Based on the award-winning kids’ tv series, now in its 4th year, “Dino Dana the Movie” is currently available on Amazon. Presented by Fathom Events and Sinking Ship Entertainment, “Dino Dana the Movie” follows Dana, a 10-year-old paleontologist-in-training, as she and her friends embark on an epic dinosaur adventure and try to figure out where all the kid dinosaurs are. The Knockturnal spoke to Michela Luci (Dana), Saara Chaudry (Dana’s on-screen sister) and Emmy-winning series creator, JJ Johnson about the inspiration behind the movie, the message they hope to send to audiences, and of course, their favorite dinosaurs.
The Knockturnal: I just wanted to start out by asking JJ, what inspired you to create Dino Dana The Movie?
JJ: We have always wanted to create a movie, and we had just finished the fourth season and it felt like there was room to tell a much bigger story. We stumbled across a scientific theory that was looking at why they had found a lot of baby dinosaurs and a lot of adult dinosaurs but no kid dinosaurs. When we dug into that theory, it turns out that when paleontologists were digging up dinosaur bones in the 1800s and the 1900s, there was a lot of money to be made in finding new bones. Anyone could say they had found a new dinosaur, or discovered something new, and now we’re beginning to see that a lot of those bones actually belonged to other dinosaurs and that they’re just smaller versions of them. It just felt like such a cool story, the fact that some dinosaurs, including some popular ones, might not exist, and we were excited to focus on it. I love that the character of Dana loves failure just as much as success because those failures lead to something, and this is one of those ideas, that even if we lose some of those popular dinosaurs, there is still that journey of discovery, and it just felt like it was a big enough story to tell on the big screen.
The Knockturnal: Michela, how did you get involved in acting initially and how did you get involved with Dino Dana specifically?
Michela: I became involved with acting by accident, when my mom signed me up for musical theatre classes at a dance studio. We found out that the owner of the studio was an agent and she asked me and my mom if we were interested in acting and we went from there, so it was stumbled upon by accident but I really love it. And I was on a show with Sinking Ship called Odd Squad. It was one of my very first acting jobs and I really really loved being on it, such a fun show, and so I met JJ through that show and then I started auditioning for Dino Dana.
The Knockturnal: And how many years have you been on Dino Dana?
Michela: I started when I was nine, so four years now.
JJ: I love that 30 percent of your life is Dino Dana, it’s crazy!
The Knockturnal: So are you guys all like a family at this point?
Michela: One big, happy family.
JJ: Well we’ve been lucky to shoot four seasons and a movie so we’ve spent a lot of time together. When we’re auditioning, as much as we’re auditioning for how they can perform the character, we’re also trying to see what they’re like as people and are they gonna be fun to hang out with for five+ years? And honestly with these two, the chemistry was there immediately, and they’re both super smart and fun, to just have around and come up with ideas. I mean Saara’s even written one of the episodes.
The Knockturnal: So Saara, how did you get involved with Dino Dana and what have been some of your past experiences?
Saara: I’ve been acting since I was six, and I kind of got into acting by accident as well. I had just gone to a drama camp and my mom was like, “Okay you’re in kindergarten, get out of the house it’s March break.” You know, just that kind of thing, but then it turned out that there were agents scouting in the audience for the end of year performance…
The Knockturnal: Oh wow.
Saara: Yeah I know it’s weird, people scout five-year-olds. But they asked if I wanted to get involved with acting, so my Mom and I looked around and decided it was really something that I wanted to do. So I started and I had done a couple of shows and guest appearances, and I had been on a Nickelodeon sitcom for a little while. Then the Dino Dana audition came around, and this was after I had been on Odd Squad for a couple episodes, and I had just had the best time on set and everyone at Sinking Ship had been incredible. I can’t say this in front of JJ. He’ll be like “hey, remember that time you complimented me..”
JJ: Because we are all incredible.
Saara: No, but in all seriousness, Sinking Ship is really a family. It’s such a welcoming environment, especially for kids on set, and you can really feel the love everyone has for each other. Having a production company that values the experience of how kids feel on set, and enduring it’s a fun environment to be in is really special. So anyway, the Dino Dana audition came around and it was just a really fun experience. We were doing a scene where I was listening to music and at the end of the scene I had to take my headphones off to talk to Dana, and at the end of the scene I had to put the headphones back on and I put them on upside down.
JJ: I thought you were just trying to stand out.
Saara: No!! It was the dumbest decision of my life.
JJ: We ran with it.
Saara: But it was great.
The Knockturnal: Can you guys tell me a little bit about the characters you play. How would you describe them?
Michela: So my character is Dana. She’s a paleontologist-in-training, she’s adventurous, she’s brave, she’s outgoing, and she’s very passionate about dinosaurs. She loves solving dino-experiments, she’s a lover of science and loves to explore the world around her, and she also has an incredible imagination.
The Knockturnal: I love that! And what do you like most about playing her?
Michela: The thing I love the most about playing Dana is all the lessons I’ve learned from her. I got to see how she doesn’t care about what other people think of her and how she does what makes her happy. I’ve learned so many lessons from her and it’s so great to see that the audience has learned the same lessons that I did from the show. It is such an honor to play a role model that a lot of young kids look up to, especially young girls.
Saara: I play Saara which is my actual name (laughs). It was really cool because my character was originally named Emily but then they changed it. We really owe it to production companies like Sinking Ship, when there’s someone that comes around that they want to cast who may look different, or maybe a name doesn’t fit, or a family that they were expecting to cast isn’t the type of family that they’re able to cast now, they’re able to adapt the characters which I think makes the show that much more interesting. Boys and girls get to see people of different colors and diversities on the screen and that’s something that I never really had growing up so I think it’s really special that I get to be that person for kids. But back to my character, Saara is sarcastic, fun loving, and despite all the sarcasm and jokes that she’ll make with Dana and the fact that she kind of likes to be in her own teenage world sometimes, I’ve learned a lot from her because at the end of the day she always comes to Dana’s side. I think it’s really special that we’re showing kids that family sticks together and that it doesn’t matter what you look like, whether you’re “real” sisters or not, we kind of cover that in the series. But it’s really cool that I get to portray that story.
The Knockturnal: There’s a lot of interesting family dynamics in the movie with all of the step-siblings, and step-parents, JJ why did you feel that was important for you to include in the story?
JJ: I think science is made more relevant when it has actual applications or dovetails into storylines that affect our lives, and so this movie is all about how we spend a lot of time looking at our differences and not a lot of time looking at what makes us all the same. And so to find a scientific question that kind of does a deeper dive into that subject and then to find a kid-relatable story that’s touching on the same thing, I feel like that’s the perfect alchemy that we look for. Whether it’s an episode or a movie you want to be able to understand that question on numerous levels, not just as an interesting fact but what that means for us as human beings.
The Knockturnal: This next question is directed at Michela and Saara. Was filming challenging for you because of the animation? How does that work for you?
Michela: At first it was challenging because not only do we have to look in the right spot, but we have to make sure our reaction and the way we move our bodies makes sense with what the dinosaur is doing. And that was tough because we didn’t know what the dinosaurs reactions were going to be, or how they were going to move when we were speaking to them. So I kind of had to imagine, just as Dana does, and the special effects team is incredible, and they would help me too.
JJ: A lot of our shows have one foot in the imaginary, but you know with younger performers– I mean Saara you were talking about having an imaginary friend growing up– kids just naturally are able to use their imaginations…
Michela: My personal favorite is when JJ or any director that we have on set stands in for the dinosaur to go and start running and making the noises. It’s the funniest thing ever.
Saara: In the series, apart from special episodes, Saara doesn’t really see dinosaurs. It’s really Dana doing the experiments, and Sara’s always like “Oh my God I don’t see anything, stop being so annoying Dana.” In the movie Saara finally gets to go on the adventure and participate and she really finds the magic in science and the magic in imagining things and there’s a whole part of the movie where they talk about Sara having to “grow down.” I think that’s really timely just for people having empathy and being able to see eye to eye with youth but it was really cool when we were filming it because with four cast members, kind of looking at the same thing, we all had to be really careful about eye-lines and that sort of thing. There’s one part where I have to grab onto a huge Dino and that was done later, we went back and filmed that because we did that with a green screen and something that the art department or the VFX team had made for me to grab onto and I was harnessed up and it was just really awesome.
The Knockturnal: Oh my god, that sounds amazing. This next question is directed at Michela and Saara. How do you think the movie incorporates girl power?
Michela: Well Dana and Sara are both strong female leads and like I said before, Dana is in a role as a young paleontologist -in- training that we would typically see on television as a male role. So I think just that in itself really shows girl power because Dana is taking on something that people have never really seen before, and she’s leading by example.
Saara: Yeah I think just having the characters be their true authentic selves and seeing girls onscreen that aren’t just your basic characters and having them be passionate about something and love things like science which you don’t really see on screen is so important. I think the whole movie emulates girl power just by being. For example, this year at school I signed up for a computer science class. At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to and I genuinely thought I could not do it because I had never seen any other girl in real life or on-screen that had done that before. It was really my sister who kind of pushed me and was like “hey you can do this, I do this, there’s other girls that do this, I know you haven’t seen too many examples, but you’re just like any of the other guys that are signing up for the class.” Now I’m only one of three girls in the class but at least I’m serving as a role model for other girls. If I saw a girl coder on screen when I was younger, I wouldn’t have had that problem.
JJ: I think there’a many subtle things we tried to do in the movie, for example the fact that the dinosaur heroes are also female, the fact that it’s a female T-Rex at the core of this story trying to save her babies, and the main villain is a female dinosaur trying to protect her birds.. It’s just the little things I think you don’t pick up on. We were really deliberate in the show that we called the Dino’s male and female, 50 50, because I think there’s this natural inclination where you refer to something as “he” or “him.”
The Knockturnal: What are your favorite dinosaurs?
Michela: I’ll start! My favorite dinosaur is a small chicken sized dino- it’s very cute.
JJ: Why is it your favorite dinosaur?
Michela: Because it’s small just like me.
Saara: My favorite dinosaur is the maiasaura. We did an episode dedicated to the maiasaura in season one that was really memorable to me just because the whole episode was about the maiasaura protecting its babies and being a very nurturing, motherly creature so that was really special to me. Just the fact that a dinosaur could embody such gentle characteristics really stood out to me so it made it my favorite.
The Knockturnal: And what about you JJ?
JJ: Mine used to be the T-Rex for a long time for obvious reasons.
Michela: He even named his son after it!
JJ: My son’s name is Rex but now my favorite dinosaur is the therizinosaurus. It’s the dinosaur that has the longest claws of any animal that ever existed. For the longest time they thought it was a carnivore because they thought it would use the claws to impale things but they found out it’s actually a herbivore and uses them to dig.
You can watch the trailer for the movie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lzHfATMmgk