Recently, Charles Dye, the Co-Writer and Director of the adoption-related short film Two Secrets connected with Addison Cooper of Adoption at the Movies to talk about this film, based on a true story of a girl’s efforts to understand and embrace her identity.
Addison: Hi Charles, thanks for joining us! To start, how did you decide to do a film about adoption issues?
Charles: I didn't really start out to tell a story about adoption, but it unfolded that way. My stand as a filmmaker is to make films that truly connect with people and transform their lives forever. I've never seen that film, so I don't have anything to model it after, but my intent is to create it. And the best place to start telling a story that transforms lives, is to start with stories of transformation.
Addison: Where did the story of Two Secrets come from, and how does it connect to foster care and adoption?
Charles: Ali Dolan's story is highly transformational. She's overcome more in her young life than most people will in their entire lifetimes. When I first heard her story, I was transfixed. Ali and I were working for the same company, and one day late after work, she told me her story. I was blown away. I couldn't stop listening. Her story just kept unfolding. And it stayed with me. It was very impactful. So when it came time to make this film, I asked Ali if she wanted to share her story with the world. And she said, “Yes.”
Fostered and adopted children go through so many transformations in their young lives. From potentially having a traditional family, to having no family, to feeling like a visitor in a family, to hopefully finally having a forever family. And the entire time, they must feel like their actual existence as a person is in question, as they never know what's going to happen next. It's a precarious place to live at any age, but going through it as a pre-teen must be the scariest. And most likely, this forces some of them to constantly find ways to transform themselves to adapt to each new reality.
Living in a world of traditional families, where their friends take for granted who they are and where they came from, fostered and adopted children often have the exact opposite experience, struggling with their identity and origin, because they simply don't know all of it. Ali wasn't in long term foster care, but the circumstances around her adoption were quite scary, even death-defying, and when she learned the truth about her past it was life-changing, shaking her to the core, and destroying everything she believed about her past. This is one of the two secrets in our film, and Janey – the film’s protagonist who is based on Ali – inspires us by summoning her strength and courage in order to face this issue, and one other secret.
Addison: Two Secrets does ring true with some of the adoption-specific issues that Janey faces, as she questions her parents about her identity and background and expresses anger that truth has been withheld from her. What informed you about adoption as you made the film?
Charles: I love that term "ring true." It’s the exact phrase that ran through my mind about every aspect of this story. We want the film to feel entirely real. We were never looking to over-dramatize anything. In fact, sometimes we were looking to do the exact opposite. The real-life events that our film is based on were dramatic enough that we didn't need to add anything to them.
We were very fortunate to have many places to draw upon to better understand this story. Ali is adopted, and her life is the source of the story. Also, our producer and co-writer of the script, Meryem Ersoz, is the mother of an adopted child, and talking to her about her experience was very powerful and helpful in making the parents feel real. Parents of adopted children, like the children they adopt, have many struggles and societal prejudices and presumptions to deal with. In addition, in many cases something traumatic may have led them to adoption. So understanding and portraying adoptees and adoptive parents realistically was very important to me.
Our story is entirely true. Everything in this film actually happened. When Janey is talking about how she feels about being adopted, that comes directly from my conversations with Ali. But to make the story fit into 20 minutes, we had to compress events. And filmmaking is a very visual medium, so you also have to find ways to show things. So every time we wrote a new scene, or made a change to the script, I would ask Ali, “does this ring true for you?” And if it's in the film, her answer was yes.
Another reason our film rings so true with these adoption issues, is in the casting of Cassidy Mack to play Janey. We were so fortunate to find such an amazing young actress. Cassidy is truly a powerhouse. I believe her performance in this film is one of the key components in making it feel so real. And with good reason. Cassidy shares a nearly identical life story, suffering a very similar trauma as the character she portrays. This added intensity has created a very powerful film with stirring performances.
And Cassidy Mack is a very inspiring person. She's spoken in front of Congress twice (at the age of 14), she started the Love Gives Chances Foundation to empower kids in foster care and encourage their adoption into forever families, and is a national spokesperson for the Dave Thomas Foundation.
Addison: One of the things that I appreciated about the film was Janey’s struggle with the traditional school “family tree” assignment.
Charles: Some of my siblings have non-traditional families, where the family tree assignment, with its presumption that everyone should know their biological relatives, created real pain for their children. At an incredibly awkward and self-conscious age, the family tree assignment puts a spotlight on how different they are from their friends.
Addison: It’s as though the assignment assumes that people don’t have relatives that aren’t related to them! What are your hopes for this film, and what do you hope people take away from it?
Charles: I hope this film will touch people. We tell the entire story from Janey's perspective, so the audience can experience what it feels like for Janey. We do it in a way that never lets you anticipate how things are going to turn out, because that's exactly how Janey experiences these events. The second secret that her entire family keeps from her, completely blindsides Janey. Nothing can prepare you to hear what she hears. It's gut-wrenching but real. And Janey’s reactions to them are powerful scenes.
I also hope this film will transform some people. I know that's a tall order for a short film, but we've packed a lot of story into 20 minutes. Five lives are changed by the end of the film. Bringing the audience along on Janey's journey will hopefully allow some viewers to reflect on their own realities, and possibly to view themselves differently.
Our short film is just the very beginning of a much longer story. We plan to do a full-length feature film that tells Janey's story from the age of 12 to 21. The entire story is so powerful. We're working to raise the money now, so we can shoot the feature film as soon as possible.
Addison: Ali Dolan, upon whose life this film was based, is a co-producer of the film. How involved was she in making the film?
Charles: Ali was extremely involved from beginning to end. She was intimately involved in the writing. We started with hours and hours of interviews, and then moved into writing. I’d write a draft, and later Meryem and I would work on them together, and Ali read all of them. All 99 drafts of the script, and she always gave great notes. And then throughout the entire process from casting, to filming, to editing, she's been there every step of the way, always making sure the film rang true. As I told her the other day, she's always been my first audience. I want her to be proud of our film.
Addison: She has reason to be proud. You’ve captured her story powerfully and your film pictures some truths about adoption. Are there any films that you've seen that join Two Secrets in showing truths about adoption?
Charles: As I was writing the script, I looked at adoption-themed stories and was quite surprised to discover that so many superheroes are adopted or parentless, like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. It had never occurred to me. I found it very intriguing how an early life trauma transforms these characters into extraordinary people. And this is exactly what happens to Janey in our story. And, of course, it’s what happened to Ali and Cassidy both in real life.
This coming together of shared life stories created very stirring performances from our cast. Not just Cassidy, who bats it completely out of the park with her performance... she's destined for greatness, but from all our actors. Everyone that worked on the film was very moved by Ali's story, and they poured their entire hearts into telling it. The result is a powerful film we're all proud of.
The common theme in our film and in others, that adopted and foster children can draw upon, is that you can overcome your past. As Cassidy says, "I choose to not be defined by my past, but instead, I am defining my future." And that's such a powerful realization. We are not our past. So many of us allow our past to define and limit who we are in the world. When in reality, we are and will simply become who we want to be.
Addison: What are some other adoption films that have been meaningful to you, or influential upon Two Secrets?
Charles: Some other adoption films I love are Cider House Rules and Juno. Cider House Rules has an incredible drama and poetry, and I'm so drawn to the sense of humor of Juno. They're both such beautiful films, but neither of them have a lot in common with our story.
Surprisingly, we found inspiration and common themes from a very unexpected film. Luc Besson's "Leon: The Professional," which stars a 12-year-old Natalie Portman as the step-daughter of a drug dealer. It's an amazing film. It’s very serious and dark-sided portrayal of a 12-year-old girl has a toughness that was very close to how I imagined Janey. So I asked Cassidy to reference it for her character.
But the film actually is an adoption-themed film. Natalie Portman's character becomes orphaned and is then adopted by the last person you'd expect... her next door neighbor--the professional hit man. And the impact she has on his life, and he on hers, is very empowering and transformative for both of them.
Addison: You have said that no films quite reach it, but are there any films that you've found to be successful in approaching "life changing" status?
Charles: Great question! Yes, and no. Paul Haggis' Crash is a very powerful film about racism, and is so incredibly told. That film feels like it may have had a transformative effect on some people. The performances in it are stunning, and the film has moment after jaw-dropping moment, at times leaving me completely breathless. If any film comes close to having that life-changing kind of power, it's this one.
But there really aren't any films that I've seen yet that I believe have had a transformative effect on a wide audience. Though there’s one that had a life-changing impact on me. Ordinary People by Robert Redford. That film touched me deeply, and at a point in my life that I really needed it.
When I was 14 years old, my brother took his own life. And I felt a great deal of guilt over it. Survivor guilt. And in Ordinary People, Timothy Hutton's character feels a lot of guilt over the death of his brother who drowned in a boating accident.
At the film's climax, Timothy, in the midst of an intense panic attack over the suicide of another friend, has an emergency visit with his therapist, played by Judd Hirsch. Timothy now blames himself for both his brother’s and his friend's death, saying, "I should've done something. I should've known!" Timothy begins to relive the boat accident, calling out to his brother. Judd replies as the brother, and in the ensuing yelling match it becomes clear Timothy is mad at his brother for not holding on to the capsized boat. For giving up. And angry at himself for not saving him.
When Timothy comes back to reality he says, "You just do one wrong thing, and..."
Judd says, "And what was the one wrong thing you did?" Timothy doesn't answer and Judd keeps pushing, "You know.... you know."
After a long pause Timothy finally answers, "I hung on. I stayed with the boat."
Judd says, "Exactly."
And those words changed my life forever. I was mad at my brother for giving up. Mad at myself for not. And I finally realized that didn't make any sense at all. There's nothing wrong with not giving up. With surviving.
That moment meant a lot to me, but it didn't hit everyone that way.
Nonetheless, there are some universal misbeliefs, things that are deeply rooted in nearly all of us that are in fact not true. For example, few people fully understand there is only one person between them and the things they want in their life. Themselves. It’s nearly impossible for most of us to comprehend that is us that is constantly in our own way. And this is exactly the case with our film. Our story has a protagonist, Janey, and an antagonist… also Janey. Because she is the person who is in her way.
We are the people stopping ourselves from living the life we want.
So, if you can take an audience through a story that causes them to re-examine how they've been living their entire lives, how they see themselves and everyone else, and show them a truth they've never seen before, you can have a transformative impact on their lives forever. And that's my stand, to make that film.
Addison: So what’s next and where can people learn more?
Charles: Please watch our awesome trailer to get a sense of Two Secrets, and a taste of Cassidy’s powerful acting, on our website twosecretsfilm.com, and please LIKE our Facebook page: facebook.com/twosecretsfilm for the latest updates.
To see our film, you can come watch us at a film festival. We just started the festival circuit. We’ve been in three, and have our fourth January 29 & 30 at the Trail Dance Film Festival in Duncan, OK. If you’d like to recommend us to a festival, or if you’re a festival yourself, please email us below.
Or you can sponsor a private screening in your area by contacting us. Our goal is to truly connect with people, and anyone in the adoption or foster care community who wants to see Two Secrets, is someone we’d like to talk to. Please email us: email@example.com for more info.
Lastly, what everyone says after seeing the film is, “I want to know what happens next!” Two Secrets is just the beginning of the incredible story that is Ali Dolan’s life, so in the full-length feature film we follow Janey from the age of 12 to 21. It’s a wild roller coaster ride of a story that will leave you breathless, amazed, and cathartically soul cleansed. It has to be seen to be believed.
And this is the film that will transform lives.
To make that happen we need to raise 8.4 million dollars. So if you’d like to contribute to our fundraising, you may go here: gofundme.com/twosecretsfilm, or if you know film investors, please share with them about our film. Thank you very much! :)