Dawn Han is a filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. Her first two short films caught our attention so we thought we’d have a chat.
Tell us how you got into filmmaking.
I was and still am a fashion designer. I happened to make friends in the film industry in the last couple of years, and a number of them asked me to do costume and wardrobe design for their films. I started in film that way, but I have always loved watching movies since I was a kid. My dad and I would watch like 15 movies a week until we’ve seen almost everything in the video rental store. It was Hong Kong back in the 90s, the golden age of Hong Kong cinema. We got Wong Kar Wai, John Woo all those directors and stars… It was an interesting time. But as a girl growing up, filmmaking was a mysterious industry, you didn’t know you could have a career making films other than being an actress. I think working on set really helped, it kinda pulled me in and made me realize that I could actually do this if I wanted to. So after more than a decade working in fashion, I decided to put things on hold and went to grad school for film.
Why do you make films?
Maybe to tell the stories that I want to tell. I never really thought about why. Certainly not because I have any important things to say to change the world or revolutionize anything. Maybe it’s just an impulse, I get fascinated with an idea, then I just go ahead and do it. I don’t think about why I make films, I just do it if I like the concept enough. Maybe it’s really a way to distract myself from having to think what’s the point of life? haha.
You write and direct. Do you edit? Tell us a bit about your working process.
Yes unfortunately, I do edit. I’m saying it this way because I find editing my own films can get really painful at times. After writing and shooting the project, by the time I sit down to edit, the material has already exhausted me like a big old callus. I sometimes might even start to sink into a black hole of self doubt. Working with an editor really brings new perspectives to the film, fresh eyes and ears, at least to whatever footage we’ve shot. New perspectives are always good, they save you and keep the project alive. This is why film is a collaborative art. You have to embrace the input of the people you work with and find a way to incorporate their visions to evolve and better the project, and that keeps it exciting to the cast & crew and yourself. I’ve also edited for others. When I go in as an editor, I can see things in many different ways to help the narrative, which is totally different from being the director/editor.
Before I get into it, I do think many people have misperceptions about the fashion industry, like we are vain and superficial. I agree to an extent, but It’s only part of the truth, they don’t really know what we do. We designers put in a ton of work doing what we do, and it’s not just about clothes. People wear the clothes, so first of all we have to understand people. That’s why some designers have muses, because they are observers of people. In fashion, sure we ask ourselves, who our customers are, what they do and what they like. More than that, it’s also about a category ideal we design clothes for. You know, an image of a person, every little detail, like the way they talk, their mannerisms, the way they carry themselves, how they want other people to look at them, and even their flaws. The biggest misconception about clothes is you think you dress according to who you are, which I don’t think it’s objectively true. The objective truth is more like, you dress the way you want to be perceived by others. A collection really is a narrative about a person, everything has to be cohesive to the character. That’s also why fashion expands from collections into lifestyles, because they’re building bigger narratives around their customers. In a greater scheme of things, politics operate in a similar way. After all, people need narratives, the world needs narratives, even the universe needs narratives. Without a narrative, how is one going to put meanings into or justify his or her existence? I’m not talking about materialistic narratives, I’m talking about existential narratives. I think if you think beyond what you are doing for work, in life or what not, you know you can make a film. Everyone can make a film, it’s just all about coming to terms with what this world is to you, and how you fit yourself into it. When it comes to approaches, everyone has a different approach to filmmaking. I was trained as a designer, so I usually dive into the characters first and build narratives around them.
You’ve made two short films so far without dialogue, Cork Man and Organic Matter. Where did they come from and why no dialogue?
They definitely came from visuals instead of a story in my head. I didn’t intend to make films with no dialogue at all, but as I started writing the characters and certain situations, I just didn’t find it necessary for them to say anything. I think it’s just more organic that way. For example a character like Cork Man, he’s trying to not interact with the world around him. He wants to be invisible. What would he want to say? Nothing! Or the wife character in an unhappy marriage, what would she want to say to the husband? I just couldn’t think of anything for her to say. I think you can express emotions through languages, but in peoples’ internal depths of emotions, I’m sure they don’t consist of pages after pages of words. They are just emotions in their abstract forms., like when you feel something, it’s not like you’re having an internal dialogue with yourself, you just feel it. I think that’s big part of cinema.
How do think the lack of dialogue has impacted audiences and reception at film festivals?
Actually I don’t know. I think you either make a film people like or don’t like. Either way, that’s out of my control, I told the story that I wanted the tell and that’s all I can live with. However, I wish to know more about if it’s true that lack of dialogue really impacts my chances with the programmers and audiences. Haha!
What are your influences and why?
Too many influences. I’m not picky with films, I watch a lot of films, both good and bad, classics, weird and genres… I was born and raised up in Hong Kong in the 90s, so loving Wong Kar Wai is a default. I love Fritz Lang, Jules Dassin, Jean-Pierre Melville, David Lynch… too many. Too many influences. Also outside of cinemas, photography and paintings all these provide me lots of visuals coming up with characters and scenes.
I’d love to hear a few interesting examples of your non-film influences.
For example, when my co-writer Jason Chilcott and I were coming up with ideas for Cork Man, we were looking at a lot of Francis Bacon’s paintings. We were so inspired by the deformities in his paintings, that’s how we came up with the hole-on-the-head idea for the character. From there on, we imagined who he is, you know, a man with a hole on his head. What kind of man is this? Lots of imaginations and thinking we did on the character and his world before we even started to plot. When people read the drafts of the screenplay, a lot of them thought we were doing a cartoon.
I also like to look at minimalist art like Barnett Newman, Robert Morris and many more. Perhaps it’s kind of strange to use minimalist art as inspiration for movies, but I look for pure compositions and then imagine things within the compositions like scenery, environment, smell, movements, people… etc. You know, then four-dimensionalize it by adding the element of time. Anyway, my ideas are pretty scattered most of the time, I usually have to sit myself down to organize my thoughts and fit them into something.
I think people get lazy with imagination nowadays. I don’t know if our current culture has lost its innocence, or it’s because of technology, everything is moving too fast. People just want to get to the point or get to the end of things too quickly, they can’t sit back and take time to imagine things, maybe that’s why people binge watch shows. I remember when I was a kid, whenever I watched a show or a movie before bed, I’d just spend so much time imagining and fantasizing before I could go to sleep. I let things excite me and let them linger. Maybe it’s a bit silly, but I’m glad that part of me hasn’t left yet.
Other than filmmakers, who do you think watches short films?
I wish I watch more shorts. I’m definitely not watching as many shorts as I should. But I do find the short form very different from the long. I see shorts are more a platform for a poem to me. If a feature is a story, I find a short more like a poem. Does it make sense?
I love your short film as poem analogy. I think people so often focus on trying to make a mini narrative feature or calling card that it devalues the opportunity of the short form. The poem idea is quite liberating.
Yes I think the short form really gives you very little time to realize a very complete story or characters. The beauty about it is that you can really use the little time you have to capture the essence of things instead of elaborating things too much. Like a poem, like an impression really. This is one thing about the short platform that filmmakers should take full advantage of.
Shorts are also good practice, you can make them cheaply and exercise your filmmaking muscles, and learn from the process which can really save you from lots of heartbreaks when making features.
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
I’m actually in the middle of writing the Cork Man features with my co-writer at the moment, we have an award-winning screenwriting mentor so let’s keep our fingers crossed!
Any more you can tell us about that?
I wish I could haha! But I can tell you that we’ll have dialogues in the feature, not much talking, but there are definitely some talking. We’re also adding more elements to the world Cork Man lives in, and maybe also some room for the audience to imagine how the hole-on-the-head comes to existence.
The Cork Man short film will screen at the No Dialogue Film Festival in Bristol on May 27 2017