An interview with writer Dawn Garcia
Photo credit: Michael Paleodimas (Oscar-winning Director of Photography)
Dawn Garcia is a writer, journalist, public speaker, and a die-hard advocate of equality. On top of being a single mother to her daughter. Garcia knows how to stay busy.
She has written several pieces of fiction, published over 2000 articles, 1 book, completed three screenplays, developed two TV Series, multiple feature films, and will be directing for the first time this year. She owns and operates ATOD Magazine, is the Managing Print Editor of Sensi Magazine Southern California, and is an annual Juror for the International Design Awards.
She is a Latina/Hispanic in her 40s, still living in her hometown of LA, and searches for passion and truth in the everyday. Along with her other jobs, Garcia is also a member of Women In Entertainment (WIM), Women In Media, NYWIFT, J. Paul Getty Trust Associated Press, NAHJ, LA Press Club, ASJA, and a founding member of the Academy Museum of Motions Pictures, Arts, and Sciences.
We spoke with Garcia about the many hats she wears, her motivation for writing, as well as her current project Spiraling.
How did you start writing scripts and what inspired you to write?
I actually started out writing fiction and I attempted a one-act play for Yale University once upon a time, but it was after a trip to Ireland—and picking up a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde from a bookstore on the small island of Howthe—that changed me.
I read each page and couldn’t help but see it unfold in my mind as a film. I did research on previous adaptations and was so disappointed that, with the exception of a 1946 version with Angela Lansbury and a BBC version in 1977, they all were turned into sci-fi type films, not staying true to the beautiful literature Wilde originally created.
I kept thinking, there’s a reason this book has stood the test of time! It exposes greed, vanity, power and humanity’s many, many shortcomings but it’s done so eloquently! I started writing a screenplay adaptation titled Dorian in 2005 (maybe) and wrote 11 drafts over the course of many years.
It took me that long to gain an understanding of writing for the screen, and as a result my desire to “tell” the story versus “show” the story deepened. That painful exercise taught me to love screenwriting.
Mind you I used to do makeup and special effects so reading scripts and breaking down scenes was familiar to me, but writing a story that I could see so clearly in my mind was exhilarating. I knew from then on I wanted to write original work and if given the chance, happily write another adaptation.
Would you like to direct your own writing or will you also consider having others direct your scripts?
My short film, Spiraling, was something I wrote with the intention of directing. I created my shot list, budget breakdown, even cast it and crewed up with an incredible DP and a Gaffer (both of whom’s A-list credits are amazing). I created an Indiegogo campaign and sadly, we only raised 10% of the budget. And then COVID-19 came in and altered all foreseeable plans for production in the near future.
Rather than waste the budget, I saw the film winning countless awards and gaining recognition from industry leaders. That’s when I chose to do what my original plan was for the short: I created an original anthology series based on the short film. As of now, I have fleshed out four seasons of Spiraling, including episodes, themes, and more—and it is currently being shopped by my producer and manager.
All of that to say, I am a writer first and foremost. I write with a director’s eye and would love to direct at some point, but I also love collaboration and believe seeing what someone else does with the stories I create is fascinating (when done right and with the sentiment and passion intended of course).
Having started out as a makeup and special effects artist, scene breakdowns, seeing the cinematic world in hues, imagined wardrobe, soundtracks, and brilliant edits is in my blood. I love the power of visual storytelling and for me, that world comes to life through words.
I would love to direct a handful of episodes of Spiraling, but I’d also love to direct projects other writers have written. There is something magical about being entrusted with someone else’s story.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a scriptwriter in the film industry these days?
I don’t think there are enough pages in any magazine to answer that! Realistically, the challenges of screenwriting lie in the belief that our stories matter. Once you finish a project— have ripped out your heart to bleed the words onto the vacant screen—you have to strap in and prepare for a barrage of rejection with small bursts of validation.
The industry isn’t nearly as cut and dry as it was when I started out a few decades ago. Before, you could walk onto a studio lot and get clever in terms of getting your work to the people that mattered. Now, you have to have representation (I’m grateful I have it), but you also have to know that since the influx of streaming came into play, the rules change minute-by-minute.
I write stories hoping to open eyes, to unite, to inform, to inspire while also not shying away from difficult topics. I believe hope is essential but telling stories that draw on the human experience matter. That in and of itself makes being a writer a challenge because you never know what a network or studio is looking for.
That said, you have to love writing or this industry isn’t for you. “No” is a regular part of our vernacular. You keep creating, holding out for that perfect, “Yes”.
Photo credit: Tram Tran
Who inspired you as a scriptwriter?
I grew up in a family that watched crazy amounts of TV and movies. But we watched B (and C) horror movies (I loved A Nightmare on Elm Street which broke the barriers for me); TV shows like The Twilight Zone (the old school one), Family Ties, Different Strokes, Elvira, and a ton of black and white classic films.
We did watch a bunch of John Huhges and Steve Martin films as well, and those introduced me to humor and clever storytelling. Film and television were modes of expression and escapism for me growing up. They contrasted the horrible things happening in my childhood, and allowed me to write in my quiet solitude.
That said, the first movie that seemed to appeal to my inner writer was The Outsiders written by Kathleen Rowell and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. I was so emotionally changed by this film, one I was way too young to watch! And The Shining written by Stanley Kubrick. That movie I wasn’t able to watch so I was left to listen to it, which ignited some pretty wild renderings of my imagination as you can imagine.
The films that have inspired me as a scriptwriter, aside from the ones I mentioned, are Full Metal Jacket, Belle de Jour, Eat Drink Man Woman, Before Night Falls, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Singin’ in the Rain.
As for who inspired me, it’s a combination of literary writers and filmmakers: George Sand, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Oscar Wilde, Stanley Kubrick, Mel Brooks, Guy Richie, Ava DuVerney, Tonya Soracho, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Giuseppe Tornatore, and Francis Ford Coppola.
All have stumbled, succeeded, and created life-changing work. I’m sure I’m forgetting another hundred people who have influenced my journey, but I assure you there hasn’t been a moment of being unaffected by the power of film and television.
And who are some of your most favorite script writers in the film industry?
I find myself enamored, inspired, and empowered as a woman by Ava DuVernay. Her conviction of storytelling is profound and has opened eyes, torn out hearts, and forced us to stop pretending systemic change isn’t essential. I have to say I have a girl crush on the mind and genius of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She is fearless and awkward and fierce AF.
She changed the game with Killing Eve and then again with Fleabag. I love the emotional torment of Dan Fogelman, the ingenious ability to see no creative limits by Guillermo del Toro, the willingness to take no crap or succumb to the gender discrepancies in Hollywood by Shonda Rhimes, and the vision and work ethic of Lisa Joy.
I also pull my inspiration from powerful women like Helen Mirren, Octavius Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Viola Davis, Kathryn Bigelow, LaVerne Cox, and the powerful movement to see more women and women of color fairly represented in the industry. The collective silence is over and being a writer as the movement continues to change the narrative, well, it’s beyond exciting.
Your script, Spiraling is about devastation and loss but yet there is hope and truth in your script. How did the idea of writing the script come to you?
First off, thank you for seeing that. That is the hope of the project—that in spite of how heavy it is, the heart of it is we need one another. The film tackles an issue far too few address: suicide. I wanted to be honest and compassionate and as a mother, woman, and believer in the unity of mankind, I tapped in to my own moments of wondering if my life was of any value.
The film addresses a topic I am all too familiar with which is loss and sudden trauma. I also wanted to show the beautiful vulnerability and strength of women and how precious human connection is. One afternoon, I just sat down and it all came pouring out. I wrote Spiraling in about 90 minutes. I did a rewrite and some minor edits but this film was meant to be freed.
Do you believe that art could save humanity? Why?
I do. Art forces us to confront ourselves. It holds up a mirror and exposes our fears, our pain, our ugliness, our truths, our inadequacies, our beauty, our hope, our potential and it begs us to strip ourselves of judgement and dive in. Visual mediums of art are humanity’s truth.
We can’t hide from it. We have to embrace it, we have to own it, and we must save one another from the hate and indifference that seems to plague us as a species like a silent grim reaper.
How long have you been writing and how many scripts have you written so far?
Oh boy! I’ve been writing since I could put pen to paper, so probably since I was six years old. It was always my release. I need it as much as it needs me. I’m sure that sounds odd, but story is the way I make sense of the world. Whether I’m journaling, writing fiction, articles, interviews, films, television series, or obscurities, there isn’t anything else I’d rather do.
I have written seven scripts so far. I have four in process including three features. That said, when I need to flex different parts of my brain I turn to journalism and fiction. In fact I’m writing a book now that’s intended to be adapted for the screen.
The story is personal and deserves the freedom of writing without limitation first, but once it’s done I want to make it a feature in the hopes others out there will find some hope in the devastation of abuse and loss.
You are a scriptwriter, a magazine editor and a single mother. What is it like to do so much multitasking and what are your goals in life?
I get to use different parts of my brain every day. Film and television allow my imagination to find a tangible outlet through a medium that can impact, awaken and inspire.
Owning and operating my magazine and then acting as editor for several other print publications allows me to tap into my activism and passions, and writing fiction allows me to play with beautiful vocabulary and use descriptors to my heart’s content. As for being a single mother, my daughter saved my life in so many ways.
She’s my purpose, my heart, and the reason everything I do needs to mean something. She watches how hard I work, knows and appreciates my desire to leave her a better world, and her curiosity to be an instrument of change herself continues to push me.
She teaches me every day through her fearlessness, her open and awakened mind, and her willingness to help others. That said, she has an incredible father and we have a beautiful little village now. It took a long time to get here, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I believe we create our families and she is at the core of mine.
As for my goals, a couple of years ago I might have answered that I wanted to win three Oscars, two Golden Globes and five Emmys. But now my goal is to see the stories that pour out of me make their way to the world so they can free someone else.
Truth for me lies in my willingness to tell honest stories while instilling hope and a call for humanity to take responsibility for one another. To confront the things that make us feel isolated yet strangely end up being the things that unite us.
I write stories that show the vulnerability of who we are, but in a way that holds up a mirror and begs the question: can you see the hope that exists in the world? Because in all honesty, we all need some magic. We all need to find our way back to one another.
Why do you write scripts?
When my mom was alive, she made a lot of mistakes that cost me my innocence, but before she died I made one promise to her: I wouldn’t live my life to regret it. That’s why I write scripts. I write because the release is my oxygen. I was given this gift, however evolved or simple, and words are the way I feel I can make a difference. Words matter. Stories matter. That’s my purpose and it would be selfish to ignore it.