A Home From Away

Actor turned filmmaker Samuel Dunning on rediscovering his creative energy during lockdown, when he wrote his forthcoming film Canoe Dig It?

Being an actor is rough. Being a filmmaker isn’t much easier, but at the very least you can sometimes get a project off the ground by yourself and don’t have to sit around waiting for the gigs to come to you. I suppose with acting you can make your own work as well, but at that point, you’re basically … a filmmaker. I’m lucky to say I’m a bit of both, though typically leaning more towards acting, because I don’t have to track down large sums of money to make work for myself. However, that means loads of downtime waiting to be validated by this industry, an experience that feels a lot like hitting your head against a granite wall. Add in the natural pressure cooker of living in New York City and it’s amazing to me that my doom spirals haven’t led to a complete meltdown or alcoholism (yet).

I’ve been living in NYC for 15 years. I moved down from Brunswick, Maine, at 18 to go to film school, without any experience making films and only knowing that I was creative and liked movies. Out of college, I fell into four-plus years of soul-crushing retail work, feeling completely creatively unfulfilled and miserable – but hey, it beat PA-ing. Or so I thought.

At my breaking point, I thankfully found my love of acting and have been pursuing it for the last eight years. Starting an acting career in my mid-twenties was exciting, but it also felt like I was late to the game and needed desperately to catch up. However, the pressures of New York and the steep odds of landing any particular role in anything caused even this new, exciting career to weigh on me.

Samuel Dunning in the Blue Bloods episode “Vested Interests.”

When I hit some kind of internal breaking point, I rediscovered filmmaking. I wrote and produced and starred in a short film that I took on the festival circuit, winning awards, getting repped as an actor and traveling the world. I booked a bunch of short films and a co-starring role on Blue Bloods. In mid-March 2020 (bet you can see where this is going …), as I was waiting for an official offer on a role in the Netflix series Halston, I went home to Maine for a long weekend, having been too busy to get back for over three months, which is very uncommon for me. Then the pandemic hit, Halston was delayed and I ended up staying in Maine for seven months.

I hadn’t lived in Maine for longer than two to three months since college, and here I was with no immediate promise to return to the pressure cooker and no promise of the return of my beloved/behated industry anytime soon either. I just had to be where I was. Home.

I realize many people had awful, traumatic experiences during the lockdown period of the pandemic, but I felt lucky to have been able to escape the city and hole up at home. Despite everything going on, because I was away from the pressures of the NYC grind, I was as happy in those seven months as I had ever been. Finally, I was no longer just treading water, trying to stay relevant in the acting and filmmaking world. Everything was frozen. I didn’t have to spend every waking moment feeling like I should be doing more, making more, writing more. I could actually relax and look at the world around me – the world outside of the industry bubble.

Samuel Dunning and Scott Woodburn on the set of the 2019 short film Rick and Ruby, which Dunning wrote and starred in and Woodburn directed. (Photo by Nathan Chang.)

I spent most of the summer helping my mom around the house. I lost my father to cancer in 2017 and so have never wanted to go too long without going home to see my mom and help where I could. I piled cords of firewood, cleaned out long-ignored tool sheds and basements in the house, went on beer-walks with friends, watched a movie I’d never seen each morning, worked out regularly and appreciated my time off as much as I could.

In all this downtime, I still had the itch to be creating, albeit without the “gun to your head” intensity of the city, but instead with the interest of amusing myself. A friend sent me a video of a “freestyle canoeing” competition on YouTube – think ice dancing, but in a canoe or a kayak. I was immediately taken by its wholesomeness, its self-seriousness, its unintentional comedy and the general earnestness of the whole sport. I began writing a Christopher Guest-eque mockumentary, with the proudly groan-inducing title Canoe Dig It? I set the film at a fictional freestyle canoeing competition in northern Maine, populated by the unique and larger-than-life types I knew and grew up around and was now seeing (at a distance, this time) every day in my home state. I’ve never written anything so quickly. I’d just sit down every afternoon and try to make myself laugh.

Within a month, I had a first draft and began sharing it with industry folk and friends.

Samuel Dunning on a location scout for Canoe Dig It? (Photo by Jared Roybal.)

Fast-forward to today, exactly two years later. As I write this, I am running a Kickstarter for roughly a quarter of our budget, about $30,000, and hope to find the rest through private investors. I’m thrilled and terrified about making our goal, about the prospect of taking on my first feature film as writer-director, about everything that can and will go wrong. You know, the usual film shit that everyone deals with.

However, this is the happiest I’ve felt since lockdown. When I finally left Maine in late 2020 to help a friend make her first feature, I was excited at the prospect of the industry returning and for the work to come flooding back. But if anything, it was worse than before. Now there were some jobs, some good auditions, but I wasn’t landing anything. My wonderfully government-subsidized bank account was nearly empty. Each audition became more important, more desperate, and thereby more out of reach. I ended up finding a good string of smaller jobs over the past two years, but nothing consistent enough to support me or make me feel like I’d regained the career momentum I had in early 2020. Months would elapse between auditions. I was more miserable than ever before – back to another breaking point.

Samuel Dunning in a teaser for Canoe Dig It?. (Photo by Jared Roybal.)

I set in motion the plans for my film’s Kickstarter. Strategized with my producer about the campaign’s launch date and tentative shoot dates. Started planning and began telling people about the movie, so they would hold me accountable. Made it “real” to myself and the world.

I set out to write this piece about how this film – and its connection to my home – allowed me to get distance from my enmity towards the industry I have shackled myself to. While it is that, it has also made clear to me what I do when I hit a low: I dig myself out.

My true discovery in putting down these words is seeing more clearly the harsh pressures I put on myself and how I find a creative resilience against them. I’m sure many people experience creativity in this undoubtedly unhealthy way.

During my low moments, I suppose I could see a therapist. Maybe drink more. Smoke a pack of cigarettes. Change jobs and be miserable in a completely different career.

But right now, I think I’ll make this movie. And then see what breaking point that brings me to.

Featured image shows Sam Dunning hiking Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, as photographed by Ryan O’Donnell.

Samuel Dunning is an award-winning filmmaker and actor from Brunswick, Maine, based out of New York City and Los Angeles. He is currently on a festival tour for his award-winning performance in Tim Travers and the Time Traveler’s Paradox, as well as the feature film The Ones You Didn’t Burn, in which he co-directed/AD’d and had a supporting role. He is also in development on his first feature film, the comedy mockumentary Canoe Dig It?, which he will be directing, producing, writing and acting in. The film is currently raising a portion of its budget on Kickstarter until the end of July.