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Directing fashion design “behind the seams”

Senior film major directs documentary shown at the “Dolly Parton and the Makers: My Life in Rhinestones” exhibit.

Courtney Grable | 

Dolly Parton posing with Lipscomb officials, her designer and Brynn Abner

Iisha lemming, Parton's former head pattern maker and seamstress; Dolly Parton; Jamie Reschke, director of Lipscomb's gallery; Charlotte Poling, chair of the Fashion and Design Department, and senior film student Brynn Abner.

Brynn Abner, a senior film major from Johnson City, Tennessee, was tapped to be the director and post-production supervisor for a documentary to show at the “Dolly Parton and the Makers: My Life in Rhinestones” exhibit currently on display on Lipscomb University’s campus. Leading a nine-student crew, Abner truly saw the magic “behind the seams,” interviewing nine members of Parton’s core team of creatives at locations including Parton’s shop at her Brentwood home and her Nashville offices.

“I’ve been to her house!” gushed Abner. “I got to meet her lead designers!

“The designers are what shaped the narrative of the documentary. Every single person would talk about how thankful they are for the team, because it’s not a solo show,” said Abner. “The department heads are also up until 5 a.m. making designs and are putting in as much elbow grease as everyone else… I didn’t go in with the idea to spotlight the community, it was just such a big element of what they were all talking about.”

Brynn Abner working with the exhibit in the gallery

Abner directed two films, a 15-minute version shown to visitors in the lobby before they enter the exhibit, and a 7 minute video within the exhibit itself.

Two versions of Abner’s documentary are featured in the exhibit. The video shown in the lobby is 15 minutes long and includes an introduction by Parton. “It’s more emotional and organic,” says Abner. “Everyone explains what their job is but the technical information is mixed in with the personal elements.”

The second video is 7 ½ minutes long and is featured inside the gallery.  It focuses more on information about the outfits and technical aspects of design. 

At Parton’s home workshop, Abner interviewed: Iisha Lemming, former head pattern maker and seamstress, Rebecca Seaver, lead archivist and curator of the exhibit, Steve Summers, creative director, Vance Nichols, set designer, and Riley Reed, designer and wardrobe archivist. 

The team of five Nashville-based film students also had a shoot day at the home workshop of  Hilary Adcock, costumer, designer and seamstress, where Abner interviewed Adcock and Lintu Holman, makeup artist, and a shoot at Parton’s Nashville offices, where Abner interviewed Cheryl Riddle, Dolly’s wig stylist.

At Parton’s Nashville office Abner got a tour of the facility, where she had the chance to see Parton’s vault with all her gold records, her studio and dressing room. 

Abner also had the opportunity to fly to Los Angeles where she interviewed designer Robért Behar. “We were thinking of doing a Zoom interview, but that would bring down the quality of the film,” says Abner. Instead, Steve Taylor, assistant professor, offered for the College of Entertainment and the Arts (CEA) to pay for her plane ticket to fly to Los Angeles. Brynn already had a place to stay and her brother was free to help staff film the shoot. So, the CEA Imagine House program funded the plane ticket and Abner interviewed Behar at his downtown skyscraper apartment.

Abner came to the attention of the Fashion Department during her sophomore year when the department had the senior fashion students create videos, instead of the spring senior fashion show, due to Covid social distancing restrictions. “They called it the Create What’s Next contest,” said Abner, “and one of the teams wanted to hire a student to make their video, so I made that, and then went on to film future fashion shows and interviews for the senior spotlights.” 

“I’m very happy I chose Lipscomb, because the opportunities have been very fruitful. Since it is smaller, I’ve been able to take advantage of the opportunities they are offering. I don’t know any other student filmmakers who have been flown out to LA!” — Brynn Abner, senior, film major

“I had actually never thought about filming documentaries before, but in June, I went to London on a CEA trip where we attended a documentary film festival in Sheffield and I fell in love with documentaries,” said Abner. “A month later, they asked me if I wanted to be involved in the Dolly documentary.”

“It was cool to see their techniques and talk to the filmmakers one-on-one,” she said of the visit to the Sheffield Film Festival. “I learned from their work flow and about how your presence affects the responses you will get from your interviewee, so I learned how to approach different situations.” 

The Parton video project was a crash course in applying those techniques to draw out the most compelling information from the documentary subjects, said Abner.

“You have to enter the room with the mindset of making a human connection with that person and make the documentary secondary to that priority, because people are more willing to talk if you are just having a conversation with them. I really learned about the social element of documentary filmmaking,” she said.

Brynn Abner sits in a chair while the CBS crew tests the lighting

Abner was able to attend a CBS video shoot on campus to promote the exhibit. She shadowed the film crew and even got to network with them afterwards at lunch.

For the Dolly documentary, Abner wanted to keep it palatable for a mass audience, so she stuck to a familiar museum-style format with a combination of “talking heads” and B-roll footage of the film locations, photo from the Parton archives and the subjects working or displaying items related to their comments. Behar’s section, one of Abner’s favorites in the film, features him flipping through his sketchbook of all his sketches since the 1990s, some with swatches attached. 

“During the interviews, I always asked, is there anything else you would like the world to know? I usually ended up using most of that response,” Abner said, noting her favorite was Behar’s response, describing what Parton told him when he was working on her outfit for an Academy Awards ceremony appearance: “As long as you keep Dolly, you do whatever you want.”

As one of the team leaders, Abner attended the VIP opening reception for the exhibit where she had the opportunity to meet Dolly herself. 

When the CBS “Mornings” Show sent a film crew to campus to film a promotional teaser for the exhibit, which included an interview with Dolly Parton, Abner was able to attend the video shoot to help out, shadow the film crew and even got to network with them afterwards at lunch.

Abner came to Lipscomb for the film program. She has been the director of photography for three Lipscomb film student senior projects. Her film, “Perfect”,  won third place and her music video “Virtual Reality” won second place in the CEA’s annual 5-Minute Film Festival. Abner has also had the opportunity to direct a commercial for Brentwood Academy, a professional music video and to film live shows for artists. 

“I’m very happy I chose Lipscomb, because the opportunities have been very fruitful,” Abner says. “Since it is smaller, I’ve been able to take advantage of the opportunities they are offering. I don’t know any other student filmmakers who have been flown out to LA!” 

“Now that I know what I’m capable of, I’m excited for graduation and all the connections In Nashville that I can lean on more,” she said.