By Johnnie Hobbs III.
I was acting for a bit and working as a telemarketer in the shitty call centers right near Koreatown. We’d get a number of death threats because people were so annoyed with us calling. It started to become a running joke.”
Through cultivating healthy relationships and creating splendid, well-executed content, Chicago-born Khaled Ridgeway has managed to do something most filmmakers aspire to accomplish. To write and direct their first feature film after graduating from The USC Cinematic Film Program. I sat with Khaled to talk about his journey from telemarketer to USC, and Death of a Telemarketer, which was recently acquired for distribution by Sony, starring Lamorne Morris (New Girl, Woke), Alisha Wainwright (Raising Dion, Palmer), Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, The Kominsky Method) and Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen, The Tick).
Johnnie Hobbs (JH): I’m going to start by mentioning some awards Death of the Telemarketer has received. American Black Film Festival 2020 Fan Favorite Movie Winner, ABFF Jury Award Nom for Best Screenplay, Director and Best First Feature. John Singleton Award Nom for Best First Feature and HBO Competition Award Best Feature Winner among other noms. Before “Death of a Telemarketer” you directed two short films, Bullied and Night Diner which gained a lot of awards and noms. And you’re a 2019 graduate from USC. How do you manage your success and your personal idea of success, from one day to the next with those awards I just mentioned?
Khaled Ridgeway (KR): You know, it’s so funny, I try not to rest on my laurels. I’m always looking for the next project. And if people receive it (well) that just tells me they are responding positively to the work I’m putting out. And that’s always great. Especially to have your peers appreciate what you do. But for me, I don’t really write for any awards or anything. I write because it’s what I love to do, and I love to tell stories.
JH: Death of a Telemarketer is about a smooth talking telemarketer who finds himself at the mercy of the man he tried to swindle. Where has your life taken you to create that type of story? Were you a telemarketer?
KR: Yeah, this is 100% a true story (laughs)…just kidding. I’m from Chicago. I moved out to L.A. wanting to get into the entertainment industry. I was acting for a bit and working as a telemarketer in the shitty call centers right near Koreatown. We’d get a number of death threats because people were so annoyed with us calling. It started to become a running joke. We weren’t really scared, but what if somebody was crazy enough to come to a call center and just wreak havoc. During this time, I applied to USC film school. The only place I applied to. And I got an anonymous call from someone saying that his name was Richard Burton. And I’m thinking it’s the actor that died. I’m thinking it’s a telemarketer calling me. So I was about to hang up. And he (Richard Burton) says “No, I have your application. And I’m trying to decide if I want you in my school.” And so we wound up having just this conversation that consisted of deep dish VS thin pizza, and what I sell at the call center. I got in (to USC) and the rest is history.
JH: When you got into USC did you leave the call center?
KR: I had to because the program was so demanding. And just kind of an inside joke. Kasey is my nickname, and that’s the pseudonym I would give over the phone when I called my customers. I was the top seller of my call center.
JH: That leads to my next question. What are the similarities between filmmaking, pitching and telemarketing?
KR: It’s so crazy because I was a salesman at the call center, and I’m still a salesman now. I was selling entertainment there. And I’m selling entertainment now.
JH: What were you selling?
KR: I was selling phone, cable and internet. Now I’m making the stuff that I was selling before. Another great thing about telemarketing was it taught me how to pitch. How to connect with people. You’re calling all over the United States and talking to different personalities, you learn to adapt and adjust. The scariest thing, when you’re talking to a potential customer, is change? If you can convince them that change isn’t scary, you can be very successful. And that’s the same in this industry. Change is actually a good thing.
JH: What movies were creative inspirations to you while writing and directing “Death of a Telemarketer”?
JH: Why “Phone Booth”?
KR: Because it was contained and took place in one day. And, of course, (Arthur Miller’s) Death of a Salesman, which also took place in one day, and was an inspiration for the title.
JH: What was your writing process like for this film?
KR: I had originally conceived the idea for this web series, workplace comedy, called “Hello, Good Night”. And I had met a few people who convinced me to make this a contained feature and I just started writing. And oddly enough, I didn’t write it for school. I was still in school at the time, but one of my professors, Jason Berman, actually passed the script along once I was done to the man who became my producer Datari Turner. And that’s how that all came about.
I consider making Death of a Telemarketer like filmmaking bootcamp for me…. I had to really find a rhythm.”
JH: What are the major differences in executing a film at a college level versus your first feature outside of college?
KR: I consider making Death of a Telemarketer kind of like, filmmaking bootcamp for me. Because you’re hardly getting any sleep. It’s sometimes 15 hour days. You’re dealing with a much larger group. I had to really find a rhythm. Before this you’re doing shorts so everything is smaller. You have a lot of the same problems, but they’re magnified, because the project is bigger, the budget is bigger, the crew that you’re dealing with is bigger. You’re dealing with named talent that you weren’t really dealing with before on a short. You’re dealing with agents and managers, and you have to stay on the same page with all of those entities.
JH: I read the production was around $5 million. who’s guiding you, so you’re not breaking the bank, or over-extending yourself?
KR: That is Datari Turner. That is the main producer. He’s the one that pretty much set everything in motion. He was the person I would lean on when I would have this issue or whatnot. He became kind of like my rock in this process. A producer is really the first person that you bring on your project. And that’s how it was with this and everything else kind of just fell into place once Datari came onboard.
JH: And how did you meet Datari?
KR: Through Jason Berman from USC. Datari and Jason produced like 10 films together. That’s why I just reached out to Jason to see if he’d pass the script along. Datari had recently made a contained film called 9 Rides and I met one of the producers. I actually skipped class, because they were playing Bullied, my short, at the Bahamas International Film Festival. It was either class or Bahamas, (and) I chose the Bahamas. I met a producer there who also co-produced 9 Rides with Datari and his name was Jerome Caldwell.
JH: What you’re saying is it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. Having your creative juices together, but also meeting the people that know the people, that know the people.
KR: Relationships. It’s definitely a key to success in this industry.
JH: You just said that you were an actor before? Did you go to school for it? Did you take classes?
KR: I took improv in Chicago at Second City, and I did commercials, when I got out here, had an agent and everything. And that was just balancing out the telemarketing.
JH: Was directing the main goal?
KR: No. I just knew that I loved films. I didn’t know exactly if I wanted to be in front of the camera behind. But I really liked the storytelling process. And I said, “You know what? I’d love to do this.” And so I applied to USC as the number one school.
JH: Looking back does that seem dicey? For someone who is applying to college what would you say to them if they only applied to one school?
KR: I say you have to follow your passion. Some people applied to USC multiple times. I was just fortunate and really blessed to apply. I said, “If I don’t get in, maybe it’s not meant to be, maybe I’ll apply again.” But fortunately for me, I did get in.
JH: How was it working with accomplished actors? Did your acting skill set come into play?
KR: It did, and having improved before (helps). I gave them that freedom once they understood the scene and the character. I gave them that freedom to just improv and bring what they wanted to bring to the performance. When it got too far out of hand I reeled them back as a director.
JH: I watched your short Night Diner, which I liked a lot. How long was production on Night Diner and DOAT?
KR: Night Diner was over a weekend. Two days. DOAT was two weeks.
JH: For someone to write, rewrite, rewrite again, pitch, and then direct the film you need to have a strong anchor and a desire to share that story. What drove you to get to that finish line?
KR: Both of my parents passed shortly before I started this film. My father died in 2018. My mom died in early 2019. That’s why you see at the end of the film it’s dedicated to both of them. And I was really fortunate. The last conversation I had with my parents was about this film and how they were proud of me. And so that was always in the back of my mind. No matter how hard it got I had them watching over me. I just couldn’t fail.
JH: What are you most proud of in yourself during the ride of making “DOAT”?
KR: I’d say, having a goal, making my first feature, the year I graduated. I gave myself like a ticking clock in my last year of school. And I just had to finish this project. I wanted it greenlit because I thought the world was gonna end. Little did I know the very next year it kind of did with COVID. So I set those goals for myself, and I accomplished them. I’m really proud of that.
JH: When you talk about setting goals, are you saying them in your head? Are you writing it down? Do you have a vision board? What is your process?
KR: Interesting you say that. I do have a vision board. A white vision board and I put different pictures from the internet or magazines and staple it to the board. I also sometimes write a list of things. Before I realize it, things just come into play.
JH: What’s the first film as a kid, and then as an adult, that got you to fall in love with movies? And those are two different people?
KR: Back in Chicago my parents had an extensive video collection. I remember. Watching Coffy (with Pam Grier). I should not have been watching (that) as a kid and I was just really fascinated. I was like, wow, I was just really blown away. Foxy Brown, Dolemite, which is kind of a full circle moment, because one of my mentors, Scott Alexander co-wrote Dolemite is my Name. As an adult, I remember Midnight Cowboy. And that whole dynamic between those two great actors, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. I was really fascinated.
JH: Out of all of the activities, careers, jobs and creative outlets out there in the world, why movies?
KR: Because it’s the best way to tell a story. I love telling stories about ordinary people like myself that do extraordinary things, and I feel that movies are the best media to tell those types of stories.
Johnnie Hobbs III is a filmmaker and teacher in Los Angeles, CA by way of Philadelphia. Read his manifesto for a new Black period film here.