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Karen: Shot During the Pandemic about Black Lives Matter Movement

It is our pleasure to interview David Tarleton and Adria Dawn, of Tarleton/Dawn Productions, the filmmaking partnership behind the new film, Karen. They made Karen in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Set in modern day suburbia, a woman calls the police on an unfamiliar Black man in her neighborhood. Shot during the pandemic, the film explores white privilege and its consequences. 

While making Karen, David and Adria produced together. Adria wrote and starred in it, while David directed, shot and edited it. They worked in close collaboration on the project, as they do with all their work. Tarleton/Dawn Productions, founded in 2004, is the multi-media production company they co-own and operate. Together, they’ve made plays, a web series, a feature film, music videos, and over 20 short films. Their work spans many genres, including comedy, drama, horror and thrillers.

A common thread found in many of the projects they make together is to raise awareness around themes of social change. They have made many short films and several deal with topics such as homelessness, addiction, depression, school shootings, and racism. They collaborate with younger talent, making films for social change, including Unsafe, Blackout, Help, Pressure, Viral, Excluded, and Bystander, through their partnership with Revealing Media Group.

These films are educationally distributed on multiple platforms and continue to play the film festival circuit. Unsafe recently won two awards with the New York Socially Relevant Film Festival including Best Narrative Short Film and Best Acting Ensemble Award.

Other notable projects include the award-winning supernatural thriller feature film Hunter, which David produced and directed and which Adria served as casting director, currently streaming on Amazon Prime and available on VOD. They also cast the award-winning comedy feature film Cold War. On the web, they continue to create the award-winning improv comedy series Dorkumentary, now in its eighth episode.

What drew you to filmmaking?

David: I started off as a child actor, and started directing plays in high school. As an undergrad theatre director at the University of Virginia, I felt frustrated by the fact that once the play closed, the actual art created was lost forever, and I wanted to be able to combine the best parts of all the actors’ performances, essentially to be able to edit. So, I started making short films.

Then I studied filmmaking at New York University and finally received my Master of Fine Arts from the University of Southern California. My graduate thesis film, Dinner, premiered at Slamdance, played on what is now SyFy, and was distributed on DVD. I then began working in the entertainment industry in L.A. as a producer, director and editor. I edited the Webby Award-winning Muppets series Statler and Waldorf From the Balcony, produced and edited the award-winning feature documentary What Babies Want, and was a producer and director of the science fiction anthology series Dark Secrets for cable channel 3Net.

Adria: I knew being an actor was my calling from a young age, when I became obsessed with the musical Annie as a child. I got my BFA in acting with honors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a focus on theatre. Then I became an on-camera working actor in LA for years. I’m probably best known for my work with Ryan Murphy, including Popular and Nip/Tuck, though I also work in indie film. Recently you might have seen me on Chicago Med.

Since I’ve been back in Chicago, I’ve been working as both an actor and as a filmmaker. Having acted in theatre, TV, and film, I began to have a natural curiosity for how other parts of the business worked. I wanted to feel what it was like to work with actors, to guide them on set, to produce a film, to write, to direct. I have always been detail oriented and feel that has helped me in other areas of film production. I also feel that my talents do not only lie in acting, that I have other areas to explore and contribute to in the entertainment industry. So yeah, Annie, and a desire to artistically expand led me to filmmaking. I also love the level of creativity I can feel when making my own projects.

Do you believe in the benefit of film school or does making a film teach you more than film school?

We are both educators, coaches and consultants, and we and believe in learning the art and craft of filmmaking and acting through shared, experiential learning. We recommend taking classes as well as gaining on-set experience.

David studied film at New York University and got his MFA from the University of Southern California. He’s currently a professor and the head of graduate Cinema and Television programs at Columbia College Chicago. So, he’s strongly on team film school.

David says: “Most people entering the industry, film school or not, start off at the beginning as a PA, or an assistant of some sort. I feel like the difference between someone who has or hasn’t gone to film school is where they are 5 years later. Someone’s who’s gone to film school ought to move up the ranks much quicker, and will start with a better understanding of their art and craft, as well as the industry. You can only learn to make films by making them. But film school is where an aspiring filmmaker can be mentored and guided into making better films over time, rather than potentially repeating the same mistakes over and over. Filmmaking, like all the arts, requires mentoring and critique over multiple projects to get better. Filmmakers have to make many bad films in order to start making better films, to close the gap between intention and outcome.”

Adria says: “I’m a proud alum of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I believe in school, but sure, every so often there are artists who never went to school for anything and are brilliant. For me, I love teaching privately as well as in a classroom. When I made the course ‘Reel Class: Taking Training Out of the Classroom and Onto the Set,’ it was the best of both worlds for me because my students were able to learn on set and also in the classroom. I am also a big fan of mentorship. I definitely have had mentors along the way who have guided me and I try and give that back to my students. One of my favorite sayings is ‘let my hindsight be your foresight.’”

What makes cinema stand out more than other arts for you?

For us, cinema is a part of the arts, and contains within it all of the other arts. Making movies is making art. Putting images together and crafting performance, sound, music, composition, color – it all moves together to make a piece of art that will hopefully entertain and move the audience. If we can get you to laugh or heck, even think about what we’ve had you watch, then we’ve done our job.

We both were drawn to film from the theatre, and it feels like there’s a natural progression to creating filmed performances from our earlier experiences.

Did you choose a certain directing style for making "Karen" based on the script? 

We made Karen in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and wanted to explore the consequences of white privilege. Stylistically, we knew we wanted to play with having Karen’s husband off-screen filming her. We thought this would be something different and make an impact in how we told this story. It turned the camera into a character, and affects Karen’s relationship to the audience.

Based on the story we wanted to tell, we approached the film wanting to keep the POV very narrowly focused on Karen, and to put us into her subjective experience. We wanted the audience to be in her headspace throughout the story. Shooting at night also helped us to see how Karen sees, which is to look at the world fearfully.

How did you choose the cast and the crew of your film? And what were some of the challenges making this film?

We shot Karen during the pandemic, so we knew it was going to be a very small cast and crew. It was completely improvised by Adria from a structured outline, and mainly just the two of us working on it. David directed, shot and edited the film, in close collaboration with Adria.

The primary exception was Harold Dennis, our one other actor. Due to Covid-19, he was shot on one day, entirely outside and socially distanced. The only other crew member was our 11 year old son, Hart, who helped with the slate and occasionally the boom mic. In post, we also worked with our longtime collaborator, composer Andrew M. Edwards and supervising sound editor, Wil Cox.

Adria has been a SAG-AFTRA member since 1998, and with the new COVID guidelines, we were worried what the requirements would be to make this production happen. Fortunately, with the Short Project Agreement, we were able to make the film relatively easily. The fact that the makers of the film were also in quarantine together helped quite a bit.

Secondly, the character Harold Dennis plays has a run-in with the police in the film. So one of our biggest hurdles was figuring out how to make it work with only one actor. We actually shot a more extended version of that scene, including using police lights and our bodies as shadows, and we hired two actors to record voice-over as policemen. In the edit, however, we mutually decided that less was more in creating this moment in the film. We felt that the minds of the audience could fill in the moment better than our being explicit on screen. 

These kinds of challenges are exciting to us and, during the pandemic, kept us creatively moving forward.

How did you fund your film?

Karen was self-financed by Tarleton/Dawn Productions. We used the Short Project Agreement and made sure our other actor had food and a stipend for his work, as well as a copy of the film for his reel.

Do you consider yourself indie filmmakers and what would most be the most difficult thing about being an independent artist?

We are primarily independent filmmakers, but, over the years in our careers, we have worked on many projects for studios and networks.

We would probably say the most difficult thing about being independent artists is juggling all of the different hats we have to wear to be successful indie filmmakers. This is not a hobby for us. This is our career choice and we are serious about getting our films out there so that means while we have to be good at directing, we also have to be good at producing, and overseeing productions as a whole, as well as marketing and promotion. Oh, and we are also married with an eleven year old. So lots to juggle, but we kinda thrive this way.

What is the distribution plan for your film?

Our work has been distributed on various platforms throughout our careers including Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Syfy, 3Net, Discovery, Redbox, Learn360, Alexander Street, and McIntyre Media.

We would love for Karen to get distributed for educational purposes, and used as a learning tool to discuss racism. Our series for social change, Kids Matter, is educationally distributed on three platforms in the US and Canada and we would love for Karen to also be available in this way. We could also see Karen streaming on Netflix or Hulu with other shorts that deal with racism.

What is your cinematic goal in life and what would you like to achieve as a filmmaker?

One of our immediate goals as filmmakers currently is to get our next project funded and made. We are collaborating with New York based writer, Gordon Penn, on a feature length thriller called Back to One, that we are really excited about.

We want to move towards making only features and episodic series. We need to create and make things pretty regularly or we start to go a bit crazy. So the goal, always, is to keep making and elevating the work as we go.

We often ask ourselves before we shoot, how can we really put our stamp on this? What can we do to create bold, unique storytelling that really services the story? We feel it’s not enough to just shoot what’s there, but to look at how we as artists can enhance and add mood, and bring our point of view to the material. If we continue to do this, then we are achieving what we set out to do.

What kind of impact would your film have in the world and who is your audience?  

“We wanted to call out questionable behavior that can sometimes exist in your very own neighborhood,” says writer and star Adria Dawn. “We were inspired by all the folks out on the street standing against systemic racism and wanted to shine a light on people who might not think they’re part of the problem,” says director David Tarleton.

The idea for Karen came when we were marching as part of a peaceful protest for Black Lives Matter with our son and his school. We felt like part of something important. The energy felt like a societal awakening. We wanted to expand on why and how racism is still alive and well, even in socially progressive suburbs. Exploring white privilege and its consequences seems important to us.

There are so many images of entitled white women embodying who we all think Karen is. Hopefully, when people watch our film, they will see a different version of Karen. Crazy loud Karens are obvious; what about more subtle versions of white privilege and racism? These are the ones we need to take note of, even within ourselves.

We hope that those who stood up and marched, and continue to march, those who are fighting for equality, those who are at home trying to raise kind, caring, strong children will be our audience. We want a diverse audience, black people, white people, brown people to see our film. We also want this film to be viewed by white people who maybe weren’t aware of some potential systemic racism in their own community or perhaps that might be living somewhere within themselves.

Here is the link to Karen:

For more information about the creative team behind "Karen", please visit the following links:

Tarleton/Dawn Productions:


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