Fifteen years ago, filmmaker Christine Swanson was well on her way to becoming a powerhouse filmmaker. She graduated from New York University’s Tish School of the Arts, and her first short film, Two Seasons, was the first winner of the HBO Short Film Competition at ABFF. She was on the fast track to becoming one of the hottest new filmmakers in Hollywood, until she made the decision to put her film career on hold to focus on raising her family.
Here we are 15 years later, and Swanson is back in action as a writer/director. In less than 2 years, she has become one of the busiest women working in Hollywood. Her film about the iconic singer Miki Howard, Love Under Management: The Miki Howard Story, starring Teyonah Parris, premiered on TV One on June 12th, and became the highest-rated original movie in the history of the network. Prior to The Miki Howard Story, Swanson helmed For the Love of Ruth (nominated for an NAACP Award), To Hell and Back, and is already in pre-production with her next film, Buffalo Soldier Girl, also starring Teyonah Parris.
HBR Media had the pleasure of engaging in an inspirational conversation with Christine Swanson about The Miki Howard Story, her transition back into filmmaking, motherhood, the portrayal of black women in media, and her passion for writing compelling stories.
HBR: In the early 2000’s, you were one of the top female directors in the industry. How did you get your start working in film and television?
Swanson: My first short film, Two Seasons, wound up being the first winner in the history of the HBO Short Film Competition at the Acapulco Black Film Festival now known as the American Black Film Festival (ABFF). Right after that, I wrote and directed All About You, starring Renee Elisa Goldsberry who just won a Tony Award for her role in Hamilton. I knew then she was a star; it just took the rest of the world 16 years to catch up with me (laughter). Shortly after, I became the mother of 4 wonderful children, and dedicated the next 15 years to taking care of them alongside my wonderful husband Michael Swanson.
HBR: After taking 15 years off to raise your family, how were you able to transition back into the industry?
Swanson: About a year and a half ago, TV One called me to direct a modern re-telling of a biblical character. I wondered how they even got a hold of my number (laughter). The executive who hired me saw my short film in 1999, and remembered me from then. To receive a call from a network asking me to randomly direct a film was a pleasant surprise. At that point, I decided that it was time for me to get back into filmmaking. I directed, To Hell and Back, which then lead to me direct a second movie for the network titled For the Love of Ruth. That film was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Best Directing. The network then asked me to do The Miki Howard Story, and they were able to accommodate my needs so that I could make a great film. As soon as I made the decision to direct again, I hit the ground running, and it felt amazing. It felt as if I had never left.
HBR: Often times, when women begin to raise their family, they lose sight of their dreams and forget about the things that they were once passionate about. How were you able to keep your passion for writing and directing alive as you were raising a family?
Swanson: Even though I was inactive as a director, I was never inactive as a storyteller. The core of who I am is a woman who loves telling stories. My passion for storytelling was never extinguished, and the only thing that changed for me was the fact that I couldn’t be on a set 18 hours a day 2- 3 times out of the year. I continued writing over the years, and I kept my imagination active, and stayed creatively busy in a way that worked for my family. In the 15 years that I took off, I was able to write four scripts that I am ecstatic about and ready to make when the opportunity presents itself.
I was a stay at home mom, but I was always an active filmmaker even if it was only in my head. God gave me a 15-year timeout, and what I got out of it was immeasurable in terms of growth and maturity. I can honestly say that I’m not sure if I would have chosen this path on my own. At the time, all I knew was that I wanted to be a filmmaker, tell stories, and connect with others through circumstances and situations that were relatable. I wanted to travel the world and make movies. Thoughts of raising a family were the furthest things from my mind at the time, but I can honestly tell you this: The best decision that I could have made for myself was a decision that I did not choose for myself initially. I can’t begin to express how blessed I am because I am a mother. There isn’t anything that I could ever do to make me feel more accomplished than raising children who are going to contribute to society.
HBR: When developing a biopic, it can be difficult to drill down a lifetime of experiences into two hours, and it can be even more difficult when the person is living. How did you decide the direction of The Miki Howard story?
Swanson: When TV One initially approached me to tell this story, I was actually going to turn it down because I wasn’t familiar with that world. I was raised as a nun compared to the world I was going to enter (laughter). The first thing that I decided to do was to connect with Miki Howard. It actually took me a while to call her because I was a fan of her music, and wasn’t sure what to say. Her music was the soundtrack of my youth, and inspires me as a person and as a storyteller.
When I finally connected with her, it was as if we had known each other for years. We’ve been on an ongoing phone conversation for the last ten months, and wound up spending over 50 hours initially on the phone working out the script, figuring out the story, and talking through every single detail of the screenplay. It was as if she poured herself into me and decided to trust me regarding the direction of the film. She was very brave in sharing so many private details of her life, some of which I was scared for her to reveal; however, she would tell me to relax and reassured me that what we were depicting was in her past. Her desire was to have the story told so that others could be helped, inspired or transformed by it.
Miki Howard was a force of nature to me and for me. We were able to connect artistically on so many levels despite the fact that we expressed our art through different mediums. We connected on so many levels that the experience felt surreal. If I had to wait fifteen years to be ready and able to tell The Miki Howard Story, then those were years well spent. Miki is truly a remarkable woman. Her strength, her resilience, and her love for life were all a breath of fresh air for me. We now have a friendship that will last for life.
HBR: You, Miki Howard, and Teyonah Parris were an all-star team. Teyonah seemed to be the perfect actress to bring Miki Howard to life on screen. She did such an amazing job!
Swanson: Yes! Teyonah was such a beast! She came with it like nobody’s business! She is easily one of the best actors that I have ever worked with, and I think she is one of the best actors in the game. She’s young and has already been able to explore her talents at the highest levels already. She blew me away, and it was like a perfect storm. Miki Howard is a tornado, Teyonah Parris is a tsunami, and depending on who you ask, people think that I’m a bit of a hurricane. All of us coming together was such a beautiful thing that I’m really sad that it is over.
HBR: You are now in pre-production with Buffalo Soldier Girl where you will recreate a portion of that storm alongside your lead, Teyonah Parris. How did this project come to light?
Swanson: This story is a bit of a departure from Miki Howard, but is very similar in terms of the resilient strength of a female character who makes the decision to choose her own destiny. It’s a once in a lifetime role, and I could not think of anybody else aside from Teyonah. The film revolves around Cathy Williams, the first black female Buffalo Soldier. She was born a slave, and disguised herself as a man for two years, and was able to get away with it and joined the Buffalo Soldiers. In this role, Teyonah is going to have to work out and train with horses. She will be beating people up (laughter), running, jumping, doing stunts, and shooting guns. This is an action film that will be an epic western.
HBR: I love that all of the films that you work on seem to have strong female leads.
Swanson: Absolutely! I want to see stories of people who look like me, and people who are similar to other people that I know personally reflected in the cinematic landscape. The black woman in particular gets the least options when it comes to having her story reflected in the most majestic ways. To the extent that I can change that landscape, I will. Give me a strong female protagonist with a great story to tell, and I’m even more inspired to tell it in a great way. That’s always my goal. The larger goal is to tell beautiful stories that inspire, encourage, motivate, and entertain.
I am going out of my way to make sure that I mentor young black girls. Even on the set of Buffalo Soldier Girl, we would eventually like to invite young girls to be guests of our set during production. We don’t want them to intern, pick up garbage, or be a production assistant. We want to simply give them the opportunity to watch what we do so they can either be inspired, or be scared (laughter). I want them to see what it really takes to make a movie, but more importantly, I want them to have the opportunity to see a woman tell a hundred guys what to do. Until you see something modeled right in front of you, you don’t know that it’s possible for yourself. We will open up our production so that we can be role models for young girls. That’s the goal.
HBR: Is there any advice that you can share with up and coming filmmakers that have aspirations of following in your footsteps?
Swanson: Before I made my first feature film, I went to film school, and received an MFA in filmmaking from NYU. Before that, I studied film theory and communications at Notre Dame during Undergrad. The awesome thing about film school at NYU is you can figure out your own voice and who you are in the midst of chaos, because that’s when you can really feel your voice, when it’s challenged. You don’t have to have a formal education in filmmaking to be a filmmaker, but that’s the path that I took, so I can speak to that specifically because that was my own experience, and it trained me for everything that I am doing right now. It never hurts to train and hone your craft. You don’t have to go to film school, but go to panels, take master classes etc. Get an education to perfect your craft in any way that you can, and never stop educating yourself. Never miss an opportunity to study the craft.