Commitment to the art: Film Connection mentor Dean Ronalds talks about his passion for storytelling
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Film Connection mentor Dean Ronalds is a bit of a rarity in today’s world of film. While many filmmaking professionals outside of Hollywood rely heavily on corporate clients for income while doing passion projects on the side, Dean makes his living almost exclusively from producing and directing artistic narrative films—thus far without the backing of major studios—which gives him a unique perspective when mentoring film students.
Chatting with us in a park a few blocks from his apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side, Dean tells us his path has certainly not been easy, and it’s required some tough choices and sacrifices along the way. But he makes it work, he says, largely based on hard work and commitment to the craft.
“I have the perspective of not coming from any opportunity other than hard work and persistence and due diligence,” he says. “The discipline I did have was always doing. There was nothing that was going to stop me from not doing something in regards to making a film, telling a story.”
Dean’s artistic journey began in acting, as a child growing up in Denver, Colorado. “When I was about 11 or 12,” he says, “my brother took me to an audition…for The Sound of Music at the Ascot Dinner Theater in Littleton, Colorado. I thought it sounded great, so we both went and auditioned, and I actually booked that part as the youngest Von Trapp brother in this musical dinner theater…So at that age, the bug bit me.”
It wasn’t until college that Dean began to realize his passion for storytelling would be better served behind the camera. “I always had a storytelling sense as an actor but I didn’t realize that filmmaking was really its final form and destination,” he says. “Part of one of my classes was I had to be a segment producer creator, a segment for this public access show. And once I got in front of the editing bay, I realized…this is what storytelling was, this was it.”
Dean says his passion for film eventually led to more collaboration with his brother, including a move to Phoenix, Arizona for his “day job” at the time. “I started to just make movies with my brother, acting, producing, writing, directing, everything, and we would screen them,” he says. “We became quickly part of the community of the Phoenix Film Community…people [began] being aware of what we were doing.”
Dean’s first big break came with an angel investor who began funding the brothers’ films. “We made a bunch of movies with this investor, met a bunch of actors, got in the Hollywood system,” he says. “I got to direct some wonderful people, and I got to make feature films. And that’s not something that many people can say…Along the way, we were fortunate enough, my brother and I got hired to work for Tyler Perry to write for Meet the Browns.”
When the relationship with the investor ended, Dean found himself at a crossroads, which eventually led to him ending his collaboration with his brother and striking out on his own. “I just wanted to figure out who I was as a person, as a filmmaker, all of it,” he explains.
After getting hired to produce and direct a film on location in Africa, Dean met and began collaborating creatively with writer/producer/actress Emanuela Galliussi which led to his move to New York City. While he says the reboot has been a struggle at times, he’s never wavered from his passion for the art of storytelling. Today, three years on, he stays busy juggling multiple film projects, including a docu-horror film, #SCREAMERS, which recently premiered at the Telluride Horror Show.
“We made the movie in Rochester…this was the first thing that I had written that I had directed,” he says. “Now it’s playing in like five more festivals, and it’s starting to do its thing.”
As a Film Connection mentor, Dean is also passionate about mentoring students who share his passion, and even gives them opportunities to worked on his own films when possible—including, recently, Film Connection graduate Imran Vasanwala.
“I had sent him out as PA on many other sets,” says Dean, “and so he gravitated towards the camera team, even though directing and writing is his main goal. So I brought him on as a PA for my camera team, and then he ended up being the second assistant camera on his first feature film.”
Given his unique perspective as an independent filmmaker, Dean stresses to his students that the path to success is to produce content, whatever it takes.
“These days, there’s no excuse for not being able to do something,” he says. “You can shoot it, edit it, and publish it directly from your phone… You don’t have to be rich or have all sorts of expensive gear. You just have to be passionate and want to tell a story… You eventually get to that point where you are able to achieve the quality work that you want, but it doesn’t happen right away…You can’t get there unless you do. That’s what I tell my students: one of the biggest things to do is just do, just do.”
Making a living as an artistic filmmaker isn’t easy, but Dean Ronalds’ own journey is an inspiration to students that with passion and discipline, anything is possible. “You do it for the art, not for anything else,” he says. “Do it for yourself, do it for the story burning inside of you…listen to your heart.”