Interview: 10 questions for Dawn Westlake, “Touch” (2020)
3 June 2022
1. Tell me something about your life and education background:
I grew up in suburban Chicago as an only child to older parents (they had been married 14 years before I came along) who achieved great things in their careers. My mother was a professor, author, lecturer and activist in the field of family sciences, child psychology/development, human sexuality and women’s rights. My father was a metallurgist at a national laboratory who retired in his mid-50s to become a poet, writer, and essayist. He was also always an activist, dedicating a lot of free time to causes promoting civil rights, women’s rights, and nature conservation. I graduated first in my class from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL (just north of Chicago) with a major in Radio-TV-Film and a minor in Spanish. I’ve been married to my best friend, Bruce Rheins, since 1989.
2. When, how, and why did you start filming?
I had been an actress/writer in Chicago and San Francisco after graduating from university in 1986. In 1998, I founded my production company, Ron de Cana Productions, Inc. in Los Angeles, as I was developing a feature film based on a famous Spanish novel at the time. In 2000, I made my first short film, “Mini Driver Project”, in Northern Portugal. It was basically just a piece to show that I could command a foreign crew in a location outside the US…something concrete to hand in with my feature script that I wanted to have produced in Spain. To my surprise, “Mini Driver Project” did so well in international film festivals, that I got hooked on doing short film, and I haven’t ever looked back. (I’m in prep on my 23rd short film right now.)
3. What kind of subjects do you address in your videos/films?
The majority of my films are issue-oriented…advocating for human rights, anti-war, anti-gun, pro-democracy, etc…But, I have also made some comedies, a sexy noir thriller, dance films, animated films, documentaries…
4. How do you develop your videos/films, do you follow certain principles, styles, etc?
I do always try to follow the “4 Es” of filmmaking. As much as possible, I try to make content that Enlightens, Educates, Evokes Emotion, as well as Entertains. Ideas for films usually come from issues I’m passionate about and/or mental pictures I get in dreams or daydreams that I want to see replicated on the screen. I give my cinematographers a lot of leeway to be creative, but I do always have one or two shots that we “must get”, and I’m sure not to let the editor leave them on the cutting room floor, later on in the process, either. HA!
5. Tell me something about the technical equipment you use.
In 2002, I was named a Platinum Filmmaker by Canon USA’s Los Angeles office, so later, when they came out with the Canon5D and filmmakers were realizing this new still camera could do amazing video, I was offered a lot of amazing gear for use by my crews. I was so incredibly grateful to be able to see what the 5D, 6D, C300, C500 and Cinema Zooms could do for my film ideas (and “must get” frames) in the hands of very capable cinematographers. For editing, Final Cut was all the rage at the beginning of my career, but for the past 8-9 years, it’s been the Adobe Suite. Effects and color correction can be done really efficiently with After Effects and DaVinci Resolve.
6. What are the chances of new media for the genre videos/films in general and you personally?
Being unable to work with a crew due to the pandemic, I made the film “Touch” (2020), that you at NewMediaFest played and promoted, using a Zoom connection/recording with my dad in suburban Chicago (2,001 miles away from me in Los Angeles), a couple consumer cameras and a security camera in my living room that my husband set up and ran for me. My dad had written “Touch” about the importance of being tactile with family and friends over his whole life and how alienating the beginning of the lockdown was for him. He emailed me his text in late March of 2020, and I was so moved by it that by early April we were ‘filming’ over Zoom. I had the piece edited by mid-April, using old family films taken in the 1920s-1940s by my great uncle to illustrate my dad’s memories. I was so delighted that your organization picked up the film! It also played in many other pandemic-themed and general film festivals; winning awards for Best Writing at a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, Best Documentary at a fest in Tblisi, Georgia, and it was nominated for the Health & Well-Being Prize at Le Temps Presse/Cinema for Change in Paris, France.
7. How do you finance your films?
I personally finance them through my production company, Ron de Cana Productions, Inc. I work with extremely low-budgets surrounding the films so that I can pay cast/crew. I write stories that only require what I already own, can rent, borrow or license…If there’s something in a script outside of those parameters, it’s immediately cut and/or I change gears and go in a different direction.
8. Do you work individually as a video artist/filmmaker or do you work in a team? If you have an experience in both, what is the difference, what do you prefer?
I’ve only ever worked with teams. Even with “Touch” being literally ‘in house’, I couldn’t have accomplished it without my father, obviously, and my husband…who was running the cameras in his pajamas. 🙂
9. Who or what has a lasting influence on your film/video making?
I’ve done several projects based on my father’s writing: “A Life of Death” (2003), an anti-war film based on a poem he wrote; “Through the Pane” (2015), based on his essay about his acceptance of my mom’s passing, using nature’s rhythms as a balm for his soul; “Scrappy” (2016) based on an anecdote from his youth illustrating the bizarre and deeply entrenched gun culture in the USA; and “Touch” (2020), based on his essay about his isolation during the first part of the COVID-19 lockdown.
10. What are your future plans or dreams as a film/video maker?
I’m currently prepping a new film called “For the Skeptical” about the danger to democracies worldwide due to conspiracy theories, disinfo, lies and the anti-science movement. In the future, I’d love to make even shorter films…commercials for things like democracy, ethics, kindness, patience, self-care, joy…things that we sadly seem to have to “sell” to people these days.