By Bianca Silva
Los Angeles-based producer Dominique Telson is making a leap, or in a sense, coming back home to New York City to work on her latest film — a comedy-drama starring veteran comedian Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish called Here Today currently in pre-production and will begin filming in October.
Although Telson was born in Haiti, she spent her early childhood in Chile before moving to the U.S. at the age of five. She spent her formative years living in Corona, Queens where she was living amongst residents striving for something greater.
“I was coming from so many cultures that it takes away the fear,” she says on her early childhood and how it’s influenced her sense of self as an adult.
She worked her way up in the film industry, initially working in the acquisitions department at Showtime where she worked up to becoming the VP of original programming and eventually joining Astute Films where she became one of the producers for the controversial film, The Best of Enemies starring Golden Globe Winner Taraji P. Henson and Academy Award Winner Sam Rockwell. Telson sits down with the Haitian Times to speak on her film and producing career.
What inspired you to go into producing and filmmaking?
I was a journalism major. I was at Hunter college and I took a class on film and I loved it. I did a PSA announcement. We had to do an infomercial and I did mine on abortion and it was such a great experience because I had to interview people; I had to do all the research and then I had to actually film it and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
I worked at Showtime for a few years where I acquired films to air on the network. I did not purchase films for redistribution. I was the only black person in my department and was the one they looked to when seeking out films for black audiences.
One year, I had $30,000 left in my budget. I said: “instead of giving the money back to the network, why don’t we give this to one of these filmmakers and if they end up being the next Spike Lee, then they’ll come back and make a movie for us at Showtime.”
I went to the Viacom pictures department and what they said to me was: What are we going to do with $30,000? We can’t do that. I said, we make $6 million movies. I said to one of the guys, if you mentor me, I’ll do it. I’m thinking, How bad could it be? I became the producer on that project and I fought with the filmmaker every single day but it was a fantastic experience. Because I had done this short film, I had experience. I got hired into the production department and I’ve been producing ever since.
You previously served as VP of original programming at Showtime and created Showtime’s Black filmmaker showcase. How important is it for filmmakers of color to be able to have the space to showcase their talent and tell fresh, new stories?
It was wonderful. I did it because I saw a need and was able to fill it. What I didn’t know is that it also helped me because if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have received an opportunity to become a producer. It was so key.
It’s helped me in my personal career tremendously in terms of giving me the skills that I needed to produce and then also helping me form relationships with up and coming filmmakers that are now doing things.
Earlier this year, “Best of Enemies” was released in theaters and focuses on the relationship/partnership between activist Ann Atwater and KKK member C.P. Ellis in integrating schools in Durham, North Carolina and striking up an unlikely friendship. How important was it to display the complexity of the characters and ultimately realize they can find common ground?
Many Haitian families are multi-colored or have at least a white, black relative.
I think that’s the unique experience I can bring to the table. I’ve seen black and white [people] work together all my life and so I feel like telling those stories now in America are very important.
Ann [Atwater] could not stand this guy and what I loved about that film in particular is it’s not a slave story. It’s a story about a woman who was just at that time as tough as he [C.P. Ellis] was. It was really two powerhouses in their world going at it and I feel like they both became better for the experience.
One of the film’s major themes is that of redemption, specifically in Ellis where by the end of the film, he renounces his affiliation with the KKK and solidifies his friendship with Ann. With our current political climate being divisive, how do you think the film avoids telling another “white savior” story despite it being something that really happened?
When I found out who Ann Atwater was, I was like: “this woman is boss.” I really, really wanted to tell her story and then I met her granddaughter. I met both families. C.P. Ellis’ family came to the set. To see the racism from both their generations, the root of racism from both their lineages eradicated because they changed their ways.
When I met C.P. Ellis’ family, they hugged me. I just loved that story and I wanted to share that story with everyone. Unfortunately, we came out after Green Book. Trevor Noah has a sign on Sunset Boulevard and he goes: “don’t green book me,” because it’s such a sensitivity to white savior. This is not a white savior film. If anything, she saved him. She taught him that you know what: “We’re not stupid.” One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Taraji says to him: “You’re just like us. You’re poor, you’re just like us. You’re struggling just like us.”
What I love about the film is showing that there’s a lot more in common than they are different if you can take away the eyes of seeing black or white and hatred. I love to do films that really show the common humanity and I love that in this film, he did not save her. She saved him.
We came out at the wrong time right after Green Book and we got slammed. I still love the film and now, people are writing me all the time when they actually get to see it because they didn’t go see it as much but now that it’s playing in other places and it’s coming out on dvd, people are like, wow this is really good.
What were some of your favorite films growing up? What recent films do you enjoy?
Growing up, I remember very distinctly my mother taking us to see Oliver at Radio City Music Hall and I love that film so much. I loved Dirty Dancing. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and these kind of disco movies, I loved them because they were my generation and it was always amazing to me that films could reflect what was going on in our lives.
I love that we have such a diversity of films. I watch so many films because I’m in the producers guild so you get everything. I love Big Little Lies, I thought that was really well done. I love Black Panther. I’m not a big action movie fan but I thought Black Panther was so good in terms of [being] really the first time that you see black people in charge and I love that about it.
I love Get Out. Get Out was really perfect too. I’m not a horror fan. I love films that surprise me like: Oh, I didn’t expect that. I really loved Get Out and I thought it had so many layers. Films that you can refer to again and again really resonate.
How has your Haitian heritage driven you to be successful?
I have no fear. I have no fear to tell anyone what I need to tell them. I feel like I’m fairly, maybe sometimes brutally honest and I think my Haitian culture is that way. I’m not afraid of a black person or a white person. That doesn’t affect me whether you’re black or white. I don’t have anything on my shoulder that says: “Oh, you gotta be careful. That’s a black person or that’s a white person” and I think that made me able to be successful in corporate America and deal with talent and all that stuff. My parents always taught me to be proud. I am proud. I love my story even though Trump calls us a s***hole country.
My children, I’ve instilled in them the pride of being Haitian because I think it’s a wonderful background and it’s a background that covers so much and I love that about it. I’m very proud to be haitian.