'Random Acts of Flyness' Creator Reveals "Discomfort" of His Creative Process

Terence Nance hopes his category-defying HBO show, whose finale aired last night, succeeds in "not centralizing the oppressor" and pushing conversations to "absurd spaces or intersectional spaces."
Rog Walker/HBO
Dominique Fishback (right) on the season one finale of 'Random Acts of Flyness'

"You are entitled to rest." This phrase is recited again and again during the season finale of Random Acts of Flyness, which aired last night on HBO. The episode follows Najja (The Deuce's Dominique Fishback) as she and a host of other female characters face inner and outer demons and grapple with fighting back.

The episode is aptly titled "They Won't Go When I Go," which is also the name of a 1974 Stevie Wonder tune that he famously sang in tribute at Michael Jackson's 2009 funeral. It also features a musical vignette from singer-songwriter Solange Knowles that leaves you feeling refreshed, open. "You are entitled to rest," indeed.

Watching the entire season of Random Acts of Flyness in one sitting feels like a lucid dream. It is meditative sketch comedy meets fantasy drama, told through the intersectional yet pointedly black lens of its creator, Brooklyn-based indie filmmaker Terence Nance. It is precisely the Hollywood pitch that invokes the phrase "this will never get made."

But Random Acts of Flyness has been renewed for a second season. A critical darling, it's been widely praised as an exciting new take on the variety show. Told in a nonlinear "Afro-surrealist" format, the scripted half-hour takes viewers on a seamlessly crafted journey into the nuances of race, class, gender and sexuality in America today.

Like the show, its creator defies easy categorization. After pursuing a master's in studio art at NYU, Nance's big break came when he premiered his debut feature, An Oversimplication of Her Beauty, at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Since then, he has released several short-form projects through his production banner MVMT. In addition to being a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, earlier this summer, Nance won a prestigious Artadia grant for New York-based artists in celebration of work like his latest indie short, "White People Won't Save You."

THR spoke with Nance the day before the season finale about how a show like his got greenlit, what his writers room was like, and how he and his team focused on letting their authentic selves drive the show.

Have you been following the online conversations about the show from week to week? How has that been for you?
We just finished the last episode last Friday [Aug. 31], so I haven't had much attention span or energy to give a holistic read of what the response has been. But mostly people appreciate that it is a complex conversation-starter. It maybe pushes those conversations further to absurd spaces or intersectional spaces.

I want to backtrack and ask how you actually connected with HBO and what those early stages of the project were like?

The first iteration of this idea was something I wrote in 2014. A good friend of mine, Tamir Muhammad, was working for Tribeca Film Institute funding people's projects. He had the idea to do a news show and I was like, "I'm not doing that but I have this other idea." Tamir through [the Time Warner content incubator] OneFifty funded a proof of concept that allowed me to flesh that out a little bit, and that ended up being about half of the pilot.

We were very clear that we didn't want to enter into any kind of development deal with any network. We just wanted to do a pilot because it's not the type of a show that you can develop. You have to just make an episode of it and then see if you want to make more because you cannot explain it on paper very well. MVMT, my production company, produced it all in-house, and then we just turned the pilot into HBO and waited.

Walk us through the world of your writers room.

It was all family. Everybody in the writers room I go way back with. The room was very reflective of the community of artists that I'm inspired by consistently. These are the people I know best and I trust the most creatively. We all come from wildly different identities and countries and parts of the country, but at the same time there's a lot of parallels in terms of our experience as artists passing through New York. There's a lot of intimacy there.

Did you have a theme in mind when you got everyone together and then you broke it all together in the room?

We didn't have a theme, but the whole idea of shifting consciousness was definitely the edict before the room started. That was present in the pilot. And when the writers room came together, the pilot was a good jumping-off point for where do we go from here conceptually. It was a very open-ended process.

In terms of what was scripted versus allowing for improvisation and collaboration in the act of actually making and editing the show — how did you approach that?

It's probably your average amount in terms of like what the final episodes look like and how faithful they are to the scripts that we're working off of. It was very tightly scripted.

For example, in episode five ["I tried to tell my therapist about my dreams/MARTIN HAD A DREEEEAAAAM"] there's two big pieces: the white angel and the white devil [archetypes]. I don't think there are any scenes that got cut. That said, the original idea was to actually interview Matthew Weiner, Terence Winter, Vince Gilligan and the different creators of the white male anti-hero/white devil on television in the script. But we couldn't get anybody to let us interview them, so you know, that piece changed in a significant way, but the DNA of those questions is still in the writing because we basically just sort of changed those questions into thoughts. A big creative key to that episode is Kristan Sprague, the editor on that episode. He did a great job with that.

For each episode of the show there are multiple writers and multiple directors. I would imagine that would add an element of complexity to putting everything together.

I could have been like, "Hey, one person, go write this episode, go direct this episode," but it just wouldn't have been the show. We were attempting to make a show that we could only have gotten to if we were really invested in filtering everything through each other. And I think that creates a lot of discomfort sometimes in the creative process. It's just very difficult to take something that wasn't your idea and then script something ... but for me I found that to be the most creatively gratifying.

Why is that?

I just draw more joy from interacting with people and listening and hearing what resonates for them and what doesn't and why and responding to that. I have three brothers and sisters. I kind of grew up in a family band environment (Laughs) so I'm used to it. On some level, the way that most work comes into being is you take the block of wood and you whittle away until the sculpture reveals itself. When you have a lot of minds, for a little while we're just making a lump of clay, a formless thing. My job when I'm doing the last drafts of the edits is to chisel away until the thing that is attempting to be made is clear and I think that when you have [multiple perspectives] the raw material is richer.

There are so many elements in the show where the context is not explained and you either know or you don't. It's sort of like we're going on this journey with you and some stuff you may understand, and some you might not, but just go with us.

For sure. It reminds me of the most recent Pusha T album. He has this song called "If You Know You Know." If you weren't around that blackness, you will miss the references and if you know, you know. There's definitely that feeling. It's not to exclude people, it's just saying that if you know, you know, and that means that you can know if you take care to know. If you dig deep enough you can get to a place of understanding, but it just might be some more work for some people than others.

So where do you and your team draw the line between centering blackness and focusing on whiteness? Was that something you talked and how do you approach that?

We definitely set a rule that we wouldn't centralize the oppressor, but not just the oppressor meaning white people, but the oppressor as it was articulated for anybody in the room. For the women in the room, for the queer people, for the poly people in the room. Not centralizing the oppressor, it's a practice you have to kind of build. Like if you're trying to build a meditation practice sometimes when you meditate in the morning for 15 minutes and all you are thinking about is French fries or how you're angry at your old boss when you really should be focusing on your breath, that doesn't mean you're bad at meditating. It just means that you got a little bit better that day and the next day you'll come to it with more experience. It's a process. Decentralization is a practice. You have to expect fallibility. One of the big oppressive forces is hypercapitalism. To what extent can I purely eradicate hypercapitalism from my day-to-day life? You can't and you don't get a prize if you do. Everyone should try as hard as they can, but at the same time it's a process. It's a value system, and it should always be in response and conversation with the world you live in.

Speaking of hypercapitalism, in New York you recently won this $10,000 prize from Artadia. What does winning this prize mean for you?

Coming from a fine art background, most of my work, even pieces of [Random Acts of Flyness] are grants- and residency-supported. My ability to be here is entirely related to getting grants. Being in that process of making artwork and being able to be supported by institutions like Artadia is super important for people like me to get to the place where we have the capacity to make stuff that is directly representative of what we want to do and is only about that.

Tell us about your short film "White People Won't Save You."

The website and the film and the song are reprogramming devices. Hopefully they get stuck in your head, so you walk around repeating it to yourself. Because we've all been programmed to think that white people will save us. 

Do you have a message for people in Hollywood as a creator of color and a black creator working in Hollywood?

Do I have a message? (Laughs.) Hopefully, my message is in my work.