Geri Cole: You’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. I’m your host, Geri Cole. In each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television, and news break down everything from the writing process to pitching, favorite jokes to key scenes, and so much more. Today, it’s my pleasure to speak with Terence Nance, creator of the new HBO Late Night series, Random Acts of Flyness. The series, which I highly recommend, is a fluid stream of consciousness examination of contemporary Black American life. It’s like nothing else on television. I spoke with Terence about the trauma in and of making art, how his writing takes place before he opens final draft, and how success can be found by looking in each other’s faces.
Geri Cole: Hi, Terence.
Terence Nance: Hi. How are you?
Geri Cole: I’m doing well. How are you doing?
Terence Nance: Good, good.
Geri Cole: Thank you so much for joining us. I’ve been looking forward to speaking with you. You’re in LA right now, yes?
Terence Nance: Yeah, I happen to be in LA. I kind of got stuck here. For the moment.
Geri Cole: That’s all right. You got some sun, though. It’s nice and warm there.
Terence Nance: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, it’s transient. The transient quarantine.
Geri Cole: I mean, hey. I wish I could get to a sunny location right now. That would be much appreciated.
Terence Nance: You’re in New York?
Geri Cole: Yes. I’m in Brooklyn.
Terence Nance: Oh, okay.
Geri Cole: So, yeah. I am very excited to talk to you about your show, Random Acts of Flyness, but also about your whole career and the things you’ve got going on. But to get started with Random Act of Flyness… First of all, thank you for making the show. I feel like you made it just for me. But also I wanted to know how… After watching it, I was like, how? How do they make this show? Because there is… Obviously, if people have watched the show, there is so much. It’s so rich. I’m curious about how much of that is on the page and how much is made in post and/or how much changes in the process of making the show.
Terence Nance: First, much gratitude to you for watching it. I think it always feels good when I meet anybody who feels they can relate to it and it touches them on any level, so I thank you for that. And for telling me that. I’ll bring that back to the family who makes it.
Geri Cole: Please do.
Terence Nance: Also, just thanks to you all for having me on. But yeah, I think it’s about 75%, 80% scripted. If you watch the episode, you would definitely be able to follow it. You’d be able to read along on a script and it more or less corresponds to what you’d be watching. But I do think that there is, like any movie or anything like that, the dimension of editing it, making it, writing it, is articulating what the ideas in a specific dimension, which is sort of immaterial. It doesn’t have a… I think writing is… It doesn’t have a concept of time that’s linear. It’s very unvisualized and I think that’s necessary for it to have enough potential for it to be directed or shot. For it to have enough stuff that isn’t determined.
Terence Nance: I think that once it becomes determined, once it’s in 2D space, on the drives, something else has to happen in the editing dimension that I don’t think is articulable. Especially in the script. But I think that is when it starts work more like a music making process, which I think really is about calling in the spiritual forces, nature, ancestral forces, and just allowing the editors themselves… I’m only one of the editors, but we have several editors… Kristan Sprague and Naima Ramos-Chapman and Jonathan Proctor… who I think do that kind of channeling work to bring aspects out of even the script that you wouldn’t necessarily know were there, but maybe I found were there later. Subtextually or tonally. Things like that.
Geri Cole: Like once looking at it with fresh eyes in the edit, you are able to discover new things that you weren’t necessarily maybe going for but then present themselves?
Terence Nance: Yeah. I think it works a little bit more like how the whole season feels related to itself narratively. I think we definitely made a strong effort to reward the cumulative effect of seeing all the episodes in sequence. Essentially, when you see my character’s relationship with Najja and you see what amounts to pretty minimal beats. There’s not much screen time of our interaction. Then, once you see our final interaction, it feels cathartic or feels like it’s a healing, energetic signature that you only totally understand if you’ve seen the rest of them. I think that that kind of continuity is in the scripts, but I don’t think we knew the extent to which it was the language of the show until it’s being edited together. And then trying to make editing decisions that promote that continuity across the whole thing.
Geri Cole: That actually makes me think of two questions I would like to ask. I’ll start with… I was trying to figure out… I was like, how do they categorize this… not that it necessarily needs to be categorized, but I was like, oh, I feel like it’s a topic-based show. To me, it felt like a topic-based show of different things that you want to explore, but actually the whole season felt like a conversation. And so I was curious if you had mapped it out from the start or did you just find each thing that you wanted to explore and go that direction and somehow they all tied back together to feel like a conversation.
Terence Nance: I think it’s both. I think that there’s… If I’m understanding your question accurately, I think that the conversation that the show feels like it’s having with itself is a reflection of the conversation that the writers and directors are having with each other over the first season. I believe we had a eight-week writer’s room. Eight or ten week writer’s room. That conversation wasn’t only contained to that moment because most of the people had pretty longstanding creative relationships at the very least, if not more connective relationships, so I think that it is a mirror of a conversation that we’re having with each other. And I think that that is… The elegance of it is that simplicity, I think. Because of how essential conversing is and communication is at a personal level, a human to human level, for any kind of transcendence to happen. For anything more major or healing to happen, I think it starts there.
Terence Nance: And hopefully the conversation, quote unquote, or the things we were talking about, whether it’s… I think one big question of the season is to what extent does your body determine your concept of gender and are concepts of gender useful for Black people, like at all? Even if those concepts of gender are transitory. Is it useful at all? That’s a question we’re asking. We’re talking about. There’s no answer. It’s a thing you have to move through, finding better versions of the question kind of ad nauseum and hopefully the way we’re doing that is that in language. [inaudible 00:08:23] cinema is a language. We’re trying to use cinema as the language to make more questions as opposed to… It’s obvious, but as opposed to just talking about it.
Geri Cole: Can we talk a little bit actually about your team of collaborators? Because it seems like you are a team of amazing artists that all just sort of got into a room and then really got to go for things unchecked, unfiltered. Was that what the experience was like? And then, also, what do you look for in a potential collaborator?
Terence Nance: The collaboration shows what it is. Just to shout all of them out on season one. You had Nuatama Bodomo, who’s an amazing writer/director. Darius Clark Monroe. You have my brother, Nelson Bandela Nance, who makes music under the name Nelson Bandela. You had Naima Ramos-Chapman, who’s an amazing dancer/writer/director. Shaka King, who’s an amazing writer/director, who I’ve known for a really long time, who’s got a movie coming out, Judas and the Black Messiah. And so that core group… Jamund Washington is also a producer and a writer on the show. I think that core group on season one, many of whom returned on season two… Mariama Diallo. Can’t forget Mariama. Also amazing screenwriter/actress/director.
Terence Nance: I think that the nature of the collaboration was… I think when you watch it, it can seem open-ended, but it actually… in my reflecting on it over the years, it really wasn’t. There was no time for it to be open-ended, in a way. It was really specific. One reason it was specific is because we had the pilot. The pilot has a lot of those collaborators working it already. Mariama and Nuatama had collaborated on a script for Everybody Dies, which is a film that Nuatama had conceived of and directed and made. And that was a part of the pilot. Shaka had made a film called Lazercism. It was also a part of the pilot. And another pieced called Most Wonderful Time of the Year. And then, obviously, I had directed the rest of it.
Terence Nance: And so it existed. They were like, this is it. This is the show. We can watch it and we could see… We could kind of deconstruct it. It’s made up of these elements. These characters that were, in some way, already reflective of our group. I think that it just became about, once we deconstructed it, like what are the raw materials that make this thing up, quote unquote, segment wise? Even though we didn’t necessarily consider it a segment-based show. But really narratively… characters, tonalities, energy… where do we want this to go over three more hours, basically? That focused, I think, the energy of what we began to create, I think, pretty instantly. Because we just had this thing that we could say we’re continuing this.
Geri Cole: Do you feel like it all has to get filtered through you? As the creator of the show.
Terence Nance: I don’t think it has to, but that’s definitely what’s fun. Part of the fun part of it… I think that my role… The biggest difference in my role is I’m the person who’s there for all phases and has to be there every day for all phases. Which is a pleasure. It’s a challenge and a great pleasure. I think with that opportunity to carry it in a certain direction, I think it ends up having the energy that comes through me. The portal that is me, which isn’t even really me, quote unquote, as one person. There’s all kinds of spirits and energies and ancestors and things like that that I can’t say are all called Terence, necessarily. But I do think that it’s a function of time, in a way, of being there for that swath of it gives me a different perspective than some of the other collaborators who come in and out. I think that’s very important to have that inverse experience. Like somebody coming who hasn’t been around for a few weeks and being like, oh, Terence, what about this? Because I’ve been there every day and it’s like my positionality maybe locks me into a certain thing or it frees me up from a certain thing. I think it’s a nice balance to have that. But I’m also very interested in not playing that role in subsequent seasons and playing different roles.
Geri Cole: Can we talk a little bit about The Flying Runner? Which I really had… I felt very connected to. Because it felt like a shared consciousness in a way. I think that was one of the things that I really enjoyed about the show was that sense of shared consciousness. That there were things that I recognized deeply even though I’d not looked at it before. Can we talk a little bit about that? That sense of shared consciousness? I mean, I don’t know if that was the intention.
Terence Nance: Yeah, I think that… The tagline of the show is shift consciousness and I think that that started and starts with ourselves. Me shifting my own consciousness or allowing it to be shifted. I think maybe in the first season, maybe with The Flying Runner, it was an intuitive decision. Anything I’m saying about it is an attempt to reflect upon something that might not… It might be conjecture. But I do think that it definitely has in it a kind of wish fulfillment that is about what we have been maybe symbolically gesturing at. What we have been able to do in terms of survival. And how we’ve made survival look. Not necessarily effortless, but definitely like science fiction. I think we’ve made… Black people have made surviving KKK, police officers, feel proto natural, feel tragic, and science fiction at the end of the day. Because it kind of can’t… the survival aspect of it can’t compute in our agreed upon communal concept of reality. Reality like Western science reality. Like humans don’t fly, quote unquote, reality. I think that’s where the shared consciousness thing comes in.
Geri Cole: Watching it, I remembered that I used to always dream of flying. Especially whenever threatened. That was my go-to. Whenever threatened, I would fly. And I was like, whoa. That really feels familiar.
Terence Nance: That’s kind of where it came from for me, too. I have a recurring… as a kid especially… recurring flying dreams. You and I are interdimensionally linked. Even just having this conversation means that there’s some relationship that we’ve had at that level… what [inaudible 00:16:13] calls, I believe, [orun 00:16:14]. The invisible layer of existence. The invisible dimension that determines the physical. And so it’s like that collective consciousness, those two words, I think are signifiers of that space of conversation. To bring it back to conversation. Hopefully, if we’re being real about the conversation, we’ll always operate on laws of being that seem only possible in that invisible realm. Because that’s where everything is determined. It’s maybe even more real for us there than it is in the body, quote unquote.
Geri Cole: Another thing that I really appreciated about the show was… and I feel like you make a joke of it. Maybe in episode one, but maybe it was in episode two. That the show is more about affirming Blackness than it is about interrogating whiteness. You were G-chatting with someone and it was like, no, no, no. We’ve done enough of this. The thing that we’re interested in doing is affirming Blackness. Can we talk a little bit about that?
Terence Nance: Where did you read that? Where is it from?
Geri Cole: I can’t remember what episode it was in, but I feel like it was maybe in the first or second episode. You were online. Someone emails you to say, “Hey, we have this sketch and this thing out. It feels like we’re maybe too much about interrogating whiteness.” I’m obviously paraphrasing. And you’re like, “You right.” This show is about affirming Blackness, but we’re not going to concern ourselves with interrogating whiteness.
Terence Nance: Yeah. I think that was really important to us as people. Around that time… That was close after the uprisings of 2015, 2016. Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Eric Garner in New York and Mike Brown. I had been down to Ferguson, I remember. I was making something. I was planning on making something down there. I think I was just really within the grips of the story of white supremacy as it affected my life. As we all were and are. It just kind of came up in my consciousness. I don’t remember exactly where or how, but probably through the teachings of our ancestor, Toni Morrison. That the main function of white supremacy is to distract us from our work.
Terence Nance: I think a big thing about that truth is what is our work? I think I started to understand it as a daily practice, as work, of re-centering on ourselves. Especially myself as a Black man in a relationship with a Black woman. What is it like to heal my ancestral trauma so I can show up to the task of being in a healthy, communicative relationship with someone who’s also suffered her own traumas? That was what a lot of the relationship runner came from, which is this necessity of doing our work. What is our work that doesn’t exclude the internal battle to survive white supremacy, but it de-centers it? It’s a daily thing. I think it just came from the necessity of that. Because that also is survival.
Terence Nance: And also just where do we draw energy? Part of the survival aspect is avoiding the danger, but also it’s about finding the water. Finding the gas. Finding the thing that you’re living for. I think, on some level, the base level, we’re living for each other. We’re living for the thrill of seeing each other’s faces. I think that’s even more clear now that it’s hard to see each other’s faces. I remember thinking one time… I don’t know where I was. Just on a Sunday. A lot of Black people out in [inaudible 00:20:20] or somewhere. Maybe it was even in Brooklyn. I don’t know where I was. It was just looking at all of our faces and I was like, this was how we survived the Middle Passage. Just each other’s faces. There’s just so much to stay around for. Just in being around each other. Just witnessing each other.