In Creative Conversation with Paul Chiedozie
Not only has he dipped his fingers into more creative pies than he can count but he’s also a passionate teacher, telling us that the desire to bestow knowledge, especially onto young people, is what fuels him and sits at the centre of his cinematic passions. Chiedozie describes his background as ‘disadvantaged’ but his work ethic and outlook are anything but. From a feature in Harry Potter and founding his first studio aged 16 to producing controversial and creative content with his current ten-year-old studio Zems Entertainment, Chiedozie’s story is definitely one to familiarize yourself with. We speak to the actor/dancer/director via Zoom about growth, networking and going against the grain.
Wishu: How would you define your creativity? Particularly from a perspective of movement. What is that little bit of magic for you when you translate an experience or story via movement (dance/theatre)?
Paul: I’ve always been a creative in that I studied performing arts, starting off with theatre and dance. I was very lucky to meet some fantastic mentors in my earlier years. I would say the secret to creative success is finding a mentor who can help you navigate your falls. I’m from a disadvantaged background which meant I didn’t have all the opportunities nor the funds to explore creativity to the fullest extent in the early years. My mentors taught me that I had to be resourceful and find creative ways to create my own opportunities. Zems Entertainment is technically my second company. My first was called Endz which I founded when I was 16 years old – it was specifically for dance and the performing arts. Endz had around 60 people in the company from teenagers to 65 year olds. It was projectile in the beginning but got overwhelming at one point. I then came back strong with Zems over ten years ago.
Wishu: Is your positive experience the core motivation behind your ongoing giving back to the community?
Paul: Yes definitely, teaching naturally is in me but I am inspired by the mentors that guided me. To be honest, I’m not ‘business minded’ – if you define business as profit centred that is. Instead I feel rewarded when I give back. Endz was non-profit and even Zems in the beginning didn’t abide by fixed prices, I just wanted to help people create. I eventually learnt to put monetary value on my work from an elder female mentor who I offered free work for. She told me she’d prefer I charge her because it would demonstrate that I value my time and talent. I appreciate moments like these. I come from a rough background and so giving back and enabling people from a similar walk of life to be exposed to new opportunities is very important to me.
Wishu: Is that also where your passion for storytelling comes from? A desire to expose stories like your own?
Paul: Yes, my passion comes from the desire to have a voice. I’ve always been an outspoken person and I do a lot of talks with the youth and have done since I was 16. Teaching comes to me more naturally than creativity. Acting and performance is something I put my thousand hours into and love but teaching is at the core.
Wishu: How has your creative process evolved since founding your studio?
Paul: The process has been quite left wing. I was told on one of my first films that the industry wasn’t right for me and I was determined to prove that person wrong. Since then it’s been project after project. I’m a bit of a geek, a bit of a sponge, I love to learn. I remember when YouTube came out I was constantly searching for what I could learn from it. When I was a late teen I was also in Harry Potter for a bit which taught me a lot about networking and film. My creative process was always evolving because I always wanted to evolve my role within the industry from acting to DP work to directing.
Wishu: Where does that motivation come from – to evolve and put your finger in as many pies as possible?
Paul: My natural gift is teaching and I always felt that film directing has a similarity with it in terms of leadership. And again, if I want to teach, I need to be in the know. For that reason I was always hungry to know as much as possible in order to pass as much on to other people. I was a keen helper on set – that’s how I got into producing! I helped out so much as an actor on this film that eventually they credited me as a producer because I was always picking people up.
Wishu: Does the same apply for networking? Your sense of gratitude and making the most of the opportunity so you have as many conversations as possible?
Paul: Yes you’re spot on. Because of my extreme life experience between my hard upbringing to where I am now, I tend to live for the moment. The industry has a cycle that doesn’t make sense in that you need experience, which requires education but then when you apply for your first experience they expect previous experience etc. I like to flip that on its head and just take risks. I just reach out to people – no matter their calibre – if I admire them. More times than not they get back to me – you’d be surprised! I even stopped Samuel L Jackson in the street, he walked past while I was directing a film. Coming from a family that didn’t have connections in the industry it gave me a now or never attitude when it comes to activity. Failure is more productive than procrastination.
Wishu: What was your lightbulb moment when it came to starting Zems Entertainment?
Paul: There was a moment where I realised that I wasn’t fully happy with the UK’s turnout of released media. It felt very boxed. The industry tends to push people in the same route – that’s a very capitalistic way. One of my mottos was to build my own industry and even in the last three years I’ve been a lot freer, bolder and more authentic with my narratives. Playing the game helps you climb the ladder but there was a moment where I needed to step away.
Wishu: Do you think the UK is behind in terms of diverse content?
Paul: The British film industry is very controlled. BLM has taken a hit on it recently but the industry still has a specific agenda they stick to. There’s also a sense in the UK where the industry is a little more competitive and segregated rather than collaborative. This rigid agenda has a poor effect on art but it takes a fearless artist to break the mold. However, they say the most successful form of marketing is still word of mouth despite how much money is funded into billboards. That’s very powerful.
Wishu: To finish, could you tell us who some of your cinematic influences are? Who did you look to as a young creative for inspiration?
Paul: Again, I was very fortunate to have the mentors I had in my teenage years. They encouraged me to look outside my go-to genre (which was Sci-Fi at the time), to check my references and truly know and understand cinematic culture. When they told me to watch Hitchcock initially I was like “who’s this old fat white guy?” but now I appreciate artistic references and culture and I’m grateful for that! I love foreign films, especially from South Korea and Japan, and cartoons and animations. I’d say I’m a natural rebel, if everyone seems to be making comedies I’ll go make a horror and vice versa. I even just wrote a script, although from my black perspective, it’s also one that may seem controversial in regards to the aftermath of the BLM movement this past year. Going against the grain usually leads to greatness and that influences me a lot.