Paige Irene Bruns is a young, upcoming screenwriter and director. We had a great conversation about her life and career so far, from competitive swimming to her short film Anchor, influences and much more.
Read on to find out lots more about Paige Irene Bruns, director and writer.
DB: Where are you from originally?
PB: I am originally from West Michigan. I grew up here and then ended up moving down to Florida for college before finding my way back to Michigan!
DB: Can you tell me a bit about what it was like growing up there and your family?
PB: Growing up in West Michigan was great! It was a very supportive community, filled with various artistic opportunities so I was exposed to creativity at a very early age which I think helped catapult me into what I am doing today.
DB: What do your parents do?
PB: My mom is a retired special education teacher and my dad is the president of Whitehall Products: they make things like weathervanes and mailboxes.
DB: Have they always been very supportive?
PB: They’ve been incredibly supportive and it’s something that I am really very grateful for because because I know when your child comes to you and says, “I want to do acting,” or, “I want to be in film” it’s a little bit like, “Are you sure that’s what you want to do because it’s not guaranteed.” But they never doubted me. From the very beginning they were always all in.
DB: What was school like for you?
PB: Growing up, school was fun; I always really enjoyed it. I’m big on learning – I’m always looking to expand my knowledge so I looked at it as a chance to grow. I was also very involved in extracurriculars. I swam competitively for about six years which presented an opportunity for me to learn the importance of time management and I spent a lot of time with the theatre department!
DB: Did you have a lot of early morning training for your swimming?
PB: I did! I lived about 30 minutes away from my school and our practices started at 5:30am so I was getting up at 4:30 to get there on time. We also had two and a half hour evening practices every night so it was actually a really good way of learning discipline and the importance of time management.
DB: And the discipline of the sport itself?
PB: The discipline, I think, helped me in a lot of different areas because swimming is a demanding sport with morning practice and then practice after school and it was a good lesson on how to create and stick to routine. I actually think that has carried over into what I do now. I like routine, which is funny because there is no routine to filmmaking.
DB: Did you have any particular favourite subjects?
PB: I loved English, anything with writing; I always took every creative writing course that I could. I also really enjoyed History; I always thought that was so interesting.
DB: What sort of kid were you outside of school? What hobbies and pastimes did you have (apart from swimming)?
PB: Theatre. I was very involved in both local theatre and my school’s theatre program. So between that, swimming and school that’s pretty much what took up most of my time. When I did have some free time I really enjoyed reading which ties in to what I do, it’s essentially just another variation of storytelling.
DB: Once you finished school you went to college. Tell me a bit about college and the courses that you did there.
PB: I went to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. The way that that program is structured is really great because you’re exposed to every element of the film industry. You take classes on each of the jobs on set and then in your late years you actually do those roles on the set, making films. I took general Art classes where I got to learn Photoshop and Illustrator that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. I also took a lot of photography classes.
DB: You mentioned about when you wanted to go into the acting, directing and the film side of things your parents were supportive, but at what age did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
PB: That’s kind of a funny story because I think that I have always known that I have wanted to do something in entertainment. From a very early age I was fascinated by film. The first time I really was interested in movies was when I saw The Wizard of Oz for the first time. I was three years old and I was completely immersed in the world. I would run around my house and tell my mom, “You can’t call me Paige, my name is Dorothy.” I fully convinced myself that that’s who I was.
I didn’t realize that it was an option for a career until middle school. That was the first time I said to my parents “I want to act”. Then in high school I was introduced to directing through the theatre program. My director came up to me and said he was thinking of doing a series of student-directed one-act plays and asked me if I would be interested in directing one. I remember being confused because I didn’t know anything about directing and didn’t know why he was asking me but I said, “Sure.”
That was the first time I had been exposed to the behind the scenes world and I absolutely fell in love with directing. After that it was like, “Yeah, this is what I want to do!” It wasn’t one specific age, it was like building blocks from being three years old.
I always say that I feel I was destined to do film because it was like every decision pulled me towards that. At one point I thought about doing psychology and neuropsychology because I was very interested in that but then I was quickly pulled back into doing film.
DB: Of course, any interest you may have in psychology can still inform things you then create.
PB: It absolutely does! I am the type of writer that, when I am writing, I am completely immersed in that character – I step out of my mental state and go into that of the person I am writing. A lot of times I am crafting a character or a story around something that I haven’t experienced so understanding psychology is really helpful for me as it then helps me make decisions on how a character would realistically react based on who they are and how their psyche would work.
DB: That must help because then the characterisation of the characters themselves is going to be very clear and very helpful for anyone who is acting the part.
PB: Something I always try to do in my scripts is to do a rough draft, whether it’s a scene or the script itself, and then I’ll go back and and ask myself, “Is the motive clear here?” So anyone can look at it and understand why a character is saying what they are saying.
DB: Do you think attending Ringling College was vital to where you are now?
PB: I do, for a lot of reasons actually. The interesting thing too is that when I first went in I had a few mentors that told me “It’s great that you are going to film school but I don’t know that it’s necessary.” I am so glad that I did because I was exposed to every element of the industry versus if I would have just jumped in I would have been as a writer-director with very little experience and I wouldn’t understand how to talk to my crew, or what a gaffer does, who the sound mixer is or the script supervisor. Because I had gone through the process and I have served in every single one of those roles I understand how to communicate with my team and I understand how important each role is.
Also the community, network and relationships that I have made from the four years that I was there are irreplaceable. They are the first people I call today when I have a project to do.
DB: You mentioned that you did some theatre directing when you were at school, how much did that directing on stage feed into what you have learned since in your courses and making films.
PB: First of all, I think it really set me up well to go into Ringling. Looking at the experiences I had, prior to going to college, I’m really grateful because I came in with a general baseline understanding of directing, blocking and directing actors. A lot of people didn’t have that experience and were coming in and learning everything all at once. My past knowledge allowed me more time to soak up everything and then take that new content and put it to use.
DB: Did you do any acting yourself?
PB: I did. My parents had me in theatre camps when I was in elementary school. I did a lot of that but ironically, I really did not like it at first. I remember one theatre camp in particular where I had been given a speaking role and I didn’t want it. I tried to get them to hand it off to someone who would enjoy the opportunity but they said they had given me the role for a reason so I had to do it. The whole time leading up to the performance I was dreading it but then, once I did it, I loved it. After that I was addicted and just wanted to keep doing shows. In high school I realized I really liked acting and thought, “Maybe there’s a possibility to do this as a career.” So I started doing the whole actor “thing” for a few years and continued doing theatre and doing auditions for short films. Very quickly I realized that I was not cut out to be an actor because having eyes on me all the time in a room full of people in an audition room or on the set was just something that I was just not going to get comfortable with. I quickly took a step back from that but was still involved in my high school theatre program; I still loved acting just in not high pressure situations.
DB: Having done quite a lot of acting, how valuable do you think that was as an experience for when you are now directing?
PB: Its irreplaceable. I am very much an actor’s director and I think that stems from the fact that I started as an actor. My actors are my focus at all times. I am involved in all the other things but the actors are my priority. Having come from acting I think that is where it stems from and it has really given me a heightened understanding of what actors do. So many people think that it is just saying lines, and it’s not – you are asking these people to emotionally expose themselves in front of tons of people. I learned from my acting experience how valuable the actor/director relationship is and how much actors rely on the director for their security; the point is to be their biggest advocate. I came into this from the understanding that it’s really important to get to know your actors emotionally, as actors, and how they work but also as human beings. On set you have to be able to identify when they have hit their breaking point, their emotional “wall”, because the second that you ask them to do another take or something differently, all of a sudden, you are no longer their biggest advocate, and that’s a problem. I had come to that conclusion before I even set foot on set for the first time.
I prioritize creating a strong relationship with my actors before we get on set. It’s important to me that they understand that I am never asking them to do something that I haven’t done or felt myself. When I say that I mean on the writing side, I go there emotionally.
DB: And that trust extends to the rest of the crew as well?
PB: Yes, having trust in your team and your team having trust in you is what makes or breaks a film. I put a real value on making my team feel more like a family than coworkers. I have been on sets where it doesn’t feel like that and when you see the end product, there’s a noticeable difference.
DB: What was your inspiration to write Anchor?
PB: Anchor was a story that I wanted to tell for years but the timing never felt right. One day I had this realization that in society we look at criminals as innocent until proven guilty but when you take a survivor of assault, more often than not, they’re looked as as the villain until they are proven to be the victim. That was really hard for me to wrap my head around but that was when I realized I had to make this film now. Anchor was my way of working through those emotions with the hope that we could shift those conversations from “Did it really happen, and if it did I need all the details to prove that it did happen,” to “How can we support? How can we change the way society handles this?”
It was a combination of things: it was all over the news, the same types of stories over and over again; going through high school I knew people who had gone through that and had watched that play out. Writing has always been my way of working through my emotions and thoughts and making everything come together.
DB: Again, using Anchor as an example, when you set about writing, what is your process, if you can describe it?
PB: I think it varies based on what the project is. Talking Anchor specifically, it was a lot of front end research and conversations with survivors. I knew going into the film that if we were going to make it I wanted it to have the most real and authentic, harsh, uncomfortable approach. It was very important to me to talk to multiple survivors to make sure that I fully understood everything that goes on. When we got into writing the script and got into casting, my actress is actually a survivor herself so I sent her a draft, just to make sure that it felt right.
This was a different process from a lot of things that I have worked on, given the nature of the film.
DB: I guess, with this particular subject matter, there is a feeling of responsibility attached to it for those survivors as well so it is very important to get it right.
How did you go about casting?
PB: Casting for Anchor was a little more daunting than other projects I’d worked on. Mainly because I knew that I was asking a lot of my actors and I didn’t know if we would find anyone who was willing to do that. I knew that I wanted to shoot it in a very specific way.
DB: How did you find your locations?
PB: We shot Anchor in Bradenton, Florida, right around my college. That was fun because we went around these locations – we knew the area well – and talked to people. The pool was definitely the hardest to find because people don’t want to let crews come in with cameras but we were luckily and ended up finding one. I love location scouting.
DB: How did you go about the actual filming?
PB: I had a full crew: a camera team, a sound team, a lighting team, a production designer, Clonia, who also served as the costume designer. I learned so much about color from her such as how you can utilize it in film to symbolize things and it has changed the way that I look at the use of color. I’m working a series now and color is such a prominent thing for me. Having a full crew on this was eye-opening. You think going into it that you have an understanding of each of these jobs, because you have done them but I was lucky to have people in those positions who were genuine interested in those positions, so I really learned a lot from them.
DB: Do you think all the scheduling you had to do, as a child, has helped to a degree with doing the project management side and on-set?
PB: I think so. It has helped me understand, realistically, what’s possible to get done and on-set it has made me more aware of my time.
DB: What about post-production, how did that go?
PB: Post-production was very interesting on this film. I edited it which is an interesting experience when you write, direct and then you lead post production because you’re so close to it. For me the editing process was the first time I really thought that maybe we had pulled this off and that it was working. I remember sitting in the editing suite editing the assault scene – and editing is a very tedious process and I was having to watch their scene over and over again – and I felt so sick I had to get up and go to the bathroom. I had written the film and witnessed the behind the scenes of it all so I was well aware that it wasn’t real but seeing it all come together made me emotional. The editing process was intense.
DB: How does your writing transform into the visual medium when you are a director and inform your directing?
PB: I often joke that I have two sides of my brain, the director’s side and the writer’s side and my director’s side really does not like my writer’s side because I create all these very specific detailed sequences that now we have to bring to life. But then, at the same time, I really enjoy the challenge of that. When I am writing, as well as feeling all the emotions, I see it, I see it all as if it was a movie playing. I go into production and pre-production with a very specific vision of what I want, whether that be shot design – but I also love the collaboration with my team and they bring other ideas.
DB: Do you do any rehearsals beforehand or do you expect people to have pretty much prepared?
PB: It’s a little bit of both. I like doing rehearsals; I think they are necessary. I’ll come to rehearsal having done my homework and I will have my vision and idea of how the scene should play out and how it should be blocked but so have my actors and crew, so having those discussions becomes really important.
DB: What are you working on right now, that you can tell me about?
PB: I’m working on a multi-season drama series! Unfortunately, I can’t talk too much about it just yet but what I can say is that it deals with the opioid crisis and how it filters down into small towns and the effects that that has.
DB: Lots of research I’m assuming and do you get creative ideas just suddenly pinging into your mind as you are researching?
PB: I spent six months in research development. If I’m doing research for a specific project that I already have the concept/idea for, that happens all the time. And in real life I get ideas and inspiration from the most random things. I have a list on my phone that has been ongoing for five or six years now of random “dialogue” lines that I have heard people say that I have found really interesting. Speaking of the series, ironically, the idea originally came to me through a conversation I had with someone I went to high school with, who I hadn’t talked to in years. I reached out and asked about a place I was considering moving to that I know he had experience with and somehow, through that conversation, I had this idea for the show, and it had absolutely nothing to do with what we were talking about.
DB: What are your plans and ambitions for the future?
PB: I started a Michigan-based production company called Affinity Insight Pictures, so I really hope to continue to build that. I am very drawn to deep-rooted emotional dramas that touch on some of societal and everyday issues; I often joke that I couldn’t tell a story without touching on some kind of real world struggle.
DB: What do you see as the function of film?
PB: For me, film has always been my way of processing what I am feeling and my emotions, so on a personal level that’s huge for me. I also think that it is such a powerful art form because we are so receptive to what we see on our screens that it gives us an opportunity to be exposed to things that we would not be exposed to normally in our day to day lives. It has given me a whole other understanding of what people go through and a different level empathy for people that I would not have without being a part of it. That’s from the point of view of someone who makes movies but also consumes a large amount of TV and storytelling in general.
DB: Who are your idols in writing, film and TV?
PB: I admire a lot of people. I love Greta Gerwig, Damien Chazelle, Dan Fogelman but somebody I really look up to is Taylor Sheridan. He is such a masterful storyteller and he has such a good understanding and ability of taking a story that has a simple concept and really dive in deep with it, creating so much meaning.
When I was working mainly in short form content, I always had the problem of my concept being too large and because of that, it really taught me how to go back to the main point because you only have 8 minutes, not two hours. It’s something that I keep in mind when I’m overwhelmed. I go back to what is the basic thing about this, and then everything else, make sure it ties back to that.
Every scene that I write, even before I write it, I think “Is this going to propel the story forward or is it not necessary?”
DB: Who have been your most influential people in your life and in what way have they been influential?
PB: My parents are the first that come to mind because from an early age they preached to me to follow my dreams, no matter how big they might be. Do something you enjoy and that you love. I would not be doing what I am doing without them. I think without that early encouragement I would have thought that it was not possible.
DB: What are the key things that you have picked up on that are good advice for anyone considering going into the industry?
PB: Networking. Network all the time. It is never too early to network. I started networking… probably long before I should have… but I think that’s actually a good thing because it takes a while to figure out how to go about it. And surround yourself with people who are more experienced than you are because you are going to learn a lot very quickly just from being around them and watching what they are doing. Even if you are on a set and just watching you are going to start hearing common language and jargon that you wouldn’t know. Then, going back to something I said earlier, it’s really important, if you want to be a director to understand and learn how to identify actors’ breaking points.
DB: When you are not working what are your hobbies, interests and passions? I know you have got a dog…
PB: I have a little Havanese. She’s two years old and named Brinley, so I love hanging out with her. I am a big family and friends person so whenever I have downtime I like to be with them.
DB: What are you reading at the moment?
PB: I just started this book that is 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think.
DB: What could you not live without?
PB: My family, for sure.
DB: If you could have one wish granted right now, what would it be?
PB: This is going to sound really cheesy but I would wish for more unity and peace in the world. So much has happened in the past few years and there is so much divide, so I would wish for a stronger sense of unity.
Paige’s Short Film Anchor:
Link to Insights from this interview with Paige Irene Bruns:
Find Paige on: