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Ready, Roll, Cut: Linda Dahlem

Originally from Luxembourg, Academy of Art University alumna Linda Dahlem graduated in Fall 2015 after studying directing in the School of Motion Pictures & Television.

Before arriving at the Academy, Dahlem was working and studying film in Berlin at a small private school. After inquiring about a job in the art department, a production designer went out of their way to explain how things worked to her. “She put so much trust in me, I felt like I could do anything,” Dahlem shared.

It was this experience that inspired Dahlem to research film schools in larger cities, including the United States. Six months later, she was accepted at the Academy. 

Dahlem entered her short film, Nodal, into the Academy’s 2015 Media Awards. Nodal was nominated in three categories: writing, directing and best picture. 

Her talents in writing and directing led to being accepted into the Women in Film Association. One of Dahlem’s short films was immediately chosen for their annual WIF Film Festival, where only seven short films are selected each year. 

Dahlem recently spoke about her first film projects at the Academy, her confidence in her directing and how the Academy has made a lasting impact on her life and career.

What were your first film classes at the Academy?

I only had two film classes that first semester. One was film language; it was okay.  I already knew most of what was being taught. My story was chosen to be filmed at the end of that class as a project, and it was a disaster, [it] really looked bad.

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(L-R) Academy of Art University School of Motion Pictures & Television alumna Linda Dahlem with fellow Academy alumna, collaborator and friend Sara Zadeh. Photo courtesy of Linda Dahlem.

I wasn’t directing, I was acting—I’m not an actress. I wanted to reshoot it with only my friends, for myself, on my own time. I was having so much fun collaborating on it, [and] I learned that I really liked writing and directing.

So, in my second semester, I moved from production design to directing [in the School of Motion Pictures & Television]. There was some strong resistance to my changing tracks, especially in my second semester, but I trusted myself. I knew I was a writer and a director, and I knew I had to do it to make my projects and to be happy.

So you continued to pursue the directing track?

Yes. I decided I wanted to graduate earlier, because I was so eager to start working, but I knew I still needed to learn. 

What happened after you changed your focus to directing?

I worked on a short film written by a classmate, Marcello [Pautasso], and we became really close friends. He wanted to shoot in Switzerland, with snow and the Swiss landscape, but it fell through. So we decided to shoot it in San Francisco. 

We had the same taste, same style; we both liked Euro-experimental type films—he trusted me in directing. Also, I needed another short film for my midpoint review and it just kind of came together; I read it and I fell in love with it.

We were really lucky to have a talented French actress, [Camille Grenier], because she was the main character.

[The film is] about a girl who wants to make an impact on the world, and I connected because that’s what I want to do, as a girl coming from Luxembourg. This film, Nodal, was a really nice two-day shoot with friends. It was just really smooth, flowing, really nice.

We shot in our house and the Golden Gate park (without a permit!) and Marcello edited, and I fully trusted him. We work so well together. It’s easy, because our visions are so aligned. That’s magic.

Why do you think things went so smoothly? 

I always make a small storyboard, so most of my shots are planned out. Then I meet with the cinematographer and he adds his visual ideas, and we collaborate on the shots.

We have a nicely put together shot list, and as for Nodal, it allowed for a pleasant collaboration.

What project did you work on during your second semester?

That was my thesis film, Birdkeeper, to be filmed in my fourth semester, September 2015. I wrote the script for my midpoint review, the instructors liked it, made small changes, and we prepared to shoot it in September 2015.

Again, I had an incredible crew, who worked for long months; our pre-production was six months! The art department (all Academy MPTV students) did an incredible job. They worked hard, did beautiful work and were very professional. And they did it for no pay, after hours and between classes! I pushed them, because I knew they had the talent and could do it.

We are still in post-production, still working on the visual effects (VFX). It’s my first time working with VFX.

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Linda Dahlem (third from left) speaks on a panel at the WIF Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Linda Dahlem.

Which of your films was nominated for the Academy’s Media Awards?

Nodal was nominated in three categories: best writing, directing and best picture! We didn’t win, but I understand. All of the other movies we saw were thesis films and had been worked on for one to two years, they were bigger movie[s]. We shot ours in two days!

It seems you shoot rather quickly. Can you discuss your process?

I know what I want when I get to the set; I don’t like wasting people’s time. I’m invested in how my crew feels; I don’t want them ever to feel tired or bored. No long breaks, I want [filming] to have this nice rhythm. 

How did you get your confidence to direct?

I’m super shy, but I change on set! It’s magical. I know exactly what I want, I ask for it and communicate. I love collaborating with my fellow artists on set. I love sharing ideas. I think it’s like the energy that happens that just makes the world vanish and all that’s here and now on the set is what matters.

I’m not nervous; I feel like as a director you have to have confidence in your own ideas, because if you don’t, who will?

What did you do after you graduated from the Academy?

I did a short internship in L.A., which was boring. I wasn’t doing any filmmaking, even though it was a small production company. I was put into the marketing department. I didn’t quit. During that time, I networked and made friends [that] I still keep in touch with, some of them worked at Disney, Marvel Comics, Sony—it’s magical, especially for someone like me from Luxembourg, one of the smallest countries in the world.

In fact, one of my first jobs in L.A. came from Mason Reynolds, a friend from [the Academy], from the MPTV art department. He asked me to help out on a Hot Wheels commercial, and it was a paid job [lasting] four-five days. He sent me to Warner Bros. Studio to pick up a fog machine and have a sign made. 

While I waited for these things, I got lunch and walked around the lot and realized they were shooting my favorite show of all time since I was a little girl, Gilmore Girls! I found the set, and I stood in the town of Stars Hollow on the backlot of Warner Bros. and had a moment. This little girl from Luxembourg [was] now standing in her favorite Gilmore Girls town—magic!

After graduating, did you move permanently to L.A.?

Yes. Jack Perez (MPTV directing track) gave me a referral for work in the art department on some student films in L.A. Then I went into installation art and took a quick detour. I made over 300 huge paper flowers (24" diameter) for very good pay. I was called back for more. Then I worked for Cryptic Industries, and made the Halloween Maze for Magic Mountain—it was fun! I loved it. Also good pay.

When did you join Women in Film?

[Peg McClellan] helped me to get in, by writing a letter of recommendation for me. I am really happy that I joined, because I get to see so many films with Q&A panels. We get to meet filmmakers; we even went to Paramount Studios to see their sound/mixing studios and their foley stages for sound effects. [I’ve been] introduced to people working there, networking, and I’ve met a music composer for one of my current projects.

Tell us about your short film being chosen for the WIF Film Festival. What was that like?

I was home on vacation in Luxembourg when they emailed me that my film, Nodal, had been selected. 

It was a pretty big night! I was very nervous, it was my first Q&A panel participation, my first professional event, actually.

 Did you relax at some point?

After the first question, I relaxed, [thinking], “This isn’t really that bad.”

What are you working on now?

I have multiple projects in the works: three live-action poems with original music composed and illustrated, a short film of one of the poems [and a feature film collaboration] with [my] writing partner, Sara [Zadeh] (another Academy graduate).

How did the Academy impact your career?

It opened up the door to the U.S. for me; if I never would have come, I never would have created my short story, or met my husband, or met so many friends and collaborators that I’m still in touch with from [the Academy]. I learned a lot and I grew a lot. I found out what I wanted to do with my life.