Terence Nance Downloads His Subconscious to the Screen

By Bradford William Davis

Translating the inner-recesses of your mind into a half-hour television program is a group project.


There’s nothing straightforward about Random Acts of Flyness — artist Terence Nance’s stream-of-conscious exploration of contemporary American life — including its path to the screen. Nance has faint recollection of creating the document back in college that would one day become a full-fledged television program. But he knew there was something in there he wanted to share with the world, and the people he would enlist to help him do it.

How do you translate your subconscious for television? Terence Nance is still figuring it out.

HBO: How did you come up with the concept for Random Acts of Flyness?

Terence Nance: That's tough. I just remember that I have a document from 2006, while I was in still in college, with a description of the show. I don't remember writing it, or how I wrote it, or why, or the circumstances, so it's hard to recall where the initial idea came from. In 2014, Tamir Muhammad approached me about what I wanted to do and it was the first thing on my mind — maybe because it was so old? Regardless, it mobilized me to make something that was representative of my subconscious.

HBO: How do you translate your subconscious for television?

Terence Nance: When you're conceptualizing something, a lot of your ideas only relate to a personal context, something only the person with the idea is aware of. So when we were making the pilot, it became clear it's impossible to perfectly translate your own subconscious. We shifted the scope and approach a bit. I think all the writers on our show were directors, so the show became about our collective experiences more than just mine. Our broader, shared subconscious. The way you go about creating from that point is finding the right family of creators to do it with. When the concepts, ideas and experiences we added to executing the show started making sense with each other, that's when it got wings.

HBO: Talk about "finding the right family." How do you build that team of writers and creators?

Terence Nance: I don't think we built it, really. It’s the first season and we had to be scrappy. We had to be quick. So I called the people I work with the most on earlier projects or knew the most intimately. From Jamond [Washington], to Francis [Bodomo], to Naima [Ramos-Chapman], my brother, Nelson [Nance], obviously, Shaka [King] and Darius [Monroe], people I've known for decades in some cases. People I kinda came up with.

My job at first was convincing them making our show would be worthwhile. These are all people with their own things and projects going on. They're all amazing artists on their own, so it wasn't lost on me that they were taking away from their own time to make Random with me. They fit in that Venn diagram of people willing to do this kind of job, yet also being suited for it.

HBO: What did you pitch your collaborators?

Terence Nance: I told them it was an opportunity to be free and to have a platform where your freedom of expression will reach a lot of people we couldn't individually. People who may have been excluded from big film and TV opportunities individually because of the nature of being from marginalized communities. I thought it would be attractive to allow them to create for national TV, a different medium than they might have otherwise had.

I also pitched it as a favor. Like, "Please? I'll do anything for you after this." Take Nelson — he's not just a filmmaker. He's most known for his music, but he also paints and draws. Being a TV writer wasn't really what he was doing in his life at that moment and not what he necessarily envisioned himself pursuing. But, the show has an emotional appeal, and I think it engaged Nelson and the other writers in a more spiritual and visceral way than a usual job offer. It adds another layer to doing this besides time and money.

HBO: What do you hope viewers get out of the show?

Terence Nance: I won't prescribe what people get out of it. My only hope is that people engage at all. After Random Acts of Flyness is done, it's not mine anymore. It's their experience.

My hope is that I'm surprised. When I’m making stuff, I’m starting conversations. Just like if I sat down and asked you questions, I’d want to learn something and maybe be surprised by your responses to my questions. So I hope that when people watch, I’m still learning.