Written by Dawn Davis
This narrative is part of a double feature on the film Harmony. Please check out Rebecca Zantjer’s review of the film.
I was born wanting to act and spent all of my free time on stage in a community theater production or with my nose buried in a book about acting theory. I was on a theater grant through college but became so discouraged by the lack of opportunities and support there that I decided to change course and pursue directing and producing instead. I directed and produced several theater productions and a couple of films in Boston before moving to Los Angeles to pursue film production. While directing came pretty easily to me, it never brought me joy. I regret the many years I let slip away without doing what I loved the most. Finally, in my late 20’s, I realized I couldn’t go on if I didn’t start living the life I really wanted: a life in front of the camera instead of one behind-the-scenes.
After so many years away, I didn’t really hit my stride as an actor until I reached my 30’s, thanks to a few wonderful acting teachers and a lot of experience on stage and in film. I really wanted to focus on my passion for film acting but by then I found that nearly every acting job I had access to called for “drop-dead gorgeous” girls in their 20’s or “elderly” women in their 40’s. The rich years for women between 30 and 39 are a virtual wasteland in the film industry and the more I saw this, the sadder I became.
While I look young for my age, I couldn’t possibly compete for the early 20’s girlfriend, nor could I play the 40-year old mother of a 22 year-old. Reading casting notices as a thirty-something actress is demoralizing because many of the projects that get funded are created by male producers and executives who cater to a male audience; the industry simply does not reflect the rich variety of life experience of and for most women.
For much of this time I had habitual meltdowns over the doors that would not open to me. I finally had to accept the fact that I might never have a conventional career trajectory and that the only way I could act in films and plays I truly liked would be to produce them myself. I’d produced so much theater over the years and it was such a headache that I was weary of the process and mentally blocked by the overwhelming problem of funding. But I love movies, I wanted to make them, and there appeared to be no other choice that would keep me artistically sane. I love Hilary Swank’s line in Million Dollar Baby, “If I’m too old for this then I got nothing.” Acting is my life and there is literally no other option for me except to do it despite my age and despite the odds.
I placed an ad on Craig’s List for short scripts and was flooded with submissions. Someone from the International Screenwriter’s Association saw my ad and asked me to post it on their website as well. From there, a writer sent me two good scripts featuring strong female protagonists. I loved both of them but latched onto Harmony—a very short supernatural thriller with two characters set in one location. After serving on a screening committee for a short film festival, I knew what made a good short and I jumped when I read it. The writer, Warren Fast, was a dream to work with. I bought the script and set about trying to produce it, which took over a year and was fraught with setbacks and obstacles.
Based on the strength of the script, I was able to attach a great cinematographer, director, casting director, and stunt coordinator—all of whom were men because I didn’t happen to know any great female filmmakers at the time. It’s embarrassing to admit but I’ve always been someone who shied away from working on mostly female productions because they somehow felt too “niche” for my taste.
I felt excited by the momentum until I sat down with my cinematographer and he told me what kind of budget he needed to make the film we envisioned. My heart sank and everything came to a standstill. I just couldn’t find the kind of money he was talking about and didn’t know how to move forward without it.
The director I’d attached had made some excellent shorts and seemed to know how to do it with no money but he was incredibly reticent about communicating with me; I never knew if he actually wanted to be on the project, what his ideas were or what I was getting into with him. Many of my efforts to communicate with him went completely ignored and unanswered and my cinematographer wasn’t much better. Nothing happened.
During this time I happened to meet Logan Kibens, who is an up-and-coming writer/director. I immediately connected with her during our brief conversation and felt regret that I hadn’t met her before I started producing my film. She was a kindred spirit, someone who just “got” it and an artist with whom I felt I could communicate. I also, during this time, lost the day-job I’d had for six years when I left for a more lucrative position that ultimately fell through. I was completely broke, going through a break-up, desperately needed some healthcare but had no insurance, and nothing in my life was working. I was crashing with multiple friends and working as many odd jobs as I could find. It was one of the saddest and most difficult years I’ve experienced.
The highlight of my year was getting cast in a multi-episode series about a zombie apocalypse. I played a terrific character with a wonderful story arc and I got to run around in mud, blood, and snow for a few months. It made me feel alive as an actor and excited about the possibility of producing my own work again because that’s what these guys were doing and they were doing it well. I then landed a temp job at a private equity firm, which was about as far outside my comfort zone as I could get. It was total culture shock for me. I’d never been around finance, knew nothing about it and was completely intimidated by the idea of buying and selling companies and the amounts of money it took to do so.
I struggled along for several months on my abysmal temp wages but also started watching how the owner ran his business with passion and integrity and I began to learn some things. I realized that money is just money and that there is a process around it that can be learned like anything else. I learned what makes a good investor and why investors might want to give their money to a project or a fund. I learned how someone talks to an investor and how to pitch an idea. I learned that funding is difficult at every level, no matter what the idea or industry. It has nothing to do with being unworthy of money; it has to do with the fact that people don’t like to part with their money, period. I learned that if you convey passion, trustworthiness, and value to an investor, they will part with their money more easily—in fact, that’s what an investor ultimately wants to do, otherwise they wouldn’t invest. As uncomfortable as I was, I realized that I was there for a reason—to get used to the idea of funding my projects instead of cowering in fear from the process.
The firm offered me a permanent position with the best wages and benefits I’d ever been offered, along with total flexibility for my acting and I accepted with deep amazement and gratitude. It’s always tough to lock myself into a day-job for fear that it will become an obstacle to my true calling, but in this case I couldn’t find a downside.
On the other hand, my birthday was approaching and I faced another year older and another year gone without making Harmony. My then boyfriend was tired of watching me get so upset over the state of my career and didn’t want our relationship to end on a negative note. He offered to let me stay with him rent-free until I could get back on my feet and to help produce my film. We both knew that putting my paychecks towards a film instead of an apartment was going to be a sacrifice in many respects and maybe not the smartest move in some peoples’ eyes but perhaps fellow artists will understand—sometimes it doesn’t feel like a choice.
We came up with the tiniest of micro budgets that I could feasibly fund with my bi-weekly paychecks and without going into debt. Pre-production started to move, I set a shoot date, and then things got messy with my team. My director continued to ignore me and I was breaking out in anxiety-related hives over the thought of trying to make this film with him. I couldn’t reach my cinematographer and my casting director dropped out of the project right before I scheduled my casting session. It seemed that everyone had bigger and better things to do, but this film was what I could do and it mattered to me.
I put feelers out to Logan Kibens and she immediately sent me a thoughtful e-mail indicating her interest. I wanted so badly to work with her but my Scorpio loyalty didn’t know how to tell the other director that I didn’t want him on the project any more. One night I was in such an anxious state over my director dilemma that a girlfriend said, “You have to fire him and hire the woman you want. You have to do it. This is your movie and you deserve to have it the way you want it.” Sometimes we just need permission and my friend gave it to me that night, along with a kick in the ass. The “firing” was about as anti-climatic as all of my other communication with this director had been. He didn’t answer my phone call or e-mail and I never heard from him again. He had a conversation with my boyfriend during which he joked about being fired, but he never bothered to deal with me directly, which only served to cement my decision.
Once Logan came on board, everything changed. As with any independent production, a lot of favors were called in and so many friends (and strangers) came through with kindness and generosity. A vision for the film came into focus, a production team took shape and casting began. For a struggling actor, it was a fantastic experience to suddenly have agents and managers calling to pitch their clients to me. Suddenly, I had power and a product that people wanted. It was eye-opening and hilarious to see the game for what it was and to realize that, with a tiny power shift, agents and managers were no longer untouchable. In fact, in my auditions since making this film, I’ve felt much more at ease because I understand more fully what’s happening behind-the-scenes. Casting was a fun process, even without a casting director, and we cast Chris Kerson out of New York, who actively pitched himself and who was my first choice from the beginning.
I actively looked for a female cinematographer to replace the guy who dropped out because, after hiring a female director, I realized that creating a place for women to work was actually important to me. It was difficult but we discovered some wonderful artists and in the end brought on Ava Berkofsky, who had worked with Logan before. We had a female Assistant Director (Giulia Caruso), and a female Production Designer (Ash Minnick). Our Stunt Coordinator, Dan Speaker, came to fight rehearsal with his wife and stunt partner, Jan Bryant, who turned out to be an incredible asset to the production and who was the Stunt Coordinator on set during the shoot.
I found the experience of working with a predominantly female crew to be validating and empowering in a way I never expected. I felt that I could let my guard down, that I had a voice, and that my vision for the film finally mattered. It was a welcome change of pace to see some amazing men working hard and willingly for the women in charge without the chauvinist comments we so often encounter on film sets.
During pre-production, after I hired Logan, I became the most joyful and fulfilled I had ever felt as a person or an artist. Producing a solid film demanded everything of me—the things I was good at and the things I wasn’t. I was excited to work on a character I wanted to play and I constantly had adrenaline coursing through my body—in fact I felt a vibrating buzz happening all the time, as if every cell was alive and thriving. I remember seeing a piece many years ago on Drew Barrymore and her production company, Flower Films. I always envied what she did. She went to work with a female partner to develop projects she cared about. I always thought, “In a world where I had money, that’s what I’d do.” Well, I’m in a world with a little bit of money and it’s become clear that this is what I have to do.
I couldn’t sleep the night before production, and on the morning of the shoot I looked around the location, feeling so surreal I practically came out of my body. There is absolutely nothing in the world like knowing you have created something, and I think everyone should try it. Actors, particularly women, spend years of our lives playing a waiting game. We hustle, we starve, we compete, and we suffer agonizing rejection again and again and again. We can only do this for so long before it takes a toll and before we start questioning our value and ability to survive in the business we love so much. As I write this, Harmony is nearly finished and I’m so pleased and gratified with how it turned out. I can’t wait to share this little five-minute film that cost so much of myself, took so long to get to, and that has forever changed the way I see my place in this industry. I’m no longer an actress waiting for a part; I’m a creator who has something to say and something to give.
It seems to me that we might want to start playing the game in a more meaningful way. I’ve paid lip-service in the past to the idea that more women need to work above-the-line. We need more female executives, decision-makers, directors, writers, producers, etc. But the older I get, the more I’m realizing that this is no longer an option; this is essential. If we honestly want the cinematic landscape to reflect our untouched faces, our older ages, our different shapes and colors, our sexuality, our points-of-view, our values, our politics, our hopes, and our dreams, then we simply MUST get involved in cultivating that landscape and we simply MUST empower the women around us who are already doing it. In an industry run by and for men, there is no other way for it to happen. We have to become activists in and through our art, by showing up and creating something of our own.
I’m tired of mopping up my friends’ tears over some dick agent who doesn’t think they’re young, sexy or accomplished enough. Instead, I want to cheer these women on as they create thoughtful, relevant, and meaningful work that fully encapsulates the complexity of who they are and all that they have to offer. For me, there is no turning back; I’m committed to developing my own work and to getting it made. I don’t know how yet and it’s always going to be hard. But I have to laugh when I think about the options that were available to me before compared with the brave new world that is revealing itself to me now. It’s exciting, it’s invigorating, and it’s about time.