Rebels with a cause: An interview with Dave Productions

L-R: Misha Parfenoff, Jaime Brackeen & Frederick Mariano

Over a 9 am zoom call, I spoke with filmmakers Misha Parfenoff, Emily Pudalov and Jaime Brackeen. The three of them are equally funny, charming and above all talented. Together, along with their other team members, they make up Dave Productions, a Los Angeles based production house specializing in art house films, colour, and music videos. In short, a force to be reckoned with. Fed up with the shady side of L.A’s film industry that feeds off of exploiting actors, Misha decided to take back creative control and empower other artists by setting up Dave Productions back in 2019. Every now and then our conversation is interrupted by blaring sirens from the police cars passing by outside of Misha’s apartment building. “Welcome to Hollywood” says Misha with a delightful chuckle. I could’ve spent all day talking to them, but unfortunately I only had an hour. We ended up discussing the dark side of L.A’s film industry, favourite films and their future projects.

The Curve: Misha, What made you want to create Dave Productions?

Misha: I was an actor for ten years and I came out to L.A five years ago and went to an acting grad program and figured out that there’s this entire industry in Hollywood, well I mean generally everywhere but very much here, that is built on making money off of people who are trying to be artists. A big thing that I was frustrated with was acting reels, in order to get one you have to be in things and then in order to be in things you have to have one. So it’s this weird catch 22 where your only option is to do free work. There’s a lot of really bad films out there that they’ll have you do for free. I found this company that was charging people a ton of money for scenes for their acting reels, and they were really bad. The whole thing just looked really unfair to me and it seemed like there is no reason that these things should have to cost this much. I had spent this time making my own films and teaching myself how to edit and colour grade film, so I started making acting reels for this community of actors that I was a part of along with two other people who are no longer part of the company. At the time it was ridiculous, it was like unlimited edits, unlimited everything and so I was doing probably 20 hours of work per reel and making nothing [laughs]. I did that for my first twenty reels and learned a lot, and as we started to grow we were booked out for months, but we were always and still are this underdog, anti-capitalist, social justice production company. Then when Covid hit everything shut down and suddenly, I was able to take a second to actually look at my company and see what I can do with it. So then I brought on Jaime who is brilliant and has a very different brain from mine and with her I was able to really present us as this functioning big production house even if we were really small.

Jaime: I came in and said “Misha you need to charge more for everything you’re doing!”[laughs] my role is partly making Misha set boundaries, because he wants to give everyone everything.

“We were always and still are this underdog, anti-capitalist, social justice production company.”

TC: How would you describe Dave Productions in three words?

Emily: Film For All, I find it very inspiring to see how at Dave Productions we use the money that we have to be able to offer low cost or free film production to people who don’t have the money to pay for it or have a more experimental goal in mind. It’s almost like we’re a sliding scale production company, and I don’t know if that’s ever been done before [laughs].

Jaime: Socialist Bespoke Arthouse, is art house one word? [laughs] Because we really want production for the people. Especially for the reels, we completely cater them to the individual who is shooting, which I don’t think happens very often, a lot of the time other places have a generic lineup of things they do. We like making weird stuff, it’s really fun and I think that’s kind of Dave’s brand, we’re a funky little production house so yeah let’s get weird [laughs].

Misha: Art Becomes Accessible.

Emily Pudalov on the set of “Leave Me Alone”

TC: What do you think sets you guys apart from all the other production houses in L.A?

Misha: It’s interesting because there’s this thing that happens as a production company grows that I’ve noticed, especially as we’ve grown. They all kind of boil down to a similar thing because you start making money and find out what’s viable and what isn’t. Then suddenly you’re a company with a red camera and a camera car, you’re shooting Porsche commercials and music videos with strobe lights and have 10,000 instagram followers, and you become this thing. There was a moment for me because I was a bartender and still not fully sustaining myself off of Dave, because as Emily said, I put all of the money Dave makes back into Dave, so there was temptation for a moment to be like “well I just want to support myself off of this I’ll just do that since it’s what’s working.” But it’s not what I wanted, I’d much rather Dave be a passion project for what we believe in rather than have it be this profitable thing. So I think that’s what makes us stand out, our willingness to sacrifice the classic structure to be in this business, to have that freedom.

Jaime: Yeah, I definitely think our goal is not to profit, our goal is to keep ourselves afloat while we can help people create their thing. It’s not like we churn and burn out a bunch of products just to make money off of actors who don’t exactly know how the process works yet, or are new to it and easily taken advantage of because they’re so desperate to succeed in this industry. Something that we do as we’ve had to occasionally increase prices is check back in and look at our motivation for this and that’s a regular conversation I have with Misha, it doesn’t seem like a lot of other places are doing that. 

Misha and Sasha Valarino on the set of “Alstroemeria”

TC: What’s your favourite project you’ve worked on at Dave Productions so far?

Misha: “Alstroemeria”, it was kind of a fashion arthouse film that I did, it got into the L.A Fashion Festival. I rented this vintage lens that I love, it was actually too heavy for the tripod so I just had to hold it the whole time [laughs]. I shot the other half of it on this 16 mm film from a camera I have from the mid 50s. It was me getting to experiment, and at the risk of sounding pompous, I structured it like it was a painting in motion. It didn’t have a classically structured narrative because when you look at a painting you project what it is to you onto it. I had no other influences, I could just go with my vision, so that’s always been my favourite. 

Emily: It would probably be the first feature film I ever worked on called “Man Under Table” with filmmaker Noel David Taylor. We were interested in writing a script together and some time later I was thinking about it during my Buddhism practice and had one of the clearest insights I’ve ever had in my life. It hit me like a bolt of lightning and it was that I had to help Noel finish this movie he hadn’t finished from 2018. That’s actually how I met Misha and got involved with Dave Productions because he came on as our colourist, the movie actually got into the Slamdance film festival and it was just a really wonderful experience.

Jaime: I will selfishly say that my favourite thing that we’ve worked on was a music video for me since I also make music. It was just the most collaborative project I had ever worked on. Without Dave Production’s resources and Misha’s cinematography knowledge I don’t know if it would have been what it is, it’s not released yet but it should be out soon. It’s the most professional thing I’ve ever seen, it’s my favourite project because of Dave’s style which is to bring a lot of cool and talented people together. It was just this huge moment of people coming together and being like “I have this idea and this idea.” I feel like my network of artists in L.A grew ten times bigger just from this music video, and I was like this is all I’ve ever wanted here and none of it would have been possible without Dave. Everyone was just operating at their best and it was really inspiring.

TC: Joseph Baken’s film “Joe gives up and moves to Montana” was your first feature film shot at your studios back in March- what was that experience like?

Misha: Joseph is this incredible filmmaker and went through a pretty harrowing experience as a gay man in rural Montana and was finally ready to express and deal with that through film. He decided that he was going to play all 12 plus characters on his own. We shot the entire thing just him in this black box and it’s about an hour and a half long but it really melts away, you are transported to this world despite it being so simple, you even forget that Joe is playing all the characters. I felt really lucky to know this person and that they put their vision into our hands because that’s the crux of what I want to do, be able to create with people I admire.

“The more specific things we put out the more that artists that compliment our style kind of gravitate towards Dave.”

TC: In general what do you look for in the people you work and collaborate with- is there any specific criteria you follow?

Jaime: We meet someone and then there’s this kindred spirit feeling, we just connect with them and have a similar vision or goal. I think it’s just happened very organically through meeting creative people that we vibe with [laughs] it’s a very California thing. The more specific things we put out the more that artists that compliment our style kind of gravitate towards Dave. We really haven’t had to turn anyone away for creative differences, it’s just worked out very nicely.

Misha: Doing essentially nonprofit work, everyone still needs to be fairly compensated for their time. I’m easily taken advantage of [laughs] so I will sacrifice my time and even finances to create something with someone. Sometimes people will ask us to work for free, which we will do if we consider it an investment.

TC: As filmmakers, what are your favourite films, do you have any recommendations for us? 

Misha: Up until I was 24 I was crazy about the “Truman Show” with Jim Carrey and now I’m into “Buffalo ’66” which is made by Vincent Gallo, this crazy egomaniac but he’s a brilliant artist.

Jaime: My favourite movie of all time is “Roadhouse”! That movie is insane [laughs]. It has Sam Elliot and young Patrick Swayze both in their prime and it seems like just two hours of a movie about a bouncer, but it’s just chaos and it’s so 80s and fun.  I love that movie more than anything, it’s just so over the top and I will watch it over and over again. If you haven’t seen it, watch it! Just appreciate it for what it is- an incredible movie.

Emily: The movie that made me love and get interested in movies when I was a teenager was “Welcome to the Dollhouse” by Todd Solondz. I’m actually really influenced by Todd Solondz all of his movies. As I’ve gotten older one of my favourite film makers is Paul Thomas Anderson, especially his movie “Magnolia”, it’s one of the movies that convinced me to move to L.A and my all time favourite. I’m fascinated by movies that have a very experimental structure.

Noel David Taylor and Emily on the set of “I’m Tired”

TC: L.A’s film industry has a reputation for being shallow and cutthroat and competitive, do you think it’s accurate?

Misha: It’s only cutthroat if you let it be. The way to not compete is to leave the competition [laughs] if other people are doing similar work to us, I’m not upset about that at all. It’s great and regardless I’m going to make Dave work whether it’s financially viable or not. We mostly just keep our heads down. I want people to know about us but we’re not trying to be Paramount or anything like that, far from it actually. It’s cutthroat if you start trying to cut other people’s throats.

Jaime: There is definitely a hustling attitude when you first get to L.A and people tell you “you gotta be making stuff, content, content, content!”, but like Misha says you don’t have to be a part of that. The beautiful thing about L.A is it gives you the chance to grow in a more healthy direction if you want. It’s a city that’s very competitive but it’s also a city where everyone has a therapist and is trying to get in touch with their own spiritual center. There’s like this one section of people who are like “let’s do this! Rise and grind” and then there’s other people who we are working with who are more like “I really want to make something but I also want to be healthy about it and take the pressure off. ” I think that’s very beautiful and I hope that everybody in the industry can get to that point. There is no scarcity for who can be creative and there’s enough space for all of us. The more you put your own work out there, the more the right people are going to gravitate towards.

Emily: I think it’s important to have the right mindset, then all the competition disappears. Because if I’m only comparing myself to who I was yesterday and if that’s your yardstick for being successful, then it’s really easy to measure that.

“It’s cutthroat if you start trying to cut other people’s throats.”

TC: Are there any upcoming projects that you’re currently working on?

Misha: As Jaime said we have her music video coming out which is gorgeous. We have another music video coming out with the rap artist “Big Hongry” in which he made these cool minimalist boxing scenes. We actually have a third music video coming out with another artist called “Coco” and it’s super bright colours, like a surreal kind of comedy that Jaime directed. Then we have this project coming up where we’re going to turn a guy into an avengers superhero, it’s all going to be in VFX and we’re going to build these walls that he punches through.

Jaime: I’m going to build the wall, I’m very nervous about it [laughs]. We also have another movie that we shot with Noel David Taylor called “I’m Tired”.  It’s in the final stages of post production right now and it’s looking really beautiful, it’s kind of this 80s feeling and weird film, but again that’s very much our vibe [laughs].

You can follow Dave’s journey here: