Gleana Albritton on Her Short Film, TV During Covid, and Finding Meaning in a Chaotic World
Gleana Albritton is a producer, pop culture writer and reformed marketer who worked for years as a digital media and marketing exec at AMC Networks International, Twitter, A+E and fuse TV. In 2017, she launched Sisu Media Group, a production company devoted to creating, developing and producing content for and about women.
She's also the communications chair for the Alliance of Women Directors ATL, an associate programmer for the Bentonville Film Festival, and a member of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Women of Color Unite/The JTC List, and Digital Cinema Society.
Below, we talk about her career arc, making her first short, and her commitment to amplifying marginalized voices. The conversation took place in late July, so much has happened since that isn't mentioned.
Muse: When I met you, you were at AMC. So much has happened since then. You moved west to work at Twitter, and now you run a production company in Georgia.
Gleana Albritton: So much has changed. I quit Twitter in November 2016, a few days before Donald Trump was elected. I spent those few months soul-searching and going to protests in L.A., doing what I could. At that time, I was trying to figure out whether my career was going to be more politically oriented, or if I wanted to be a filmmaker. I still straddle that line mentally; we have to take some kind of civic action, or else we lose the right to complain.
So I talked to people. I was doing a lot of informationals in L.A., and had a coach helping me figure things out. I started Sisu Media Group in 2017. At the time I was doing a lot of writing about pop culture and TV, then a lot of that dried up, especially in late 2018.
There's less of a market for it. Almost all the publications I worked with are now defunct. Metro New York went away last year. Levo League, a women's empowerment group, disappeared; I had to chase them so hard for my last payment. It was ridiculous.
I just lost the appetite for chasing that kind of work, and it also made watching things feel less fun. During that period, I was really truly just watching things I was paid to watch.
Yeah, it turned joy into a job.
Yeah. But it was good in terms of figuring out what's in the marketplace, and what works and doesn't work from a narrative perspective.
I moved to Georgia at the end of 2017. Right before I moved, I put together a short film, "Walking the Dog While Black." That was inspired by something that happened to me. I was walking my dog Ginger in Stoner Park in West L.A., and the cops stalked me in their police car.
They followed you around?
They followed me. I walked out of my apartment; we literally lived across the street from the park. One side is housing and the other side is the park. Normally I would just walk into the park with her, but I saw a cop car there, so I ended up walking on my side of the block, down a little bit. The police car had been parked on the end. And it came around, all the way around, and parked half-on, half-off the curb, and had its lights on us.
I was like, "This doesn't feel right." I freaked out, picked up her poop and came home quickly. It was very frightening.
So I made a short film about it, which was also inspired by Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar. There's a storyline in the second season where the Black teenage son gets stopped by the cops. I had seen numerous public screenings of it at this point, including an Emmy screening and a Film Independent screening. I watched everybody's reactions to this tense situation, then realized I had my own frightening interaction with the cops, and I've never seen anybody talk about it from the perspective of Black women, in terms of pop culture.
I'd attended that last screening with one of the women who became a producer on my short. I was like, "I think I want to write a short about my experiences."
Then I found a writing partner, somebody I used to work with at Twitter. She wrote the first draft, I rewrote parts of it, then we went into production. I think she got her draft to me in mid-August, and I wanted to film by the weekend of Labor Day.
I had no idea how wildly impractical that timeline was. But I had aspirations of getting into Sundance Film Fest. We shot it all on Labor Day weekend.
How did you find actors?
By posting about it, on a couple of casting notice boards, and tweeting. One of my production assistants helped find our lead actress and a couple of other characters. We cast them, we found locations. We ended up filming a lot of exterior park scenes in Corona, which is Riverside County in California. Then we filmed the rest in my producer's apartment in Van Nuys; it doubled for a lot of scenes.
We were inventive. I found a crew willing to do it for me for relatively little money. We made it happen.
I learned a lot, made a lot of mistakes, then realized afterwards that maybe it wasn't meant for film festivals—but it did screen at a lot of places, which I'm proud of. It screened in Manchester, U.K., which I'm really proud of. And it screened in Atlanta, L.A., and Newark, which is more than a lot of people get.
One thing I realized in hindsight is that film festivals, especially for shorts, are programmed at inopportune times. So, say you get into some great film festival, a regional. Your short may screen at 11 a.m. on Wednesday during a work week, so nobody's going to see it unless they bought passes.
Yeah, the few people who just plan to watch films all day.
And that's very rare. I didn't realize that until a couple of years after spending thousands of dollars submitting my short to all these festivals that we didn't get into.
But again, I learned a lot, and realized I had more to learn. I took an editing course in Columbus with a group called the Springer Film Institute. They recently shut down, but we're still friendly, and they recommended me for my first paying job on a feature film set. I was an art director for a faith-based film, which has yet to be released.
What does an art director do on a film set?
The art director works with the production designer to bring to life the look of the film. The production designer sets the vision. They're the ones who work with a set decorator. Then we nail down the aesthetic.
I was responsible for negotiating some of the larger props we needed. For example, we needed a casket. So I negotiated getting that for free. And because it was such a small film, I helped with some of the set decoration and props management. Sometimes I was just placing a duffel bag in and out of a trunk for an actor during a scene. A lot of that type of stuff.
That was my first feature. I learned what I liked and didn't like about being on other people's sets. Since then, I've taken on being an AD—assistant director. They keep the trains running. They are in command of everything, of all the crew besides the director. The director is primarily focused on dealing with the actors, so the AD, especially the first AD, makes sure everybody has what they need. They're the communications hub and representative of the production on set. I've done a lot of first and second AD work here in Georgia, for shorts and web series.
The second AD is the second in command. Sometimes they take over set if the first AD needs to step off for some reason. They build the call sheets a lot of the time, and engage with the actors—"We need you on set at 9 a.m., is there anything you need?" They're responsible for making sure actors get through hair and makeup on time, and chase them down if they're late.
And I've done PA work. I did a political commercial and a live show, an illusionist show that came to town. I was helping as a production assistant on that.
You've sat in so many chairs.
I've done a wide range of production jobs, and it helps me be a better producer. Ultimately, the goal of Sisu Media Group is to produce content—TV, film, and some digital stuff, for and about women. And that's my focus. I've produced a few things that have done well in terms of festivals, and some stuff that hasn't been seen. Another thing I've learned about filmmaking—a lot of your work may never see the light of day.
Do you ever ask yourself how long the things you're producing will last?
There's nothing permanent. You just have to know what your purpose is. That's one thing that helped me to finally get out of the fog near the end of 2019. When I was working with my coach, after leaving Twitter, we put together a framework that helped inform my sense of purpose. It basically was a list of WHY questions that helped me drill down on my attitudes about money, values and finances.
I have a six-point purpose. It helps determine what projects I take, the work I want to put out into the world, and what I advocate for—who I do and don't support, what interests me and what doesn't.
One of my bullet points is to amplify and cultivate a community of filmmakers who might be marginalized in some way. So with the Alliance of Women Directors, helping build up this group is part of my purpose. Even being a programmer at Bentonville Film Festival fits that purpose in some way: I get to champion young, up-and-coming filmmakers trying to get their work out there.
I realize I was even doing that at AMC Sundance Channel, when I created and ran the Sundance Channel shorts competition. That was a big part of it: helping build community and amplify these less-heard voices. I'm a big believer in that.
Has your idea of success changed?
You know … I thought my career was going to be a straight arrow, like, I'd get all the awards at Sundance. But I realized that, no, my career needed to be spent in the trenches, learning about the craft, because I didn't go to film school.
I went to business school, so I have an MBA, which is helpful in terms of the business aspect of filmmaking. We spend a lot of time working on and pitching things that, again, never see the light of day.
I realized it's going to be like a Jeremy Bearimy, so you have to work at the level you're at, and do your best to bring people along with you, so when you finally make it to whatever success is, you're surrounded by great people who supported you all along.
It's great to get accolades from top people, but now I'm more excited about the local relationships and community I've built. All my experiences are valuable—having worked in New York for so many years, having worked in L.A. for so many years, it's all ingredients in this cake that I'm baking. I have no idea what the cake is.
Are you OK with that?
I'm OK with that. For a while I wasn't, but this time has been good in terms of learning on other people's dimes. They pay me, and I learn and benefit from their mistakes without spending money of my own.
If you make one mistake in production, it's ridiculously expensive. So by working in some of the lower-level positions, I've learned all these things you wouldn't in film school about what happens on a set. I appreciate that I can benefit from that as a producer without having lost much money myself.
Let's talk about Covid. Do you think that, given how dramatically we've been impacted by this virus, people are going to go out of their way to work it into future storytelling?
There's a big divide for that. I personally don't want to see it right now. Adam McKay is developing a Covid TV series with HBO, about the race to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, adapted from a non-fiction book called The First Shot. Response has been mixed. He has a pretty good track record with adapting books in an interesting way, but I'm not sure if I'm personally ready to see it all dramatized.
You don't see yourself being nostalgic about it later?
Not right now! I need, like, 15 years distance from it! Distance often gives us better perspective.
There are shows that have tackled Covid in some way. All Rise on CBS did a Covid show where they were all on virtual screens, and I thought they did a decent job incorporating it. I will say that, now, watching pop culture that was pre-Covid does give me anxiety when people are all grouped together, and they're touching each other. I'm like, "Oh, no!"
So, yeah, we may have to subtly include it. But I don't know if I want Covid to be the star.
Do you see this pandemic time as a parenthesis or a serious shift in reality?
Is it possible to return to life pre-March of this year in the U.S.? I don't know. That concerns me a lot. For a while, I was like, "Oh, I'm just using this time to be productive, and I'm gonna focus on being ready for when things reopen," but now I'm like, "These idiots are trying to have us die off!" It's so weird!
I don't trust the societal guardrails that might have helped us to get back to the new normal. So, going back to incorporating Covid into television, I'd rather not see it right away. I don't know if acting like it didn't happen is a healthy thing. But maybe, you know ... you can see the repercussions of Covid without directly addressing it.
It seems like everybody in the Spanish Flu time just wanted to move on. They weren't trying to immortalize it in media.
I think some people are having fun making media about Covid, especially on platforms like TikTok and Instagram. When I saw the Adam McKay news, I felt it would be interesting to see a documentary, but I don't know that I'm ready to see a narrative project. It'll be interesting to see if people even watch or support it, if it even gets off the ground.
Right now I'm watching stuff that gives me an escape. I don't want to watch a lot of heavy stuff. Like, everybody's talking about I May Destroy You. I think it's great...
...I love Michaela Coel, but it's hard to watch right now!
It's so triggering! Yes! I hate to admit that and I'm supporting from afar, but I just can't right now.
I was offered, a couple years ago, a chance to write about the first season of The Handmaid's Tale and recap it on a weekly basis. I saw the pilot and could not go any further. It felt too triggering, it's so bleak. And there's very few bleak things I'm watching these days. That's why I'm watching, like, The Kissing Booth 2.
High school movies are catnip when you feel bad. When I was in college, I took this course where we examined them as a genre, and the teacher pointed out how so many have a weird dance sequence.
Yeah! The Kissing Booth 2 is all about them preparing for a dance contest!
My teacher said, the thing about these movies is you're watching this very romanticized fantasy that the creators—older people—are having about their time in high school. So it's familiar, but there's this strong fantastical element. Hence all the weird coordinated dancing.
I totally see that.
Do you think that's why you're drawn to them?
Have you seen Normal People? I loved it because I related to the lead female character. She is this super smart, non-conventional trope. But what was really interesting was this idea of unrequited love. You see a lot of that in the rom-coms for teens—the longing for the one who got away.
That's what I like. Normal People reminded me of one of my favorite movies, The Way We Were, with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. It's about this couple who meet in their young 20s and it spans the course of their lives, to maybe their late 40s or early 50s.
The ending is not necessarily happy, but that's what I'm into—these romances that never truly work out. You see them coming together, breaking apart, coming together again … I am totally into examining broken or flawed relationships.
Like in The Half of It. It's about this Asian protagonist … basically, she's the kid who writes people's papers for them. So she takes on a client, the sweet football player, who's in love with this beautiful girl in their class. She begins writing love letters to her for him, and over the course of that, falls in love with her. It's about this weird love triangle, even though it's not a real love triangle.
It's Cyrano de Bergerac!
Yes! It's a remix, but with a young lesbian love story in the middle. I was obsessed with the lead, Leah Lewis. I wasn't familiar with her work. I love that they didn't make her a stereotype. Yes, she was smart, but she wasn't the super ambitious, get-into-college trope that you usually see with Asian characters. She's like an Asian Daria. I liked that there were these adult tendencies in this character.
Do you have feelings about Crazy Rich Asians?
I like that they were playing with "traditional" versus Americanized Asianness. Like, "What is Asian enough"? And the class issues they layered in.
I know people were like, "Oh, this isn't all Asians." You get that around a lot of content about Black folks in America, too. But I was happy to see the diversity. I try to support any non all-white shows if I can, and watch a little, even if I don't love it or it doesn't resonate with me.
Donald Glover said this really cool thing about the show Atlanta. People kept asking, "What is Atlanta about? What's the concept of the show?" and he said he wanted to make a show about Black people not doing anything special, and it's legitimate just for that reason. It pointed to how mostly-minority shows are charged with responsibility. You can't just have an easy show, like Friends.
Yeah! We don't ever get that. We're not allowed mediocre content.
I don't want to watch another person in a slave narrative. I'm over that, and I know it frustrates other people. I'm intrigued by Atlanta just showing ordinary people. That's also something Issa Rae does with Insecure. You don't often see Black people in their 30s making mistakes, having messy entanglements, getting through it, and evolving year after year, and I appreciate that. She's bringing a different perspective.
In the '90s, there was this slew of films that were aspirational for African-Americans—movies like The Wood, The Brothers, Best Man.
Yeah, it was like this "middle class African-American" genre.
Yeah! Then it disappeared for a while. I can relate to the middle class, but also to that class you see in Atlanta—lower middle class. It's nice to see that part of our lives reflected on TV. I want to see more. Another show that never gets talked about is Queen Sugar.
Ava DuVernay's show? I want to be her when I grow up.
I think all of us do. She's grinding out the work. She's just creating her own lane.
It's another show where you mostly just see Black people living their lives in the South. They engage and interact with white people, and she inserts issues sometimes, but the real focus is these Black people living rich, full lives. I want to see more of that.
I get so many good recommendations from you!
Believe it or not, I don't watch TV all that much. I like to watch slow. Like with The Baby-Sitters Club, I'll watch one, maybe two, at a time. Like little treats.
Are you one of those people who can eat just one chocolate?
No. That's probably why I can do that with TV—because I'll eat the whole box of chocolates! I can limit myself to one episode, and I can stretch it out. What are you watching?
I'm super late, but I just finished His Dark Materials. It's so good. I didn't even recognize Lin Manuel-Miranda.
Really? I have to watch it. There's a second season, and there's some new casting. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is in the second season.
Andrew Scott's in it, too. So she'll be back with Hot Priest!
Yes! Fleabag is another show I was obsessed with. It's so perfect. I love the quirkiness of the way she's telling the story, and how Hot Priest—Andrew Scott—sees her. He truly sees her.
He's totally an alcoholic though.
Yeah. Gin and tonic in a can?! But it fits my need for unhappy love stories. You know I love that. Apparently I do not believe in happy endings.
Speaking of happy endings, how are you maintaining optimism right now, with so many things in society at full boil?
Being true to my purpose. That grounds me; everything else filters from there. I've had the past two years to be really poor, and almost had my car repossessed—dealing with health issues and also deaths in the family. The period we're in now is not the worst that's happened to me.
By the way, I paid my car off in June!
It's exciting! So I've lived under this crippling debt. What I see is, what we've been doing all these years does not work. I've had great six-figure jobs, thinking they would make me happy, and realizing I was miserable.
We often assimilate ourselves to be in this reality that everybody else seems to accept. I'm about breaking out of that now. When I see foolishness being perpetuated, I'm not supporting it. I may not be super vocal, but best believe in the background I'm working on it, talking to people and figuring out ways that we can subvert the system or change it—or break it.
I was raised to believe you had to see through commitments, even if they don't serve you. But at 42 I'm like, I want to be committed to the right things. If it doesn't serve my purpose, I have a much easier time of letting that go. But it's taken some years of self-reflection.
I'm approaching something like that. What I'm surprised to find, at this point in my life, is the recovery of a faith—this feeling that we're part of a universe where everything is alive, and we're in constant interaction, sometimes conflictual interaction, but we're all drawing from the same well.
There's something clarifying in the idea that caring about the quality of interactions may be the whole point. It's inherently creative and benevolent. You can look at all the other so-called "stakes" and be a little nicer to yourself.
That's exactly it. I like that you mentioned the creativity, because that's where I find it. I feel like, when I do stuff for AWD, like play around with graphic design and copywriting, it's not always me, it's God. I'm just tapping into the faucet when I can.
Creatively, is there anything out there that you're jealous of?
There's a lot! I desperately wanted to be a part of the team that did Watchmen. It's brutal, it's dark, but it has a very unique perspective on race, especially in America—how the hurts and things we've buried as a country follow us. It talks about how the pain of our ancestors is passed on through the years.
I would say watch it, but it is heavy. I would not binge it. I appreciated having breaks between each episode, but I thought it was a masterpiece.
Another one that I was super jealous of, and really wanted to work on, was Russian Doll. I'm anxious about what they're going to do with the second season. I felt like the end was what I needed it to be.
It was perfect.
Apparently there are three seasons. I hope they don't ruin it. I love intricate work. It's weird because those shows are very sci-fi, which I don't consider myself to be that into.
Really? That's shocking to me. Sci-fi contains so many playful ways to think about the future, without being too close.
It is shocking, isn't it?
For a while I was into dark, depressing dramas. Around the time I was working at AMC, it was about Mad Men and Breaking Bad; I was mainlining that stuff for years. It's when I moved to L.A. that my tastes changed and I lightened up. Maybe it was a New York thing.
The vitamin D transformed you!
Maybe! Since L.A., I've been into lighter stuff, like The Good Place, Parks and Rec, Kim's Convenience. But also quirkier stuff, like Russian Doll, Legion on FX, Fargo. The last season wasn't my favorite, but the first two were masterpieces. I was looking forward to the season with Chris Rock, but they delayed it because of Covid. [Editor's note: The fourth season of Fargo has since come out.]
Those are the shows I wish I produced, and that I think about. That's the caliber of TV I aspire to with Sisu.
How did you conceive the name Sisu?
In naming my company Sisu, I may have been putting myself to the test. Sisu is Finnish for extreme perseverance and extreme grit. It means going above and beyond to accomplish whatever task is put before you.
I feel like that's been 2018 and 2019. Those years just felt lonely. I didn't feel I was making progress, and the community was slow to coalesce. I needed to learn those lessons, but it was painful.
I had to come to terms with things and not blame others for what was happening to me—make things right with me and my God, but also ensure I was going to survive this without becoming a terrible person. That's important. I don't want to ever be an awful person. You run into a lot. The film industry seems to attract horrible people. Entertainment in general, media in general.
Yes. Narcissistic, terrible personalities. There's a metaphor I heard once, and I try to keep it in mind. It's about the combined power of hot water with a tea bag. You can be the tea, or you can be the hot water, or you can be the cup. I want to be the thing that makes the water darker. I want to be the influence.
You want to be the tea?
I want to be the tea. I want to change whatever situations I come into for the better. I don't want to be changed by that situation. That's what I'm striving for. I may have butchered that metaphor.