By Ozzi Ramirez
Let’s give a warm welcome to Alisa Lomax!
Based in Detroit, Alisa is an award-winning producer and director who is interested in providing a platform for characters who are in the midst of navigating hardships. Some of her most celebrated projects include Maya and Her Lover, Layla’s Girl, and the documentary When I Need to Smile, which centers on philanthropist and jazz label founder Gretchen Carhartt Valade.
In addition to these titles, she also wrote, produced, and directed the short films reality and Big Girl Lost. Not to mention, Alisa was one of just 13 Detroit writers to be selected as part of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.
Find out more about Alisa as we discuss her amazing 20+ year career trajectory, which includes her transition from working in corporate jobs to more artistic endeavors, and her current role in a digital arts program that aims to introduce the art of filmmaking to kids!
Tell us about yourself. Give us your elevator pitch!
I’m a filmmaker creating work about Black women in midlife facing the future as they age. I want to talk about all the grief we’ve experienced and hard-won insight we’ve acquired – maybe somebody coming along behind us can benefit.
You began your career coordinating corporate and industrial videos for Kmart and Visteon. Since then, you performed a wide array of jobs that included stage production, live events, and commercials for Ford, GM, UAW, and the NBA. You also worked on various television documentaries that garnered Emmy wins and nominations, along with contributing your skills to the 2002 blockbuster movie 8 Mile.
When did you realize you wanted to branch out and pursue your own projects? What steps did you take toward this goal and was it a smooth or bumpy transition?
I’ve always wanted to make my own movies. Working with others who were making their own films let me know that I could too. I was always writing, so I had material. Of course, even for the lowest budget short, you need some cash.
Building relationships and discovering resources through work and my membership with the Detroit Filmmakers Coalition (later Detroit Film Center), I met the people and got access to the equipment I needed to make a short film on 16mm, reality. I was able to cobble together the money for processing from my earnings.
Getting my first short made was definitely a bumpy transition into directing. Actually, I don’t even know if “transition” is the right word since I did continue to do crew work (and non-film work to earn money). It really is always a challenge to fund the next project, and that doesn’t change.
You were selected to be part of the exclusive Screenwriters Lab at Sundance. Can you describe the highlights of this process, and explain what makes the screenwriting experience at Sundance distinctive from other workshops and resources you might have explored?
My Sundance Screenwriting experience was great because I was with a talented and diverse group of Detroit area writers led by Joan Tewkesbury, screenwriter of Thieves Like Us and Nashville, both directed by Robert Altman. The program had come to [Detroit] for an intensive, and I was fortunately chosen to participate.
One writing exercise – creating a scene that is based on your screenplay but may not necessarily be included in the final script – sticks with me because that kind of freewriting has helped me to think about my stories and characters more deeply. Being in that environment and having that creative exchange with the group has been very meaningful to me personally.
On your website and through your career choices, you’ve displayed a commitment to providing a platform for stories of Black women. What was it about the characters of Maya and Carla, the protagonists of Maya and Her Lover and Layla’s Girl, that interested you as a producer?
While Maya and Carla face different challenges, I was attracted to both these characters and their stories.
Both women are forced to face certain facts of their lives as a result of losing a parent. Carla was estranged from her mother; in the wake of Layla’s death, Carla needs to find a way to deal with her anger about her mother’s alcoholism. Maya has lost her father as well as her way in her own life. Now almost 40, she’s trying to get her footing and decide what’s next for her. Taking a lover proves not to be an escape, but a mechanism to make her face where she is in her own life.
These characters and stories resonate with me because I know women like me who would connect with these characters and stories. In addition to being drawn to these characters, I was also taken with the way these stories were written. I have a long working relationship and friendship with the director, Nicole Sylvester, and I truly love her take on storytelling. It’s important to me as a Black woman and a producer that these unique personal stories are told.
You’ve recently been in the process of developing a curriculum for children as the inaugural artist-in-residence of a digital arts program. Can you tell us more about this program?
What is one exciting lesson or project you’ve designed as part of the curriculum, and what’s the most important lesson or insight you would like to instill among the children who participate?
Our goal with the Fenwood Media Arts Program is to produce a short documentary by the kids about the neighborhood in Detroit where the project is taking place, Hope Village. They put their hands on equipment the first day and have now done a great job completing their first two interviews.
As much as I would love to nurture a burgeoning filmmaker, I mostly want to expose them to something they may not have thought about as possible. I want them to know something I had to discover as an adult – that the world of expression through different types of filmmaking is a world they can participate in. And if they don’t want to work in the field, perhaps they will be able to see themselves embracing creativity as well as other unknown opportunities in different ways.
What brings you to NYWIFT?
The filmmakers I worked with on Maya and Her Lover, Trevite Willis (producer), Stephanie Dawson (associate producer), and Nicole Sylvester (writer/director), are all NYWIFT members. I thought it would be a good idea for me to join a group of women working internationally and expand my network.
It has been good to be in meetings and hear the experiences and expertise of women working on a variety of projects. I look forward to learning from and, hopefully, collaborating with this accomplished group of women.
What’s some of the best advice you’ve received? What is one piece of advice that has led you to say, “No. Thank you!” upon hearing or applying it?
Best advice: “Just because you’re an empath doesn’t mean you can take on everybody’s problems. Stop trying to carry everybody’s baggage for them.”
Worst advice: “Get a real job and make movies on the weekends.”
How did the pandemic influence your professional life?
Maya and Her Lover was in festivals virtually while we sought distribution. After signing with 1091 Pictures, the film was released at the end of 2021, so the team was working with the distributor to reach that milestone.
I had other family and personal responsibilities to attend to, so I wasn’t really working on my career during that time. I think the shock and overwhelm of that experience – supporting friends who were sick and/or had relatives who were stricken or died – that was the true focus.
What can we look forward to seeing from Alisa Lomax in the future?
Currently, I’m writing several projects including an off-kilter Christmas movie, a series focusing on women in midlife, and a feature about a woman discovering her life after the loss of her mother.
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