Interview: Paul Sapiano-Director of ‘Driving While Black’

Updated: Apr 25, 2019

Director Paul Sapiano talks about the comedy he directed and co-wrote, Driving While Black, and his journey in the indie film industry. I know what you’re thinking… Why did a white guy direct a film about a specifically black experience? Sapiano is aware of his own reality as a white dude from England who didn’t meet a black person until he was seventeen years old. The film is based on the painfully common real-life experiences of the co-writer and actor, Domonique Purdy. Though the film was made in 2015, it still holds up in 2019 because as the 44th President Barrack Obama says, "Progress doesn’t travel a straight line.” You can find it on iTunes, Amazon, and other platforms for purchase.

GC: How did you end up in LA?

PS: When I left college, I was thinking about what’s the job that’s the most fun, the least work, the most money and the most chicks. I came up with commercial director. In LA, people give you ten points to start off with. In London, you really have to earn them. I wanted to be a movie director, but I knew I could not do it in England. Now you can make a movie on your own, but back then there was no digital, and film was very expensive in the 80’s and 90’s.

I moved out to LA with 400 bucks and a couple of phone numbers of people who I didn’t know, but they were friends of friends. I ended up staying at a production company overnight on the couch in the lobby. That was fine for the first three days, but then they kicked me out. There were a couple of times where I was either going to be homeless or I go to a bar and pick up a girl and go home with her. Those were my options.

Then I made up a voucher for all the production companies in LA and said this entitles you to one free day of work from Paul Sapiano. I took it to all the commercial production companies, and they seemed to respond to that kind of go-getter attitude. Within a few weeks I was double booked and started working like that, getting a reel together and commercials. I won some awards for my commercials, and then wanted to move into movies.

Then, I wrote The Boys & Girls Guide to Getting Down. Nobody was interested, so I funded it myself, was ripped off by the production company, lost my home, and went bankrupt. But I did get to work with the incredibly funny and talented Dominique Purdy. He was a stand out in the film and we became good friends, so we started writing The Boys & Girls Guide to Marijuana together. A couple of times he was late because he was getting hassled by the cops, so we decided five years ago to write a movie about it. That’s we came up with the script for Driving While Black.

GC: What was it like evolving from an ad agency background to directing films?

PS: It was humbling because I thought, when you’re doing commercials, you are kind of a big deal. Back then you were anyway. I was making $17,500 a day as my day rate. You get this kind of attitude that what you are doing is really important. But you’re doing a commercial for Pampers, and anybody can do it. I thought being a commercial director with national commercials under my belt, obviously I can get this movie made.

They wanted the idea of The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down, but nobody wanted me to direct it, which was very upsetting. In fact, later Comedy Central made a pilot based on the film starring Meghan Markle. The reason I had written the script was so that I could direct the movie, so it was very frustrating. I had to raise the money and do it myself. That’s one piece of advice I would give to any young film maker. Nobody is going to help you. Nobody gives a shit. You’re going to have to do it yourself and it’s going to be hard. Also, nobody is trying to steal your ideas, there are plenty of ideas out there. Don’t get precious about them, it’s a numbers game. Crank them out, ideas are the easy part.

GC: What made you decide to focus on the driving aspect of the black experience for this film?

PS: Because he (Dominique Purdy) was working as a pizza delivery driver at the time. Also, DWB is already kind of a joke, a phrase people know, and it just seemed like, wait nobody has made a film called that before? Let’s do this. This hit the festivals two years ago. The reason it’s only coming out now is because we couldn’t get a decent deal. All the distributers are crooks. So, our producer decided to start his own distribution company and distribute the film. Distribution is set up to not pay the artist, so no matter what they tell you, they always cheat and lie. They are thieves. So, we did it ourselves. We were a couple years ahead of the movement of consciousness that happened. We loved that advantage. It just took us that long to realize all the deals we were being offered were bullshit.

GC: What kind of research did you do to write this film?

PS: Hanging out with Dominique. It’s his story and we wrote it together. There were racist cops, I wrote those. It’s based on things that happened in Dom’s life, and he was the main character, so it was already going to be authentic and legit. I would say when we first started talking about it, I didn’t really understand the problem. I’d be like, “Really? Police pull you over all the time?” and he said, “Yes. Drive around with me for a couple of days.” So, I did, and I noticed it. Cop cars doing U-turns, trailing you for a little bit, following you for five minutes, checking you out. It was like three times as much than happened to me when I’m driving. It was astonishing.

Then we had a party at a space called the Overpass. We got about thirty black dudes down there and had a panel discussion about this issue. They were from all walks of life, some were drug dealers, people that work in media, a doctor, a DJ- they all had the same thing to say, which I didn’t expect. They said, “The police just want to fuck with us.” I didn’t truly understand it, even now, but seeing all those people saying exactly the same thing, you have to believe it. I’m not saying I understand what it’s like to be black. Anytime a white person says that they get it and understand, it’s just ridiculous.

GC: What perspective did you personally bring to the script?

PS: I’m a sarcastic motherfucker. I can make a joke about anything, so that’s what I bring to the film. I’m a movie director and have worked in movies for many years, so I know how to plan out shots. They hardest thing when you’re making a movie is just planning and having enough time and money to do it the way you want to do it. What I can bring to it is that efficiency of where you can cut corners. Logistics, experience, wit, and humor. Also, bringing people together.

GC: What new conversations about black people dealing with law enforcement do you believe the film starts?

PS: “Why did a white person direct this?” That’s a good one. Haha.

We did a lot of festivals, and twenty-two of them we won “Best Picture” or “Audience Favorite”. Not all of them bullshit festivals. One thing we did hear a lot of the time was black people, and especially women would come out and say, “I’m so glad that somebody is saying this.” A lot of white people would come out with a sense of a greater understanding. There was a cop once that said they liked the way it was done because it was all, “Fuck the police.” There was some of that, but we tried to give it a balanced point of view.

GC: What inspires you as a director?

PS: The idea that you can think of a story, write it, go out and make it, cut it and then sell it. That is thrilling to me, and I’ve done that three times now. The problem is that you just don’t quite make enough money for the kind of life I want to live. I’m a flashy motherfucker. It’s just difficult when you work so many years on a movie and you might make some money on the back end, you might not. Driving While Black just came out a couple of months ago so the jury is still out whether it is going to make some money. I think it will. We made it very efficiently and inexpensively.

GC: What are your future plans?

PS: I’m opening a marijuana testing lab in LA to test for pesticides and micro-toxins and heavy metals. There are no labs in LA yet, which is crazy. Well there are some, but there’s not enough to test all the weed. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m also working on a movie called The Boys & Girls Guide to Marijuana, a comedy about pot, as soon I get my lab set up.

GC: Blondes or Brunettes?

PS: Red heads.

GC: Tupac or Biggie?

PS: Biggie.

GC: Cats or Dogs?

PS: Dogs.

GC: Jets or Sharks?

PS: Jets.

GC: Fries or Salad?

PS: Salad.

GC: Book or Kindle?

PS: Audiobook.

You can purchase The Boys & Girls Guide to Getting Down on Amazon link below.

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