‘Dakota Skye’ Behind-the-Scenes Pic(s)-of-the-Week #8
Pictured above, Eileen Boylan. Note: Eileen, not Dakota. What you see up there is not acting. Movies shoot long, long hours, and, when you’re in nearly scene, like Eileen was, sometimes you get sleepy.
The characters you create should interest you; If they don’t, why do they deserve to be in your story? The characters you create should reflect you; if they don’t, then where will you find your voice? The characters you create should frustrate you; if they don’t, then where is the challenge of working through their journeys with them?
But some characters monopolize your thoughts so thoroughly that they become real to you. They become friends.
Dakota Skye is one of my best friends.
I went over a decade with her in my head. Before I wrote the first draft, then through countless revisions and rewrites to her story. (One day maybe I’ll post the first rough draft of the screenplay, just so folks can see how different it was, but I’ll have to look at it to see how embarrassing it will be for me.) After every draft of the screenplay, I would then work on other things, other stories I wanted to tell (and still want to tell), but I could never shake this bitchy high school girl with her strange superpower. She was just part of me, still is, and I knew that one day I was going to see her come to life.
And then, one day, she does come to life, and she looks like this:
I’d be lying if I said Eileen Boylan looked exactly like Dakota Skye did in my head, only because the image in my brain was constantly changing. Sometimes she was Natalie Portman, sometimes certain women from my life, for a brief moment Zooey Deschanel, maybe a random girl I saw on the street that week, whatever good-looking girl was on the most popular teen show of the moment. The only thing that stayed the same was her army jacket.
We read 130 actresses for Dakota. Many of them were very good and could have played the part well, I’m sure. They had all sorts of looks and vibes and each would have brought a completely different feel to the film.
But Eileen was most definitely our girl.
(I say ‘girl’ because when I first met Eileen, she was just that. She is now a woman, and a married one at that. But forgive me if I sometimes still refer to her like she’s a kid.)
Once we decided on Eileen, made her an offer, and got her to sign a contract, it then dawned on me:
Holy shit. I’ve now met Dakota Skye.
And I also realized one of the hard truths of collaborative art:
I was going to have to let her go.
She wasn’t mine anymore. She now belonged to John, the director, to help sculpt her character to fit the film in his head. She now belonged to Valerie, our hair and make-up artist, who would be responsible for her look. She now belonged to…well…we didn’t have a costumer, but the collective of me, John, Chuck, and Eileen, who would be deciding what she wore and why she wore it. She now belonged to Seth, our composer, who would be giving her a musical theme. She now belonged to our editor, Jeff, who would be cutting together pieces of film and shaping the final expression of her character.
And mostly, she now belonged to Eileen, a sweet girl I barely knew, who was going to bring her to life in a way that was largely out of my control.
I can’t lie. It was tough to let go.
The first day of filming was one of the toughest of my life. We started with Jonah taking the phone call at the skate park: simple enough. Then we went on to Papago Park, where Jonah and Dakota climb the rock and have the pivotal ‘face up / face down’ conversation. And it was rough.
The first 2-3 days of filming are always rough. Everyone is still feeling each other out, trying to suss out how they are all going to work as a unit. The crew isn’t sure how the director wants to work and the actors are still trying to get a grasp on the characters they are playing. It’s a day full of stress, misunderstandings, and sometimes outright despair. It is your first impression of the production; “if this is what it’s going to be like, how am I going to survive this?”
(Good sets recover from this quickly. Bad ones never do. I’ve been on both sets. The latter is borderline unbearable; the former is bliss.)
But I was in an extra-extra bad mood that day. I was angry. At everyone. Everyone.
But mostly at myself. Because I thought I was ready. Thought I was prepared. Thought I knew what I was walking into, watching my script at last come to life. I was wrong.
Nothing can prepare you for watching a group of people gangbang your girlfriend.
I could barely stand it:
“No, that’s not–”
“But it says here in the script that–”
“I don’t think her hair is quite–”
“EVERYBODY GET THE FUCK AWAY! YOU’RE HURTING HER!!!”
Mind you, no one was doing anything wrong but me. I wasn’t letting go. I wasn’t giving in to the collaborative process in which I very much believed (and still believe) in.
But can you blame me? For so long she (the script, the story, the characters) was mine and only mine, and now all these people had their hands on her.
They don’t know her like I do, I thought.
They don’t understand her like I do, I thought.
This doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to me, I thought.
But, like with most things, you get used to it, and eventually start to enjoy it, thrive on it, live for it. For me, on Dakota Skye, that took about three days.
I know I started this talking about Eileen and got off on a little sidebar, but here’s where she comes back in.
On the third day of production, we shot the driveway scene, otherwise known as the ‘I want to tell you that I like you’ scene:
(I said it in the documentary: my favorite scene in the script, my favorite to film, my favorite in the final product. If Twitter and Tumblr are any indication, a lot of people agree with me.)
Of everything I have written, published, produced, or sitting on my hard drive, it is the piece of which I am most proud. I’ll be the first to tell you (in private) which scenes in the script suck, but this one doesn’t. It’s good; it’s true; it’s 100% what I was aiming for when I sat down to write it.
(Although I really had already written it. Click HERE to read the letter that I wrote but didn’t send that inspired the entire film.)
When you watch the scene above (I’m assuming you’ve seen the film; if you haven’t I don’t know why you’re reading this), the first thing that stands out to you is Ian Nelson. I had heard him deliver the monologue in his audition. Then again, at a second audition where we teamed him up with Eileen to test their chemistry. Then again, at the first table read, and again, at the full-cast table read. But nothing prepared me, us, for what would happen when we got on the set, put up the lights, got into wardrobe, and said ‘action’.
It’s obvious that Ian nails this scene. It is an attempt at inarticulate poetry, where the character exposes his heart, at first with great reluctance, then with steamrolling enthusiasm, in a way that is both beautiful and sloppy at the same time. He stumbles over words, searches for them. Even if he has ‘practiced it over and over again in the shower’ like Dakota later supposes, he still has to power his way through it. And Ian got it. Every last bit. And it’s probably the best acting in the entire film.
But what people don’t always notice in this scene is something that I think is equally important as Mr. Nelson’s performance: Eileen’s eyes.
Watch her. Dakota is an apathetic, angry, disillusioned, well, bitch, who is pretending to not have a heart and, while she is developing feelings for this boy-who-doesn’t-lie, she hasn’t even admitted it to herself.
The scene starts that way. With her anger at him for trying to bait her. With her frustration at him for not telling her what’s wrong. She knows something is up; she may even know what. But the fact that he, of all people, is hiding it, annoys her. Then she gives up. Walks away. Fuck everything.
Then he says the words that are the centerpiece of the film:
“I want to tell you that I like you.”
Watch Eileen from that point out. Mute it if you have to, so as not to get distracted by Ian’s brilliance. Watch the transition she goes through. From surprise to reluctance to sympathy to affection to a little bit of disappointment when he undercuts his confession by saying it didn’t happen. She is brilliant without saying a word.
Ian has told me countless times that he is not half as good in that scene if Eileen was not doing what she was doing, giving him what she was giving him.
When we shot this scene, I fell in love with collaborative art in a way that I wrongly thought I already was.
Dakota was sometimes hard for Eileen. She is such a kind, happy, funny woman that she really struggled to care as little as Dakota cared, especially for the first half of the film. She liked Dakota and wanted other people to like her as well. John and I were less concerned about that, but we completely understood where she was coming from.
But Eileen did find her inner Dakota and I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. She brought the character to life and now she has a real face and a real voice and not just some vague girl bouncing around in my head. And having her be real just makes me love her even more.
I’ll never forget a critic at the Phoenix Film Festival asking me: “Is she really a bitch or is she just a good actress?”
Trust me, Eileen is not a bitch. Trust me, Eileen is a good actress. She is much more post-Jonah Dakota than she is pre-Jonah Dakota. By a long shot.
When I look at the film now, I realize that the story really is about a girl who is “bitchy and sad and angry and distant all the time” who grows up to become, well, Eileen Boylan.
Funny how that works.