Paul Sapiano is a filmmaker who got his start after college when he secured a job working for Ridley Scott’s commercial company in London. Now residing in Hollywood, over the past decade, Paul Sapiano has made half-a-dozen films, including the festival, hit “Driving While Black” which gets a wide release in February. The movie, which explores racial profiling, is based on the real-life adventures of co-writer and star Dominque Purdy and his run-ins with the police over the years.

Recently Paul Sapiano explained how a “white man from the UK” came to co-write and direct such a movie.

Hollywood, movies, and scripts

Meagan Meehan (MM): What set you on the path to becoming a filmmaker and how did you get into Hollywood at such a young age?

Paul Sapiano (PS): I wish I had some Spielbergesque story about my parents buying me a super8 camera when I was five and from that moment on I was destined for a career in film, but the fact is that when I left college I wanted to a job that wasn’t particularly hard work but was well paid and had some glamour to it.

I came up with “commercial Director,” and I got a job as a runner at Ridley Scott’s commercial company in London. I learned a lot, but I figured if I was going to work in film, the best place to do it was in LA. I moved to LA when I was twenty-three. I had $400 and a diving watch and two phone numbers of friends of friends. Ah, the days when you are young and fearless. And it worked out - I loved LA, the weather was fabulous, and everybody was smiling and friendly. People thought I was clever just because of my accent. If only they knew how many dumb English people there were who also spoke like me!

MM: How did you hatch the script for the new film and what kinds of messages are in this movie?

PS: The movie is a Comedy about racial profiling, and as a white man from the UK it would have been foolish even to attempt to write this script alone.

I do not believe that a white guy can ever truly appreciate the black experience in America especially as it relates to interactions with law enforcement. Fortunately, I have a co-writer, Dominique Purdy, who I have worked on previous films with and who is extremely funny and talented and he is an actual black man

A few years ago, Dominique and I were working on another script when he was late for a meeting. He was delayed when he was pulled over on the way for something nefarious and let off with a warning. Dom then began to explain to me his experiences with the police throughout his life. It turns out that he has been getting hassled by the cops since he was a small child living in South LA. It opened my eyes to how this must affect a person psychologically.

I then drove around the city with Dom, and I noticed that often police cars would turn and follow him, check him out, and then split. This did not happen to me while driving the same streets. We organized a meeting at a local after-hours spot where we invited black men from all walks of life to discuss racial profiling.

Doctors soldiers, corporate workers, drug dealers, artists all told their stories, which were all different but all contained one common element -poor treatment by the police. So, we began to write the script based on Dom’s life and his experiences growing up in LA and working as a pizza delivery driver, the job he was doing at the time.

MM: Which comedy writers have most inspired your sense of humor?

PS: I am a huge fan of some of Spike Lee and the Hughes brother’s Movies. Our film was inspired to some extent by socially conscious movies like “Do the Right Thing,” and both Dominique and I would be proud to be mentioned in the same sentence as Mr. Lee’s film, especially if I weren’t actually writing the sentence. Coincidentally, the lead character in “Do the Right Thing” delivers pizzas and “Driving While Black” is based on Dominique’s experiences with the police as he goes about his job as a pizza delivery guy. But Dominique really had a job delivering pizzas at the time. It wasn’t just a plot point. We just wanted to make the film as authentic as possible.

USA, UK, and comedy

MM: How do race relations in the USA and UK differ and were you surprised by the social landscape between your homeland and your adopted country?

PS: That’s a tough question as I left the UK about thirty years ago and I am sure things have changed a lot. I do remember being taught that if there was ever any issue - you need directions, or you lost your purse - you simply ask the friendly neighborhood bobby. That has into been my experience here. In fact, in my experience people are more likely to not want the cops involved, as who amongst us is always spotlessly clean.

MM: This movie is a comedy, but while doing the research for the film, did you find any of the stories especially shocking or maddening rather than humorous?

PS: The whole thing was a real eye-opener for me. To be honest, when I first heard Dominique complaining about getting hassled but he cops, my initial reaction was to wonder what he did to make the police hassle him. Dom sensed this and challenged me to drive around with him for a couple of days. I did, and the difference was noticeable; lots of cop cars would follow us for a few minutes, even if we tried to lose them by taking side streets.

Sometime the cops would U-turn just to follow and check out Dom’s car/registration tags, etc. I know this is the policeman’s job, but I did feel as if we got three times the attention from the police than if it had been me driving. Yes, a lot of it is maddening. The scene where the kid gets shot on the beach is based on a real event that happened a couple of years ago at a beach I am familiar with. The kid shot was menacing people with a stick. I was not there, and I don’t really know what "menacing” means here. But we do have a video of the kid being shot multiple times and the police gathering around him as if to block any videographers.

MM: What is your favorite scene in the movie and how did you manage to keep such a potentially controversial topic so light, especially in this volatile political landscape?

PS: Dom and I had both seen the movie about the kid that gets shot on the BART. It was so gut-wrenching and harrowing. This happened, and the kid died for nothing. I am glad I saw that movie, and it improved my perspective - BUT I know I will never willing watch that film again. It was just too sad.

Dominique and I are both funny people, and we wanted to make a film that people would like to watch over and over again. So, we decided to make a film that wasn’t going to leave anyone in tears, and that did not involve any gunplay, any stunts, no cops, and robbers action sequences. We just wanted it to reflect real life. My favorite scene in the movie is where Dom makes fun of the bike cop and drives off. I think it’s a nice portrayal of how a silly joke can get blown out of all proportion with dire consequences.

MM: You co-wrote the script, so how did you go work with someone else and what advice do you have for people who are trying to get into films?

PS: As I mentioned earlier, you could not credibly write this movie without the involvement of a black writer who has been racially profiled since puberty. As per the industry as a whole, I have been screwed over and disappointed so many times that I am now a little jaded. My first movie “The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down” grossed $14 million according to forensic accounting done a few years after the movie’s release. But the distribution company never paid me a cent – they were sneaky and sold the assets to various offshoots and sister companies and then claimed to have no deal with me! Although I wrote, directed and co-funded that film I never got one sales report, and the whole affair left me bankrupt, and I lost my home. People talk about this being Hollywood business as usual, but there are real consequences and victim. If this were any other industry, these people would be in jail.

To the young filmmaker, I would ask him to bear in mind: Nobody cares about your project. They are not going to help you. They might seem interested but they are usually either showing off with big talk, or they are trying to figure out if you can be of any value to them. “Producers” are notorious for this, especially in social situations. It is very easy to say you are a producer then actors and actresses, directors and DPs and artists of all stripe will fawn on you, even though you may not be as interesting or attractive as they. If they could get the money, they would use it for their own project they are trying to fund, not your debut feature. And if at any point they mention a “slate of films” that they are trying to produce, (especially if funded to the tune of hundreds of millions via China or the middle east) then you know they are lying so extricate yourself immediately.

The good news is you can now make a decent movie for hundreds of thousands of dollars and if you are resourceful and can present a risk/reward ratio that makes sense you might be able to raise the money yourself from your own contacts. If you can make this work once you can have a career at it. But beware - it is very tough to make money on an indie film via traditional distribution routes. You will have to be flexible and take advantage of the fact that you can now interact directly with your audience/customers. You can build your brand and your fanbase and do it independently of the Hollywood system, thus retaining your creative control.

Don’t give up hope, but be realistic and throughout the whole process always assume that someone, somehow is probably going to try and cheat you at some point, and it may not be who you think, so retain a good lawyer and always take the time to read and understand every word of the contract.