"The Next Right Thing" with Dionna McMillian
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.]
Dionna McMillian is a film writer and director residing in Bushwick by way of Cincinnati, whose insightful eye has led her to direct a variety of projects, including music videos, short films, and most recently, an upcoming web series called "The Next Right Thing."
While Dionna had not always planned to be a filmmaker, or even known that being a filmmaker was a possibility, she eventually found her way to the medium after college, taking full advantage of internal and external opportunities in graduate school to develop her creative and technical abilities (which we discuss in more detail below). When she moved to New York City in pursuit of her dreams of directing film, she quickly encountered obstacles in her job search. Fortunately, through relationships that she had maintained with colleagues in Washington D.C. (where she attended graduate school), Dionna was hired for a gig, and though it did not pay a great rate, it paved the way for more opportunities in New York. Currently, in addition to her writing and directorial projects, she is an instructor and department chair at New York Film Academy, which has been an unexpected joy—the fruit of a seed planted during her teaching fellowship at Northwestern University.
After viewing her charmingly funny short, Love, New York, at the Reel Sisters Film Festival, I sat with Dionna one afternoon to learn more about how she came into her career.
How would you describe yourself for someone who doesn’t know of you or your work?
“I’m a filmmaker living in Bushwick, New York. I do a few things in film, but I’m trying to focus mostly on directing and writing. I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, born and raised. Went to undergrad at Alabama State University and then went to grad school in D.C. for film. I’ve been here in New York for the past six and a half years. My work tends to be leaning towards comedy these days, which kind of surprised me, because it’s not what I expected to do. That sums me up pretty well.”
When did you first know you were interested in the arts?
“It was a really, really slow process for me, which often things are. So it really wasn’t until I was about done with undergrad. I would have been, 21 or so. It wasn’t until then that I had some soul searching my senior year of college. I was going to go to grad school no matter what. I was trying to figure out ‘for what?’ and kind of exploring what I always really liked and enjoyed. And it was stories. And I always had very much in the back of my mind a desire to tell stories or to make films. It first crept up in high school. But being from Cincinnati, Ohio, filmmaking is not—like Hollywood seems like another planet. So that as a career wasn’t anywhere in my eyesight...there’s many things along the way that influenced it, but it didn’t crystallize until then.”
So what were some of those things that influenced it along the way?
Sure, I mean, really really early on, and these are things that I’m just realizing kind of now—
This is why I love having these conversations with people.
Yeah, it's a great question. My mother used to write and direct plays for church.
Yes. But again, I think for years I kind of forgot about this. She stopped doing it when I was around 11 or so, I think because of work and responsibilities. But, from the ages of, whatever age I was until around 8 or so, I would wake up on Saturday mornings to her typing on an electronic typewriter, which is like 'zzzt, zzzt, zzzt.' So, I'm sure that has some indelible impression upon me. [laughs]
Did you like her plays?
I did! I've only seen, I only remember one of them though.
Were you ever in them?
No. My mom was funny about stuff like that...but I think [it] had clearly a big impression, but I wouldn't realize until years later. But it probably gave me permission in a certain way. And I used to read books all the time and I would always imagine how if I was going to make them into movies I would make them into a movie. To that point, one of those books was A Wrinkle in Time. So I'm not gonna lie when I say a part of me is like a little crushed when I heard about Ava Duvernay directing the film...I just needed Hollywood to wait 10 more years. [laughs]
What were other books that captured your imagination as a young person.
I really loved fantasy historical fiction. It's unfortunate because I can't think of the name of the series but I remember it having a big mark upon me [Chronicles of Prydain]...So stories that were fantasy oriented with a splash of realism...The Giver. Golden Compass. You may remember that movie, maybe you saw a poster with Nicole Kidman.
Since you are in film, what television shows influenced you?
Seinfeld was a major influence. The Simpsons for sure. Family Guy when I was a little bit older. King of the Hill. So genius. It's basically the southern Seinfeld...King of the Hill, the characters were fully rounded.
What were you thinking about at this time?
I went to a fairly selective— was a public high school but you had to test to get into it—it was a college prep high school.
It wasn't a place like LaGuardia High School of the Arts [a school that made arts a central part of its curriculum].
No. I wish. Everyone [at my high school] theoretically was smart. So the focus was very different. Prestige came from excelling in very traditional academic sense. And my family was pretty traditional in their idea of getting an education. I'm the only like "creative” trying to live off art in my family. My mom also did it obviously, but that was never her career. So in high school, to answer that question, I was more of the mindset of wanting to be more competitive in that way [academically]. But that never fit me. That never suited me at all. I wasn't a great student, to be clear. [laughing]. In retrospect, I probably would have been better at a school for performing arts but at any rate, in high school I did have—there was a local program with the independent [television] stations when you go in and do your own thing. They had something where I could join that, but I was lazy and didn't.
Were you not interested or what was it?
I was interested, and I should have just did it. I even considered applying to a college to do film, but I had no portfolio. I took a photography class, but that's completely unrelated. So I just shelved all that. And I was just like "well, if I ever...maybe I'll get back to it one day."
So you were thinking about applying for film school?
How did you get to this point? Had it just been noodling in your mind for years?
I guess so. But I guess it's one of these things. Yes, and no, right? So I think you have this at the forefront of your mind—and so speaking for myself—there can be things that are really back there that you are not acknowledging. I was also a teenager. So it was these things that were kind of there, but I didn't know what to do with it. Maybe if I grew up in L.A. or New York, I'm sure I would have felt really differently, but I didn't know anything about it really. So again, with my high school being more academic, the only offerings we had that were more artistic were traditional studio art, fine art, and the photography was a close as I could get. And I didn't love photography, but I enjoyed the class...I think if I had taken a video class in high school, I would've fallen in love. I didn't try to pursue that after-school program; I think I was ready to graduate. So if I'm answering that question as best as I can, I think there was a part of me that wanted to do it, or at least interested, that is the better word, but I just had no idea. It didn't even seem like a real possibility.
You mentioned that right now out of your immediate family that you are the only one making a living—
Or trying to. [laughs]
—in the arts, so how has your family reacted to that decision?
They have actually been good about it. They've been great. I mean, cause I didn't go [to undergrad for film]. I [studied] sociology and political science—we'll kind of bookmark that. My mom was the first person I told about it. I called her up and was like “Hey, I think I'm going to apply to film school.” She said, “That's awesome. Great. I'll have a famous director on my hands.” Not that my mom cares about fame per se, but she was excited about it. Which I think, I don't know if it was surprising. I didn't think she was going to be disappointed...If you're not in the arts, the arts can seem like just a hobby.
So I think it just took me awhile to figure out how to articulate it. There are still probably plenty people in my family who just don't understand what I'm doing, but nobody's ever been like “What are you doing?”
Once you decided to go to film school, how did you think about how you were going to support yourself?
First of all, I didn't give a lot of thought to that when I made that decision, and that was probably a wonderful, naive, thing that served me in all honesty. ‘Cause I actually had a decent job. I was in Montgomery, Alabama too, so the cost of living was not very high. I had more things than I have now. I was a little bit more comfortable in some ways. But at any rate, money wasn't the motivating factor in that decision. I was really like “I gotta explore this thing that's been nagging at me.” When I was in grad school, film can be very nebulous. There are so many things that you can do as a filmmaker. You can be a writer, you can be a director, you can be a cinematographer, gaffer, sound, right? So when I went to into film school, I always wanted to be a director, but I was like I definitely want to come out with a skill that is hirable. So a lot of folks do editing, which is really what pays the bills now. So that's how I started out. I think I hit the ground running in film school. I think I read some article or blog that was like “here's what you should do when you're in film school and how make the best out of it.” And I guess I took that advice to heart. I did everything that I could. I did my film projects in school, but my first semester I did an unpaid internship.
A production company who did videos for home improvement type of stuff. I interned for them. My thing is when I got into film, and I think it was like a dream deferred for so long, when I finally acknowledged it, I was like “I'm never working outside of film again.” Even if that means I'm not one hundred percent sure how I'm paying the rent and stuff. And there's been days like that, not to say that there haven't been, I was like, I don't want to get derailed like that again. I want to give 100%. And if I really burn out and am like “I can't do it” then at least I'll know.
And this was rare, I only took one unpaid job while I was in film school, and that was the unpaid internship. During this time I learned how to use Final Cut Pro 7, and I had a little bit of natural skill at editing. I've certainly gotten better over the years...I was really fortunate in a lot of ways. I got a job with a company that associated with Unicef. It was a boring job [laughs]. I had to edit together these training videos to teach people in a country in West Africa that is French speaking, how to create their own manual water wells...That was my first freelance job. I didn't know what I was really doing, but it gave me the experience of negotiating a contract for myself, negotiating a rate, trying to figure out what my time was worth. I was way off.
But I think it was fair—I was also a student. How to deal with a client. I remember something that the client said to me that stuck with me forever. And it was like a hard learning lesson. He and I were kind of going back and forth on the cut, and I was arguing my point of view, and he said "sometimes you just need to do what the client wants." And that was a big learning moment for me, you know, as an artist. I was very new to it. This was my second semester in grad school. You want to do you art, but at the end of the day it wasn't my art. I was doing a performative service for a client, and that's really stuck with me.
Now that you are out of grad school, balancing students loans and current expenses, how do you do all of that?
Well to be clear, I do have a full-time job. I work at New York Film Academy and I'm a department chair—Chair of Post-Production. That early skill that I decided to learn in film school, thank God, it actually really paid off. It kept me fed to be honest. My hope is that I'll get some projects down the road and then I can start really throwing money at it [her student loans].