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EASY MAGAZINE: Her reel life story

Natanga Smith

EASY MAGAZINE: Her reel life story

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As a child, Valerie Scoon was fascinated with story and storytelling. She would go to the movies and return home to retell the entire film with her own adjustments to how she felt the story should have been.
That love of movies saw her enrolling in Harvard, where she was able to explore the relationship between history and story with her degree in American history and literature, even though she felt she wanted to be a lawyer, like her older sister Cecile.
“The normal thing to do at Harvard was to be a doctor or lawyer. But I wanted to do something different.”
Different was being involved in the movie industry, and her parents allowed her to live at home and save enough money so she could move to Los Angeles.
Valerie was in Barbados last week, working out the plans to return next month to work with Marcia Weekes, producer of the movie Chrissy, who is now focused on a film about the late Errol Barrow. Valerie sat down with EASY, along with Cecile, who is her attorney.
Valerie met Marcia at a film festival in Canada . . . “when I got up to introduce myself I said I was from Grenada and she came up to me afterwards and said we should work together.”
Currently, Valerie is a professor at Florida State University (FSU) Film School, overseeing final year theses for MFA and BFA students. She also has her own company, True Visions, but her journey to “here” took a couple twists and turns, with her working at PBS, Harpo Studios and Warner Brothers film before moving back home to Tallahassee, Florida.
She started at the bottom, working as a receptionist: “I hopscotched my way in Hollywood.
I learnt from early that you have to get recommended to get a job. It is who you know and who remembers you.”
As a receptionist, Valerie believed in “doing more than your job description” and she volunteered to read scripts – breaking down a 100-page document into two pages. She also gave “unsolicited advice” to the producer of the Rocky films, who liked her comments and that producer helped her get a job at Creative Artist Agency.
She was there as an assistant for a week when her boss got fired. Worried about what was going to happen to her, she went to the head of the company, who researched her background and gave her an on-the-spot interview and created a post for her to develop films.
She then moved to Warner Brothers, where she was a studio executive, overseeing films such as Malcolm X and The Secret Garden. Still hopscotching, she went to PBS headquarters in Washington DC for a couple of years as an associate director in news and public affair, assessing work-in-progress documentaries for possible national distribution.
She realised she missed movies and took up a job offer at Harpo, owned by Oprah Winfrey, whom she met while working at Warner [“and because of the small circles in the industry”].
While at Harpo, Valerie was credited as film producer for Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Wedding – both starring Halle Berry – as well as The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington.
“Part of my job was to find scripts and when the latter script came I was intrigued because, one, I never heard the story before and, two, my gut instincts because I found I always liked true stories . . . . You can’t deny them.
“The story had elements of sports in it but it was also about intellect and making it as a team . . . the underdog rising to the top.”
She worked at Harpo for seven years, looking at elevating African American literature and said she picked scripts based on “complex characters . . . emotional realism . . . honest struggle . . . originality.
“I like scripts that after ten minutes I am not distracted . . . but, I don’t dismiss scripts that are written from off the cuff.”
She said Los Angeles was a physical, fabulous and highly sexualised place, but she was hired for her mind.
“I was the woman in the background who will get the work done.”
She expressed admiration for award-winning 12 Years A Slave and wished she had worked on that film, although it would have been “painful”. She also liked The King’s Speech and Holes.
Because her father is Grenadian and her mother is American, Valerie grew up in the Caribbean and the United States: “My Caribbean roots are very strong.
“I come back home to Grenada every year.”
Now settled at FSU and building up her own company, she said: “It is a nice marriage. I used my students as a film crew on my documentary called Grenada: Colonialism And Conflict. I don’t have the resources I had at Warner and Harpo, so it worked out well.”
Valerie has 25 years in the film industry, and at age 49 she is now happy about how far she has come. Married to Keith Bowers (she kept her last name because she built her career around it), she is a proud mum of a seven-year-old son, Wynton.
Valerie’s choice to not do law was accepted by the family.
”My family was very supportive of my move to LA. No one asked about why I was a receptionist. They gave me space. My dad said to me ‘I left many jobs I liked. Don’t be frightened to try something’.”
Sister Cecile, 54, is more than proud, being her sister’s attorney and working with her sister on legal matters, and even helping her do research on some films.
The “reel” story how Valerie ended back up in Florida for the past ten years is called a “sign”.
“My boyfriend at the time [now husband] was living there and I had a part-time job at FSU. I had just opened my business in LA and had the building decorated and was on my way back after time in Florida. I got a call saying there was a fire in the building and it was condemned.”
Valerie said that was a sign to shift focus and she ended up doing a sharp right turn, taking the job permanently at FSU, and Cecile “loves her being back near to her in Panama City, Florida.”
She gave some advice at the end of the interview to aspirants who are thinking of a career in the arts: “Study the craft. If you want to be a director, cinematographer, just remember it is an art form. Read books, go on the Internet, take classes that will teach you how to do things in the proper way.’