I want to start by saying what an honor I feel it is to be asked to write something for this tribute page for Don, as one of the people representing the movie business aspect of his life. I was an actor in five of Don’s films and videotaped behind-the-scenes footage on those films for use in the “making-of” videos that get put on DVDs with the feature these days.
Don was such an unassuming and modest man, I bet he would have hated all this fuss over him. But he deserves it. Don was more than a business colleague to me, to all of us that worked on films with him. We became friends. And because Don always welcomed us into his home and his family, like his brother Glenn Barnes, often helped out on the films, we felt like family, too.
When Don was diagnosed with cancer in August of 2006, he and I had a long talk with him and although he was aggressively seeking treatment and a cure, he told me that if it was his time to go, he accepted that, he’d had a good run and he was satisfied with his life. How many of us could say that about our own lives if we heard bad news about our health tomorrow? I thought it was a remarkable thing for him to say.
But I realized that it was because Don had looked death in the face earlier in his life that he had lived life to the fullest, which for him included satisfying his burning desire to make films. Not many people know what happened to Don on his 30th birthday. While at his job, armed robbers came in and held a shotgun to Don’s head for half an hour. Don was sure he would be killed. Fortunately, Don’s life was spared. The first thing that Don thought after realizing he would not be killed was, “I’m going to make a movie”. That’s something he had desired to do all his life but had put off. Within 20 minutes after the robbery, Don was on the phone calling his friend who owned film equipment and saying, “I almost got killed today! I’m making a movie!” And that’s how his first feature film, Alien Factor, started production. Don knew from that defining moment of the robbery that life could be over in a flash, so he should do what he loved- filmmaking. Now, thirty years after that robbery, Don has left us still too soon, but he was able to say he’d done what he wanted to do and had no regrets. What a great example to us all.
And there’s an aspect of Don following his filmmaking dream that I truly admire. He pursued his movie passions while being responsible to his family. He always provided for his kids Kim and Greg, and also for his sister Joy and his Aunt Ev … and was always there for Glenn. Like his Aunt Ev, who gave so much to the family, Don never saw his responsibilities as burdens, never saw what he did for his family
as sacrifice. He knew family is the most important thing in life, and any professional success that came at the expense of doing the right thing by them would be hollow. This is a lesson I’ve taken to heart as I deal with my own family responsibilities.
And, besides, as I mentioned before, Don made the filmmaking a family affair! The whole family and the kids helped out! Greg and Kim grew up in an interesting atmosphere, that’s for sure! Not many kids grow up getting killed in films by their Dad, or seeing their uncle Glenn disemboweled, or having aliens running around the back yard. It was just another day in the Dohler household! I don’t think there
was anything wrong with that – look what fine people his daughter Kim and his son Greg have become.
I met Don in 2000. I was an actress doing pretty tame work in commercials and on public television. But I thought it would be interesting to try out feature film acting, so I was looking at audition notices. I saw one for a film called “Harvesters”, being made by Don Dohler and Joe Ripple. The name Don Dohler sounded a bit familiar, and I remembered I had seen it in the resume of my friend Dick Dyszel, otherwise known as Count Gore de Vol of Creature Feature on channel 20, and also Captain 20.Now, I didn’t want to get involved with any sleazy filmmakers, or unpleasant people, so I called up Dick and asked him to give me the straight dope on this Don Dohler character. Dick told me that Don was a wonderful person, talented and a real professional.
So I went to the audition. August 12th, 2000. A day that changed my life. The day I met Don. I was nervous, I hadn’t been on many film auditions. But when I walked into the audition room, Don and Glenn and Joe were all so friendly and really put me at ease. It was really fun when they asked me to scream at the top of my lungs as part of the audition. To my surprise, I received a call a few days later from Joe Ripple letting me know I had gotten a lead role as Betty Peelman in Harvesters. Don and Joe asked me over to Don’s house to act out some scenes as they tested their new camera and microphone.
Don and I really hit it off, because I told him I worked in video production for my “day job” and Don was making the transition from shooting on film to shooting on videotape for Harvesters. Don and I connected on a personal and professional level and our friendship began.
Don loaned me videos of all his previous films so I could get acquainted with his work and he also gave me the book about his film career by John Thonen called “B-movie horrors.” I went home and watched all the films and read the book, and became a Don Dohler fan then and there. I learned from the book about how as a little boy, Don fell in love with movies like “King Kong” and “The Forbidden Planet”, and was
driven to experiment with film and learn how to do it for himself. And with the support of his Mom and Aunt Ev he acquired projectors and cameras so he could experiment and begin his journey with film.
I learned about the trials and triumphs of his filmmaking. I saw how he loved the challenges of filmmaking and making cool special effects, and that the sci-fi and horror genre suited his nature in that way. I saw how nothing could stop him from making films, not micro-budgets, not bad luck with sleazy distributors, not investors backing out unexpectedly, not stupid labs that lost his film reels, too name a few
I learned about the how-to magazines on film and special effects for low budget filmmakers that Don published, Cinemagic, and how these magazines influenced and had articles in them by people who went on to become top effects artists and directors of today, many of them Academy award winners for effects and make-up. And right now there is a real bumper crop of younger filmmakers who credit Don’s magazines for encouraging them to follow their film dreams—I am sure they will be the award winners of tomorrow.
I even learned about something important Don did that he rarely talked about, his creation of the “Wild” comic book series featuring his original character “Pro Junior.” “Wild” featured the work of future great cartoonists Jay Lynch, Skip Wilson and Art Spiegelman. Great cartoonists such as Robert Crumb would later honor the Pro Junior character by using him in their works. This is a little known chapter in
Don’s life, but people the world over know and admire him for it.
I went on to make five movies with Don. I found out that if Don liked you and your work, you became part of a company of people he would use over and over again in his films. He rewarded loyalty and hard work. On the five movies I did with Don, I was both an actor and the behind the scenes videographer and still photographer. So I went on all shoots, whether I was in the scenes or not, because I had to get the documentary footage and stills.This means I put in long, long days with Don. Don was always collected, organized and fun on set. He never lost his temper, although he had a right to at times.I mean, there were so huge challenges and hurdles and curves he had thrown at him.
Like mechanical things going wrong, camera malfunctions, people not showing up, uncooperative weather, usual stress inducing things of making a movie. Don rolled with the punches and made do. Instead of cussing or freaking out, he calmly figured out work-arounds and solutions.
Don’s decency and professionalism made us all want to do out best for him. And we endured some crazy conditions for him! He had me running around unheated, abandoned warehouses in Winter wearing itty bitty outfits! Don also had me shot in the head, staked to death, sucked dry by vampires and burned alive! Other cast members had to run through cold woods, or do outdoors scenes in winter wearing summer clothing, have buckets of fake entrails poured on them, endure long make-up procedures, hang upside down… to name a few things cast members endured.
Well, even if something was uncomfortable, Don made it fun. We were always laughing and stepping back to enjoy the absurdity of the situation of having people with fake blood and wounds all over them walking around set between shooting eating pizza, chatting. It’s really pretty funny, to hear Don utter sentences like, “I need those entrails to look lumpier” or “give me some more goo oozing out of that eye”, or, “More blood!” stuff like that. Sentences I hope you don’t hear anywhere else but on a horror movie set. And we didn’t mind smelling like pancakes for days after a shoot, because the fake blood contained maple syrup. I think I’ll always think of Don when I smell syrup.
Thinking about the gore effects reminds me of his wife Leslie’s reactions during the shooting of the DEAD HUNT. Don and Leslie were still dating and she was coming along on shoots and helping out to see what it was all about. I strongly remember the first gore scene Leslie saw made – Andrew’s Ely’s intestines coming out.She called her sister on the cell phone and kept repeating, “This is gross, this is really, really gross!” Leslie, I am glad you didn’t go running for the hills and had agreed to marry Don anyway!We were willing to do these crazy things for Don, because we trusted his skill to make it an interesting movie moment. We knew Don would finish these movies and get them out and one day we’d have the thrill of a premiere and a DVD to show the rest of the world. We knew for every hour we put in on set, Don would put in a dozen more at home editing the films, figuring out if something needed to be cut to improve pacing, doing the post production special effects, sound effects, music etc. He was patient, skilled and exacting about that all, a real perfectionist.
You know, when people talk of Baltimore film, they always talk about John Waters and Barry Levinson. Well, I think Don Dohler should be included, he’s right up there with them, also a world famous and prolific filmmaker.
All Don’s films were done in Maryland; in Baltimore, Perry Hall, Towson, and Havre de Grace. Don has made the Perry Inn known world-wide—it was another often used location. And also Don considered the Perry Inn his “office”, we had a lot of meetings there. Many scenes were done in Don’s house and in his own back yard and street! It’s a good thing Don was well-liked and on good terms with the neighbors, because there were often very weird things happening in the street in front of of his home.
That’s a true hometown filmmaker!In an interview about Don, John Waters praised what he called Don’s “defiant longevity” in the film business. Which I think is a great way to put it. Because when Don made his first film “Alien Factor”, very few people were making independent films in this area or anywhere in this country.
But “Alien Factor” ended up on TV world wide, the little, low-budget film from Baltimore. That was and is a big deal! The success was a ray of hope and encouragement to other filmmakers, who saw you can make a film from anywhere, you don’t have to go to Hollywood. And you could make it on imagination and drive, even if you didn’t have a lot of money.
Don stayed local and was an independent filmmaker who made film his life. Don self-produced movies and convinced people it could be done. He had no Hollywood bosses or moneymen telling him what to do. His vision was uncompromised, even if his resources were limited.
Don’s films gained him fans all over the world. He made 11 movies in his 30 year career. That’s a great legacy that will continue to entertain and inspire people.
Writer John Thonen said each of Don’s films was a miracle, produced against all odds, an undertaking for which few would have the patience or stamina. And I agree.
When I look back at my friendship with Don, I realize what it meant to me that he believed in me. His encouragement made me feel I could tackle a lead role in a film. He gave me responsibility and a helping hand, I didn’t want to let him down.
In life, having someone believe in you is a very powerful thing, it can mean the difference between trying or quitting. I can honestly say I could not have a film career without Don’s support.
A word that comes up a lot when I talk to other cast and crew about Don is “mentor”.All of us who worked with Don have benefited from his mentoring, whether in acting, editing, special effects or any department. He was honest with you and didn’t give praise lightly, so you know if you got a compliment from him that you really earned it and it was true. If he didn’t like something and told you about it, it was always in a constructive, kind way.
We all benefited from his giving spirit. He always had time for a long phone conversation. And not just for us. He’d give great attention to anyone who called, whether it was an aspiring filmmaker looking for advice or a fan who looked up his name in the phone book and just wanted to talk to him.
Don’s life was a blessing to us all. I miss Don; I always will. But I’ll remember the lessons I learned from him and the opportunities he gave me. I’ll remember how he encouraged me and taught me to pursue my dreams while remaining true to the most important values in life. I am glad I have his example to follow.Thank you, Don.