Adria Dawn and David Tarleton: Get to know the filmmakers behind ‘Karen’
David Tarleton and Adria Dawn are filmmakers through and through. They founded the production company Tarleton/Dawn Productions in 2004 and have a whole host of credits to their names for acting, producing, directing, and more.
Tarleton and Dawn’s latest film project is a film called Karen, which takes on some of the subject matter the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the forefront of social justice conversations this year. Their film has a YouTube premiere for November 24, 2020 and you can join the watch party with the video below. If the premiere has already happened you should still be able to watch the movie in your own time.
We also had the fantastic opportunity to interview both Tarleton and Dawn about their movie, their careers, and a few other miscellaneous topics. You can watch the film and read about how they made it below. You can also learn more about Adria Dawn on her website, Twitter or Instagram, and David Tarleton on his website or Twitter.
Can you tell us about your histories as filmmakers?
We founded our production company, Tarleton/Dawn Productions, in 2004. We started off making plays, but moved into primarily filmmaking starting in 2007. Together, we’ve made several plays, a web series, a feature film, music videos, and over 20 short films. The two of us wear different hats on different projects, between producing, directing, writing, acting, casting, shooting and editing, but we always make them together as a team.
We’re also married. The third floor of our place is our home studio. So, the work never stops but we love each other, and we like each other most days, so it works.
How did you both get into 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 directed 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.
I produced and directed the feature film Hunter, which was released in 2019, and is currently on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, Redbox, and other VOD platforms, as well as DVD and Blu Ray.
Adria: When I didn’t get to audition for Annie at the mall in Champaign-Urbana when I was a kid, I just couldn’t let it go. (Mom, are you laughing?) I knew being an actor was my calling. 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, with many notable television and film appearances. I’m probably best known for my work with Ryan Murphy, including Popular and Nip/Tuck, though I also work in indie film.
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 know if I could do more than act – this feeling started growing in me over twenty years ago. 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 more to explore and contribute in the entertainment industry. Sometimes I wish I could only just act – just act! Wow that alone is a steep mountain to climb, but I do not feel satisfied only doing one thing. So yeah, Annie, and a desire to artistically expand led me to filmmaking.
Can you tell us about your latest film Karen?
We 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. We shot during the pandemic, and wanted to explore white privilege and its consequences.
“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.
Considering you made Karen during the pandemic, how did your filmmaking process change?
The first film project that we made together was Episode 1 of our comedic improv web series, Dorkumentary. It was just us and a camera, some props and costumes, and an all-or-nothing approach to making something fun. Thirteen years later, with dozens of projects together, most of our work has been tightly scripted with ample crew.
During the pandemic, we wanted to create something meaningful, and, in some ways, Karen, though a completely different genre and tone, mirrors our early process with Dorkumentary. 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.
We love the freedom and authenticity that improv brings and we love the intimate nature of working with a truly bare-bones crew. For us, we wear a lot of hats and there’s something invigorating to know that we can wear a lot of them all at the same time.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while making Karen?
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. Thank you to Kathy Byrne at the Chicago SAG-AFTRA Branch for all of your ongoing help and support.
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.
What inspired you to make Karen? Why is it an important movie?
We were scheduled to go into production on a film called Gray Area less than two weeks after the lockdown began. We had another project that was part of our series of socially relevant films for teens called Kids Matter only a couple months later that was also cancelled.
So, with these two film projects being postponed due to the pandemic, and with the nation-wide protests against police violence, we felt we had to make something to express how we were feeling, our frustrations and sadness about the state of the world.
Dawn comes from an artistic, interracial family background. Her grandfather, the late Billy Morrow Jackson, was an artist whose civil rights series of paintings is still being shown throughout the U.S. today. She feels a part of her legacy is tied into making art for social change. The Black Lives Matter movement holds a special place in her heart. Her mother, Claire Ward, is also an artist, whose natural talent and striking images inspired Dawn at a very young age.
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.
Is there anything you want people to know before watching Karen or to think about while watching?
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.
How did you choose the title for your film?
The idea of “Karen” as a meme is out in the culture, and the character Adria is playing is a version of that. Adria loves playing crazy characters, but it seemed like a bad idea to make Karen funny or to get laughs. Real Karens certainly don’t deserve either. So, the idea of peeling back more subtle layers of racism felt much more challenging and appropriate.
You also have your own production company, can you tell us about what kinds of films Tarleton/Dawn Productions produces?
Tarleton/Dawn Productions is a multi-media production company that we co-own and operate together. Founded in 2004, we have worked on numerous projects together in different media, including several stage plays, over 20 films, a web series, and music videos. Our work spans many genres, including comedy, drama, horror and thrillers.
A common thread found in many of the projects we make together is to raise awareness in our storytelling around themes of social change. We have made many short films and several deal with topics such as homelessness, addiction, depression, school shootings, and racism. Furthering our mission, we collaborate with younger talent, making films for social change, including Unsafe, Blackout, Help, Pressure, Viral, Excluded, and Bystander, through our partnership with Revealing Media Group.
These films are educationally distributed on multiple platforms and continue to play the film festival circuit. We were so excited that this year, Unsafe 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, we continue to create the award-winning improv comedy series Dorkumentary, now in its eighth episode.
Can you describe your creative processes?
For us, it all comes down to story. Once we get our story in place, and on paper, we can then build it out from there. We talk extensively about the visual storytelling, and how we are both seeing the film. That process often makes characters and what they want clearer to us. We will talk, then walk away from it, then come back with new ideas and share them with each other.
When one of us has an idea, the other usually picks it up and builds on it, or tells the other why it won’t work. Lately we’ve been talking about how plot and story can be covered in a matter of minutes with visual storytelling, and that dialogue doesn’t have to be wordy to get the point across.
Sometimes on set, we will shoot scenes in more than one way, and depending on the edit, choose one interpretation over the other. We always like to shoot longer takes, in order to allow the performance to develop. We like to avoid feeling rushed, but often jam out long days because we have to. We always schedule in a pick-up day, after the edit has come along a bit, to see if we need to add something in that now seems crucial to the story. David will edit and Adria will give feedback and it bounces back and forth in this way until it’s done.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
We love being multi-hat wearers. Having said that, we also love collaborating with other artists. Andrew M. Edwards is our go-to composer and Adria’s friend since Junior High. We love our caterer, Sharon Harris at S&S Catering. We often hire actors that we’ve worked with before. Harold Dennis was also in our anti-gun violence film, Unsafe. We definitely have people that we always work with, which makes things easier.
David is a professor and Director of Graduate Programs in Cinema and Television Arts at Columbia College Chicago, and we love hiring advanced students and recent alums, giving them opportunities to learn and work on professional sets.
Adria is an on-camera acting coach, having worked at Acting Studio Chicago, as well as out of her own studio, and has also taught on-camera acting in London. She likes hiring former students, to give them opportunities to learn to work on professional sets, as well as using the major talent pool of actors in Chicago.
So, it is hard wearing a lot of hats, but we are also very particular in what we want. Between our core group of people we work with and new production members we hire job-to-job, we feel we have our bases covered. And if we don’t, we’ll figure out how to do it.
What’s your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
We love actually being on set, working together. We love looking at shots together. We love the hustle and bustle of it all. When done well, it really is about making the magic happen. We are also married with a child together, and this production company is an extension of our relationship, as well. We love working together and it’s an important part of our relationship.
On the flip side, doing returns of equipment rentals isn’t very fun. Or putting back rooms just as we found them. But you gotta do what you gotta do.
Do you have any tips for people looking to get into the filmmaking industry?
We believe learning on set and learning in the classroom is the best combination for success. Filmmakers need a foundation of knowledge but that has to be applied in a practical, hands-on way. We only work with people who we like to be around. One bad apple can ruin the bunch, as they say. We have no room for poor attitudes.
Adria spent a decade in L.A., and David lived there for 14 years. We are both grateful to work on high profile jobs. But we don’t care what you’ve worked on or who you know. Having a grounded, authentic connection and a solid work ethic is what we do care about in our collaborators.
Our big advice: Don’t give up. Work hard. Be kind to everyone. Always be learning. Don’t be afraid to create your own content. Make the work yours, in your filmmaking and your acting.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
We want people to feel moved. We want people to think about our films after they’ve watched them. But, above all, we want people to be entertained. We just want to make really good, quality media that can make you laugh or cry or maybe even a combination of both.
We do have a common thread of social change in much of our filmmaking. If our work helps to open a hard conversation for someone, or shed light on an important topic, then this would be our greatest success. But, in our comedies, we want you to laugh. Laughter is a great medicine, and we don’t really believe in taking ourselves too seriously.
Are you able to tell us about any upcoming project(s)? What are they?
Work-in-progress projects include the new dramatic film, Gray Area, based on the book Surviving MY self by Kelley Kitley, which is currently in pre-production. The film deals with alcohol addiction and postpartum depression, which we will co-direct.
We are also working on a feature film, Back to One, written by New York-based writer, Gordon Penn. The film is loosely based on Dawn’s life as an actor, and is a thriller. Adria will star and produce, with David directing.
Would you ever be interested in making an episodic series?
Sure! We’ve made Dorkumentary, which is an improvisational comedy series, and we’ve both worked on series before. Adria is best known for her roles on Ryan Murphy TV shows, including Popular and Nip/Tuck. A recent acting credit includes appearing on Chicago Med this year.
David edited the Webby Award-winning Muppets series Statler and Waldorf From the Balcony and was a producer and director for the anthology series Dark Secrets. We love episodic storytelling.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
For David, if I have to choose, I’d pick Citizen Kane. I saw it at a significant turning point in my development as an artist, as an undergrad at the University of Virginia. It inspired me to know that I could simultaneously experiment and play with form and structure while at the same time telling an accessible narrative story. I’m still blown away by Welles’ work in that film.
For Adria, I’m not sure I can pick just one film. I will say that, in my own work, I gravitate towards extreme characters or people going through intense emotions. I’m also a sucker for roles that deal with mental illness or addiction. I also love to laugh really hard.
So, movie roles that are sticking out right now would include Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back, and Charlize Theron in Monster. As far as comedies, I love Eddie Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name, and an all-time comedy favorite is Raising Arizona. Holly Hunter is a comedic genius.
In all of these films, I appreciate the bold choices in the work, both in the filmmaking and in the acting. I’m a big believer in putting your own unique stamp on everything you make.
What kind of music inspires you to create?
Adria is going to have to say Prince. What I love about him is that he has no fear. Oh, to have no fear, artistically, ever, would be incredible. He is truly an inspiration to me. I visited Paisley Park recently, and, to see how he had his own compound, making what he wanted to make, with who he wanted to make it, owning all his own rights and the struggle that entailed, makes me want to dance my butt off to every song he’s made. I also love David Bowie, Lizzo, Lauryn Hill, and Greta Van Fleet, to name a few. I realize my musical choices are all over the place. Dancing to different genres inspires me to create.
For David, there are so many musical artists that inspire me. I have to say my go-to karaoke song is “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie. I love Bjork, Beck, and Imogen Heap. But if I had to pick one album that inspires the most, though, it’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. There’s an honesty and raw energy in the work that is an absolute inspiration.
And finally, an easy one, cats or dogs?
We both say cats. Alas, our son is allergic. If it’s a dog, it’s got to be small. Like a Papillon or Pomeranian. Yep, we are small dog people. Come at us.