Tannis Spencer Muses On Filmmaking And What Makes Her Heart Happy
Written by Chandra Johnson | Photography by Raydene Salinas
“I think I want to start a business,” Tannis Spencer said to me one day randomly at the MTV offices where we work. But for Tannis, this isn’t an unusual statement. Tannis is a “collector of ideas, thoughts, and experiences.” She has a creative drive in her that so many people don’t entertain until their mid-life crisis creeps up on them. While working a full-time job at MTV, she made time to write, produce, and direct not one, but two films. Her first, Two, got her into a handful of film festivals -- with no prior experience in film. That’s something filmmakers with a vast resume can’t touch. Creativity is Tannis’s backbone and lends itself to other areas in her life, the most important of which are her relationships with friends and fellow creators. She sits on the board at The Creative Collective, a group that connects young creatives through monthly, curated events. She has an e-shop for her brand Micole (also her middle name), indulges in photography, DJs, and writes countless scripts, but doesn’t let the flooding of creativity compromise her solitude. I sat down with Tannis for Lady Guns Global to discuss filmmaking, creativity, and most of all, doing what makes her heart happy.
ON ROTATION: SZA’s new album, [CTRL]. I was listening to that on the subway this morning. I just think it’s such easy music to vibe to, and it’s perfect for the summer.
WEIRD MUSINGS: I have this really weird fascination with learning about North Korea. I’m just fascinated by the hermit kingdom. How does that exist in 2017? YouTube is my favorite social platform. I love watching military homecoming videos. I love watching pregnancy announcement and marriage proposal videos. Anything that can make you cry. I love watching them and not crying.
HER INK: I have three tattoos. My first tattoo says, “Passion always precedes wealth.” My second tattoo I got with my sister and she has the first half. It says, “If ever two were one,” and then on my arm is says, “Then surely we.” It’s how we are connected—if ever two were one, it would be the two of us. That’s my girl. My last tattoo I just got says, “Do what makes your heart happy” because everyone should do that. I try to live my life that way.
MORNING ROUTINE: I’m not a morning person. Waking up at 10 o’clock for me is solid. I love a good omelet in the morning and tea. I’ll go sit on my roof and listen to New York for a little bit. I don’t require much. I just need some fresh air and some sunshine.
ON HER FAVORITE MOVIE SCENE: I think one scene that always stuck with me from one of my favorite movies is from Love Jones with Larenz Tate and Nia Long. He’s sleeping at her house, but she has him on the couch and to conjure up an interaction between them, he walks up to her and he’s like, “Hey Nina, can I play you something?” It’s just this line that for whatever reason stuck with me. He connects via music, and I think I can relate to that.
HOW SHE GOT STARTED: Filmmaking fell into my lap. I got into it because someone told me I could do it even though I had no experience. I thought about it and I thought about it, and I was like well why can’t I get into film? There was no reason. The barrier to entry is getting lower and lower, thanks to technology. I used that to my advantage to teach myself some of the mechanics and skills that some filmmakers have. I let my lack of knowledge work in my favor to make something how I want and not be confined to any traditional mold that’s been established in the industry.
ON WRITING HER FIRST FILM: When I wrote Two, I was listening to Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet. I love Childish Gambino. I love Donald Glover, or whomever he decides to be because he has such a vision and takes a creative idea and makes it mainstream, which I think is hard to do and he does a great job of that. I was really inspired by the songs, and the story that was being told through each song, so I started writing Two. I wrote it just to write it, not to produce it, not to make it. My initial intention was to write a script, but I had no intention to make it a film. All I wanted to do was prove to myself that I could write a script. But then a friend of mine read it and said I should do it.
The male character was inspired by my idea of what Childish Gambino is like. He’s this very intelligent, niche, carefree black boy that we don’t get to see in cinema much, and I knew I wanted to see a character that was reflective of my female friends and myself. We like to travel, we’re educated, and we have jobs, but we don’t want to be confined by them. She’s a free spirit, and she has more guts than I do to get up and go like she does. I was just so dumbfounded that people were reading lines that I had written. It was so surreal. During the audition I was like, “Why are you reading what I wrote?! You don’t even know that I don’t know what I’m doing.” It was a humbling experience.
When Curtis came along, it was another script that I wrote. I knew I wanted to work with this actor, who was a friend of mine, and I was thinking of things that I could see him in. Then I had created my own lane as a writer. I want to write about things I know about. Relationships are so interesting because there are so many different kinds of relationships. For Curtis, I was interested in exploring the relationship between siblings, so I wrote with that intention in mind.
A FEMALE CHARACTER SHE CONNECTS WITH: When Love and Basketball came out, that was my life, I was that female baller. I wholeheartedly connected with [Monica Wright] when that came out.
HER FAVORITE FEMALE DIRECTORS: Ava DuVernay, Sofia Coppola, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Nicole Holofencer, and Debbie Allen. Actually, some of my favorite female directors have yet to make feature films. I watch a lot of films on Vimeo. There are some phenomenal women making content on there right now. They inspire me to keep going.
HOW SHE OVERCOMES OBSTACLES: I think for me the biggest obstacles are the internal obstacles. It was a lot of uncertainty because I’m not a professional in the sense that this is something that I’ve been trained to do or I’ve done for X amount of years and felt confident in. It was a lot of being confident in myself because I didn’t have previous experience. It’s my first go around and the obstacles for me were telling myself to be confident, that I was strong enough, and that my work was good. You have to be vulnerable in a way. I put a challenge to myself to make work that I’ll be proud of, that’s representative of my community as well. I take that really seriously, because you really have to make sure [that] you put your best foot forward. [That] you’re telling the right story, the right way.
ON CRITICISM: I think criticism is tough for anyone [who’s] a creator. You deal with it by putting your best foot forward and hope people recognize your intent. The quality might change over time, but so long as I see your vision and intentions then okay. Now bad criticism, you take it with a grain of salt because not everyone sees what you’re trying to do. Remember you need to take advice from people [who] know more than you do.
HER INSPIRATION: I get inspired by a lot of directors because of their aesthetic, and for me, aesthetic is always changing. That lends itself greatly to what I do because I’ll see something one way and be like, “Man, wouldn’t it be great if I saw more of this.” I love all sorts of films, but I’ll be like, “Wow I’ve never seen this done with an all black cast or a minority as the lead.” So I’ll see all these films and connect to so many stories, but wish the person that was saying the lines looked like me.
I like seeing other people win. I like seeing other people succeed. I like seeing other people’s ideas come to life. Everyday occurrences and my friends inspire me a lot. Seeing other people create what they want to create inspires me. It doesn’t give me an idea, but it inspires me to work out an idea that I have in my head.
ON CREATIVE RUTS: They’re real, man. I think the cliché answer is to say you just have to do something that relaxes you and clears your mind out, but creative ruts can last for weeks, months, or years, and you can be relaxed during that time as well. I get inspired when I see other people doing cool stuff, and I’m like, “that’s so cool, I can do that but put my own spin on it.” So when I see other people creating, that’s what gives me ideas. I just need to focus and find something that I believe in so much that it inspires me. If you’re in a creative rut and nothing inspires you -- your surroundings don’t inspire you -- you need to put yourself in a position to be inspired. You’re not going to be inspired by looking at the same piece of blank paper because it’s not going to give you anything that it didn’t give you ten minutes ago. Get up and go get some.
BRANDS SHE LOVES: I’m obsessed with Comme des Garçons’ Play collection that they have with Chuck Taylor. I love anything that’s a little bit timeless but also that knows how to keep up with the trends. I love Hypebae, Streetstyl-ish on Tumblr, and I love what Kith is doing with its new women’s divisions as well.
IMPORTANCE OF ALONE TIME: I treat myself in a couple of ways. Spending alone time for me is paramount. I need to be by myself and alone with my thoughts, but I’m not antisocial. I really enjoy being by myself. I sit down for the night and watch some of my favorite YouTube videos. If I’m really trying to chill, I’ll play the Sims for a little bit. I like to completely disconnect from the priorities and responsibilities in my life and that’s how I do it. I sit by myself and I indulge in all my embarrassing guilty pleasures.
BEST ADVICE SHE’S RECEIVED: As an African American woman, I’m never not aware of my existence in any room or any space, I’m always aware of who I am. That was one of the things my parents instilled in me. When it comes to working hard, you have to be twice as good as other people in the room. I’m okay with that. It’s something that I’ve known since I was a child. It pushes me, and another thing my mom said to me growing up was you could be broke all by yourself. You don’t need anybody else to sit in misery with you. You can do that by yourself. It was specifically in terms of choosing a partner and what you go through in life.
HER PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: It’s a toss-up between creating and paying for my first film in New York and just being happy. Being happy in New York as a twenty something is tough to do sometimes. A lot of stuff can get you down, but I am proud that I have maintained a general spirit of joy in the city and am happy I feel that way.
ADVICE SHE GIVES TO CREATORS: I wholeheartedly believe that if you want to do something, you have to do it. People are so good at making excuses. It’s insane how easily we can make excuses for why we can’t do certain things. Figure out what means you have to accomplishing what you want and then go out and do it. It’s that simple. Excuses are tools of incompetence, which build monuments of nothingness, and those who practice in its usage seldom amount to anything.
WHAT 15-YEAR-OLD TANNIS WOULD SAY TO HER NOW: I think she would be impressed with me right now. I was such a different person at 15, so I think she would be a little disappointed that I wasn’t in the WNBA. She would be a little sad that she didn’t play basketball through college. But I think she would also be really proud of me and say, “You found something else. You found another interest. 26-year-old Tannis is a collector of ideas and thoughts and experiences, and that’s what makes her happy now.”
HER LADY GUN: A lady gun in my life is my mom, Gwen Ricks-Spencer. I’m so thankful for how she and my dad raised me. She’s a theater mom, so I grew up in that sense of culture, self-exploration, and freedom. And music is something that I’ve been surrounded by since I was in diapers. She’s been the pioneer in my life for teaching me about what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a black woman and how you exist in different spaces. She’s an entrepreneur. This idea of passion projects and side projects, that’s not new to me. My mom has carried on a full-time job and ran a nonprofit theater company, 4th Wall Theatre Inc, for twenty years now. She’s the ultimate hustler and she does it with grace and intelligence. She is who I look up to.
WHAT’S NEXT: There are always various projects within my film world. I have a couple videos on deck that I want to work on. I want to get into some music videos. I’m shooting a short film, like an art film/visual piece, it’s my first foreign language piece as well. I got really, really inspired by director Wong Kar-Wai. He’s a phenomenal Chinese filmmaker. He has a couple films, but the one that I saw that was amazing was In The Mood For Love, from the writing to the editing to the color editing. Everybody should watch it. It’s such a cool film, and I watched it around the holidays and got so inspired. Then I wrote this script and worked with a couple of friends of mine to translate it. It’s been translated into French and Spanish. I’m trying to decide which one to go with and my friend from high school is going to star in it. Keeping it Jersey strong.