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SxSW ’10 Interview – “Dance With The One” director Mike Dolan

Dance With The One - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“Dance with the One is an emotionally explosive drama about two brothers, Nate and Sitter Hitchens, and their hippie outlaw father, Owen, who have never gotten over the tragic death of the boys’ mother and Owen’s wife. The family’s frayed attempts to survive emotionally become physical when Nate makes his family the target of a lethal drug runner.” Director Mike Dolan on the film “Dance With The One” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?

This is my first film as SXSW. I had a short that played Sundance and a ton of festivals all over the world. The best was Claremont –Ferrrand in the middle of France.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I dropped out of high school when I was seventeen and moved to New York to become an actor. I was in many films and television projects, and appeared twice on Broadway. My favorite projects were with kick-ass directors; “Biloxi Blues” directed by Mike Nichols, “Light Of Day” directed by Paul Schrader, and this awesome television show “I’ll Fly Away” created by David Chase. Several years ago I began focusing on directing. My short film “Arrow Shot” was very successful with Sundance, over 50 festivals and many European sales and a two-year run on Bravo.

I wanted to spend more time writing so I accepted a three year fellowship to the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. There I became involved in the development of several feature projects including “Dance With The One”. When the University of Texas Film Institute decided to make Dance they asked me to pitch to direct it.

I wanted to make “Dance With The One” because I knew I understood the story, and I thought I could bring the family to life with compassion and without judgement because my own childhood growing up on communes was frightening and difficult, but also filled with very interesting and charismatic characters. I also wanted to explore the unique intimacy that arises in troubled families during crisis.

I’m also a big fan of Sydney Lumet’s book “Making Movies,” and he says never turn down the opportunity to direct a feature.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

A sportswriter, but my mother told me journalists were lame compared to artists, traumatized me for life because I am gifted at sports commentary. The other night I was watching Olympic ice skating, a sport I watched a lot as a kid, and I nailed the score for two free skates in a row. Top of the world, Ma!

I did make my first film at 10. A remake of “Summer of 42”, called “Summer of 76”. My mom also dated Vilmos Zsigmond off and on for years so I was on the set of The Long Goodbye, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. That experience made it clear that filmmakers were the coolest folks around.

How did this whole project come together?

The script by Smith Henderson and Jon Marc Smith was developed through classes at the University of Texas Film Institute taught by the producer, Alex Smith. The script was based on an unpublished novel by Jon Marc. I directed a workshop of another script and had one of my scripts developed through the institute so when they decided to make Dance, I was eligible to pitch myself as a director and I did.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

Great question. It all has to start with the script, because all decisions are based upon telling the story and without a clear and effective story all the other creative decisions have no foundation. The writers worked really hard with me getting the script ready to shoot.

Casting is also huge, without performances people tune out, and aren’t really engaged even if the story is strong. As an actor I spent years and years on sets, on stages and in classrooms fascinated by what tools work to get actors free, and each actor is different, and by the time you get to the set you better know yours tools well because there isn’t a ton of tie to experiment. We very rarely did more than four takes.

But in the end I think it’s all about energy, keeping the project on the rails by solving problems, making decisions, and getting everyone invested in the moments we are capturing by making sure they know what they are contributing to the process. Also think it’s important to express enthusiasm and wonder at the awesome collaborative event that we are part of during filmmaking. I felt gratitude everyday of the process no matter what difficulties we were facing, and I made sure to share that feeling. Dancing and singing and the expert use of accents helps to keeps things loose.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

Given our small budget and ambitious script, in terms of the action that needed to be filmed, I knew I wanted to shoot two cameras. The director of photography, Marcel Rodriquez, agreed and we decided to shoot on two large Sony F900 HD cameras that Austin-based Troublemaker Studios were incredibly generous to loan the production. We wanted to utilize hand-held a fair amount, but also we wanted to use heavy cameras, so there would be a sturdiness to the images. The F900s didn’t bounce around, because the cameras were more like 35mm cameras than small camcorders. Two cameras also allowed us to have a large camera department and utilize two excellent camera operators Rick Diaz and Drew Daniels. The cinematographers Deborah Lewis and Todd McMullen were very helpful in giving us ideas for the two-camera approach.

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?

We haven’t shown anyone he finished film. We had some test screenings, one moderated by the incomparable John Pierson. We learned things and took some actions including shooting a new ending. I like to avoid expectations, they can be such a set up. I am excited to celebrate the film at SxSW.

Who would you say is “the audience” for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?

I think that are willing to engage with the film emotionally will be our best audience.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

I am inspired by so many things. I know I was very inspired by my childhood, the beautiful places I lived and the big characters I was surrounded by. The Billy Jack films were a huge inspiration as a boy because there was so much heart and sadness in them, but then Billy would kick some serious ass and things would almost be okay.

I love the films of Ken Loach. When I watched “Kes” I could not stop crying. “My Name is Joe” and “Sweet Sixteen” are off the charts. I also love films that combine emotionally complicated circumstances and action. For me “At Close Range”, “One False Move” and the original Sam Peckinpah “The Getaway” are great examples of this.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

The goal is to make more films, how that comes to be, or what that production model looks like I don’t really know, but I want to explore all opportunities. One thing about directing a feature is that now I have a very clear understanding of what money means to every single aspect of production.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

If I had started earlier and focused on coaching basketball I think that could have been very rewarding. I coached this year, and while I looked good on the sideline I had limited experience and it showed big time. I also think sports journalism would be great. I still want to make films about sports.

Please tell me some filmmakers, actors or other talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

I’d love to work with Noah Taylor, he’s the most honest actor I’ve ever seen. I also want to work with Keanu Reeves because I think he can be awesome. We were friends in high school, and actually drove across the country together when he went to LA, and I recently gave him a copy of “Dance”, but I know he’s very busy, but I have a script that he would kill in. I would also love to work with Vera Farmiga because she’s awesome, and Nick Cave because he’s a genius.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

I’m about to learn a shit-ton about this. It seems like the key is to roll out the film in the right way so that any audience appreciation can be amplified and expanded into distribution modes.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

The Taos Community Theatre packed with my dad all his old hippie and Native American buddies along with their wives and kids.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

Are you gonna be a sucker ‘yer whole damn life! You don’t have to be high to think this movie is good!

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie (if at your own screening or another movie you attend)?

I’ve said some crazy shit already like, “can you stop eating like a fucking pig!! I’m trying to watch the film.”At a screening of our film, I’d walk away, restraint is best in that situation because I’m pretty volatile.

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

The business is pure business, you make something people like you get to keep making.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

If you find yourself talking more about what will happen after the film is made than why and how the script works you should shut it down.

And finally…what is your all time favorite motion picture, and why?

Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” as it is a pure and free expression of storytelling. There is beautiful inspiration is all aspects of the production. I was also a boy standing on the sand as Sterling Hayden ran into the ocean, and it was magic.

This is one of the many films screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film in Austin, Texas between March 12-20. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 03/10/10 05:27:06
last updated: 03/11/10 06:10:23
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