Q&A: Suicide Kale’s Brittani Nichols, Jasika Nicole and Brianna Baker on Making Film More Inclusive

Driven by the desire to tell their own stories, a team of women gathered together and began filming. The result—a low-budget, LGBT indie feature film called Suicide Kale—has garnered praise and recognition at numerous independent film festivals. Created and produced entirely by women, Suicide Kale defies norms in an industry that continually fails to adequately include women on-screen and behind the scenes.

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Directed by Carly Usdin, Suicide Kale provides a realistic portrayal of queer women and queer relationships. The film details the tense events that unfold after one couple, while visiting “the happiest couple they know,” discovers an anonymous suicide note. The film recently won an Audience Award for Best First U.S. Dramatic Feature at the 2016 Outfest LGBT Film Festival and Best Actress, Best Director and Best of Fest at the Los Angeles Diversity Film Festival.

In addition to an all-female production team, the film primarily features queer women of color as its protagonists. Actors Brittani Nichols, Jasika Nicole, and Brianna Baker recently spoke with Ms. about their experience working on Suicide Kale and being a part of a creative endeavor produced exclusively by women.

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What inspired you to work on Suicide Kale?

Jasika: I was excited to work on this project because it was both an opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone—doing improv—and to work with Brittani, whose work I had been admiring ever since I watched her pilot Word With Girls. Sometimes you come across a great piece of art that moves you deeply, and you think “gosh it would be a dream to be in that play or work with that writer or collaborate with that artist…” This was the first time I actually got to have a dream come true in that way.

Brittani: I went to see Tangerine in theaters with Lindsay Hicks, who plays Penn, and after that I felt this manic creative energy coursing through me. I went home and immediately wrote the first outline. I’d made a web series and a pilot, and a movie just felt like the next step. There are a lot of people that talk about how there’s no reason not to be making stuff constantly, but I don’t think that’s true. There are plenty of reasons not to and obstacles and complications. I’m extremely lucky to have had the resources, from equipment to talent, to make this film.

Brianna: The short and simple answer is that Brittani asked me to work on it, and I was flattered that she asked, which was encouraging, and got me pumped up to be a part of the film. Beyond being asked to be a part of the film, I was also incredibly excited to work on a film with all women.

Suicide Kale is a film about women exclusively created by women.  Can you elaborate more on this experience? How did having an exclusively female creative team impact the film? Do you think it’s important that there are more spaces for women to embark on projects like this?

Jasika: This group was great not only because we were all women, but also because we were open to other people’s ideas. We all had unique perspectives from one another, and we all appreciated the input that each individual had. Creating something great feels easy when you are in an environment that feels safe and supportive the way this one did for me, and it was unlike any filming experience that I have had in my career thus far. There were no egos that got in the way of sharing the same vision for our project, and there were also shortcuts that we were able to take since we all had a similar frame of reference for existing in the world as women. We didn’t have to explain certain things to each other; having dialogues seemed generally easy and productive.

Brittani: From the beginning, I thought of this project as what would happen if women made mumblecore films. When I think of that genre, I think of it being one guy’s singular undiluted vision; I wanted to see what would happen if we took that same approach to the physical act of filmmaking but made it a more collaborative creative process where everyone got to feel like they were contributing. I think it’s important for spaces for women to work with only women to exist because that’s taking things into our own hands. Every year these studies about how the percentage of female directors, cinematographers, writers, etc. come out, and the numbers barely change. I think this is the only way to significantly move the needle.

Brianna: Coming to set every day was something that [was] comfortable. I didn’t feel like I needed to psych myself up to work with people, or put on a guise. I don’t mean to make it sound like other sets are nightmares, and you have to walk around with a mask on, or anything like that. That being said, there is a certain level of armor that I usually feel like I need to put on so that nothing that I do or say is misinterpreted. It also helps that these women were my friends, and we all felt an incredible ease on set. Creatively, I felt safe [to] improvise into dark places. Ultimately sharing a lot of my own perspectives as subject matters came up in conversation while filming scenes. I don’t think I can fully describe how important I feel it is for women to work with other women on projects similar to this. It’s obviously a concept that most women, we hope, would be on board with, but until you actually do it, you can’t fully imagine how transformative and encouraging it can be to the creative process.

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Given Suicide Kale’s identity as a low-budget, indie LGBT film created by women, were there any particular barriers that you encountered, either in terms of creating the film or getting it programmed at festivals?

Brittani: I mean money, yeah. Everyone wants more money to work with, no matter if it’s a no-budget indie or a studio blockbuster. Not having a lot of money is something I knew going in, but what it’s truly cost me is time. Those are the barriers that I think are overlooked because—even if you get it together—to make the movie, you also have to have the time after to put into getting it seen. I didn’t have any relationships with programmers, and I didn’t have the money to just submit to every festival willy nilly, so after the movie was done, trying to get into festivals became a full-time job. I was emailing programmers and researching festivals to decide which were worth submitting to and asking for fee waivers and making a press kit. Then we got programmed, and Carly got tasked with making all of our prints and building the website and I was arranging print traffic and travel and trying to get press and making sure our screenings are well-attended. There’s just so much more that goes into it than just making the movie when you’re doing it on your own. Making the movie itself was sort of the easy part.

In an industry where women—especially queer women and women of color—are often underrepresented both on-screen and behind the scenes, do you see this lack of representation extend to supposedly more inclusive venues, such as independent film and LGBT film festivals?

Jasika: I haven’t seen much of what the indie film festivals have to offer, but in terms of independent films with distribution, I don’t feel like I often see myself or my experiences as part of the main narratives. There have been a few outliers, like Tangerine, that had a really great impact on the community and that I really enjoyed because of the performers and the writing, but in general, I don’t think I see a balance of feature films telling the kinds of stories I am interested in seeing compared with the amount of people out in the world trying to make them. The work of the Duplass brothers was inspirational for us because they seem to have a consistent vision and unique sense of humor in their productions that we wanted to capture in our own voices, but it also isn’t surprising that the Duplass brothers have had such great success given Hollywood’s fixation on the narratives of straight, white men. I certainly don’t hold it against them, and I really do love their work. I just wish that the powers-that-be in Hollywood made more room for people like us. Instead, we have to make room for ourselves, which obviously has its pros and cons.

Brittani: It varies. The films that get the most attention at LGBT festivals are ones that found success at non-LGBT festivals, like Sundance or Tribeca, and since those places rarely program QWoC narratives, that trickles down to LGBT festivals. I think there are some festivals that make an effort to have people of color, the entirety of the LGBT spectrum, and female directors represented, but some are as white as the day is long and some are mostly gay male narratives with begrudgingly included films centered on women or trans people. But even festivals where films not about gay, white men are included in non-embarrassing numbers, it becomes a matter of are those films being featured? Are festivals willing to make them a centerpiece film or opening night or closing night film? Is the jury that decided who wins awards a diverse group of people? It’s also worth mentioning that these movies aren’t being made in the same numbers. I’ve talked to a lot of programmers at this point, and they’re frustrated because there just aren’t that many QWoC films to choose from because no one is paying for them to be made.

Brianna: I am not as familiar with what demographics are for indie film and LGBT film festivals, so I do defer to Brittani on that matter!

From your experience, how are queer women often depicted if they are featured as characters in a film? How do these roles differ for queer women of color?

Jasika: I think that queer women in film tend to tick boxes that Hollywood thinks their audiences will be most comfortable with. Gender-variant individuals don’t seem to get much screen time. Women who don’t present as femme or sexually acceptable for the male gaze don’t seem to get much screen time, and actual queer actors don’t seem to get much screen time either, which wouldn’t be that big of a deal if we were getting cast as heterosexual people in everything else, but we aren’t. To be a straight actor and play queer is seen as being “brave”, but when you are a queer actor and you play straight, audiences just seemed surprised, impressed that you “pulled it off” or were “believable.” I can’t wait ‘til sexuality becomes the least interesting thing about a character’s storyline. I love our movie in particular because, hopefully, it normalizes for OTHER people what is already normal to us.

Brittani: I don’t think there are even enough examples of queer women of color to even draw a conclusion.

Brianna: Agree with Brittani.

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The film places a large emphasis on mental health. What drew your team to create a film focusing on this topic?

Jasika: Brittani came up with the general concept and story arc for the film, and it just seemed very natural and relatable to me. I think most everyone who had a part in the creation of Suicide Kale could relate on some level to the topic of mental health issues. Being a member of a disenfranchised community—whether because you are a person of color, queer, trans, disabled, or persecuted because of your religion—can feel traumatic, and I assume that we have all had to deal with coping with our identities in different ways.

Brittani: I wanna make films about what we talk about besides being gay. Gay people talk about being gay a lot, but we talk about other stuff, too. For me, one of those things is mental health. I think there’s something subversive about having this group of people completely ignoring what these films are usually about, reckoning with being gay, in lieu of something that is even more taboo. I didn’t set out to make a film about mental health. This was just the idea that came to me, and I tried to do service to it as best I could.

Brianna: Mental health is one of the most fascinating subjects to me. I see a lot of people acknowledging that mental illness it is “real” and comes in varied forms and agree that it needs more public funding, and people need more education on the signs, symptoms and resources. But when it comes to their own lives, so many still feel so much shame and blame themselves or their family members for their mental health issues. There is still so much work to do in regards to removing the stigma that follows mental illness.

It’s been stated that Suicide Kale was “partially improvised.” How do you think this improvisation adds to the film?

Jasika: It makes the film feel less polished and more real, like you are being a voyeur and peeking into the lives of strangers. It has always been easier for me to lose myself in a film when the actors don’t seem like they are performing for the camera, but rather just experiencing their lives. It also adds an element of surprise to our scenes since we were never “waiting” on lines to be delivered.

Brittani: To me there’s something interesting about pushing up against what acting is. When you improvise, it forces you to listen and naturally react because you don’t for sure know what’s going to be said. You get to bleed into the character as much as the character bleeds into you. I think a lot about how much of “being yourself” is a performance, so to blur the lines on acting and being yourself, which I think improvising does, makes the film feel like real life. Making more people feel represented in media is important to me and what makes you feel more represented than feeling like you’re there?

Brianna: For me, as an actor, it feels real. I get to play make-believe, within a scenario that I can imagine, and it feels truthful. A lot of people asked me if most of my lines were written, because it seems like they weren’t. Most of my lines were not written, but I thought it was interesting that they said it seemed like that weren’t. Did that mean that in most tv and films, acting aside, you can usually tell when someone is recalling dialogue that they’ve learned? And that one can feel (or at least think they do) when something is really being discovered for the first time? Meh, who knows? Either way, I think improv served this intimate nature of this movie well.

What future impact do you hope Suicide Kale will have, especially as the film begins to expand to larger markets?

Jasika: I hope the impact is that it allows us to create more work together as a unit, because I loved working with these people, and I also hope it inspires more artists to get out there and just do it! We didn’t wait ’til we had a lot of money or crowdfunding to make our film because we were tired of waiting, and we were convinced that we didn’t need tens of thousands of dollars to make something fun. Thankfully, we were absolutely right.

Brittani: I hope it will inspire people to tell a story that they want to tell instead of the story that is expected of them.

Brianna: I hope, beyond the subject matter and the demographics of those involved, that it encourages people to make things. To do what they what with who they want and not wait for someone to tell them who they are and what they should say.

You can keep tabs on Suicide Kale and their diverse crew on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. 

melissas-phone-084Melissa Scholke is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied English Literature and Communications Studies. When she’s not writing and discussing important feminist issues, she spends time reading and indulging her indie music obsession.

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