In 2020, award-winning documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter released her new film John Lewis: Good Trouble, the story of the late Congressman and Civil Rights icon. In celebration of Black History Month, Porter recently chatted with Lucasfilm’s film development coordinator Erin Hill for a virtual discussion about her career, collaborating with Skywalker Sound, and the power of this increasingly relevant story.
Erin Hill: Congratulations on directing and producing John Lewis: Good Trouble, and The Way I See It. I loved that movie this year as well. I know that you started out as a lawyer. Now you have 13 films in your pocket that you’ve directed and you’ve produced even more. How did you make that jump and what was the thing that made you feel confident that you were able to transition like that?
Dawn Porter: I would not say I was confident [laughs]. I would say, I was interested. I kind of moved slowly in the direction of directing. Starting as a lawyer, as a litigator, you really are a storyteller. You’re trying to take something that’s complicated and make it comprehensible to a lay audience. So the skills for being a lawyer, the kind of lawyer I was, and being a documentary director are really complimentary.
During my time as a lawyer, I took countless depositions, which means that you have to listen to people. I think for all directing, the most underrated skill is listening. Instead of directing somebody I think of myself as kind of uncovering the story that’s there from the person who’s the protagonist. But to be more mechanical about it – I went from a lawyer at a firm to in-house at ABC. And I moved then to the journalism side, where I worked for ABC News doing ethics and standards. And in that job, my role as the lawyer was not to say “what can you legally do,” it was “what should you do.”
When you start thinking about the ethics of storytelling you really start thinking about what’s necessary to tell the story without being exploitative. What does this story need to be told fully and honestly? What does it need to know to be true? From there, once you get in the groove of doing that and finding that heart of a story, it was really easy for me to say, “I could do this with things I come up with,” rather than doing it for other people and helping them find their way to their story.
But, to tell you the truth, I didn’t call myself a director – I hadn’t been to film school, I hadn’t done any of those kinds of traditional paths. Really until my first film was finished. And even when I was making it, to tell you the truth, I didn’t have a, “Oh, this is going to be a film in a festival.” I didn’t have that vision for it – I just really wanted to tell the story of these young public defenders with pictures and images. So I just kind of went one step at a time and then, as the film started getting developed, the steps kind of started to reveal themselves to what was possible for it. But I didn’t start out with a grand hope of, “This is going to be a whole new thing,” [laughs] it just kind of kept going, naturally.
EH: What was that moment, when you did feel comfortable calling yourself a director?
DP: The real moment was Sundance – the premiere of Gideon’s Army. I remember the lights went down and everyone was quiet, anticipating the film, and I felt my face getting hot, and I thought, “This was a terrible mistake.” [laughs] If this is a failure it’s going to be on such a huge stage. So, then when it was received well, I felt, “Okay, yeah, I really did this.” By the way, when I say “I” it’s a “royal we” kind of situation, because nobody makes a film by themselves. It’s really, in the best circumstances, a beautiful collaboration among people who are all contributing bits and pieces, so it’s very hard to put the “I” in film. It’s very much a “we.” And I can say that confidently now, knowing what I bring to it. But also knowing the people I collaborate with and how important they are to the film and to me.
That actually brings us to Skywalker [Sound] because Skywalker and the mixers that I’ve worked with have been such an integral part – I mean that so sincerely. It never occurred to me how much fun their music and sound mix was going to be until I got in that room. And they really encouraged me to say out loud what I wanted and to not be embarrassed about asking for things. And I think that’s a really important lesson for filmmakers who either are just starting out, or are a little quieter. Say what’s in your head – in English. You don’t have to know all the technical terms for things. What I would express to your people – to Chris in particular – is, “This is the feeling I want from something, and how can we then get there?” It’s like a dance, and it’s very satisfying when you’re able to communicate that to a partner who can then bring it to life.