Passionately trying to recognize and understand the powerful emotions and motivations behind a person’s actions can be a complex and intriguing journey. That ardent exploration of what drives a person to behave the way they do is the grippingly realistic motivating factor in the new short thriller, ‘Harmony.’ Director Logan Kibens’ drama, which is set to premiere at the 10th Annual HollyShorts Film Festival next month, features actress and executive producer Dawn Davis as an intuitive woman who puts faith in her cunning instincts to figure out what drives one of her neighbor’s aggressions.
‘Harmony’ follows Elle (Davis), a self-described clairvoyant Hospice nurse who reveals her ability to sense events before they occur during her drive back to her Los Angeles home. She continuously contends with the ramifications of her psychic abilities, which she’s had her whole life, as she goes about her daily routine, including caring for her cat. But Elle’s serine existence is tested when one of her seemingly introverted neighbors, Walter (Chris Kerson), breaks into her bedroom that night and tries to attack her. As Elle fights back against her assailant, she calls into question the true nature and limits of her intuition.
Davis generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Harmony’ in her hometown of L.A. Among other things, the short thriller’s actress and executive producer discussed how she was drawn to Warren Fast’s script, as it featured a contained yet fully-realized story in five pages, and it also showcased the strong female protagonist she’d been looking to play; how she and Kerson wrote autobiographies for their characters that they shared with each other as they rehearsed, and how they also improvised their characters’ relationship, to help infuse the story with an authenticity; andh how Kibens is one of her favorite directors she’s ever worked with, as the helmer is a thoughtful and complex artist.
ShockYa (SY): You star as Elle in the short drama thriller, ‘Harmony.’ What was it about the character and the script that drew you to appear in the film?
Dawn Davis (DD): I liked the script because it was such a contained yet fully-realized story in the space of five pages. I’d been looking for a strong female protagonist and responded to Warren Fast’s writing because he sent me two great scripts with central female characters, and that’s very difficult to find.
SY: Elle is a clairvoyant Hospice nurse fighting for her life when Walter, one of her neighbors, breaks into her house and tests the limits of her intuition. What was the process of getting into Elle’s mindset of not only accepting her clairvoyance as a part of her everyday life, but also that one of her neighbors set out to attack her?
DD: Well, there’s very little time to show any of those things, so Chris Kerson and I both wrote autobiographies for our characters that we shared with each other and the director. We also had a few hours of rehearsal when Chris flew in from New York, and we improvised a lot of that relationship. I’m not sure that Elle even knows or recognizes Walter, but hopefully it’s clear that he’s in her world in a realistic way.
I’m always aware of wanting the preparation to inform such a short story, but you can’t show the work. So in the end, I’m hoping that the story and the characters are believable and grounded because of that preparation. Then you let you go of those things and just stay present with the other actor and play the scene.
SY: Chris Kerson stars as Walter in the short. What was the process of casting him in the role? How did you develop your working relationship as co-stars once he was cast?
DD: We had over 1,300 actors submit for the role, and agents pitched their clients, as well. Chris self-submitted and I was immediately drawn to him. His look was right and I loved his reel. Then I was disappointed to learn that he lived in New York City, because we didn’t really have the budget to bring him out. But he kept pitching himself and I went back and forth with my other producers about the feasibility of casting him. My director and I spoke to him at length on the phone, and we had a great L.A. casting session. But in the end we felt it was worth it to bring him out, as he was clearly the right choice. After he was cast we shared our thoughts and ideas about the film over e-mail and rehearsed when he got here.
SY: Besides ‘Harmony,’ you have starred in several other short films throughout your career, including ‘You’re Still Here?’ and ‘Blind Heart.’ What is it about short films that you enjoy starring in so much? Are there any challenges in having to convey your character’s arc, and the overall story, in such a short period of time, or do you think it helps with the films’ creativity?
DD: I’ve always loved short films because they accomplish so much in so little time. I’ve also discovered some of my favorite directors (like Darren Aronofsky) through their short films. Shorts are also one of the most accessible art forms right now, both for actors and producers. They’re less expensive and quicker to make, and even though they’re hard to sell, you can distribute them quite easily online. As I mentioned before, it’s difficult to show much of a character arc in such a short period of time, so I think it becomes more about giving the audience of taste of something that they will hopefully want to see more of. The whole thing has to work immediately because you don’t have any time for the audience to settle in.
SY: Besides starring as Elle in the film, you also served as the short’s executive producer. What convinced you to take on the duties of a producer? Did your acting and producing duties influence each other at all?
DD: Harmony is the third film I’ve produced. When I lived in Boston and was working as a director, I produced and directed another short and a feature, neither of which anyone should ever see, but they were both amazing experiences that I cherish. I’ve also produced a ton of theater.
I produce so that I can tell the stories I want to tell, instead of waiting for some elusive opportunity to come my way. I used to produce/direct and that was easier than producing and acting. It’s hard not to feel a split-focus all the time. I definitely relied on my co-producers, George Fivas and Logan Kibens, to share those duties, so that I could just be an actor when I needed to be.
SY: As the executive producer on the short, you brought in Logan to direct ‘Harmony.’ What was it about her previous two shorts that she helmed, ‘Recessive’ and ‘Rock Jetty,’ and her overall work in the film industry that convinced you to hire her to helm ‘Harmony?’
DD: I met Logan at a party and knew I wanted to work with her then, without ever having seen her films. She’s such a thoughtful and complex artist. Her work is quiet, nuanced, beautiful and real–everything I love in a film. She’s truly one of my favorite directors I’ve ever worked with.
SY: Besides directing ‘Harmony,’ Logan also produced the film. What was your working relationship with her like, as both co-producers and as the director-actress? What was the process of not only developing the characters and the script, but also how you wanted to release the short?
DD: Yes, I was lucky to have two producers alongside me–Logan and George, who also acted as our production manager and basically ran the set while I was acting. He took care of the equipment rentals, dealt with contracts, was our crew liaison and made the entire thing possible.
Logan and I worked together pretty seamlessly, I think. We’d run ideas by each other but I don’t think there was ever a major disagreement about anything. Since I was a director for so long, I like to be very particular when I’m first hiring my team and then give them the space they need to do their jobs. Logan made some great tweaks to the script and helped me flesh out the character. Then I just trusted her to do what I knew she would, which was to deliver a compelling film. In terms of the release, it was always my intention to take it to festivals first, if possible, before releasing it anywhere else, and she’s been very supportive of that.
SY: Logan has received several honors for her films throughout her career so far, including being a 2012 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow and recipient of the HBO/DGA Directing Fellowship. She was selected as one of Film Independent’s Project:Involve fellows after completing her CalArts thesis film, ‘Recessive.’ Why do you feel it’s important to showcase talented up-and-coming female filmmakers in Hollywood, like Logan?
DD: First of all, you get to work with amazing talent while they’re building their career, which is exciting. Secondly, there’s so much in the media these days about the shocking imbalance of male vs. female content creators in Hollywood. As a female artist, it’s my responsibility to try to shift more work our way, rather than relying on the male artists to do it. Why would they? They’re going to make stories that appeal to them and we should do the same. If a woman is producing work, I guarantee that she can find other women for her team who are just as talented as their male counterparts, and she should make that effort until the playing field is level.
SY: ‘Harmony’ is set to premiere at the 10th Annual HollyShorts Film Festival (HSFF), which is running August 14th-23rd at the TLC Chinese Theatre and Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. What does it mean to you that the short was accepted into the festival? How will showing the short at HSFF influence how you will release the film, both at other festivals and to audiences across the country?
DD: It’s so validating. The entire reason I made the short was because I always wanted to have the experience of taking a film to a festival. I love movies and I thought it would be exhilarating to participate as a filmmaker in a festival, instead of just attending one as an audience member or working at one on a screening committee. It took a long time to even get the movie made and to reach this point of festival acceptance, but it’s incredibly gratifying to have seen this process through from start to finish exactly as I wanted to. Premiering at HSFF may or may not affect other festival screenings–it’s hard to say with a short film–but I really am thrilled to have a Los Angeles premiere. I’m giving the festival process the time it needs before I start to pursue distribution options, which will be the next phase of this journey.
SY: As a producer, some of your theater productions shows have been staged off-off Broadway, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, at the Brattle Cinema in Cambridge and at the Electric Lodge in Venice. How has producing plays influence the way you produced ‘Harmony?’ Are you interested in continuing with producing both plays and films in the future?
DD: Producing, directing and acting in theatre has instilled in me a love for great writers and directors. If you don’t have a decent script or a director who you can work with to pull it off, then it doesn’t matter. You can’t make a good project without either of those things, and I have enormous respect for strong writers and directors. I love finding those people and collaborating with them; it’s my favorite part of producing.
What I learned from producing theatre was how to break down a vision into a concrete timeline, to oversee everything that needs to happen and when, to recognize what works and what doesn’t and to know what kinds of people I work with best. Theatre is a great training ground. I’m not sure if I’ll produce any more theatre, but I definitely have ideas and plans for future films.
SY: Besides ‘Harmony,’ do you have any other projects lined up, whether acting or producing, that you can discuss?
DD: I’m tossing around the idea of turning Harmony into a feature. I’m also developing a feature-length historical biopic. I don’t want to reveal the subject matter yet, but it’s a story I’ve been passionate about for ages. I think the script should be finished before the end of the year.
Written by: Karen Benardello