Ron Dillard Jr. does it all. He writes his own plays and screenplays. He has television shows in his head ready to go out into the world. A storyteller has to have stories to tell, and Ron is ready to tell his. Finding his way through the business of filmmaking and finding an audience hasn’t been easy, but to hear him tell it, this is all part of the plan.
Ron Dillard Jr: I am a writer, director, producer, actor, I was born in Petersburg, Virginia, moved to Richmond, Virginia in 2004. I have a background in theatre and started off doing church plays and in high school. When I went to college, I went into acting, producing and directing plays then starting Ron Winston Entertainment.
I knew there was a lot of theatre being done in Richmond. There were a lot of stories being told, but from the 1800s perspective. I had these ideas for stories about today, and how we treat each other. Stories that I really wanted to dive into and to give myself an opportunity to play characters that I don’t think other people would have cast me in.
So that’s how I got started to where we are now.
Richard Anthony Harris: And what was your first short film? Or play?
RDJ: The first play that I did with my company was in 2008. It was called I Deserve Better and it was about domestic violence. This isn’t a new topic, but I don’t want to do a production unless I can bring something different to it.
In I Deserve Better, we saw the abused [person’s] perspective as to why she stays, and the abuser as to why he does it. Not so much to give him a pass — there’s no excuse for it — but to understand why someone does something can give you a key to hopefully help them. In this story, we see the father aspect, because 70% of men who abuse women have seen [abuse] in their childhood. He saw it growing up.
In this production, the father is now reformed and trying to discipline his son. His son is like, “How dare you? You taught me to be how I am right now.” So that was an interesting dynamic that we showcased to some really good results.
RAH: How difficult is it taking a play and making it into a film?
RDJ: I have yet to take one of my plays and make it into a film, but what I wanted to do with that play is turn it into a mini-series. I want to basically do it where we tell three generations of stories within two episodes, so it’s not difficult when you have a perspective of it.
When you start thinking about exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, the outline is the writer’s best friend. To be able to sit down, think about what you want to do, and most importantly, why do you want to do it? And then, how can you do it to do it in an effective way to tell a story?
RAH: When you started to get into film, did you have a lot of support? What was the process of “I’m gonna start doing some films”? How difficult was that to do in Richmond?
RDJ: For me, I have a great, great crew that has been working with me since I was doing my theatre productions. It really wasn’t until I met a young man named Shirod Green and partnered with him. I needed someone to be the director of photography, to deal with the lighting and the shots, someone to edit the films, since that is something that I don’t specialize in.
I found out about Shirod through Kelli Lemon. She did a post about The Art Of Noise and she tagged Shirod Green. I checked out his Instagram, I looked up his website, and I reached out to see if he’d meet with me. Fortunately, he took a meeting with me, and I told him about these short films that I want to do. I told him the plan of how I wanted to have them premiered — I want to take them into film festivals — and where I wanted to go. After that meeting, we kept in contact, and he ultimately said he would come on and work on it.
Once I had that in place, I had the confidence that we can go and do these now four films. I felt like we could be very successful with them.
RAH: What is the biggest obstacle to getting your films out in a town like Richmond, and finding an audience?
RDJ: When I did my second, A Player’s Last Play, I did these three commercials to promote them. The three commercials were everything that happened before the play, and I put them on television.
I remember a woman gave me feedback, since she saw the commercials. She loved the commercials but didn’t know anyone in the play, so she didn’t come. Having a name attached to the project is something I understood as an issue. That is the biggest detractor in the Richmond market.
RAH: Well, it seems to me like you’re getting them out there. I want to say congratulations on having three of your films showing in film festivals all over the world.
RDJ: Thank you, yes. We’re very, very fortunate to have all three films in the same film festivals multiple times. We have been fortunate to win now over 30 awards. We have won awards domestically and internationally. These films have been screened in Europe and places like India, Brazil. All over the United States. We’ve been really, really fortunate with the reception of these films.
RAH: I am really curious, what is it like talking to organizers of a film festival in Turkey? In places that don’t speak English, do you feel your ideas come across?
RDJ: You know, it’s interesting that after we got into our first 15 or so festivals, we started to have other film festivals from like India, from Turkey, from Hong Kong, from Japan, who were actually asking us to enter into their festivals, which was so overwhelming.
And the way that we’ve been able to communicate even in different languages has been astonishing, because some of the film festivals that we have won, they are in another language. The good thing is that we have films that really communicate very well, when you’re watching it — whether you can follow it in English, or if you have to have a translator.
RAH: That’s amazing, Ron, I think, you know, just following your story, it is amazing that you are all over the world. Does it ever pop in your mind, as a as a Black filmmaker, that maybe you’re opening doors for other Black filmmakers in this local market?
RDJ: I’ve never thought about it like that as a Black man, from a Black perspective only, because I look at Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, I look at directors who are very good at what they do.
My favorite director is Ridley Scott, and I never looked at him saying, “Hey, he’s a proficient Englishman!” I’m looking at him as a director who has taught me a lot, and if I see his films, I’m going to get a great story. I know that he’s a master of the craft, and that’s what I look to do.
I’m a director. First, I’m a good storyteller. And that’s how I want my brand to be known, when Ronald Dillard, Jr. does a film or tells a story, it’s going to be good. It’s gonna be something interesting. That’s what I work towards, to ensure that’s what people expect from me.
RAH: You are a storyteller.
RDJ: Absolutely. When you think about When We Prey On Them, it deals with one of the worst issues dealing with a lot of Black men, being slayed by police officers. That’s something very, very specific in the film that I couldn’t turn away from anymore. I had to find a way to do it. And we were able to get it done. Again, it’s all about the story. It is wrong to be taking lives when you don’t have to, or just taking life so irresponsibly.
So that’s the overall point for that film, is hoping that it brings humanity back to people when they’re thinking about life. At least, that’s what I hope it does.
RAH: What themes do you come back to in your films and what are you trying to figure out?
RDJ: I see a common theme in all of my films. A lot of times people who are pushed around or ignored, or a lot of times may take the high road, they have their say. [I hope] for my audience to really think about how they’re treating their fellow man. And I’m hoping that in my plays, or my films, to stop for a moment, hopefully generate some conversation and say, “Hey, am I like this? Do I portray this?” A lot of times, unless it hits them personally, most people don’t care. But to be able to sit back and let this fictional character give us an opportunity to think about ourselves and what we could do better, how we can be better — what is better than that?
RAH: As an independent filmmaker in Richmond, do you feel like you you get enough support here? Are there enough crew, actors, and professionals to help you?
RDJ: There was a time where I didn’t feel like that there was a lot of support but now, I look at it as that is my fault. The way I approach it now is that, number one, I have to get out to meet people. I have to get out here and make sure I’m meeting people, being active, and knowing who’s available.
RAH: My last question for you is, in regards to your career, what are you excited about this year?
RDJ: This year I have three television shows that I have created, and I’m starting to have meetings to pitch. I’m looking to transition into television show-running.
You can tell amazing stories over several seasons, and that’s really appealing to me. One of the reasons I made those films was to be able to tell different stories, and if you are going to go into television, you’re going to have to be able to have those chops.
It was a chance to do some great films and to hopefully draw conversation, but then to show my talent to tell more than one story — be more than a one-trick pony. Meaning you can put stories together time and time again, because that’s one of the elements you’re gonna need to go into doing television.
RAH: You have another movie coming up?
RDJ: We just finished a film called Unbrotherly Love, scored out of Ireland. So we review that and hopefully start putting that into some film festivals. And that is going to be another film we’re looking to get out into distribution, along with It’s The Color In Your Eyes, A Monster, and When We Prey On Them.
RAH: Ron, that’s amazing. I just want to say thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
RDJ: Thank you so much for asking.
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photos by Kimberly Frost