At age 6, as a violin prodigy in Louisville, Kentucky, Joy Lusco Kecken played her first concert. At age 11, living in Florida, the film and TV writer, producer, director and Film Department associate professor started acting and writing after her mom took her to see Spike Lee’s debut feature film She’s Gotta Have It.
“I’d never seen black women—anyone like me—represented on screen,” says Kecken, sitting at Hillside Campus on a sunny afternoon before teaching her Spring 2018 course Writing for Episodic TV. “I walked out wanting to be Spike Lee,” she says. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to make movies about black women and being proud of being black.’”
From founding development, production and distribution company the Film Foundry in 1997 with her producer-director husband Scott Kecken to writing and co-directing for critically-acclaimed HBO series The Wire, Kecken has made good on her promise.
I started teaching because I’ve been given so many writing opportunities and wanted to give back.Joy KeckenFilm faculty and writer-director-producer
“Over the years, as a writer, I’ve been able to tell emotional stories with twists that can shock people or provoke them,” she says. “I started teaching because I’ve been given so many writing opportunities and wanted to give back.”
As a teenager, Kecken moved with her social worker mom and accountant dad to Baltimore, where she reviewed movies on her own local TV show. She aspired to be a professional actress in New York, but ended up going to film school in Maryland with TV writing her focus.
At the age of 21, Kecken got her first big break, thanks to the recommendation of an industry mentor who worked on Baltimore-based NBC police drama Homicide: Life on the Street. She became an intern in the writers’ room of the show, then a writer’s assistant and eventually a script supervisor.
After being mentored by Homicide screenwriter James Yoshimura and writer and producer David Simon, Kecken went on to co-write the show’s 100th episode, directed by later Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow. “It was a life-changing moment,” she says. “I came into my own.”
When Kecken heard that Simon, in 2002, was creating The Wire—a powerful drama about urban life in Baltimore from the perspective of drug dealers, addicts, law enforcement, politicians, teachers and more—she immediately contacted him. She wrote on staff for three seasons of the show, and provided research for the groundbreaking character Kima, a police detective.
“She was a universal character, and also unique, since there had never been a black, lesbian cop on TV at the time,” says Kecken. “I felt honored to look at her point of view. I related to it. In film school, in the writer’s room, I was the only black woman. I wanted to show that we’re here and we adapt. We survive.”
Kecken’s film and TV credits run the storytelling gamut. They include writing and co-directing with her husband the award-winning short Louisville (1998), about fathers and sons; We Are Arabbers (2004), a documentary about Baltimore’s disappearing horse-and-wagon produce vendors; and short film Woman Hollering Creek (2004). She served as a story consultant on the Jim Sheridan-directed Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005), starring rapper 50 Cent. In 2007, she and her husband co-directed “Not for Attribution,” the third episode of The Wire’s final fifth season.
Her more recent work includes writing for the 2017 BET scripted anthology series Tales, and her own in-the-works film script, All In, about the complexities of motherhood. She’s currently working as a supervising producer on a secret Marvel-related TV show.
“My students understand how hard they have to work because they’re competing against great filmmakers, great TV,” says Kecken, who’s taught Writing for Episodic TV since 2016. “At the beginning, we do an exercise. I tell them, ‘Tell the story of yourself.’ It’s a great shortcut for writers, when it comes to developing characters, and it's intense.”
During the Spring 2018 term, her students learned how to pitch a story, map it out and write the first 15 pages of their own TV series by analyzing the scripts of smart and bloody NBC show Hannibal. That same term she taught Films of Robert M. Young, a course about the socially aware director of films like Alambrista! and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, with students writing scripts about consciousness-raising issues.
One of her Writing for Episodic TV students, recent Film alumna Ana Lydia Monaco (BFA 18), wrote a dramedy called El Lay on an Afro-Latina woman’s experience dating and living in L.A. It advanced to the second round of a lab-based contest for female TV writers hosted by Women In Film and the Black List, an annual survey of Hollywood executives' favorite unproduced screenplays.
“The best part of teaching is when I see students have breakthroughs,” says Kecken, her eyes brightening. “And I feel like my own writing has improved because I’m talking about things I believe in and need to use in my own work. My biggest job is to help students have a voice.”