Interview: Maurice “Mo” Marable Talks New Series ‘Woke’, Working With Spike Lee & More
Woke is now streaming on Hulu!
If you’re not familiar with the new comedy series, it follows Keef, an African-American cartoonist finally on the verge of mainstream success when an unexpected incident changes everything. Keef must now navigate the new voices and ideas that confront and challenge him, all without setting aflame everything he’s already built.
I had the chance to sit down with director and executive producer Maurice “Mo” Marable to talk about the series. During our conversation we spoke about how he got started in the film industry and what it was like working with Spike Lee. In addition, we spoke about his career as a whole and what upcoming projects he has in store.
Check out the interview below:
So before we talk about your show Woke, I wanted to get your origin story. I know your first job was being a production assistant for the spike lee produced film Drop Squad, so can you talk about how you fell into your love of film-making?
Marable: When I was a kid, I didn’t know anything about the film business, all I knew was what I saw. I loved movies. I loved movies so much I would make my parents take me to the theater every Saturday. I wanted to go my myself but I was like eight or nine, so they would always have to go with me.
And on Saturday’s – even though I had yard work – I would always be in front of the TV, always watching movies or commercials and I loved it, but I didn’t know how to get in to it. I thought it was just a magic box. And it wasn’t until I was going to college and I told my parents that I wanted to make commercials, and they thought I was crazy. And they were like, ‘No, we aren’t sending you to college to do that.’ And so I decided to go to school for accounting and I hated it. I dropped out to join the Air Force and during this time period, Spike Lee had really really kind of started to hit the ceiling.
Spike was one of the first filmmakers of color that really was it out there talking about our stories and what we need to do. So when I got out of the military, I went to film school at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. And it was there that Spike Lee was producing this movie Drop Squad and I begged and begged to get. I began working for the producers being an assistant and at the end of the movie, a producer asked me if I could drive a truck to New York to drop off the tape to the offices.
And I was like, ‘Yep.’ And when I got there, they were like ‘Hey, do you want to work on the rest of this film?’ And I literally put my college career on hold and moved to New York that weekend. And I was making no money, and everything from where I was staying to how I was eating was all love and favors from people that were on the film. I went from trying to work for Spike Lee in school to being in an edit room with him every day, and from there I grew up and learned how to be a producer.
I went to HBO as a production manager for their promo department and while I was there at HBO, I begged them to let me write a tv spot. For me, that was the closest thing to being a filmmaker that I was close to. And eventually, I became the creative director at HBO and then I was directing all the major campaigns at HBO. And that’s what kind of launched my directing career.
From there, I went to commercials. And, you know, I have had a very varied career. I’ve gone in corporate America. I was an executive at HBO. I started a company with a director named Charles Stone. We started a commercial production company called Brown Bag and then I ended up at BET to help them change the look of the network and help them with the original series. And then I’ve left BET and started another company. And then I jumped in the narrative.
There’s a lot I just want to dive into from there and the first thing is that it seems like you used commercials and telling short form stories to kind of work your way into telling long form narratives, was that always your plan or did you just happen to have a little bit more love for commercials?
Marable: You know my parents are from the south right there from Georgia we talked about, and you know my dad was in the military as well. And just the fact that I was making commercials almost felt like enough alive and I was satisfied, to a degree. I had made it. I was doing what I always wanted to do. But looking back it wasn’t enough. I don’t think I had a hard plan, I’ve always been the type of person when things come to me I weigh it out look at it I make a judgment call, and I move forward. I have faith that it’s all going to work out and I’m going to get to my endgame. But I don’t I don’t push anything I just keep working hard and keep working on my craft.
And what really happened was when I was at BET I help launched the show The Game from a marketing perspective and I was talking to the Akils who run and created that show, and I was like I would really like to direct TV and they were like, ‘OH! You should’ve told us but now the season’s over!’ But he (Akil) still called me one day to do a promo for Veep which i thought was a promo. and again i have a long history with HBO and I was like, ‘Ahh I don’t really do promos anymore’. And they were like just read it.
So when I read it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is 16 pages’. So then I asked who was going to play Joe Biden? And they said Joe Biden and then I realized they were asking me to direct the short film for the White House Correspondents Dinner. And once I did that, it hit the internet and went viral overnight and HBO gave me a call and asked if I could direct an episode of The Game and from there, HBO called and asked if I could direct an episode of Veep.
So, you know, I always had a belief I was going to do these thing I just put one foot in front of the other end, and when the opportunities came I tried to be ready.
You’ve been continuing to grow your career and diversify your content. So now with Woke, can you talk about what attracted you to this project and how it came about?
Marable: My agent sent me the script and the script was just so good. When you are a person of color growing up people tend to dismiss the idea that Black folks can be creative, including your families sometimes. So when I read it, I just really connected with the main character in Keith. I just really connected to the idea of him being a nerd and loving something that seemed outside the norm for the culture. And then tackling issues as far as police and racism, and the hypocrisy between all people, and the script was just so good and funny. I just had to do it.
I had to do it. So you know I met with those guys, I sat down and truth be told, they had another director already in discussion. And I just went in and pitched my ass off, and talked about the animation and how I would do it, and the project inevitably came to me.
I got to see the first few episodes and loved it because like you said, I could definitely see myself a lot in Keith. What was it like shooting that scene when he is confronted by the cops since that it was launches us into Keith’s journey in series? I have been stopped by the cops and although I haven’t had it to that degree, that fear alone is just something that stays with you.
Marable: I haven’t had it like that but I have gotten stopped by the cops, thrown on the wall but haven’t had a gun pulled on me. You know, I tell you the thing about doing that scene is that this show is a comedy but this isn’t funny and I didn’t want to make this particular scene funny. Even the song choice was on purpose and when you get to that moment, I really wanted the gun to be close to the lens to feel like we were there and to make it feel a little rough. We also wanted to make it look quick because to some people it might not seem like a big deal but the impact and the imprint lasts forever. We were all talking about it on the lot that day.
How was it working with Lamorne and the rest of the cast?
Marable: Lamorne has been known as the New Girl guy wherever we go. People are like, ‘Winston!’ and he is very recognizable. But he came to work – like he really came to work every day, 100%, and this is the first thing that he’s leading. He’s usually one of the friends, but he is leading this and he was great. He’s not known for his drama and he really worked on that, and there were some moments as you go throughout the whole season where you see how strong of an actor he is, and others appreciate it. He’s funny. He’s smart.
And then Blake Anderson – I think he’s like one of those gifted comic geniuses. His timing is great and he’s smart, and works well off the other cast so I got very lucky with those two. Then there is T-murph and this was his first big acting role, and he was awesome and so real. His instincts were just so on point that he got cast. He plays the best friend role so well and I like his POV, and he’s not trying to be woke. And Sasheer is so dope and so good. She only gets better and better as the season goes on. She was originally going to just do a few episodes and then it was like, ‘Nah, we have to keep her around she is just too good.’ I love the cast.
They are amazing. Because we do have a little bit of a younger audience that are aspiring filmmakers and content creators that are trying to chase their dreams, I wanted to just ask you for little bit of your advice – especially as someone who started as a production assistant to becoming an executive producer.
Marable: I don’t want to sound like the old dude in the room, but I really truly believe that nowadays there are no excuses and I say that because when I was coming up I had to borrow a camera. I had to, you know, buy film. I had to find a lab, I had to get them to hold my negatives. You needed so many people to make something. And nowadays, you can make it all yourself if you want to.
You just have to keep directing and what I mean by that is, take your cousin, your friend, and your neighbor, whatever – just shoot. But, shooting and learning. Keep shooting and learning. And the idea of learning and actually holding on to that idea, because I think a lot of people want to be great. And it doesn’t happen like that, you know, you will get lucky here and there, but you just kind of keep shooting. There was a director, I forgot his name but at HBO and I asked him for his advice, because I was shooting a promo with him, and he just said, directors, need to direct. And what he meant is somebody gives you something direct and even if it is bad direct anyway. It could be good. Lucky for you if nobody’s giving you anything, make up something. Just keep directing, and it will happen.
And I think nowadays. that’s it for this generation. It’s not about somebody, giving you a leg up. It’s about building your brand. It’s about figuring out who you are as an artist and what your voice is, and just put that out there, you know? Whether that’s through Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, whatever it is. You just keep putting out your beliefs, and you keep going back to your brand as a filmmaker or as an artist, and somebody will find it.
So the last question before I let you go is do you have any other projects down the road that you can tease? I know we’re in the middle of a pandemic right now so things are on hold, but is there anything else that you’re working on that you can talk about?
Marable: I’m doing a pilot at NBC that starts shooting the first week of October in Los Angeles. It is called The Grand Crew. It is created and written by Phil Augusta Jackson who is also one of the writers and EP’s on Insecure.
He’s partnered up with Dan Gore who created Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
This script is really about Black male friendships. It’s like a Sex and the City of this generation for Black men, and they are young. Every week at wine bar, but it’s really a comedy about trying to find love and happiness. And it’s really well written.
Then right after that, I do a pilot for ABC and it’s all none of the above. And it’s really about a Black character who’s about 25, who doesn’t want to be a person that you can check off on a box. You know, he likes country music he likes other kinds of music. It’s really about him finding his way in the world, and he’s also grounded and Black. He’s not trying to be anything else.
I just want to say thank you so much. I truly appreciate you giving me a little bit of your time today and I loved what I saw from Woke.