Pride On Film: Deondray Gossfield discusses the passion behind FLAMES

Deondray and husband Quincy LeNear Gossfield are award-winning filmmakers and producers who began their directing careers when they won Best Experimental Short Film in Showtime’s Digital Media Festival in 2000 with their micro-short, Had U.

The couple created and directed the anthology series, The DL Chronicles, which became the first African American show to win a GLAAD Media Award. 

Building on a successful brand and passion for telling African American, LGBTQ+ stories, they created and directed The Chadwick Journals. In 2021 show won a 2020 Daytime Emmy® Nomination for lead actor Damian Toofeek Raven. 

In February of 2021, the Gossfield’s were selected as one of ten directors in Lena Waithe’s Rising Voices initiative presented in collaboration with Indeed.  The initiative aims to discover, invest in, and share stories created by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) filmmakers & storytellers around the meaning of work and the idea that jobs have the power to change us all. The selected filmmakers were given access to a $100,000 production budget, an additional $25,000 COVID-19 safety budget, along with mentorship and support from industry professionals from Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions and Ventureland. 

Photo Credit: Quincy Lenear Gossfield and Deodray Gossfield

In Deondray’s script for FLAMES, Ahmad, played by Deion Smith (Queen of the South), a streetwise college-bound scholar on the precipice of a new bright future, and Sadik, played by newcomer Dontavius Williams, a rehabilitated hooligan grappling with his identity, find themselves alone together before Ahmad’s graduation party in the woods. Soon, unresolved issues and old resentments ignite a forbidden blaze between them that must be doused if Ahmad is to have any chance of escaping the past. 

FLAMES made its world premiere at The Tribeca Film Festival. The film has received rave reviews from audiences. PrideIndex had the pleasure of chatting with Deondray Gossfield via email. He shared his inspiration for this film, what it was like to film during Covid, and the experience of working with Lena Waithe.     

PrideIndex (PI): Where did you find the inspiration for this film? 

Deondray Gossfield (DG): FLAMES is an amalgamation of several of my teenage experiences with young men in my life. Some were plutonic, and some were romantic, but never fully realized because each of us was scared to take the next step. This is also a commentary on toxic masculinity and how it affects male-to-male intimacy. As young, Black men, we aren’t allowed to be intimate or affectionate with each other. Even dad and son relationships where a hug lasts too long are frowned upon, yet toxic masculinity is celebrated and encouraged when what we actually need a hug. It’s a practice that leaves Black men starving for affection and malnourished emotionally. I wanted to reimagine those moments of budding romantic relationships where I was seeking intimacy but not allowed to express it. I tried to strip away the urban grit that we were from and place these two young men in a symbolic Garden of Eden where they could be recreated and have their eyes opened to see the truth without the pressures of society on their backs.

Actors Deion Smith and Dontavius Williams Photo Credit: Still from FLAMES

PI: FLAMES is a short film; therefore, you had to tell the story quickly. How did you edit or decide what was essential to keep in the story? 

DG: It was a very collaborative process. I was fortunate enough to have many creative eyes as we went through the process. Hillman Grad, Lena Waithe, and Rishi Rajani gave notes early on in the script process, while our agent, Maggie Roiphe, and my husband, Quincy LeNear Gossfield, gave very early notes on the first drafts of the script I wrote to help me determine what to keep on the page. Then my producers, Krystal Marie and Bristie Caruthers, narrowed down what could be captured through the lens of our budget. We had to reimagine a few scenes to stay within what we could afford. Then while shooting, our DP, Edward Martinez helped us hone in on the most visually important elements. Some shots got combined, while we lost and added some lines here and there that fit better for the scene in real-time. Our actors also contributed to this process breathing life into the characters and making it easier for us to prune and grow the script. Finally, in post, our editor, Sarah Zeitlin, our Executive Producers, Constanza Castro and Doménica Castra, and our Post Supervisor, Salvadore Peréz García, helped fine-tune what was captured to tell the tightest and most emotionally driven story possible. It took a village.

PI: Do you think FLAMES could work as a feature-length film?

DG: Absolutely! FLAMES was a scene plucked from a much bigger and richer story. There’s more to be unpacked in Ahmad and Sadik’s relationship; much more commentary could be made. 

Actor Deion Smith Photo Credit: Still from FLAMES

PI: Were you involved in the casting process?

DG: Yes, we were involved. Our incredible Casting Director, Lindsay Chag, scoured Atlanta to find us the perfect Ahmad and Sadik in Deion Smith (Outer Banks) and Dontavius Williams (Family Ties). We thought we were going in another direction until Deion and Dontavius’ audition came to us at the last minute. We knew instantly that we were going to have to change our minds and go with these two. Though our original first choices were INCREDIBLE, Deion and Dontavius brought a nuance that we were looking for in the characters. They didn’t feel like they were just playing Ahmad and Sadik; they were them.

PI: How did you handle the challenges of filming during the COVID 19 pandemic?

DG: It was very tricky. We had a Covid Officer on-site at all times. We tested three times before and during our three-day shoot. We socially distanced, and our team was divided into pods according to crew title. Pod A, for example, was the cast, above-the-line crew, and anyone who needed to have direct access to talent, so it was the Directors, Actors, Makeup, Hair, Stills Photographer, and Producers. We were only allowed to mingle within our pod while socially distanced. Luckily 95% of our shoot was outdoors, so we were at a much lower risk for exposure. Aside from multiple Covid tests, socially distancing, individually wrapped foods, and hollering muffled directions through a face mask, it went off pretty normal, surprisingly.

Actors Deion Smith and Dontavius Williams Photo Credit: Still from FLAMES

PI: Describe the exact moment you learned your film was selected as a finalist for Rising Voices.

DG: It was hair-raising. We had done several intense interviews over two weeks, and directors were eliminated each round. We were notified that there were two spots left and three filmmakers up for those two spots for the final round. It was a pretty humbling moment for Quincy and I as we’re a bit long-in-the-tooth with film directing. We’ve been trying to transition from indie filmmaking to studio TV directing for ages. It seems all of our peers have made the leap, and we just can’t seem to get our feet into the door. We were told that we were on the fence to secure a spot out of several new filmmakers. It was revealing and hard to swallow, but we put on our armor and prepared for the final Zoom interview of our lives. While getting the preamble from Hillman Grad’s Head of Development, Justin Riley, we were preparing for the questions he was about to ask when he suddenly said, “There are no questions, you’re in the program… Surprise!” Quincy reacted, and I was puzzled until Justin repeated it. Then I was still for a moment, and the tears started to flow. I thanked him for giving us the opportunity, and he corrected me by saying, “We didn’t give you guys anything; you snatched this opportunity. Congratulations to you both.” We were beside ourselves.

PI: What was it like to work with Rising Voices and Lena Waithe?

DG: It was fantastic! The studio system is all that I dreamt of and so much more. So much support and so many phenomenal creative minds helping you achieve your vision. Quincy and I are used to it just being me and him with the daunting task of writing and directing but also producing, casting, craft service, line producing, talent handling, EVERYTHING… We only had to direct this time thanks to our phenomenal producers and the support of Hillman Grad, Indeed, 271 Films, Ventureland, and Pretty Bird Pics. It was so hard to sit that still at first, but we got used to it quickly. 

Lena Waithe is a long-time friend, and we used to mentor her when she first arrived in Los Angeles. Hollywood can change on a dime, and your mentee can end up being your mentor, and we loved it. Working with a good friend who is also amazingly gifted is such a bonus. We threw away all formalities during the mentorship. We spoke as friends with the short-hand that we have with each other but still respected our roles in the process. Lena doesn’t mince words. She’s firm and honest, and though she may tell you some truths you don’t want to hear, she doesn’t leave you beat down – she picks you back up and sticks around until she’s sure you’ve learned the lesson. She enjoys lifting people. She’s so giving and constantly on the move that sometimes I wonder if she’s getting enough rest. We had to put our uncle caps down, though, and let her work her magic. She and Rishi Rajani were integral to FLAMES’ success at Tribeca. They were our personal mentors, and after they gave us all the instruction and guidance they could, they put their complete trust and faith in us to execute the film. They are both incredibly impressed with the finished product.

 It will be hard to go back to indie filmmaking now. Hopefully, we won’t have to.

 PI: Did you develop a relationship with other Rising Voices finalists?

DG: The Rising Voices finalists are like family. Me and Q are like their uncles, being the oldest two of the group. We are very close-knit. We have a group thread that is still lighting up even after our run at Tribeca. They are some of the best Directors I have ever worked alongside. I mean, just jaw-dropping talented. Indeed and Hillman Grad truly chose some of the brightest and the best. No official collaborative ventures have been discussed, but some or all of us will inevitably work together somehow in the future.

Catch the Atlanta Premiere of FLAMES at Out On Film:
Sunday, September 26th at 7:00 pm @ Landmark Midtown Art Cinema

FLAMES is playing along with the Gossfield’s other short, Smoke, Lilies and Jade (featuring the voice of Billy Porter) as well as “All Boys Aren’t Blue” (directed by Nathan Hale Williams, featuring Dyllón Burnside [Pose]) Click here to purchase tickets

FLAMES will be playing again on October 3rd, at 5:30 pm @ Out Front Theatre Company Click here to purchase tickets