Notes from a First Time Director: Delisa Richardson

Left to right: Kazia Steele, Dan Steadman, Delisa Richardson

Delisa Richardson is a St. Louis based filmmaker whose directorial debut short film, Eliza, won multiple awards this past summer at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. Eliza is based on the true story of Eliza Rone, an enslaved woman who, in 1856, worked for the richest family in St. Louis – the Campbells.

Tell us a little about your journey in the film world. How did you get where you are today?

DR: I started my career in front of the camera as an actor when I was 18 years old. I took time off to raise a family and returned to acting about 10 years ago. I started taking acting classes with Creative Actors and later Dan Steadman. In 2019, I decided to explore my interest in writing and directing. I took Dan’s scriptwriting and Directing classes to learn what it’s like behind the camera. 

This film was shot on location in a historic building. What was it like filming there?

DR: Shooting at the Campbell House Mansion was such a gift and also a little scary. Everything in the mansion is as it was in the 1800s and we did NOT want to break the irreplaceable items in the home. We were very careful, often having one person assigned to move any item/piece of furniture and make sure it was secured and put back properly. We also had a sense of reverence for the space. Eliza was a real woman enslaved in the home and we wanted to make sure to honor her. Part of that included making sure our cast and crew limited playful talk etc that we usually allow on set. This was just a different and special project. 

What was it like working with a co-director, Dan Steadman?

Were there any unexpected challenges you faced on set?

DR: Well, I have worked with Dan as an actor for many years. During that time, he had given me some very emotional and vulnerable roles and gained all of my trust. Part of that trust made it very easy to work with him as a writer and director. Dan is extremely generous with his knowledge and is an awesome collaborator. We worked extremely well together when writing the script. He allowed me to take charge of this set; filled with actors whom I had worked with in front of the camera. This allowed me to grow and build my confidence as a director.

DR: The main challenges on set were around sound. The Campbell House is located in an area that has hotel construction on one side and a school on the other side. We had to work around the buzzing of construction equipment and the beeping of school buses. We also had a hard-out time on our first day of shooting due to a planned tour at the museum. 

What about unexpected benefits?

DR: One of the unexpected benefits of being on set was the history I learned from Andy Hahn and Sam Monroe at the Campbell House. I did not know Eliza’s story before meeting with Andy. He took us through the home, explained the history, and showed us letters and documents to help us get a feel for the history. It was a joy to have Sam on set as a consultant and Subject matter expert on the Campbell family, their entertaining habits, etc.  

What advice would you give to another first-time director?

DR: I would advise any first-time director to make sure they are prepared when they arrive on set,  believe in themselves and their abilities, and also to follow their gut. Imposter syndrome is real and can derail you if you allow those thoughts to get a foothold in your mind. Have faith in your talent and GO FOR IT! There is no such thing as failure, only lessons learned. 

Do you have any plans for another film?

DR: I am reviewing some scripts from other screenwriters at the moment, and I have a few things in my mind that I may want to develop into a short film. Right now, I am working on presenting ELIZA in the academic spaces in the area. I am also interested in learning more about her life in Kansas City, post-emancipation. I’m not finished with her story yet.   

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