Spending quarantine with your business partner isn’t so bad when your business partner is your mom. Just ask Yara Shahidi and her mother, Keri Shahidi, who recently launched their own production company, 7th Sun. “It’s been a family-of-five affair,” Yara tells BAZAAR.com over Zoom, looking back at spending the past few months at home with her family. “A full house,” adds Keri, who video-calls in from another room in the same house.
The world might have been put on pause because of the pandemic, but the Shahidis have not. “I feel like we work more when we’re at home,” Keri says. “Sometimes our day ends at eight or nine o’clock at night.”
Part of that nonstop workflow has to do with not being in a physical office, but another part of it is being busy to begin with. “Pre-quarantine, I think many of our projects [had] gone deep into development, and right as quarantine hit, we were really ready to pitch many projects,” says Yara, who also stars in Black-ish and Grown-ish. “So it was an interesting moment of feeling like we had quite the productive quarantine of getting these projects off the ground and going through so much of the process in an unorthodox way that none of us really expected.”
The Shahidis announced an overall deal with ABC Studios this summer, giving them an opportunity to create scripted and alternative shows for the network. “I’m excited because I think a couple of our projects that we’ve recently sold should be announcing soon,” Yara says, teasing programs that exude a variety of “different tones.” The fare will include “animation, unscripted, drama, comedy half hour, hour” programs, Keri adds. “We definitely don’t ascribe to having parameters.”
Ahead of toasting to the rising women directors and creators at the kickoff of Through Her Lens, The Tribeca CHANEL Women's Filmmaker Program, the Shahidis sat down with BAZAAR.com to chat about their business relationship and upcoming work. The duo also hosted a public masterclass about the film industry for the event, which is now streaming.
What is your working dynamic like?
Yara Shahidi: Silly.
Keri Shahidi: Oh, my goodness. Yeah. I was going to say, we feel like we are too lobes from the same brain. Sometimes the working process is, Yara wakes up and says, "I was listening to this story, which reminded me of this book." Sometimes the process is, we'd love to lean into creators and writers. The last show that we sold, it started with a writer that was coming in and we just wanted to meet her. And she was in a meeting with our development director, Lajoie St. George, and she just told Lajoie, "I have this kernel of an idea," and we were like, "Excellent. Tell us." And we all resonated with the idea, and we took, what, about nine months to develop? And we sold it three weeks ago.
What would you think it would be like if you were doing this on your own?
YS: I don't know if I could do this on my own. [Laughs.]
KS: I couldn't do it without Yara. I couldn't do it. Absolutely not.
YS: Same. I feel like it's really such a privilege to be in business with somebody who, one, selfishly, that knows me so well, but two, we have very similar sensibilities. … It's been nice having the other person where we reaffirm the importance of what we're doing. Because that not only comes up in terms of the content of what we're creating, but the fact that most of our job consists of advocating to bring people into the rooms that aren't traditionally in studio spaces. That requires a level of commitment. And it's helpful when I think you have a shared commitment in that work.
KS: Absolutely. We have a project that we're working on now, and our writer is a playwright, and we're bringing her into this world of scripted television. It's just so exciting because—you know how they say ignorance many times can be bliss?—just walking around like, "They're brilliant. What can we do with this brilliant human?" And then we just put the pieces together.
As a new company, have there been any challenges with getting projects off the ground or getting people to believe in anything you're working on?
YS: This industry definitely proves who is allowed to be an outlier. ... I definitely have an absurdist imagination and we all have these elements about ourselves that we really love to honor in our projects. And it's interesting to see what creators are allowed to go that far without it being questioned because of the kind of societal investment or industry investment in them as a creator, as well as the level of, quite honestly, convincing that has to go into using these same mechanisms to say, "Well, this kind of out-there vision is important to invest in, because we're hoping to carve something that hasn't been done before."
We are very supported, and at the same time, in terms of actual content that we're putting out into the world, there is definitely something about being Black women and women of color where there's a constant question of, like, "What are the stakes? Why does this matter? Why is this different from the other two shows with Black people in them?" And that is something that never fails to amuse me. So that's great.
KS: And I think when we talk about relationship equity … everything that we've done has been based on, how can we be of service to said communities, the humans that we interact with? What was so beautifully surprising to us is how much that came into play. When we opened our doors, how many people were really excited about working with us?
I feel like it took me a few weeks to get past the, like, "Us? Y'all wanna work with us?" And then realizing that, oh, we had known each other in other spaces. People knew our sensibilities, because we are nothing but transparent. It was just an exciting space to move our investment in people into. And it's definitely not like, "Oh, this is just the easiest thing ever." We've had our fair share of rejection.
When it comes to starting a company and pitching shows, what do you wish to share with other people who might want to do the same thing?
YS: What we've been particularly [talking about] in the past week is the difference of having discernment versus being definitive. We've built a team that's extremely discerning, and there are certain sentiments that we love to anchor all of our projects, which allows us to say, "Hey, this project isn't for us," with an ease.
But there's another level, too, because we are extremely involved in the creative process. We may not be writers, but we are creative producers. The importance of having that level of definitiveness when there are so many great projects out there to be like, "This is what we want to do," because we already know that our time investment is so great that it's not about having a slate that runs all the way down the stairs, but really having one that we feel so fully invested in.
KS: And discernment versus being definitive is just like saying, "We know what we can do, but what do we want to do?"
Since we're here supporting women filmmakers, what's your favorite film directed by a woman—or show helmed by a woman?
KS: Well, there's a whole new blossoming of incredible female talent. I remember the first time I met Lena Waithe, I think it was Season 1 of Black-ish, and she was just in conversation with Kenya [Barris] and she walked in and I literally jumped. I mean, we're friends now, but my unbridled excitement [over] just seeing somebody whose voice was so strong. Same with Issa Rae. Love & Basketball. I was a lifelong basketball player. Gina [Prince-Bythewood] just gets my heart.
YS: I would have to say Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust, and that's something I more recently watched. I was always, of course, really familiar with her filmmaking and her sensibilities. But there was something really wonderful about revisiting that project right now, because I feel like she was very predictive in that film, in that a lot of what we value in storytelling now of slow-moving, beautifully shot stories about culture and family are extremely relevant now. They are things that she was already hitting upon in ways where she was an outlier when it came out. But Mama was right. There's so many incredible people. I remember Melina Matsoukas when she was still creative directing for the Knowles sisters [Beyoncé and Solange], literally being like, "That's what I want to do in the world."
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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