By Katie Chambers
NYWIFT Member Dana Morgan is a New York-based stunt woman, actress and director. She has been in the film industry for over 15 years which during this time has afforded her the opportunity to work in front and behind the camera. Her diverse experience has brought unique ideas, concepts and solutions to the table while working with crew, directors, and support teams to bring their vision to life.
She has expanded her creative reach to the role of location manager through her production company Going Up? Productions, LLC with business partner Cara S. Liander. Their latest project is Fresh Kills, the feature directorial debut of actor Jennifer Esposito, premiering now at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. This gritty mob drama with a feminist twist provides a layered, original look into the dynamics of a crime family by focusing on its usually invisible female members.
The film shot in Morgan’s hometown of Staten Island, so she drew on her own childhood for inspiration!
Congratulations on your premiere! What does inclusion in the Tribeca Festival mean to you?
I was born and raised in New York City so being included in the Tribeca Festival has been a dream come true. To be able to present authentic landscapes that have been frozen in time to such an iconic film festival is such an honor. I’m so proud of this city and of this work.
How did you get involved in Fresh Kills?
A little bit of fate and a mutual friend that connected us to Fresh Kills.
Staten Island is a unique place. Having lived here my whole life, I’ve seen it grow and learned how to adapt in its environment. It’s a small-town vibe with a big heart. Everyone seems to know each other or knows someone who does which makes entrusting people from outside the borough, at times, a tough situation.
There was a need for small businesses to connect with film productions, however, many people were reluctant to trust them. That’s where my business partner Cara S. Liander and I come in. We have been location managers through our production company Going Up? Productions, LLC to help properties navigate having productions in their space. After discussing the film with Jennifer [Esposito] and its specific needs we felt a strong connection to the story and her ideas. We knew we could find the resources to help make her vision tangible.
What guidelines did the producers give you when seeking out locations, given that it’s a crime drama and a (relatively recent) period piece?
Jennifer wants her audience to truly understand what Staten Island felt like during this era. Finding authentic representation of these time periods was extremely important but also properties that were flexible with growing up in the film.
I remember driving around looking for the right type of residential house where we can showcase the traditional Staten Island lion statues at the front entrance. Some of these statues are built into the walkways, that’s how iconic they are on the island.
Staying true to the script was the focus of our scouting. Production also asked us to keep everything close, which meant most of Fresh Kills was shot mid-island and north shore. Staten Island is extremely diverse in its terrain, so we had plenty of variety.
What was your favorite moment working on the film? And the biggest challenge?
It’s always surreal whenever I get to film in my neighborhood especially shooting a movie that it so relatable of my childhood. We were shooting an overnight in a parking lot that hadn’t changed since I was a kid. That night was cold and damp. I remember coming into this space so many times throughout my life and at one point hanging out just like the characters were in this scene. Right before the first take, I turned to Cara and said “Wow, just like old times.” We laughed at the accuracy and talked about how Jennifer really nailed the vibe. For me it was the past meeting present, and it put into perspective how much growth can happen in one lifetime.
Speaking of nostalgia, finding a residential home that was set back in time was the greatest challenge I had while we were scouting. We were up against scheduling issues during holidays, school, covid surges, weather, availability from actors and it also had to be close to other areas of interest. The house also had to be large enough to accommodate on property production support space and trucks. There was one that fell through at the last minute and so we had to think outside the box to find it.
I spent four days straight online, calling, knocking on doors and driving around looking for this house with Cara. Then right at the “all is lost” moment I hit refresh and up popped this incredible house. It was perfect and had specific nuances that were in the script. I remember when we presented the house to our incredible production designer Taline (T.V.) Alexander, the first thing she said was, “This house is amazing.” I’m glad we were able to provide a period-based pallet for her to work her magic. When I got to see it all dressed up it, I was transported into another time period. She brought it all to life and it was incredible. I’m thrilled it worked out, but that was definitely a tough one.
What are some interesting locations audiences should be on the lookout for when watching the movie? I know it’s a very New York-centric story, so I can imagine many of the locations will be recognizable to the Tribeca Festival viewers!
There is a very special place I hold close to my heart that I hope never changes. When I was a kid, it was a location to go see the fireworks when they had a barge closer to Brooklyn and Staten Island. There also use to be a Navy port there. Every morning you could hear the bugle echo into the hills where I lived, playing Reveille. That’s how I use to start my day with my family.
Later it turned into a film studio. When I was a teenager I use to watch from a hole in the fence and eventually got so curious that I snuck in and peaked into one of the doors to watch wrap out. I got caught but the owner welcomed me with open arms and showed me around. That was the first time I fell in love with filmmaking. Now its vacant and closed off, however there is still a little piece that is left to the public next to the studio. It’s mostly a makeshift parking lot for trucks but at night its empty and the view is breathtaking. You can walk directly to the water at high tide and see the Verrazano Bridge on the right, NYC on the left, and Brooklyn right across the way. It’s untouched by new development and feels unrefined. I hope it never changes.
You’re also a stunt performer, actor, and director in addition to your work as a location manager. How do you juggle wearing so many hats? And how does each of your roles in the industry inform your work on the others?
I’ve never been a part of anything quite like the film industry. I love to work among people with all different skill sets and with one common goal, to tell a story. I came into this business during a time where my world was upside down. I was starting a new life with a blank page, so I was open to everything and didn’t have any expectations. I was so excited to learn about all the different departments and how things worked. During this time, I met many dear friends that I’ve grown with who also found a place in the industry that felt like home to them.
For me, I love the physical challenge, so stunt performing has always been my first love. However, progress is never linear, especially in this industry, so I continued to nurture the need to be creative in other ways while I network and train.
Saying “yes” to everything becomes its own flow. It started with acting and into puppetry, then puppet building became storytelling, which turned into directing and producing. Learning how it all works from the office PA, accounting & legal to the camera department, stand ins, and producers. Every single job plays an important role in creating the literal big picture.
What’s next for you?
Fresh Kills is premiering June 16th and runs until June 18th at Tribeca Film Festival which is first up this month. I have my own project I’m writing and looking forward to developing it further this summer in between training.
I’m going to continue to flow with this ever-changing industry and have fun! I never know what’s next, but I can guarantee it will be an exciting new adventure having a part in telling a story.
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