Playing with Fire
Making movies is more than just writing a good script.
It’s a numbers game as well, as Dan Ewen ’96, an L.A.-based writer, producer and longtime improv performer, can tell you. Among other projects, Ewen co-wrote Playing with Fire, a 90s-style comedy about a team of firefighters who rescue three siblings. Playing with Fire was released in December 2019.
“I did 17 drafts of Playing with Fire over 12 years. Actors attached, then left. Directors flirted with it, then moved on. Various companies considered making it. There were a lot of stops and starts and you’re living with this document the entire time, often changing it for each entity that is interested. Then, suddenly someone wants that pile of papers,” says Ewen. “They acquire it, and you suddenly learn how much studios love rewrites. This is especially true in comedy. ‘More jokes! Fresh jokes!’”
“There really are so many planets that have to align for something to make it from an inkling in your mind to big screens all over the world,” he says. “It’s important to keep in mind that it’s already ‘a win,’ regardless of the emotional roller coaster it can be.”
Ewen got his start in the “business” almost from the moment he stepped into the Cinema Department as a first-year student.
“Within two weeks of arriving in Granville, I was shooting 16mm motion picture film,” he says. “I’ve spoken to countless people who didn’t even have that opportunity in graduate school. Denison put film cameras in our hands and said, ‘Go create.’ Elliott Stout and Dave Bussan were fantastic professors. The number one thing they did was make us watch movies, hundreds of them from the world over. We wrote about them, we dissected them, we were tested about them. Knowing the language of film prepared us to go tell our own stories.”
The first film Ewen made was for the Denison Film Festival, a yearly screening that showcases the work of cinema students. God’s Horse was a comedy about an Amish boy and his ill-fated friendship with a horse. The film starred current Associate Professor of Theatre and Chair of the Theatre Department, Mark Bryan ’96.
“On the day before our shoot, I journeyed to the costume store in Columbus to pick up the horse costume. It had been sold, and all that remained was a cow costume,” says Ewen. “After much soul searching, I decided that God’s Horse would be a cow, with no explanation offered. This added a new layer of silliness to what would become an enduring Denison Film Festival comedy classic.”
“There really are so many planets that have to align for something to make it from an inkling in your mind to big screens all over the world,”
During his time at Denison, Ewen also ran the Denison Film Society. He studied, made, programmed, and projected films throughout his undergrad career as he balanced being a full-time student and improv comedian with the Burpee’s Seedy Theatrical Company, an improvisation group that Steve Carell ’84 was also part of.
“It was such a wonderfully immersive experience,” he says. It was also exhausting.
“I remember once staying up for 40-hours straight to complete a festival film. I stumbled to my dorm, half-asleep. I swung the lobby door open to find a baby tiger staring at me. I thought, ‘Dan, you did it. You finally pushed yourself too far.’ When I stepped in further, I saw a room full of students and a few representatives from the Columbus Zoo. That was the evening’s activity. I was so relieved.”
Throughout the years, Ewen has collaborated with Denison alums many times. Several of his classmates pitched in to help him make a tiny-budget feature after he first graduated.
“I remember looking around the set in Los Angeles, and almost everyone chipping in had been in Granville with me just a couple of years earlier. That was special. Taking out a television pitch with fellow Burpee Steve Carell was a thrill.”
And the work keeps on coming. “I’m writing and producing the Ernest franchise reboot with another Denison alum. We are a supportive band of ne’er do wells, forever bonded by our time in Swasey’s shadow”
Ewen also is currently working on a series with Norman Lear, and he’s working on a separate project with Leonardo DiCaprio and Appian Way Productions.
“That script is about to be thrown around to potential buyers. You’ve got to keep 73 pans on the fire, because you really never know which ones will actually start to bubble,” he says.
Despite the stress, Ewen loves his work. “The arts are so crucial, both as a way to help people escape for a moment, and as a way to shine a light on important things,” says Ewen, who looks forward to visiting Denison’s Eisner Center for the Performing Arts. “What a divine animal, that art can do both.”