The Reel Black List: Hilliard Guess, Writer/Producer/Director


(Editor’s Note: Last year on Reel Chicago, we launched a celebration of Black Chicago talent in advertising, film, TV and music called “The Reel Black List.” This year, we have decided to expand the popular feature nationwide in Reel 360.)

LA-based Hilliard Guess is a talented writer, producer, director and podcaster. He currently writes on the Syfy hit series, Deadly Class.

The ex-80’s Mod/Punker was born in Detroit, raised in the ‘hood near San Francisco, youngest of five in a family pegged “The Cosby Show in the Ghetto.” Hilliard’s a former actor/dancer who transitioned to screenwriting over 16 years ago.

His knowledge of the craft and instinct for unique, flawed characters have won Hilliard attention or awards at Sundance, Nicholls Fellowship, Scriptapalooza, Screenplay Festival, The Page Awards and AOF, to list a few.

Hilliard serves on the following WGAW Committees: Vice Chair – Committee of Black Writers, Vice Chair – LGBT Committee as well as the Latino, Genre and Education Committees.

He also hosts the hit Podcast series Screenwriter’s Rant Room which can be heard all over the world on iTunes & Stitcher!

What was your first break?

In 2003, my first screenplay “Rebel Yell”, a drama centered around the tumultuous 1960s London Mod Scene, made it to the Final Cut at Sundance Feature Lab. My name was put on a short list that went out around town and suddenly I was meeting a ton of industry folks everywhere. The following year, a good friend of mine who had his own production company, reached out to me after seeing my name on the list and asked me to come in and pitch a horror idea for his next project. I did, and he bought that pitch in the room.

This was February 2004. By the end of April, I’d written the screenplay, a director was attached and by that Fall, after a few months of casting, we were on location in Santa Barbara in a huge mansion shooting the low-budget feature renamed “Blackout.”

In 2006, the film was sold at AFM to several countries in three hours. From that, I found myself being invited to speak on quite a few panels and from there, I met other producers who later hired me to develop or do rewrite assignments for their companies.

Worst thing that ever happened to you to remind you that you are Black?

I honestly don’t have a ton of experiences that remind me, directly, that something bad happened to me because I am a black writer/filmmaker.

But there are many instances where, for example, old reps would only see me as a black writer and not as a “writer.” They seem to forget that People Of Color (aka POC) actually LIVE in a white world. It’s usually white people who don’t have to live in our world and don’t have to know much of anything about our culture or way of living.

And then again, even if some of us POC don’t live in their world (which in the days of the internet is not at all possible) we are over saturated by white culture in film, TV, music, beauty, etc,. So, we almost always know more about what’s popular with them and they don’t have to know about us… unless it’s really necessary or sometimes convenient. Hell, that goes back to our history books from Elementary to High School.

So little about our past is written and so much of theirs is. So, again, when a Rep or Executive assumes that I wouldn’t know or understand something because I’m not white, it’s a huge pet peeve of mine. This myth has to go away with the past. Example: I’m a very unusual guy. Black, check. Raised in the ‘hood, check. A military kid, check.

But I was never like my homies in the neighborhood. By the time I got to high school I was like the Black Pee Wee Herman of my school. As a teen I fell deep into the MOD/Punk Scene and have always loved everything about the early 60s: music, style, clothing, cars and scooters. All of which has most of its roots in Black Culture through music and style.

I was one of the original Bay Area Afro Punks from the early 80s. I know a ton about most things when it comes to The 60s British Music Sub-culture and I’m so knee-deep into the 60s-70s that my daily ride is the “Starsky & Hutch” car from the hit 70s TV series. So to me, there’s no need to remind me that I’m black.

I’m well aware and love and appreciate that part of me. But when it comes to the work, know that I’m a lot more than my cocoa butter, caramel complexion!

Best thing to ever happen to you to remind you that you are Black?

The best thing to happen to me, personally, is probably films like “Black Panther” and “Moonlight”.

Sure, there have been plenty of other Black Films/TV shows that had an impact on our culture and in some cases, started a trend here or there. But I have never, not in the thirty something years I’ve been in the industry, witnessed a time when Hollywood is actually “looking” for POC on and behind the camera.

We’re seeing many Films and TV Series with POC in the leads and even running their own shows. When I look at the credits now and see my Black, Latino, Asian and LGBTQIA family (in positions of power) in and among the cast and crew, I’m reminded how far we’ve come and how this new era is the best thing to ever happen to me or my career.

Myself and most of my POC friends are getting opportunities we never thought would come our way. Doors are swinging open left and right and that goes to show just how important it is to be black right now. This is not a phase. I repeat, not a phase, fad or trend.

This is the future – a Hollywood where we see more real representation on and behind.

Work you are most proud of?

That’s an easy one and a hard one at the sometime. Currently, I am most proud of the work myself along with the magnificent the writing team (led by EP Mick Betancourt and Creators/EPs Rick Remender & Miles Orion-Feldsott) did on The Russo Bros new, hit SYFY Series “Deadly Class.” We had an absolute blast in the writers’ room and it’s just amazing to see it all come together and air on Network Television.

The cast and crew are so talented. I still can’t believe how uncanny it was that our cast looks just like the characters in the comic. Each and every one of them embodied and brought them to life. It’s complete bonkers!

I’m also very proud of two of my feature projects that I wrote and will be producing with partner Pamela Azmi-Andrew: “Tulsa: The Black Wall Street Story” and “Sylvester – Do you want to Funk?”. These are two of my favorite passion projects that have been in me for years. When I think of them, my eyes want to instantly well with tears.

“Tulsa”was inspired by the untold riot/race war in 1921 Greenwood, Oklahoma, where seventy five Negro veterans fought against two thousand Klansmen, who overcame them with shotguns, torches and fighter planes. In the end, they demolished and burned a thirty six block area and murdered over 300 Negro men, women and children. Sylvester, is a script about the rise and fall of the first male diva of disco.

It’s a music bio story and is a wonderful piece spotlighting a man who dressed as a woman and had the most amazing falsetto to hit the Disco scene. I put my heart and soul into writing them and am so excited to see where they land. My new manager, Jon Brown at Ensemble Entertainment has them in the right producers’ hands, so by the time this comes out, I’ll hopefully be knee-deep in deals and productions!

How has the business changed since you broke in?

For me, the internet is the biggest thing to change the industry. It helped to promote internet stars, build audiences for those of us who would otherwise not have one and can give you instant gratification and sometimes… fame.

I started writing in late 2000-2001. Sure the internet was out, but it was barely something everyone had or even trusted. I was late to it, but once I understood its power, quickly embraced it.

I transitioned from many years as a working actor/dancer. When I was coming up, you had to really do or be in something major or groundbreaking to capture everyone’s attention. Now, in some cases at least, a young writer can put it their spec on the Blacklist for example and in months sign to a top agent, be on the water-bottle-tour, pitching for rewrites and assignments and possibly even be in production.

It’s also harder than ever because it’s oversaturated with scribes with big dreams of running a TV show or writing that Oscar script. We live in a day and time where even writers are celebrities. I remember not knowing what the hell Shane Black looked like until I saw him on a panel in the early 2000s.

Now, most screen and TV writers have their photos on IMDB and images of themselves on red carpets all over the Internet.

Some of them have their own fan base and are even stopped for photo ops on the streets when out with their families. Boy, times have changed. To me, for the better!

Trapped on an island, what are the creative essentials you must have?

First, I’d need all of my favorite amenities to come with me on this trip. I’m a city boy who needs several showers a day… so basically, I’ll be the most high maintenance dude who’s ever been trapped on an island.

It’d be hilarious to see… I don’t go anywhere without my Suntan Lotion (cuz I don’t know about you, but I tan too easily) and I don’t do well with dirt, sand, mosquitoes and being sticky, so I’d HAVE to have my daily hot showers.

Not to mention, I’d certainly need a comfortable bed, cuz I couldn’t imagine sleeping on the ground, I’m just way too spoiled for that shit. Jeez, I can’t believe I actually told you that part, but it’s true.

A few other must haves: my husband and our two puppies, it just comes with the package if you expect me to be able to sleep and live on that island, my laptop, a giant box of pens and a crate full of boxes of notebook paper.

My hope is that, somehow, the Internet and electricity will work out there, because I am miserable without my ability to listen to iTunes and watch my favorite TV Shows and Movies. Of course, I need fresh eggs, chicken, filet mignon and broccoli… Honey Nut Cheerios and of course buttermilk pancakes.

I have to have pancakes at least once a month! Oh, and a butler to cook for me, cuz hunting? In the ocean with sharks and barracudas? Nah, nobody said being trapped didn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying my time too!

If you had a time machine, what would you say to your past self?

I’ve thought about this a ton over the years and honestly, I’d have to start off with the typical, “You will be just fine,” line. And I’d have to say to my younger self, who was so intently set on finding real love, that “Yes, you will find true love. And it will last.”

In regards to my career, I’d tell myself to write what’s in your heart more. It took me over ten years to get that my story (no matter how traumatic) was, along with learning the craft, was all I needed to apply to my writing.

That was where my voice truly came from. Once I embraced that I was the Black, gay, punk rock kid from the ‘hood who is an underdog, it became clear to me that what I kept writing about, no matter what the genre, was underdog stories centered around the murder, death, kill world. That is what moves me and gets me fired up every day!

I’d also tell myself that I don’t need to pinch yourself because it’s true, you will be interviewing damn near every hot showrunner and EP in town on your hit podcast “Screenwriter’s Rant Room” and will have fans all over the world in over a hundred countries. I’d remind myself to stick to what you know and listeners will stick with you.

It’s going on five years and nearly three hundred episodes dropped with myself and co-hosts: award-winning Sci-fi/Horror “Fan Girl” writer and author, Lisa Bolekaja and cinephile/director/writer Christopher Derrick and we’re still going strong!

A shout out to 3rd & Fairfax, the WGAW Podcast where I also host interviews with top filmmakers like Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins. Check out their archives y’all, some amazing newbies and icons to learn from!

If you could have a one-on-one with anyone who would it be? And why?

I’d have to give you someone who is no longer with us and someone who is…

I’d love to have been in the studio with singers Bob Marley and Freddie Mercury of Queen. For the sake of time, I’ll just focus on Freddie. I’d picture our one-on-one in the studio when he was writing and singing all of his hits ala “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Next to vocalists Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway, Freddie has one of the top ten voices of all time.

He had such an amazing story coming up that I’d just love to have a deep conversation with him about his tumultuous upbringing, being gay in the world of Rock ’N Roll and of course, sit by the piano and have him sing acapella while I sat across from him balling in tears. That would be a dream come true… and of course I’d like have been front row at their 1985 Live Aid Concert!

Now, if the one-on-one were with someone today would be an artist like J. J. Abrams. I always say to everyone that he has the kind of career I’d like to emulate. Someone who can make a hit TV series and turn around and write, direct and produce a huge hundred million dollar film and make hundreds of millions for a studio at the box office.

My dream is to be able to go back and forth from TV to Film whenever the project calls for it. I’d love to play in the big leagues and J.J. Abrams is playing in the center of the sandbox, big time! I’d love to pick his brain and get that game, sit with him in the writers’ room, shadow him as he directs a film and just learn all of his tricks on how he sustains his amazing career and production company. That’s the dream, learn from the best to be the best!

The thing that’s so amazing about where we are today in 2019, with so many POC making huge steps in Hollywood, I feel that in the next five years, one of us will be the face of what J.J. Abrams is doing (hopefully me), with the power to Green-light projects and rock the TV, Box Office and Award Seasons and represent for the POC!

To subscribe to Hilliard’s podcast, The Screenwriters Rant Room, click here.

To read about others on The Reel Black List, click here.