- Mandisa A. Johnson, MS, MFA
A Conversation with Producer of Realm Pictures International, Stephen Blake
Chief Executive Chief Executive Officer, and Producer of Realm Pictures International, Stephen Blake
A few weeks ago, we were fortunate to connect and have a conversation with Stephen Blake, Chief Executive Officer, and Producer of Realm Pictures International. Realm is creating spectacular, diverse blockbuster entertainment, while breaking brilliant, undiscovered talent and financially endowing the nation’s HBCUs. Stephen is also the producer of the high concept, character driven drama, Steal Away.
Atlanta Film and TV: Could you give us some background about who you are and how you got your start in the film industry?
Stephen Blake: When I was eight or nine years old, an uncle gave me a super eight movie camera. I looked at this thing and had no experience with filming. I immediately began making small films and casting my friends in the neighborhood and my sisters as characters. I somehow crudely figured out how to edit. I did animation on my own and saw all the possibilities there were in the camera. My mother enrolled me in a community film workshop called the Pasadena Art Workshop. It turned out there was a great animator and filmmaker, John Matthews, who mentored and trained me in filmmaking. I soon then began working with William Moffit, who is a great documentarian.
By the time I was in the tenth grade, I was permitted to leave campus at lunchtime and drive to Hollywood, where I interned on the KTLA lot in Los Angeles, where I interned with a prominent producer named Arnold Shapiro. This internship with him led to me doing a lot of commercials as a production assistant. I worked very hard, and my name spread because I was the guy who would hustle. When I first got involved, I said I would scrub toilets. I will do anything you need me to do. I even said I don’t even have to get paid. But, it turned out, I always did get paid! All of this launched my career as a production assistant.
When I was 19, I began directing segments for a show called Hollywood Closeup for ABC Television. At the same time, I remember I was on a shoot for Pioneer Stereo, and I met Jordan Cronenweth, who I would say is one of the five greatest cinematographers ever. He's shot the original Blade Runner and Altered States. Working with him is when I realized I wanted to be a cinematographer, and I immediately began volunteering to shoot student films, anything I could get my hands on so I could hone my craft in lighting and composition. After a while, I got my first low-budget movie called Deadly Prey, as a cinematographer, which began a chain of films. Around this time, Robert Townsend and the late Carl Craig contacted me about Hollywood Shuffle because they were involved with it for about a year. They would shoot it in pieces and run out of money, save up and shoot some more. During that time, I was one of three cinematographers who shot Hollywood Shuffle. This began a string of doing a lot of motion pictures, which were mostly genre films - Horror, Action, and War Films, where you have to work fast. The scripts were never anything to ride home about, but they gave us a chance as cinematographers and crew members to look as good as we could.
One day, a friend of mine named Ron Devoe, was making an EPK (Electronic Press Kit) for an artist named Johnny Gill. Ron asked me to do the lighting and sound for an interview. I went to West Los Angeles where Ron was shooting, and afterwards at a payphone I bumped into a producer named Sabrina Gray. She was on the payphone next to me, and I could hear her calling off a shoot, and telling all the crew members not to show up. We began talking, and Sabrina asked what I did. To which I told her that I am a film cinematographer. She told me ‘that’s interesting. Because the owner of the production company, and director, Lionel Martin wants more of a feature film look for the video.’ I gave her my card, and didn’t think anything of it. Sure enough, she called me, and let me know, the shoot that we were canceling, we’re rescheduling now, and Lionel Martin would love for you to shoot this music video. I had no designs or thoughts about shooting music videos. That music video was ‘Do Me’ for Bel Biv Devoe. This video became a huge hit, and launched what became a rather large music video sector of my life and career.
Atlanta Film and TV: Growing up, did your parents recognize your gift of the arts, and if so how did they nourish your gift to facilitate growth?
Stephen Blake: I was raised by a single mom, and no one could foresee my uncle giving me a movie camera. Once I took an interest, my mom was very active and drove me repeatedly to the community filmmaking center. She would drop me off at my mentor’s home. My mentor and his wife lived at a church parsonage, and he would drive me into West Los Angeles to do documentaries with him. My mom was very active and nurtured me in every way possible. When I needed film, and when I needed to get it developed, she gave me money. She was a thousand percent supportive. I was also proactive, and once I got the fever for film, you couldn’t stop me! My mom had to stay out of my way a little, but she was accommodating!
Atlanta Film and TV: Do you have any advice for upcoming cinematographers and directors?
Stephen Blake: It’s always good to learn the “rules.” If you’re a filmmaker, get familiar with movies of all genres. Understand the foundationally credible past and current history of film in all of its aspects. Learn why most films are divided into three acts? What typifies a three-act film? Once you’ve learned all the rules, throw them away, and let the story you want to bring to life find its own life. Permit yourself to break all the rules because you’re not living life as an artist to fill someone else’s mold. Nurture your gifts and creativity and feel free to make mistakes. Even if everyone is looking at what you’ve created (script or a rough edit of your film) and they say it doesn’t work, listen to what they have to say because maybe there are a few good points. But, be true to who you are. The most extraordinary filmmakers break the rules. They set new rules, which should then be broken themselves. Learn the language and all the facets, and then break all the rules. Then let us know what filmmaking is in a way that we’ve never known before.
Atlanta Film and TV: For our viewers who may not know, could you share the backstory of the Steal Away movie?
Stephen Blake: Steal Away is the true story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a sensational choir of young former slaves fighting the KKK’s reign of terror against their schools. Including the fledgling new HBCUs. They weren’t fighting back with bullets and bombs but their sensational songs of faith and freedom. Steal Away follows their titanic rise, from the darkness of slavery to the glittering ballrooms and thronerooms of Europe, as they conquer the world.
Steal Away features the strongest black lead in cinema history. In the motion picture industry’s one-hundred-plus years, there has never once been an epic motion picture featuring a black female lead. There have been strong black female roles, but they have been encased in smaller movies. Steal Away features a young 19-year-old, Ella Shepard, who is one of the most valiant warriors this world has ever known. When I read the story, it became a no-brainer that this story had to be brought to the world. What’s beautiful about this story is it’s not a black story, but it features characters of color with powerful protagonists, heroes, and warriors. It’s also a white, yellow and brown story, as it goes to The Whitehouse and England, along with Queen Victoria and the Prime Minister of England figuring into the story. This story will bring the world together because it’s a universal-global film.
My wife and I took an equity line of credit on our home, bought the rights to the book Dark Midnight When I Rise, and spent time developing the screenplay. We wrote about 135 drafts, because it’s an epic story, and we now have a team of about 40 people. We’re now engaging investors to raise $ 34.7 million dollars for the Steal Away movie. We’ve already launched our casting call, and have had overwhelming global submissions, with tens of thousands of requested auditions, and we’re excited about putting this on screen!
The Steal Away story is one that will inspire young people who are maybe at the end of their rope, feeling hopeless, or feel as if they can’t be redeemed. They will however, be able to find hope in this film because it’s a story about race reconciliation, hope and redemption.
Atlanta Film and TV: Can you share with our viewers who may be filmmakers/actors of color, how Hollywood gatekeepers tried to keep you out. And, can you share how you overcame those obstacles, and how you plan to shatter those strongholds?
Stephen Blake:Rather than shutting out amazing realms of talent, we are shining our spotlight on them. We’ve already raised 34.7 million dollars and are engaging investors, and have launched our global casting call, and we currently are signing two artists. We want to discover brilliant artists, and it would be our honor to cast them in this movie, and introduce them into the industry. We also want to show that you don’t have to lean into your existing celebrities. For each film, including Steal Away, we are actively reaching into the ranks of amazing actors and actresses known and unknown. A-list actors may be cast into our films, but we plan to introduce many extraordinary artists. Realm won’t only work with black artists, but we’ll work with all nationalities to make cinema by and for the people.
Atlanta Film and TV: Can you share with us about how Realm Pictures International plans to join HBCUs' crusade to build meaningful futures for hundreds of thousands of gifted students?
Stephen Blake: We owe our HBCUs support, and we are building philanthropy into our core business model. We are committing ten percent of all net revenues from Steal Away to HBCUs. At the same time, we are committed to drawing rich talent from the campuses of HBCUs to make our films. We want every film that we make to be replete with the visions and voices of brilliant minds nurtured on HBCU campuses.
Atlanta Film and TV:How can future filmmakers get involve with what Realm Pictures International is doing?
Stephen Blake: The easiest way to join is by going to our website realmpictures.co, join our mailing list, and follow us on social media because we will announce many calls for the making of Steal Away, where we’ll say let’s see your work. Post your work so we can consider you to be hired.
Atlanta Film and TV: Do you have anything else you’d like to share?
Stephen Blake: We are at an exciting time right now, and you can feel the change in the air on many fronts in our society. We’re looking to break those walls of exclusion in the entertainment industry. We want people to hear into the producers' rooms and invite people to produce our movies with us and participate from the beginning to the end. If you go to our website, you can read the entire Steal Away script, which studios usually don’t allow anyone to read beforehand. We are excited about bringing you into those rooms, and we light our torch to make you our partners in producing our content We are excited about partnering with you, - whomever you might be. And, if you’re talented, we are looking for you. It would be our honor to work with you, and bring you on to our motion pictures.