While trying to maintain composure and a sense of normalcy in a tough situation, Dorris Havemeyer struggles to keep up her spirits while celebrating a significant birthday.
Inspired by director Grace Philips grandparents on both sides of her family, Dorris 85 chronicles a night at home with an older couple, one of whom suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.
Hi Grace thank you for talking to TNC, how are you handling the lockdown?
Thanks for having me! Myself and my DP, Andreas Roalsvig (who is also my boyfriend), are lucky to be staying with my family in Buffalo, NY. So we’re happy to have gotten out of NYC for the time being, but excited to go back when it’s safe. I’m in graduate school at Columbia University for film, so I still have some structure to my life which is really great, even if it is online. And as anxiety-inducing and scary as this whole thing can be—especially if you watch the news too often or go on the internet, like at all—I’m trying to stay positive and do my small part of staying inside and not seeing people outside of my house. I’ve been very lucky to have my health and that of my loved ones thus far, and I hope we can manage to keep it that way.
As a filmmaker is this experience providing you with some creative motivations?
In a weird way it is and it isn’t. Under normal circumstances I would be prepping two big projects for Columbia right now, but they’ve been postponed until the fall semester, which leaves me with a big old hole in my heart and brain. Some of that hole can be patched up with my other coursework, but with my plans for the summer kind of slashed—I was going to do some freelance work to fund one of those projects—I not only have a lot of room in my brian and heart but also my calendar… So at some point Andreas suggested we plan on making a micro-budget feature at the end of this whole thing, so I've started writing that. There’s no way we’d actually shoot it this year, but it is designed to be something we can actually shoot with our resources and feels really tangible, so that’s been a great motivator. Thinking about the future and thinking big. It would be my first feature.
Your film Dorris 85 has been selected for the 2020 ÉCU Film Festival in Paris, what has it meant to you to be part of this unique film festival for independent filmmakers?
It’s always rewarding to know that programmers find your work worthwhile, but seeing ÉCU’s track record of amazing programming it’s really an honor to be among the films selected at this year’s festival. Especially as an American filmmaker, it feels very special to be recognized by an entity such as ÉCU and be featured among great international and European films and filmmakers. I also love the opportunity to share my film in another language. The work of translating the film into French was so fascinating, it made me think about the story in a completely new way, knowing that it would be playing to a broader audience.
You're no stranger to film festivals as your previous films have had a fantastic festival run, what has it meant to you to be able to share your films with festival audiences?
It can be a little surreal to be honest. This past year Dorris 85 screened at the Female Voices Rock Film Festival in NYC which I was able to attend, and in the middle of the film when it cuts to black I heard people gasp and someone say “wow,” to which I said to myself “wow.” You spend all this time crafting a film to tell a story and you hope that it touches people in some way. I always go back to that wow moment in my head if I’m ever doubtful of whatever I’m working on, it assures me that I’m doing this for something, and that it’s working. It’s hugely rewarding to know that I’ve created something that people in small dark rooms will experience with each other and think about, even if I can’t be there to witness it. I can’t overstate how important and incredible it is to be able to show my work, and I’m so grateful for the festivals that have included my films in their programming. It is so encouraging to know that there are people out there who see my films and want to share them with an audience.
You are currently a first-year graduate student at Columbia University what has this experience been like for you?
Absolutely incredible. I’ve been there for less than a year and I already feel that I’ve grown so much as a filmmaker. And I owe that not only to the design of the curriculum and our incredible faculty, but my peers as well. I’ve met so many brilliant filmmakers, collaborators, and friends these past few months, and it’s really hard to be away from them. We stay as connected as we can, and we still have classes online, but nothing beats that time and space with this kind of community. I really miss everyone and our physical creative spaces.
Can you tell me a little bit about Dorris 85, what was the inspiration behind this film?
The film is, sadly, inspired by members of my family who have lived with Alzheimer’s disease. My great grandmother, nicknamed “Maugga,” developed the disease when I was pretty young. I have very vivid memories of her before the disease progressed, and seeing her decline for most of my life before she passed away from complications. And later on, my grandpa Jim developed Alzheimer’s as well. My family had been visiting him for his birthday one year and within a two-hour period he told us this same joke about his uncle Arnold Samuel Smith (the initials spell “ass”) at least six or seven times. My whole life he had always been the funny guy, cracking jokes, always making puns and being witty.
What was amazing to me as his disease continued (and continues) to progress, is that he’s still funny. He still makes jokes. I wanted to capture that part of him and his struggle with Alzheimer’s. I think it’s really easy to look at the bleakness and lack of hope when dealing with this disease. It’s easy to look at that person who doesn’t recognize you, and also not recognize them as well, but if you look for these little things, little personality traits, you can still see the person you know, even if it looks like they’re disappearing or slipping away. I feel like I’ve seen characters living with Alzheimer’s portrayed as inhuman in some way, and I wanted to bring something personal and human back to these people. I also wanted to explore what it must be like for a close loved one to be living in this situation every day, what that must look and feel like, especially on a special occasion without their family around to support them.
How important is the collaboration when working on a project like this?
So important! I was really lucky to have found so many great people to work with on this project. This was also my first collaboration with some key people—my production designer Charlotte Abbott, costume designer Willa Piro, my first AD Renata Soares, and my incredible producer Maria Akay. Working with Charlotte and Willa was so important in designing the tone of the film, especially since we knew we were working in black and white, which was something none of us had done before. It would be a completely different film if I hadn’t been working with such talented creative minds. I always knew I wanted this overhead Tiffany-style chandelier over the kitchen table, and between myself, Charlotte, and our DP Andreas Roalsvig, we were able to hang that light safely and equip it properly to be used as a practical light while keeping its design intact. Especially for small independent projects, it’s so important to have people you love working with, even if things hit the fan, if you have a great bond and respect for your collaborators, you can tackle anything.
What was the most challenging aspect of bringing this Dorris 85 to life?
A big part of getting the film off the ground was finding a location, and of course, scheduling. We had some dates that were floating around and had to make some tough decisions around that, but in the end it worked out really well. As for a location, we wanted to film in New York City, but wanted the home to feel like it could be anywhere, so it was kind of a big ask. We had a lot of doors slammed in our faces, but we persisted and found something that worked within our budget and felt right—and we got to see some really interesting homes in the process.
Looking back do you think there is anything you would have done differently?
I think I probably would’ve spent some more time on the script, and I definitely would have compromised in different ways with our location. Don’t get me wrong, the place we got was great, but there are certain elements that I think would’ve strengthened the film if I had alternative setups available to me from our location. It would’ve changed some of the blocking to be truer to what I’d always envisioned and changed what was in frame at any given point, which would’ve impacted the viewer in different ways. I would’ve liked to have kept the kitchen omnipresent in frame while they ate dinner and Dorris walked around, but that wasn’t possible at our location.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Absolutely. I’ve always had a fascination with art in many forms, but I knew I wanted to pursue film from a very young age. I feel really fortunate to have always had that connection with film, it’s allowed me to be diligent and focused.
"I always have about seven or eight other ideas dying to get on a page someday, but they’ll have to wait their turn…"
How much has your style and approach to your films changed since your debut film?
It’s funny, I was just thinking about this the other day. Even before anyone told me how to make a film I was doing things that I still do now, and that people have since told me I should do. I’ve always been a big planner when it comes to filmmaking and that hasn’t changed. I’ve always been one to visualize and feel things out, but I think the biggest difference for me now is being able to verbalize and sort of defend or reason my decisions versus just “feeling it out.” I’ve become more conscious of my creative decisions and how they shape an audience's experience. I feel like I have more language with which to elaborate on my ideas and communicate them to other people. Something that I’ve always done and will probably always do, is work from a place of having something to say, or something that I want to get an audience to consider. I’m not one to create art for art's sake, it has to mean something. As for my style, I think I’m still ironing that out. Having the time, space, and support at Columbia University is really pressing me to look inward at the kind of filmmaker I want to be, and how it is I want to tell my stories. It’s exciting to explore.
What has been the best piece of advice you have been given when you started out?
I’ve heard it from more than one person now, but I’ve heard it most recently from Bette Gordon, and that’s to plan so well that you know absolutely everything about how you’re going to shoot your film, so that when something inevitably goes wrong and you have to improvise, you can do so quickly and effectively, because you know how it will fit in with the rest of what you’ve planned. This is actually something I had to do on set for Dorris 85. I had this whole plan and series of shots for Susan (Dorris) to carry a cake with sparklers in it across a dark room, but on the day we realized that it wasn’t safe, so I had to redesign a transition to replace those shots right there and then. Now, ideally, we would’ve realized that it was unsafe before we got there and planned ahead, but we fixed it as soon as we saw it was unsafe, which was only possible to do on-the-fly because I knew the film backwards and forwards.
Do you have any tips or advice to offer filmmakers about to make their first film?
First films are tricky. There’s a huge gap between your taste and your own abilities for a really long time when you’re making films. I think the best thing you can do while making your first film is to watch other films and study them, so you can imitate what they’re doing and kind of take it as a practice run. Don’t put a lot of pressure on it to be the greatest thing ever made, just try to make something that makes sense and be free with it. And plan. Always plan. Make a shot list, communicate with the people you’re working with, be patient, and make something fun. My first film was about a tap dancer in a library and had no dialogue. It was a very silly, low-stakes production, but I planned a lot, and was happy that it made sense.
What are you currently working on?
So at the moment, I’m in the very early stages of writing a micro-budget feature, I have another feature I’m writing for one of my classes, and I have two shorts that I was supposed to make this summer that I’m still kind of prepping a little—one that I’ve written and will direct, and another that I will produce for one of my peers at Columbia. I also have a short in post-production from last semester that I’m eager to finish. And, of course, I always have about seven or eight other ideas dying to get on a page someday, but they’ll have to wait their turn… I always have a bunch of stuff cooking, I like to be busy and my brain just cranks stuff out.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Dorris 85?
Alzheimer’s disease can be very hard to look at and to talk about, it’s like living through a grieving process while the person you love is still alive. In speaking about the film with friends, and even strangers who've seen it, I’m always really happy to hear people talk more openly about their personal experiences. I feel like there’s a stigma around grieving openly in general, and especially around the strangeness of this disease in particular. I want people to feel more comfortable addressing their own feelings, sharing them, and being seen. It’s also so important to acknowledge people living with this as human beings. Likewise, I think there’s a tendency to disregard the elderly in storytelling and forget their independent worth as people, even if they’re mentally healthy. It’s easy to get wrapped up in how people change as they age and forget who they really are, even if it’s bittersweet. I want to remind people of that.