Field Notes Interview #61: Ron Dawson, Filmmaker + Podcaster
It's official, podcasts are in.
Over the past ten years podcasts have ascended to become a major medium in how we communicate and tell stories. For filmmakers like Ron Dawson, this has shifted how they approach filmmaking as well.
When you ask Dawson what he does, he'll simply tell you that he's trying "to make the world a better place." In less extreme terms, he's a storyteller, filmmaker and now...podcaster. He runs a video production company out of Seattle, WA called Dare Dreamer Media and has produced work for clients like Apple, Adobe, kodak and Nielsen. His trajectory doesn't stop there, being driven to produce cause-related and inspirational work, he hosts two podcasts: The Solo Creative and Radio Film School. Both dive into the creative process of filmmakers through interviews. Through exploring this burgeoning medium, he's providing the first "radio" documentary series about filmmaking.
M: Why film? What compelled you to be a filmmaker and film in general?
RD: I originally took film courses because I wanted to make a movie about a funny experience I had while at UC Berkeley (well, it wasn’t so funny at the time.) In the process of learning about filmmaking, I would say that “filmmaking discovered me.” I quickly fell in love with it. That was back in 1992 — I’m sure most of your readers were probably playing with their Gi Joe’s with the Kung Fu grip during that time.
But in a recent episode of Radio Film School, I propose the idea that the seed for me to become a filmmaker was planted back when I was just 7 years old and my dad (who was divorced from my mom at the time), gave me an 8mm motion picture film camera. I used that camera to make my very first “movie.” It was a time-traveling crime caper starring my hapless little brother, shot on location at Disneyland and Universal Studios (back when there was only one of each. :)
M: What's the most rewarding and frustrating part about being a filmmaker?
RD: When I started in this business I did weddings (from 2002 to 2007). My original plan was to shoot weddings until I could make “real” movies. But then I made a 7 minute highlight reel for my first wedding client and showed it to them in my living room. During those 7 minutes they laughed and they cried. Seeing my art affect a couple like that had a profound effect on me.
By far the most rewarding part of filmmaking is telling a story that genuinely moves people. I would even say the most rewarding part is telling a story that genuinely moves ME. When I make a film that I personally want to see over and over, I know I’ve made something special; regardless of the number of views it gets. The most frustrating part is easy: not being able to EVER get on the screen exactly what I have in my head. But I’m sure I’m the only one who deals with that problem.
M: What was the inspiration for Radio Film School?
RD: How much time do you have? Just kidding. So, earlier this year my wife and I decided to start moving the business to be more of a content production company. I wanted to create streams of income that were more passive, i.e. I didn’t have to pick up a camera or edit a video to make a buck. I had previously produced two relatively successful podcasts, and I was an avid blogger. So she suggested I do that again and see if this time we couldn’t make them more of a core business unit as opposed to just passion projects.
In December of 2013 I had ended my last podcast, Crossing the 180: The Filmmakers Podcast that Breaks the Rules. It wasn’t a key revenue generator and as a passion project, I wasn’t having fun with it anymore. If I were to get into podcasting again, I knew it had to be different. Podcasting has exploded, and it only continues to grow. And there are already so many great podcasts about filmmaking. I didn’t want to add to the noise, so I knew my “signal” had to be strong.
The original plan was for the show to be a talk-show style podcast with me and my two good friends, JD and Yolanda Cochran. JD is an indie filmmaker and his wife Yolanda had been an executive in Hollywood for years. Then she got a consulting gig at Netflix, and we all thought it wouldn’t be prudent for her to be on a talk show about filmmaking as she was just starting out. So I wanted to change the format, mainly because I was relying on the specific dynamic of the three of us as part of the show.
I honestly don’t remember the spark that inspired the audio documentary idea. I’ve been a fan of This American Life for years. So maybe there was some subconscious voice. It actually frustrates me that I can’t pinpoint the exact moment. But I was listening to a lot of podcasts about podcasting, and one of them has a segment where they recommend other podcasts. One of the hosts recommended an episode of 99% Invisible, the show about design by Roman Mars. I was instantly hooked. It is hands down my favorite podcast now and one I know Marmoset blog readers would totally dig.
I describe Radio Film School “This American Life for filmmakers.” But in reality, 99% Invisible is a closer inspiration in terms of format and style.
M: Why did you choose the format of podcast?
As much as I love filmmaking, ultimately, the viewer has to stop and watch a film. Podcasting allows me to enter the world of my listeners (or rather, they enter mine), without having them interrupt whatever they’re already doing. That’s special. And big companies are realizing that. Just look at the modifications being added to new car models, giving drivers the ability to stream and play shows from their mobile devices (and eventually, through the car itself.)
What I particularly like about the storytelling format I use for the show is that it’s like editing video. That same high I get when I tell a story via video that makes me want to watch over and over again is what I get to go through every week with Radio Film School. I get giddy and pumped when I hit on an idea that is some complicated and intricate collection of stories that seem disparate at first, but somehow how bob and weave, twist and turn and end up at the moral I want to tell as it relates to filmmaking, storytelling or artistry.
M: How do podcasts affect storytelling?
That’s an interesting question. I think podcasts actually take storytelling back to its basest form. The original stories were audio based. They were verbal traditions handed down through the millennia. So in some ways, it’s simple. Just do what comes natural to humans. We tell stories.
But “simple” does not necessarily mean “easy.” Some of the most “simple” looking films are actually quite difficult to pull off. In some ways, podcasting is the same.
There are times when I’ve written the first draft of a script for a show and I’m like, “OMG. This sounds freaking boring. I’m just babbling! I’m going to put the audience to sleep.” I don’t have pretty pictures to keep their attention. So I have to devise ways to elevate the story to bard-like levels. I actually have to switch my brain to a whole new mode. The best way to describe it is that I go from “courtroom clerk” to stand-up comedian. I act as if I’m on stage telling the story to an audience. How do I stand? What colloquialisms to I use? Do I laugh? What’s my tone? What are my facial expressions? I bring all of that into play when finalizing a script for the show.
In the Sept 29th episode, “S.O.S. Atlantis”, there’s a part of the show where I start cracking up and I have to compose myself. I could have easily edited it out. But then I thought, “Heck no. Keep it. It’s real. It’s me.” In some weird way, it’s sort of like an audio version of “breaking the 4th wall.” When I relate to the audience in a way that is beyond the words on the page. Like catching a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. Technically, you’re not supposed to hear it. But I let it ride.
I did something similar in Part 2 of my “Of Fathers & Filmmaking” episode wherein during a conversation with Patrick Moreau about the deaths of our mothers, I break down and start crying (we’re not talking an ugly cry or anything. But it’s apparent I’m emotionally broken). I want to make those authentic connections with my audience so they feel like I’m there, with them, telling a story. I’m still finding my “flow,” but I’m getting there. The trick is to write a script that when read, sounds like I’m just talking as opposed to reading a blog post.
M: How do you feel music has a role in film?
That’s like asking, “How do you feel blood has a role in being alive?” Okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. There are plenty of examples of films that have no soundtrack that are great. But for me, music is essential in the filmmaking process.
As filmmakers, we all know the power music has, so you don’t need me to remind you. We’ve all seen the examples of how music can change the feel of a film. (The romantic comedy “trailer” for “The Shining” is a perfect example.)
But I will say this--that when you pick music, pick music that becomes as much of the storyteller as the actual words or visuals. I never pick just “any ol’ song.” I’m always looking for something that, if there were no words at all, the song I picked could convey the message on its own—whether or not the song has lyrics.
M: How do you feel music is misused in film?
RD: Whenever the music is overbearing. Too melodramatic. Too loud. Or when lyrics fight with the words of the people in the film. These are all examples. It’s really striking a balance between finding music that can tell a story on its own, vs. music that wants to take over the stage.
M: What are the essential ingredients in a good song for a podcast?
RD: Each podcast is different. You have to start with knowing what your show is about. Many podcasts have no music. Then there are shows like This American Life and 99% Invisible where music plays a huge role. Know the personality of your show, and find music that fits it. Here are some general things to keep in mind:
Lyrics: does the song have lyrics that support the stories in the show? (This American Life does this expertly).
Pacing: does a song have good movement or chorus breaks that can be timed well with the words of your show?
Complexity: do you just need the same 8 bars repeated over and over for a show about the stock market, or do you need a singer-songwriter ballad to accompany a story about unrequited love?
Length: will you need to loop part of the song to make it fit, or is it just right?
License: and naturally, do you have the legal right to use the song in your show? If your podcast has any kind of commercial aspect (e.g. sponsors, pitches for your business, etc.) your song needs to be cleared for commercial use.