Shequeta Smith has a secret that only a couple of her co-workers know about. When she leaves her 9-to-5 job at Coca Cola, where she works in corporate sales, all she thinks about is screenwriting.
She casts the latest scene she’s written — maybe Matthew McConaughey in her movie about a man who gets pregnant. She thinks about her nine years in California, from the day jobs she had to have to pay the bills to her first encounters with Hollywood working behind the scene on such shows as Everybody Hates Chris and Flavor of Love. And she ponders what she wants her vision to be as a filmmaker.
But Smith, who graduated from NC State in 2001 with a sociology degree, is coming dangerously close to having all of her co-workers know about her budding success as a writer and director.
Last week, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s HBO show Project Greenlight, which aims to award a promising first-time filmmaker the opportunity to direct a feature film, announced Smith’s trailer for her yet-to-be-made movie, The Gestapo vs. Granny, is one of 20 finalists for the show.
“I have two gigantic notebooks full of rejection letters,” Smith says. “I keep each one. I wasn’t ready then, but this is going to happen. Visualizing it, I know it’s going to happen. I don’t know when, but I’d like for it to happen now.”
Smith, 35, says writing has always been in her heart, whether it was composing rap lyrics as a kid growing up in Salisbury to hearing North Carolina-based storyteller Jackie Torrence come to her school. She never thought of it as a viable career option, and instead came to NC State to be pediatrician, a goal she now laughs off thinking back to how college chemistry forced her to reimagine her professional plans.
But an English 101 instructor at NC State gave Smith some direction. “My freshman year, I wrote a play called Shades of Darkness,” she says. “She told me, ‘You should really consider screenwriting.'”
It would be three more years, an internship with Def Jam/Rock-A-Fella records and interviews she wrote up for the Nubian Message before Smith again thought of returning to writing a script. She tried her hand at writing something and submitting it for a show. Then she wrote a script for a film called Drama about a girl who’s a model and finds out she’s HIV-positive. It was a finalist for the Screenwriters Lab at the Sundance Institute. It didn’t make the final cut, but it was enough of a sign that she moved to Los Angeles, where she’s been the last nine years trying to make it Hollywood.
Smith has worked on sitcoms and reality television shows. In 2008, she started her own company, Rayven Choi Films. She has written and directed two short films, The Takeover, a romantic comedy, and The J.H. Gunn Project, a drama about a young man trying to turn his life around.
But it’s her turn at comedy with Gestapo, a film Smith hopes to make with Betty White as the lead about an elderly woman who has been kicked out of multiple nursing homes, that Smith has found to be the most rewarding and challenging work.
“Comedy is my one,” she says. “It’s hard to make people laugh. Everyone has different senses of humor.”
If she is chosen for Project Greenlight she might get that chance to work with one of her idols who she grew up watching on Mama’s Family and The Golden Girls. But directing her own movie, even with White as the star, will not be Smith’s greatest thrill.
“Writing is my biggest love affair,” she says. “That’s what brought me here.”