Dana Abraham: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

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To critics there are choices we make, again, including but not limited to, the performers in the film, and story style, diversity, level of production scale, to ensure utmost enjoyment and fulfillment, and of course my own, which is most important, but yet inclusive. Film and television is a medium of collaborative effort, which means it would be naive, ignorant and a disservice for me to maintain that only my vision is the vision. Thus, collaborating with the team, and understanding what viewers, as well as critics will enjoy, only then, can we package a strong foundation for a project.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dana Abraham.

Starting off as an actor, Dana Abraham began taking strides in directing and writing, launching his career with the globally recognized short-film, PRISONER OF FEAR, which has screened in film festivals in Johannesburg, South Africa; HBO’s film festival in New York City, and multiple other cities across North America, including Toronto.

Through continuous writing of screenplays, Dana has established a portfolio of films under his arsenal that soon began capturing the eyes of those keen to creatively pursue filmmaking, including EL TIGRE, originally optioned by a studio. The co-founder of Red Hill Entertainment, debuted as a Producer on MATERNAL, starring Amybeth McNulty (“Anne with an E”) and Colm Feore (“Bon Cop, Bad Cop”), a 90-minute psychological-thriller, set to release in 2021, in which he played Dr. J. Perez. Dana has since then starred in NEON LIGHTS as Clay Amani, alongside Kim Coates (“Sons of Anarchy,” and Netflix’s “Bad Blood”). Dana stars across Rob Raco (“Riverdale”), along with Brandon McKnight (“The Flash”), Jessica Amlee (“Heartland”) and Stephen Tracey (The Expanse), in upcoming feature film A HUNDRED LIES; a film truthfully depicting the volatility of Toronto’s music industry, also written by Abraham.

Dana recently appeared in episode six of the CBS latest series, GOOD SAM, across Sophia Bush and Jason Isaac, in the role of ‘Darius Evans.’ Up next, he has adapted the film BLACK CAT, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, of the same title, into a contemporary, diverse feature film, helming the lead role of Sukeeb Paul- tech-tycoon intertwined in a mysterious and haunting generational possession, that dates back to his mother, in rural Bangladesh.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

Thank you for having me, it’s an absolute pleasure to be here with you.

I’m the only son- with three incredible sisters, Seema, Nanty and Hanifa- to our single mother, Nilufar. I was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and ended up in Canada due to some serious unforeseen circumstances, when my father had left us here, for another family he had in Bangladesh. At that juncture we bounced around homeless shelters in Toronto, and finally ended up in Hamilton, Ontario, when we were moved to subsidized housing.

At that point, being bullied– we lived in Oriole Crescent, a tremendously rugged and tough neighborhood– my mother put me in boxing. I developed so many values including discipline, perseverance, and competitive edge, all taught so early in life (10 years old onward), from my boxing coach Vinnie Ryan.

Further to that, my boxing coach, collectively with my football coach, Ken Looker, became my father figures- I lived with Ken for two years between high school and university. I’m a by-product of strangers opening their hearts and doors, literally, to me.

Despite life not having been the most pleasant- with the challenges of poverty, and as I age, understand my mind and trauma through my youngest of experiences- I am aware of how fortunate I am to be here and to pursue my dreams and ambitions in film, tv, surrounded by people who love me and committed so much of themselves, both financially, and emotionally in my journey. YOU included!

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My journey into film, tv, and acting has been interesting…

Pondering my next steps, dwelling on losing out on an opportunity at the Commonwealth Games, in Toronto, for boxing, in my mom’s basement, I watched Will Smith, on Oprah talking about “The Alchemist”. That fateful show changed my life for the better. I ended up in Egypt the following year in January, and having seen the turmoil and destruction of war, and yet the children in Coptic City, I realized my opportunities are endless in Canada.

This is pivotal for me- especially as I learn more about the mechanics of my mind, especially at a younger age- I had a chip on my shoulder, but not the right kind, one that looked at the world as an obstacle, not one full of blessings and opportunities. Having seen Egypt after the war and a new leadership, I realized how fortunate I was.

I returned on March 3rd, 2015, and took up acting classes on March 6th. After a year of classes in Toronto, I realized my dream had to be pursued with full commitment, and I ended up packing up my car, and drove to LA, December 31st 2015, to train at the same studio Will Smith was coaching at- Speiser Sturges- with Aaron Speiser.

After a few months, I returned to Toronto and began campaigning to be an ‘actor.’ I bribed my way into a Toronto International Film Festival event, and got my first agent. After about a year of auditioning for roles, and doing commercials, I did my short film “Prisoner of Fear”, about mental health, and that short film opened several key doors, including the one that led me to creating Red Hill Entertainment (we’ve produced 3 movies in 18 months, two during the pandemic).

I met my business partner and Co-Founder Qamar Qureshi, an MBA, CPA bearing Venture Capitalist- one of the most impressive and kindest souls I know- over lunch on December 6th, 2018 and in January 26th, 2019 in a follow up meeting, he had told me: “My investors won’t get out of bed for a movie, but if you can package every [screenplay] you’ve written and bring me a company with a future, I can put that in front of them.”

At that juncture, Red Hill Entertainment- named after the creek that Oriole Crescent housing backed into, in Hamilton- was born.

And… here we are.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

Truth be told, it’s been immensely challenging working within the film industry- nonetheless, I try to find the quirks and enjoyment in all the peaks and valleys.

Having said that, one particular night, we’re all very stressed. You see, we lost the funding for our project, Neon Lights, and yet we were going to camera in a couple days– this is the first I’m sharing this story– I remember I was on the brink of mental breakdown. We– Rouzbeh Heydari the director and I– had gotten to my place.

I distinctly remember him with his face buried into his palms. The stress was exuding, almost like a ray of beams towards me. I truly felt we were going to have heart attacks, and at that moment, I just told him, we need to go for a walk. It’s a hilarious situation because we went from utterly stressed in a moment, to having pizza and pop at a pizza store, talking about films, life, our exes and that we’d come out just fine.

But if you could see Rouzbeh, in that moment, it was like watching a cartoon character with fumes coming out of the ears, face red and a head about to explode! We still laugh about it.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I’ve met a bunch of ‘famous’ people, but the most interesting has to be Rouzbeh Heydari. We’re onto our third film together, and I feel many more to come.

This man has lived so many lives! From losing family to war in Iran, to being beaten by the police at a young age for carrying a guitar, to watching his film reels being burned to bits because it showcased systemic female oppression, he’s had grace, love and compassion for everyone around him.

He’s had a huge impact on my life, namely, the development of spirituality.

I have actually gotten several of the quotes and spiritual verses tattooed on me, now.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely right– success is a culmination of the concept of ‘it takes a village’– and I’m indebted to my business partners, investors, production crew, all the cast that has been in our films, the agents that have answered my emails at the earliest stages, including my own team, and my community, friends as well as so many others that have participated in the development of myself into who I am today, both professionally and interpersonally.

But in the end, it will always come down to my mother, Nilufar, and I will never waiver on giving her the most credit. She’s been through so much in life, and sacrificed everything for us– my sisters and I– and in our worst of moments, she’s been loving, caring and held us up when we needed it and in our proudest of moments, she’s been there to love us, unconditionally regardless of the success, but genuinely because we’re her children.

There are so many stories to attest to why my life is meaningless without my mother but one in particular, has taught me her level of selflessness and will stay with me forever. One I have a difficult time talking about, or ever bringing up with her because it breaks my heart and my love for her would result in exploding into tears.

At about the age of 7, we were living in the homeless shelter in Toronto at the time– and I reckon we were receiving some sort of government stipend– her and I were at the mall, and I looked at the mannequin in the child’s section in the GAP. I cried, and made a scene– you see, back in Bangladesh we had wealth and I didn’t understand any better– in any case, I woke up and there it was, the silver backpack, with lime green interior, blue and red plaid shirt and cargo pants.

The difficulty for me isn’t that she bought it all, but I imagine she spent the entire month stipend on it for me, or at least most of it. That’s her, she would sacrifice anything for her children, and has done that through our entire lives. I’m nothing without my mother.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Hands down it actually is a passage from the book of Psalms. Psalm 112:4, ‘even in the midst of darkness, light dawns for the upright for the most gracious, righteous and compassionate man.’ I’m not particularly a religious man, but that passage was one that always stood out. Weathering a storm is something we all must do to come out on the other side– but how we handle the storm determines our character.

At times, it has felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders and in certain moments, I haven’t been the best, but I try to always bear in mind that gratitude, grace, compassion will always steer me in the right direction.

I’m not where I want to be, but working towards it, realizing I’m a work in progress.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Thank you for asking this question. Diversity is immensely important for several reasons, but to list three:

  1. Diversity in entertainment allows us to level the playing field; to humanize those that otherwise may not have a voice– to shed light into the lives of those that have been marginalized and stories silenced.
  2. Furthermore, growing up, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise have been my favourite performers– and I’m aware we are very well versed in, now, acknowledging what beauty really looks life, or at least we pretend to– and that made me feel like I’m not the leading man, both in life and on set. We would get the ‘smaller,’ day player roles. Lead roles are far in and out of reach for those that did not fit the mold of what looked like a leading man– re: the aforementioned– and just think about it, I’ve had to write my own films, to put myself in the lead role, and I’m not alone. Diversity allows us to now be in situations where we can inspire the next generation to look at themselves with confidence, pride and acknowledgement that we are enough; we are leading men, women, in our lives and in our respective stories.
  3. Finally, and most importantly– we are moving towards more diversity in film, tv– it allows us to bridge the gap in communication and inclusivity towards the realization that we all belong. I grew up in a predominantly caucasian society, and I’ve always felt like I wasn’t fitting in– girls wanted guys that looked different from me (trivial, I know!), what it meant to look and be ‘cool’ didn’t look like me. Yet now, we see ourselves and those around us differently. Cool isn’t dictated by colour, height, weight, size, ethnicity, our accents– but merited on factors of character and how we conduct ourselves.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

There are several films and tv shows we are excited about; but our upcoming film, “Black Cat” happens to be one I am excited about. It’s a three-part film– including the prequel and sequel– taking Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same title, and recreating it into a diverse, contemporary thriller of generational haunting and possession following the characters into how Pluto the one-eyed black cat has found a way to torment them.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

I thoroughly love writing, and even more so living out my dream as an actor, but producing– despite how profoundly challenging it is! — is one I’m the most proud of. There is one simple reason for that– we’ve created over 500 jobs during the pandemic and I will never let that milestone go. That keeps me going at the toughest of times. We’ve given opportunities for many to move up the food chain and regardless of acknowledgement or not, we will always be proud of that as a brand and company.

We have left our doors open for growth, for opportunity, for inclusivity, and I believe we’ve done a tremendous job for a start-up at Red Hill, and myself as a producer.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

My goodness! Ha! Just five??

  1. You will need financial literacy and understand strong budgeting as a producer.
  2. The financial hardships at the start are unfathomably difficult.
  3. Art of negotiating and leveraging with entities and investors.
  4. Politics! You’ve got to be strategic in every relationship, whilst still being authentically yourself and always maintaining the best intentions.
  5. Don’t ever give up on yourself. No one owes you anything; if you can’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

Truthfully, it’s a culmination of all of the above. To investors, there are certain elements that are required for their level of comfort in investing in a project– whether it be the ‘names,’ or the budget– which impact artistic ambitions.

To critics there are choices we make, again, including but not limited to, the performers in the film, and story style, diversity, level of production scale, to ensure utmost enjoyment and fulfillment, and of course my own, which is most important, but yet inclusive. Film and television is a medium of collaborative effort, which means it would be naive, ignorant and a disservice for me to maintain that only my vision is the vision. Thus, collaborating with the team, and understanding what viewers, as well as critics will enjoy, only then, can we package a strong foundation for a project.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is easy– for me it’s education and clean drinking water.

I’ve learned recently of a child who left his school and walked home to a tent– right here in my backyard. No wifi, meaning no completion of homework.

My goal and ambition is to develop the Red Hill Foundation for a workspace for at-risk youth; one that promotes confidence, nurtures growth. Once established here– in Hamilton, Ontario– I’d like to take that concept to Bangladesh.

Furthermore, providing clean drinking water in Bangladesh. A country that is severely struggling despite being the textiles hub for some of the largest companies in the world, the people suffer from poor education, poverty, but most importantly, water. Sustainable, clean drinking water is an immensely important commodity and through time, I’m hoping to develop an outreach program that can hopefully help with that issue.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Sundar Pichai, hands down. I’ve watched his interviews to develop my character for Neon Lights. I believe he and I together can do a lot of great things for our people. Not everyone wants to be the voice for the masses, but I know Sundar Pichai, should he choose to, would be one that could turn the tides for our own home countries. I’m really proud of him and I’d love to sit with him for lunch, dinner, brunch, you name it! I’ll pay!!

How can our readers further follow you online?

@iamdanaabraham on all platforms!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Dana Abraham: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.