Anyone looking at Dana Abraham’s exciting career in film today might assume this Hamilton-based actor, director, screenwriter, and producer has had a clear-cut path to success. But his journey has been anything but linear.
“I hopped around university to university,” he says, referring to an academic career that started at the University of Windsor, followed by a transfer to York University that then led to a drop-out and year-long break before heading to Queen’s University.
Yet another transfer found him closer to home completing his undergraduate degree in political science at Brock University; and still, after all of that jumping around and indecision, Abraham was no less insatiable.
“As I completed my undergrad with aspirations of a career in law, truthfully, I was fully lost and unsure of what I endeavoured to do in the future,” says Abraham.
But it was the unlikely inspiration of a piece of classic literature – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – that changed everything.
The renowned 1998 novel about a young boy who pursues a prophecy to find treasure in the pyramids of Egypt inspired Abraham to take a similar journey in hopes of finding inspiration and clarity.
While visiting Egypt and staying with a friend teaching English there, Abraham took what ended up being a fateful ATV ride with his guide – a younger local – who asked him point blank what he wanted to become when he grew up.
Taken aback by the question, Abraham first said “lawyer;” but a follow-up question of “if you could do anything, what would it be?” prompted him to offer an unexpected response that had been lurking under the surface waiting to be uncovered: Actor.
That was it. When Abraham returned to Canada, he readily enrolled in acting classes and felt surprised that – as someone who grew up with an artist mother in a creatively vibrant household, with constant exposure to visual art, dance, and movies – he didn’t fall onto this career path sooner.
“Because of this level of exposure, I’d always loved cinema,” says Abraham. “I grew up watching a lot of Bollywood films, and coupling that with a lot of Tom Cruise films, and anything with Leonardo DiCaprio in it.”
It wasn’t long before Abraham was finding inroads to the Canadian film & television industry, starting off as an actor and eventually adding screenwriting and directing to his pursuits. The filmmaker was noticed on a larger scale for his short film Prisoner of Fear, which Abraham wrote, directed, and was featured in as a cast member.
The 20-minute short garnered international attention, landing screenings at film festivals in Johannesburg, New York City, Toronto, and numerous other spots across North America.
The praise and attention Abraham received for Prisoners of Fear soon led to him co-founding Red Hill Entertainment: a Toronto-based film production company named for the Hamilton creek he played in as a child, with numerous projects in the works featuring Abraham as writer, producer, director, actor, and sometimes all of the above.
One of those projects is the forthcoming feature Neon Lights, for which Red Hill Entertainment is the sole producer. Written by Abraham as a screenplay tailored to be safely shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, the film also marks his first time acting in a leading film role, sharing the screen with legendary Canadian actor and Sons of Anarchy star Kim Coates.
A stylish and intriguing psychological thriller, Neon Lights – which is scheduled for release this fall – also deals with some complex and thoughtful themes, including mental health, childhood trauma, and family dysfunction; the kind of challenging storytelling Abraham is drawn to as a filmmaker.
“I gravitate to stories that are meaningful and revolve around subject matters that inspire conversations that need to be had, and yet feel taboo, socially,” he says of his work, which frequently puts a lens on urgent issues such as gun violence, addiction, gang culture, and classism. That said, Abraham also doesn’t feel limited to any particular subject matter or genre as an artist.
“I truly feel I can live in any genre and space, as long as the story is grounded and there’s an audience that needs it,” he says. ”That’ll determine my ultimate vision for any given project, because the job is to amplify and uplift the texture of the story.”
Local roots also play a large role in Abraham’s work. On top of Neon Lights’ timely subject matter, the film is also notable for being shot entirely here in his hometown Hamilton with numerous cast and crew members who are also city residents; an aspect of the filmmaking process that carries meaning for this prolific artist.
“The best part of being a Hamiltonian has been being able to film productions in my hometown, which I grew up in for two decades,” says Abraham, who takes pride in getting to see production vehicles for his projects lining local streets, and inviting his mother and sisters to visit his sets in town when possible.
Neon Lights isn’t Abraham’s only film to be shot primarily in the Hammer, either. Red Hill’s thriller Maternal – which he co-produces – is a Hamilton-shot project too featuring noteworthy Canadian talent with acclaimed actress Megan Follows in the director’s chair, Anne with an E star Amybeth McNulty in the lead role, and veteran stage and screen actor Colm Feore rounding out the accomplished cast.
Upcoming feature-length drama A Hundred Lies is also primarily a Hamilton production, with Abraham acting as well as penning the script.
But all of this is just the beginning for Dana Abraham and Red Hill Entertainment. With multiple locally-shot projects coming down the pipeline – playing a part in Hamilton’s emergence as a major hub for film production – this driven creator shows no signs of slowing.
Remember his name when he helps put Hamilton on the map.