Alumni Spotlight: Dawn Wilkinson

Posted: Jul 4, 2022

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Dawn Wilkinson is no stranger to the ins and outs of the business of entertainment. She’s a prolific creator and episodic director behind some of TV’s most renowned series, such as Empire, How to Get Away with Murder, Truth Be Told, All American and OWN’s highly acclaimed drama Greenleaf, to name a few. Recently, Dawn received rave reviews when she directed the BET+ original film Block Party, the first-ever Juneteenth family comedy, and the first of its kind to have a theatrical, streaming, and linear release in the same month!

Since completing the Directors’ Lab at the CFC in 2000, Dawn has become a trailblazer in the industry and is known for creating celebrated Black-led content, working alongside some of the most well-known Black artists in film and TV such as Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Shonda Rhimes, Terrance Howard and many more.

The award-winning director recently sat down with us to unveil her journey from being an apprentice with CFC Founder Norman Jewison on the set of Hurricane (1999), to becoming one of today’s most prolific TV and film directors. Read on to discover how Dawn is continuing to make her mark in the screen industry.

How were you first introduced to the film/TV industry? What first got you interested and inspired you to pursue a career as a creator and storyteller?

I went to the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT), an arts organization that was in the old Irwin Toy Factory, now the Toy Factory Lofts in Toronto. My mom was a bookkeeper and she did the books for a small business that rented space there. One day I went with her to work and I remember making a drink with just hot water, creamer and sugar. I knew the warehouse; it was familiar in the way that only old Toronto buildings can be. So, I felt comfortable knowing nothing and walking into LIFT and looking at their bulletin board to meet other film people, because that’s how it was done back then. We put up posters! Standing there, I met a filmmaker named David Cropper. He sent me to RAJE productions office which was a short walk away. RAJE was Alison Duke, Jeremy Hood, Earl White and Ricardo Diaz. They were the go-to hip hop music video producers for a time. David told me they were shooting a music video on the weekend and that they needed help and I should go introduce myself. I brought a VHS tape of my short film, Dandelions, that I made at a Sheridan College workshop with filmmaker Phil Hoffman, after being inspired by seeing filmmakers talk about their films when I was a theatre rep at the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF), a job I acquired through my connection to Kay Armitage, who was a TIFF programmer and Women’s Studies and Cinema Studies professor at the University of Toronto where I was a student. So, after making my own short film with Phil Hoffman’s guidance, I found myself pulling cable on a few VideoFACT projects. But it was making Dandelions that truly inspired me. In that film I posed the question I had been asked all my life: “Where are you from?” and I also answered it, “I said, I was born here. Where are you from?” So, it was a dialogue that I had with others but it was really with myself about being a Black Canadian, being from here, and that expectation of having to provide an explanation, because implied of course is still being the “other” and not belonging. I spent a few years exploring this idea in an academic setting, but when I started to see experimental films by artists like Maya Deren something clicked. I wanted to try and express myself in a film. I wasn’t thinking about commercial film and television, that came later.

We read that CFC founder Norman Jewison is your favorite director. Can you share what makes Norman such an impactful director to you?

Norman Jewison played a pivotal role in my development as a director in many ways. In The Heat of the Night was a favorite film of my parents. They were kind of ahead of their time being an interracial couple in the 60s in Montreal, and so they were drawn to Jewison’s exploration of race relations. So, I grew up knowing that film even though it was from before my time. Cut to: I’m on the set of the Hurricane, as Norman’s on-set shadow and Rod Steiger was playing the Judge. Roger Deakins was the DP. And I saw every scene shot in Toronto and I watched the monitor as much as I could. I still have my notebooks from that time. I wore a notebook around my neck like a security pass, and I would draw the frames from the video tape because it was being shot on film and the monitors were nothing like what we have today.

So, if you can imagine for a moment, at this point I had directed a VideoFACT music video and Instant Dread, my second short film that I wrote and produced with a first productions grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, and this was my introduction to blocking and working with actors, observing a true master at work! Being told, “observing is my job because Norman likes to mentor” so in addition to holding Norman’s phone, what did I see? Denzel Washington transform into Rubin Hurricane Carter. In one scene I recall six takes, all different and equally compelling. It was a masterclass on all sides and it was no longer ambiguous. I understood and appreciated the director’s craft, and I came to realize that I didn’t just have an eye for it, but almost like my mind was attuned to paying attention to the kind of visual details that make a director who they are. But I didn’t have a clue how to get there – how to start this career, even though I was standing on the set – seemed a million miles away.

You completed the Directors’ Lab at the CFC. How did this program help advance your career as a creator? Can you share some highlights from your time in the program?

Well, this was Norman’s other major contribution to my life. He asked me if I went to the CFC. I told him I applied and didn’t get in. He asked me what program, I said the Producers’ Lab because I wanted to make a film and I thought that meant producing at the time. He said no, you should be in the directing program. I said, “But I’m a writer too.” He said, “The writers get work faster, but where else are you going to get the directing experience that the CFC offers?” So aside from his obvious role in developing the CFC, he actually sold it to me. He said the producer has the power, but the director has the glory. Of course, he was often a producer on his own films! I’m still learning Norman’s lessons.

The greatest gift the CFC Directors’ Lab gave me is that by doing the exercises, I was calling the shots so frequently that the anxiety and fear of being in the director’s chair (or sitting on the directors Apple box – still my favorite spot) fell away, and I was able to just be immersed in the process. In a way that is impossible when you’ve spent a year or more preparing for a four-day shoot and you have other responsibilities in addition to directing. It allowed me to focus on my craft and figure out how I like to prepare. It encouraged some trial and error. Even when I was a film instructor myself, this is what I taught: filmmaking you learn by doing.

Congratulations on your recent feature, Block Party, which had its theatrical release in June. Can you tell us a little about this film and how it came to be?

Block Party is a comedy about Keke McQueen, a young black Harvard grad who puts her future at stake to save her grandmother’s historic Juneteenth block party, and in the process falls back in love with her hometown of Grand Rapids and the community she left behind. It’s a feel-good comedy set on Juneteenth and it’s really about three generations of estranged women coming together: Keke, her mother Tasha, and her grandmother Gram Jam, who has been recently diagnosed with dementia. Lisa Mathis, one of the producers, came up with the story based on her personal experiences growing up in Grand Rapids. When I read the script, I was in the process of coming to terms with a dementia diagnosis in my own family. It was one of those moments when I felt like this was a film I had to make. It’s very light and fun and doesn’t take itself seriously. Juneteenth needs to be recognized not only for the fact that it is a new federal holiday in the U.S., but as a day that many African Americans have celebrated for years without it being widely recognized. I think that telling a simple fun story in this context is our greatest accomplishment. Once I got on board, I did a director’s pass on the script working a bit on the structure and then we were off to the races. I got involved in July 2021 and we were shooting in September 2021. It happened very quickly. It was always the goal to have a theatrical release in the U.S. on Juneteenth and the producers had some ideas how to go about that. I focused on getting it in the can and giving it the scope and humour that it required.

What was the hardest choice you made in the creative process and making of this film, at any stage in production?

Tackling the film with an 18-day schedule was the hardest decision. On the other hand, it wasn’t hard because I was committed to executing the film, but at the same time it was hard because I knew what I was getting into. Dealing with a large cast in a remote location with minimal local crew and no tax incentives during COVID. Shooting September and October for June and no contingency plans. Daylight dependent, except for the last scene which required night. I had to make it work creatively and there was no room for error. I had to find the visual design and for me that became over the shoulder shots for the scenes in which Keke interacts with her family, and clean singles for where she interacts with her community and is more of a fish out of water. A music video style to elevate the dance performances. I came to find a way to shoot the film that felt right for the tone, for the characters and also for the production realities. I had to make time for takes so that my comedic actors could improvise. My DP Michael Pessah coined the term “The Wilkinson” for setting up two cameras angled at different actors in the same setup, which was one of my techniques to shoot the entire block party in 8 days. We decided on the widescreen format, and seeing it in theatres I was grateful for that. It didn’t look like a TV movie in its composition and style, but it made shooting the actual block party with limited background actors (many of whom had to COVID test in Detroit and then drive two hours to Grand Rapids) even more challenging. I pushed hard for colour all along: red, gold, green and black to evoke Black liberation for the Juneteenth theme and I was going for a saturation and brightness that is not entirely realistic but intentionally flat and almost painterly.

Can you speak to some of the main differences, challenges and highlights of directing for TV vs. film?

Directing TV is fast-paced and I don’t just mean the on-set two camera or three camera single cam style show; I mean that you can direct an episode in October and have it air in January. It’s just faster because all the development of ideas as to what the show is has already been done. One of the joys of directing Block Party was starting from scratch. Asking myself, “Who are these characters?”, as I worked through the casting process with my casting director. What lenses and camera do we want to create the right tone for this? Outside of special equipment, those simply are not conversations had on the TV side unless you are directing a pilot. Episodic work means casting guest actors for your specific episode and even then, it is very collaborative with the rest of the producing team. Films vary a lot by budget but on Block Party I had a lot of autonomy in the production process. On the flip side, I was very involved for almost an entire year, which is still fast relatively speaking, but it was a much deeper commitment of time and energy.

Do you think that your storytelling ability in film gives you an edge in television?

I think coming from a background of being a filmmaker and film teacher absolutely gives me an edge. It’s how I make it through impossible days, high page counts, actors who want to change the words and producers who don’t know what they want until they see what they don’t want. I come up with filmmaking solutions. All day long, that is really what I’m doing. And on a good day, it’s a Dawn Wilkinson shot in there because it fits and makes sense and elevates the material.

I use all my filmmaking tools to figure out how to shoot the best version of the show I’m on. But in the beginning, my filmmaking talents were not as important as I assumed them to be. I would say that the first three episodes that you are hired to direct are going to have a lot more to do with your network of contacts and your interpersonal communication skills than with your vision as a filmmaker. This can be a hard pill to swallow. But unless you have created a series and are executing your vision, that’s not what you are being hired for. It’s much easier to get your first episode (and it’s still not easy) by being an editor, a first AD, a script supervisor or an actor. If you’re on a show that’s working, and you develop relationships, that opportunity comes more easily than it does to the ‘one person show’ type of filmmaker. That said, your work will open doors, and I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter. But it’s better not to be naïve about the process.

In taking on new projects, what do you look for?

At this point, I’m looking for producers who have experience and who are interested in working with me to develop projects as a writer and director. As a director, I want to work on shows I love, and for showrunners who are great collaborators and like a director’s input into their world. I like shows that demand emotional work from actors and that reflect the real world, but often in a heightened or stylized way, shows that are cinematic in nature and truly require visual storytelling. In comedy, I like a bit of absurdity and social satire thrown into dysfunctional family dynamics.

What kinds of changes would you like to see in the screen industry to better support underrepresented creators?

I’m seeing a change now in Canada and it’s been a long time coming. Organizations like Black Women Film!, The Black Screen Office, and OYA Media Group to name a few. All of these efforts to provide opportunity and training to African Canadian filmmakers are overdue in Canada and I’m glad to see them coming to fruition. They need continued support and resources. The Reel World Film Festival was key in supporting my first feature film Devotion both in its completion and premiere, so the significance of festival support cannot be overstated. But I think we also need to develop more executives who truly care about and understand diverse storytelling because so much of what passes for creative merit is really just a subjective evaluation of material by people who either relate to it or not. It’s not lost on me that many of my career moves have been backed by an exec who wanted to give me an opportunity. And while diversity policies can help support that, from the point of view of a director who has been there, you want and need more than a policy in place. You need allies, you need fans to make inroads in what is a highly competitive and high-stakes industry.

For a director starting out, what advice can you give in terms of building a career?

Tell stories that you have a unique perspective on, that you care about, and that you are prepared to live with over time. If you’ve lived it, or something like it, or what lies beneath it, you can’t go wrong.

What’s next for you? Can you tell us more about your upcoming projects and what types of projects you’d like to be involved with in the future?

I’m continuing to direct episodes of television for shows that I like to watch, find compelling, and enjoy a director’s input and vision. I’m focused on finding the right television pilot and developing one of my feature films. In November, Step Up season three will be released on STARZ, and I was an Executive Producer and Director on it- I directed five episodes of the ten-episode season – and that’s the show I’ve left the strongest mark on to date, I can’t wait to share it with the world.

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