What was your filmmaking background before making Dawning?
GREGG: I’ve basically been making films since I was 14 or 15. I made a horror movie with my friends the summer before 9th grade and it continued from there. I really have to credit my family, especially my mom and brother Tim, as they had a huge influence on me when it came to films. I was able to be exposed to a lot of great films at an early age.
I went to school at Moorhead State University where I mostly trained in film history and theory under the late Ted Larson, a fantastic film professor. I actually failed ‘Beginning Filmmaking’ the first time I took it and Ted was nice enough to let me take ‘Advanced Filmmaking’ the next year and I received an ‘A’ so that helped me a lot...the trust, the patience and the passion were very important to me at that time.
I won ‘Best Director’ for a short I did in college and I just kept making movies however I could...whether it was for free or for $800, I always figured out a way to keep working and getting as much of the bad stuff out as possible. If there’s one great thing about Robert Rodriguez’s book, Rebel without a Crew, and there are many, it would have to be his advice on making as many movies as possible so you learn from your mistakes while honing your craft.
Where did the idea come from?
GREGG: The idea for a film called Dawning originally came from my brother and sister and I in 2003. We brainstormed some story elements, but mostly discussed what worked and didn’t work for us when it came to horror films. After that we attempted to make the film numerous times but it never seemed to gel and there were probably too many “cooks in the kitchen.”
In 2007 I went off on my own and partnered with Producer/Actor Danny Salmen. When we finally went into production on Dawning in 2007, the script had changed dramatically from 2003, leaving very little in place other than a family, a cabin and a crazy person ... but up until 2007 the story was more about an actual creature you never saw and I didn’t like that...I didn’t even want the antagonist to be that “real.”
Real antagonists can ruin movies for me more often than not...like Jeepers Creepers, I loved the first half-hour or forty-five minutes, but when the winged-thing showed up it threw me off. I think part of it is that after so many films and so much media saturation, I just felt like nothing is scarier than what we can come up with in our own minds...the way our mind plays tricks on us is incredible and it’s the ultimate loss of control and trust even.
I didn’t want to have the characters figure out they should put a stake in the vampire or shoot the zombie in the head or even wait until day, I wanted it to be almost unreal yet the man is seemingly truthful so it throws this family (and the audience) into a place of “what is real? what can I believe? is someone who his seemingly threatening me actually helping?” Like the divorce of the family, this unseen “evil” or “darkness” or “presence” is something they can’t really talk about because there is too much emotion and too many things unanswered.
What was the writing process like?
GREGG: Long, difficult and very, very challenging. Luckily I had a great writer named Matthew Wilkins come in and bring in a fresh pair of eyes. He added a lot to the film and helped me see the film in a new way. I think that kind of collaboration is key, especially for a writer/director.
The film had changed so much since the original idea in 2003 and with so many drafts and so many thoughts it was hard to put it all together. In the end I trusted that I could direct a good film no matter what the “final” material turned out to be, but the script needed work all the way up to the shoot and all during the shoot. Plus, we went back and did additional shoots in 2008 and 2009, so the script was kind of an evolving beast with a life of it’s own. The film and the script grew very organically together.
How did you fund the film?
GREGG: The film was ultimately funded by my producing partner, Danny Salmen, and contacts through his family and friends...mostly business-people, but he was a key component in getting this film done, as were the other producers, Brendan Reynolds and Michael D. Howe.
I was lucky enough to be able to raise enough money multiple times after scrapping the 2006 version and doing additional shoots for the 2007 version in 2008 and 2009. It’s been a long process and the producers have been very supportive of my vision.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
GREGG: The smartest thing I did during production was use the resources available and not lose sight of what I was trying to accomplish...for example, the rain at the end of the film was not in the script...I had to make a decision in order to make the rain work, and that’s what you have to do, especially when you’re working on such a low budget.
I also think going back and adding new scenes was very smart as well...not enough filmmakers do this, they settle for what they’ve shot but I wanted to get everything as right as possible, but this also had to do with the dumbest thing, which was not knowing enough about screenplays and how to read them...it’s a lot more difficult for people than they think, especially me...but I’m getting better.If the script had been tighter in the beginning, we probably wouldn’t have had to do so many additional shoots...but it worked out in the end. You could probably add rushing into production on top of the script...sometimes young filmmakers set arbitrary dates for themselves and they shoot when they’re not ready.
What kind of camera did you shoot with and what did you like and not like about it?
GREGG: We used the HVX 200 by Panasonic, shooting HD 720p 24pn. We did not use any lensing. I love the image capturing on the HVX and the size is great, especially for shooting in tight spaces. The only real issue I had with the camera was its ability to handle the color palette of the film, which was very muddy and red and brown and yellow. I wanted the film to look like the banks of the Red River, where I grew up, and I think it’s close...but there is some digital break-up here and there but nothing too major.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
GREGG: There are so many aspects to the film which changed me profoundly. I guess I would have to say that patience and learning how to stay motivated on a project over a long process is very difficult and this film helped me grow in that direction.
I also learned a lot about story-telling and how to look at scripts and get a better feel of how they’re moving and the way information is being revealed.
I’ve always felt comfortable with photography and framing but learning how to truly block a scene and get the actors to move comfortably within the frame has been difficult and this film enabled me to look at that and understand how the script and motivation clearly affect what the actor does and how or where they’re going to move within a scene.
If I get the chance to make another film I really believe all of these things will help my ability to write and direct by strengthening my communication with actors, producers, crew, etc...
Lastly, I learned my own process as a filmmaker, and that to me will be the most important thing to take from the film. I trust myself more than ever now and this film gave that to me.