Trek Directors' School: Roxann Dawson
Ask anyone in Hollywood about Roxann Dawson and they’ll tell you she’s one of the hottest go-to directors in town. She’s worked nonstop in recent years and in the next few months, audiences will be able to view her handiwork not just on TV’s most-popular show, This Is Us, but on the big-screen, as she makes her movie directing debut with Breakthrough, due out in April of 2019. And it all started with Star Trek. Dawson settled into a director’s chair for the first time on the Voyager episode, “Riddles,” and also directed “Workforce, Part II.” She went on to helm 10 episodes of Enterprise. Today, continuing our series of interviews with graduates of Star Trek’s unofficial directors’ school, StarTrek.com chats with Dawson.
How did you get your opportunity to direct Voyager?
Jeri Taylor was still there, and I spoke with her first. I said, "I'm very interested in directing. Can you let Rick (Berman) know that, and can you make this happen for me?" She said she’d love to, and she's really responsible for persuading Berman to give me an opportunity. I would have directed earlier, but I was pregnant and starting a family, so we put it off for a little bit. It was the fifth year or the sixth year. I ended up doing two episodes. I knew I loved directing in theater, but I didn't know that this would be something that I enjoyed doing until I really did it. I realized that as painful as it was, because it is in the beginning until you figure it out, it was something I wanted to pursue.
Who were the directors you shadowed?
I basically shadowed every director I could, and on other shows. Buffy was going on then, on Angel. I’d reach out to other shows and sometimes observe all night long, and then show up at the set to work the next day, because they had a lot of night shoots on those shows. But any opportunity I had on any show I thought was intriguing, I’d reach out on my own and ask to shadow. It was different those days. I think that in a way it was less organized, so you could reach out, and as long as you convinced somebody you weren't completely crazy, sometimes they’d let you shadow. So, I had some wonderful opportunities with some wonderful directors.
What else did you do as part of that unofficial directors’ school?
Production meetings, editing, any of the other meetings I could fit in. I’d watch dailies. I kind of set up my own thing where I’d create my own shot list, go in and see what was done in a day, then go the next day and watch how it was edited. I was also taking a class outside of that, which enabled me to do a couple of shorts that taught me a lot. I was just constantly working. It was very self-motivating. It was not a school in the sense that once you signed up they led you through these classes. It was really you put into it what you wanted to get out of it. I was voracious. I spent a lot of time on the sets learning.
Your first episode was "Riddles," which centered on Tuvok. What did you think when you got that script?
I loved it. The whole concept of it came to me pretty easily. Not easily, but… naturally. It didn't feel intimidating. So, that was exciting.
Were you nervous on set, or ready, or maybe a bit of both? First day, at least?
I was completely nervous. My first day was a Monday, and the Sunday before, in the morning, I'd been walking the sets, and I wasn't feeling very well. I actually never made it back to my home. My parents live closer to Paramount, and I ended up over there throwing up. I was sick with a high fever, and... Actually, that was Saturday. So, I had plenty of time to recuperate, and then I showed up on the set Monday morning. But I was deathly sick Saturday and Sunday before I went in. That probably took my nerves away, because I was just trying to be well enough to get through the day. So, it was quite a launch.
How satisfied were you with the finished episode?
"Riddles" was a smaller episode, wasn't huge in scope, and I thought it had a lot of metaphors and other meanings. It was very contained and philosophical, and I could really concentrate on the acting and making the scenes work. So, it was a great first episode for me.
“Workforce, Part II" was next. How much more comfortable were you on that one?
There's a learning curve to this, and that was number two. There were new issues to deal with and new things to learn. I'm very rarely comfortable. I think if I'm comfortable I'm not doing my job. There are always so many challenges, and if you're too comfortable you're probably not trying hard enough.
You ended up directing 10 episodes of Enterprise. How fulfilling was that opportunity?
Oh, it was great, because it was a prequel. For me to explore how the characters would deal with the first time you were experiencing different things, it was so much fun. We got to show the first time we're meeting the aliens and establishing certain things within the Trek world. It was just wonderful to be able to explore all that, especially with a new cast. They were all young and excited, and you're in there with them starting something that, in a way, doesn't even have a history. You get to set how things are first experienced. So, that was exciting.
We won’t ask you to go through all 10 episodes, but was there one you're fond of for a particular reason?
I think the Andorian episode. It might’ve been the first one I did, actually.
I loved that one. I can't believe... did I really do 10 episodes of Enterprise?
Oh, my God. Wow. Maybe the first one's more in my head only because it was the first, and it stuck with me. Even so, I enjoyed that as an experience making it and as a story to tell.
You’ve gone on to direct dozens of episodes of other shows. And now, you just directed Breakthrough, your first feature film. How different was directing a feature from TV after all these years?
Well, that it takes up an entire year of your life. That's part of it. But it's so exciting. It's been such a journey, so wonderful. I have to say, I have just been in love with this entire process. It premieres in April of next year, and we'll start seeing trailers come late fall. I couldn’t be happier.
What’s the basic setup of Breakthrough?
It's based on a true story about a boy who fell into the ice while he was playing on Lake St. Louis, and he was pronounced dead. He was without a heartbeat for more than an hour. His mother came into the hospital and began to pray, and he came back to life. It's an extraordinary story, because that was only the beginning. He had a long journey that required a lot of other little miracles to happen along the way. But it's a story about a mother's love, a community's love. It's a human, hopeful story, which we need these days, and it's true. I worked very closely with the family, getting the script together and developing it for the feature, and it’s an extraordinary story that needs to be heard. I am so blessed to be able to be the one to tell it.
Are you a film director now, or will you go back and forth between TV and film?
I think I'll go back and forth. I'm going do a This Is Us coming up in October. Chrissy Metz is the lead in my film, and I thought it’d be fun to go back and work with her again on her show. This Is Us is a great show, and she's such an amazing actress.
You last spoke with StarTrek.com in 2011. You said then that your kids were getting to the age where they might start watching Voyager, and you said you’d maybe watch it with them. So, did you ever watch Trek with your kids?
I didn't. My older daughter started watching some of them, and there were a couple of episodes I watched with them, but I wasn't going to force them to sit and watch seven years of Star Trek. I figure, it's there. At some point they can watch it when they want to. They were also really involved in what I was doing after Star Trek. Of course, I took them to a couple conventions, and then they became more curious. We often would come back and they'd go, "Let's put in a couple episodes and see what it is that everybody's so excited about."
You broke quite a bit of ground as a female Latin director. What are your thoughts about what’s going on now in Hollywood in terms of diversity behind the camera?
All I thought about was, "It's something I want to do, and I'll do it." I didn't think much about the fact that there weren't a lot of women directing. Now, in a way, there's more attention on that. It's a double-edged sword, I think. With more attention, people sense that maybe you didn't deserve to be there because of some sort of affirmative action, or you're maybe treated differently because you have to fill a quota, whereas I think when I was starting out, I was just there like anybody else. People were hard on me and I had to learn the ropes, and nobody gave me any special favors. It was tough, but I worked my way through it.
It's a little bit different now. The thing I hate hearing the most is when my agent calls me and says, "Why don't you look at this show. They're looking for female directors." It's like, "Well, I don't want to do a show that's looking for female directors. I want a show that's looking for a director." I never had to deal with this when I was first starting out. I was just doing a show (for which) I was up against other directors. So, I don't know. It's a double-edged sword. I'm very mixed on how I feel about the way it's been developing.