Richmond native Jesse Vaughan built a successful career as a director in California. Now he’s using his passion to tell Virginia’s stories. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Jesse Vaughan likes to say Richmond has been his greatest teacher. By this, the Emmy-award winning director of commercials, television shows and films does not mean that the city has been his best teacher or his wisest teacher. That distinction goes to his mother, Rachel Vaughan, who taught her three children that their greatest limitations are those they impose upon themselves.
What Vaughan means is that Richmond was the place in which he came to know the kind of adversity that can undo a person. When he was 14, his father was murdered in Church Hill, and with his death, Vaughan says, “I lost my best friend.”
The violent death of a parent at any age is shattering. For a teenage boy, it is a loss that can consume a soul. In Vaughan’s case, it did not, for reasons he’ll explain in a bit. He went on to a successful, even illustrious, career as a director. He may not be widely known in his hometown, but he is within his field, with 27 Emmys, both regional and national, to his name.
"I don’t view myself as a talented person. I view myself as a passionate person and my love for what I do is what people experience in my work." - Jesse Vaughan
(Photo by Jay Paul)
Vaughan, 56, came home five years ago because his mother wished it, because family is here and because Virginia State University offered him a challenge: You’re in the business of making stars. Make VSU one. Help us reach youth who otherwise may not go to college.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a way to phrase an opportunity for me that would be challenging,” Vaughan says. “VSU has always been perceived as the underdog and I like underdogs.”
He was hired as a special assistant to the president for media and marketing. In that work, he has directed numerous educational public service announcements for VSU featuring prominent African-Americans, including actors Angela Bassett and Blair Underwood, and journalist Ed Gordon.
Last year, he directed a documentary about food deserts in Virginia, which was released this past March.
“Jewel Hairston was dean of the College of Agriculture and she approached us about a study she did on food deserts,” Vaughan says. “I was blown away. I went home that night and I was at my mom’s house on the North Side and I thought, ‘Wow, she lives in a food desert.’ And then I went home to Petersburg and I needed an onion and I realized, ‘Wow, I live in a food desert.’ It made me realize this is an important issue I need to wrap my head around.“
On Friday night, the nonprofit Tricycle Gardens, which focuses on urban agriculture and healthy food access, awarded Vaughan its Golden Trowel award for his work focusing on community needs.
This gave me all the excuse I needed to give Vaughan a call Friday afternoon. He’s been busy finalizing the last details of his latest documentary, Heroin: The Hardest Hit. The free premiere is Dec. 2 from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St. (Register here.)
I edited our conversation for length and clarity.
TG: So, you’ve gone from food deserts to heroin?
JV: It’s pretty amazing, right? Attorney General Mark Herring is familiar with our work here at VSU and he approached us. We have a phrase here: ‘VSU. Building a Better World.’ As educators we want to give back to the community and the attorney general’s office asked if we could help educate people about the heroin epidemic in Virginia. Whatever we can do, through documentary filmmaking or through commercials, to help influence young people to better their lives, that’s what we do.
TG: What did working on this project involve?
JV: We traveled throughout the state. Winchester, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Richmond. We interviewed about 29 people, where we are talking about the heroin epidemic in the state and what we can do to address it.
TG: What surprised you?
JV: The fact that opiates, opioids and heroin are so closely linked shocked me. It is a much more serious problem than people realize. One detective has investigated over 50 heroin deaths in Hampton; 547 Virginians died from prescription overdose deaths in 2014. There’s a woman in Winchester, her 24-old daughter died while she was taking a nap next to her 2-year-old. You ask what shocked me? That shocked me.
TG: You took a leave of absence a couple years ago to direct a feature film, The Last Punch, which revolves around the promoter of Muhammad Ali's final fight. What’s happening with that?
JV: It’s done and in sales mode now. There are people in L.A. who are trying to get into distribution and they’re looking at two film festivals right now: Sundance and South by Southwest. It just takes time to get it out there.
TG: I read that when you arrived at VSU, the university had two videos up with 500 views. And now?
JV: We’re at more than 100 videos with over 847,374 YouTube views and 50,000 on Vimeo. We are looking to hit 1 million views next year - that is a great goal for a university of under 5,000 students.
TG: You have talked about openly about your father’s murder. What was his name?
JV: Jesse Vaughan. I’m a junior, actually.
TG: And how is that you connect his murder to Richmond being your greatest teacher?
JV: It sent me on a path of exploration to find a light at the end of a tunnel that was full of tragedy. So, for years, I struggled with just trying to be happy. Richmond opened my eyes to the path of self-realization.
TG: But how did you keep from getting lost?
JV: My mom would sit me down at the kitchen table every night to talk to me about every aspect of life and she would challenge me to be a good person. She took time to communicate with me and to make sure I was ok because I was not. I was in trouble. I was very unhappy . . . My mom didn’t want us to limit ourselves and our thinking about how far we could go, or have limitations on the type of success we could have. She wanted us to have unbounded thoughts.
TG: You still have her?
JV: I do. She still lives on the North Side. That’s the reason I came back. She’s in her latter years and she asked me if I would move back and spend a little more time with her and I am happy that I did.
TG: You started down this directing road at 19, after you graduated from VCU and then became the weekend cameraman and the weekend news director at WTVR. Did you know then that this was what you wanted to do?
JV: No, I actually hated it. I was only 19 and the responsibility was so high. But I’m of the mindset that when I have to do something, I want to be the best. I try to be the best.
TG: So, when did you have that ah-ha, this-is-what-I-meant-to-do moment?
JV: Hmmm. I have never really thought of it that way. I’ve always looked at what I do as a job like anyone else’s job. I was either a commercial director, a film director or a TV director. I never thought of it as being something special or that I am some special guy. I don’t view myself as a talented person. I view myself as a passionate person and my love for what I do is what people experience in my work. That’s what they are getting. I’ve just believed that you do the best you can do and let the chips fall where they may.
TG: You said something, I think it was in the TEDx RVA talk you gave last year, about how it’s not where you live, it’s how you live.
JV: I just think it’s important how we carry ourselves. It’s important how we live our lives and how we are able to make contributions to the community and to our family, how we support our friends. At the end of the day, that’s what matters.
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