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Hope Dickson Leach, The Dawn Chorus


This article is part of Filmmaker‘s Sundance 2007 Special Coverage.

Hope Dickson Leach’s short film, The Dawn Chorus, tells the story of two siblings who annually reenact—with other survivors—the plane crash that killed their parents. An MFA thesis film for Columbia University’s Film program (where Hope graduated with honors), The Dawn Chorus explores the process of grieving and, hopefully healing. A former assistant to Todd Solondz, Hope’s short films have played at festivals around the world, from London and Edinburgh to Boston and Austin.

The Dawn Chorus screens in Shorts Program 1, and the film’s path to Sundance can be read about at: www.the-dawn-chorus.blogspot.com

Can you say a little bit about your background? Where you’re from? Age? Education? Film experience prior to this film?
I grew up in Hong Kong, was educated at boarding school in England and then read philosophy at Edinburgh. I turn 31 during Sundance. This is the third short film I’ve made — the first shot on 35mm, and the longest (at 15 minutes) yet.

Can you briefly describe what inspired your film?
It was a “what if?” idea. I’d read somewhere that people who experience traumas stay in touch for years. I thought, “Why? What would they talk about?” And obviously the answer is their shared experiences, during and after it. But I started wondering, “What if they never got that far? What if they got stuck on the event, so hung up about how it happened that they never moved on?” I did a massive re-write on the story just after the 2004 elections when I was struck by how Americans (those who live in the large White House anyway) were obsessed with repeating the past, and how the elections seemed to have fallen to the same mistakes that were made in 2000. It helped me articulate the premise of the movie, which is that without change there is no future.

Can you talk about some of the people you collaborated with?
I’d worked with Valerie Shusterov (Bonnie) on a previous short film, and seen Henry Glovinsky (Lloyd) in action on another. I actually wrote these parts for them, as I thought they’d make such good siblings. They proved I was right in rehearsals, where they were quickly bickering like real brothers and sisters. I also wrote parts for Julie Kessler (First Flight Attendant) and John Gemberling (Paramedic) whose work I admire so much as they are so committed in their performances that they can be funny and terrifying/heartbreaking at the same time.

My producer Jennifer Westin and I worked together from very early on in the project. It was wonderful to have her on the journey with me. I would never have done it without her.

My editor Jeremy Holloway had been helping me in one way or another with the story and the shooting all the way through, so having him as editor was a gift. He managed to make the movie what I had imagined it to be, which was something I kept ruining when I took over the editing space. He also insisted, quite rightly, that the movie should have a brain AND a heart.

Were there any compromises you had to make on this film?
Just about a million. I wanted lots of extras running around in the background, and for a while I considered shooting it all in one take so we could have the perfect dawn light. But ultimately it came down to what was necessary to tell the story, so that’s what we did.

Anything you’d do differently?
I’d have another day of shooting. Does everyone say that? I wouldn’t get lye in my eye two weeks before shooting. That was stupid.

Any influences?
I’ve been reading a lot of Iris Murdoch. I love how she’s so driven by finding the transcendent in the every day. Peter Weir, Mike Leigh, Terry Gilliam, Jane Campion. This is the first thing I’ve done with a happy ending, and I struggled with that for a while, but re-watching The Fisher King helped me lose the fear. Finding the Neil Diamond song was a stroke of luck — it was the perfect tone for my ending, sad but triumphant. I can never get sick of it. Also I was listening to a lot of Tom Waits and The Band while making this movie.

What are your expectations for Sundance?
I’m looking forward to hearing when the audience first laughs. It’s a dark comedy, and everywhere we’ve been it’s been a different line/moment that gets the first laugh. The most nerve-wracking thing with this film is whether people will get it or not. It’s just a great opportunity for people to see your film, and hopefully that leads to being able to make more films that people will see….

Any films you’re excited to see at Sundance?
I’m very excited about The Savages, Year of the Dog and Snow Angels. I’ve also been missing How Is Your Fish Today? Everywhere I go, I’ve heard such great things about it, that I’m making it a priority. And Zidane, of course.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve read or received about filmmaking?
My friend and the brilliant filmmaker Demane Davis (Lift; Black & White & Red All Over) sent me 10 commandments for the first shoot I did. My favorite was “Don’t run away from the actors – they’re just as scared as you are.” I also like the Elia Kazan story which goes something like “If you don’t know where to put the camera next, just tell them to put it anywhere, then go into a corner and work it out, and go back five minutes later and tell them to move it.”

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