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Meet David Navarro of Dream Lighting in San Fernando Valley

Today we’d like to introduce you to David Navarro.

David, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a writer, not a screenwriter but a novelist; well actually a poet; I even wrote a book and recorded it for audio, but obviously that didn’t pan out.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, filmmaking was everywhere. My classmates were children of famous filmmakers, children of actors, future actors and child actors… hell, even the school I went to was the location for ‘Fast Times At Ridgemont High’ as well as many, many others. I even had friends and teachers who were in the movie. All around me, I would walk by, ride past or be in the same places that I’d seen on TV or the big screen.

Growing up here really made it no big deal, rather just a part of everyday life. Filmmaking was never the dream nor did I ever think of it as a career choice. As a matter of fact, my original plan was to attend military school, go on to West Point and eventually become a Senator… but my mother, worried about cost, wouldn’t allow me to go to military school. My back up plan, the complete opposite of the first, was to be a fashion designer. My mother was a seamstress and she owned every sewing machine known to man, so I asked her to teach me to create patterns and sew… but she never did. Why fashion design you ask? Well because of the Super Models of course! Ok, that’s not all, it did have some creativity to it, but that turned out to be a non-starter. It wasn’t till I was a teenager that I discovered screenwriting and goals began to change.

Becoming a filmmaker was very much an accident for me. At the time, I was married for about ten years, had two small children, going to school and working one of many dismal corporate jobs. In my spare time, I would be writing personal projects, doing music reviews for several underground magazines, writing a column titled “My Life as a Roadie” and concert reviews for a San Francisco print publication. I would DJ parties, weddings and mitzvahs whenever they came up, this was something I had been doing since High School on the weekends and some weeknights for extra coin. Truthfully, I had never had a “real job” until I got married.

One day, in the midst of being laid off from one of the dismal corporate “real jobs,” I got a call from an old friend. A former child actor, he asked if I might be able to light his personal project, a short film, for him. I had done a PA gig here and there, but film lighting was definitely new to me, and a much more exciting prospect. My friend offered to pay me as he knew I needed the money and he knew I had the lights.

We shot the project over several great weekends and that’s when it finally clicked for me, I loved filmmaking. I felt that I was being paid better than my previous “real jobs” for hanging out with friends, being part of a creative process and making movies.

Jumping in with both feet is a scary prospect when one has a wife, kids and a mortgage. Therefore, I got another crappy corporate gig but would take on Gaffing jobs whenever I had free time from school, DJ’ing and writing. I was also slowly buying gear whenever I came across it, building up a small arsenal of grip, lighting and electric equipment, which would net me additional coin for every film that I was able to jump on.

Once I graduated from school, a major milestone in my life, I finally was able to get my break. I was offered a Gaffer position on a feature film, shooting in another country for three weeks. Financially I couldn’t exactly quit my current blah job and follow what sometimes felt like a pipe dream, so I needed to come up with a plan. This felt to me like a true life “sh*t or get off the pot moment”. My wife came up with a brilliant plan (she is the smarter one on this team) coming up with a story of me having to help my grandmother with a crisis and I was the only one available in my family to go. After hammering out the story, I called HR and with my VERY practiced emotion read them the script and they bought it! For a fleeting moment, I thought hey, maybe I should be an actor, but unfortunately I have a face for radio, hence the fleeting thought. Using my vacation and sick days, “boom” I was off to another country to make a movie. When I got back to the states and back to my desk job it wasn’t long before I became antsy to get back on set.

The company I worked for had a commercial filming department, I figured that would be my in. However, Human Resources told me and I quote, “there is no way you could move over there. They only hire their friends or close associates and you would have to really know someone to get in.” Upset but not defeated I gave my two weeks notice, purchased a five ton truck, more gear and one movie lead to another which lead to another… it was one of the best moves of my life. As the films piled on, DJ’ing and corporate jobs became a thing of my past. Writing became infrequent, however, I would still make time for it whenever I could.

Couple of decades gone by and I still love what I do. I began as a Gaffer, moved up to Lighting Director and am now focusing on being a Director of Photography while still Gaffing and LD’ing.

Has it been a smooth road?
No way has this journey been a smoothly paved road. There have been a lot of ups and downs, fighting off fits of depression, wondering if I am good enough to be even doing this filmmaking nonsense. This business is definitely a roller coaster of emotions, successes and failures. For a long time, I didn’t know how to gauge any of my achievements, but man, the failures never left me wondering, but the failures made me stronger. I studied lighting constantly, not in the sense of what units I needed for the scene but what light does and how it reacts in different settings and environments. I studied movies to see how the greats lit, read books to see what “those in the know” suggested, worked on a lot of short films to put everything into practice (most always with excellent results) all of which led me to the next job and every succeeding job after. This business is always a struggle be it emotionally, creatively or financially but it is all about finding a balance. You must always take ownership of your failures and share the recognition of your successes with the team behind you as there is no way you could do it without them. Regardless of how bad it gets on set I have a saying I often repeat to myself, “The worst day on set will always beat the best day in an office”. This is something that always holds true.

We do, unfortunately, need to briefly discuss the elephant in the room. Diversity is still an issue in this industry for women and minorities, and my particular color is extremely underrepresented. Strides are being made however and I hope to see equality on all fronts within my lifetime.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I call what I do, “Dream Lighting.” I am a Director of Photography, I am a Lighting Director and I am a Gaffer. My friends and colleagues joke that I am “one of the hardest working guys in show business.” I am extremely organized, budget and time conscious even when productions aren’t. I don’t let the quality of the production suffer because the money isn’t there. If I decide to take the gig regardless of the budget, it is my job to make it look good on screen. I don’t look at a limited budget as an obstacle but accept it as a challenge. I care about what I do and I care about my team and crew that work around me. This is what sets me apart.

We all have dreams and would like to see them come to life in a darkened theater. If I can help facilitate that dream then I feel that just pushes me toward becoming a better artist. Don’t get me wrong though, the ball does drop when I, my team or crew are being taken advantage of, abused or forced into unsafe situations. There is no need for that in this or any other business.

In my spare time, I write screenplays, pitch shows, develop projects for others, direct and film my own projects that will hopefully take me to the next level in my filmmaking career. Basically, I just love making movies as scripted projects are my jam.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
My proudest moment is that I get to continually do this filmmaking thing. I have often joked with my wife that they will be prying a camera from my cold dead hands, as I never plan to retire. I always appreciate the next adventure. There has definitely been what I call markers of pride in my career, the type that can leave a star sticker affixed to the fridge. Filmmaking has allowed me to go where the public normally doesn’t have access; deep in the Mississippi bayou, inside the homes of world famous directors and actors, in the catacombs of mammoth stadiums, extremely protected wild life habitats or secret facilities. Sometimes locations change day to day; on the beach, a cabin in the woods, a multimillion dollar mansion, all of it is an adventure.

I try not to allow myself to get bored or allow things to get stale but it does happen, it can’t be helped. It is up to me to shake things up to ensure that I don’t get complacent. I take challenges head on. Moments don’t define me, I define the moment. I know that sounds cheesy but that is the best way it can be described.

I have to say though that there is one time I am extremely proud of and it is extremely cool. I lit a pilot with the absence of light on a completely dark stage:

Quick backstory: I had just come off a three-month shoot in Fiji where we used infrared light to film the contestants at night. On that job I was able to see how infrared lighting responded in the cameras: the harshness, how it created shadows and how it dropped off.

Anyhoozles, back to the pilot. From the Fiji experience, I was able to light the set like an actual scene using all infrared light. My crew thought I was crazy using flags and black wrap in complete darkness to shape light they couldn’t see. They were resistant at first, but when I showed them on the monitor what I was doing and how it worked like normal light, they understood the method of my madness. I gave talent back, key, fill light and flagged lighting off the walls essentially creating texture and depth in the total absence of visible light to the eye. I literally lit the dark, in the dark.

This is why I love filmmaking!

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Katrina Marcinowski; Gian Gianpaolo

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