VSFF INTERVIEW WITH CULLEN DOUGLAS
This week we're highlighting a film from the upcoming VIDI SPACE Film Festival (VSFF). Portrait of a Woman at Dawn is a #MeToo inspired story. The put-upon wife of a charismatic art dealer in 1920's Paris witnesses the empowering and intoxicating love of a gifted artist and his bewitching muse. I had the opportunity to chat with the Writer/Director, Cullen Douglas. - AR, Editor
Every week leading up to the VIDI SPACE Film Festival we will be highlighting a new filmmaker that has submitted their content for the 2020 event.
”... If I had to choose just one moment, I think it would have to be the time I listened to the film's score, for the first time, with our Composer, Brett Cameron Perry. In one breath Brett had totally captured it all. Like I said, I was lucky. - Cullen Douglas
Before we get into too much detail about costuming, casting, etc., let’s talk a bit about the main purpose/idea behind the film. “Portrait of a Woman at Dawn” puts a spotlight on the role that women were “expected” to play in society, specifically in relation to their male counterparts, in 1920’s Paris. Where did the inspiration for the film come from?
I was inspired to make the film because of what I was witnessing happening all around me; with the emergence of the #MeToo Movement. Women where literally taking to the streets to say, ‘We’ve had enough!” – “We’re no longer going to remain silent.” Nearly all of the women I spoke to when I was developing the piece shared that they too had been a victim of either sexual abuse or sexual harassment. I knew this happened on a regular basis, I just naively didn’t think it happened on such a grand scale. I was heartbroken.
Was there a specific reason you chose to frame the story in Paris? For the uninitiated (like myself) how did the role of women differ in 20’s Paris compared to the United States at around the same time?
Paris in the 1920’s, was an incredible time and place in history. Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker, Zelda Fitzgerald all embodied the “Lost Generation.” Parisian women were embracing their power, which led the way for American women to do the same – Women the world over were demanding equality, the right to vote, and to be heard. It just felt like a perfect fit. Sadly, when it comes to equality for women, 2020 echoes 1920. Many women still suffer in silence. The fight continues.
I know this is a big question, but what do you hope both men and women take away from your film? Again, I know this is a HUGE question so please feel free to explain in as much detail as needed!
I didn’t set out to lecture anyone, I simply wanted to entertain, as well as maybe hold up a mirror for audiences – to perhaps find themselves in the story. The response to the film across the board, from both men and women, has been incredibly supportive. We all know an “Auggie” in the same way we all sadly know an “Estelle”… I knew I was going out on a limb to even make the film, considering I’m a middle-aged, white guy. I don’t truly know the struggle. But I would like to consider myself an ally. The desire to disassemble sexual harassment and abuse is at the forefront, if I can help in some small way to continue that conversation, I would like to think I’ve done my job – both as a filmmaker and as a human.
One of the first things I noticed about the film was the amazing wardrobe and set design. Everything was beautiful and seemed to capture Paris in the 1920’s perfectly. I can imagine that was no easy task! What is the process like when you take on.a period piece like this, especially during a time so iconic as the 1920’s and a place so beloved as Paris?
A filmmaker is only as strong as the team assembled around them. I was incredibly lucky to land Costume Designer, Tammy Williamson, who just recently worked on Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” – we both agreed that we didn’t want the actors to look like they were wearing costumes, but rather their everyday clothes. Making sure the fit, cut and colors worked harmoniously was paramount. I was also so fortunate to welcome Art Director, Ian West to the team. Currently Ian works mostly in textile design, but his wonderfully varied career has also had him helping design album covers for the the likes of UB40 and Julian Lennon. How cool is that?! I couldn’t be happier the the end result. Lastly, I could not have achieved the look of the film without the talents of Artist, Matthew Robison. All of the artwork seen in the film was created by Matthew – including the “Portrait” – And truth be told, some of the dialogue the character, Jack (Brian Letscher) delivers in the film are Matthew’s words about his life as an Artist.
The cast of “Portrait of a Woman at Dawn” were absolutely incredible. The film has such an important message, what do you look for in potential actors to fill these roles?
There was really no casting process on the film. In that, I reached out personally to Scottie Thompson (Crown Vic), Elizabeth Roberts (Itsy Bitsy), Brian Letscher (ABC’s Scandal) and Phil Abrams (My Name is Dolemite), asking them to let me write for them. I created bios for each characters and sent them of to the individual actors. Based on the bios, they all agreed to do the film – I then began writing the actual script. But by this point I knew both the actors and their characters inside and out, so it made writing the screenplay extremely easy. They were an amazing ensemble to work with. I was very, very, lucky.
Every step in the process of making the film was pure joy. Honestly. Truth is, I started a GoFund Me to raise capital for the film, but was quickly approached by Executive Producer, Susan Gallagher and “Her Little Red Productions.” Susan immediately took to the script and matched what I had been able to raise and then some. Next Executive Producer, Randy Goodwin stepped in with his “12th Angel Productions” and suddenly I had complete funding for the film. I loved working with the Actors, our Cinematographer, John Orhan – Everyone! I especially loved working alongside my wife Rachel and two sons, Gabriel and Cameron. They were with me every step of the way. But if I had to choose just one moment, I think it would have to be the time I listened to the film’s score, for the first time, with our Composer, Brett Cameron Perry. In one breath Brett had totally captured it all. Like I said, I was lucky.