2001 Stivers grad prepares debut independent film

The Brooklyn resident discusses her budding career.

Versatile Dayton native and Brooklyn-based filmmaker Djuna Wahlrab, a 2001 graduate of Stivers School for the Arts, has returned home to the Miami Valley for the holidays to finish preparations for her first feature film, “We’re Doing Fine.”

Written, directed and produced by Walhrab, the low-budget, independent film, projected to begin shooting in early spring at various locations around the city, concerns Gertie and John, two people from Dayton — one who left and one who stayed. They meet at a time of crisis, when both are experiencing the impending loss of a single parent.

“Each of them sees the city very differently,” said Wahlrab, 29. “Gertie is a Latino immigrant who moved to Dayton with her mother when she was very young. She considers the city a refuge from a harder life. John, the son of an ailing Vietnam veteran, did everything he could to get out of Dayton. Gertie and John struggle to reconcile how two people from the exact same place could see the city so differently. The city is really a third character in the story.”

“The film industry in New York City is tough,” she said. “Dayton is a community that cares and understands. This city knows it takes more than money to make things happen. The community is positive about collaboration and particularly this project, which has been met with so much excitement and enthusiasm.”

Wahlrab’s genuine passion for cinema grew during her formative years at Stivers, where she specialized in art and creative writing with a self-guided emphasis in film. In addition to successes in art competitions, including showcases at Columbus’ Wexner Center for the Arts, she helped edit the short film “Gravel,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was directed by Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated Yellow Springs documentarian Steven Bognar (“A Lion in the House,” “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant”). In 2003, following a year of studying at New York University, she returned to Stivers, with encouragement from arts magnet director Liz Whipps, to launch its film program. She served as an artist-in-residence and adjunct professor teaching video and animation classes alongside Jonathan McNeal, manager of the Neon Movies. She was particularly proud of the animation component, which she taught for two years.

“The biggest motivation for me was the fact that I knew the students at Stivers would really latch on to the basic skills to jump into the animation field,” she said. “We learned together. My students taught me so much. It was an incredible jumping off point for me because later I would go on to have a career in visual effects and animation.”

In 2005, while studying international affairs in Brussels, Belgium, Wahlrab joined a TV production studio that created commercials. During her time in the commercial production process, she formulated the groundwork for “Falling Up,” her stop-action animated short film about the rituals of childhood which was shown last year at the Neon Movies. When she moved to New York City at the end of 2005, she became a freelancer for multiple advertising agencies, which eventually opened the door to visual effects and compositing, which introduces realistic visual elements that may have been impossible to achieve during filming. She recently assisted the independent design and visual effects company Phosphene on such HBO programming as “Mildred Pierce” and “Treme.”

“It’s really interesting work that’s very important to the story,” she said. “The goal is that no one notices what you’ve done, a strange yet rewarding task. When I worked in advertising, it was difficult to translate somebody’s opinion. But in visual effects and compositing, it’s so much more like painting. Contrary to my expectations, it was a much more artful process.”

Wahlrab is inspired by Academy Award-nominated director/screenwriter Mike Leigh, the creator of such acclaimed independent films as “Secrets and Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy” and “Vera Drake.” As she grows as an artist, she hopes to emulate his intricately unorthodox approach to story and character.

“Leigh’s work is very pure to me,” she said. “His process in particular inspires me. He starts with an outline and builds dialogue with his actors. I’m structuring my process after his as much as I can as a first-timer.”

“Djuna is an incredibly thoughtful and generous artist,” McNeal said. “Her combination of vision and technical craftsmanship continue to amaze me, and I always look forward to seeing what she has on the horizon. Her professionalism, follow-through and final product should attract potential investors to her latest project, which will serve as a love letter to Dayton and its many possibilities.”

As Wahlrab continues through pre-production and anticipates casting secondary roles in our area in the future, she’s excited about the collaborative possibilities taking shape. In fact, she has already received great support from the Dayton Metro Library, which figures prominently in the film. She acknowledges the daunting challenges associated with filmmaking, but encourages aspiring filmmakers to never stop creating.

“No matter what your budget is or how much time you have to put towards it you should be busy all the time,” she said. “It’s really easy to get caught up in developing something too long and trying to wait until all the circumstances are perfectly right, but it’s never going to be perfect. You just have to push forward and build your body of work. Build your portfolio and learn as much as you can from every step of the process.”

For more information, go to www.weredoingfine.com or www.fallingupmovie.com.

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