Ryan Isreal
Courtesy of Ryan Isreal

Editor’s note: This short-film series is a collaboration between The Root and El Rey Network to support, elevate and promote African-American filmmakers throughout Black History Month via on-air, digital and editorial platforms. Filmmakers were contacted and recruited through film festivals and industry partnerships in December, with finalists selected by both El Rey Network and The Root based on quality, subject matter, and suitability for broadcast and digital exhibition. These talented filmmakers represent the front line in improving diversity of participation and cultural representation in entertainment. Both The Root and El Rey Network are honored to showcase their works and stories.

Cinematically, it’s a long way from Do the Right Thing to horror comedies, but filmmaker Ryan Isreal took the fast track. A native of Chicago’s West Side and a graduate of film programs at Columbia College Chicago in his hometown and UCLA, this director-screenwriter conceived of a unique short film that combines comedy and horror in fun and fascinating ways. He answered a few questions about his innovative film, Hott Damned.

The Root: What inspired you to pursue filmmaking?

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Ryan Isreal: I’ve always been creative, writing, drawing, songwriting, etc., but I never saw myself as a filmmaker until after I watched Do the Right Thing. It was world-changing to see a movie starring people who looked and talked just like me. A few years later, I took my first film class, and for the first time in my life, I finally felt like I belonged.

TR: How did Hott Damned come about? What was the inspiration, how did you choose the actors?

RI: The inspiration came from a single thought: “What if you could not just see the dead but feel their pain and emotions?” My original story was about a guy who talked to dead people, and then The Sixth Sense came out. Then the idea evolved into a story about a bad-ass undead girl trying to save the world from a secret army of monsters, and then Underworld came out.

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Now I’m thinking to myself, “What direction can I take my story and characters in that Hollywood would never think of?” So I made it urban and turned it into a horror-comedy. It still had all of the same elements, but suddenly it felt fresh and honest and more grounded, and that’s how Hott Damned was born.

We auditioned a bunch of talented actresses for the lead, but I needed someone that had beauty, strength and the screen presence of a superhero, but she also had to express pain and even vulnerability. Heidi Lewandowski came in and nailed it on the first take.

TR: You finished this a few years ago. What has happened since it was made, and what are you doing now?

RI: Since Hott Damned, I really have been focusing on growing as a writer and elevating my craft. I’ve had a few feature-film projects that I wrote for other producers that just never got the green light. Now I’m looking to self-produce or partner up with other producers to create my own projects again, and maybe return to directing soon.

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TR: What are your goals for Hott Damned and for your career in general?

RI: I would love to see Hott Damned become a half-hour comedy. I feel like there’s nothing on television now that comes close to its tone, heart and sense of humor. For my career, I would be happy writing and producing, but I also have a ton of stories that I would love to direct, stories that Hollywood hasn’t told yet.

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With all of the diversity talk lately, I feel many people are missing the point. In my heart, diversity has never been a black or white thing. It’s about giving every filmmaker equal opportunity to let the world hear their voices, and hopefully, it will inspire people in the same way Spike Lee’s voice inspired me.

Watch Hott Damned:

Editor’s note: Other films in the series also on The Root:

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Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter