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Getting Dressed with David Swajeski

Getting Dressed with David Swajeski

Articles - Directing

How does one put into words a meeting of fate that would lead me on a three-year journey to produce my first documentary feature?

I came across the story of Nary Manivong when I was directing a commercial in Cincinnati, Ohio. The producer on the project was a local and, as it turns out, a close friend of Nary’s who had produced his first fashion show when he was just a teenager. She would eventually become our consulting producer.

Nary, a self-taught fashion designer, was abandoned by his Laotian parents and was homeless by the age of 14. More than anything, Nary wanted to build his own fashion brand and when we first met in New York in 2007, he was already doggedly pursuing this dream. One of the first things I recognized was his exceptional determination and drive; Nary was creating pieces totally on his own: He had no support system, investors or staff. Nary hoped that one day he would see his creations showcased at Fashion Week in New York.

I was fascinated by the fashion industry and was eager to experience it through the eyes of a talented young designer who was passionately driven to succeed, but who did not have any financial support. I wanted to tell the real story and expose the struggles and hardships that a young designer faces when starting out in the industry.

Once we agreed to do the documentary, pre-production began immediately. This was a true independent filmmaking process; every aspect of the production was self-funded and crew members often wore many hats. We were all committed to bringing this truly inspiring story to the big screen, which meant long days shooting and even longer nights reviewing footage. At times I felt as though our stories paralleled each other: Nary was a fashion designer trying to scrape up enough money to keep going and we were a film crew doing the same!

In addition to telling Nary’s unique and inspirational story, we chose to simultaneously feature fashion experts giving their own personal insights about the industry. Executive producer Maryanne Grisz, a fashion show producer and teacher at Parsons, The New School for Design, began lining up industry experts for us to interview.

Shooting Nary’s day-to-day activities posed a great challenge. We followed him during each phase of the design process. Cameras were with him as he worked at a friend’s apartment, bought fabrics, traveled on the subway, wheeled racks of clothes down the streets of New York, attended runway shows in the tents in Bryant Park and were even with him as he worked tirelessly in crowded factories and when he had to unexpectedly travel to Columbus, Ohio.

Nary hit every snag possible along the way and it was extremely inspirational to observe his drive and focus. Nary has a true strength and trust in his path that underlies his exterior and it was incredible to uncover that spirit along the way.

During filming we wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible, so we decided to shoot with smaller HD cameras. Our DP, Floyd Dean, suggested a variety of Sony HD cams and the Canon 5D for the more controlled environments. Because we were constantly moving from location to location we decided to use a very small crew, just a camera and audio operator and one grip for lighting. The smaller crew made for a more intimate shooting environment that allowed the cast to feel more comfortable to be themselves.

We never knew where the story would take us, so we needed to be extremely flexible. Locations and lighting conditions changed often, so it was quite a logistical and shooting challenge. I needed to capture all of the key moments, direct camera placement and movement while simultaneously looking out for key opportunities to ask questions that would probe deeper into the design process.

When it came to talking about Nary’s difficult past we moved into a studio. The crew set up cameras and lighting and then were instructed to leave the room. One-on-one, Nary and I were able to intimately discuss his early years. I think these are some of the best moments of the film. There were no re-enactments; we filmed everything as it happened.

We shot an enormous amount of footage, so film needed to be reviewed and logged daily. We planned on delivering the film to theaters digitally, so our post-production work flow utilized several Final Cut Pro workstations. Our technical director RJ Miles converted the camera footage to Apple ProRes for editing and our audio mixer, Chris Orazi, exported audio selects for equalization and corrections.

There is a real rhythm and pacing to the footage shot in New York. During the filming I was listening to several bands that Nary really liked. To compliment the energy and pacing we decided to use several of Nary’s favorite bands in the films soundtrack, which included songs by Sink to See, Blip Blip Bleep, Music for Animals and Foreign Resort. They were all supportive of the project and gave us rights to use their music in the film. Chris Orazi composed an original score for the rest of the film.

Looking back four years later, filming Dressed was an amazing experience. I was inspired, tense, exhilarated, curious and in constant amazement at my subject and the unique experience of filming my first feature. I had the opportunity to film the fashion industry from a unique perspective and to present the story behind one of New York’s truly talented designers. I’m also happy to report that a year after we finished the film he is well on his way to success. Dressed is film that I hope will inspire many young designers or really anyone who has a dream.

Dressed is in theaters now. Visit http://www.dressed-themovie.com for local showtimes.

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