Award-Winning Director Pete Chatmon Talks Gems of His 20+ Year Film Career

By Gabrielle Pharms | April 15, 2022

The ability of storytelling is a gift – and when you couple that talent with top-notch directing skills, you have Pete Chatmon. His career kicked off in 2001 with the Sundance selection of his NYU thesis film, 3D, starring Kerry Washington. As a masterful storyteller, Chatmon has since bestowed his directorial expertise to over 50 episodes of acclaimed TV series such as The Flight Attendant, Insecure, Grey’s Anatomy, Black-ish, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and many other buzz-worthy shows.

“I think if I were to put myself in a nutshell, I'm a testament to staying on a path and believing in yourself and transitioning when the opportunities arise or when the passion calls for it. I hope folks know that that's within them,” Chatmon tells EDITION. “I hope people can look at my career – from short film to feature film, to feature documentary, to music videos, a production company, teaching at NYU, directing TV comedies, to transitioning to one-hour dramas, and now pitching my own shows – and know it’s doable.”

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This year, Chatmon shared his wisdom through his book Transitions: A Director’s Journey + Motivational Handbook. Additionally, he’s currently the co-executive producer and producing director on Reasonable Doubt, the first project to be produced via Hulu’s Onyx Collective. Here, Chatmon talks about his new book and podcast, the influence of director greats such as Spike Lee, and shares what compels him to encourage the next generation of creatives.

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What was your career trajectory, and how did you end up where you're at as a director today?

I was fortunate in the sense that I grew up in a New Jersey town called South Orange. I went to Columbia High School. We had a film program – and by film program, I mean we had a class, and we had one 8mm film camera. I picked it up, and I was sold.

I ended up going to NYU for undergrad. The first filmmaker I had recognized like, ‘Oh, you can do it as a job,’ was Spike Lee. Do the Right Thing was the film that cracked it open for me. At that time, I didn't even know you could go to school for film. So, I had my eyes open to particular things. I wanted to write or point the camera at Black people, folks on the outskirts of the “mainstream” characters’ lives – the doctors or the best friend – because they really didn't do anything with them. They're just there. I wanted to tell stories about them and do it in an interesting way with a challenge to genres.

I graduated from NYU with a thesis film called 3D that starred Kerry Washington. That's full circle because we went to Sundance in 2001 with this short film. She did the show's pilot that I'm a co-executive producer on now. Twenty years later, here we are. That's how I got my start. It's been a journey of independent films and transitioning into TV from commercials, music videos, and branded content.

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That’s definitely a full-circle moment with Kerry – going from doing independent films to now with the series Reasonable Doubt. So, how did that come about? Did Kerry approach you, or did you pitch the idea?

The thing is, all industries are small. I've been doing TV for five years at this point. I've done six episodes of Black-ish, six of Grown-ish, six of Always Sunny, and three of Grey's Anatomy. We're all aware of what each other is doing. This project is with ABC Signature. A lot of the shows I mentioned are on ABC. It was a new position of being able to produce and bring things to her deal at ABC and get something on different networks. They were looking for a producing director, and I fit the bill. It was very organic.

With all these fun shows you've had the privilege of being an executive producer and director for, what would you say in the process you've learned about yourself creatively?

I think I’ve learned how to communicate better because it's such a collaborative process. You're working with so many different types of people and so many high numbers. They say if you want to work by yourself, be a painter or poet. You got 100 people on a crew. Learning how to be clear with a vision, collaborative in your pursuit of achieving it, and then keeping a good vibe is the key. When you're able to do all that stuff, you can tell these stories well.

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I can only imagine it’s a collaborative effort because you have the crew, actors, and so forth. So, what you mentioned at the outset resonated with me when you said you like shooting Black people because the characters are usually in the background. Can you expound on what ways you are helping to put a spotlight on leading Black characters?

I think it's about getting into the inner lives, right? What do people do? It’s one thing to see somebody at their job; it's another to see them deal with the actual challenges of their job, how they take that home, and how they live with that in their personal life. There are certain things that are going to be particular to that experience. Some shows go at it directly, like Black-ish. But then, sometimes it's a matter of seeing a woman take a head wrap off at night and put it on. Sometimes, in that little moment, we see it, and we're like, ‘Yeah, that's what it is.’ That kind of ties back to me for Do the Right Thing – the moment we watched Giancarlo Esposito's character deal with the scuff on his Jordan’s and got a toothbrush to clean it off. I was like, ‘That’s what I know.’ Sometimes seeing yourself reflected with imagery is affirming.

Have you ever met Spike?

I have. I used to teach at NYU. So, I used to see him all the time.

Very cool. Are there any other directors you admire and who have served as inspiration for you?

Yeah. Spike. Steven Soderbergh, David Lean, and David Fincher. Those would be some of the top ones that really sparked me.

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Getting into these other exciting projects you have, you released a book in January called Transitions, correct? Then, you have a podcast called Let's Shoot! with Pete Chatmon. What was the catalyst in your decision to release the book and the podcast?

The goal of the book was to write the book that I wish I could have read 20 years ago. I feel like there are a lot of different types of books – some are biographies, textbooks, and craft books. Often, they don't really get into the psychology of the pursuit of the career. I know a lot of things I've learned after I graduated college. I spent six years raising over half a million dollars to make my first feature film with Zoe Saldana. I learned a lot about raising money from 35 people, in increments from $5,000 to $100,000. After that, I won screenplay competitions, started a production company, and had a podcast from 2009 to 2011. All those things brought me new information that I felt another creative person, not only a director, could pull from and hopefully avoid a pitfall or two but add to their arsenal of approaches.

The book is in three acts. It's kind of in a hero's journey. It's akin to just watching a movie in many ways. You've got the setup, the conflict, and the resolution. Each of the 14 chapters has a keyword pulled from what I'm going through at that time that’s useful for the reader or the listener – because it'll be an audiobook too – to apply to their own journey. The other part about it that I like is that it's split into three elements: how-to, self-help, and inspiration. At the end of the book, I've got 10 Other directors that I've had on my podcast sharing their experiences. People like Rob McElhenney, who created Always Sunny, Nzingha Stewart, who did Tall Girl, and she's a great director of music videos, and a bunch of folks who give another perspective to mine. It gives the reader a well-rounded idea of what it takes to be a director.

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Kudos to you for not being stingy with your experience! You’re sharing your knowledge with the next generation of creatives. I sometimes feel, as a creative person, and one that's successful, such as you, it can be easy just to keep that wisdom to yourself.

The thing for me is that I want to see as many filmmakers and storytellers of color as possible doing their thing because it isn’t even a joke. The joke I have is that there are plenty of times since graduating college, a 23-year journey, where I could have quit, and I wouldn't have been crazy. I want somebody else to be able to read and understand the path can be challenging but stay the course. Know whatever you're experiencing is not unique to you. It's part of the journey and keeps going because we want to hear what you say. The more people who are getting their stories out, the more people will see themselves, and I think the affirmation of that is tremendous.

What's something you live by each day that you bring to work and the set?

With the podcast, I wanted to have a sign-off. Was it Edward R. Murrow that said, “Good night, and good luck?’ I end every podcast with “stay safe, spread love, and keep creating.” That's something I try to live by.

Photography by: Jameel Saleem