5 Questions: ‘Jada’s’ Doug Roland

“It sounds cheesy to say after the fact, but I had a really strong feeling she was our girl from the first time I saw her headshot.”

For featuring a missing 7 year-old as its dramatic centerpiece, Jada is a success on intent alone. It would be easy for director Doug Roland to garner cheap sympathies from the precocious Kaycie Bowens. Instead, Bowens’ performance as Jada demands respect and understanding, the high-water mark in a short film that’s keen on treating humans like humans — right down to the handcrafted “wood people” its titular child hawks along Venice Beach.

An alumnus of UW-Madison, Roland now works out of Los Angeles. I talked with him about representation and finding such a remarkable young star for “5 Questions:”

1. Kaycie Bowens is flat-out amazing. How did you find her?

It was clear from the start of pre-production that this film was going to rest squarely on the shoulders of the little girl playing Jada. We posted the breakdown for the character on numerous casting sites but didn’t find as many girls who fit the part as we were hoping. I started posting fliers around town in hopes of finding more actresses.

Kaycie’s mom submitted Kaycie through one of the casting sites. It sounds cheesy to say after the fact, but I had a really strong feeling she was our girl from the first time I saw her headshot. We tried calling her in for the first round of auditions but she didn’t show up. When we were starting the second round and hadn’t found anyone that fit yet, I tried calling her in again. Her mom explained to me that Kaycie didn’t want to audition for the part because her character smokes in the movie and that made her sad because her grandmother smokes and she’s trying to get her to stop. I was immediately taken by the fact that a girl that young was already so principled. I told her mom to tell Kaycie that our intention is to show how smoking is bad and how sad it is that this girl living on the street by herself does that. (We later changed the script so that she doesn’t smoke, but only pretends to).

Kaycie’s audition was so amazing that I immediately ran out to the waiting room to talk to her mom about her availability. We later found out we were extra lucky because normally Kaycie’s agents do all of her submitting, but in this case her mother saw the breakdown, had a good feeling about the project, and submitted Kaycie herself.

2. I’m no moralist when it comes to art but have you gotten any reactions to showing a child “smoking” onscreen?

The team and I spent a long time discussing how we were going to handle the cigarette scene, and ultimately our decision of how to proceed was equal parts feasibility, morality, and what was best for the story. In the initial draft of the script, Jada was supposed to be actually smoking alongside the man in this scene (played by me). Obviously, there are some issues telling a 7 year-old (and her mom) to smoke a cigarette. We tried to figure out how to make it look like she was smoking without having Kaycie actually smoke and this proved very difficult.

The other side of this story has to do with how one conceives of a project on the page versus how the story evolves once you are on your feet making it. Kaycie was absolutely amazing, and we couldn’t have been happier to have her play Jada. But as I began working with her, I realized that the version of Jada played by Kaycie wouldn’t smoke. There’s something too innocent about her. But because she’s razor sharp (Kaycie is the smartest kid I’ve ever met) she’d pretend to smoke as a tactic to buddy up to this guy to get what she wants, in this case, money. So at the end of the day, both because of logistics and story, we thought it was better to go this route.

3. Jada mimics smoking as a means of aging herself in front of adult customers, but she when she leaves her post, she places a “A Kid Made These” sign in front of her stick people. There’s an interesting give-and-take in that maturity dynamic.

Though a child, Jada has been thrust into an “adult” situation of having to fend for herself. In order to survive, sometimes she has to play up being this cute, innocent kid (e.g. the sign as well her scene with the man at the food stand) and other times she plays the part of an adult (e.g. “smoking” scene). At the end of the day, she’s a 7 year-old girl fighting to preserve her innocence, as evidenced by her relationship with her “stick parents.”

4. There are big crowds all over Jada. For the drum circle sequence on the beach, where a social worker is chasing Jada through swaths of people, did you take advantage of that moment on the spot? Or was it pre-planned?

Because we operated on a very small budget, we had a plan to take advantage of some existing set pieces. The drum circle we’re shooting inside of is a real drum circle that happens on Venice Beach every weekend. Other than a couple of people from our team that we planted inside the drum circle, everyone else had no idea we were shooting. By operating in this fashion, we were able to get a level of authenticity we’d never have if we staged it with actors. Fortunately, Kaycie’s mom trusted me enough to take Kaycie into a real drum circle!

5. You feature a number of actors of color in Jada, outside of the title character. As someone who follows industry trends, I can’t tell you how refreshing I found that considering how rare it is even today to find actors of color in roles that don’t require them to be.

In order to have a more universal theme, I wanted the cast to be diverse without the story being focused on race. Initially, the character Jada was intended to be mixed-race to further illustrate this point. But I also wanted to subtlety play with expectations to breakdown cultural assumptions, both from a race and gender standpoint.

I like how you phrased the prompt by acknowledging that a lot of roles for actors of color are very much about their race, whether for historical reasons or thematic reasons, and this is something I wanted to address to a degree. Jerome’s character (who is African American as well) is introduced in a way where it would be easy to assume he is Jada’s abusive father/parental figure. Later, he’s revealed to be the social worker fighting for her safety. The hope here is that, even if it happens on a subconscious level, the viewer may think twice next time about making assumptions about a character based on his/her gender or race. A young, African-American male can just as readily be a social worker as anyone else.