SUJATA DAY & Definition Please
On the podcast this week, we chat with Sujata Day, a performer, creator, writer, and director. She regularly performs in Upright Citizen Brigade's hit Asian AF show. Sujata is known for her starring role as CeCe in Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. She's recurred for three seasons on HBO's Insecure. Sujata is a Sundance Lab fellow, Sundance Film Festival influencer, and Sundance Collab advisor. Her short film, Cowboy and Indian, sold to a major studio for series development with Sujata writing, producing and starring. She served as HBO Visionaries Ambassador in 2019. She directs This Is My Story, a series in which beloved storyteller LeVar Burton narrates real life personal experiences of everyday racism. Sujata's debut feature film, Definition Please, is currently touring the film festival circuit.
Click here to listen to our interview with Sujata Day on Apple Podcasts.
Episode transcription below.
SUJATA DAY & Definition Please
Larkin: Well, Sujata, thank you so much for joining us today.
Sujata: Thanks for having me. I'm excited. I'm excited to be here.
Larkin: To start, could you just introduce yourself a little bit to our listeners and then tell us about your film Definition Please.
Sujata: Hi, I'm Sujata Day. I am an actor writer, director, and producer, and now after the movie has come out, many other different things, but I am originally from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and I grew up in the suburbs of Western PA was dancing and singing, ever since I was pretty young. And then once I hit middle school, high school, I started doing plays and musicals. But at the same time, I was also really good at science and math. So, uh, in terms of professionally, I decided to take the science and math route and I graduated with an engineering degree, but.
My parents were also very supportive of my artistic side. So they would show up to my musicals and bring me flowers every single night and laugh at all my jokes on stage. And they were supportive of my writing and I, the only AP I took like five AP tests and. The only 5 that I got was, uh, AP, English, everything else I got 3s in. So I should have known that I should have gone into writing, but I got my engineering degree instead. And then I interned at a place called Accenture the summer before my senior year. And they offered me a job after graduation and they moved me out to LA and little did they know that it was all a master plan of me getting into entertainment.
So when you're a consultant, you don't have to come into work, unless you're on a project. So I just tried never to get on a project. Even though I was on salary. So I was really like working in gaming the system. And so I never went to work, I was auditioning, I was getting an agent, I was getting headshots and I worked at Accenture for a year.
And then I got laid off, which was also great, and part of the master plan, because I got severance and unemployment. And then about six to eight months after that, I booked three national commercials in a row. And so I had beginner's luck with commercials. And then a couple of years later, I've met Issa Rae via a little platform called Twitter.
And that was over eight years ago. And no one was on Twitter at the time. Nobody was talking about Twitter and we both had like two or three followers and after we started following each other, she tweeted out, she was looking for a mixed-looking girl to play her best friend on her web series and IDM tour.
And I said, Hey, I'm not mixed, but this is what I look like. Let me know if you want me to come in and audition. And I pull up to the audition and it's at her house in a nice neighborhood, but still at a house. So, super shady. I don't recommend anyone going into a house for an audition.
Larkin: No, please don't.
Sujata: And I was about to drive away, but then she walked out and she was talking on her cell phone and I was like, Oh, it's a girl, it'll be fine. Which is still not the right attitude. How about a house audition. And I went in and nothing happened. It was a fun audition. I left and couple of hours later she said you got the role. And I was like, great. And wasn't going to get paid, you know? And then two weeks later I went to her dad's doctor's office in Inglewood to shoot one of the first scenes of [Misadventures of] Awkward Black Girl and was done in 20 minutes.
I believe her brother was there manning the video and the microphone was attached to the video. It was not very professional. And, and then I left, then I was like, what did I get myself into? Okay. Chalk that up is. An acting exercise. And then of course it blew up and that was really exciting. And then a couple years later, I joined Insecure on HBO and was on HBO.
And that has been really exciting and fun. And throughout being on [Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl] and Insecure, I really focused on my own writing, and getting my 'Brown girl' story out there. So I've been making short films and selling TV shows.
And then finally I just sucked it up and wrote and directed and produced and starred in my own feature, which is Definition Please. And it just premiered at the Bentonville Film Festival.
Jennifer: Wow, what a story. I love it. Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind Definition Please? And also what it was like to go back and shoot in your hometown?
Sujata: Yeah, so I'll take it away back to fourth grade. When I was in my spelling bee, and I won. I won my grade spelling bee, which is exciting, but then doesn't sound like a big deal because there were only 10 people in my fourth grade. I went to regionals and I lost in the first round on the word 'radish' because I spelled it with two D's instead of one. And. You know what I've tweeted this and people have tweeted back that they all remember what word they lost on, which is, I was like, okay, that's a really cool thing because I will always remember now how to spell radish.
Jennifer: I definitely lost out on the word "diuretic" at one point. So I understand that.
Sujata: So that's a good word to lose out on. That's like, I don't even know in my head how to spell "diuretic," you know? So no one can make fun of you for that.
Jennifer: Thank you.
Sujata: Yeah, that's really good. That's really good.
And, so after I was in the spelling bee, I kind of became interested in other spelling bees. And so, you know, the National Spelling Bee is on ESPN every year. So I would tune in and it was always really exciting because seemed like an Indian American kid was winning every year. And even last year when we were on set, there were eight winners and seven of the eight were South Asian American. So cut to 2015, I'm taking a UCB sketch writing class. And one of my sketch ideas is where are they now? Spelling new winners? Ah, hilarious. So funny.
So if you Google the spelling bee winners, they're all doing amazing things. They've all got three PhDs. They're working at NASA. They're making robots.
I'm sure they're working on the COVID vaccine right now. And my question, the button in my sketch was okay, this spelling bee winner is a loser. She grew up to be nothing. And then I wrote that four page sketch and I put it away. And then in late 2016, I did a Sundance Screenwriting Lab. And this was three days after the election.
So emotions are high and we're all crying as we're making our introductions, but it was actually one of the best places to be, I think post-election because I was just surrounded by like-minded people and we were all creating. And once you do a Sundance Lab, you're considered Sundance Alumni. And so I decided to go to Sundance for the first time, the film festival, I had never been before.
And, uh, once Sundance found out that I was going, they asked me to be a "Sundance influencer," so they wanted me to take over their Instagram and their Twitter for certain events. And I was like, Oh my gosh, score. Yes. I get to experience my first Sundance from the inside of Sundance pretty much.
Larkin: Side note-- we totally remember seeing you on all their Instagram stories and everything.
Sujata: No way.
Larkin: Oh yeah, for sure. We were like 'who's this girl?' She's like the face of Sundance.
Sujata: It was so strange. When I got asked to do that, I was like, wait, are you talking to me? But it was so, so fun. And I couldn't have asked for better introduction to Sundance because I feel like a lot of people go their first time and they don't, they don't know where to go or what to do. And I was like invited to everything that was cool. And I got to talk to all these amazing directors and writers and I'm just like freaking out.
So it was, it was really great. And also that in, at that 2017 festival, my friend, Justin Chon's movie was premiering. It's called Gook. So I went to the premiere and afterwards, first of all, I was blown away by the movie. I loved it so much. And afterwards I asked him how he made it and he was like, girl, I just like put the money together. I asked my friends, I asked my family, there's like a hundred producers on this film. And I was like, Oh, my eyes lit up. I was like, okay, that's what I have to do. This is what I have to do. So I went back home in 2017, started writing the feature film version of Definition Please.
And decided not only was this lead character going to be a loser who had peaked by winning the spelling bee at a young age, but I wanted to explore why. So what would make her not be successful? And I decided that the answer to that question would be her relationships with her family. So her relationship with her mom, her relationship with her brother, that would cause her to stay home and not take the job in Cleveland.
And so I worked on the script and got a bunch of notes, was rewriting throughout 2017, 2018. And in 2019, I went back to Sundance this time with HBO and Justin [Chon's] second film was at the festival, it was called Ms. Purple. So good. And I was like, what am I doing with my life? What haven't I made my movie yet? And Justin has gotten two films into Sundance. And I ended up getting a TV show back that I had sold, along with a huge check. So I was like, okay, what do I do with this check? I don't really care about buying a house or a car, or taking a trip. I was like, I'm going to put it all into a feature. And so I was the first money into my feature film, and then it was a lot easier to get other investors and financers on board. And then we shot it, 2019. That was it.
Larkin: Amazing. And so you just recently premiered at Geena Davis' Bentonville Film Festival, virtually. What was that experience like?
Sujata: So that was really cool because I was actually coming back as an alumni. So in 2017, I had a short film that was doing the festival rounds and 2018, it screened at Bentonville Film Festival.
So that was really exciting to come back to Bentonville and screen my first feature. So it was great to premiere there. I think something that was a little bit disappointing and that's for all of us indie filmmakers this summer is that we all had films ready to go and had gotten into film festivals. And we were ready to travel to these really exciting film festivals and do panels and watch everyone else's films and meet other filmmakers. And that obviously didn't happen because of Coronavirus. But, I do believe Bentonville did the best they could under the circumstances. We had a zoom, one of the first nights with all the filmmakers and then they would break us out into smaller rooms. So like you would be talking to three or four other people. And that was actually really cool and got to meet some cool people. And we got to know each other in the smaller rooms, and then they had only planned for that one zoom. But after that, We all asked for more zooms like that. So we could meet some of the other filmmakers and talk to them about their projects.
So, that was done really well. And we had a really fun panel that my friend, Dino-Ray Ramos at Deadline moderated, and it was with me and the rest of the cast. And that was right after our premiere. We were also the closing night film, which was exciting, which I wasn't even aware of. So, yeah, so that was, that was really great. And, uh, some of the programmers at Bentonville loved the film so much that they recommended it to other film festivals. So we got hit up by other film festivals to play the movie. And so that has been really great.
Jennifer: That's amazing. Um, we were talking a little bit off mic before we started about, um, Beandrea July's a review of your film in the Hollywood Reporter. And the review, she talks about the Bollywood themes and tropes that the film was kind of playing with. And we're wondering if you could kind of speak to the exploration of that and what you were trying to examine by kind of turning some of these themes and tropes on their heads.
Sujata: I love, first of all, Beandrea [July] did so much research for my review and I am so grateful for that because not only did she bring up the Bollywood tropes that I can talk about, but she compared my film to one of my friend's movies, Andrew Ahn. And I love Andrew and I texted him and I was like, 'yo, you got a name check in my review!'
And so that was really sweet. Um, but yeah, in terms of the Bollywood tropes, my mom is obsessed with Bengali soap operas, and I'm not sure if you guys are familiar with Indian soap operas, but they're very similar to telenovelas or even American soap operas, where the storylines are just insane and crazy, but I feel like Bengali soap operas often take it to the next level.
There's always like a twin that appears and disappears and kills someone or there's, you know? Um, and in terms of Bollywood tropes, always, always, always the woman is a love interest, and eye candy, and definitely in my film, I wanted the men to be eye candy. I did not want the driving force of my movie to be a love story.
I purposefully wanted there to be a romantic interest, but it would come and go as a woman does in a lot of feature films, and in almost every single Bollywood film. So, so that was exciting for me to explore to just, I know that a lot of women have written to me to be thankful for the eye candy in my movie, so I'm glad that I did that part. So that was something that I love that the Beandrea [July] brought up because I definitely wanted a very specific female gaze on the film, with no judgments about what the main character was doing and something that I also enjoyed putting in there was that the mom character, usually in a South Asian American film or television show, the parents are really strict. And personally, growing up, my parents were always really cool. I was allowed to do pretty much whatever I wanted, as long as I got good grades, and I got good grades. So yeah. It was all good. And, and I could never connect to these Indian parents that are like, 'Oh, you can't do this. You can't do that. You're not allowed to talk to boys. You're not allowed to go to this school or you have to be a doctor.’
And so I love that the mom in my movie supports her children's choices and is coming at the relationship with her son and daughter just through love, just through love. As long as they're not hurting themselves, it'll be fine. As long as the relationships are there, in terms of the brother and the sister and the brother and the mom and the sister and the mom, then the mom is super happy.
And I really enjoyed playing with that in terms of the mom character, and music--music is a huge part of Bollywood films. And I worked closely with this genius genius. Black woman composer, Amanda Jones, who has also worked on Black Lady Sketch Show, Twenties, which is Lena Waithe's as project, a couple Ava Duvernay projects.
And I was really like, I actually met her at Sundance. I met her at Sundance and we exchanged info. And when I was looking for a composer, I just hit her up and she was like down and she started sending me tracks. Right after I sent her the script, like in pre-production, which was really exciting. And so music is a huge part of Bollywood and Bengali soaps as well.
And just a huge part of our culture and the theme song for my film was going to be really important. So I would send Amanda like three or four songs, Bollywood songs, that I loved. And I was like, 'Okay so it would be like a little bit like this, but also like this and also like this,' and she was great and she'd be like, 'Okay, so here's something' and she would send it to me and I'd be like, 'ah, it's almost there. It's almost there. Could, could you make it...' And then I would send her and be like, 'Could you make it more like this?' So I think working with her was so incredible because she just really knew how to pinpoint what I exactly wanted. And once she had sent me that final song that made it into the movie-- and it's also, it also plays in the trailer-- I was just overjoyed and, and she doesn't know Hindi, then she doesn't know Bengali, but she worked with, she would send me English lyrics to translate into Bengali, which I would translate, but then I would check with my parents to make sure that it was absolutely correct. And. Then she hired Hindi and Bengali singers to sing the songs. And when we would get the songs back, I was just blown away because I did not know it was possible. So the songs are a really big part of the emotion and tone of the film.
Larkin: Wow. Great stories. I think maybe one of our last questions-- I want to know what advice do you have for first- time feature filmmakers?
Sujata: I would say don't try to be perfect. Even when I was going into doing my feature, I knew I was going to make mistakes. I knew the final product wasn't going to be a Christopher Nolan movie, you know? So I truly believe you learn from your mistakes and even, you know, making music videos-- that's what I was directing before I made my first short, I was like making mistakes and I knew it wasn't perfect, but I really enjoyed the final product. But then I made my short film, which I wrote produced, directed and starred in. And that was kind of my practice run for my feature. And when I made Cowby And Indian, everything went really smoothly because I was over-prepared. But there were things that weren't exactly how I envisioned them, but you just have to let it go. And you can't-- you can't focus on those things.
You have to let it go and then move on to the next thing, the next problem that you have to solve. And then in terms of making the feature film, I went in with the same attitude. I just decided I was going to be over-prepared. I was going to do my storyboards. I was going to have my movie dates with Brooks Ludwick, my DP, and I was gonna finish the film, and it wasn't going to be perfect. And there were scenes that, you know, you always wish you could have gotten more takes or more coverage, but at the end of the day, I'm really happy with my film an I know that my next one will be better. It'll have a bigger budget. And I just think it's good for filmmakers to continue creating, even if it, even if it's not exactly what you thought it was going to be. So for example, a good thing is that I don't know if you know that Issa Rae's third web series was Awkward Black Girl. She had two web series before that the people have never heard of. So just make, make, make, and something somewhere we'll hit because you just never know what that's going to be.
So I see a lot of my friends trying to be David Lynch right away, and it's just like, not going to happen because even David Lynch...was well actually, Eraserhead was pretty good. So David Lynch was pretty much David Lynch from the start, but I watched Bong Joon-ho's, first movie and I can't remember the name of it right now, but it has to do with the dog, like Barking Dogs Never Bite.
So I would recommend people to go watch Barking Dogs Never Bite because it's so indie, and the story is great and very engaging, but you're like, Oh my gosh, this is such an indie film. And it's very inspiring because it feels like you can, yourself, go out and make something like that. So you shouldn't try to make Parasite as your first feature, you know, it's just like never going to happen. So just go out and make Barking Dogs Never Bite and being happy with yourself.
Larkin: That's great advice.
Jennifer: Yeah, definitely. Great advice. So we end every interview with our lightning round '3, 2, 1 Action'. So you'll just answer in a word or phrase.
Um, we'll start with 3: favorite or most influential film?
Sujata: Why did I just think of Titanic?
Jennifer: I think that's what was meant to be said.
Larkin: That's what it is.
Sujata: All right. All right. I'm not embarrassed. I'm not ashamed.
Larkin: All right. 2: dream person you want to work with?
Sujata: Ava DuVernay.
Jennifer: And 1: best advice you've received?
Sujata: I made my Black girl story, so you need to go out and make a Brown girl story.
Larkin: And Action: where can people follow you on social media?
Sujata: So I'm @sujataday on Twitter and Instagram, also Facebook. And we also have Definition Please social media its: @definitionplease on Instagram and Facebook and then @definplease on Twitter.
Larkin: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the pod today, Sujata.
Sujata: Thank you. This was great.