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Editor’s Note: Welcome to part three (of four) of our exclusive online series about Colorado filmmakers at the Oscars. Check back every Friday until the big show on February 24 for a new Q&A.
Donna Dewey is the first Colorado filmmaker ever to win an Academy Award. In 1997, her documentary, A Story of Healing, took home gold for Best Documentary Short Subject. The moving film follows a team of nurses, anesthesiologists, and plastic surgeons from the United States on a two-week mission to the Mekong delta of Vietnam to perform reconstructive surgery on more than 100 Vietnamese children with debilitating birth defects and injuries.
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5280: How has filmmaking in Colorado changed since you won the Oscar?
Donna Dewey: The entire film industry has changed. A lot of that is the result of technology, distribution channels, and the proliferation of product. Back in the ’90s, if you were in the film business, it meant you knew how to do something that was pretty exclusive. But now, that has completely changed. Filmmaking is accessible to everyone. With just a camcorder, you can make a film. But what really separates the men from the boys is storytelling. Just because you can put it on film doesn’t mean that it’s worth watching. And I think that’s the biggest differential today: The talented ones are really those who know how to tell a story.
5280: What’s needed in order for Denver to be accepted as a serious filmmaking community?
DD: I think it’s [already] starting to happen, especially if you look at places like Austin (i.e., places that not only have incentives in place, but a conglomeration of filmmakers). It’s really made a big difference. In Austin, a lot of it is centered on SXSW and other forms of art like music, which is so big there. And that has proliferated into the film business. It’s made it a more attractive place to live and work and appreciate all of the arts, including film. And I think we’re beginning to see that happen in Colorado too.
5280: Looking back, what do you remember most about making A Story of Healing?
DD: I remember being so in awe of that medical team, so envious that they had this knowledge, this ability to do something that could change people’s lives that much. I don’t do a lot of research when I do a documentary. I learn about the subject matter and what the story is going to be as I go along. In a way, that sometimes drags the audience through it in the same way that I was dragged through it. Sometimes, it brings forth the same emotions that I had at the time.
A Story of Healing was like that. Not only did I admire what they were doing, but it was so overwhelming to see how thankful these parents were. Most of the children were too small, but the one who was the centerpiece of the film was a 16-year-old boy who had lived with this awful deformity his whole life. To watch them change that in 20 minutes? I couldn’t stop crying. It always gets me emotional because I think how he spent his whole life ostracized and 20 minutes was all it took to change his life forever.
5280: What was your Oscar experience like?
DD: On the day that we were nominated, we called everyone from our makeup artists to limo services. And we took 12 people out there even though we didn’t have enough tickets. But we got to know the ticket-takers at the Academy. Fortunately, the day of the ceremony, they called and said Barbra Streisand didn’t want her tickets and if we came down within the hour they would be ours. So we got Barbra Streisand’s tickets and everybody was going.
What was really funny is that they told us to be there at 5. They warned us about limo lock and told us to come early. And here we are, speeding across town to get to the Shrine Auditorium only to discover that there wasn’t a single limo in sight! When we pulled up to the red carpet, a large crowd was already in the stands and the ushers started coming down the stairs to open our doors, but we quickly locked them and told our driver, “Keep going, keep going!” It was our first time and we didn’t want to be the first ones to the party!
5280: What happened after you won?
DD: At the Governor’s Ball, Red Buttons (Best Supporting Actor, Sayonara) came up to our table and said, “You will never in your life have anyone come to your house again and not ask to see your Oscar.” And that’s the honest truth.
5280: So where is your statuette now?
DD: It’s on the bookshelf next to our fireplace in our living room. And it’s sitting next to my most prized possession: a miniature Oscar that says “World’s Greatest Grandma.”
Next Up: More documentaries plus a potential narrative TV series called Pursuit of Property, about a ruthless real estate magnate operating in west Los Angeles before the fall.
—Image courtesy of Nicolas DeSciose
Part One: Sarah Siegel-Magness
Part Two: Derek Cianfrance