Tamika Lawson is a storyteller.
As a writer, she’s penned award-winning shorts and gained entrance into prestigious fellowships from the likes of Disney and AFI. As a producer and director, she’s crafted dozens of films, some starring the kind of A-list talent that draws awards voters’ notice and blockbuster-sized crowds.
But you’ve never seen her work in a movie theater before, and you likely never will.
That’s because Lawson is using her insider knowledge of Hollywood and her passion for bringing diverse storytelling to the screen to help the next generation of creatives build a legacy that will outlast them on film.
It all started with a bad check.
Lawson has graduated from the New York Film Academy before moving to L.A. and selling a script for six figures. The production outfit that bought had financing problems so she never got to cash it.
“I was going to direct that project, produce it,” Lawson tells UPROXX. “It would have literally launched my career in a whole different way. It was so disappointing, but I just thought, ‘I don’t want all my energy to just be focused on me selling a script or me getting the job that I’ve been wanting to have,’ or any of that. I feel like my talent and my purpose in life is bigger than that.”
She had worked with nonprofits before, teaching screenplay writing and filmmaking basics to kids at places like Inner-City Filmmakers and the Greenway Arts Alliance. One day a friend asked Lawson what she wanted to do with her talents, long-term.
“I’d probably grant wishes to kids in the Make-a-Wish Foundation” is how she replied.
“I felt like, ‘Well, that’s an idea,’” Lawson recalls. “How could I combine those two passions and create an entirely new organization?”
She took a couple of self-empowerment courses, learned a valuable lesson about holding herself accountable – “Tell everybody that this is what you’re doing so they hold your feet to the fire” she advises – and Make A Film Foundation was born.
The organization was, and still is, a small nonprofit but it’s grown bigger than Lawson ever dreamed. At first, the director relied on friends and family to keep it afloat. She knew she wanted to help sick kids create movies – she’d seen how powerful an outlet the medium could be to young people struggling and wanted to grant that as a final wish to children battling terminal illnesses. So she launched callouts, asking people she knew if they knew of any kid who fit the bill; asking writers, producers, and directors she’d worked with in the past if they might be interested in contributing their time and skills to pull this off.
“This is how the first one really got made,” Lawson explains. “We asked friends and family for money. I think we ended up getting one or two small grants and getting a crew …”
A friend recommended Jabril Muhammad, a young college student suffering from Sickle Cell Anemia, as a potential collaborator, and the foundation’s first project, Put It In A Book, began. Written and starring Muhammad, the short film tells the story of two brothers whose lives are forever altered by gang violence. Lawson was able to bring Rodrigo Garcia (Albert Nobbs) on board to direct and recruited Kerry Washington (Little Fires Everywhere) and Michael Ealy (Stumptown) to star in the film.
“When you say living your purpose, I tell people, ‘On the actual first day of shooting when this kid was making his movie and Kerry Washington was there and Michael Ealy was there, I still didn’t have a job.’ I was like, ‘Why am I so happy?’ I’m completely fulfilled. I know everything is going to be okay. And this is magical. It’s not just my vision unfolding, but it’s this kid’s vision unfolding, all happening at the same time. It was so beautiful.”
More projects would follow.
Lawson’s foundation creates star-studded shorts and easier-to-make documentary films for kids who are often recommended to them by hospital staff, family members, or fans of the foundation. Sometimes that means spending a day shooting other types of narratives – short docs, music videos, whatever interests the kid in question. Other times that means teaming up with organizations like Starlight Children’s Foundation or the Muscular Dystrophy Association to profile the incredible work these teams are doing while also helping the children they serve to mark an item off their bucket list.
But the short-form narrative program is the highlight of Make A Film Foundation’s work, partly because it attracts some big-name talent – Hailee Steinfeld, Diablo Cody, J.K. Simmons to name a few – and partly because it gives young creators an almost unlimited framework in which to tell the stories that matter to them.
Like 16-year-old Anthony Conti’s post-apocalyptic zombie thriller, The Black Ghiandola.
Conti was battling stage four adrenal cortical cancer when Lawson first met him which meant the timeframe for shooting his film was tight. Lawson had two-weeks to recruit the people she needed to pull off his idea. Conti was a fan of The Walking Dead – obviously – and Lawson hit up her friend Chad Coleman (he played Tyreese Williams on the series) to act in the short, along with Simmons who she’d worked with on previous projects for the foundation. Because Conti’s vision was unique and required more time, special effects, and prosthetics, Lawson found three directors willing to donate a couple of days each to helm the project – Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight), Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures), and Sam Raimi (Spiderman Trilogy). From there, stars like Johnny Depp and Laura Dern came onboard.
“Once we say yes, the kid says yes, everybody starts to say yes,” Lawson says of the process. “It’s a crazy deluge of magic and yeses, and that’s kind of how it went. It’s hard to try and say, ‘Well, how do you do it?’ The real answer is, ‘I don’t know. It’s alchemy.’
Lawson made sure Conti was involved in every aspect of the process, from casting to music – the closing credits song was written by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, Conti’s favorite band – to what the posters for the movie looked like. In the end, the project proved to be a bittersweet experience for Lawson and the crew.
“A lot of people don’t know what it is until they’re in it. They say yes to it because it sounds like an interesting thing but when they’re in it they realize, ‘Oh, now I know what we’re doing,’” Lawson says. “With Anthony, he was really sick the entire time. There’s really only one way to say it, he was dying before our eyes.”
Lawson had gotten the call about Conti in October. The group began filming in November. By the end of January the following year, Conti had passed away. Lawson was able to screen the film for him in his hospital room shortly before his death. But, while the loss of Conti was devastating, the point of Make A Film Foundation’s work was never to save lives. Instead, Lawson wants to give the kids she works with a goal to strive for, and a tangible legacy they can be proud to leave behind.
“Anytime I look at these films, I swear, I feel like these kids are with me,” Lawson says. “It’s like they’re right there. So yes, it’s bittersweet, but we’re all going to die one day. But I think [we’re] creating something that will live on forever. This accomplishment, their spirit, it’s forever.”