Precious executive producer visits the Hill
This past Thursday, the Pugh Community Board (PCB), the Student Government Association (SGA) and the African-American Studies Program welcomed Lisa Cortes, a self-proclaimed producer, communicator and marketer. The 1982 Yale University graduate assisted with the launch of Def Jam Records, worked on the crew of the films Monster’s Ball (2001) and Shadowboxer (2005) Most recently, she acted as executive producer of the internationally acclaimed film, Precious (2009).
At the beginning of the well attended talk, which took place in Ostrove Auditorium, Cortes said to the audience that, “What we’re going to engage in tonight is conversation.”
In the beginning of her speech, Cortes talked a lot about her beliefs and visions. “My goal is to use pop culture to tackle the most difficult issues in the world…,” she said. “I dwell in possibility because the opposite of that is a dark place without art. This is the mantle I wear everyday.”
Cortes said, in her line of work, she “cannot understand, and refuses to accept the word no.” Her persistence has seemingly existed since childhood, when Cortes was growing up in Milford, Connecticut. “Back then I wanted to read every book in the world, [books] were my passport,” she said.
Although the main point of the speech was to take the audience through a chronological journey of her life, Cortes continually made interjections to emphasize the power of the written word. She explained that stories are important because of “the impact they have on others and their ability to expand peoples’ consciousness.” Furthermore, she insisted that while “being an artist is one of the most difficult things in the world, if there exists no art, there can be no love.”
As she continued to discuss her life, Cortes admitted that, before college, she was not a good student. However, she ended up attending Yale and becoming an American Studies major, and said this choice was because “it was essential to understand the historical foundation of popular culture.”
Cortes briefly touched on the years she spent jumpstarting Def Jam Records. “In 1986 hip-hop was a different scene….It was at this time I recognized the need to be social,” she said. Cortes mentioned that this time was essential for her foundation, but she implied that it was also a difficult period; as she was living on $200 per week without health insurance.
After Def Jam Records, she decided to start her own record company, Polygram Records. She said with this endeavor she “hit a glass ceiling.” With no financial backing, she decided to go to India for brief period. It was there that Cortes had a significant moment. “I was at a movie theatre in Delhi, and I realized something amazing was happening,” she said. “Even though I did not understand what was being said, the power of the image and story on screen was trumpeting the limitations of language.” It was this experience that made Cortes realize she must pursue Film School—it was her ultimate calling.
During the next part of her speech, Cortes informed the audience about her time spent working on the sets of Monster’s Ball and Shadowboxer at the beginning of her career. Unexpectedly, the film Shadowboxer paved the way for Precious, which is based off of the novel Push by Sapphire. According to Cortes, many famous filmmakers had been denied access to the film because “Sapphire was very protective of the world she had created.” However, Cortes said that “when Sapphire saw Shadowbox, she was so impressed with how beautiful the film was,” that she gave Cortes remission to transfer the novel to the big screen.
Cortes then launched into a discussion of the creative process behind the film. She noted that about 70 percent of the script was taken directly from scenes and dialogue in the novel, and said that the most integral parts of the process were casting characters and finding a writer for the script. “We went through many agencies,” Cortes said. “But we took a chance on a guy who we thought would be ‘the next.’ That guy’s name is Jeffrey Fletcher.”
Cortes then paused to talk about the constant difficulties members of the film industry face when financing their projects. “You depend on your financiers every step of the way to complete the vision,” she said.
At this point in the presentation, the audience had the opportunity to watch scenes from Precious. “I like to show a 360-degree performance and not just cater to surface presentation…it is important to show [the] complexities, [that] other people are going through [and] that we don’t have time to sit down and empathize with,” Cortes said.
Cortes remarked that Precious is a universal story—she said that “we all have a little Precious in us.” This statement took special significance for Cortes at a screening of the film in Dubrovnik, Croatia last summer. “The reception was amazing,” she said. “[The film] is not a symbol of monolithic African-American women; rather, it’s representative of the human condition.”
Cortes ended her talk with inspirational quotes taken from a speech made by Martin Luther King in February 1968. After the lecture, members of the audience had the opportunity to ask questions. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies Cheryl Gilkes asked “what a typical day is like for [Cortes], if such a thing exists.” Cortes said, “I begin my day with prayer and meditation, because we all have to have faith in something. Then I do something for my mind, and there is always some good food.”