Roxann Dawson is known to millions of Trekkies as B’Elanna Torres since appearing on Star Trek Voyager. Working on the show led to Dawson stepping behind the camera where she worked on shows such as Scandal, House of Cards, The Chi and The Americans.
In Breakthrough, Dawson directs the inspiring true story of Joyce Smith and her unfaltering love. When her son John slips and falls through the ice of a frozen lake while playing, he’s rushed to the hospital but remains unresponsive. Smith refuses to give up hope, defying science and history as she prays for her son’s recovery. Smith is played by Chrissy Metz who Dawson says replied with a “yes” as soon as she read the script.
Dawson explains how not just Chrissy, but logistics, Diane Warren and the film came together. Read our chat below:
How did the script come your way?
It’s actually a really boring story. My agents called me and asked if I’d be interested in reading this. I said, “Sure.” I read it and I thought the story was amazing. I looked it up and saw that it actually was a true story and I was just blown away by it.
It’s such an amazing story and as I read it through a second time, I found so many amazing connections to the story. I thought to myself that I wanted to be the one to tell it. I met with DeVon Franklin and with Fox 2000 and it just happened.
What about the timeline of getting the story to meeting DeVon to casting and shooting?
It was incredibly fast, especially for a feature, but especially a studio produced feature. Fox 2000 said they wanted to make it with Chrissy. They said, you either get her or you don’t. [laughs]
Chrissy came in, met with them and it was left to me to seal the deal, so we had coffee. We talked about the role and we just hit it off. We waited about 24 hours and heard the yes and from that point, we hit the ground running.
We needed to get it shot a lot earlier than we did. In February, it was hard to find a frozen lake. We were up in Winnipeg shooting this and the ice was melting. We had to shoot the ice sequence while we were still in prep. We pulled up those days in the ice because engineers said we’d not be able to get out there when we wanted to. It all worked out, but it was touch and go for a while.
Talk about shooting that ice sequence and what you told the boys about that scene?
They shot that first. We were in negative 30 weather the day they shot that. They had to play as if it were warmer out there because on the real day when that happened in St. Louis, it was somewhat of a warm day. It was low 50s when the real incident happened, so to be 30 degrees below zero the boys had to act warm.
When we were in the tanks we had to have them act as if they were cold because that water was warm so it was a real challenge, but they were so good because when it was cut together, I really did believe they were in that situation.
Then you have the super powerful watch of Chrissy praying over her son’s body that’s lifeless. That was such a powerful moment in the movie.
It was such a pivotal scene. It was her first day at work and she’d had one short scene before that, but it was so important. We all knew it.
To be honest, I got up before work and said a prayer, because if you didn’t believe that, the film didn’t work. Chrissy and I had talked about it and she’s so wonderfully available to a director. She really puts her trust out there and she’s so incredibly brave to go to places that we might be afraid to go. Her courageous performance was matched only by the number of times she had to do it because I think she did it about ten times from the different angles that we needed. Each time, it was so pure and so real. She’s such an inspiration as both as a person and an actress.
That scene and then on the rooftop with that conversation she has.
That was the last scene we shot. It was the last scene we did and it was magical. I was right on the roof with her and watched her give everything. She’s so amazing.
It was so amazing to watch her. My God, she struck so many chords.
Diane Warren contributed I’m Standing With You to the movie. How did that happen?
We sent the film to her. She was so inspired by the last moment with the First Responders to show how the community responded, but I can check with DeVon but she – within 24 hours, had written the song and was singing to him down the phone.
It was just amazing. At that point, we were discussing that maybe Chrissy would be singing it, but I don’t know how we got Diane to write it. I can’t believe she was so inspired to write such a beautiful song and that Chrissy was able to perform it, not only in our movie but at the ACMA’s the other day.
Carrie Underwood came on board too. We are so blessed and I never anticipated that we’d have this response and it really added to the caché of the film that people began to look up to the film. I’m so grateful to them.
How did it work with Chrissy’s schedule on This Is Us?
There were so many things that had to work. She didn’t even show up for production until three weeks into shooting because of her own schedule so we were well into it before she shot her first piece.
It sounds like a cliché, but it’s as if everything fell into place like a miracle. Was it as easy as that?
It was never easy. We always had these obstacles in front of us, but miraculously every day, these miracles would be overcome. When we heard that the ice was melting and we’d lose the lake, we were suddenly in meetings about doing that thing fake and just moving to a soundstage. I turned to my line producer and asked if we could just shoot it in a few days? She said we didn’t have everyone. Finally, she pulled the trigger and said, “Let’s just do it.” Those things that seem insurmountable in one moment suddenly we were able to. There were a lot of obstacles, I think they’re the same obstacles that everybody has, but we were so fast-tracked and so blessed to overcome I think with 90% of them we really did and miraculously made the film.
What was it like for you to watch those scenes we mentioned? Was there a scene that just blew you away?
I was blown away a lot by the performances the cast were giving me. Sometimes – to be honest – you get into the editing room and the editor says, “You have it. It’s there.” You’re not always sure. There are so many moments that I thought in my head and I’d be looking at things that were better than I had imagined. It was just an experience where so many moments where my heart went, “We might just have something here.”
There’s such a great takeaway with all that’s going on in the world. It reinforces the message of love, for you as a filmmaker, how did this change you?
I’ve done so many different genres and subject matters. In everything I do, I try to look for something that I believe in with the story whether it be survival, strength, love or just something that an audience can latch onto that isn’t just a downer. I was thinking, the best possible thing for me in my career right now would be for me would be for me to do something that I truly believe in and this came my way and I just haven’t had yet, this opportunity to actually do something that I believe in with every fiber of my being that I didn’t have to make excuses for. I truly believe in the message and what we are trying to say. That changed me. It was a dream come true to be able to do something that truly reflected how I feel about the world.
Breakthrough is out this Friday