Sheila Wagner is a U.C. Berkeley film graduate who hails from the tranquil Pacific Northwest. With Kanye’s empowering words and the perseverance of Beyoncé in “All Night” in hand, she hopes to further her cinematic trajectory — as well as her future as an artful music mogul — in the City of Angels this fall.
Sheila is difficult to understand, unabashedly sure of herself and a paragon of brilliant inspiration. Read on for her words about a one-handed pianist, mass incarceration in the United States and the aftereffects of wisdom teeth extraction.
MØJÖ: Tell us about yourself.
Hello, my name is Sheila Wagner, and I am an unstoppable force.
When I’m not quoting rappers, I’m making movies. Music is the most important thing in the world to me, followed by my friends and great stories. I’m 23, graduated from Berkeley, and am from the World’s Greatest Suburb, Everett, WA.
Yesterday, I found a sticker in my childhood bedroom that said “Tell me ‘No’ and I’ll do it.” This probably sums everything else up that you need to know about me.
M: How long have you been making films?
I started in high school, when my friends and I got sick of making PowerPoints for group presentations. Did you know that if you make your teacher laugh at you with a video they will ignore any factual inaccuracies you might have accidentally inserted into your work?
Filmmaking piqued my interest even more the summer someone at Fox Searchlight read a movie review I posted online. As a result, I was asked to interview the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, one of my all-time favorite films. I hadn’t felt that kind of excitement in any of my courses in semesters prior — and believe me, I tried desperately to feel invigorated by Poli Sci 1 — but that’s the magic of the movies, isn’t it?
(By the way, that interview ended up being scheduled 2 weeks after I got my wisdom teeth pulled out. You ever interview two people you admire with a swollen face and minor lisp while on a liquid diet? Be careful — this kind of experience exists, and I’ve lived it.)
M: What project are you working on now?
From Incarceration to Education, or FITE, is a documentary about four formerly incarcerated students and their paths to higher education. The film is a response to mass incarceration and recidivism (the term used to describe someone’s relapse into criminal behavior) rates in the U.S..
FITE will be screened in prisons, jails and youth detention centers across the country, and is being created alongside a database that will connect incarcerated individuals with resources and programs upon their release.
FITE will bring issues regarding the U.S. prison system to light, and it will then take things a step further by creating an accompanying method to rectify the very same issues the documentary will address.
M: How did you get started? What inspired you at the onset?
My friend Skylar Economy, the Executive Producer of FITE, previously shot a short-length documentary about formerly incarcerated students from Underground Scholars Initiative, an organization at Cal, known formerly as U.C. Berkeley, that supports students impacted by mass incarceration, imprisonment, and detainment of any kind.
After hearing about the Big Ideas at Berkeley grant competition, we [Skylar and I] decided to enter and expand the documentary into a full-length piece. I was wildly inspired by these students who fiercely refused to let negative stigma about their past mistakes affect their futures. I was honestly appalled that hardly anyone knew about these students, their successes, or USI in the first place.
This past spring, a 30 page research proposal for FITE won first place in its category, $13,000 in funding, and first place again (!!) at a live pitch day. We also just raised another $15,000 through an additional crowdfunding campaign in order to fund the project.
M: Is there a particular reaction you’d like to see in response to your work?
I urgently request that those in the general public who view FITE recognize how serious of an issue mass incarceration in the United States is. It’s affecting you, your friends and your family as we speak. Think about the following:
Incarceration costs taxpayers $70 billion annually.
Most crimes in America are committed by individuals who have previously committed crimes.
Sometimes we make mistakes and fall back into making the same mistakes because we don’t have strong support systems to lift us back up.
The consequences of high recidivism rates are corrosive and costly for everyone, whether you personally know someone who is incarcerated or not. Get informed and then do something about it!
M: What’s been your favorite part so far? Any particular memories or people you’ve met that stand out?
I snuck into a press junket for a major event in Berkeley this past April to tell an astronaut about FITE – because this is the kind of thing I do – and she gave me her business card. This woman has seen Earth from SPACE and still thought this documentary was an important endeavor. Dude.
M: Where do you see yourself going in the next couple years?
More global travels and more stories. Lots of getting myself into trouble, and careening myself towards things that matter. Being better every day than who I was the day before. More color. More doing dumb things with my friends. Endlessly creating myself.
Also, I’m gonna win a Grammy for Record and Producer of the Year and get an Oscar nod. I’ll hit you up when this happens. Give me three years, bet on it.
M: What kind of meaning do you hope your work carries, both now, previously, and in the future?
Here is what I want you to deeply understand:
Get your mentality right and you can do anything. I’m serious. No boundaries and no limits except for the ones you allow yourself to create. You know about the world-class pianist Nicholas McCarthy? At age 14 — which, by the way, is already a conventionally late age to start learning — he decided to become a pianist. Here’s the thing: this guy has one hand. ONE HAND. Y’all know playing piano traditionally takes two hands, right?
One time, when I was 8, I begged to get out of piano lessons for the week because my finger was swollen from playing tetherball too passionately during recess. What I’m saying is, everyone makes so many excuses for themselves, and this guy is off playing piano at world-renowned venues with one hand. I don’t want to hear how afraid you are about pursuing what you want or how the thought of failure and the future paralyzes you. Truly.
I get it. And don’t think I don’t because I’ve been there: the fear consumes you — sometimes it swallows you whole — and all you do is deny that it exists. Or even worse, you know it exists, and you let it fester, growing into something larger than you could ever imagine until every important facet of your life starts to self-destruct.
Perhaps, however, I can let you in on this secret: You’re allowed to feel fear! We all are — the world is a frightening place, and I’d be worried if you weren’t terrified sometimes. There’s enough scary stuff out there. But we don’t need to create more of it within our own minds. So again, let me say this: Fear is normal. Bathe in it. Align it with an excitement to grow and challenge yourself.
You are allowed to feel fear.
But you are not allowed to let that fear get in the way of your vision. You’re better than that.
Be afraid, and do the damn thing anyway.
M: Why do you do what you do?
Because I believe in it. And I believe in myself.