high school my plan was to follow in my dad's footsteps and become a doctor. But the maths and science was kicking my butt. I didn't enjoy them and I was constantly stressed trying to figure that crap out. I worked hard and consistently got good grades but it wasn't fulfilling.
   So my senior year in high school I told my parents I was going to take a year off after I graduated, to figure out what I really wanted to do. It didn't make sense to me to head off to university and spend a chunk of my parents' money on studies I may never end up using.
   My parents were not thrilled. They worried that I would never go back to school and just start drifting, but I guess, at that point, you're done being able to force your kids to do what you want, so they begrudgingly accepted my decision. 
   During this time I had started taking dance classes and loved it. I was so happy when I was there. I took to it naturally.
   I had a part-time job working a concession stand at a performing arts center where the ballet and other shows performed. One day on my way into work I saw a posting in the artist entrance that auditions were going to be held for a school based in New York City called the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). The idea of auditioning scared me to death but I knew it was something I wanted to do. I went to that audition with very little knowledge of what it meant to be a performer. I had to sing a song. I sang My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music and I was horrible. Ha ha. But despite my horrific performance I received an acceptance letter a few weeks later.
   Now I was in a bit of a dilemma because I had also applied to Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and gotten accepted. My father wanted me to go the traditional university route, and said dancing was something to call a hobby, not a career. But my mom told me I should go to New York City because, if I didn't, I would always wonder, What if?
   I am forever grateful for her bravery in telling me that. It probably wasn't easy to say since it meant her daughter was headed into a life that was going to be crazy unpredictable... which it has been. Ha ha.
   And to give my dad credit, even though he wasn't thrilled with the idea, he supported me and paid for my tuition to the academy.
   So off I headed to NYC. I fell in love the minute I arrived. It was one of those feelings where you know you are where you're meant to be. Nothing beats that.
AMDA is a two year program and encompasses voice and speech, dancing, acting, and musical theater. It was rough for me in the beginning. So many of the kids in school had been performing since they were two and here was me with very little training jumping into the craziness. I felt like I was constantly trying to play catch up.
   The school does not allow you to audition while you're a student. But after a year I knew the real test was going to be out in the real world and not in some classroom, so I broke the rules and started auditioning for stuff.
   I remember going to my first audition and my stomach literally trying to leave my body. It was absolutely horrific. But I made it through. I figured if it didn't literally kill me, I was going to keep trying until I got good at this auditioning thing.

*  Although they probably wouldn’t recognise your name, most Australians remember you as an actress in Heat (1995). We tend to think that anyone who has appeared in a movie with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Hank Azaria and Natalie Portman has pretty much got it made. What did that movie do for you personally and professionally?

Kai Soremekun, in the movie Heat (1995)
So let's start with the audition. For those who haven't seen the movie, I have a forty-five second scene [actually, 1 min 15 sec.] with one of the co-stars, a great actor, Kevin Gage. So for this quick scene I had to audition four times! I admit playing a hooker was not my idea of the dream role, and being young and naive I just got irritated at the amount of time I was having to put in to get this tiny role. What's funny is, I think my attitude around the audition process is what got me the role. I just didn't care that much, which is a much better way to go into an audition then desperately needing a gig. 
   Once I booked the role it became immediately apparent to me just how big a deal this was, even though my role was minimal. It opened a lot of doors for me. I got called in for a lot more roles simply because of my connection to this very hyped movie. It was such a big deal that Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were going have their first scene together in a movie. 

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, in the movie Heat (1995)
I remember going to the read-through of the script and thinking, What the hell did I do to deserve this? I can't believe they're paying me! I'd do this for free!  
   As if it was yesterday, I remember where everyone was sitting. Jon Voight next to me on my right. Ashley Judd sat across from me. Val Kilmer next to her. Robert De Niro next to him. Tom Sizemore sat next to Jon Voight, and Al Pacino next to him.
   It was so fascinating to watch how they all worked. Michael Mann, the director, was recording the read-through, and kept asking Val and Robert to speak up. Whereas Al would stand up and get crazy theatrical when his scenes came up.
   I remember being so nervous for my little scene, and then when I said my lines, Robert De Niro laughed. If you see the movie and hear what I say, you'll understand why he chuckled.
   The walls in the rehearsal room were covered with pictures, location ideas that Michael Mann had for the film. He actually sent me out one night with an organization that tries to get prostitutes off the street, as research for my character. He was majorly into detail and I loved watching him work. Many say he can be a challenge to work with, but my experience with him was nothing but awesome. Working with those caliber of artists has impacted everything I do moving forward.

* You managed a cameo appearance at the start of What’s Your Number? How did that come about?
You know what's funny about this cameo appearance is that I had nothing to do with it. My image appears in a magazine, I believe, and it just so happens that I did a stock photo shoot a few years ago for which the photographer has permission to license those images to anyone who wants them. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say my picture has shown up somewhere based on the pics I took during that photo shoot. 

*  You’ve worked as a fitness instructor and appear in a number of fitness videos. How did that come about?
Well actually, I've only been in one fitness video. I was the co-lead instructor of one of The Firm exercise video series. It was simply a matter of auditioning and getting the part. They had me in training for a good six months before we actually shot. There's is nothing greater than getting paid to get in shape. Ha ha.

*  You were chosen by Steven Spielberg to participate in the FOX reality competition On The Lot.  Tell us about your experience with “reality” TV. 

I hated it. I almost quit the entertainment business as a result of that experience and that's saying something, given how much I love the entertainment industry.
   I felt honored to be a part of it, given Mr. Spielberg chose the filmmakers. But trying to make a film, or anything connected to a film, within the parameters of a reality TV show, just didn't work for me. Some people thrive off of being given half a day to come up with a pitch for a feature film, but I don't. 
   I also don't thrive when I've been deprived sleep for three days and fed minimally. I just got really disillusioned with what the production was willing to do to us in order to create some drama.
   What's funny is, they forgot that they were dealing with independent filmmakers who are used to grueling environments, as they try to make their stories a reality. So, although there was some drama, it certainly wasn't to the level they would have gotten had they plucked the average person off the street. We're used to lack of sleep and working non-stop. But even I start to fall apart if you do that to me too many days in a row.

*  A lot of women would love to have had your life.  How do you see yourself?  (As a role-modelAn exampleA warningThe last sign of the apocalypse?)
LOL!  Hmm, how do I see myself? Well, first, as far as a lot of women loving to have had my life, I find many people who aren't in the entertainment business think the life of people in the entertainment business is glamorous and exciting all the time. It definitely has its moments, but, for the most part, we are busting our ass, hustling, and a lot of the time getting rejected.
   I see myself as a shift-disturber. I love the idea of questioning things, entertaining other ways of doing something, and not doing something just because everyone before has done it a certain way. I like to explore that in my work. A lot of my characters seem to be challenged to honor their authentic selves. To find enough courage to step outside the box so they can embrace their uniqueness. 

*  Most webseries are about entertainment. Yours, while entertaining, is more message-centred. Can you tell us a little about when you decided you needed to start pushing back, and why you chose to use a webseries as your vehicle.
I'm not a real fan of message-centered entertainment, so I will have to work on that for Season Two. Ha ha. I like there to be some deeper themes below the surface, that you can explore if you want to, but at a basic level I like to first and foremost be entertaining. The way that I am trying to explore different messages is more so through the blog, Just Add Cape, that is on the whoisCHICK website. The blog explores how we can be superheroes in real life and will become a complement to the web series when we air Season Two.
   The goal is to have Lisa, the main character in CHICK, go on this journey to become a superhero, and if you, as an audience member, want to go on the journey with Lisa, and explore the idea of becoming a superhero in your own life, you can do that through the discussions we have on the blog. 
   Elan Lee, a well known transmedia guy, said the below quote which speaks to what we want to do with CHICK.
I'm such a huge fan of making people feel like superheroes. I just think that's the key to everything. And so, if you can get someone to invite your story into their life, and what they're gonna get in return is to feel like a superhero for doing so... that's the ultimate transmedia experience.
*  Do you have any advice on how to structure a webseries?
The great thing about web shows is that there's a lot of different way to structure them, based on what your subject matter is. I think figuring out who your audience is has a lot to do with how you structure the show. You want to create content in a way that is appealing for the people who would watch your show.
   There are no rules, so my biggest piece of advice would be to just do stuff.  Experiment and adjust as you go.
   There are a lot of things that could have been better about Season One of CHICK, but it was a big learning curve. I can tell you that it holds way more weight when I tell someone I shot a 20 episode first season, even if it could have been better, than if I was telling people about this idea I have for a web series, but hadn't shot anything.  So JUST DO IT!!!!!

*  If you could recommend just one filmmaking advice book to a newcomer in Adelaide, what would that book be?
I'm going to break the rule and recommend a couple of books that I have referred to often and have a lot of earmarked pages in.

*  What are three things you wish someone had told you about filmmaking?  
1. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort. The team you surround yourself with will make or break your film. 
2. Don't wait to make the script perfect, or get the perfect location, or the right amount of money. As soon as you can, shoot. 
3. Tell everybody about what you're doing. You'll be surprised at how much help you get speaking it out loud to people. 
*  I was particularly impressed by your idea of putting together a “writers room” for series 2 of CHICK. How has that worked out for you
It has been awesome. It's one of the best decisions I've made for Season Two so far. I knew doing everything in Season One wasn't serving the show, and so when I thought about how to approach Season Two, I knew I wanted to treat it more like a television show. Putting together a writer's room seemed like a logical choice. 
Kai, with mother and brothers
   I have remained friends with Kerry Lenhart, one of the creators of a television show I was a series regular on for the FOX network called Medicine Ball. I asked him if he would give me guidance as I tried doing this for the first time. Which made stepping into the unknown a lot easier.
   I had close to 100 submissions from writers. Whittled that down to fourteen interviews, and chose four writers, one writer's assistant, and myself running the room.
   The most important thing I wanted to establish was making the writer's room a safe place. I think for creativity to really thrive, you have to nurture a safe environment for people to share their ideas. 
 Five simple rules...

I came up with five simple rules to help with creating that atmosphere and established these the first day we got together.
   1. Anything goes
You can say whatever comes to mind... there are no stupid ideas.
   2. Don't break anything you can't fix
Basically if someone comes up with an idea you don't like, you have to come up with another suggestion to counter that idea. Just saying "I don't like that idea" is not allowed. I also encouraged the writers to ask questions, if they didn't like an idea. That allowed the idea to be considered a little more before we decided as a group if it wasn't working.
   3. Use the stupid stick
I had a simple little stick that people could pick up if they were feeling nervous about sharing an idea they had. Basically whenever anyone was holding the stick they were shielded from any kind of ridicule. This extra layer of protection was very important in the beginning, when people didn't know each other well yet, and were nervous to express themselves.
   4. Kai's gut has final say
I really wanted the room to be a group effort, where all of us had a lot of input into the final decisions we were making for the season. The one exception to this was when my gut spoke up. Everything I do with CHICK is guided first and foremost by my intuition. What this means is that on occasion I will feel I need to make a certain creative decision, and not always have the reason why, to back it up. Sometimes they will be decisions that don't make sense. I understand this can be frustrating, so I try to give people I'm collaborating with the heads up from the beginning. I made a promise to myself years ago that I would always honor the gut. Period.
   5.  Have fun
Pretty self explanatory but, seriously, you want to be having fun. I have a little sticky on my computer that says, If you're not having fun, it doesn't count. We laughed a lot in the writer's room. It was great.

So basically we met for a couple of months, every Saturday, for four hours.  Breaking story ideas, developing the direction of the characters, and laying down the outline for each episode. Now I am starting to assign individual scripts based on the outline we've created, and writers have a week to get me a first draft of their script, which is usually between three and five pages.
   I would highly recommend a writer's room for other content creators. Especially for people like me, who are a one-woman/man entity for the most part. I can't express enough how amazing it is to be bouncing creative ideas off of each other, and how much that benefits the story. I think when you've been working on your project for a while, like me, you can sometimes get too close to it, and having those outside voices to add to the mix is really important.

*  What are your ten favourite movies of all time?
Ah, crap. I hate questions like this. It's so hard to pick favorites of anything for me. I don't know if these are my ten favorites, but here's an eclectic mix of movies that came to mind:
*  What’s next for Kai Soremekun?
The second season of CHICK, which will segue into the feature film Fantastica.
Another web series that explores women's sexuality, with a sense of humor. I find the U.S. is way too hung-up about sex and nudity. I want to challenge our relationship to sexuality.
   Longer term, a feature film based on an autobiography I have been obsessed with for years. I don't have the rights secured, so won't speak in more detail about it than that.

Here's CHICK, episode 8, Believe in Yourself.

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Anonymous said...

Good interview,very informative,
not at all 'gushy'

Kathy said...

I found this interview fascinating, Kai is so brave to be jumping into making webseries like this. Her writers' room sounds like a fantastic place for an aspiring screenwriter.