There are 2,615 miles that separate RVA from Hollywood, but the award-winning director Jesse Vaughan is comfortable in both cities. The Richmond-native, who once served as a director for WTVR-TV6 at the age of 19, moved to Los Angeles in 1992 to pursue his dream of making films.
After nearly 20 years, Vaughan triumphantly returned home in 2011 to work at Virginia State University.
Vaughan’s stellar career has brought him 36 Emmy nominations and 21 Emmy awards to date, including Emmy wins for his work at both VSU and his alma mater, VCU. In addition to working at VSU, Vaughan continues to direct feature films. His latest film, The Last Punch, tells the story of Muhammad Ali’s last professional boxing match. Filmed in Atlanta, Vaughan is overseeing the postproduction of the film in Virginia, using Virginia talent. It’s just one of the many ways he is giving back to his hometown.
Vaughan willingly left the glitz and glamour of LA life to direct his attention to mentorship and public service. He frequently lectures to college students and earlier this year he gave his first TED Talk. I had the honor to speak with Vaughan to discuss his transition back to RVA, his film The Last Punch, and his future plans with VSU.
You are one of the area’s best-kept secrets. I don’t think many Richmonders know that we have a 21-time Emmy Award-winning director living and working in the area. Have you always had an interest in filmmaking?
At first, filmmaking was just a hobby, but I soon realized that I had found my true love creatively. My interest in filmmaking began in the late 80s. Shortly thereafter, I won the SONY Innovators Award as one of the nation’s top young African American Filmmakers, which I was quite honored by. At that time, I had been experimenting with doing narrative films while working at NBC in Washington, D.C. To my surprise, a short I did took home this prestigious award from Spike Lee and Cicely Tyson, thus sparking me to pursue something more seriously that I would grow to really love. That love has not changed over the years—passion for what I do is what drives me. Working with other artists is also a great honor. Artists have a curiosity about all aspects of life. Exploring that curiosity is never boring and always tends to drive me to try new things.
After living and working in Los Angeles for 20 years, you returned to Greater Richmond and accepted the role as the president’s special assistant for media and marketing at Virginia State University. What led you to such a significant career move?
President Miller actually called my mom looking for me. He can be a pretty persuasive man. And of course once you charm Rachel Vaughan, well, let’s just say she is still the ultimate boss so whatever she says goes. And she told me point blank, “You need to work for that nice man.” When he got me on the phone he challenged me to move to Richmond in two ways. First, he said it was time to give back in my career, and he could give me an opportunity to do that by reaching young people through my work and inspiring them to improve their lives through higher education. Secondly, he said that I was in the business of making stars, and he wanted me to make VSU a star. I liked his honesty and his compelling human decency as a man who practices what he preaches. When I first came to VSU, we had only 500 YouTube views. Thanks to Lewis Media Partners, we are now up to 780,000 views and our work has been seen via Internet, TV, and radio (listeners) by over 30 million people statewide in three years. It is, and will continue to be, my most cherished accomplishment. We have worked with top African American talent from Angela Bassett to Malcolm-Jamal Warner to Ed Gordon, letting people know along the way that this small university has a big heart. I graduated from VCU, which is a great school. But I adore everyone at VSU. They are passionate people, and their love for what they do is infectious.
In addition to your role at Virginia State University, you are in post production on your latest film, The Last Punch, a Muhammad Ali biopic. How did this opportunity come about?
A friend sent me the script to the film The Last Punch last spring. I picked it up, and could not put it down. It was the best script I had read in 20 years. I immediately said “yes,” renegotiated my current contracts to fit the schedule, and off I went to Atlanta, Ga., to film all of last summer. My goal was to bring as many people on board from Richmond as I could. I offered post deals and even cinematography to local filmmakers. We ended up only going with post as cutting contracts on features are quite complex, especially on rates and back end deals. Ultimately I am satisfied with where things have landed. I’ve had the privilege of working with Chris Allen Williams, one of the most talented film editors and post production supervisors I have ever worked with. He owns Mad Box Post. I also got to meet Heather Waters, owner of Richmond International Film Festival. Her knowledge about the indie film is priceless. She inspired me to look right where I am before setting my eyes afar. I appreciate that advice.
In March, you did your first TED Talk at TEDxRVA. How was that experience?
The TEDxRVA experience is about becoming better than who we are. It’s about those who explore the unexamined life and listening to those who have acted upon their dreams. I love listening to people who never gave up—people who endured all of what life has challenged them to become. Your life has no meaning if you can’t be inspired. TEDxRVA does that for our community. It makes us eager to better ourselves and for that experience, I am grateful.
At TEDxRVA, you spoke a little about growing up in Richmond. How has growing up in Richmond shaped you as an adult?
Richmond helped turn my past experiences—good and bad—into understanding. You could say I had a difficult childhood as my dad was murdered in Church Hill when I was 14 years old. It was difficult, but that experience helped mold and shape me into who I am today. The man who killed him walked around for 30 years without prosecution (he has since died). That experience was the thing that opened my heart to realize that it is not where you live but how you live. I draw on that experience every day in the way that I approach my life and work. I thought Richmond was not the place for me because of what had happened, but it turned out to be my best teacher.
What direction do you see films going in the future?
The future is always bright when we maintain an optimistic view on life and venture into our unexplored creative selves. My hope is we can eventually move away from so many special effects films and put the emphasis back on solid writing—amazing stories about real people and real heroes. That is my hope for the future.