Canadian Director Dawn Wilkson Explores the Shades and Psychology of Directing

Canadian director and writer Dawn Wilkson has been on the production sets of so many such as OWN’s Greenleaf and FOX’s Empire. The beginning stages of a director is a chapter that is never to be forgotten. Wilkson expresses her early decision as a director. She mentions her first experience as a production assistant and director’s observer. Wilkson shows us the tenderness and psychology behind being a director.

ATM: Take me back to when you first realized you loved directing.

DW: I have to go back to the first film I made called Dandelion. It was a short five-minute personal documentary. I went to a filmmaking workshop. I did not know much about the process of making a film. The instructor of the workshop was a filmmaker. He encouraged us to use the camera. We gathered images that we felt were meaningful to us. It was at his farm outside of Toronto. The landscape reminded me of Acton, which is a small town outside of Toronto. I gathered the images. I had the thought about the question where are you from. I was born here, and this was my home. I grew up as black in Canada, and my dad is from Barbados. People have asked me this question a lot. 

My answer was always, “I am from here.” They would have a dissatisfied look as if this did not answer their question. It was something about being in the in-depth process of this environment where I was able to communicate this feeling about my environment. I was creating voiceovers and filming myself. This all combined into a five-minute film. Not just black Canadians but also Canadians from all background came to me at my screenings. They understood how it felt to be an outsider. I had been writing an essay from a social and political approach. My degree is in women and African studies. I got to the heart of it when doing it with images. I realized this was a kind of art form that I wanted to work in. 

ATM: What did you envision your career as a child?

DW: It is funny, while young, I wanted to be an actress and go to Hollywood. I got older. I wanted to be a psychologist or writer. It was not like I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a fashion designer at one point. I went to college to realize I cannot draw or sow. I felt I wanted to make something but did not know what to make. I knew I liked writing. I even tried painting doing visual art. It did not feel like my medium. I tried a lot of things. I had a vintage clothing store while in high school. I was buying and selling clothes. I saw Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at the theater in Toronto near my high school. I was blown away. It was not exactly the idea of making a movie like this, but it was the inspiration wanting to try filmmaking. I took a lot of photos and took videos. 

ATM: Describe the presence of the film industry while in Toronto while starting.

DW: The fact that Toronto has a film industry created opportunities for me. There was a company called Raged Production. It was a black studio owned company. They allowed me to be a PA. This was a nonunion production company. There was an opportunity to work production. I made another short film. Norman Jewison is a filmmaker from Toronto who spent a lot of energy in making the film industry here. He developed a film school called the Canadian Film Center. He gave me the title of the director’s observer, which is like a director’s assistant. The Hurricane starring Denzel Washington was one of the first sets I was on. 

ATM: Describe a set without the use of dollies.

DW: It depends on the camera operators. You can have a handheld or steady camera. There is something called a MOVO this is a version of handheld. It looks different than a handheld and steady camera. It depends on the equipment that you are using and the skill of the camera. The dolly movement is one of the many tools that is used. There is a physical component anytime a human being is holding a camera. You can choreograph shots. There are things a camera operator can do physically that is different than doing something with a dolly. Gabrielle, I am intrigued by the question. What made you ask it? Is it something you saw and was curious about.

ATM: Yes, I just wanted to be different. 

DW: Ok.

ATM: How has the new emergence of technology played a role in your line of work?

DW: This is a good question. I have done a lot of films in my filmmaking background. It has been digital and red cameras on television. The production process has changed a lot with the digital shooting. We are not as limited with the cost when it comes to the amount of shooting. We can restart a shoot without cutting. Digital shooting has allowed multi-camera shooting. Norman covered the fighting sequences with four cameras. 

ATM: How did Empire express the element of a father from the episode “A Wise Father Knows His Own Child?”

DW: On this episode, I enjoyed Kingsley and Lucious coming together, starting to heal from the issue of not having a relationship. Also, to understand how this affected Kingsley growing up without his father. Kingsley was trying to find out who he was in discovering his father. I have also been interested in family stories and stories about members of a family. There is a lot that goes on among families. The way we interact in the present has a lot to do with happened years before. This is true in general, not just in this episode. It gave me a chance to explore the emotion of loss and how this can shape people who are in the present. 

ATM: Give your perspective on the healing process with burying old wounds through a character’s perspective.

DW: It is a part of understanding that people have their own perspective and experience. I approach directing in a scene like this. Every character has a point of view and perspective of what is going on. As a director, I try to understand any character’s perspective. It helps me decide where the story is and talking with the directors. With directing drama, we have different perspectives, and we come to an understanding. A lot of times, the story is about how we see things differently, and asking now what should we do. A big part of my job as a director is understanding who’s perspective needs to be told at this moment. Sometimes I have to show both perspectives and one more than the other. In a parent-child relationship, both have an equal contribution to the relationship. 

ATM: Describe the positive and negative effects associated with conflicts presented on Greenleaf, meaning what good things occur based on the conflict and what bad things occur based on the conflict.

DW: The episode I directed of Greenleaf is titled “Call Not Complete.”  The episode begins with a conflict:  Jacob set up his own homeless ministry outside Cavalry (the family megachurch).  When his sisters Grace and Charity confront him, it is revealed that Grace is looking for a way out of her role as Associate Pastor at Cavalry because she is considering moving to New York with her new boyfriend.  This conflict is positive because it brings to light the fact that both Jacob and Charity resent the fact that Grace left home and her responsibilities at Cavalry years before. 

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From a storytelling perspective, this conflict between the siblings over Jacob’s “church” enabled them to articulate old hurts and hold Grace accountable, so that she can see how her actions have affected them and even though it’s painful for her (this is the negative side of the conflict) it motivates her to change her behavior. As the episode ends, Grace turns up at her uncle Mac’s memorial service in spite of everything he put them through because it is a comfort to her mother, Lady Mae. Grace is changing for the better as a result of this conflict.  

ATM: What are some directorial techniques you like to implement in your career?

DW: I like to look at each character in the story to see their story. I visualize some scenes. I know the equipment needed for these scenes. I create a shot list and storyboard. I take location shots. I draw the scenes for where I picture the actor. Occasionally, I might go to another film or art piece or even an idea from nature – that would help me articulate that way the shot should look with my crucial crew. I am a collaborative director. I like to implement the production designer or editor in the approach. 

ATM: Explain the psychology aspect of directing.

DW: Ultimately, the role of a director is a leadership role. Even though there are lots of participants. The director’s job is one of leadership. There are different ways to lead. A lot of directors have different styles. I have a plan for telling the story. I have my leadership style in terms of achieving this. I gather a lot of information. I do a lot of homework. I talk a lot in pre-production about my ideas. You can look at shooting like a war. My leadership style allows changes to the plan. I do not have a rigid plan. I have a plan that will help me get through the day to achieve my creative goal. I create an environment where people can do their best work and contribute their ideas. I do this when encouraging good ideas. When they suggest ideas that are not appropriate, I tell them. Directing is a talent that benefits from the talent of other people. I try to understand the people I am working with.

ATM: Express the therapeutic side of directing.

DW: A personal thought takes me back to one of my films. I made a comedy film a few years ago called Instant Dread. It was about a hairstylist who created an instant dreadlock potion. It was an absurd comedy for people who want dreadlocks in two seconds. I was able to talk about the idea of cultural appropriation. 

It was done in a light manner. I always try to find something personal to relate to, and this is even in the television scripts. It can be a character, relationship, situation, or conflict. I can usually find an emotional connection. I try to find and evaluate the truth in it and how to communicate this truth. It is either going to be healing or power. This happened with my first film, Dandelion. It did not bother me when people asked where I was from. It was the strangest thing. I had expressed the feeling very completely and was validated by the audiences. I was relieved. In a truly artistic way, if you go deep into a subject and express yourself, you will release yourself based on the topic.

ATM: Personify directing as if it was a person. Explain the attributes of this person.

DW: This is a good question. It is like several people at once. Sometimes I picture an artist at a table. You have to paint a picture as a director. There is also an element of a coach with a whistle. There is an element of coaching and motivation. You are not just sitting at a table. There is a kind of maternal aspect there that is caring for people like you were there as a mother. So, it is like a mother, coach, or artist. There is a rock climber or an extreme sport because there is a high risk to it. It is almost like jumping off the building. This could be because of the budget or production. The stakes are very high in every season of a show. There is a lot of energy to getting the production to this point. Everyone wants to see it succeed. As a director, you have to be willing to take chances, calculate risk, and be brave. 

ATM: What if directing was like a William Shakespeare love sonnet?

DW: Directing is something you are. Being a director is having a mind that works in a particular way. It is a way of thinking. You can develop it into a skill or talent. Before it becomes a craft and a skill, it’s almost like an essence. It is not rare. It is out there in terms of seeing the world. Directors have a unique way of seeing and a unique way of seeing this world. This is what draws us to a particular material. Your specific taste and talents will lead you down a path of directing. You must have the desire to express your perspective on the world.