When I met filmmaker Christine Swanson at this year’s Ebertfest, she was eager to discuss her upcoming project with me. It was a biopic on the iconic singer Miki Howard, and the actress cast in the coveted role was Teyonah Parris, who impressed me greatly in Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq.” The resulting film, “Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story,” premiered June 12th on TV One, and it became the highest-rated original movie in the history of the network. Parris delivers a tour de force performance as Howard, portraying the full arc of her evolution over the decades, as well as her complex relationships with the men in her life, including the abusive Eddie Phelps and the kind yet damaged Gerald Levert.
Swanson spoke with Indie Outlook about her collaboration with Miki Howard, her approach to exploring spirituality on film and the advice from Ruby Dee that changed her life.
How did your education at Tisch School of the Arts help form you as an artist?
You kind of take it for granted when you’re in film school because you just don’t realize how valuable it is. Now that I’ve had almost a 20-year career on and off, I’ve realized that it gave me the foundation for how I approach everything, especially when you don’t have all the money in the world. You are trained as a guerrilla filmmaker. They give you a camera, your classmates are your crew and you have to produce an excellent movie or you’re going to get crushed by your professors and peers. The films I’ve made have been typically low-budget, and I can make them work because of my training and background. It’s never about the budget, it’s always about telling a great story. Many of my classmates were great filmmakers, and some of them have won Oscars. That education made me feel secure in how I approach filmmaking today, and I know that I can make anything work. I just have that kind of attitude after having been forced to make anything work and being given the opportunity to fail.
Your first directorial effort was a lovely short film, “Two Seasons,” which I’ve heard you may be making into a feature.
I’ve already wrote the feature version, and it’s ready to go. I put it into the hands of various people including Leslie Odom Jr., and the film is just a green light away from being made. The original movie won the first-ever HBO Short Film Competition almost 20 years ago, it played at Sundance and it was nominated for a student Academy Award. It really opened my eyes in terms of the possibilities of storytelling and how it resonates with people across all demographics. It traveled so much and I got to see it with various audiences. That story was very important to me because it was the first narrative film I ever made. I felt my way through that story, and my directing chops hadn’t been solidified yet, but my writing chops were. The film’s success gave me a sense of confidence and allowed me to trust my instincts, even though some of the faculty members at NYU hated it. I saw how people can have different responses to the same project, and that I have to learn how to qualify those responses. The film showed me that it’s okay to stick to my guns even if people don’t like it. That was important for me to understand. I wasn’t telling stories for people to like, per se, I was telling stories that spoke to me.
What was it like directing the great Ruby Dee in your film, “All About Us,” which she made the same year she received her Oscar nomination for “American Gangster”?
When it started to appear possible that we could get Ruby Dee, my husband—who produced the movie—was like, “You are going to direct Ruby Dee. I don’t care what it costs, we’re going to make it work. She’s a legend and you should direct her in your career, because one day that’s going to mean something.” I can’t begin to express how loving and encouraging Ruby was. She’s part of the reason why I have a daughter today. At the time, I had three boys, and my husband and I were like, “Oh my goodness, we have so many kids, we’re kind of done.” [laughs] Then Ruby told us, “You guys should really go for a girl. Having a daughter will make your boys better men and you will not regret it.” I was like, “Is she kidding? We can’t handle any more kids.” But that was so encouraging, and her words made us open to the idea. Lo and behold, we had a fourth child, she was a girl and everything that Ruby predicted was correct. We are indebted to her for being that person in our community who could take us aside and give us advice. There’s so much that I got from being around Ruby that goes beyond her being in my movie. She was an incredible human being and we’re all at a loss because she is no longer with us.
What made you want to bring Miki Howard’s story to the screen?
First of all, Miki Howard’s music is the soundtrack to my youth. I grew up listening to Miki Howard, and her song “Come Share My Love” has been part of a narrative soundtrack in my head that inspires me as a person and a storyteller. When the opportunity came for me to direct “The Miki Howard Story,” I was freaked out at first. Once I finally decided to accept the challenge, the first thing I did was call Miki. It took me a week to actually get the courage to pick up the phone and call her, just because of nerves. We’ve been on an ongoing phone conversation for the last ten months, and we initially spoke for about 50 hours over the course of a three-day weekend. We banged out her story together.
I had a first draft of the script and I wanted to find out what more about Miki that I could explore. There was so much more about her life that I was able incorporate after establishing a working relationship with her. Miki was very much involved in detailing every aspect of her story, including that moment when she’s onstage and she can’t sing. She’s like, “Oh, look at those butterflies!” That really happened to her. I honestly couldn’t make that up. It was so invaluable to have her there. She was very brave in sharing so many private details of her life, some of which I was scared for her to reveal. She would tell me to relax and reassured me that what we were depicting was in her past. She’s in a different space now and she wanted her story to be told with the hope that people could be helped or inspired or transformed by it. One viewer wrote about how inspired she was by Miki’s life and said that this movie “was everything” to her.
How difficult was it to condense the story within the required running time?
I had to cut so much out, it was a shame. This could’ve been a two-hour feature film. The final cut is 83 minutes long, but I think we dropped the mic. Everything that needed to be told was told. The only difference in the two-hour version is that everything is more fleshed out and nuanced, but nearly everything that we shot somehow showed up in the cut that was broadcast. We just had to crush certain sequences into montages.
What was your collaboration like with co-writer Rhonda Baraka?
Rhonda used Miki Howard’s unpublished biography as her source material. She put together a structure based on information from that source, and once I got the script, Rhonda was busy working on other projects. The script was given to me to polish and punch up, and I just felt that I couldn’t do it on my own because this was someone’s actual life story. That’s when I initiated the phone call with Miki, and through our conversations, a lot of her life came to the forefront and we really connected artistically. She’s been an artist longer than I have, so my job was just to listen. I felt like I was going to the Miki Howard School of Artistry. [laughs] My only goal was to make her happy. If she was not happy with the movie, I’d have failed as a filmmaker.
How did you come to choose “Love Under New Management” as the title of the film?
The title has specific meaning pertaining to Miki’s journey in terms of where her focus was and her refusal to let other people dictate her outcome. The love that was under new management in her life was always self-love, and that journey crescendoes in the scene with her therapist, who says that she has low self-esteem. How is that possible? She’s Miki Howard—on top of the world, adored by people, so talented—but none of that matters when there’s a core lack of self-love. Once that was addressed and diagnosed, it allowed Miki to turn things around for the better and she’s been on that path ever since.
Teyonah Parris is tasked with portraying Miki over the course of several decades, and her performance is truly remarkable.
When you have a tool as versatile and brilliant as Teyonah Parris, you just sit and watch the roller coaster ride unfolding in front of you because at any given moment, you don’t know where it’s headed. A lot of times when I was directing Teyonah, the AD would look at me and ask, “Is that a cut?” I was so riveted by her performance that I would forget to yell cut. Teyonah gives you so much all the time that you just don’t want it to end. The girl is a friggin’ beast, and in some ways, she reminds me of Ruby Dee. She is just as explosive and riveting, but she’s also young and has been able to explore her talent at the highest levels already. For Teyonah, she can only keep going up from here as long as roles are there for her to play that maximize her tremendous talent and potential.
It didn’t matter that we shot the film out of sequence. The girl has such focus that wherever we needed her to be, she was there. It really wasn’t an issue. For me, it was great because there was a lot that she had to handle emotionally and dramatically, and normally you worry for actors like that. She was a bit rattled by the crazy shooting schedule, but at a certain point, I said, “Teyonah, I need you to trust me,” and she did. We covered thirty years of Miki Howard’s life in just 15 shooting days. That’s what happens when you’re making a film at a lower budget range. My hope is that one day I’ll be able to make a film with real money. What could happen if I had all the time and all the money I needed to make a movie? Honestly, I cannot answer that because I’ve never had that. You just do what you have to do with the circumstances that you’re dealt.
Whitney Houston’s life haunts the film, particularly in the scenes where Miki struggles with drug addiction.
Miki and Whitney were good friends and Whitney and Chaka [Khan] were good friends as well. They all knew each other and supported each other. As Miki would say, “Drug use is an occupational hazard when you’re a singer.” It’s the norm, actually. So while it looks shocking to us, it was just the world that they knew. Unfortunately for Miki, she fell into it in a way that became very debilitating, but was able turn it around for herself at a time when other people couldn’t.
Many of the tensest scenes center on Miki’s relationship with Eddie.
Yeah, it’s volatile. Miki would tell you that one of the biggest mistakes she ever made in her life was marrying him, but out of that marriage produced one of her greatest treasures and joys, her daughter Kaitlyn. Life is messy and you have to make the best of it. That’s the theme of Miki Howard’s story in a nutshell.
Was Miki’s final encounter with Gerald also something that she actually experienced?
Well, this is what happened. Among my inspirations for the film that I drew from were “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Casino” and “La Vie en Rose,” which all feature very complicated women. “La Vie en Rose” is about a singer who fell into drug use and was very volatile and feisty. There was a dream sequence where her lover came to her and then she discovers that he died in a plane crash, so we borrowed from that a bit for this scene. I talked to Miki about the scene, and afterward she said, “That really happened.” Gerald came to her in a dream and then she woke up and was told that he died. It was kind of serendipitous. I screened it with a live audience and you could hear the audible gasp during that moment.
The name of your own production company is Faith Filmworks, and you have explored spirituality in other films, including “To Hell and Back.”
I’m a deeply spiritual person, and I try to touch upon aspects of spirituality in my work, even though it’s never my focus. I hate corny Christian movies, but at the same time, I love the great ones that try to explore faith in a real and sensitive way with some cinematic artistry. You want to see a story told well, and that has always been the key for me. I want to tell stories with a sense of texture as opposed to slapping you in the face saying, “Think this way! Believe this way!” Miki is a very spiritual person too, and whenever things got rough while making this project, she’d be the one who would tell me, “You’ve got to have faith, it’s gonna be okay.” When you see the life that she’s had and the person that she is today, I don’t know how one could get through that without a sense of faith or spiritual grounding in something outside of yourself.
Teyonah is set to star in your next film, “Buffalo Soldier Girl,” which is based on the fascinating true story of Cathay Williams.
Our goal is to go into production this fall and I’m currently in active preproduction. I just returned from a 12-day scouting session in west Texas, where they shot “No Country for Old Men.” Part of the movie will take place there and the other part is going to take place in and around the Austin area. There’s a high level of enthusiasm for this project, and it’s a very important story about a historic person. Coming out of slavery, Williams disguised herself as a man and was the first woman to join the peacetime army in our history. It’s so important to tell this story, but at the same time, it’s not just a historical document of a person’s life. It’s about a person who chose her own destiny and my approach to this film is to make it like an action-filled western with a superhero bent. Sarah Bird’s script won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab Screenwriting Competition, and at one point, Spike Lee had optioned the story. But Hollywood won’t make a story about a black female protagonist who is a badass. It’s going to have to be made independently, but fortunately, we are at a time in our country and in Hollywood where the climate is right for a story like this. We’re going to get it made.
“Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story” will air again Sunday, June 26th, on TV One. Check your local listings or visit the official TV One site. The film is also available On Demand.