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Conversations with Atlanta's Movers and Shakers, Kors Vandiver

Award-Winning Filmmaker and Educator, Kors Vandiver

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Kors currently resides in Houston, Texas. By way of Atlanta, Georgia. It was in Georgia where he took a serious interest in filmmaking after he served as an apprentice to a local director. Eventually, he would receive mentoring advice from Director Spike Lee that fueled his hunger to take his talents to the next level.

Now, as an educator and award-winning filmmaker with his original footing in the Atlanta music industry, Kors brings over 12 years of experience in the film/TV industry as a writer/producer/director and over 10-years of experience in education.

His scripts have landed attachments and interest from actors such as Ryan Gosling, Idris Elba, Skylan Brooks, Nate Parker, Emayatzy Corinealdi, and even Oscar-winners such as Mahershala Ali. Also studios, producers, agencies, and management such as Sony/Columbia, David Goyer's Phantom Four, Kevin Turen, Tyler Perry's 34th Street Films, Anonymous Content, ICM, CAA, WME, and more.

Atlanta Film and TV:Can you take us on your journey, of how you found your love of the arts, to where you are now?

Kors Vandiver: “I think I was always in the arts as a kid. My parents cultivated my love of the arts at a very young age. I was born in New Orleans, which is a place known for Jazz and Blues. I was big on music as a young kid, and my dad had bought instruments. My brother had a sax, and I think I played the recorder and the violin. And, I wasn’t very good at it! My younger brother got into cello and the bass, and he was good at it. But, I still was good at playing music by ear. I would mess with the sax. We would go out to the French Quarter and Break Dance and would try to get money. But, when my mom discovered I could draw - I could draw very well as a kid since I was about four or five years old. My mom took me to art classes, which spurred my interest in comic books. It was also the intro for me to put art and storytelling together, even though I was in love with television. It didn’t necessarily feel the same. I was a comic book kid and drew a lot of Spiderman and Incredible Hulk.”

Atlanta Film and TV: Growing up, did your parents recognize your gift of the arts, and how did they nourish that gift to facilitate growth?

Kors Vandiver:My dad was always very encouraging about me as an artist. He would say, ‘Oh, look at that boy draw!’ And, my mom was big on’ Oh, let's go to art class.’ She took me to a museum in New Orleans, and I would paint there. I would paint fruit - apparently, my fruit was good. I don’t think I ever caught the knack of painting. I was just very good at drawing. My mom entered me into competitions where I got national notices as an artist I received at eight or nine years old. People were calling the house, and it was interesting at that stage.

I think as I got older, my parents got used to it. But, as most parents usually do, they want you to go to college and do things. When I was still in High School, I sent my art to Marvel Studios to the comic book company. I got a letter back saying, ‘Hey! You’re pretty good! You should look us up when you get out of school.’ I told my parents that I had this opportunity, and everybody was kind of like, ‘Whatever. Make sure you get a job doing something that is going to pay.’ Lo and behold, I wish I would have jumped on that Marvel train!”

Atlanta Film and TV: What fueled your hunger to pursue filmmaking?

"I was in the music business and started as an artist. At the time, I was rapping and not taken seriously. I honestly was running around in the street for a long time before I was doing that. I met Biggie at a concert. I knew his song ‘Who Shot Ya?’ because my older brother was doing shows around town, and was a DJ. I was running around in my car playing ‘Who Shot Ya?' I went to the concert and was on the front row. Biggie saw me rapping, yanked me up on stage, and let me be his hype man! He asked me, how did I know that song? Once I told him, we became acquaintances. Biggie encouraged me to rap and to take it seriously. At the time, I was like, ‘Oh. I make more money than you!’ Which probably wasn’t true. However, my ego thought it was! Nonetheless, I went through as an artist and was on the Def Jam tour. I had some success and never really wanted to sign a record deal. I had gotten saved and was rapping about things I had been through in the street. At that point, everybody just thought I was a good rapper but didn’t know I was talking about God. Being behind the scenes and seeing what was happening, that wasn’t what I wanted."

- Kors Vandiver

I was doing management and worked with T-Boz from TLC, and a mentor James Andrews, a big Columbia exec who had brought me on the team. I was doing some brand management with him and Ludacris on the Red Light District Album, which was the segway to which I decided that I don’t want to do this anymore.

James Andrews invited me to a party at his house. I brought a script I had written, which by the way, was on loose-leaf paper. James told me to avoid his uncle because he was racist, Atheist, and blind! And, I thought this is exactly who I want to talk to! I b-lined for the kitchen, and I started talking to Jame’s uncle. In the process of speaking to him, I shared my script idea with him. My script was a story that would star Mos Def, as a modern-day story version of Christ, called ‘Son.’ It had a hip-hop-infused story about the gospel. New Jersey was Jerusalem, and Mos Def was a carpenter who ended up in Brooklyn working for his dad in construction. I had the supernatural element in it as well. After I pitched it to James’ uncle, he grabbed me. I thought - ‘Uh-Oh’. His uncle said to me, ‘I was blind, and now I see!’ I then said, ‘what’s going on?’ James’ uncle said, ‘you just pitched me a hip-hop story of a black Jesus in the modern day time, and I believe every word.’ He then said, ‘I used to be a racist, but, I don’t think I am anymore. I used to be an Atheist. I don’t think I am anymore.’ He then told me to come to live with him in New York. ‘I used to be a screenwriter. I will teach you how to write.’ He told me he went blind watching Before Sunset with Ethan Hawke. He went blind in the theater, his eyes closed shut, and things went black. I didn’t go to live with James’ uncle, but it hit me. I told him that if you can make a blind/racist/Atheist switch lanes, then maybe there is a reason for you becoming this thing and doing this.

There are a few other incidents that propelled after this one. But, that was the catalyst. I ended up being an assistant for Atlanta Filmmaker Andre Butler, But, it only lasted for a day. I was writing something, and I shared it with him. Andre called me into his office and let me go. 'I thought, was it that bad?' He told me ‘no. It was that good! I am telling you right now. If you stay with me, you will stay with me forever, and I will try to keep you forever. And, you will not learn anything. You are already a better filmmaker just from this paper than I ever will be.’ He then told me that I needed to do my own thing. In the end, I was mad. But, I went home and got on my computer, and I put that thing on CraigsList. In about an hour, I had 60 messages from people. One was a producer that I knew and watched an Indie film that I liked, and my friends and I all watched plenty of times. I hit the producer up, to which he told me he was interested in my story. He also told me he could offer me a deal and money for my script. Immediately, he offered $280,000. In hindsight, If I knew that in this business, that never happens, I would have taken the money! Initially, I told the producer, ‘no. I’m good. I am going to do my own thing.’ And hung up. He called back and offered me half a million dollars! I started thinking about it. At the time, we owned a car dealership. In fact, at that time, I was there typing my script. I thought I would take $50,000 and put it on a credit card. Eventually, I told him, ‘no, I’m good.’ Andre called back and offered a 5149 deal, which is where you say, you will have the last say. You’ll have control. He offered $980,000 towards the budget. I told him, ‘yeah. Sure! Let’s talk.’ Andre Butler asked to read the script. I told him to give me three days so I could edit and polish the script.

In all honesty, I was trying to make a short, and at the time, I did not have twenty pages of a short film. At that moment, I knew I had to write a feature. After that, I picked up Screenwriting for Dummies, and I started working on a feature film. Within three days, I sent it off. Andre struck up a deal, and the project ended up being way more than he could fund. It was upwards of forty million. A huge producer came in and was interested. He offered a ridiculous amount of money for the script, and at that point, I was like, ‘Let's take it!’ Another guy came in as a manager on his team, and they argued back and forth with this guy who wanted to take over.

Finally, I was like, ‘Let's take the money and go our separate ways.’ These guys argued us out of a deal. At that moment, I quit. But I had enough courage and went to LA after that.

Atlanta Film and TV: Upon leaving Michigan State University and embarking on your professional career, were there any moments of fear or self-doubt you had to overcome as a Black man operating in a space viewed primarily as a white artform?

Kors Vandiver: "The thing with Michigan State, I honestly started taking classes after I was in the industry. I felt like I didn’t have anything to validate myself, even though I had already produced stuff. I was seeking to look better on paper. I wasn’t a kid who was going to school or left school. Going into the industry, I didn’t experience race issues the same way. I experienced them differently, but that gave me a lot of knowledge on how the industry works. It also gave me a lot of insight which I share with people who are not in the space or not dialed in enough to get that information. Looking back, I was always surrounded by black filmmakers, writers, and producers who were always around me who I saw doing things.

After that, some white producers helped me with my first film and gave me my first job. Initially, I was a part of a TV show in LA. Steven Speilberg had a show. I didn’t make the final round, but I made the second, and I decided to drive out to it. People found me interesting enough, and I could be mentored by Steven Spielberg and be on the show. I am going to see what happens. It was more of a prompt. I hadn’t gone yet. But, I felt like God was saying, ‘go!’ I hopped in the car, packed up everything, and drove to LA. I ended up getting a job, working with a black producer who hired me to write a script about John Legend. This producer was doing a doc, and he wanted a script. I wrote it, got paid, and ended up getting a job in production, which was a film and a TV show going on at the same time.