Meet SJ Main Muñoz, the Only Latina Director to Be Invited Into the Academy

Chicago Med BELatina SJ Main Munoz
CHICAGO MED -- "In The Name Of Love" Episode 518 -- Pictured: (l-r) -- (Photo by: Elizabeth Sisson/NBC)

We are running our March 2020 interview with director SJ Main Muñoz, who earlier this year celebrated her directorial debut on primetime television with NBC’s Chicago Med. This week, Muñoz was invited into the Academy as part of a diversity initiative. As the Chicana Directors Initiative pointed out in their recent social media post, Muñoz was the only Latina director to be invited by the Academy to join their ranks.

Summer-Joy “SJ” Main Muñoz has been on her own path in the entertainment industry, breaking barriers for several years. The award-winning filmmaker, writer, director, and producer is the latest to direct an episode of the NBC primetime lineup as part of the network’s Female Forward initiative. Tonight, Wednesday, March 25th, we all get to celebrate her accomplishments from home as we watch her directorial debut with one of the hottest shows on television, Chicago Med.

Historically, the mainstream entertainment industry has overlooked or flat out erased relevant voices that don’t fit in the box of a patriarchal, exclusionary tradition. But in just the last few years, there’s been a reckoning over this lack of representation, leading studios like NBC to find ways to bring in fresh, diverse talent, to fix a rigged pipeline.

In its second year, the NBC Female Forward initiative is opening doors to even more women in an effort to achieve gender equality in episodic TV directing. The program’s chosen candidates are given a chance to shadow an NBC show, afterward guaranteeing one episode to direct in a season. This spot offers an opportunity for female directors to be seen behind as well as in front of the scenes. These are the kinds of programs that can make a difference for women that otherwise may not get a fair shot at directing. For SJ, Female Forward led her to the director’s seat for Episode 18 of Chicago Med.

Raised in California, SJ is of mixed ethnicity but identifies most closely with her Costa Rican roots from her mother’s side of the family. She was raised immersed in Tico culture and travels to Costa Rica a lot; she even gave birth there to her daughter in 2015. A proud Latina, she plans to keep her heritage in the family, which wouldn’t surprise anyone who has been following her career — she takes pride in showing up for the Latinx community through her industry, which she has supported in the past by starting the Latino Film Fund and Latino Screenplay Competition.

Shortly after those projects though, the director realized she would be more effective working from the inside of this tough-as-nails industry. Since then the Costa Rican American has become a force to be reckoned with, a worthy opponent for anyone who tries to stop her from reaching the goal line. 

SJ’s instant energy came through in her greeting, as I sensed from the director’s tone, her strong convictions for owning who you are, living your truth, and understanding your vision. Connecting with her vibrant personality was easy, providing a fluid phone chat about her experience as a Latina woman in the world of TV & Film. As a writer for BELatina, I am filled with gratitude to be given opportunities to meet empowering and inspirational women that provide thought-provoking and interesting perspectives. The conversation with SJ proved to be nothing less than amazing for me, as a woman and professional.   

Summer-Joy “SJ” Main Muñoz BELatina

How is the NBC Female Forward initiative inspiring you to challenge the conventional?

There is nothing conventional about the path in films. The path is a challenge in itself, there is no direct road to where you want to go in this profession. Being a woman and Latina will present some roadblocks which is why programs like NBC Female Forward are so important. Work on your hustle, build relationships and expand your network. Create a vision, take steps to make it happen.

There is no so-called conventional way of entering the film business. No matter how experienced you are, it’s a challenge to land a directing gig. It requires hustle and relationships, but even more than that, something unnamed. Perhaps it’s luck or just relentless work ethic to the point where it inevitably pays off. It’s no one thing, but a lot of things really. No one in my family is a filmmaker or in the “business,” so with the goal to work as a professional director, I just focused on the work. I directed several short films and really focused on using them as a vehicle to put my best foot forward. I gathered a lot of awards for the films on the circuit and they are now distributed, but accessing professional jobs has still been a challenge, as it is for just about anybody. It is programs like NBC’s initiative, Female Forward, that are crucial in creating opportunities for emerging female directors like myself to begin their professional careers. I’m grateful to the program because it gave me my first TV directing job. My episode of Chicago Med airs tonight at 8pm/7c on NBC. It’s a milestone I am proud of, and I hope it’s the start of a long career.

How are you making your mark in the director’s chair, using their gifts — empathy, sensitivity, and strength?

I say stay true to who you are. Never be afraid to be the unique you. I don’t fit into any molds. I love Westerns. I love very dark, dark films and TV. I am definitely not into romantic comedies. But that’s who I am. And that’s the work I will focus on making, which is the work that speaks to me, and therefore I can share unique visions with that voice. I think trying to fit into a certain tone or genre of material or even job is dangerous. Dangerous for the production of that work, but also for one’s sense of self and personal fulfillment.

Empathy is required for all directors, male or female. The role of the director demands an ability to read emotion, know when there should be a specific feeling, in order to shape the direction of the scenes. Directors are in charge of visualizing a script, bringing it to life. It is crucial to be able to understand and share feelings to have it reflect on film for a universal audience.

In terms of working with men and women, I have had a wonderful time working with both and have been mentored by both men and women. Both men and women have helped boost my confidence and pull me up to where I am today. I don’t think it is a He versus She situation, but more a question of How can we work together and support each other?

It is Women’s History Month. What advice can you give women fighting in the trenches of any industry, as they try to leave a footprint of their own?

Bring your voice to whatever platform you are working in, be authentic. The best work comes with staying true to who you are and what you know. Follow it.

So many amazing women worked so hard to get us where we are today. It makes me think of Alice Blaché who directed six hundred short films. There’s a quote where she said, “There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art.” Alice was making it happen one hundred years ago, so why can’t we?

It is true, that pretty quickly, with the domination of the studio system and the transition of filmmaking into a capitalist enterprise, women, especially emerging filmmakers, had trouble breaking in. So it’s something we’ve seen historically, a challenge that we’ve constantly been dealing with — women getting the chance behind the camera — but I feel now, the times have changed and will continue to change. With the numbers on Latino representation still low, the numbers alone prove that things have to change. I’m so proud to be a number starting today. I’m helping change things. I’m becoming a role model so more Latino-Americans see that there are others like them who have done it and they can do it. This will change the stories that are told, who is in them, and how they are told. That is a huge honor for me because I’ve always dedicated myself to expanding Latino representation through mainstream media.

As a female Latinx director in the entertainment industry, what has been your biggest struggle professionally? How did you overcome it?

The hardest part has been breaking into the industry. Getting a foot in the door, figuring out how to get in was, is the biggest struggle. Programs like NBC Female Forward or WeforShe have created opportunities; take the initiative to explore these types of programs. Set goals that will get you closer to your vision.

Because the work I like to make is thought of as more “masculine,” I have found challenges in getting into consideration for the jobs I want to be considered for. I want to direct action. I want to direct big sets and work on challenging locations. I want to direct historical shows. I want to direct war projects. I want to direct violence. And I want the chance to show I can do it. But without the chance, everyone just assumes women can’t do it, or they just hire the same voices who have already proven they can.  It’s hard as a new voice to get these opportunities. It’s my hope that this opportunity directing Chicago Med opens more doors for me so I can prove my craft and also continue to grow as a director at the same time. 

What will you bring or add to the Chicago Med episode as a director that will make an impact on viewers of the show?

Give viewers more of what they want. The idea is to bring to life [writer] Meridith Friedman’s Episode 18 vision. Offer the audience an episode they can connect with — and feels like Chicago Med with some surprises. 

A part of my job as an episodic director is to make an episode that looks like a Chicago Med episode and doesn’t jolt you when you watch it. It’s not supposed to feel remarkably different or unique in comparison to other Chicago Med episodes, but instead should feel cohesive with the world of the show.

Your work has been screened globally in over 200 film festivals. You have won several dozen awards and are now adding directing an episode of Chicago Med to your list of achievements. What is next for SJ? What else do you look to accomplish in the near future?

Latinas do not fare well in Hollywood, the numbers are dismal, clearly showing an underrepresentation. I am proud to help the numbers of Latinas and Latinos behind the camera. I would like to be part of the numbers that change the landscape, excited to represent. I hope to do more directing for Wolf Entertainment, Chicago Med, and more television and films!

BELatina SJ Main Munoz Chicago Med
CHICAGO MED — “In The Name Of Love” Episode 518 — Pictured: (l-r) — (Photo by: Elizabeth Sisson/NBC)

How has the NBC Female Forward initiative changed your life or impacted your career? 

I always wanted to be a director — from the time I was a young girl. NBC Female Forward has provided that opportunity for me and many other female directors. I believe you can achieve your goals — We Can Do It! Initiatives like these make it possible and are helping make an impact on how Latinas represent in the industry. Work from the inside out and help others.

What role do you see mentorship and development programs like these have, in terms of getting more Latinos behind the camera?

It’s super important for Latinos to see others achieve their dreams. In the creative industries, Latinos are obviously underrepresented — one of the groups most underrepresented. And the reasons are obvious — without a role model to look up to, there is no “idea” of what one can achieve. 

I was fortunate to be paired up with a talented director David Rodriguez through a program called WeForShe that pairs up emerging female TV directors with vet directors — female and male— who will say for them, “Look, she’s got the goods. I believe in her. Give her a shot.” They will vouch for you. David Rodriguez directs a lot for Chicago PD, has directed for Chicago Med, SWAT, was the producing director of Animal Kingdom, and has done a bunch of other big shows. It was serendipitous that I was up for a few [Wolf Entertainment] shows via the Female Forward program, and Dave was able to give me insight on these shows. Also, David is Puerto Rican, New York-born and raised. That has been super special for me, to be mentored by someone who is Latino and American-Latino, like myself. 

These programs in the film industry are crucial for creating professional opportunities for directors, especially female directors, when we have the craft but can’t get our foot in the door, but they also connect people into a valuable network. Creating relationships and that’s what helps move us forward, especially as Latinos, no matter what our background…Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, Cuban, Mexican, etc.

If you can leave our readers with a message of empowerment or inspiring quote that has helped you in moments when your desires were not materializing as fast or in the manner you hoped, what would it be?

Keep your sights on where you are headed but — don’t forget to also enjoy where you are.

SJ Main Munoz can be found on Twitter and Instagram. Her directorial debut of Chicago Med airs tonight on NBC at 8/7c.