Reel life:Behind the scenes with filmmakers James and Dawn Spatz Roe

by Candace McGaff

Local cinematographer, James Roe, was recently honored at the 24th annual New Orleans Film Festival for creating the Best Louisiana Short with “AM 800.” Roe and his wife, Dawn, did not work collaboratively on this particular film but they are a film-producing power couple and certainly names to remember. The Dolphin takes a deeper look into what brought these New Orleans natives to this career path and how they have managed to become so successful so soon.

James and Dawn Roe pic Website Version

Q. How long have you been involved in the film industry?

James: Over 10 years. I worked my way through grad school by doing film and video jobs.

Dawn: I started studying Television Production in 2002 when I was in high school, in 2004 I set off to the University of New Orleans to begin my path to the film world.

Q. What level of education have you received?

James: I have a Bachelors of Arts in Liberal Arts with an emphasis in film production. I will be receiving my MFA this year with an emphasis in film production, both from the University of New Orleans.

Dawn: I am slated to graduate in May with my Master’s Degree and received my Bachelors in Film Arts in 2009.

Q. What made you choose this career path?

James: I started making shorts with my buddies in middle school. A small group of individuals and I were enthralled by it. We didn’t know much about it, either, so making these films was more or less about having fun and being creative. We gradually refined those techniques without much formal training until I got into college.

Dawn: My grandparents gave me their old video camera when I was 9 and my friends and I began making short films with it. It was almost as big as I was at the time, but we had a lot of fun. Back then it was simply for fun, as I grew older I began wanting to tell stories.

Q. How many times have you entered New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF)?

James: I have entered NOFF twice. I didn’t get in the first time! I have improved since then, though.

Dawn: I entered a film I produced, directed and edited last year called “In The Morning.” It was the first and only film I have submitted to the New Orleans Film Festival and I was very excited to have it accepted and to share it with this amazing city, alongside so many talented and award winning filmmakers.

Q. Have you ever entered any other film festivals? If so, how did you place?

James: I have screened my films at several festivals, including the University of New Orleans Film Festival, the Louisville International Film Festival, the Orlando Film Festival, and others. I have just started my festival run for “AM800,” and have just gotten into the University of New Orleans Film Festival, the Orlando Film Festival, and the New Orleans Film Festival. The official selections for the other festivals I have entered will not be announced until later this year or next year. “AM800″won Best of Fest, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Male Lead, Best Cinematography, and the Audience Award at the University of New Orleans Film Festival.

Dawn: I guess the film festival market always intimidated me for my own work, my last film was the first film I attempted. It was accepted into the University of New Orleans Film Festival where it won “Best of Festival: Short Film,” “Best Cinematography” and was chosen by the audience for the “Audience Award.” It was also accepted into the Southern Screen Film Festival and the Orlando Film Festival. I hope to continue to enter it into festivals but festivals are expensive.

Q. Was winning “Best Louisiana Short” at the 2013 NOFF a total surprise?

James: It was a total surprise. There were a lot of really superb Louisiana films at NOFF. It was a humbling experience to be chosen for the award out of so many other deserving films.

Dawn: I didn’t even bring my camera with me. Ha. Yes, a complete surprise.


Q. How long did it take from start to finish to perfect your project?

James: “AM800” took around five years to complete, from conceptualization to post-production. It was a really big undertaking for everyone involved. We constructed a set in the University of New Orleans sound stage, and shot most of the film there. We also shot in several other locations around New Orleans. The production schedule spanned nine days that were spaced out over three weekends. We used between two and four cameras on set for each scene, so we had a great deal of raw footage. The edit took a very long time. I was presented with some professional opportunities as an editor that I couldn’t turn down, and I spent about a year helping edit a feature film. I learned a great deal from that experience, and applied those techniques when I came back to “AM800.” I held multiple test screenings, which I think were critical, because I haven’t mastered the craft by any means. The test screenings pointed out errors that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. After the edit was complete, I still had to do several composite shots, color correction, and post-production sound. It took a long time, but I am proud of the fact that I had my hand in almost every aspect of post-production, and steered the film through much of the finishing process by myself. Personally, it was a fantastic experience in which I learned a great deal, both technically and as an artist.

Dawn: This is a James Roe question. But I would say it has been about a 4-year project. From the writing process, to planning to shooting, to editing.

Q. How is it working as a couple,when you do? Do you feel like it affects the production or final quality of a project?

James: Dawn and I have worked on several productions together and will continue to do so. It works out really well. We have a good, solid line of communication, and we aren’t afraid of expressing our creative opinions. Over the years we have also developed a shorthand with one another on set. We don’t have to explain a lot to one another any more. Most of the time we each have a good idea of what the other is thinking. Outside of actually doing projects together, we both understand the process, and the many obstacles one faces as an independent filmmaker. We support each other and keep each other moving forward, which is incredibly important.

Dawn: Personally, I feel like James and I feed off of each other’s creativity. We both have very different filmmaking styles and work very differently from one another. He is very quiet and very serious– he is ridiculously talented and too smart for his own good. I am very goofy– he keeps me focused and I keep him sane. We both bring different things to the table, and one of the reasons that our set experience is successful is the same reason our relationship is successful, we have really strong communication with one another. Over time we have almost developed the ability to read each other’s minds, at least it sometimes seems that way.

Q. Where would you like to eventually end up within the realm of this career path?

James: I would like to make a feature film. We are working on a screenplay that we will try and get off the ground once we are satisfied with the story. That being said, my personal aspirations are to be a filmmaker. I want to make films on my own terms, tell the stories that I want to tell, and continue to improve myself both technically and artistically. Directing a big movie is everyone’s dream, and I can’t exclude myself from that. But I’m not going to draw the line there and call it success. That’s not why I started making films.

Dawn: The dream would be to direct and produce films with no limits. Filmmaking is incredibly expensive from the beginning– you have to have enough money to stay afloat while you are writing, enough to support an entire production, and although James and I are both capable of taking our films through the entire post-production process and not necessarily have to pay someone else to do it- we like having a roof over our heads. I hope that one day we can each make the dream come alive and hopefully we can do it together, co-direct a feature film. We live chasing a pipe dream, but we aren’t giving up on it.


Q. What makes film directing/producing/editing so enjoyable for you?

James: When I was young and my friends and I were making films, there was a sort of wild, joyous, creatively-satisfying feeling that we got from it. When you get into the finer details of making films, I think it is easy to lose that feeling. Sometimes you wake up and it’s 4 a.m. and you go to location and everyone is exhausted and you drink three Red Bulls and you have way too many shots to get in the time allotted on the production schedule and the actor is late to set and you think to yourself, “This is the absolute last thing I want to be doing right now.” It’s easy to do that when you are an independent filmmaker. But there are still times on set or in the editing room when I feel the same feeling I did when I was younger. There are entire productions I have worked on when I experienced that feeling. That is my favorite part.

Dawn: My favorite part is working with actors. I’ve had the privilege of working with some extremely talented actors, who give everything they have to the role they are playing. I love improving with them and picking through the scenes to find the moments and making them real. Hands down, my favorite part. But the OCD side of me loves producing– making sure everything is in order ahead of time, even though that order changes a thousand times once you are on set, then I get to become a problem solver.

Q. How many films have you previously produced?

James: I have directed over 20 shorts. I worked on countless others while being a film student at UNO.

Dawn: I’ve produced numerous short films for UNO students both undergraduate and graduate.

Q. Would you say that this one has been your best one yet?

James: I would say that I worked on “AM800” harder than any other film I have done.

Dawn: Absolutely.

Q. Do you currently have any projects in the works that you hope to enter in any film festivals/competitions?

James: I am currently developing a short animation that takes place in Verdun, France after World War I. I am also working on a feature-length screenplay, and a documentary about Bach around the Clock, a 24-hour music festival in New Orleans.

Dawn: “AM 800” is James’ thesis film. I am currently in the editing process with a film I produced, wrote and am directing called “The Horse and The Castle” and it is my thesis film. I hope to enter it into the festival market next year. http://jamesgaffneyphotography.zenfolio.com/blog/2012/12/xxxxxxxxx


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