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An Interview with Dan Kuhlman, Director and Star of Rose White

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2012

Dan Kuhlman on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new film Rose White - in a few words, what is it about?

 

The story is based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow-White and Rose-Red. To over simplify it: Two sisters live in an enchanted forest with their mother. Thereís a terrible storm, an injured Bear, and an ungrateful and slightly sinister Dwarf. Itís a pretty simple story about loyalty, family and purity of heart.

 

Our adaptation adopts this same world, but this world only exists within the broken mind of Lilly (Snow-White). In reality, she and her sister Rosalyn (Rose-Red) are desperately poor, and Rosalyn has had to resort to prostitution to support the two of them. In our take on things, the Bear is a drug addict, the Dwarf is a local crime boss, and so on. The film follows pretty closely to the basic structure of the fairy tale, with a more film noir approach to the storyline.

 

Basically, we took the original fairy tale and the themes involved and turned up the stakes and consequences involved as far as they could go.

 

How did the project come into being in the first place?

 

The project was basically brought into existence amidst a conversation between Deneen Melody [Deneen Melody interview - click here] and I about two and a half years ago. During said conversation, Deneen told me that she had always wanted to make a film based on her favorite Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Snow-White and Rose-Red. Growing up, my grandmother used to read their stories to my brother and I before bed, so Iíve also always had a deep respect for them. Since that time, my understanding and appreciation of their stories have changed, mainly due to adaptations that tame the original work. Part of the excitement and longevity of their stories is that they are actually extremely dark. They are full of terrible people and creatures that are out to harm the innocent, or at the very least take from them what they care for most. They are morality tales, but, even more than that, they are warnings. They are most certainly not as happy and light as most of the films that have used them as source material. Thus, the idea of taking a crack at one seemed irresistible.

 

You have written the screenplay for Rose White based on a story by your co-producer and star Deneen Melody [Deneen Melody interview - click here]. How specific was her story, and to what extent (if at all) did you two collaborate when scripting the film? Oh, and prior to this project, were you actually aware of the Brothers Grimm-tale your film is based on, and did you consider it solid source material?

 

During the actual process, I did write the script pretty independently. However, Deneen absolutely provided the road map for the path that was taken. The whole development of the project was based on two main guide posts that Deneen gave me. First: there are two worlds in the film, a dark fairy tale forest and a real world inner city, the break between these worlds existing within Lillyís damaged mind. Second: in this real world Rosalyn is a prostitute, Bear is a drug addict, the Dwarf is a crime boss, as I mentioned earlier. From there, I basically built the meat around the bones, using the original fairy tale as a guide.

As a result, the process was one-hundred-and-fifty percent driven by the Brothers Grimm fairy tale itself. In fact, during the first five minutes and throughout the first half of the film, I directly quote the actual text of the fairy tale in Lillyís voice over. We definitely diverged from the exact course of the Brothers Grimm plot, but we remain true to key story points. So, the fairy tale was absolutely essential source material.

And to the last point, I must confess, I had only read the original story once, and that was many years ago. On the other hand, that is also what drew me to the story. Here was a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, with characters Snow-White and Rose-Red that everyone has heard of and THINKS they know. However, very few people know THIS particular story, and this particular portrayal of those characters. It was a unique opportunity, and I knew right away that it had to be done.

 

Speaking of Deneen Melody: What was it like directing her in her own brainchild actually?

 

When working on a project thatís personal to many people, you do ride a thin line. There are always going to be times where one personís vision for a sequence doesnít match up with anotherís. Luckily, Deneen and I worked so closely the whole time and had such a close understanding of what we both wanted for the project that it made things a lot easier. Iím not going to say it was all peaches and cream, of course. In this kind of tough creative process, with the pressures of budget, the Chicago summer heat, seventeen hour shoots, and one thing after another going wrong, inevitably youíre going to blow up, and yell and pout and be an idiot. And by that I mean me. Deneen, however, was always a trooper, and basically let my spoiled-ass have my way most of the time.

 

Deneen Melody, Erin Breen

The thing is though, to be most accurate about it, I didnít simply direct Deneen in this film. She and I really and truly built the thing from zero and held it together with our bare hands. We couldnít have done it without people like my brother Jeremy Kuhlman, Anthony Sumner [Anthony G.Sumner interview - click here], Chad Norris, and Brian Kilborn. However, what it came down to was her and I digging our heels into the mud and pressing on. In the end, itís a testament to the people involved as to what the work looks like when youíre done and to what you and your team look like when youíre done. To that, I can definitely say, working with Deneen on this film was an honor, and is one of the best things that I have ever done.

 

What can you tell us about your other leading lady Erin Breen?

 

Erin Breen is a rock star with a heart of gold. I do not exaggerate, even though she will tell me to shut up and stop it. Beyond that she is a Chicago actress and model, now based in Los Angeles, who also just happens to have a degree and career in Civil and Environmental Engineering. She actually was one of the only actors that we hadnít worked with in the past. We literally interviewed and auditioned almost every young actress in Chicago for the part, and she was one of the last that we saw. Anyone, in any field, that can provide her level of talent, commitment, and intelligence, and combine it with a humble, good natured ability to make everyone around her feel appreciated, is a true rarity. On camera, she brought to the table a quiet strength and vulnerability that made Rosalyn truly come alive. Without her, the film wouldnít ever have been as strong as it is. Finding her was one of those kismet things that make this kind of project happen.

 

In Rose White, you play the male lead - so what can you tell us about Dan Kuhlman, the actor, and how did you approach your role?

 

Dan Kuhlman in Bear-makeup

Well, when you wear as many hats as I did on this film the main concern was remaining focused. The interesting thing about it though is that because I was so immersed in all aspects of the film that level of concentration was somehow easier to attain. I had such a clear idea of what the scene needed, and an overall sense of where the character and this scene fit in the course of the storyline, that it gave me a greater sense of ease.

In terms of building the character of Bear, the greatest challenge was the line between good and evil within him. In the story, Bear basically comes into the lives of the two girls and pushes them along towards their fate. Therefore, itís essential that he be able to convince the girls, especially Rosalyn, to follow his advice, even though he is not inherently trustworthy. Thatís a tough combination to pull off. I hope I did an okay job.

 

A few words about the rest of your cast and crew?

 

In terms of our cast, as I mentioned earlier, most of our actors are folks that we have worked with in the past who just fit right into place for these parts. Such as, Anthony Fleming III, who plays Wolf, worked with me several years ago on Famous Doorís production of The Cider House Rules here in Chicago. The role was basically written for him, so we were incredibly lucky that he was available. Tom Lodewyck [Tom Lodewyck interview - click here] worked with Deneen and I on Afraid of Sunrise. Tom just has that incredible gift for creating bad guys that you almost want to root for because they are so damn cool.

 

And, to our crew, I donít have enough space here to really give them their due. We wouldnít have even been able to consider embarking on the project without Anthony Sumnerís team at TinyCore Pictures [Anthony G.Sumner interview - click here]. Brian Kilborn, my co-director, was an invaluable source of vision and perspective without which the film would be pretty much crap. And my brother Jeremy Kuhlman, the filmís Director of Photography, and silent producer. Beyond the amazing work he did on the film, without him none of this, the film, the production company, none of it, would exist.

 

I would be remiss though if I didnít also mention the filmmakers and artistic community outside of our actual crew that were a constant source of support for the film. People like Owen Canepa and Shannon Fitzgerald who allowed us to completely invade and take over their homes for days on end. David Schmudde, Steve Luce, Nolo Digital Film, Resolution Digital Studios, Andrew Shabat and Bryen Hensley, all of whom who contributed to this project simply for the love of the work. Chicago is lucky to have such a supportive artistic community. We canít thank them enough.

 

Rose White is in (roughly) equal parts fairytale and very realistic crime drama - which was more fun, which more interesting to shoot, and how easy/hard was it to find just the right balance?

 

Well, in terms of simple set-up and production design, the fairy tale sequences were definitely more difficult and time-consuming. However, the most interesting and challenging portion of the shoot was when we sought to juxtapose the two realities. For instance, on a Friday night, we would come in and shoot several sequences in the fairy tale world. Then, over night, we would tear the set down and come in the next day to shoot all of those same sequences again in the real world. From an outside perspective, itís actually this aspect of the film that makes it so successful. Itís directly related to the fact that the division between worlds lives within Lillyís mind. Because we see so much of this story through her eyes, and because she is so innocent, when we reach the end and everything unravels it has a real emotional punch to it.

 

How would you describe your overall directorial approach to your subject at hand?

 

Simple and dark. Thatís what co-director Brian Kilborn, Deneen, my brother Jeremy and I talked a lot about during pre-production and throughout the shoot. This applied to everything: our actors, production design, lighting, effects, music, all of it. When making a fantasy piece there are a whole slew of traps. One is that you can easily take things too far. You ride a thin line and if you go over it you descend into melodrama. A second is that there is an inherent lightness to the genre. Our take on this story involves some very serious social issues that are not easy to talk about. These are issues that are personal to many people in the cast and crew, so I knew we needed to be very careful. Keep the performances focused, almost smaller and subdued. Keep the sets and costumes from being too extravagant. Keep the lighting full of contrast and shadow. Keep the music in a dark place and donít let it lighten the tone. The goal in the end was to really drive home the idea that true evil doesnít lie in stories of monsters and terrible creatures, but happens every day in the world around us.

 

What can you tell us about the actual shoot and your on-set atmosphere?

 

Cold as (expletive deleted) in April. Hot as (expletive deleted) in July. Too many shots. Not enough time. Hectic. Stressed. Excellent people joking about it being hectic and stressed. Making it work.

 

The $64-question of course: When and where will your film be released onto the general public?

 

Right now the film is being considered by twenty plus festivals. Unfortunately, we wonít know for a few more months which one will be screening it first.

 

Let's go back to the beginnings of your career: As far as I know (and I might be wrong), you started out as an actor. What can you tell us about your early acting experiences, and did you receive any formal education on the subject?

 

Actually, I have to confess again here, I am, and always will be, first and foremost an actor. I received my degree from Carnegie Mellonís School of Drama in Pittsburgh, moving to Chicago after I graduated to work in the theater and improv community here in town. Over the past ten years, Iíve been able to work in the majority of Chicagoís theaters and am a proud card carrying member of all three actorsí unions.

Five years ago, I decided that film was the direction I wanted to take with my career. The problem was that Chicago was still relatively slow when it came to film and television. Thus, my brother Jeremy and I decided to start our production company, Breakwall Pictures. Five years, and multiple short film projects later, Rose White came into being. So, my path towards adding ďdirectorĒ to my tool belt was a direct result of my acting career. I love both aspects of the process, but I have to say that I will always think of myself as an actor more than a director.

 

If I'm not mistaken, your first film as a director was Thanks Mom. What can you tell us about that one?

 

That one I co-wrote with my brother and it was indeed my film directorial debut. Itís about two brothers who try to raise money for their feature film, but are forced to accept their motherís offer to help because of the bad economy. When they finish the film their mom watches it and it is completely against her more old-school, conservative sensibilities. So, they change it and they change it, until it becomes a hilarious, Disney-fied mockery of its former self.

Itís partly a commentary on Hollywoodís process of sucking the life and grit out of films, but itís also slightly autobiographical. Our mom has literally read hundreds of drafts of the scripts that Iíve written. And, each time she does, she says, ďDannyÖ I loved it. But does it really need to be so violent?Ē Or, ďDanny!... I loved it. But do you really have to use that kind of language?Ē And so on. And I actually do end up changing things as a result. Thus, the film was basically a love letter to Mom.

 

Any other films of yours (as actor, director, writer, whatever else) you'd like to talk about? Any future projects?

 

Actually, Thanks Mom is the one I would have brought up. That one has yet to really hit the number of festivals that it should have. We just got bogged down with working on Rose White so soon after Thanks Mom was complete. The film is really and honestly funny, and deserves a great run. Everyone who has seen it has loved it.

 

Dan Kuhlman on stage

Besides films you've also done a lot of theatre, right? How does acting on stage compare to acting in front of a movie camera, and honestly, which do you prefer?

 

Although opinions differ on this, mine is that they are actually the same. Itís just a matter of scale. That may seem like an idiotically obvious point. However, even within the individual worlds the same idea applies. In theater, you do not project as much, or scale up your physicality in a small, fifty-seat Chicago store front theater as you would doing a musical or Shakespeare, in a full size 500 seat, outdoor auditorium. In the same way, the size of an actorís performance in a comedy like Anchor Man seems like a world away from Michael Shannonís work in Take Shelter. In all of them, however, itís about getting to the truth behind the story. I love both of them equally. However, being raised more in the theater, my heart will always rest within that direct interaction between actor and audience.

 

Actors and filmmakers who inspire you?

 

Michael Shannon is a pretty damn inspirational man for a Chicago actor these days. Just watching his career and the work that he does on a regular basis is something that really makes me work harder towards that same goal. Also, I went to school with guys like Zachary Quinto, Joe Manganiello and Matt Bomer, and their success has really given me something to shoot for.

As a filmmaker, itís actually not the big time guys that inspire me. Itís guys like David Schmudde, a Chicago filmmaker now based in New York, that I really hope to emulate. David and guys like him are out there fighting the real battles to do the best work possible, shelling out their hard earned money and usually not seeing a dime back. But every time you need help with a project, David is there to lend a hand. Thatís what itís all about.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

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I could say the ones that somehow you are ďsupposedĒ to say when you are a filmmaker, like Apocalypse Now and Citizen Kane. Both of which I do really love. However, the movies that are set in my soul, and that I can watch a million times without getting bored, will always be The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Somehow I feel a little guilty for saying that, but itís true.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

Any film with the word Twilight in the title.

 

Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

http://www.rosewhitethemovie.com

http://www.facebook.com/rosewhitemovie 

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

For your readers, do go ďLikeĒ our Facebook page! Youíd be surprised at how much that counts when it comes to film festivals. Weíd really, hugely appreciate it!

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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