Amidst the current media landscape of one-sided arguments and political discussions that almost always take a turn for the worse, LA-based writer and film producer Sophia Jennings is here to give us a breath of fresh air. In light of the controversial presidential election, Sophia collaborated with a team of talented filmmakers on My America, a web series about today’s divided America from an Uber perspective. What makes the series so special is its delicate handle on portraying both sides of an argument without demonizing one or the other - a seemingly lost art.
Aside from My America, Sophia has worked on an array of projects that range from music to fashion. She has gradually made the journey from working in magazines to film production, and hopes to continue to expand her field of work. We got to chat with Sophia about the message behind My America, as well as what it’s like to work in film from a female perspective. View the full My America web series here.
Media nowadays is often biased and can feel as though it has a hidden agenda. However, your series felt incredibly authentic and honest in trying to accurately portray both sides of an argument. How did you accomplish that?
Well, that was all really Anna Jones and JS Davall. They wrote a range of characters who were all very human. I was surprised by how much I connected with Carmine, the character that’s pro-Trump. Purely because we made him human, you know? He feels out of control, he’s coming to visit his son who doesn’t have time for him, he doesn’t understand the technology, he’s losing his pride. By understanding that character, you understand what draws him to Trump. These are real characters and there isn’t a bad or a good. At that point in the election, we didn’t need to make another show about why Donald Trump was dangerous, or why Hillary was seen as corrupt. Those narratives were already out there.
What was missing from the dialogue was a narrative about the in-between. The whole point of My America was that we needed to start talking about these issues with people who weren’t like us.
What is the conversation that you’re trying to start with this film?
Our crew was totally international and that’s what was really awesome. There was a British writer, a writer from New York, an Egyptian director, a Chinese editor, an Indian-American editor; it was a very eclectic, international group. As we worked on the project, we thought about how we were going to come to understand this moment in history, whether you’re an Egyptian director who’s lived in America for fifty years, or you’re a 30 year old English director who just moved here. It was very therapeutic in how it let us put all of our frustration and fear into a project. For that month, it was all I thought about. It was honestly very dramatic when the election happened and the show ended on the same day. It all just blew up.
“Decide who you are. All that matters is that you define yourself by your interests. The second you start acting like you’re worth something, other people will too."
How did you get into film production?
I started out in magazines, where I specialized in interviewing musicians, artists, and people in fashion. So when I was at Wesleyan I wrote over 40 interviews with students, alums, faculty, everyone. During the summers, I did some writing for Nylon Magazine and MTV. Through Wesleyan, and when I was abroad at Oxford, I interviewed a lot of really cool people, such as Tommy Kail who directed Hamilton the musical, and Plum Sykes, the British author. I really studied all of their careers through my writing. As I was nearing graduation, I realized that I needed to expand the work I had done in magazines. I wanted to go and create, and learn how to build these stories into larger pieces.
I remember hearing Thomas Kail speak about Hamilton, and he said that his advice for people who are graduating school was that you’re going to hear a lot of "no"s. Especially as a woman, if you ask people if you can do something, more often than not they’re going to say no. He said the one thing that you can do is make your “yes” louder, so I didn’t really ask if I could produce My America, I just did the work to the point where I was the one producing it. Had I asked, would I have gotten it? Probably not.
So I’m just continuing all of it. It’s the same kind of stuff I did with magazines, you know, gathering creative teams and producing stories. But the difference now is that I’m doing it as films instead of articles. I want my work to hold meaning. My grandpa was an orthopaedic surgeon and my grandma started a soup kitchen, so I feel like if I’m going to be in entertainment, I should make people think or I should make them laugh. It’s gotta be one or the other.
What’s it like being a female coming up in the film scene and working with an all-female team on multiple projects? Any advantages or disadvantages?
The reality is that I grew up with a single mom and I have an older sister. I don’t know the world except from a female perspective, so the stories that I’m going to create are going to be directed by women, like My America, or they’ll be about women. That’s just the way I see the world, I wouldn’t know how to make a movie that didn’t involve women. And obviously, I love working with women. I’m so thrilled that the two women I’m working with right now are Caggie Dunlop and Anna Jones. It’s so easy as a woman in film to think that you have to do it on your own, but the reality is that you really don’t.
You’re working on a music project with Caggie Dunlop, can you tell us a little bit more about that? Any other future projects in the works?
At the moment, we’re working on developing My America into a longer series. We’ve gotten some exciting traction on the project and I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll get to work with the team again.
Besides that, I’ve been working with Caggie Dunlop on a show loosely based on music communities within America. Musicians tend to be at the center of a lot of my work, mainly because musicians are great characters. They always have been.They’re nuts. But that’s what I love about working with musicians, that do-or-die mentality.
Any tips for other young girls trying to make it in behind-the-scenes film industry roles?
Decide who you are. Whether you’re a writer, a musician, a producer, a designer, a comedian, or a seamstress. All that matters is that you define yourself by your interests. The second you start acting like you’re worth something, other people will too.
What are three hidden gems in LA?
1. Vintage stores in Burbank.
2. Swimming in Manhattan Beach (May-August).
3. Lyft discounts.
What does MISSBISH mean to you?
The sorority that I never joined (laughs).
Who’s your MISSBISH? Tell us who she is and why she is an inspiration to you.
Mira Nair and Amy Sherman-Palladino. If I could make a show that combined the Namesake with Gilmore Girls, I'd consider my work done.
Photo by: Atiya Walcott