‘Launchpad’ Producer Phillip Domfeh On The Importance Of Showcasing Films From Underrepresented Creatives: “You Don’t Have To Be Othered. This Can Be A Home For You.”

Disney’s curated short film program, Launchpad, features six unique features created by diverse filmmakers from different backgrounds. In the series second season, The Roof,  directed by Alexander Bocchieri and written by W.A.W. Parker, which is up for Emmy consideration, tells a touching story about a queer two-spirit teenager (Phoenix Wilson) who is forced to spend time with his Northern Cheyenne Grandfather (Wes Studi) as he dangerously toils away on repairs to his leaky roof.

Here, Deadline talks to Launchpad senior manager and producer Phillip Domfeh about the powerful impact of diverse storytelling.

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DEADLINE: How would you describe Launchpad as a program? 

PHILLIP DOMFEH:The best way to discuss Disney Launchpad is that it sits at the intersection of 100 years of storytelling expertise that resides within the Walt Disney Studios, and the next generation of storytellers that we’re trying to bring up that often come from underrepresented backgrounds, or people with unique perspectives who really have another way of us looking at, again, that very strong tradition of family storytelling.

And what we do is, we leverage that expertise. We raise these filmmakers up, we really teach them what it means to make a studio project, to make a short film within the studio system, but specifically the Walt Disney Studios. We support them with creative executives from all over the business, all over the studio, and also the television side of the house. So we’ve had mentors from Lucasfilm and 20th Century. And we gird them with that support to help them to tell their stories. And then they have, I think, what’s really the opportunity of a lifetime to exhibit that work on one of the leading streaming platforms in the business with Disney+.

DEADLINE: Launchpad is now in its second season with a third season on the way. What has been the learning curve between making Season 1 and Season 2?

DOMFEH: First, I should say that the program started back in 2019, under the support of Mahin Ibrahim and Julie Ann Crommett who joined the team back then. I joined in 2020, with the responsibility of developing the second season and taking us forward. But they really put together the bones and the vision for a project like this. I was really grateful to have this opportunity, because I’d done work similarly prior to that. I ran something called the AT&T Mentorship program and got to produce short films alongside Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani. And I really cut my teeth learning from them how to really tell an impactful and meaningful story in a short period of time. And one of the things that we learned, I think, in our work together back then, is that it’s really important to have everyone operating out of the greatest strength.

So with season two, we opened up a writer’s track and really separated the process out  so that you could apply as a writer, a director, or a writer-director. And that really allowed for two things. It allowed us to really develop a slate of short films and to really pair it together, very exciting storytellers that maybe hadn’t known each other, but could really connect and realize a story in a very exciting way. I think it helped us to expand the amount of people that we were impacting. In season one, we only had six filmmakers, all of which are incredibly talented, all of which I admire. But in season two, we were able to bring in 12 filmmakers. So from season to season, we’re able to double our impact numbers.

And then again, I think the film industry and the film business is a collaborative art form. And I admire and love writer-directors. Niki Ang was a writer-director in season two, and did an incredible job with the short film Maxine. And this is in no way to say that any of our writers or directors aren’t skilled in other areas, but there’s such a magic that really came to bear when we paired together very exciting storytellers on both different sides, and had them just imagine something together. It just expanded the nature of the stories, the depth, it offered new perspectives, and that’s something that I think has just helped us elevate the work that we have with Disney Launchpad.

DEADLINE: I’m assuming some of the stories you hear in the writers/pitching room must move all of you to tears or perhaps really make you reflect. Can you speak to something that was really endearing? 

DOMFEH: Our screenwriter, Adam Parker, who sometimes goes by W.A.W. Parker wrote this incredibly beautiful script called The Roof, about a Northern Cheyenne youth in Montana, who has a connection or finds a connection from his emotionally distant grandfather, played gloriously by Wes Studi, when they both realized his two-spirit identity.

And at first on paper and on the page and in interviews with him, it was just an incredibly moving and beautiful story. It has heart, it has humor. It was more wry than what we’ve done in the past, and that really attracted me to it, understated, but very impactful. But over the time, getting to work with Adam, learning more about his relationship with his grandfather, the fact that his grandfather passed during the window of the application process, and that this was really undoubtedly a proclamation of himself and his spirit, and a way of standing confidently in who he is, but also a way to explore, I think, a relationship that he wished he might’ve had with his grandfather. And that was always there, but it wasn’t known and embodied, I think, to all of our team, and I think very maturely by Adam.

He wanted to get into the program on merits and not by trying to tug at our heart strings prematurely. But when we had an opportunity to actually do a research trip out to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation to meet elders, to meet his family, to walk the land that his grandfather walked, and that he lived on for many years. I think that impacted us all in a way that we’ll never forget. I can honestly say that trip changed my life, changed me as a storyteller and as a producer. So it was just like being on the road with these filmmakers for so long. When we’re in the application process, something I always try to keep front of mind is, this is a long journey. Who can we be on a long journey with? And so it’s things along the way that you’ll never forget.

And if I can say just one more thing to that end, the film Black Belts was directed by Spencer Glover, and co-written by an incredibly talented screenwriter, Xavier Stiles. It sits at the center largely of father and son relationships in the African American community, but Spencer is half Asian as well, he’s half Filipino. And we were an official selection of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. And when we were there, and honestly, it makes me feel emotional right now thinking about this, to see this predominantly Black cast bring their fathers, their grandmothers, their mothers, their spouses, to a predominantly Asian film festival, to feel seen and recognized as storytellers and artists, is something I will never forget.

I think it speaks to the power of the program, but it also just speaks to the power of intersectionality and all of us supporting and standing with each other. Again, this is a story about Compton and again, very Black spaces. But to see that, the storytelling was so strong and that there was a desire for all of us to come together, to be honored in another culture’s house is just such a beautiful thing. And so it’s moments like that. It’s just the journey that I think, when I reflect about things, that just touch me deeply and that remains with me.

DEADLINE: That’s really beautiful. And it’s true that there is something really beautiful about being in those spaces of another culture and having spaces to express ourselves. 

DOMFEH: I think that’s also part of the power of the program. Something that I tell all the storytellers, and again, whom I have great admiration for, is that they are now a part of 100 years and plus years of the Walt Disney storytelling canon. When that rainbow goes above the castle in that iconic film logo, their stories are now one of the sparkles in that logo. That’s what we’ve accomplished with this program. So in that way, they don’t have to feel othered because now they’ve been brought in, they’re a part of the legacy and we try to treat them with that level of dignity. We are lucky enough to be able to take those films out to festivals and Oscar qualifying festivals. During the festival circuit we gave these guys the royal treatment so that they got to feel the love in the studio and out in the world that I think showcases that the spirit of what we’re trying to say is that, “You don’t have to be othered. This can be a home for you.”

DEADLINE: Let’s get into The Roof, which was selected for Emmy’s consideration. Can you talk a bit about the decisions behind that, and what do you think people are responding to in this short? 

DOMFEH: I think there’s a secret sauce to every part of this short film. We can start with the cast, Phoenix Wilson, as the young boy in the film, he gave such an incredibly emotional performance and understated at the same time. You can see his feelings, but he doesn’t always speak to them. For such a young actor, it’s an incredibly nuanced performance. We also had Wes Studi, who is a literal cinematic legend who came in and “Wes-ssed” it up. He was incredible and I got to meet him. At the end of filming, we all pow wowed together to just celebrate and honor the film, alongside the cast and crew, and everyone who’d been working on it in a very sacred way. And that is a memory I’ll hold for the rest of my life.

Then you have Alex Bocchieri [the director], who is native Hawaiian, and I saw one of his short films, The Pit Where We Were Born. And there was just such an understanding of emotion and relationships. And he brought an emotional maturity, subtlety and cinematic excellence to the film that I think just elevated what was already on the page that Adam delivered. I also have to give a huge shout-out to Gina Kwon at Searchlight TV and Karen Chau at Disney Branded TV. They were the two creative executives on this film, and they’re just excellent, top tier artists in their own right. So for me, I’m just the dean and I generally have a large say in who gets into the program, but my relationship to our mentors is like, “But you teach the class.” We offer creative notes, but I always want to be in support of their vision even as a producer on the films. And they just tweaked and amplified everything that was already there with such humility, because when you get a project like this that’s so strong already, it takes a really confident, creative executive to just shape and mold without completely changing the whole vision.

DEADLINE: The Roof deals with so much in just 20 minutes. You’ve got the indigenous queer term “two-spirit” and then you’ve got the theme of communal acceptance within that. Then you’ve also got a bit about the problematic Native American boarding school experience and this symbolism of the house roof being a thing that connects people together. How do you and the team at Launchpad hope that these shorts can highlight some of these topics and injustices that we don’t really see depicted in the broader sense of Hollywood? 

DOMFEH: Well, we’re the little engine that could, we’re a small part of the business. But myself and Mahin Ibrahim, and all of our incredible physical production executives that we’ve worked with for years now on the Disney live action side, we’re passionate storytellers. But I think the most important thing that we have to do is handle everything with grace and humility. You mentioned a lot of different topics and issues, and as a heterosexual African American man, these aren’t necessarily things that come up in my day to day. Our job is putting the right people in position, who have the confidence and the know-how, and the expertise and the lived experiences to tell different types of stories, and supporting them and giving them a platform to do it.

I’m so grateful that I get to embed in so many different communities and learn so much about the world and experiences that are outside of my own. It’s a large part of what I love about doing this work, but we guide, we shape, we support. And again, we wed the storytelling know-how that exists at Disney, with these voices. And that’s the magic. Obviously it’s not as simple as I’m articulating, but you’ve got to know when to get in the way and when to get out of the way.

DEADLINE: Is it true that Launchpad has a different overarching theme each season? What can you share about that? And what can we look forward to for Season 3? 

DOMFEH: We do have different themes for fun. It’s such a funny thing because we spend a lot of time sweating over the themes, actually. The theme of Season 1 was discovery. The theme of Season 2 is connection. And I think that’s very evident when you watch all the short films. The theme for Season 3 is forward. And the reason for that, I think, is because when we were coming out of the pandemic and thinking about the theme for Season 2, we thought about people feeling very disconnected from each other during that time. So we wanted something that was about us, as people, coming back together. And this might be a little inside baseball but this business has been quite precarious at different times. Last year was a year none of us wanted. But, I am very excited that we’re all back to telling stories and hope that we continue to do that this year. Coming out of that, we were like, “Let’s pick a theme that pushes us to the future, that’s optimistic and that sees hope on the horizon.” And that’s how the theme of forward came up.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

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