Light Layer Productions | Spotlighting Women’s Stories
I meet Roxanna Dunlop, 27, and Arden Grier, 23, at a classy but intimate hotel restaurant in Downtown LA, where they’re preparing to host a film screening and round-table discussion later in the week. It’s obvious that they’re related, from the natural rhythm of their conversation, a level of comfort that I imagine comes with having a life-long best friend. Their close relationship is also a product of circumstance. They’re not just sisters, they’re business partners —co-founders of a full service production house called Light Layer Productions.
From their childhood, it was almost inevitable that the two of them would end up working in the media industry. Born and raised in Toronto, the sisters grew up immersed in film culture; their parents were actors, and relatives on both sides of the family were very much involved in performing arts—working as either musicians, opera singers, or other entertainers.
A little over a year ago, Dunlop was working in Los Angeles as a model and actress. Grier, also based in LA, was the tour manager for a band. Their decision to start a production company came from a desire to create something together, which was how Light Layer Productions, and its debut film, “Say The Word,” came to be.
Light Layer was officially established in April 2017, right before “Say The Word” went into production. The story that inspired the film came from Dunlop’s acting partner, Kate Duffy, and it was originally written as a scene for them to perform during a class. “Say The Word” is a character-centric piece about a young, affluent woman, Sophie (played by Dunlop), confiding her doubts about getting married to the person she trusts most—her bold, sharp-tongued sister, Danielle (played by Duffy).
Dunlop and Grier felt an immediate connection to the script. “It was funny in parts, and sentimental in parts,” says Grier, who served as producer and supporting actress. “It was just a good script and a good team to make something with.”
“Say The Word” didn’t just mark the sisters’ first collaboration together, it was also Dunlop’s directorial debut.
“It’s really a lot of work,” she says. “but you just have to make time to do it.” Directing and acting are both time-consuming roles that each demand 100% commitment, not a 50-50 split. Dunlop says she tackled her work by dedicating set amounts of time to fully prepare as an actress, before switching gears to a director’s mindset. This meant working late into the night, doing extensive preparation and research.
Grier jumps in: “We’ve worked with a number of first time directors. It’s hard to know what your job is. It’s hard to know what you’re supposed to do, but Rox did all the prep work. It was like she was stepping into a role she had already done a million times.”
“Thank you, sis.” Dunlop lets out a small laugh, before turning the spotlight on her partner. “Arden was the first AD, as well. She was producer, first AD, and actress. So when it came time for me to be in front of the camera, I knew and trusted her more than anybody. So I felt like I was in good hands and could really focus on acting.
“Say The Word” received some positive attention from the 2017 John Rosenfeld Studios Short Film Festival, winning titles for “Best Drama,” “Audience Choice,” and “Best Actress” for Roxanna Dunlop. However, the minor success wasn’t enough to bring mass attention to Light Layer Productions. Months went by as they waited for their next project. Grier remembers the doubt that naturally crept into their heads. The tiny skeptic in her brain wondered, What were they doing? How could they claim to own a production company, when they had nothing to produce?
Finally, they found a second project, a short film called “Broad Daylight.” It was a stark departure from “Say The Word,” darker and more rugged in tone, which was its main appeal for the two sisters. The film’s premiere marked a turning point for Light Layer Productions. The floodgates opened, and new jobs poured in left and right. Grier estimates that they worked on ten productions in the last ten months. It was a good problem to have—they were almost too busy.
Most of this new work came through friends, acquaintances, and other recommendations by word-of-mouth. The old cliche is true: in the film industry, it truly is about who you know. The saying is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be difficult to find these connections, especially early in your career. However, filmmaking is a team effort: there will always be crews in need of extra hands, or independent directors looking for a reliable producer. If you build a reputation for being talented and hardworking, then your network will start to expand naturally.
“We put it out there that we’re doing this—that we’re serious about it,” Dunlop says. “We really care. And we’re good at it.”
As two young women running their own production company, Dunlop and Grier are aware of the subconscious bias working against them. Film, like many other industries, is very much considered a Boys’ Club—and the metaphorical glass ceiling may as well be bulletproof. “It turns out that people don’t like being told what to do by twenty-something women,” says Grier.
“Yeah.” Dunlop adds. “Especially men.”
“Nobody does,” Grier replies. “Women are guilty of it too. And we catch ourselves doing that a lot. Of course, we’re all taught who to respect, and it’s not twenty-something women.”
This is something that all female filmmakers will have to face in their career, at one point or another. It’s difficult to find the right balance, especially in such a collaborative industry. After all, you have to get along with the people you work with. Dunlop and Grier find that most of the challenges they’ve faced involved managing relationships with a wide variety of personalities.
“Never email or correspond on emotion,” Dunlop says. “Always sleep on it. And come from a level-headed, logical place.” There are ways to settle disagreements with peers in a respectful, but assertive manner. Both sisters stress the importance of maintaining emotional control in these situations and advise to always take the high road.
In a similar vein, Grier advises women to stand by their own beliefs: “It’s so easy to take the responsibility for something that’s not your fault, say sorry, settle it, and put it to sleep. But it’s also really hard—and really important—to know the difference between when you need to say it and when you don’t.”
Now that their company has found its footing, the sisters can focus on pushing forth the change they want to see in this industry. Their mission is two-fold: 1) to tell female-centric stories, and 2) to build their own network of women filmmakers.
Currently, our society is on the cusp of a new era, where the general public is demanding more stories from otherwise invisible voices. Films like Wonder Woman and Ocean’s 8 are pushing for female visibility in the mainstream culture, which is a step in the right direction—but visibility is not enough. “It’s not enough to gender bend, you need to tell stories about women. And that needs to start from the beginning,” Dunlop says. In other words, gender representation has to start behind the scenes, at the executive level.
Through their work at Light Layer Productions, Dunlop and Grier hope to promote female storytellers and build a network of female crew members, not just for themselves, but for the industry as a whole—to challenge the Boys’ Club mentality, and push for equal gender-splits among all crews. For their personal goals, since Light Layer is still a young company, the sisters are focused on creating short-form content, but eventually want to tackle their first feature film.
After contemplating her advice for aspiring producers and filmmakers, Dunlop says honestly, “You literally have to make your own content. You just have to do it. Don’t wait for the perfect story to come around.”
“Take yourself seriously,” Arden adds. “Because if you don’t, then no one’s going to.”
Dunlop jumps in, “Know your worth.”
Her sister agrees, “Know your worth. And whatever you want to be, you are. Just start saying it.”