An Interview with Damian Lahey – By Kirsten Walsh

In the early 2000’s, Damian Lahey knew what he wanted. So he went out and got it. In 2006, his film, “Cocaine Angel” showed at SXSW and was picked up for distribution by a then-little-website and VOD distributor Netflix. Since then, Lahey’s life has been a fun rollercoaster of film, freelance, teaching, music, and film! Spilling his history and future here for you, I’ll let him take it from here, as he takes a break from pre-production for his next feature to reflect, remember, and remind the filmmakers out there to stay true to themselves and their films.

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KW: Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? You served on many production sets serving various positions, leading up to your 2012 film, “The Heroes of Arvine Place”. Can you tell me about your varied film experiences and what led you to directing?

DL: I went to Douglas Anderson School Of The Arts for high school and majored in creative writing. After I graduated film school from NCSA, I moved to Wilmington and produced three independent films in fairly quick succession where I pretty much got my education on low budget film production. I also served as a Production coordinator/UPM on some commercials and music videos. I took what I learned from those films and put that to use when I produced “Cocaine Angel” with Michael Tully in 2005. I’m sure you’ll be asking more about that project later, so I won’t get too into it here, but what led me to directing was a natural progression of things because the route I was going – it’s really the goal. And as anyone will tell you and what I experienced first hand is that, really, unless you’re the director – you’re treated like a second class citizen. The treatment doesn’t matter to me as much as the opportunities it can deprive you of. I produced those films in Wilmington so I could learn how to produce on a low budget for when I did my own films, really…and it was a good idea.

KW: Many of the filmmakers I’ve spoken with have varied backgrounds- some have gone to film school and others haven’t. For the filmmakers that are coming around today, is film school a good idea, or should they just jump onto some productions?

DL: It depends. NCSA is one of the top Arts conservatories in the world – so something like that, yes I agree it’s worth it. I’m proud that I attended and both my editor, Craig Moorhead and cinematographer, Tarina Reed went to school with me there. Those places also have faculty that have a real substantial background in film. I mean, I had a cinematographer instructor who won an Emmy for shooting “Miami Vice” – just to give an example. So it was great to get advice from guys like that. I would be more wary of these FullSail, Art Institute places that see that there’s a populace that has a dream and that dream can be exploited to make money. I’m not going to dismiss their faculties entirely because I’m sure there’s good people that teach there, but they do consist of a lot of people with limited experience and limited talent that get a Masters degree somewhere in film studies what have you and then settle into a cush teaching job making a substantial amount of money with zero intent of ever making a film…but there’s still good people that come from either and make it in the business. For example my partner in LA, Neil Boone, didn’t go to film school at all and he can do ANYTHING – he’s been an accomplished grip, electric and was even the post-production supervisor for a company in Wilmington for a couple years!

And my producing partner here in town, Heather Asplund Burky graduated from The Art Institute. My next project, “Without A Sound” is comprised of old NCSA pals and AI people, so…In regards to just jumping into film production? If you have connections – then there’s no reason not to, really…If you don’t, well, that’s certainly a more daunting proposition to be sure.

KW: In regards to production, you’ve written shorts and features, and had some awesome successes at film festivals, which some people see as another effort where filmmakers put in money, for little reward. What have you done with your recent film “The Heroes of Arvine Place” as far as festivals are concerned?

DL: We just got done platforming it, actually…the film was finished later than expected so we didn’t get it done in time for the fall submissions of last year – but at the same time, I wasn’t going to sit on it another year. Not with another film to shoot in 2014. So we began submitting it at the beginning of this year/spring/ – we’re waiting to hear back…we already have a couple of distribution outlets lined up – so I mean, just for exposure I want it to play as many fests as it can, regardless of size – but it will be out on blu-ray and all the usual suspects in time for Xmas of 2014 regardless. Yeah, I mean – in terms of reward, you’re right and wrong. I mean, I handled that end of things for “Cocaine Angel” and met our producers rep for the distribution company at SXSW in 2006, so…I mean, that stuff can happen. If you can afford the submissions, you should certainly do it. It’s good to get your film out there and if you’re lucky, you’ll meet some good people along the way that can help you on future projects. But yeah, a lot of it is like a tree falling in the middle of a forest when no one’s around. I know that now, so I wouldn’t be bent about it as I know what to expect.

KW: Okay, so let’s talk “Cocaine Angel”- it was a film you wrote, and Michael Tully directed, and it took the festival circuit by storm and received distribution through Netflix back when they were just starting with the online streaming, correct?

DL: Kind of. It played SXSW and Rotterdam and ten other pretty cool fests. Objectively, it was one of the first ‘mumblecore’ movies to break out. Yes about Netflix – though it should be pointed out that Netflix doesn’t pick up micro budget films like that anymore.

KW: Can you tell me a little bit about the production? The mistakes, the trials and error, the experiences….because you not only wrote the movie, but also acted in it as well, and served as a producer- which is definitely a lot.

DL: There was a lot of pre-production. I disagreed with the way my co-producer scheduled things in Wilmington on a couple of things we had done and I allowed for a lot of room for error w/ “Cocaine Angel”. I didn’t see why if we already didn’t have 20 million dollars and Matt Damon why we had to make it harder on ourselves by shooting a gazillion pages a day. It really saved our assess on that. I had co-produced “Ding-A-Ling-Less” a zany comedy feature directed by Onur Tukel about a man with no penis. Robert Longstreet(who plays Howard Edgars in“Arvine”) was the co-star and Kirk Wilson was the star. Kirk had starred in a short film I wrote in film school called “Other Fathers & Daughters” and I thought he was great! I wrote three feature films for him to star in and “Cocaine Angel”was one of them. Tully wanted me to star in it and then refused to do it unless I acted in it – so there you have it. The experience was wild.

KW: I can understand why that film did so well- it is a very stark film with excellent dialogue and a good vibe for it being about some very dark subjects. Now with “The Heroes of Arvine Place” and “Children For a Day”, you worked and wrote for children. Was there a difference in your writing style and directing them?

Glenn Pack directed “Children For A Day” and did a wonderful job. That is one of the things I’m most proud of. It did well too, playing about 18 fests I think and winning several awards. The real feather in its cap was playing The Chicago International Children’s Festival, which is one of the most prestigious children’s film things in the world. That was shot in 2008 and toured in 2009-2010. Just so you know how this stuff never happens in a straight line, originally I wrote that script before I even outlined “Cocaine Angel” or “The Heroes Of Arvine Place”. I was developing a series of films chronicling the parallel lives of a man and a woman from childhood to old age called “The Kaveras Legend”. I wanted to go and shoot something and wrote “Two Children For An Afternoon” (as it was called, then) based on some locations in and around Jax. Later, I decided to try to write is as a story to develop with an artist friend of mine, as a graphic novel. At the time, I was dating a woman with three wonderful children and had just finished writing “Cocaine Angel”. I was watching her kids one day and working on that book when I came up with the idea for “The Heroes Of Arvine Place”. When I moved back to Wilmington after the festival run of “Cocaine Angel” in 2007 and was overseeing the materials for the DVD release at a production company in town I was approached by Glenn Pack, who was a teacher Wilmington University or whatever about directing a short from something I wrote. I dusted that off and it went from there. I was NOT there for the production of that. By the time that was shot, I was back in Jax and actually had either just finished or was in prep on this lil’ postcard short I wrote and acted in, “Just Another Father’s Day”. That was a lil’ something we popped off for the holiday – a lil’ thing I’m really proud of. Mike Breen directed it and Patrick Barry, Tony Sarte and Kim Barry worked on the crew. Another postcard short, “No Palace Can Stand Forever”was supposed to be shot here in Jax with that same exact crew shortly after(2008, I think this was) but the actress disappeared on a drug binge and we had to track her down. Not to shoot – just to make sure she was still alive. My ex-girlfriend, Julia Tasker wound up directing “No Palace Can Stand Forever”in Wilmingon, NC over a weekend sometime later to get something on the books. I was not present for the production of that either. That short got her into the AFI Director’s Master class incidentally. It’s just a small thing, like “Just Another Father’s Day”…Oddly enough, my search for this actress led to me writing the feature script, “Bad Girl Missing In A Bad Town” which Tasker is currently shopping around to direct as her first feature!!!!

KW: Tell me a little bit about the production of “The Heroes Of Arvine Place”.

DL: I really wanted to make the film. And I’m a real sap for the holidays and I thought it would be great to get together a bunch of my friends and make a lil’ indie Xmas movie! And I also knew that there would be some trial and error and I didn’t want to find myself in a position where if it wasn’t perfect, I would be screwed. I had optioned a script called “Simple Vengeance” which was a dark, child abuse film that had almost been made a couple times but the money fell through. There was a lot of heat around that script and the rights had just reverted back to me. However, it would have also been pushing a boulder up a hill production wise. Also, Neil and I felt that with the sensitive material, if we made a mistake – there would be no recovering considering how harsh it was. The risk was too great and we also didn’t want to alienate people. With a ‘dramedy’ like “The Heroes of Arvine Place” people would naturally be more forgiving given what the subject matter was and it would work better as a little calling card as we were getting up and running. Besides, there was always the chance we would never make anything again. And if that was to be the case, I didn’t want to go out looking like some cynical sick bastard giving the world my nasty child abuse movie.

At the end of the day, I’m in the entertainment business. The more noble route is, given the opportunity and the resources to do so – give people something that would give them hope and entertain them. Also, I noticed there weren’t a lot of films being made about real people with real problems and the Hollywood Xmas movies coming out were loaded with characters of unbelievable wealth, so I thought an Indie Xmas movie would be neat. One of my dearest and closest friends, who’s been with me through all sorts of stuff, Pilar Arevalo, was and is dating Brian Jerin, a fantastic local musician who at the time was getting into film production stuff. We had worked on a lil’ EP I wrote the lyrics for and a bunch of people in town did the music for – ‘The Days Run Away Like Children: 5ive Songs For 5ive Points’ and it seemed a good idea to partner up with him and do the movie.Brian Jenkins was back on board to do the score. Brian is one of my truest partners in crime and has been working with me for years. He did the score for “Cocaine Angel” with Max Richter, the score for “No Palace Can Stand Forever”, mastered the ‘The Days Run Away Like Children’ EP and did the score with the fabulous Naarah Strokosch for the film. Cullen Moss, who plays the lead and is an extremely smart guy as well as a good actor, is someone I knew from the producing stuff I did in Wilmington. The film is also summational for me in that it brings together people from every part of my life – high school, college, Wilmington, riverside, etc…and does so, I believe, in a nice, fun way…

KW: Now, you have done all of your films in either Wilmington, NC, or Jacksonville, FL. With the success your films have received, why haven’t you taken it to L.A.?

DL: For a couple of reasons. I mean – there’s no reason for me to go anywhere and be poor. And currently, I’m still making microbudget movies and it’s beyond difficult to shoot films like that in LA. If “Without A Sound” doesn’t take my career to where I’d like it to, I already have the next movie lined up to shoot in 2016. My partner and DP are in LA and they would never suggest shooting there. I do have connections and projects in ‘development’ with some LA people but between my partner and modern technology – that hardly requires me to move there. Not now anyway. Perhaps after “Without A Sound”, but we will see.

KW: So with your films being in a variety of genres, you have a few coming up within the next year or so. Can you tell me about those?

DL: “Without A Sound” is about a deaf girl trapped in a house and terrorized by a killer. We’re in Dario Argento/Brian De Palma/Mario Bava territory with that which is something I’ve always dreamed of doing – I am a HUGE horror guy and doing a horror project is on my bucket list of things to do in my life, so it feels great…I went to Mexico in 2008-2009 and directed a doc with Yolanda De La Torre called “Calva Zepeda: Cannibal Poet of Mexico” but that doesn’t really count. Speaking of, while they showed quite a bit of it for Mexico television, we still haven’t completely finished it for release over here…it was real down and dirty micro budget stuff. A crazy story and crazy times down there. Honestly, some of the most genuine fun I have EVER had. I was just speaking with her today about finishing that up….In regards to a narrative, I really wanted to do a horror film that took place in one location that I could showcase some visual flair and such and not kill my crew in the process. I needed to come up with something that took place in mainly one location and had a solid hook – and this seems the right thing. The lead will be deaf and it will feature deaf talent. I am VERY excited about this. What’s funny is that in 2006, I wrote a Zombie movie about a BLIND girl called “Child In The Dark”- about a girl being trapped in a house waiting for a convoy to pick her up while being attacked by Zombies. I sold that script and it went on to place and win some pretty big screenwriting festival/contest stuff but I learned a VERY harsh lesson about contracts and such involving that project and again, making sure you’re working with people you can trust. That was rough. But yeah, again – to finally be doing it feels great.

KW: And you are already in talk of shooting at St. Augustine’s infamous Florida School for the deaf and blind. Will they be assisting you with casting and with aides for the shoots?

DL: Yes, that is correct! And they’ve been extremely helpful so far. That is the plan. We are shooting June/July 2014 – that’s not going to change.

KW: You also have a new short you wrote that was just completed “Surveillance”. Tell me about that.

DL: “Surveillance”was a short I wrote that was actually shot in 2010 as “Children For A Day” was finishing up its festival run. It features Robert Longstreet again and was written as an Elmore Leonard kind of pastiche. It was directed in LA by another NCSA alum, old buddy, Benji Gillespie, and a bunch of other NCSA peeps worked on the crew. Benji and co. got caught up for two years shooting this bizarre “Castlevania” webisode series and the short JUST got completed this year. It is being slated to go one a festival run in 2014 – so it will be probably be playing around the same time I’ll be shooting my next film, “Without A Sound”.

KW: Now, you teach filmmaking at a local college. What inspired you to put down the camera and pen and jump in front of a class?

DL: Yes, at UNF. I love it! I felt I would be good at it and that people in town would think it would be neat to get the opportunity to hear from someone with actual experience. I was aware of some workshops and such in town being taught by people I knew to have little to no experience and were simply taking advantage of people who didn’t know better just so they could make a buck. Fraudulent people with false resumes and such… I’ve had several students tell me about how they were swindled by these so called ‘Industry professionals’ in town. I just don’t get it. I do what I can. I hear about these people charging consulting fees and all this nonsense. I haven’t done a lot by any means, but objectively I’ve accomplished more than they have and I’ll offer my time for free for anyone that asks. I mean, as long as its done through phone or email – I’m not big on going and hanging out with them somewhere. But don’t get me wrong – this isn’t me saying that ALL Jax film people are this way. The industry in general attracts a lot of shady characters trying to make a dime off people’s hopes – that’s been around forever. There are truly great and talented film people here in town, but there are also those that are poison. But that’s anywhere, really. It just seems with a small market like Jax, we could exercise a little more quality control.

KW: As an avid film lover, you talked about absorbing as many films as you possibly can. What filmmakers do you study and watch?

DL: Pretty much everyone, to be honest – because I love all of it! My three personal favorite directors are Sam Peckinpah, Federico Fellini and Dario Argento. They affect me in a way that’s hard to put a finger on. Objectively, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick are probably the greatest – though Leone is up there. I believe “Once Upon A Time in America” is the greatest film of all time. The film that made me want to make movies was “One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest”- that movie is a gem. Milos Forman is amazing! There are a LOT of great directors and films out there. When you are starting out – they influence your work in a direct way, but as you mature – the influence becomes indirect. And not just other films, but books, music, all of it plays a part. Obviously, the Tom Waits/Sam Peckinpah influence on “Cocaine Angel” is hardly subtle. The Flannery O’ Connor/Terry Malick influence on “Children For A Day”… “The Heroes Of Arvine Place” is clearly in the world of James L. Brooks(Terms Of Endearment), Robert Benton(Nobody’s Fool), Terry Gilliam (Monty Python and the Holy Grail)..and that’s just within the little stuff that I do… “No Palace Can Stand Forever” was inspired by Tolstoy’s “Resurrection”, my own life experiences…etc…etc…The filmmakers I STUDY aside from the ones already listed would be say, Charlie Chaplin, Don Siegel, Clint Eastwood, George Romero, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Altman, Bergman, Luis Bunuel…

KW: Every filmmaker makes mistakes, no matter what their background is. Looking back, what mistakes have you made and carried with you, learning from them, throughout your career.

DL: My biggest mistake was after “Cocaine Angel”.I should NOT have lived off the freelance screenwriting work I was getting and writing for Indie-Slate Magazine and should have got a full time job so I could have just financed my own stuff. I mean – I had plenty of time to hold down a steady job AND do the freelance stuff. I had shorts being produced and such, so it’s not like there was nothing going on. Also, as I stated before, the industry attracts a lot of shady people. I mean, I trusted people I should not have and of course, I would like to take that back – but how was I to know? But that could have been avoided by me simply doing the right thing and getting a full time job – which, at that point, for some stupid reason – I thought I was too good for…

KW: As a filmmaker who is a steadfast member of the independent scene, what are you most proud of from all of the works you have done? What is the one project you recommend people to check out of yours?

Probably “Children For A Day”- is the most solid from beginning to end in terms of all production elements… “Just Another Father’s Day” is close for what it is but some of the visual quality is lacking – “The Heroes Of Arvine Place” is a lil’ Xmas card of a movie, so of course, I would ALWAYS recommend that to ANYONE during the holidays but it and “Cocaine Angel” while I believe objectively that they are decent films – are not absolutely consistent quality wise from beginning to end. Whether or not I like that fact is besides the point – it’s the honest truth.

KW: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

DL: The standard stuff. Don’t lie and do what you say you’re going to do. Have conviction and integrity and stay positive. If you’re objectively doing the right thing, it doesn’t matter if you’re surrounded by a thousand people doing the wrong thing – you will ultimately prevail. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so don’t go for the quick and easy. One main thing is to watch as many films as possible. If you’re forcing yourself to watch films and to read books about film – then you should go do something else. Too many young filmmakers don’t watch very many films. Like, for example, most people I know who are NOT in the film industry have seen way more films than the people stomping around talking and acting like filmmakers. I remember a story about what someone said about Peter Bogdanovich. He was washed up and directing this film with Audrey Hepburn, “They All Laughed”- not a very memorable film. But someone said that the only thing Bogdonavich had down about being a film director at that point in his career – was dressing like one – with the cowboy hat and the boots, the scarf, etc…That’s what I think of when I see a lot of young filmmakers these days and especially here in Jax -I see a lot of posturing and preening and ‘acting’. Lots of stuck up pomp and circumstance with nothing behind it. All of that is false and people should stay away from that kind of business. And that goes for anywhere, but living in a city like Jacksonville – to see people walking around like matchbox movie moguls? They’re embarrassing themselves. It is very sad to see stuff like that. Young filmmakers should also not hang out in a bubble of other filmmakers. Life experience makes better story tellers – not hanging out with a bunch of other spoiled brats whining about whether or not you get to make a movie. Making a movie or even complaining about making movies is a luxury most don’t have – so get over yourselves. And besides, you only live once. If you find yourself surrounded by people that will only be your friend if you’re making movies then you need to rethink your life on a couple of different fronts and adjust accordingly.

Thank you to Damian for taking the time and talking to us, and best of luck with your upcoming feature!

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More about Damian Lahey can be found on his IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1149627 and his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/damian.lahey

Also, check out more information for “The Heroes of Arvine Place” on the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Heroes-of-Arvine-Place/357752190919945

For the first 25 people that send Mr. Lahey a message via FB, he has offered to send a copy of his EP, “The Days Run Away Like Children” to thank you for your support – it includes a lot of the same awesome folks that worked on “The Heroes Of Arvine Place”…Mr. Lahey wrote the words and the music is by indie Jax, Fl. musicians!

From 2009-2010, Damian wrote a serial that Michael Tully published through his ‘Boredom at its Boredest’ page for IndieWire. It is available here for the first time!

The Last Blunder‘ is the humorous retelling of a film Lahey actually produced in Wilmington, NC in 2002.

And a Rogue Cinema EXCLUSIVE- see “Children For a Day”: http://www.vimeo.com/5008213 / password: railroad (if needed)