Filmmaker Spotlight: Dickie Hearts

Filmmaker Spotlight: Dickie Hearts

Dickie Smile copyPassengers Poster-1

Given only 48-hours to create a short Dickie Hearts, delivers an endearing, driven short, ‘Passengers’. Hearts brings his heart, soul, and unique perspective to the narrative as the driver behind it all as the writer, director, and actor. He is paving the road and inspiring all artists and not just from the ASL community. He talks with us about his process and inspiration. We can’t wait to see what he does next!

 

Tell me about yourself:

I was born in Queens, New York, then moved to Newport News, Virginia, at the age of four when my parents found better job opportunities there. They were immigrants from Guyana, South America. I grew up attending public schools with ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters throughout my entire education. It’s called being mainstreamed. Then I enrolled at Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing (AKA the Deaf Mecca). I graduated from there in 2009 and two years later, when I heard about Switched at Birth, a show that cast actual and real deaf actors, I decided that was it— I just had to move to Los Angeles to chase after my acting dreams that I’ve always had since much younger than I can ever remember. So I drove across America.

 

Did you go to school to become a filmmaker?

Well, Gallaudet University isn’t exactly New York Film Academy, but I still took filmmaking courses there. I just knew that I had a strong, innate passion for making movies; it was something I truly absolutely loved to bleed, sweat and break tears over. Thus, I just took all the film classes provided there. Most of my skills come from a lot of hands-on filmmaking that I did outside of class.

 

Being a deaf actor, writer, and director how has that influenced your storytelling?

It’s influenced me hugely. It’s a great, huge part of who I am every day in my life. I know I have a unique perspective, a way of different experiences throughout life, which definitely allows me to bring out storytelling not only as a deaf but as well as a multi-racial and gay person. Everyone has a story to tell. I know I do. I’d love nothing more than to see my story told on film and hopefully, people out there will be like, “Oh, my god, yes! I can totally relate!” Love, pain, loneliness, sadness, and happiness— those are all universal experiences we share, regardless of our backgrounds and who we are.

   

What has been the biggest challenge and misconception about you in the industry?

Get ready for a loaded answer, sorry not sorry. The biggest challenge in the industry, I have to say, is booking constant work as a deaf, ethnic actor. Generally, it’s pretty hard for all the actors in the industry, but to be an actor with a disability— be it deaf, blind, paraplegic, short, you name it— it’s super-duper bajillion times harder than you can imagine. We’re talking about an industry that highly cherishes near-perfection and able-bodiedness more than anything else. What truly bothers me is to see those able-bodied actors take on roles that actual actors with disabilities could do. We’re looking for work, we really are. Those roles only come for us, like once a year or something like that (sadly).

For instance, hearing actors taking on deaf roles is a huge, huge disappointment and letdown to me as a deaf actor. It’s not just taking away the opportunity from us, but also failing to bring 100% authenticity to the role. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen hearing actors, no matter how hard they try to study deaf people or try to learn their language in a certain amount of prep time when they act deaf— I can’t help but just cringe or cover my eyes. Like, no. That is not how we do it.

 

While the experiences are completely different, it’s very much similar to whitewashing or a cisgender actor taking on a transgender role. The list goes on.

Biggest misconception? That we’re often suited only for roles that are defined by our characteristics. Say, there’s a written TV character named Will, and he’s the deaf guy. Do I want to be Will, the ‘deaf guy’? No. I want to be Will, who happens to be deaf. Major difference. I audition for hearing roles even though I’m deaf. I still do.

 

Who has been your inspiration in the industry/life?

I would have to say, growing up, deaf Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin. Every time she was on TV, I just got too excited. I’d point and say, “See? Deaf people can be on TV, too! Wait till I get on there!” Now? I would have to say, Mindy Kaling. That girl is hilarious. And a pioneer, truly. Ryan Murphy as well, who’s seriously paved the way for LGBT on TV and also Shonda Rhimes— wow, her work, I just can’t. I would die to work with any of them. Truly. Oh, one more, Sarah Michelle Gellar!

 

What drove (pun intended) you to write your short ‘Passengers’ ?

Love punny. I took on being a Lyft driver to make extra money on the side (who doesn’t these days). And there were a lot of interesting experiences. One of the most memorable ones was picking up this absolutely gorgeous, handsome guy and I was just like, oh…my…god. And I have to tell you, I am a huge hopeless, romantic sap. I still cry at badly-written, super predictable rom-coms and so of course, this entered my mind— what if in a rom-com film, my character, and his character from two completely different worlds actually connected? What if it went further and developed into a budding, romantic relationship? How would it work out between those two? And it wasn’t just that, but I wanted to tell the story of a deaf person who’s driving around to make extra money while he wants to become a star— that’s something universal that people can relate to.

But then I shelved the idea away…Until the 48-hours Disability Film Challenge came up in an SAG-AFTRA mass email!

 

You shot your short in 48 hours! What was the biggest challenge shooting in such a short time period?

That was insanity. I’m not going ever do that again. Actually. That’s a lie. I probably will. I’ll just keep denying it until the very last-minute to enter. Biggest challenge? Directing and acting at the same time. It wasn’t even 48 hours. We shot in like, in one day. My brain was overloading. I was thinking 100 different things at the same time, planning ahead for the next scene while trying to focus on my character in this scene. Not to mention we were racing against the sunset.

I take acting very seriously. So, all I’m going to say, would I direct and act at the same time again? I don’t really want to, but I probably will, only because I want to learn and get better each time I do something. I don’t know how actors were able to act and direct at the same time. Kudos to you, Ben Affleck.

Oh yeah, I never slept. My 8-year old MacBook Pro crashed on me, after all, that overnight editing.

 

How did you go about casting?

I quickly cast all of my friends, who were natural actors. And they were all deaf too, each from different backgrounds (i.e. deaf schooled, mainstreamed, etc) and varying levels of ASL fluency. One crew member actually had to join the cast the last-minute as himself because he had a great ethnic look— I know, but I always to strive to increase diversity whenever possible (because you know, that’s just a reflection of real life). I also searched for a hearing actor for the role of the love interest, but I’m actually really pleased with the final casting and how it all came together. I’m really happy and I would not replace anyone, were we to do it all over again. They were really talented and they contributed hugely to the project. It was a great, wonderful artist collaboration. I’m super thankful for not only the cast but the crew as well, who happened to be deaf. So yes, it was an all-deaf cast and crew production, which I’m so proud of.

 

What are you working on next?

I’m working on an action short film that’ll involve characters with disabilities requiring them to save the world (or day haha) one way or another.

 

What advice do you have to your fellow filmmakers?

Originally my advice was this– keep hammering away at your next filmmaking goal until it gets done. I still say that, but I much more strongly resonate with this more:

Keep learning and keep collaborating. Keep talking with other filmmakers and artists alike. Just whatever you do, don’t stop learning and don’t stop talking with other filmmakers. You learn and gain so much that way. Collaboration is really the key today.

 

 

 

 

 

Filmmaker Spotlight: Jamie Donoughue

Filmmaker Spotlight: Jamie Donoughue

Writer and Director of the HollyShorts Best Short Winner, Jamie Donoughue shares with us about the natural disaster that led to the submergence into Kosovo’s history and to his short: Shok. Shok is a story about a friendship between two boys that is tested by the atrocities of the Kosovo war.

Where did you study film?

I went to University in Salford, Manchester in UK. However my practical knowledge came from working in the industry. At 18 I trained as a camera assistant and then moved up to Operator and then Director. My background for years was in music videos where I ran a production company ‘Left Eye Blind’. A couple of years ago I left the company to pursue my love of drama as a freelance director.

What drew you to tell the story of Shok?

I visited Kosovo for a few days back in 2010. Then the Icelandic volcano erupted. I was stuck in the country for 5 weeks and during that time began to learn the history and the atrocities that had happened. Meeting my producer Eshref he taught me about life in Kosovo and growing up during the war. I could not believe that these events had happened less than 15 years ago and felt as a filmmaker I could create an opportunity for these stories to be heard.

Was there a language barrier?

Yes of course, directing in a different language does present obvious challenges. However, I’m a strong believer that you can tell a good performance in an actor no matter what language they are speaking. I studied Albanian in order to direct the film, however I also had translators with me.

What was it like to work with children especially who speak another language?

I can honestly say that both Lum Veseli (Petrit) and Andi Bajgora (Oki) were two of the most professional actors I have ever worked with. Andi had had some experience, but it was Lum’s first time acting. We worked hard in rehearsal and used those lessons as a reference point on set. Both are natural born actors and took notes very well which was a major reason why I cast them. Luckily both had learned to speak good English, which made my job a lot easier. I can thank the Harry Potter movies for that!

While you were in Kosovo how did you go about exploring the culture and learning about the history?

It took a long time to fully understand the history and culture of Kosovo and I’m still learning. You can read as many books as you like but the only way to truly understand is to speak directly with the people and to spend time with them. I researched for over four years before writing the film. In this time I visited the entire country and stayed with families, hearing their stories of growing up and their experiences during the war. I also spent a lot of time in Albanian. Most of my research was done over a good traditional family meal and a few raki’s (the local drink).

Is Shok the first short you’ve written?

Yes. I mainly script edit and I also write voiceovers for commercials but Shok was my first solo writing project.

Are you thinking about developing Shok into a feature?

I’m not specifically thinking of developing Shok, I feel it’s a very self contained story. I am however working on a developing number of other stories from the region.

You wrote and directed Shok, which role do you prefer and what do you plan to do more of?

Definitely directing. I enjoyed the writing process but it came more out of necessity than choice. For me satisfaction comes from collaboration and there is no better feeling than being on set.

What are you working on next? Any features?

I’m in talks with a number of different companies/producers about developing features so hopefully this is something I can look to do in the future. I also have a huge love for TV drama, especially in the USA, so I’d be keen to branch into that.

Have you shown your short to the people you’ve met (in Kosovo) throughout this project? If so, what was their reaction?

Originally very few people, apart from the producers, had seen the film in Kosovo. We decided to do a national screening at DokuFest, the Kosovo film festival. Out of all my screenings to date this was the most nerve racking. However the response was fantastic. As hard as it was for many people to watch we were complimented on how realistic and accurate the film was and there was a genuine appreciation that we had decided to tackle the subject and bring these events to light.

What advice do you have to your fellow filmmakers?

Only people who have made a film can truly understand what is involved and the stresses and challenges that come with it. For me my biggest lesson I learnt was persistence. For every success you have there is disappointment, and vice versa. There are always dark times and, especially with this film, there were times when it felt it would never get made. You have to keep focused and keep going no matter what. Look at setbacks as creative challenges, keep positive and determined. Also understand that everyone has a different view and opinion. Be open to advice but stick to what you believe is right.

Filmmaker Spotlight: Anya Leta

Filmmaker Spotlight: Anya Leta

Anya Leta
Anya Leta

In Points of Origin a couple who cannot conceive must replace a birth announcement with a plane ticket, a baby shower with doctor’s appointments, and an American womb with an Indian one. RJ, an Indian radio host played by Ankur Vikal, and his wife, Rosemary, played by Tessa Thompson, face ethical dilemmas as they outsource their pregnancy to India, hoping that the in vitro process will endure as well as their relationship.

When thinking of outsourcing a service one’s mind doesn’t immediately think of outsourcing a pregnancy, but for Anya Leta’s main characters it’s the not just on their mind, it’s their reality. Writer and Director Anya Leta brings two worlds together divided by culture and circumstance and joined by one commonality: life.

As Rosemary attempts to relate to her surrogate she is blinded by the nucleus of her own grounding and deficient to see the circumstances of the cultivation that the surrogate faces.

RJ faces scrutiny as he addresses the controversial topic of outsourcing surrogacy on his radio show, and is rapidly put in the hot seat when callers ask heavy questions that force RJ to surface his fears and doubts about the procedure.

 

Tessa, Ankur, Denzil

Points of Origin Synopsis:

Points of Origin is a fictional short film exploring the emotional conflicts an American couple experiences while attempting to have a baby with a female surrogate in India.

 

Anya, tell me a little bit about where you grew up and where you studied filmmaking:

I grew up in a small town in Iowa called Fairfield. Where the Transcendental Meditation (TM) headquarters are. I have roots of visiting India since I was 14 years old. So shooting a film there wasn’t such a foreign idea to me.

I did my undergraduate in Film at UCLA and got my graduate degree from NYU Tisch Asia at the campus in Singapore. What I loved about the program is that focus was making films and production in Asia.

India is like a second home to me and I’ve always been drawn to it. After I attended NYU I went to India with the intention of making a film. Being a foreigner over there I also encountered other foreigners and the reasons why they were there. I found that many were there for medical tourism, as after the financial crash in 2009, it was more affordable for Americans to do medical procedures at state of the art facilities in India rather than the US.

 

What lead you to tell the story of ‘Points of Origin’

When I started finding out that people were going to India for surrogacy. You’re taking your genes and implanting them into another woman, to me that was the most intense form of medical tourism that there is. You think about outsourcing being outsourcing jobs, but this is outsourcing life. All of this emotional and personal implications that usually involves two people and you’re starting to involve a third person and you’re involving doctors and nurses and this whole exploitation that runs under it. That was the inspiration for the story. Specifically I wanted to tell the story through the point of view of the husband. There are often documentary stories told about American couples who go there and they have no idea what’s going on. I specifically wanted the husband to be Indian and understand the culture. So he would give the audience a very personal look at what was going on. He understands what’s going on, he understands the language. Then I chose to have an American wife who was very much on the outside. And the conflict between the two people.

The plot of the film is surrogacy, but for me it’s about the relationship and what happens between two people in the conflict of this situation. Often they’re sitting throughout the film waiting to go to the doctor’s office, waiting to meet the surrogate, facing forward, but by the end of the film they’re literally facing each other. When you want something so badly and you’re going forward, going forward and finally you get that moment to realize and reevaluate what they want in the face of this circumstance.

 

In a way, you’re including a piece of your American side and a piece of your side that grew in India into the film:

Some people say ‘you make movies about yourself’ and people say “well you must be the wife,” actually I feel like the husband. But, I have some qualities of the wife. Even though I’ve been to India many times and I’ve lived there for two years I’ve been treated like such an outsider. I know how it feels to be the minority and for me it was a very eye-opening experience.

I feel that I brought a sense of that discomfort from those experiences of being a minority in India into the film. Even though I had a great time there I also experienced some assumptions people had because I don’t look like I’m from India.

 

Points of Origin’ was shot internationally what was it like to have a crew internationally and filming in India?

Our lead actor is from and resides in India, our lead actress is from Los Angeles, our composer is from Madrid, the Director of Photography is from Tokyo, our producer is from Portland–our crew is from all over the world. Everyone is scattered all over the globe.

It is very difficult to get filming permits in India. Because the subject is sensitive that added this whole other element where people would ask what it is about and I would respond: it’s a love story. If I accomplished anything at the end of the day I felt good about it because of the challenges I faced filming in India. It makes shooting in the US easier. Filming in Los Angeles vs. India is very different, the lighting and grip team were incredible. They’re the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. I was blown away about how cool they were and how they could work with so little. I remember one day a lamp broke on set and they were so innovative they just made a new one on the spot.

We had a local production team that helped us get our permission for the location we shot at which was essential.

 

Where did you get the funds to film internationally?

I got the funds through Kickstarter. I was thinking about how do I make a quality film, and where is that money going to come from? Thanks to my producer, Erin Galey, we raised $25,000 dollars. Without her I wouldn’t have gotten there. Approaching how to pitch Points of Origin I took into account that I didn’t want my pitch video to be “help me, please!” I wanted to talk about the story.

I think crowd funding is tricky because the campaigns I get turned off from are the ones that come off as desperate, but if you tell me this project is amazing and here is why and here is why you should be a part of it I’m like okay, yes. So that was the approach that we took: we are doing an international shoot we have great actors and you want to be part of it!

The dream of Kickstarter is that there is someone in the world that gives you a bunch of money because your story is so great and it started out that people from my hometown were donating and then at the very end we had this major donor from India who just really connected with the subject and donated thousands of dollars. I feel like I got the miracle of Kickstarter. What’s amazing about crowd funding is that you connect with people you would never know any other way.

My producer, Erin, helped me with great incentives and we used her successful kickstarter for her film Sahasi Chori (Brave Girl) as a model. Some donors aren’t in the film industry and it’s important to make them feel like they’re coming on a journey with you and they’re part of it all. I feel like I didn’t do it well enough after the film was shot– you really have to stay in touch with the people, they need updates, and that’s a struggled for me and Erin because we are keeping so many projects afloat. It’s almost like customer service, because you have to reassure people along the way that they’re going to get what they paid for. I’m happy to do it and I’m so grateful for all who donated, I just wish we could have been better about being in touch!

 

How did you go about casting the characters?

Our main actress, Tessa Thompson, loved the script. It’s important that they connect with the script because I don’t know her, she doesn’t know me, what you can sell is the story. I showed her some of my previous films so she got a sense of my visual style. I went through a casting director to bring her on board. I saw Tessa’s work and she had a bit of vulnerability that came across on-screen and that is what I was looking for. The main character was in a vulnerable state being injected with hormones, she’s in a different country, as a woman she can’t give birth. I wanted the audience to empathize with her rather than thinking about her as a woman who goes to India and colonizes a woman’s body. I thought Tessa was a great fit because she was attracted to the script and she had what I was looking for. She really jumped in to the culture, she loved the food and she would travel around and converse with the crew and that elevated the story because she not only loved the script, but she was really an outsider coming in to the culture.

The actor who played the doctor, Denzil Smith, also connected with the material. Even though he had such a small role he wanted to be part of the story. It’s humbling when you get people like that who are part of your film.

 

 

What are you working on right now?

Points of Origin is touring festivals right now so I can relax a little. Right now I’m working with this brilliant screenwriter named Ron Nyswaner he wrote Philadelphia, he’s one of the writers on Ray Donovan. I saw Philadelphia when I was really young and I never thought I would get to work with someone like him and we’re working together on some of his television projects. He’s a great mentor and I love having a mentor that has so much experience. I’m also working with Erin and her production company In The Flicker. I’m also developing Points of Origin into a feature. Right now it’s only twenty-four hours before they implant the embryo and there is so much more to the story, the pregnancy, the family dynamics. I’m also approaching the surrogacy topic and turning it into a television series. The topic of biological colonization is interesting and I want to touch on the dark side of it,  trade that goes on as well. There is a really dark side that isn’t explored in my film and I want to do that in a long format and in television you can expand stories out even more. Points of Origin is a look into the filmmaking I’m interested in I want to touch on the tension between the two cultures and ultimately between two people.

 

Do you have any advice to fellow filmmakers?

I feel like I’m not qualified to give advice at this time because I’m at the beginning of my career. I think it’s important to do good casting, work with good actors, and I think that all comes from the story. Your script needs to be right, it’s the foundation to your film. Once you have a story that’s working I feel like I’m embellishing it and working it, and when you bring the actors in they contribute to the script.

Anya with ActorsTessa Thompson