Interview with Mary Wells, an independent director, writer and producer based in Jamaica

This month we interview Mary Wells an independent director, writer and producer based in Jamaica. She has worked for Government Broadcasting, US cable TV, a private production company and has some twenty years experience in television and film production.   She received the Jamerican Film & Music Festival  ”Outstanding Documentary from the Caribbean” for her short film “Now Jimmy!” that follows the story of a Jamaican squatter living on prime real estate. She recently completed her first full feature film “Kingston Paradise”.

Q: What part of Jamaica are you from?

I’m from Kingston, born and bred.  

Q: How did you get involved in film?

I was a very creative child and both I and family knew that I would have a profession in some aspects of the arts.  What’s more I grew up with two very nurturing parents who encouraged it and I’m also the daughter of a well known Jamaican artist/painter (Dorothy Henriques Wells).  After High School my parents went to live in the United States and as another ‘Jamerican’, was very inspired by college and University there, did a year of the theatre arts at the Miami Dade Community College and then general Liberal arts Degree at the George Washington University in Washington DC where we lived for some ten years.  While there I did courses in black and white photography.  In that period, I also spent six months in French West Africa, (Senegal) where my parents lived for awhile….after that unbelievable experience, being ‘naked’ to a non western society and value system… that changed my life forever… I knew then that the only way i could live with myself comfortably and express my experiences and self was through stories and visuals…through TV/Film.    So after my degree and travels, that fine tuned where my interests lied and did another two years of study in Television production.  From then on, was hooked and just worked non-stop for the past twenty years in TV/Film production both in the USA and then returned to Jamaica.  Worked in Cable TV, Government Broadcasting, a private production company….  also freelanced and worked on small film projects with UNESCO in Jamaica and Southern Africa, (in Namibia), worked on TV productions in Barbados with the then CBU and in Jamaica got an opportunity to work on a few Hollywood films that came to the Island.  All in all, it was my natural talents, determination, drive, passion and enthusiasm that ‘got me into film’…  Ohhh… and watching and loving a whole pile of movies from the US, Latin America, Africa, Asia etc!!   And that’s not just Hollywood films and English language films….. Watching all kinds of films and deeply appreciating the language of film from other countries and societies….   

Q: You seem to love short films. Why?

Love ‘short films’… I like to tell stories and these were the opportunities I got to do them, also knowing that if you do short films really well, they are the foundation to go on to doing feature length films whether documentaries or drama’s.  And in this VERY rough business, you GRAB opportunities!!! So I saw first, where I could get opportunities to do this.  Plus, they are not especially easy to do.  They are ‘short stories’…  short films are equivalent to doing short stories in Literature.  You have to be very clear about what it is you are telling and why…  so if you can tell a good short story, that’s a good beginning, you should be able to go ….longer…eventually go for the feature or long story.

Q: What are some of the challenges trying to tell a story in a short film? Give us an idea of the planning of a short film?

Planning a short film is like planning a long one…  to be CLEAR about your ideas, how you will execute them and then delivering… for the film: “My First Day At School Wearing my Hyjab” a ten minute piece, part of a live action short TV dramas for kids called, “Scribble a story, they are based on little short stories kids write at school…  and all I did was perfect them a bit and wrote visual story boards to tell the story…  preparation for a short film: simple, clear story boards. 

Q: If you could give one key piece of advice on doing short films what would it be?

Watch cartoons… they are the BEST visual story boards!   

Q: In the short film “Now Jimmy” you explore the issue of “capture” land in Jamaica. What was your goal of this short film?

In the short doc film ‘Now Jimmy’, my goal was to give a poignant VOICE to the house/land owner as Jamaica and much of Latin America has a very high percentage of people who CANNOT ever hope to own land or a home. … Hence the talking heads!   In Jamaica, something like almost 25%!!!  But in the Government books it’s less of course.  So this man ‘Jimmy’ lived next door my parent’s house and he was such a character that what else could i do but put him on camera!  Like a true Jamaican he could justify his life and anything!!   

Q: I have you kept in touch with Jimmy? Does still have the goats on the land?

Jimmy lived on old Water Commission lands and eventually, some two years ago he was evicted.  Very sad!!  We did keep in touch, but the day he had to leave he would speak to me or anyone on the road.  I hear he now lives further up in Stony Hill somewhere …on another ‘captured’ land…(lol)…ginnal to the max!!!  (lol) A true Jammy story!   Ohhh, and once I saw him in a rum bar in Constant spring… life continues…

Q: How many awards have you won for your short films?

So far I’ve only won ONE award for a short film: for “NOW JIMMY” I got “Outstanding Documentary” award from the former Sheryl Lee Ralph Film and Music Festival In MongtegoBay Jamaica in 1999.  Then it got into the prestigous TIFF (Toronto Int’l Film Festival) in 2002!   That was wonderful!    

Q: Most filmmakers are known for specific style. Do you have a style?

I haven’t developed a visual style yet… working on it… still exploring, educating myself and discovering…  maybe in the years to come…my body of work will naturally reflect a ‘style’…

Q:  What types of projects inspire you?

Many projects inspire me… but i do love to watch French films.  … Europeans generally have a very different way of storytelling, they do not follow the 3 act structure… but tell it their way VERY successfully.  So I would love to work on some ‘high flug’ well paying French film…haha!! 

Q: Colour or B/W?

Both  Colour And Black And White Films Excite Me!!!!   And that’s old and new ones too… for example I LOVE OLD Black and White Cowboy films… yes, I do!! 

Q: Tell us about your latest project?

The new project, “Kingston Paradise” is hopefully going to be a beautiful Jamaican film.  part art, part ‘popcorn’ movie…for the sake of the art and movies.  It follows not an unfamiliar tale, its off beat, its a ‘journey’ and will takes us through the chaotic, violent lives of disenfranchise youth in Jamaica… “the get rich quick” who have to heed and now learn something… 

In a sentence:  A young man, Rocksy a taxi driver/pimp, yearns for change in his skewed life, so commits a crime to fast-track his rightful place in a Caribbean paradise, but as he journey’s there, he’s forced to re-learn that the paradise already belongs to him, its his to have and enjoy regardless of lifes harsh imperfections…       

Q: Being that this is a feature length film did you have any major challenges?


Did I have any major challenges doing it as a ‘feature length’?   …..YEPPP!!   Didn’t have enough money!  So managed to finish shooting it by the skin of my teeth… phew!!   A major challenge of any filmmaker!!!

Q: Will you be participating in any film festivals to promote the movie? Q: Will it be released for General audiences to see?

YESS, When the post-production is complete, the goal is to enter it in many festivals, particularly abroad, the US, Europe, South Africa, Brazil …to name a few. Wish me luck!   And yes, afterwards like the goal of any filmmaker, is to have it have a general Theatrical release (let’s hope) and hopefully on DVD, Cable TV etc…  (pray for me). 

Q: What is the main message behind the film?
The main message behind the film is “Love” yourself.  Rise above it, no matter what!”

Q: Twenty years from now when people talk about your films what would you like them to say?
Twenty years from now… well, I guess, I’d love to be seen as an honest filmmaker, one who made the view think, enjoy and feel proud of who he or she is.. and mostly a … not being modest here forgive me but would like to be seen as: one of the many prolific black filmmakers, a woman, who helped to break the ‘mainstream barriers’ and the stereotypes of cultures, particularly black cultures in a very white commercial world and make them a part of the mainstream… make them too, the norm!!  

Q: With the emergence of the technology it seem like everyone can be filmmaker. Do you see this as a threat to your art?
NO, absolutely NOT!  I do not see with the advent of new technology now available to all …as a threat, because the whole world has become a filmmaker!   Its wonderful and energizing… hence, why I was able to do a feature!   What exciting times, embrace and glad to be a pat of it!! 

Q: What Jamaican food do you demand on the set? LOL
Food on set… I’m so wound up; I’m not particular about food… of course love Jamaican food!  Anything really!   On a film set, if filming in Jamaica you better have good Jamaican food…otherwise, no one will work for you!!  That’s a serious thing …haha!! 

Q: If you were stuck in a room with nothing but a TV and a DVD player what 10 movies you would have?

I love so many different kinds of films that… I don’t know what I’d do… if locked in a room with a DVD… I’d watch whatever and find beauty in it!
…so many, make me cry and laugh….  hate. wow… cant think right now.  I’m not much for Sci Fi flicks… 

Q:  Any advice to people inspiring to be a filmmaker?

Advise to an aspiring filmmaker… NEVER lose hope or your vision …or become lazy.   Keep the excitement up, go to movies of all types… see everything and just continue the journey… because, its a long, thankless one!!  …and be honest about your work and understand…. They’ll be no money for a long time..Then one day you’ll smile and the sun will rise!!!  🙂

Q: Thanks for the interview. Do you have any final thoughts?

Thank you too and all the best. 

About the author

Xavier Murphy