FF2 Contributing Editor Jessica Perry chats with filmmaker Dana Brawer (Check out Jessica’s review of Dana’s film The Red Card over at The Hot Pink Pen)
Jessica E. Perry (JEP): What was it that originally drew you to the subject of the film [sexual assault], which is one many shy away from talking about so candidly?
Dana Brawer (DB): Yeah, kind of exactly what you said about people shying away was why I wanted to make a movie about it. The really basic original nugget was that I wanted to tell a realistic high school story [and] I just didn’t see a lot of content out there that felt real and spoke to my experience.
But then when I thought back on high school and having talked to a lot of girlfriends from school I realized that unfortunately, this is a super big part of a lot of people’s high school experiences. And because people don’t talk about it nothing changes. I thought that making a film about that in a non-exploitative way and in a really honest way would maybe help get the ball rolling.
JEP: So is this a subject you were passionate about beforehand or was it only as you started thinking about telling a real high school story that this topic presented itself?
DB: Yes, the later. I mean I am involved in other social and political movements, but the issues of rape and sexual assault in high school wasn’t really something that I studied too much. But just being a young woman and a feminist it’s a topic that comes up a lot.
JEP: Yes, I feel like I’ve been watching a lot of stuff lately with content centered on rape culture, and a lot of it comes from female filmmakers.
DB: Yeah. [And] with all these assaults on college campuses coming to light it timed perfectly with The Red Card, because I had written the script beforehand and then as we were making it all of these stories were coming to light.
JEP: It is definitely something where I think more awareness needs to be placed.
JEP: Sam is a fully developed female protagonist. Was this important for you, as a woman in film, to represent women? More specifically, was it important for you to have a female protagonist that was well rounded and strong? Or did that sort of just come from your experiences?
DB: With any character I write I hope that they’re going to be strong and bold and well developed. But I did think that particularly for this story, because it’s such sensitive material, and if done in a wrong way could feel exploitative or could feel like its falling into genre tropes. So I felt like it was, I guess particularly important. But you know with male and female characters, I’m always trying to make them…
JEP: Right. To really have both sides well represented.
DB: Yeah and that was another intention too, to not make Michael’s character just like a plain criminal guy. You know, just a normal guy. Because that is for the most part what is real life.
JEP: Yeah, and he definitely didn’t handle it well, or didn’t know how to handle it well afterwards. Like he clearly is not that person necessarily, and wanted to apologize, but didn’t know how to do that.
DB: Right, and I think that that’s the case for a lot of young men. It’s not just individual acts, it’s the culture and then peer pressure and men feeling like they have to prove themselves to other male peers.
And that was [Michael’s] problem. I didn’t want him to come off as being necessarily a bad person, even though he did some bad stuff. But we wanted the story to be more of a commentary on cults of masculinity generally, and how people can get wrapped up in that.
JEP: How involved were you in the casting process? Like how important was it to find the right Sam?
DB: Oh so important! So important. Yeah, I’m very involved with casting usually. In our casting sessions I would make all of the actors come in and do improvisation and work with each other. So once we had our main cast down I brought in a ton of Michaels to do reads with Sam to make sure the chemistry was right. Especially since they’re getting into some intimate stuff, I wanted to make sure that they were comfortable.
So yeah the casting, it took a long time to find Amber. Cause we had a ton of fantastic amazing talented actors come in and read for us for that part, but no one was quite right. And then I saw her in a friend’s dailies…
JEP: Oh! Okay…
DB: And even just her standing there … there was no sound, it was just kind of a montage of what they shot, and I was like who is that, she’s amazing! And she came in and nailed it. She’s gonna be a superstar.
JEP: Yeah, I found her to be unique and quirky but universal at the same time.
DB: Yeah. I think she plays that well—the insecurity of high school well—having insecurities but being confident in yourself at the same time.
JEP: Yeah. In that vein, I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but everyone in the film knew Sam’s name. So I didn’t feel like she was so unpopular. Everyone knew who she was, she just had never really been included in this party before, which I thought was interesting.
DB: Yeah! Cause it’s, you know, I hate that in movies—like talking about making realistic high school movies—where you have the nerdy kid and no one knows their name and they throw him in the garbage bin. No one in real life talks that way. And for the most part, unless you’re at a huge huge public school, you know most people’s names, or you at least know that girl works at the library, or that girl is on the soccer team. So I thought that was important.
JEP: The film has been received well at a lot of film festivals, how does that feel? This was your first “out of school” short, correct?
DB: Well this, it was actually a student production, but I’m glad that you didn’t think it was. Cause you know, the way I’m going around and talking about it is not so much focused on the fact that it was a student film. Because I think that it does have a life outside of school.
It was the most complicated production to date, but I have done other shorts before. I did a short documentary called Howard’s Hops, about a guy who brewed award-winning beer in his garage and that screened in the LA Film Festival in 2010.
JEP: That’s great. And because The Red Card is doing so well at festivals, how does it change the trajectory of your career? In terms of where you saw it going. Or has it made you want to do more or different things?
DB: Hmm, that’s a good question. When I was pitching this project in class, it was always considered a project that would be harder to get into festivals. Cause you know it’s 20 minutes, it’s a drama, it’s about topics that are hard to swallow, involving underage kids. So there were a lot of elements I guess working against the festival circuit. So, even though I knew that the content was there, I wasn’t sure how people were going to receive it so I went in with no expectations at all. And I’m obviously pleasantly surprised to know that it is screening so well at all these, and people are connecting with it.
I guess it has made me more confident in wanting to just stick to the stories that I want to tell. Don’t worry about the length, don’t worry about what’s commercial—if it’s a good story that’s what people are going to connect with.
JEP: Yes, definitely. As your film career develops what do you strive towards that you haven’t already accomplished? I mean you’re just in the beginning stages, but what specific things are you working towards?
DB: Yeah so, I haven’t directed a feature yet. So that’s one. I’m developing another high school story, but this is kind of a sexy raunchy high school comedy. So it’s a little different then The Red Card. I think there aren’t a lot of teen comedies about girls. There’s Clueless, there’s Mean Girls, but there are a lot more comedies for young guys, and I don’t think that there’s a lot of good content out there for young girls that also has a positive message.
So I’m working on that now, and hopefully getting that off the ground. But I’ve also been hired to write this cool … it’s like a sci-fi horror comedy movie. Based on this preexisting unique novella. And I’m co-writing it with Jeff Buhler he’s a horror screenwriter. He’s adapting the new Pet Cemetery movie and doing the new Grudge, but he needed someone who could help him out with this other project since he’s clearly got a lot on his plate.
So those are the two feature projects, but I’m also directing a short film in February.
JEP: Who or what inspires you as a filmmaker, and who or what inspires you in your daily life? Are they the same or are they vastly different?
DB: This is kind of a cliché film school answer but I’m gonna give it anyway. In high school when I saw Mulholland Drive, it was the first time I had ever really seen a movie like that and it expanded my mind to think outside of traditional narrative. And then I started watching a lot of David Lynch in high school.
In a similar vein, when I was also in high school I watched the movie Thirteen by Catherine Hardwicke. And that movie is so gritty and its so real and its so honest, that I also realized, oh my gosh I can tell movies like this too.
So those are two filmmakers who inspire me a lot. But I guess in my daily life, what inspires me? I find inspiration in the littlest of things, and that’s usually where my ideas take form. Like from interacting with someone in a grocery store, or seeing someone on a street corner. That’s often where my inspiration comes from.
JEP: Do you think there is a preconceived notion about female directors and filmmakers in terms of what kind of content they deliver? If so, why do you think this is?
DB: Oh, totally. Yeah I think it’s a complicated issue obviously, and I’m not the spokesperson for all female directors, but I do think that—going back to the comedy, I don’t think that people generally think women are as funny as men. So I see most comedies about men, doing men stuff, written by men, directed by men. But I mean that’s changing now, like Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer are changing the market a lot.
I also think that women are maybe pushed out of the action realm too. And again not that that’s always true, obviously like Kathryn Bigelow is amazing, but I think just in my daily life…
JEP: Like there are a few exceptions to the rule type thing, instead of it being…
DB: Yeah. Yeah I think, you know women are mostly expected to do like romantic comedies, drama. And that’s mostly what I see too. I took this 52 Films by Women pledge. Have you seen this?
JEP: Yes! We are actually including the 52 Films by Women hashtag in all of our social media content. So yes we’re doing it.
DB: Oh cool! So I took the pledge, and I was looking up all of the films that they had posted that women had directed. And it was a lot of drama and a few rom coms—and not that those aren’t great, because I’m a drama writer and director—but I think that it is harder for women to do other topics.
JEP: Yes, definitely. And as young filmmaker, what would you say to other up-and-coming filmmakers like yourself who are maybe facing some of the same challenges?
DB: Just work all the time if you can. I mean its so cliché but it’s so true…
JEP: Oh it’s so true.
DB: And, okay this maybe is not so self-explanatory, but I was really afraid to go to networking events and talk to people at festivals. Most people have a little bit of social anxiety, and especially at this age too I wondered if people were going to value what I had to say or if they would even want to talk to me. But if you just go up to people and start talking, for the most part they’ll engage you. So I would say don’t be afraid to just go to an event—even if you’re going by yourself—don’t be afraid you know. If your film is screening at a festival, be really aggressive about it, because I’ve gotten a few jobs now just from networking at events.
© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (1/29/16)
Photo Credits: Dana Brawer and Champion Hamilton
Watch the trailer for The Red Card.