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Dana White's crazy ride from actor to filmmaker to award-winning screenwriter

Filmmaker Dana White on the set of 'In the Orchard' >>>

When Dana White won Best Writer for a Drama for her film, Turning Blue
she was quick to turn the attention to her fellow creatives. She won the award from the New York Women in Film & Television’s Shorts Festival, presented by iWoman TV.
 
“It was a wonderful experience to be among so many incredible female filmmakers,” she says.

In many ways this simple display of gratitude from the Kent State University Assistant Professor is the culmination of her journey as a filmmaker, which White calls nothing short of a “crazy ride.”

“I started as an actor, but writing has always been a big part of my life,” she says. “And somehow, I found screenwriting and I was hooked. So, when we went out to L.A., I started to feel restless - like there was something more out there I needed.”

What that was, she says, was control over her artistic life. Becoming an independent filmmaker is how she found that control.

“One day my husband, Chris, and I were in Pasadena at this cafe we loved. We had to share a coffee because we were so broke,” White says. “And I said, ‘I think we should start making films.’ He said, “Okay,” and that was the beginning.”

That’s as close to a “once upon a time” as you can get, so we chatted (via email) with White to learn more about her crazy ride from New York to London to Los Angeles to Ohio (and everywhere in between), winning “Best Writer,” teaching future filmmakers at KSU, and more.

Behind the scenes on 'Involuntary'

Midwest Movie Maker (MMM)
: What’s your backstory?

Dana White (DW): I was born in New York City but grew up in Buffalo. I got my BFA at the Boston Conservatory and went on to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

After I got back to the U.S., I moved to New York to work as an actor. I worked Off-Broadway and regionally, and I lived a wonderful life there.

Eventually, I found my way out to Los Angeles where I lived for many years with my husband and creative partner. It was in L.A. that we decided to be filmmakers.

MMM: What inspired you to pursue filmmaking as a career?

DW: You know it's funny. My journey into filmmaking is really a crazy ride. I started as an actor, but writing has always been a big part of my life. And somehow I found screenwriting, and I was hooked.

When we went out to L.A., I started to feel restless. Like there was something more out there I needed. I’ve always wanted control over my artistic life and being an independent filmmaker is how I’m able to have that control.

One day my husband, Chris, and I were in Pasadena at this cafe we loved. We had to share a coffee because we were so broke. I said, “I think we should start making films.” And he said, “Okay.” And that was the beginning.

We took out loans and started buying equipment, and we started learning on our own. Eventually, we needed to pay back our loans, and we both built careers in television to do that.

Chris became a working Director of Photography, and I worked as an editor and producer to pay the bills.

But we continued to make our own films. Eventually, I went back to school to get my Masters in Scriptwriting at the University of California Riverside.

Filmmaking is the most incredible art form we have. It blends so many forms into one.

It’s my life. I live and breathe it. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Lisa Langford as Val in 'Turning Blue'

Demons, fears and the human heart: Exploring themes of grief and loss

MMM: Your work often explores themes of loss, grief, PTSD, trauma, aging, and the female voice. What draws you to these particular themes, and how do they influence your storytelling?

DW: Ultimately, my art is a way to explore my own fears and demons. I write and create what terrifies me.

Being an artist is what tethers me to the world. Life is so challenging and complicated. Even a stable life has so many ups and downs, pains, and joys. It’s all so much to take in and handle.

As my partner says, “I feel it all.” That’s true. I really do. And the deep questions and fears we all face haunt me.

My work is a way of being able to converse with myself, I think. I have so many unanswered questions that trouble me. My work helps me explore those things.

The theme of loss has been a part of me since I can remember. I’ve always been terrified of losing those I love most. Questions of how we move on in life have circled in my psyche for a long time.

The human heart is both strong and fragile. I’m interested in how we survive our respective traumas.

Our feature film, In the Orchard, is a story about trauma and complicated grief. It deals with two broken people who come together and find a strange bond through their pain. It was my way of addressing my fears and questions about loss and trauma. How do we survive it?

Also, I love stories from the lens of an older person. My work explores stories about aging and the experiences of older adults. 
We are failing miserably when it comes to giving agency to our aging adults. There is such blatant and quiet ageism in this country. I think it’s our society's fear of looking at death and aging.

So, I write into that. I want to help give a voice to those stories. It is very important to me.

Kathleen Chalfant in 'Turning Blue'

The triumph of ‘Turning Blue’

MMM: Turning Blue tackles sensitive topics like death, transition, and caregiving. What motivated you to delve into these subjects?

DW: The film is about the death of my mom. She was everything to me, and I cared for her full-time for two and a half years while she was slowly dying. It was one of the most important, difficult, and beautiful times of my life.

When she passed, it was as if all the air and light went out of my life. I was so devastated that I didn’t think I could keep going. I knew I had to do something, so I did what artists do. I poured all that pain into my art. From that came Turning Blue.

When I first started creating Turning Blue, it was for me - my grief process - to help me survive this incredibly traumatic event in my life.

I soon realized it was for everyone. The feelings of loss and grief are such lonely experiences. I felt lost, like I would float away from the earth. I had great support from my husband, but I still felt so lonely in the world.

I realized we all feel these things, but few talk about it. We need to talk about it.

Death is there in front of us every day, and I wanted to help open these conversations with my work: to help people feel less alone.

America is not great with these subjects. We have such an aversion to pain, weakness, and true vulnerability. We are afraid of old, aging, and death. 

That makes it a challenge for those who need help. It’s okay to not be okay. Death changes us. We’re never really the same. I don’t think we are supposed to be. We end up different. It is a profound time of change and growth. It can be anyway. But never the same.

We’ve had experiences at film festivals where people come up to us and show us pictures of their loved ones who have passed away. They need to feel validated for their pain and just know that someone else sees them. I didn’t feel that many people really saw me when Mom died. They just wanted me to be okay. And I wasn’t okay at all.

I want people to know it’s okay to not be okay and to feel they are not alone.

I would also like to thank Paul Sloop at the Cleveland International Film Festival. We premiered Turning Blue at CIFF which was such an honor. CIFF is such an incredible film festival. Paul believed in the film, and I am so grateful for that.

MMM: Can you share your experience winning Best Writer of a Drama for Turning Blue?

DW: I am a proud member of New York Women in Film & Television. Turning Blue was accepted into their film festival in alliance with iWoman TV. I won Best Writer for a Drama. It was a wonderful experience to be among so many incredible female filmmakers.

MMM: Where can we watch Turning Blue?

DW: You can watch Turning Blue on our website, Chris & Dana Films, under film projects.

A tense scene from 'Involuntary'

Inspiring future filmmakers by creating safe spaces to explore

MMM: How has your academic background influenced your filmmaking style and storytelling?

DW: I have the soul of an actor and writer. What I mean by that is that I yearn to dive deep into characters and the human experience.

My training as an actor really prepared me to be a writer. I was trained in the theater and studied the best plays ever written. You must dive into a character as an actor. Peel that onion so to speak. With great plays, you just keep digging, and there is so much to uncover.

But you need to be intrigued by people. I am fascinated by people and by all that makes up human behavior. Behind every great film is a great story. And that story is made up of the human condition. Characters struggling through things.

I think that storytelling is such a gift. It has the capacity to help us understand one another in a very special and unique way.

MMM: What do you hope to impart to your students at Kent State, and how do you encourage aspiring filmmakers?

DW: I want my students to be courageous. I always tell them that confidence is overrated but courage is what makes up an artist.

What we do is very difficult. We create things from places inside our imaginations. It’s a fragile process. Young artists are often scared, confused and unsure of their own voice. It can be a struggle as they are navigating their own creative journey.

I say, “Do it scared.” Don’t wait until you aren’t scared. It’s all about being scared. Just jump in and find your stories, your art.

I want my students to feel safe to explore all their ideas … bad, good, and indifferent. We must take chances to find the truth in our art. I try to create a safe place for my students to explore and play.

Kent State film students on set

MMM
: Tell us a bit about the Female Filmmakers Initiative at Kent State, which you helped found.

DW: The Female Filmmakers Initiative is so dear to my heart. This was something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Even before I came to Ohio.

FFI is a group of incredible young women and non-binary filmmakers looking to build a strong community of passionate artists with the mission of giving voice to underrepresented groups and stories. FFI is all about giving these filmmakers a safe place to explore their craft.

I couldn’t be prouder of my FFI filmmakers. They humble me every day with their talent, strength and energy.

MMM: Could you tell us about your involvement with organizations like Film Fatales and NYWITV? How have these affiliations enriched your career in filmmaking?

DW: I think the one thing that helps women succeed is community. Both Film Fatales and NYWIFT provide that for women. Both groups have been a wonderful part of my journey.

There are so many resources that both groups make available to help women get their projects off the ground and seen. I love being a part of two groups with such impressive and powerful women in the industry.

MMM: What's next for you? What projects are you working on?

DW: Our film Involuntary is getting submitted on the film festival circuit now. It is the first of an anthology of short narrative films about elder abuse in the form of patient dumping and neglect.

I wrote the film during the pandemic when I read articles about older adults being dumped from nursing homes and facilities to hostels, homeless shelters, and the streets. I was so horrified that I started to do some research. From that, I discovered an epidemic of abuse out there.

The film stars Jack McGee who is incredible in the film. We’ve been speaking to organizations that advocate for older adults, and they love the film. I’ve been told that with this subject, people put their heads in the sand. I’m hoping that won’t be true on the film festival circuit. Older adults, especially those who are economically insecure are voiceless out there. I hope the film will help open conversations about what is happening.

We’re also in preproduction for the second film in the anthology, Dump, right now. We’ll be shooting here in Northeast Ohio coming soon. I can’t wait!

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