Life after Film School: Danielle Therese Dougé ’22

In this series, we catch up with Columbia filmmakers who have recently graduated to chat about their time in the Film Program, what they’re doing now, and their goals for the future. This week, we spoke with alumna Danielle Therese Dougé ’22.

November 10, 2022

In this series, we catch up with Columbia filmmakers who have recently graduated to chat about their time in the Film Program, what they’re doing now, and their goals for the future. This week, we spoke with alumna Danielle Therese Dougé ’22.

Danielle Therese Dougé is a Haitian American filmmaker from Chicago, IL. Her work most often centers the exploration of Black womanhood/feminism, queerness, ancestral knowledge, and intergenerational trauma via the genres of magical realism, thriller, and drama. Dougé’s recent work includes the experimental video Dissemblance (2018), the video essay And Then There Was Hair (2018), and the narrative shorts She Came Back (2020) and Summertime Pie (forthcoming, 2023). Dougé’s producing work includes the short films: Everything’s Fine (dir. Sorem-Smikle, 2019), Pair (dir. Goodrich, 2023), 25 Frames (dir. Cerin, 2022), and Triangle of Perfection (dir. Dimambro, 2023). She holds a BA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and an MFA in Film with a concentration in screenwriting from Columbia University's School of the Arts Film Program. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at Barnard College and a teacher at Developing Artists.

Just a handful of months out of the program, and you’re teaching as an Adjunct Lecturer at Barnard College. What is that like?

Danielle Dougé [DD]: Right now, I’m teaching Adaptation, which is a screenwriting class, and Digital Production. One of the things I enjoy the most about teaching filmmaking is that it’s a subject I’m really passionate about. I enjoy talking with others about it and hearing their thoughts. I get to share movies I really enjoy and bring others into how I see them and break down how they work. I also deeply enjoy that teaching gives you the chance to be brought into other people’s process—how they think of writing, the stories they want to tell, what excites and interests them. As much work as it is, I really like reading other people’s work, digesting it, and thinking about how I can help them make it the most successful version of what they want to do.

Teaching, of course, can be challenging too, especially internally. You might worry if you’re being engaging enough, if the point you’re trying to make is clear—you can’t make everyone happy, but I want to be thoughtful and mindful about how I approach the job itself.

What personal creative projects are you working on right now?

[DD]: I’m currently in post production on Summertime Pie, my latest short film and the last one I shot during the program. [Film student] Lunise Cerin is the editor on the project, and I’ve loved collaborating with her. The short itself is a proof of concept of sorts for a feature-length screenplay of the same name. I’m also working on a new play—an adaptation of the biblical story of Abraham. It’s something that I’m writing just for fun. Just for me. It’s funny—It’s like my own creative impulses have collided with the adaptation course I’m currently teaching. Working on a project like this now, at the same time as my students, has given me further insight into the process of adaptation, the tasks it involves and what it demands.


That sounds so exciting! As a working artist, how do you balance the demands of your job with finding time to still pursue so many personal projects?

DD: I think it’s about giving yourself more grace. During film school, I was privileged in my ability to focus so intently on my own writing. That’s what is really lovely about a graduate program. I had time to polish the projects in my writing portfolio and also just spend time with my writing and my process. But it’s important for me to remember that I’m not going to be able to do exactly what I was able to do before, when I wasn’t working as I am now.

I’ve also learned to be more intentional about giving myself time to write and connect with other people creatively. I’m trying to stay focused on the writing projects I want to submit to labs or festivals. I try to find a balance. Even if it’s just finding 15 minutes in a day, it’s important to set a boundary that says: This is time I’m setting aside to work on my own work. That can look like a lot of different things—it might be going to a writers’ group, editing a project, writing something purely for my own enjoyment, or scheduling time to meet with my artistic mentors. I make sure to prioritize myself and my own work as well. That gets harder when taking on freelance opportunities, and you have to be able to adjust.

Have you always had an interest in teaching?

DD: I have taught in some form since my undergraduate days. At NU, I worked as a coach for speech and forensics at an Evanston high school. I knew the Film Program here at Columbia offered teaching opportunities, and I wanted to gain more experience in the classroom.

Teaching the screenwriting lab during my last year here was so exciting. The year prior, some colleagues and I had worked on developing a curriculum for the graduate Film Program that centered the ethics of filmmaking, which helped with the final push of getting a class like that made in our program. I enjoyed that work and had experience making syllabi, and I was so excited to open students into my process—how I think about screenwriting, our responsibilities as artists, the responsibilities we have to each other as colleagues, what it means to make interesting, thought provoking and emotionally-grounded work. I was so happy to be able to have that opportunity and gain experience working with students. 

[Adjunct Associate Professor] David Scwhab ’05 also connected me with an opportunity to teach with Sundance Collab, Sundance Institute’s digital space for artists from all over the world to come together in community. And just recently, I started working at Developing Artists here in the city, which is a nonprofit organization that focuses on teaching undervalued teens to fight for positive social change through practical application of the performing arts.


Were there any classes from your time in the Film Program that have shaped your own approach to teaching?

DD: Elements of Dramatic Narrative [a first-year course taught by Associate Professor Andy Bienen ’96], has been a particularly important touchstone for me. The way that Andy breaks down dramatic narrative, pulls out its essential elements, and explores how they work definitely shows up in my own teaching. It’s an excellent way of approaching storytelling, especially in tandem with writing. And more generally, this program gives you time to examine your own writing and filmmaking process. I’m finally at a place where I know how I like to write, I’m understanding more and more how I like to direct—I know so much more about myself in terms of how I create. It’s given me a pathway to unlocking those things for my students.

As a young writer, I had this image in my head that I would write this one thing that my teacher would see that would make them say, You have it. You have to be a writer. You should be a writer. But that moment doesn’t come. It isn’t real. It’s a moment you see in the movies because it’s a great dramatic beat. Instead, I had to learn and know, in myself, that I had that. Once I knew that, it became about doing the work to sharpen those skills as best as I can. Maybe part of me is still searching for this moment, but as I move further into my career, I’ve learned to better receive those moments when people are telling me that—it’s just not in that way I had always imagined. It’s in the way they engage with my work, in their feedback, the care they put into it. In those moments, they are affirming me as a writer and what I can do. That’s something I hope to impart to my students as well.

Are there any other classes or professors that are particularly memorable from your time at Columbia?

DD: [Associate Professor] Blair Singer’s TV writing class was so amazing. It was the first class where I discovered how I like to work, which is so important to know. His class helped me click into a workflow that’s more reflective of the TV-writing industry itself. We focused on planning what we were going to write, taking time to break the story of our pilot scripts, before moving on to outlining. It made me realize how quickly I could write, and tighter timelines for delivering a script became not just achievable, but energizing. He’s extremely knowledgeable and really pushed me and my writing.

Professor Trey Ellis, who was my thesis advisor, gave me insight into not only what works in my own writing, but also what doesn’t work, which is extremely helpful information to have as a writer. I also took a revision class with David Scwhab that really stuck with me. There were concepts about screenwriting and dramatic narratives as a whole that he unlocked for me and that I use in my own teaching now. The way he talks about storytelling really clicked with me and the way that I work and think about story. He also helped me realize that I really enjoy teaching.

What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers at the start of their journey?

DD: We put a lot of pressure on being a capital-F Filmmaker. I’m not saying it isn’t a skill that people have and hone. But, at the same time, just do it. Take whatever you have available right now and start exploring the ideas you have, the stories you want to tell. Find the people you want to make those things with. It seems scarier than it actually is. The right people will want to be there and want to support you through that process. Not everyone is Dawson Leery who has been doing film since they were five years old [laughs]. Although, it is iconic how much Dawson loves blockbuster directors instead of so-called auteurs. Spielberg is that girl.

What do you see for yourself moving forward?

DD: I really love writing. I love this work. My goal is to transition into a space where people enjoy my work enough to pay me to write. That can look like a lot of different things. It could look like selling a script, being a staff writer on a TV show, or being hired to rewrite projects. I want to further hone my craft. Keep working my directorial muscles as well. I want to do work that is meaningful to me, that I enjoy and brings me happiness. That’s what makes me feel successful.