Dominique Schilling's Reasons
And An Interview With Marion Ross
By Mary Carreon
“No matter how big our cultural differences or geographical distances are, we are all connected and are a lot closer to each other than we know.” so says filmmaker and director Dominique Schilling.
Schilling grew up in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, giving her a uniquely beautiful perspective on the connection of mankind. Now residing in L.A, Schilling incorporates an open mind into all phases of her work, highlighting the well-rounded and culturally experienced aspect of her personality. Her sensitive outlook on the way people are connected emanate through the universally powerful themes embedded in her films. These themes create a sense of unity and focus on the fact humanity is a tight knit interdependent web.
Touching on the vulnerability of fear, love and regret in her latest film, A Reason, Schilling centers the story on a character named Aunt Irene who is meant to cause people to dig deeper into their emotions. Aunt Irene battles cancer, among other family issues, bringing to light the importance of appreciation and how people deal with the idea of death.
“I'm interested in people's life stories and what moves them emotionally,” she said. Finding inspiration in the things and events that people care about, Schilling’s creative inspiration especially comes from observing everything. “Growing up in 3 different countries with different cultures and languages,” Schilling said, “I was forced to observe —without judgment—in order to understand and find my way…”
Schilling’s inspiration for the film came from a decaying villa in the Palisades that was about to be torn down. Learning from an architect that an elderly couple had lived there prior to their death, she went to the property and was overcome with inspiration. “I went into a trance and wrote what I saw in my head,” Schilling explained, as she completed the entire project from start to finish in eight months.
Extensive travelling has also played a major role in Schilling’s creative inspiration. Learning early on that everyone feels human joy and suffering, Schilling has a deep understanding of how people are linked at the very core.
Along with her compassionate awareness of people’s relation to one another, Schilling has an impressively tenacious attitude toward work and accomplishing what she sets her mind to. From the time she was a little girl, she knew she wanted to pursue film. “I visited Los Angeles with my parents when I was nine years old and fell in love with the city,” she said. “[Everything from] the colors, the ocean, the variety, the arts and all the different cultures living together in peace in one city.”
From this trip she promised herself that she would move to L.A when she grew up. Unlike most people who lose sight of their childhood dreams, once Schilling turned 21, she packed up her things and moved across the world. Arriving in L.A with only one suitcase, she attended U.C.L.A where she majored in English/writing. From there she studied stage directing at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and then went on to film school at the New York Film Academy.
Schilling’s dedication and passion has resulted in her films being screened at festivals across the globe and receiving nominations in best film, best documentary and best director. Along with her success at festivals, Schilling co-owns a production company with friend and business partner Caroline Risberg named “Risberg-Schilling Productions.”
Schilling’s passionate understanding of humanity and strong work ethic are at the root of her success, and light the pathway for a promising future.
Connect with Dominique on Twitter
We wanted to ask you a few questions about your most recent movie, A Reason. What attracted you to the project?
Marion: Well, we always want to act and it was a good script. Usually I play such nice sweet people, you know, and this woman appears to be the villain. She’s old and elegant and wealthy and dying and she’s going to see that the will is read to the family and who gets left out and who doesn’t. So she has a lot of power and it was fun to be somebody that you don’t just adore. [Laugh]
I’m sure it was.
This was not Mrs. C. from Happy Days, right?
Right! Were you drawn to the character because it was somewhat of a villain?
Yes and also it was a very good script. It’s a mystery. You can’t quite figure out who to root for and lots of the family members gang up on each other, especially when there’s a lot of money at stake. It’s the way families betray each other, which is really sad, you know? It can be rather typical, especially when somebody dies and there’s money at stake, you know? And how the generations have disappointed each other and you carry it on into the next generation. I thought it was a very good script.
Dominique Schilling directed the film. Was it a good experience for you?
Oh, I loved working with Dominique because she was thrilled with me, which was wonderful! I could see she has such a passion and such an emotion and cares so much. All these young people, they’re not burned out at all. They’re just at the beginning of their careers. Somebody is making a fantastic film all the time.
I think the fact that it intrigued me that we were around this dining room table shooting eight people around a table. Now before, in the old days when we would film with one camera, we would reset, reset, reset for each person.We had a very interesting cameraman. He would set up a track, a long curving track, and he would get the master shot and keep shooting and get the two-shot ending up in a close-up all on one shot, using this curving track, and I loved that. These young people have new and different ways to shoot things, new and easier cameras.
Since the digital camera doesn’t have to be so careful with the lighting, maybe a general lighting for the room was sufficient, you know? In the old days, you’d have to stop, relight, this takes forever. Stop, relight, stop, relight.
During your long career, have you worked with many women directors?
I must say, it’s a man’s world out there and even on Happy Days, back then, the wardrobe woman was an older seasoned wardrobe woman and she would say, “Here’s your new outfit. Now, don’t go out there asking them how they like it.” You walk out there and you say, “I love this” and, in other words, you had to constantly be manipulating these men to get what you wanted, right?
Do you think you’ve seen much of a change? You’ve been working since the late ‘50s.
I wouldn’t say that women in big studio features have made a big dent. But, young women are making smaller, independent films so it’s wider open as far as that goes, but I wouldn’t say that it’s been much of a revolution.
Were there a lot of women on your crew for A Reason?
Oh yes, almost totally women. There was a cameraman but other than that, I think it was very much dominated by women.
That’s good to hear. A woman director supporting other women crew members.
Yes, I enjoyed the shoot very much.
What was the most challenging thing about playing your role in A Reason?
It was sometimes hard for me to remain unlikeable, you know? I’m naturally likeable and so I want to humanize. Everybody has a back-story, you know, and I could show you a chink of humanity in her or should I still be this cold heartless sort of person who’s dying and is pissed off about it? [Laugh]
I think when people think of Marion Ross, the first thing that comes to mind is Happy Days. What would you like us to know about you that you don’t think we know?
What a really serious actress I am. One of the proudest shows I did was a show you may not have seen. It was called Brooklyn Bridge. I did that for CBS but we only made about 20 episodes. It was Gary David Goldberg and I played a Jew; I had an accent, it was a real breakthrough for me. We didn’t run long enough at CBS. It was the immigrants’ story. We had hundreds of letters of immigrants from every stripe saying, “This is the American story, when two generations come here and the grandparents live downstairs in the apartment and you live up there and you’re all together and you conquer this country together.” I was very proud of it.
It was a one-hour drama?
Yes, it was a family drama. It was very warm and amusing and real and it was one camera and I guess it was just too expensive for everybody. It was a great disappointment to me, but it got me out of the whole Happy Days mold.
Do you stay in touch with the other cast members?
I keep in touch with the Fonz, with Henry Winkler. Ron Howard is a pretty busy guy. I still treat him as if he were my son and I always say to him, “Oh Ron, you’ve got to get better clothes.” [Laugh] I treat him like he’s mine.
Well, he was for ten years.
He’s gone on to being one of the top guys around.
Yeah, he certainly has. So outside of acting, what would you say are your passions?
I have a wonderful house that I call Happy Days Farm. It’s really not a farm, but I call it that. It’s like two acres and I’m constantly doing something to it, changing this, getting this all cut down, do this, do this. It’s like I can’t be stopped. I've always got some big plan afoot.
Any big regrets during your career?
Oh, of course I wish that I were a far bigger star, but I led my life very carefully early on. I decided that my life was not going to be the battleground. I was going to put it in my work. I was married, I have children, I have a beautiful home. I could send my kids to college. I could get their teeth straightened. I could have a normal life, like everybody has, and still get to do this thing that I love to do.
You’re an inspiration, continuing to work constantly at your age. Do you have any secrets about how you stay healthy?
Yes, it’s like, here’s how I live: I wake up in the morning and I say, “Ah, I've got the greatest idea!” Now, it could be a really stupid idea, but I like to live kind of with a high adrenaline, like something wonderful is going to happen and let’s do this and let’s do this. I don’t wait around for somebody to come and find me or if I’m not working, then let’s tear all this hedge out here and let’s do this, you know? [Laugh]
I think that’s a terrific philosophy.
And I try to be healthy, you know? Try to take care of yourself. I’m not a very good cook, but today, what I ate was in the blender. I put protein powder and apple juice and a banana and great handfuls of raw spinach and then great handfuls of some other green business and the protein powder and mixed it all up. I don’t like it very much, but that’s what I ate.
You’re obviously definitely on a healthy trajectory.
I don’t do that all the time, but I make an effort.
Are you into social media stuff?
No, no, I have an assistant who does everything for me. I’m not learning anything.
One last question. What was one of your most memorable experiences with Happy Days?
There was so much playfulness going on, it’s a wonder that we ever got the scripts made, but they were very tight. At one point, Henry starts to, because I did something, picks up this whipped cream can and starts after me, right? So the audience is there.
The live audience?
Yeah. Shooting is going on. So he gets me and sprays me. Well, he’s ruined my clothes. Now we have to stop. I have to be all fixed up again.
Yeah and you know, we had a softball team, Happy Days.
Oh really? Was it with the cast?
It was with the cast and crew and writers and, in fact, you couldn’t get a writer’s job on Happy Days if you couldn’t hit, you know? We had uniforms. We played for the media, for all the major ballparks in the United States and not only that, we would win. We went to Europe, we went to the East German border, and played with the first infantry in Germany and then when the show was finally over, the last, last show, the next morning we all got on an airplane and flew to Okinawa, all of us, and played softball with U.S. Marines. Can you believe that? Because the guys didn’t want to give up the team. Henry did all the pitching. Gary Marshall was first base. Ron Howard was right field. I was rover. Rover, in softball, rover, like you “Get over there, Marion. Get over, over, way over there,” but I could hit.
That’s sounds like so much fun.
It was. It keeps the cast together.
Yeah, everyone must’ve just had a great time.
They didn’t want to give up the team, so we went eleven seasons.
What a great story to end on. Thanks for so much for your time. We really look forward to seeing you in A Reason.