Ciera Thompson has always been in love with television and film.
Growing up in Durham, NC, she spent her free time getting swept away in the mystery of “Lost” and the drama of “Grey’s Anatomy.” But it wasn’t until high school that she started to view the prospect of filmmaking as a viable career option.
“When I was growing up, I was always obsessed with TV and films,” Thompson said. “I never knew it was a real job that I could have, but I knew that I was drawn to it.”
But after a teacher told her that reading her writing felt like watching a movie, that was that. Thompson went to Appalachian State University and did their Electronic Media/Broadcasting program. After graduation, she eventually moved to Atlanta and got a job at Look Listen Studios. Now, she’s spearheading her first short film.
“Take Note” is a short film about a teacher named Miss Amado who notices a developing crush between two girls in her class. When she learns that the girls are afraid of being open with their feelings for each other, she decides to help them feel more secure by coming out herself.
The production company behind the film, It All Media, held a fundraising event for “Take Note” on June 6. By June 9, they had announced that the film had met its goal.
In light of the successful crowdfunding endeavor, Rough Draft Atlanta spoke to Thompson about her experience writing the film. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For starters, I heard that “Take Note” is fully funded.
Ciera Thompson: Oh my gosh, yeah! That was last week. We hit the green light and then surpassed our goal. So that’s an incredible feeling coming out of crowdfunding this. This is my first time crowdfunding, so there were nerves there. I’m feeling good since we got what we needed and a little bit more.
What are the next steps now that it’s funded?
Thompson: We dove right into pre-production. I’m trying to celebrate that win, but it’s also like, the next steps come immediately after. Me and my producing team, we are focused on casting and securing a location. We already had Aliyah Vasquez cast as our lead. But the other two leads and key characters in our story are Lexi and Bell, the two students that she notices have crushes on each other. We are putting out that casting call – I think it goes up this weekend. That’s very much the fun part. I’m so excited to see what kind of chemistry we can find between two actors or actresses, and bring them into the project.
You mentioned to me that you’re really TV focused. What were some of the shows growing up that you were watching that made you think you wanted to do this?
Thompson: I would say one is “Lost,” I watched that show when I was way too young.
Thompson: It was so good! Whatever it was, it was like – this is so good. And then “Grey’s Anatomy.” Shonda Rhimes is definitely someone that I look up to and I aspire to. Her tone, and her writing, and her character choices – she’s a machine in herself. Any show that can go 18 seasons plus, you’re doing something right. I still try and keep up with “Grey’s Anatomy.”
There’s a show called “The 100” on the CW that I loved. I was also into Marvel movies, and stuff like that.
How did you first come up with the idea for “Take Note?”
Thompson: So there were a few things that influenced it, but at its crux, when I sat down to write it, I sat down to write a positive film that would make queer people feel good when they watched it. There were a lot of queer characters and stories that I would watch and I’d either feel triggered by seeing the coming out process, and how painful that is for someone. It’s something that me and all my friends know personally, and it’s like, I don’t need to see it over and over again in media. But looking toward action and seeing queer characters and relationships die – like literally – and not get their fair chance of development. So I was like, there is clear representation, but I want something that’s positive, but that’s still going to say something that will affect people deeply.
I remember when my dad watched this Oreo commercial that they did for Pride month. He called me immediately. He was already supportive of me, but watching that Oreo commercial that was just three minutes of a girl coming out to her dad, but ended on a happy note – it changed something in him. So for me, I was like, okay, not only can this be something positive, but how can I make someone reflect without them knowing that that’s what’s happening? I wanted to open up a conversation, but focusing on my core audience.
My aunt is a teacher down in Florida, and growing up it felt like she knew I was gay before I knew I was gay. I just felt looking back, it was like she really took notice of me. She saw me for who I was before I even knew who I was. I could just always feel her support radiating without her even having to say the words directly, you know? And then there was a teacher of mine who was like, you should write TV – he was like, you’re writing feels like I’m watching a movie. That helped me to make a lot of decisions in my life. That was one sentence he said to me. So it was like, me understanding the impact that teachers have on their students as a source of power. I really plugged into that when I was writing “Take Note.” What if someone used their power as a teacher for good, and we got to see the ripple effects of that? And what if this film can then ripple and have even greater effects? And then I wanted it to just be a cute love story! I knew I had to balance Miss Adamo’s complex situation that she was in with the sweetness of Lexi and Bell’s crush. So that’s how I came to the story, and it really just flowed naturally. Whenever I write, I always say I just see it first. If I can see it in my mind and put it in my head, writing comes naturally.
[I wanted to] write something that would make our community feel good and other people think a little bit deeper about the impacts that they could have.
You mentioned your aunt is a teacher in Florida – obviously they’ve got the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and Georgia has struggled with legislation like that as well. Was that on your mind as well?
Thompson: It actually was not. When I wrote the script, I was almost nervous that it wouldn’t resonate for the time we were in. So I wrote the script, and then I reached out to my aunt and was like, read this. She filled me in a bit, and I started doing my own research and reaching out to other teachers just to make sure that I wasn’t pulling this out of my ass – like yeah, teachers are struggling with this specific issue. I had no idea of the depths of it until I started connecting with those individuals. It was a bittersweet experience, because it’s like, yeah I hit the nail on the head, I got the story right. But then it was this moment of, I can’t believe this is actually real. This is more real than I thought when I sat down to write it. That was very interesting. I had a lot of learning through that crowdfunding phase and through that discovery of sharing my script with any educators who would take the time to read it, and getting their feedback of, yes – this is incredibly hard. I have a few stories that teachers have shared with me that all very much resemble Miss Adamo’s experience.
How did you link up with It All Media?
Thompson: We met through a boss of mine at the company that I work at. They had listened to It All Media’s podcast and they were like, there’s something here, Ciera. My boss knew I wanted to do television, I wanted to do show running. So [I] very much appreciated him connecting me with them. We went to coffee. I pitched them this idea of doing an episodic version of their podcast, and we really aligned on a mission-based level of the art that we’re putting out in the world is meant to change systems. It’s meant to change hearts and minds. We so connected on that, and Kacie Gordon [co-founder of It All Media with Katie Mullins] was doing that through her podcast interviews, pulling out these real stories that women didn’t know that they had. Just because you know, if you consider yourself just an average, everyday woman, it’s like, how do I have a story that compares to Oprah’s? Or compares to Brené Brown’s? But it’s true that every woman has their own [story of] realizing the system does not serve them, and those stories are just as important as these other people that we put on these huge pedestals.
So Kacie’s work there just aligned with mine on the queer side. I’m trying to tell all these gay, queer stories for the rest of my life through television – she was doing that work through the podcast for women. We just started connecting. Getting the TV show and making all that is, as you know, a very slow process. But that initial pitch brought us together for the next two years. They got the opportunity to go to Sundance [Film Festival] and speak on a panel, and so they asked me to come with them and help them record and do some social media content. They asked me because they knew about my dreams, and that that was something I would really appreciate. Going to Sundance with them, getting to network and market with them, was so, so fun.
My time at Sundance actually inspired me to make “Take Note.” By the time I went to Sundance, I had the script just laying around and was like maybe one day I’ll get to make it, or maybe some production company will fund this and I’ll get to do it, because it needs to be made. But actually going to Sundance, I was like, dude – I’m a producer. I know how to bring a team together. I know how to do X, Y and Z. I feel like I need to just bring my writing into the world, and waiting for that opportunity, or for money to just be given to me wasn’t going to happen.
I came back from Sundance, I emailed Kacie and Katie the script. Look, Miss Amado has a “f-ck it all” moment. She has a moment where she realizes what she’s doing is not only hurting her, but it’s not helping her students around her. She comes out to her class in this reckoning of I can make a difference, and it’s going to be good for me and good for them. That resonated with [It All Media’s] mission, and I brought them in as executive producers.
Going back to the casting process, during the event It All Media held for the event, the actress playing Miss Amado, Aliyah Vasquez, said something to the effect of, there’s so much acting talent on set in Atlanta who aren’t actually from Atlanta. I wanted to get your take on if you find that to be true, and what that experience is like. How do you hope to change that in casting this project?
Thompson: Yeah, and something else we’ve observed is that productions come here for the tax cuts, for the space, and not for the talent. They bring their own. Often, they’ll fly crews here, even though there are a lot of really talented freelancers and production specialists here. They bring out their people. But that’s how production goes – you work with who you know, right?
So to be here, and to have producers who live here – in my experience commercial producing, I built out a pretty solid network of freelancers, so I know the landscape. I know that the talent exists here. It’s not even a thought in my mind to reach out to someone out of state, to bring someone in, because I’m aware of what’s here. I think that might be the separation, you know, of just people in other states not knowing what we have, or what we’re capable of. That’s also why I think making a point of hiring local talent is important, so that we can continue to show yeah – we did all of this in Georgia. All of this came from actors who are based here in Atlanta, who trained here in Atlanta, or who came to Atlanta hoping for a break. It’s hard to afford to go to LA, or to go to New York. That’s a pay restriction, of people who have the opportunity and the funds and the privilege to go out to those areas. I feel like Atlanta is way more – if Atlanta was a person, I would say more approachable. Easy to come up to, and say hey! Let me in.
So the access here I think is unlike the other communities. Not to knock on them, but just the community support from what I’ve seen with “Take Note” is here, and there is an audience here as well. What Aliyah said definitely tracks. People aren’t looking at us, and so they can’t see what we have to offer.