Queen Sugar Season 4 - Q & A w/ Anthony Sparks
Season 4 of Queen Sugar is premiering on OWN, June 12th. I recently got a chance to interview Anthony Sparks in NYC while at the third annual Split Screens Fest at the IFC Center. We talked about his promotion to show runner and what we could look forward to in Season 4! He was amazing to speak with and provided such great insight in to the show and his new role!
Talk to me about the evolution from writer from the beginning of the show to now being show runner this season how’s the transition been?
AS: Honestly, it’s been a beautiful transition. It’s been [a] pretty seamless feeling for me in the sense I’ve been with the show since the beginning. Ava invited me on the show soon after she wrote the pilot, before she shot the first episode. It’s a show that lives deep in my bones for so many different reasons. It’s that show that you hope that, if anyone ever writes about my career, that years from now, they usually will say your name and write in parentheses will put one or two credits and it feels like it’s one of those shows that will always be a part of that attached to my name .
It’s been a beauty blessing and a beautiful responsibility, because our audience is so deeply invested in the show and so deeply invested in the characters. I’m deeply invested in our characters and the world we created and what we want to say.
One of the beautiful things about working with Ava DuVernay and Oprah on the OWN TV network, for the first time in a long time, I don’t have to apologize for the way I approach creating characters and stories. Which is, I believe in creating stories and characters that matter unapologetically! This is a show, a landscape and a world that can hold that and allows us to just dig in deep. So it’s been a great evolution. Ava entrusting me with the show is a gift and I’m thankful!
What mark did you want to make as show runner? What were your central themes that you really wanted to frame this season?
AS: I would say throughout all of the seasons, what I wanted to do, the seeds had already been planted primarily by Ava when she created the show. Having been part of the show since it was created, I have been a major voice as a senior writer /producer on the show since the beginning. But being in this position does allow you to put your foot on the gas as it were and interact with Ava directly. We work very well creatively together and it allowed me to take even more seriously the character of land that we have in the story.
To me, whenever you are talking about land and Black people and Black characters in the south, there’s a seriousness of intent and history that comes along with it that I think lives inside the bones of our characters. Being able to be show runner and sort of take that lead role allows me and Ava to really infiltrate that into the show even more so.
It’s a very unapologetic season, a very high stakes season, probably more than any other season and I think that’s probably a groove and tenor that we will live in for the life of the series. The reason is, we take very seriously what it means for the relationship of Black people and land. Without giving away too much that’s all I’m going to say (laughs).
Did you have to pull back because you are used to being in the writers room? How did you balance things? Did you find yourself walking to the wrong area a few times when starting this season (laughs)?
AS: TV in general and particularly on Queen Sugar, is a collaboration. There may be a leader, a head writer, a show runner, creator; but it really [is] a product of like 200 people who work on the show . As a writer and senior producer on the show, I’m used to not only writing, but touching on different areas of pre-production, production, post production. That hasn’t changed, it’s intensified deeply (laughs)! I will need a nap at the end of the season! That a part you sign up for joyfully!
Today’s a tremendous day for the show as we do this [press and panel], but [also] for me personally, as I used to live 2 blocks away from the IFC theater on Bleeker and 6th Avenue for three and half years before I got married. In the apartment below the restaurant is where I started writing my television spec scripts with the idea, as a young actor / playwright at the time, that I wanted to write produce and maybe one day show run for television one day. So I can’t tell you what a full circle moment this is for me today . I’m very humbled and excited !
In terms of to answer your question, I don’t write less I actually write more. Every script, before it goes into production, has to, whether I wrote the script or not, has to come by my desk and part of my job is to help unify the show and honor the voices of those individual writers; but to also shape it so that you are watching a Queen Sugar episode. Ava and I have to work creatively to make sure the script is saying, and the show is saying, what we want to say and then we move forward.
Yes it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of hours, a few sleepless nights. The show runner’s to-do list is never ending. It is, however, what I signed up for and I happily embrace it.
Is the show runner position everything you hoped it would be? When you are in school and after graduation, show runner is such a lofty goal to aspire to and it’s broad and not so fleshed out in terms of duties, etc.
AS: You bring up something important to me. I do some teaching as well and what I try to tell my students or people I mentor in workshops is most show runners are writers that got promoted. That is the case with me and, in that sense, I came up through the traditional ranks. What[is] not traditional, is that I am an African- American male and many of us do not get to be show runners coming up that way. Usually at some point, you hit a ceiling and your career stalls out or you get really fortunate and get to be a creator of a show and somehow get it on the air somewhere. So, for me, it’s been a twenty-year climb and I started rather young because I’m not that old in terms of wanting to do this.
I think there is a misperception in some ways out there. Twenty years ago, people really didn’t know what show runners were, except for people in the industry [who] have always respected the position and understood how challenging and difficult the position is and in some ways an impossible job. But then it entered the popular culture vis-a-vi trade magazines and social media and people think they know what it is. A lot of people think it’s posing on the cover of magazines. We now have a new category of television with these superstar creators, one of which I’m blessed to work with, the Ava DuVernay’s of the world, the Shonda Rhime’s of the world…
Making television is a job though even at times [it] can be a little bit of a grind. You never turn on the tv and see a network put up a sign that says “no new episode this week the writer didn’t finish the script”. [I]f it does happen, it’s going to happen once and then you are going to lose your job. So, it’s about being passionate and committed to having a hand in all aspects of production, but also trusting the people that you have hired or been hired to do their jobs. In many ways I look at my job and many people look at the show runner job as a position of power. Obviously there is authority that comes with that position that I have to use at times, but I also look at it as a position of service particularly when you work with someone like an Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay, people who have very clear visions. Visions that I buy into and coincide with my visions as well for why I wanted to become a television writer in the first place: because I felt I had something to say that millions of people needed to hear (laughs). You have to have a certain strength of personality or creative force to think that way. Some people would call it who, I would call it urgency. So I write with a certain amount of urgency, unapologetically. I think you will see that in this season. I try to lead with a certain sense of fun and urgency. If you a get an opportunity to create, to me there’s nothing more than to create for a living; and that creativity speak[s] to our larger world, both as we see it and wish it to be, is a great honor for me.