Heather Donnell

Director, Heather Donnell with Chris R. Smith, the co-producer, DP, and editor of Shadow Angel Films

In late August, Shadow Angel Films just finished their latest film called PEDRO FALLS: “While apartment hunting in San Francisco, Pedro, a rising indie musician, unexpectedly runs into a painful part of his past and makes decisions that might threaten his future.” PEDRO FALLS is their 8th short. They shot it over 3 days in San Francisco, and the finished film is about 20 minutes long. This is the last short they’ll do before shooting a feature film next year. You can check out the trailer here on their website.

 

And now an interview with Heather Donnell of Shadow Angel Films:

About the process of making a film and discoveries during that process, Heather said, “Discoveries with other people often happen during production, but I always start with specific ideas and themes that I want to communicate. The story itself, though never autobiographical in the details, is usually related to a specific emotional experience I had. So I already have strong feelings about the content before going into the film. After we finish a film, sometimes I am surprised by what I see, but that doesn’t happen right away. That usually takes time and distance.

Heather has been a writer much longer than she’s been a filmmaker. “I didn’t think about filmmaking until my mid-30s,” she continues, “I wrote a couple full-length feature scripts and was in a workshop where I had a chance to direct. I found that I really liked working with actors who seemed to do magic with the words I had written.”

 

ITSA: What limitations do you have when working on a film or what area would you like to learn more about?

Heather: Of course time and money are finite resources, but I feel most frustrated when I  fall short of my own ideas of what we’ll get when we are shooting. But I plan to close that gap with more experience! That’s why my co-producer, Chris R. Smith, and I have chosen to make eight short films before we tackle a feature film. We want to challenge ourselves to learn by doing and making mistakes. Before we start a new film, we talk about where we need to get better or where we’d like to test ourselves. For example, we shot all-night in a restaurant to make sure we could manage a production under tough conditions. With every short film, we’ve definitely gotten stronger in our ability to tell the story.

 

ITSA: How do you finance your films?

Heather: My co-producer and I pay for location fees, insurance, equipment, props, and craft services ourselves. We try to be as economical as possible. Because I write the scripts, I try to write stories that I know we can afford. Also, we’ve been very fortunate to work with cast and crew who give their time and talents without pay.

 

ITSA: As a creative person, you have to be faithful to your own vision. Is there a time where you haven’t been true to your art and self-expression?

Heather: I’ve made certain compromises during filmmaking that I’ve regretted in hindsight. But that’s part of the learning process. Successful filmmaking is intensely collaborative, and once you set off on this amazing journey with other people, you are required to balance the give and take. As a director, I’m there to make the decisions that are best for the story as I see it, but I always want to stay open to other points of view.

 

ITSA: If money wasn’t a worry for you, choose a leading actor and actress to star in one of your films? Why?

Heather: I would love to work with actors who are at the height of their craft, such as Patricia Clarkson or Tom Wilkinson. I’ve already learned so much from certain actors who I’ve worked with. They ask questions that make me dig deeper into the script or force me to rethink my ideas. They also have incredible nuances to their performances that I wouldn’t even dream of. Those surprises are the most exciting part when I work with great actors.

 

ITSA: When did you make your first ‘real’ film? What made that film feel different than others?

Heather: Chris and I made SHADOW ANGEL, our first film, in 2009. That was the first film we did where we ran the whole production without any advisors. And when the film festival at Comic-Con selected it, we were thrilled to go to San Diego for the screening. Really great for that film to have an audience outside of our friends and family.

 

ITSA: College or no college? Do you recommend it for filmmakers?

Heather:  College is a great place to learn responsibility and develop maturity as an individual. I went to college, but I didn’t go to film school. Film school is great if you’re young and you’re looking to make connections with people who you’ll probably work with for the rest of your career.

 

ITSA: What are some qualities you have that have made it easy for you to make a film?

Heather: I think it’s essential to be resilient. Many aspects of a production go unexpectedly wrong, and you have to look for another solution without panicking. Having a sense of humor also helps. I also really like spending time with people and getting to know them. If it’s difficult for you to be around a lot of people for long periods of time, you might want to reconsider going into filmmaking. Shooting days can reach 14 hours. Of course I need time alone as well, but I find it energizing to be with others who are doing what they were born to do—actors, musicians, wardrobe people, special effects people. For our latest film, I was sitting with the composer and a guitar player, and loved listening to these amazing riffs as they played around with how to write the opening song. Moments like that are golden to me.

 

ITSA: In your eyes, what or who is a director?

Heather: The director is the person who is there to make sure the environment is set up for everyone to do their best work. Actually, that sounds like a producer, but those two roles blur together for me since I’ve been a co-producer on all our films. Let me try that again. The director is the person who must ask everyone to do their best work once they get in that environment and director must keep asking until it gets done. Whether it’s the camera setups, or actors’ performances, or the sound recording, the director needs to make that call on when the best work has happened before everyone moves on to the next shot. The director is the person who must hold up confidence in various decisions being made or request adjustments that improve what’s happening for the good of the story. The director holds the integrity of the story and makes sure that all arrows are aimed at the same story target.

 

ITSA: What skills do you think are necessary to help a filmmaker make it in Hollywood?

Heather: Well, I can let you know when I get there! Or, I can give you my best guess, which is that perseverance and determination are key. Many things will stand in your way. The odds of making it are so stacked against you and you have to face that with a lot of grit. I also think it helps to be a genuinely friendly and open person and attend as many filmmaking events as you can in order to build your own network. While I would love to be a Hollywood director, I see that as a dream and tend to take a pragmatic approach to getting films made. Over the past three years, I’ve met many helpful people by searching them out on my own at events, including the ITSA festival.

Heather’s advice for new filmmakers: Shoot as much and as often as you can. As soon as you finish one movie, start planning the next one. Finish your movies! Surround yourself with people who you trust. Be respectful of your crew’s time and don’t run them into overtime because of your lack of organization or poor decision making. Serve the best food you can afford on a shoot; everyone is working hard and they deserve a nice meal. Act like a professional even if no one is getting paid. Show up on time or early for every meeting. Ask questions that are real questions, not because you already have some predetermined answer in your mind. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Keep the faith that your work will get seen. Treat everyone on set with kindness, including and especially yourself. And have fun–you are making movies, which is a great privilege and the best fun in the world!

 

Shadow Angel Films

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