Monique Matthews is a storyteller on a mission. She recently wrote the holiday film, A Holiday in Harlem for the Hallmark channel, in which she has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing in a TV-Movie or Special, and is currently co-writing and directing a feature documentary Birthing Justice, amongst developing other projects. All the while, she's writing to a theme that is steadfast and true to her - writing stories about hope and free will.
I had the utmost pleasure speaking with Monique about her filmmaking journey, writing stories she wants to see, and her writing routine, which I boldly suggest all writers attempt when sitting down to write new pages.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: I’m excited to speak with you today about your new movie, A Holiday in Harlem, and especially about the documentary film you’re currently working on.
Monique Matthews: Thank you so much. Yes, the documentary is called Birthing Justice, and if the United States were just made up of black women, it would rank 99th in the world in successful birth outcomes. So, we've seen difficulty with Serena Williams. We've seen it with Beyonce. We've seen it with Allyson Felix with all of these women who are thriving, and it has very little to do with the socio-economic status. And we're just exploring how it happens but really solutions for best practices. I'm really excited that this is a solutions-oriented documentary and not just looking at the problem.
Sadie: It's such an important topic too, and something we should be paying attention to.
Monique: Yeah, there’s this Momnibus Act that's in Congress right now, and it's about increasing the number of dollars to promote health equity, and one of the primary areas is birthing. Luckily, it's a time when people are looking at it and we just want to make sure that the funds are allocated correctly.
Sadie: Right, very important. A huge congrats on A Holiday in Harlem. Where did the idea initially come from for this movie?
Monique: I was home, and I was walking through Harlem in December 2019 for Christmas time and Harlem is just so beautiful. It's one of the places that's been settled by nearly every immigrant group that's come to America, and it was considered the suburbs. That’s where Hamilton lived. I grew up with his house right in my backyard. And so, Harlem has such unique history in America, the architecture is amazing and, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a Christmas movie, but I've never seen one here.’ And that's really why I wrote it. We write what we see but seemingly no one else has seen and that's really how it started.
Sadie: Yeah, you want to write things that you want to see or haven't seen yet.
Monique: It was one of those things where, you know, Sadie you can work on many stories - I've written many scripts, and this was one people just responded to the name. The name before A Holiday in Harlem was Christmas in Harlem, and when I said the name people saw it, and I was like, 'Oh this is interesting.' And I had two networks competing for it and it happened in such a really short amount of time; we had a meeting with the network in April, I wrote a treatment, they liked it and in May I sent them a draft and then in June they said, ‘We're doing this movie,’ and then by July we were casting and in September we were filming.
Sadie: The title itself is perfect for marketing. What was the collaboration process like with you Director Keith Powell?
Monique: We each had a specific vision, and I respected his vision of what he wanted to do for the project. So, as a writer, I did what the studio asked me, had my input, and then I left it in my director's hands to direct.
Sadie: Tell us about your filmmaking journey. What initially inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Monique: First of all, my parents are finally OK with me being a filmmaker. [laughs] They wanted a different path that was more assured than filmmaking. [laughs] I love the written word. I’ve always seen things in pictures. I think I wrote my first book when I was five or seven, and I just kind of never stopped. When I was young, like many other people, my dad got me a camcorder and I was recreating music videos, and Different Strokes [laughs] it was just one of those things that I wasn't aware of what I was doing. It was just like, ‘Oh, this is fun. So, let's just redo this scene. And what if we did it this way?’ I went to UCLA - I'm from Harlem, and that doesn't happen too often - the filmmaker was always there, but I didn't feel like I had the license to do it because I should do something that was more stable, but I just kept finding my way through it. And then when I graduated from UCLA Film School, I was selected by Daily Variety as one of their 10 writers to watch. I had this great immediate media publicity, but we all have different learning curves. And for me, the model of the business was in a shift to TV from features and I needed time to kind of figure that out. I started teaching at Santa Monica College, I teach beginning and advanced screenwriting and film theory there. And I just kept writing and I just kept directing little things.
Sadie: It's such an interesting journey and in way of you finding your voice.
Sadie: What kind of stories are you driven to tell?
Monique: I would call it the Flight of the Bumblebee. Like the Bumblebee the way it is anatomically constructed, it is not supposed to fly, and yet he does. And so literally, that's the thematic principle in all my work. I can write across genres. I can direct across genres, but at the core, I'm always driven by hope and free will. And doing things that people just don't see. It's not supposed to happen, and yet it does. For me, joy is my resistance. I like things that are hopeful. And I think that we're in a time where people need that. That’s what I'm really interested in providing right now and opening myself to.
Sadie: We can definitely use more of that. Do you have a set writing routine for yourself?
Monique: I do a few things before the writing classes. I take breaks in the middle of the day, but I like getting up really early, because I have dogs, I have two Maltese, and they insist that I get up anyway, [laughs] at like six. And when I'm writing something, I always construct a Spotify playlist. It helps me with the theme, and it helps me with really understanding the arc of the story. And so when I'm walking my girls in the morning, I listen to my playlist and I come back and I write for maybe two or three hours and then I exercise because I found that nonverbal movement really helps me if I'm stuck on something like you know, writer's block, I find that I need to get it out. It's kind of like when you have this idea in the shower, and it comes to you because you're moving and you allow your brain to actually kind of work through things. And one of the things that I love to do is that I stop before my last scene of the day is complete. If I have a scene, I'll stop halfway through for the next day because I find that if I stop and the scene is finished, I can get writer's block, but if I stop then I know I have work to do.
Sadie: That's brilliant. That's such a great way to avoid writer's block entirely and really tackle your pages the next day.
Monique: I got it from teaching because we have other lives while we're writing, it's like how do I keep going back to the page, right? I need to feel unsettled, and I need a reason to go back.
Sadie: When you're sitting down to write a new script, do you approach it solely as a writer or do you approach it as a director, or does it depend on the project for you?
Monique: I'll have to lean on one of my mentors who's no longer here, but he's a mentor through his work, Billy Wilder. He was a classic writer's director, and I've studied his work, I fell in love with Sabrina and just watched all of his work. It’s magic and timeless, like Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment which is one of my absolute favorites. Just hearing his interviews of how he started directing to protect his writing, and he writes with such humanity, he was really concerned with the human condition and he just wrote about these flawed human beings and these situations. He really understood polarity and I love his approach. And I was like, ‘Oh, that's the approach to directing that I like, as I'm a writer who directs to protect their writing.’