Catching up with THE CHI Director Stacy Pascal Gaspard (AFI Class of 2021)

With the Tribeca Film Festival right around the corner, we spoke to director and AFI Conservatory Alum Stacy Pascal Gaspard (AFI Class of 2021) who participated in the inaugural Indeed Rising Voices Initiative in 2021 and subsequently premiered her film SOÑADORA at the festival. The Rising Voices accelerator was established by Lena Waithe, and her company, Hillman Grad Productions, as well as 271 Films, co-founded by Constanza Castro (AFI Class of 2015) and her sister Domenica. It also paved the way for Stacy’s first opportunity to direct an episode of the television drama THE CHI, which recently aired on Showtime. We sat down with Stacy to talk about transitioning from working in the Admissions department at AFI to enrolling in the Directing MFA, premiering a film that honored her family heritage at Tribeca and what she learned from directing her first episode of television.


AFI: What was your journey like going from working at AFI to applying to the Conservatory?


Stacy: When I first moved to LA, I came here to pursue acting and dancing and discovered AFI as an actress looking for a part-time job. I joined The Groundlings and UCB and booked national commercials here and there, but I always had this feeling of waiting and hoping for the right opportunity to really show what I could do. I’m Caribbean, I’m first-generation American and I speak four languages. I never quite fit the boxes that were laid out for me as an actor; I felt like I was never Caribbean enough, never Latin enough, never Black enough, never American enough.


In the fall of 2018, I decided to save up because I wanted to apply to Yale or Juilliard for acting. At the same time, my boss at AFI asked me to be a temp assistant for Lianne [Halfon], the Producing Head. She would send me decks and treatments and ask me for my thoughts. What do you think of the script? What do you think of this director? And I just gave her my honest opinions. One day she said to me, “you should be going to school here, not working here.” But I didn’t go to film school as an undergrad or have a portfolio. All I had was an acting reel and a dance reel. What was wild was how Lianne saw something in me before I saw it.


AFI: What was it like putting together an application without that prior filmmaking background?


Stacy: I took a thousand dollars from the money that I was saving to move back east and decided to shoot a short. I wrote, directed and acted in it, and it was the first time I felt this alignment that this was what I was meant to do. I shot it in November and AFI applications were due in December, so I had one month to put my application together. I interviewed for both the Directing and Producing programs. It was the first time I got to sit in a space where I was speaking for myself as a storyteller of the kind of stories I wanted to see, the stories I wanted to be a part of. I grew up in the Caribbean and in Miami, so these cultures and the worlds I’ve lived in, they’re full of so much life and color and stories. I wanted to show these beautiful worlds in a cinematic way that is not just like the tropes that we see when it comes to black and brown communities. I found out in April that I was accepted to both programs and ultimately decided to study directing.


AFI: What led you to the Indeed Rising Voices Initiative at Tribeca and what was your inspiration behind making your short film SOÑADORA?


Stacy: I applied to the Indeed Rising Voices initiative while I was still a Fellow at AFI going into my second year. I went from shooting cycle one and two films that were made for about $4,000 dollars to shooting a short film for $100,000 dollars with Lena Waithe as a exec. I couldn’t believe it. Originally, I was writing a feature of SOÑADORA, which is inspired by my grandmother’s migration story to the United States, for one of my screenwriting classes at AFI. She was a single mother and a creative artist who ended up in New York working at a fabric factory while her daughter was being raised on the island. At a very young age, I always heard of the story of the women in my life and the sacrifices that they had to make, so SOÑADORA was a way of honoring them and all of their bravery. I remember my speech at Tribeca was very emotional because it was this full circle moment of me, as her granddaughter, standing on a Tribeca stage in New York, presenting a story that was honoring her.


AFI: What did you learn about yourself through the application process for Indeed Rising Voices?


Stacy: I realized a boldness in myself by taking a chance and stepping up. With Rising Voices, I wrote that script in a week and submitted it. I thought to myself, “Let me just shoot my shot and see what happens.” Now I view rejections like I’m one step closer to the yes, so let’s get these rejections out of the way. Sometimes we get so afraid to take chances because of the fear of rejection or failure. It’s never fun, but now I view it as part of the artist’s journey. I would rather understand that something isn’t for me and keep going. That means I’m one step closer to the direction that I need to go in or the opportunity that is going to be for me.


AFI: What doors did the program open for you?


Stacy: While I was finishing my second year at AFI, the phone started to ring. All of a sudden, managers and agents were interested, but I was still finishing school. Through Rising Voices, I was introduced to the Hillman Grad Production Company. I took a general meeting with them where they asked if I would consider doing TV, and I told them that I was interested in both TV and film. At the time, I thought it was just a conversation as part of the mentorship offered by Rising Voices. I thought that it was just great practice and then literally a year later they called me with the TV offer. I delivered my thesis in October of 2022, and by December, my manager was calling me saying that they were interested in me directing an episode of THE CHI.


AFI: How did you get acclimated so quickly as a director on THE CHI and build a rapport with the cast and crew of a show that had already been through 6 ½ seasons together?


Stacy: Typically, you would shadow or serve as an assistant to a director, but I went straight from directing shorts to a one-hour television episode. I only had one week to prep and then it’s a seven to nine-day shoot to film 45 scenes. While I was in prep, I made time to meet the cast, to learn their personalities and see what they were going to need from me as a director. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions or pitch my ideas. The producing directors Deondray and Quincy pulled me aside and said they wanted to give me my flowers because a lot of first-time directors when they’re coming to TV, they stay quiet and play it safe. I remember my first day of shooting, I was freaking myself out because I wasn’t nervous. It’s my first big TV show with Showtime and 20th Century Fox, and I was having such a great time! I was thinking back to my cycle one, and I definitely feel that all of my time at AFI helped me feel comfortable navigating a set, only now there are more crew members and more tools to use.


AFI: What were some of your takeaways from directing your first episode of television?


Stacy: I realized no matter what set you’re on, you’re always racing the clock. I also understood that I was a guest director. I didn’t take notes from producers or the showrunner personally. I was able to remove the pressure of feeling like I have to give them all of me and instead I got to enjoy the world they’ve built and sprinkle in a little bit of my style and personality. For my episode, there was a nightclub dancing scene, and, with my dance background, I knew that this was a moment where I could shine. Sometimes when you’re moving up and want to get to another level in your career, you can feel like this is my only shot to show them everything I can do. I was able to just be a great collaborator, a great listener. I asked questions. I was engaged. I was invested. The best thing that happened was when I was wrapping, everyone was asking if I was coming back for another episode. It felt great to leave that kind of impression on the cast and crew and know that they enjoyed me as a director and the experience of working with me on set.


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