Breakthrough with Roxann Dawson and Allan Arkush (Ep. 205)
Hello. And thanks for tuning in to another episode of the director's cut brought to you by the directors guild of America, featuring today's top director sharing behind the scene. Stories of the latest films and insights into the craft of directing. Please take a second to subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. This episode takes us behind the scenes of director Roxanne Dawson's new by graphical drama, breakthrough based on Joyce's Smith's memoir, the impossible, the miraculous story of mother's faith and her child's resurrection. The film tells the true story of how all hope seemed lost after Smith's adopted son. John fell into an icy Missouri lake and afterwards lay lifeless in a hospital even in the face of every scientific prediction, and medical case history Smith's, refusal to give up and steadfast belief, inspired, those around her to continue to pray for John's recovery. Breakthrough is MS Dawson's feature film direct to'real debut her other credits include the pilot. And first two episodes of mercy street as well as episodes of numerous shows, including the Americans, the shy runaways, the deuce and the good wife following recent screening of the film at the harmony gold theater in Los Angeles. Ms. Dawson spoke with director Alan Arcus about filming breakthrough during their conversation. Ms Dawson discusses the way she identified with the film's protagonist, how she convinced Chrissie Mets to star in the film, and how she executed the film's crucial ice sequence, which required shooting on a frozen lake and a water tank. Okay, how long have we known each other? A really really long time. Decades. I think so. Tell me what attracted you to this movie in the material. Well, it was I just sent to me by my agent, and I read through it, and I couldn't believe it. It didn't sound like a real story. So I read through it again, and then looked up the internet and all the information about it, and it just kind of blew my mind, the actual story, but I also thought there was something on the script that's still needed to be developed in that. I didn't need the story was necessarily about the miracle, but about what it did to the family and the community. I thought that's where the movie lived, and then spent the next while developing the film along those lines because I thought there were so many little miracles that happen along the way that, that's what I really wanted to explore. So are you a person of Christian faith? Yes. I am Catholic. And that's it. Did you know inform me of course to, to certain degree, but not always been Catholic? It was a choice. It was, I was brought up in an atheist devout atheists household and spent my time going to Berkeley exploring everything from Buddhism to all different kinds of Christianity. And finally, when I met my future husband, looked into Catholicism and decided that's the way I wanted to go. I also wanted to bring up my children in faith, because I kind of regretted not having that knowledge and not being able to make a choice. So that was something that was important to me, personally and. So definitely, there was an identification was going to ask you about being a mom. Yeah, how much of that came into play. Well, I think also one of the things that I just really identified with is that I also have an adoptive daughter, and she brought home that same assignment that John brings home about the family family history. And I remember it opening up. A lot of interesting conversation for us. But I think Joyce's love of John with something that I just immediately hooked into. I have a two photographs in my in my office. One is when my biological daughter was handed to me when she was born and the first time that I saw her. And then when my adopted daughter was handed to me in China and for the first time at eight months old, and my expression is the same and I bring that up because there really is no difference. I think our children come to us, and all different ways. And that's one of the things that I found. So powerful about this story the power of a mother's love and really what it means to be a mother and what the power of community and faith. And ultimately that power of love what it can do a gift to us in our job. Sometimes we get to express life experience. It's still, you know, so often, I think that when we're handed since most everybody, here's a fellow director, you're handed projects as much you identify with things more than you do others. You know, and somebody's you're actually looking for things to cling on Tuesday. I can sort of. Get this, maybe this is the statement I wanna make, I think a one of the wonderful things about this script and in its development in the last day of it, and even throughout the shooting was that I felt that was really doing something that I believed in an also getting to know Joyce, and John and the father, all the first responders all the doctors I spent a weekend with them in Saint Louis and. The story is as extrordinary as, as it is here. And I think the power like I said, in the beginning is not so much the fact that this boy was without a pulse for an hour before he came back to life. But it's what is still doing to the people over there. We had a screening there and Saint Louis and all the first responders were there. The doctors of course Joyce and John pastor Jason and I have to say they're still touching lives with power of love and community. United just at something that I think is, is just really powerful, it hopefully this film can ripple out in touch people in that way. So no one, the backstory of the real people and meeting them. How did that inform? The casting, well the casting began with Chrissy, and basically FOX two thousand said, if you don't get Chrissy to do this, we're not doing the film, and then they kind of threw it to me. And said go have coffee with her and tell us what happened. So it was it was up to me to seal the deal and to be honest with you. I wasn't sure I'd seen Chrissy on this is us. I know I knew at that time Joyce, as a person I knew that it would take Chrissy. To go really deep to be able to do this, and what I loved about her. When we talked was she had a very healthy fear of the role, which told me that she was willing to explore it. You know. Once we had her on board the rest of the casting came in quite interestingly in that each person that we put an offer out to wanted to call me and talk to me because it was faith based film, which is sometimes a dirty word in Hollywood. I don't know. It's just, you know, they wanted to make sure that it wasn't all going to be a little angels floating around and each single, one of the actors talked to me on the phone, and they wanted to know how their characters were being portrayed, and what was interesting is that each and every actor had their own personal story that brought them to this film, and that they wanted to explore each and every one of them. So when they showed up on the set it just wasn't a job. They actually chose to this job because of something in their personal life that they were dealing with. And it was kind of extraordinary as he's phone calls kept happening. And I would turn to my producer and go. Well, that was another one that wants to use this film to, to, to learn about something in their own life. It was just kind of amazing. Okay. So. You get on an airplane today. I'm going to go direct the deuce. Yes. And you know, I can't avoid this joke. So you're gonna go from the sacred and the profane. So tell me about what it takes to encompass characters from such different things of life. Yes. And you have a fantastic actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco, extraordinary actors. Talked about empathy. And so, yes, I think that I don't think this really is much of a stretches, you might think, but they are actually similar on a certain way in that. I think that if you really look at the news, I don't know how many of you know, the story of it really is about about. About love about finding your place in the world about a struggle all of these things. You know, there are common themes, and I think, when there are things that are important to you, and you can latch into those, and that is the episode that I start shooting on Wednesday is about family, and about returning to family, and it's about loss, and it is about the power of love, and it's kind of ironic because I'm reading the script of the deuce and keeping emotional going. My gosh is so amazing that there are so many ties into family in love in the episode that I'm doing for the deuce. That it's there it really is. I don't know. It's almost like in the air seemed to be a lot of things about us wanting to return home, turn to our family, it these troubled times, and really find some kind of solace there. So I think people are connecting with that on some level having seen just about everything you've directed the common thread is an empathy that you have for the characters. So I'm going to get just a little kike here. Directing geika. Okay. So the good wife, tra- may by scandal, the Americans house of cards that, deuce that CHAI mercy street heroes Bates, motel lost, but this. Avast team of researchers found that that you had done fifty four different shows. Wow. And if you know how to after a while you get to know how to read someone's IMDB. Okay. Now on the great shows you're brought back multiple times. Okay. On shows that are good shows is only one credit. So in my mind, I'm thinking vox, San figured this out for good this show out, and moved on. And you seem to always had a pretty good control of your career. Okay. Is this movie, the real rock Sam? I mean is this movie was the difference of choices between working for such powerful, you know, show runners, I have an all those different producer directors. Well, the most important show which you left out his crossing Jordan, which is what we met on. And Alan gave me my first chance of being a director on network television, which was a huge, it was the beginning of my career and is because he had faith in me, and it's okay here and what's what's not embarrassed. The network who wouldn't hire you? And I'm sorry, that Trump out. But it's really mean Alan convince them to have faith in me because he had faith in me. And, and he stood behind his word. And, and it was just that was really the beginning from me. And he has been a mentor to me, how many times of called you? I know I know pulled the car over at late at night, and called you on the phone. I know Allen has always been a part of my hours. Remember on Jordan, the first episode we gave you was really hard and had we got a lot of directors. Friday night, Friday nights, always the worst and talking. And I said, okay Friday night at lunch. Here's what you got on your one liner after that. So Friday night from lunch on your more than the captain, right? And you've got to drive them in and whip them along. And you really took it like an athlete now. And it turned out great. Well, that's being previous actor comes in handy to sort of fake it till you make think that helps. But yes, it was like I just I'm so beyond grateful to you. And I have to say Allen was also at our first family and friends screening of this film is the first time we showed it to every any living human being. And in a very small screening room at. Over at FOX and Allen had the most perceptive notes, which at that time, it was over thirty minutes longer than it is now. And he gave you gave such crystal clear notes that I think almost every single one of them were implemented. And it was so helpful to me that even at this stage in the game. So it's really come full circle. I feel you saw the very first and now you're you've seen was there's so many John RAs in this that you have done. So that's. All of that. And so now on you so tell them to tell us about that. Well, I think that, yes, this is. I'm proud of this film. Yes. I think this represents me and, and not just what I would want to say, but also, I think. The elements that we took of it where we, you know, were I elevated the style of it. The underwater sequences the all of that everything that I've done on television. Everything I've done in my career has been sort of leading up to me being able to handle this, this story. And I'm grateful for each and every one of those experiences, which taught me something. And this film taught me something hopefully I can take that and move on. But I did love. I have to say him, spoiled, I, I love working in different genres. I also love being the boss to I loved that, that the buck really did stop with me for better for worse on this film, and that FOX gave me they trusted in me to do what I wanted to. I think I told you a funny story when we were talking earlier that I was going running late on a day. Nobody's ever experienced that. And we're doing this film, my first eighty and I said my God, this is the first thing, I'm gonna cut in the editing room. And he turned me said, we'll why. Are you shooting it? He said, you're the director Kurt me. That's I'm not working for somebody else. This actually is end. But I shot at anyway. 'cause I was too nervous not to, and it was the first thing I cut, so but it was so interesting to not have to be trying to answer to serve another master, but to really try to serve the best part of myself, and that was really exciting feel different not having a. Are show runner over shoulder or a writer from the staff or it felt very different. And I know that this was unusual. I know that even features especially the larger features in the larger budgets, you're handed that there are just there are a lot of cooks for some reason. I just really uniquely wonderful experience, divine Franklin, who's my producer was beside me all the time, I trust, we just had a task way of communicating and I and we were on the same page in terms of what we wanted to achieve. So I took his comments really seriously. And I felt we worked so well as a team to, to bring this about, so, yeah, it was just, I think from day one 'til. Now it's just been this amazing ride, and wonderful experience for me. Because I see the whole thing flows really well from ever shot. Sometimes, and I say this to my wife, sometimes we'll turn on and get five minutes and something else. I'll say we're in good hands here. And from the first five minutes on this, you're in, you know, we're in good hands. Keep I every time I jump screen direction, even if it's on purpose, I think you're taking a note. So. Remember the first time it crossing Jordan. Well, it's for the action and you were like, no, no. We're going to go back and you either flipped the thing or you wish shot something for me and crossing Jordan. And it was like, no no, no. We don't do that. I was like, okay. One of the things that we talked about is being an episodic director. It's a lot like being a studio musician. So one week you're playing with the peach boys and the next week you're playing doing the theme to mission impossible. I'm using analogies of, of Los Angeles musicians. So you had to get a whole new band. You do. I think that, that the wonderful thing about being an episode at director is if you do several shows in a season, and they're all different. I mean you get to just jump into all these different ways of shooting and study them and get good at them and embrace them. I think that, that is the gift of being an episodic director. And also the obligation to, to really take that seriously and to learn and study every show that you're going into the visual language and make it happen with your own with your own twist, their you come in you, learn someone else's style of the show. And you see how that makes you feel when you look at your daily. And so forth. And then that becomes something that gets put in your directors back. Yes. Definitely. And you go through that, and you, you know, some of these show runners. Damon. Lindelof. Pretty smart people. Yes. Very scandal. I mean as a lot of stuff in here. Different styles each and everyone. I'm grateful for. Yeah. So what's the rest of the season like for you? Well, I do the deuce, and then I think I'm moving onto I'm looking at a lot of scripts, I've got some things. I've don't wanna talk about yet. I guess they're like, right there and you go, let's not let's not jinx some of them. But, but it's it looks like it'll be good year. And it has been a Goodyear. You know, I just and I get to go away for couple of weeks. And celebrate my twenty fifth anniversary with my husband in Europe. So I mean that's like one of the highlights of my year, so orca ever ever director will look at their work in a show or something. What's your favorite things that when you see this you go? You're pretty happy with. Oh, wow. He didn't tell me you can ask me that along with my favorite color. What was the last question? What's her favorite color? And, and if you had to eat one for the rest of your life. Wow. Somewhere between pasta and sushi, which don't go together. But. You know, I was it took a lot of work and a lot of collaboration to make the ice sequence work. It was two days on real frozen lake three days in tanks and. And I was pleased with the way it came out and it, and there are times where even I have to think back was it on the realized there wasn't it because we've really we've jumped back and forth, so much in the editing between the real and the fake world, you know, and that took a lot of storyboarding and all the departments really stepping up in doing their job. So that I'm proud of that. It's pretty seamless. The moment that gets me every time is boy lying in bed and the water rushing in over. Yeah. It's such a surprise. And that's how you that's so funny, because one of the things I think, when I that I always do is when I read a script for the first time is I've, I can't read a script without a pen. They say read it, and don't want one of the first things that I wrote right at that point in the script was beds, going under the water, and I didn't know yet where that would take me, but I kept transferring to all the scripts and. And finally just made sense, but there was something instinctual. We have so many different levels of praying that are working at sometimes their notes that you'll take, you know, that you don't know really where they're coming from yet, but they will make sense of actually. And that was that was one of them, a thing when you a script excites, you, you mmediately see the picture. Yeah. Actually, the pictures. Yeah. And someone will say to you afterwards. How did you think of that? And then you'll just look at them go all seem pretty obvious. Yes, it's true as true. You see something that you've made and you haven't seen it in five or ten years. What's your the any kind of? Only that I've gotten better. I think hopefully. Yeah, sometimes something will play. I'm in a hotel room or something. And I'll see something play, or you're in a gym charmed will come on. You're gonna go did that leprechaun episode? You know. And you'll think I've gotten so much better. Hotel room and Saint elsewhere came on. Yeah. And I was abused fan so I'd seen every episode. I'm watching the episode going. Oh, yeah. Remember this episode and then the camera does this move and go, oh, I directed this episode. And they really didn't want me to do that camera move. Yes. Yes. Anyone have any questions. We shot at entirely Winnipeg. So if you thought it was in four different cities. I guess that's good. Because it gave us sort of a feel that it's it was really all shot in Winnipeg every bit of it. We had a really good visual effects team. And we planned it out. Well pick my team from up there. We, we. I brought in my DP from Los Angeles from the United States we did interviews here, and then we did interviews up there. My I, I d- came from from a Vancouver and a lot of the team came from various places in Canada. We had really a great a great team of their and production designer came from, from the states. Are a wardrobe came from the states, but we had a lot of, of Canadian team up there. They were great a really wonderful. No one else. Because John story wasn't finished and he needed to go through something and come out the other side, the other characters had been through something, but we hadn't seen what how John respondent. And so the rest of the story was his resolution. No. I'm glad you asked that because you and I have talked several times about the biggest challenge being all those stories. Yes. Yes. And getting a flow to it and getting to wrap went when, when Allen sought we had about three endings on the film, was it was it, you know, it's very hard to end film, period. But this one we had a lot of different ways to go. And then FOX was unsure as to whether we should even bring up any question about, you know, why me time, some of those scenes were in and then out and then define Franklin I really fought for that because. Not only was it true. And that teacher actually did approach, John and that really did happen. It's she wasn't quite as nice as this teacher. But, but all of that was was. So I think important to, to portray the story with a sense of balance, and I think that we wanted to make sure that the other side was also represented the people that still had questions that we weren't trying to answer all the questions, the first responders service that you saw. There actually is available on YouTube, and you can go and see all of the first responders standing and getting recognition because I think that we can say that, you know, yes. It's a miracle, but it's not a miracle that every single one of that medical team and the first responders and everybody involved, they all were very much a part of this, an intricate part of the reason why John is still here and is an amazing young man. But anyway, it was very important that, that part of the film be included. Yes. Kristie Mets Diane Warren wrote the song and divan Franklin sent the movie earns a join right? Something for this. And she saw that first responders seen with everybody standing up, and she was so inspired by this, that she wrote the song. I'm standing with you and within hours of seeing the film called Yvonne up and sang sang the few phrases to him on the phone, and then we were gonna have somebody else, do it, and devante said, just like Chrissy have a stab at it and van was not on board with that at first until we were all in the studio, and we heard her kind of go for it and went my God. The purity of her voice. Just went, and she also sang it on the ACM, a on the awards as well with along with Carrie Underwood and a few of the other people that have don't have given us their music for this carry under was another person who saw the movie, and was moved by it and wanted to give us her song love winds, which I was, which was such a blessing. But I have to say Marcelo Zarb who did our score for us was profound. I mean we when I met with him. I knew that he understood the, the movie the way he talked about the characters and the scenes and what needed to happen. And I just thought his score was just out of this world. I think one of the best days of this entire thing was me watching the scoring on this. Oh, oh comes to life like that. Oh my gosh. And just seeing your movie with the music and just the dial. Oh my gosh. It was such, it was such a gift. And he, he was he was just he just understood. And I thought he really did a great job with our scores beautifully mix, too, because the music seems to appear now it just seems to all of a sudden be there. You notice really hard on that. So val. Hey, thank you. Thank you. We had a few one that I. Disagreed with. But I was grateful that they spent the money to get the song, and that it was okay that I said, okay, but it's the first song uptown funk, they had to take out the word damn from it. So there's this like this vamp, you know, but basically, it would not be would not get the rating that it did. If that word was in there. And I said he's gonna notice that it's not there and that we're catering to earn grounds up, you know. So we've kind of just I gave up on that because we actually got this song that I'd wanted from the very beginning because I thought if you're gonna label at faith-based to open up with uptown funk, will hopefully, disarm people, you know what I mean and take us into a different kind of world. So we can look at it a new. But the only other thing that we did that I'm Ashley kind of grateful for is and devan was very much on top of all of this with that we went through in post and, and removed a lot of the crosses from the background, what we wanted to do is make sure that it didn't look like we were trying to. Be too preachy, you know, and I actually wasn't even aware of a lot of them. There are our production designer and addresses had put a lot into different places and but we, we removed them from the pastor's home, we removed him from places in the hospital that they were naturally. But, you know, I think that was okay. I just I didn't want it. If somebody was perceiving it as, as, as being, you know. Too much or too heavy. And that's not what I wanted to do. So if people were perceiving that way, I didn't notice it, then let's remove them. Let's let's, let's try to give again some balance so, yeah, there was a there was a little bit of, of that. But nothing that, that, that tied my hands. I look forward to whatever you're developing. That's really real rock San. Okay. So thank you. And thank you for this great moving. Thank you so much for everything. Thanks for listening to another DJ QNA, if you'd like to hear more, you can find passed up assaults with the director's cut wherever you listen to podcasts. Be sure to subscribe, so you don't miss Nep sewed also. If you're enjoying our show. Please take a moment to rate and review us. We love to hear your feedback, and you can help folks in a files, find the show. Thanks again for listening. And we'll see you next time. This podcast is produced by the directors. Guild of America music, is, Dan Wally.