Serving Cinema with:
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July 15th, 2016
by Mark Schwab
Douglas Reese is a true independent filmmaker; he writes, produces, directs, acts and even crews his own films, financing them on micro budgets. And this young (25 years old) man is prolific. A quick look at his IMDB page reveals 31 Director credits since 2008. Reese is clearly in love with making movies and making them for pure creative expression. We are very glad he agreed to take some time from his production schedule to let us pick his brain and his soul.
1) What was the first movie you ever made and how did that happen?
The first film I made in which I decided to try out fiction was in 2008. It was this really crappy feature called Honey for the Bears. It focused on two sisters discovering one of their boyfriends dead by a railroad track. I was 17 years old and it was my sister and cousin in the leading roles. They didn’t have any experience and I didn’t really know how to direct them. It was more just a virginal experience in the process of filming, editing, and directing, overall. Before I did that, though, the very first project I ever did was a documentary called Home Videos. I put that together when I was about 16, and I edited it between two VCRs using these videocassettes I found in my late grandfather’s barn. There were these pieces from 1993 all the way up to 1995, and I noticed how different the relationships of my aunts and uncles and cousins were before my grandparents’ divorce and his passing away. I also found footage of me when I was about 7 years old, trying to instruct my grandpa that I was making a movie. I had him act with my toys, and re-enact scenes from movies I watched growing up. I spliced all of this together, along with footage I shot on MiniDV at my family’s reunion on Christmas of 2007. The first one without our patriarchal figure and the last one we ever had. I shared it on YouTube and it barely had any views (due to the nature of it, I’m sure plus it was three hours long). Eventually YouTube took it down for some reason, and that project was lost forever.
2) Which films growing up had the strongest impact on you?
The first film I remember be awed by was Disney’s Pinocchio. I watched that one like crazy. But then film became more of a therapeutic gateway to another place. I was going through a rough patch at the time because I lived with my grandparents and when they got divorced I had to go back living with my mom, who wasn’t entirely stable. I mostly would watch an American wide release film by renting it at the nearest video store and then when I was about 12, I took advantage of the library and gave Chaplin’s The Kid a go. I was moved by it. That led me into exploring more of the “consensus great” cinema which led me into foreign film like Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. I think these all count as gateways, in a way, because they led me to being the crazy cinephile I am today. I’ve seen way too many movies for a 25 year old. Way too many. Filmmakers I feel sometimes influenced by include Stanley Kubrick, Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Nicolas Roeg, Jean-Luc Godard, and many, many more.
3) When you hear the term "gay filmmaker", what is your reaction?
Grateful. Mostly because I can actually be referred to as a gay filmmaker. I’m obviously going to be making stories that come from a queer perspective – even if they aren’t stories about queer people. I don’t think my sexuality defines me, but I do think it’s important and maybe even crucial to what I’ve done over the past eight years. I wasn’t out of the closet until I was 22, so there were four years and nearly 50+ features and shorts I shared on Youtube that are really tied into that. Themes about sexual repression, confusion, and the like. I didn’t realize it until I looked back on it, but a friend pointed out to me that it was present and I started to see what he meant.
4) The way you make movies is different from most. Describe your filmmaking process from idea to finished film?
Some context here. I’m in a position where I don’t have the funds to really go all out on a project. I simply don’t have the resources yet. I'm working toward it – and finally reached some of it with Warwick - but I still mostly approach my films from where I’m capable at the moment and that’s just simply making films because I feel compelled to do so. It usually begins with this emotion I have. For example, I remember feeling as if I hurt people (including myself) when I was in the closet which became the starting point for my 2013 project Pazuzu. Similarly any fears, anxieties, or problems I’m trying to work out for myself, I’ll make a film about it. It almost always helps me get through those things. They’re journalistic in that way. I do what feels right to me and while I know it’s not entirely accessible with my style, I still hold onto the hope that if they mean something to me, it’ll mean something to someone else who can relate.
5) What are the reactions you get from people who view your work?
It’s very divisive. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone watch one of my films, or many, and then tell me it was “alright”. It’s either “this is absolute shit” or “that was absolutely moving”. I think that’s to be expected, though, because I do care about storytelling. I just don’t feel right approaching my stuff in a conventional way. I think there are ways to express emotion and develop characters that isn’t simply dialogue, or a story that follows a three-act structure. I could do something quick and painless to let people know the title character of my film ALICE is feeling aimless in life but then I also feel that I should utilize the concept of time within film to get that across. In the film I have her walk back and forth across the screen for five minutes in the first scene because I felt it captured aimlessness in a way films rarely do and I like to think that it can put the viewer into that character’s emotional state. It’s not supposed to be quick and painless because this is a long and painful life. I hope that the viewer actually feels that as opposed to just knowing it. From then on, however, my process is weird. Beyond the emotional starting point, I learned that with amateur actors (friends and family), the best way to get solid to great performances from them is to let them play a variation of themselves and to let them improvise their own dialogue. That way it’s not a stress factor for them when remembering their lines. My screenplays set up the scenes, I go over with the actors what I want them to convey and we shoot a few takes. Sometimes I’ll tell them to add a line of dialogue here or there and very often this improvisational approach leads the film to end in a different way than I originally intended. Blue Guitar is a film about a failing millennial relationship and I originally wanted it to end happily. But after we shot everything (since I shoot in chronological order), I realized that these characters weren’t going to have one.
6) Your new feature "Warwick" feels very personal and intimate. Tell us about how it got made and what it was like acting and working with your fiancee Ashton Burch.
It’s very personal and very intimate because it’s main theme was something very personal and intimate to myself and Ashton. I told him from the get-go I wanted to eventually make something with him but he was always so shy. Eventually he felt up to the challenge and I told him about this “emotion” I was currently wanting to express. Mainly fears of a post-college life and feeling overwhelmed by life’s monotony. I came up with the story of his character, his traveling for a job interview and him ultimately crossing paths with another gay twentysomething going through similar issues. I wanted to show that both were going through this same kind of depressed, zombie-like period in their lives but both reacted to them differently. One, openly gay, feels lonely and probably even worthless – the other, in the closet, feels lonely and also probably worthless but the latter utilizes prostitution as a way to legitimize his self-worth. I liked that dynamic between them of having “jobs” and the importance of it. How that’s bringing them down. I think it’s ultimately heartbreaking to realize that the prostitute has completely fabricated his very history in order to manipulate a vulnerable young man. When Ashton’s character learns that mine is from a Seattle suburb, it’s like a slap in the face. Because he’s not doing this for a living. He’s doing it to gather some kind of identity for himself. Ashton got this immediately and we just went for it with this in mind. I wrote the screenplay and we shot it over five days while we were on vacation in Seattle earlier this year.
7) If you could cast any one person to star in one of your films, who might it be and why?
Oh boy. This is a toughie. I’m more interested in actors and actresses who are willing to just let go and figure their own character out. For that, I like to think I’m an actor’s director even if I’ve mostly worked with non-professionals. Any performer who would be willing to do that – and I think many would be grateful for it, honestly – would have enough freedom to turn in a captivating performance. It also depends on if they are in any way interested in my style. I would pick Nicole Kidman, definitely. Because I know she’s daring, and I know she’s expressive. I would pay my kidneys to have her be the lead of something I do, simply because of how believable it would be that she’d be up for that kind of challenge. I definitely would want to explore a motherly character around her age, too. I managed to do so with Sue Crist in my short film Birthday Boy, but one with Kidman’s personality would be even better. There’s still emotions triggered by my own experiences with my mother and stronger women in my life that I would want to create something around. For sure.
8) How do you view the current landscape (or Hellscape) of Independent Filmmaking?
It’s… tough. And exhausting. WARWICK is my first time actually trying to get into the independent scene. I’ve submitted to nearly twenty festivals and have already been denied a couple of times. It stings but I just keep in mind that it’s this tough for a reason. They’re all looking for works that they feel could really change the community or stamp its place on the scene. Even if Warwick isn’t even a mild success, I’ll still continue and try again. I know that one thing I don’t want to do is lose my voice and stay put to how I’ve been doing my work because I would love to see more films like that in the future. I’ve already found adoration with internet-based amateur filmmakers already. Some of that stuff is out of this world because it’s the most freeing an aspiring filmmaker can be when constructing something. There’s crap, there's Tarantino imitations, there's student film clichés to work through – but when you find that one film, your heart sings that such a thing could even exist at all.
9) How has living in Cincinnati influenced you as a filmmaker?
It’s broadened my perception of people and how they behave or feel. I grew up in rural towns and trailer parks throughout Michigan and Ohio (many of my earlier work, such as CLEANERS, being filmed there) – so moving to the city has really opened me up and shifted me into my own person. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my post-coming out films are more focused on characters who are more middle class and living in apartments as opposed to my older work which was about no-income drug addicts in trailer parks. It’s also something I’m trying to figure out in my work. With my feature MAYSVILLE, it’s about a middle class Cincinnatian returning to his childhood home and his sister now lives in a trailer park so it’s definitely something to do with where I come from that is sneaking into my work. I guess I feel a bit haunted by how I used to live, or how I almost never came close to leaving it. I wouldn’t be surprised if I further explored it in the future.
10) Any current plans to move to Hollywood and jump into the maelstrom?
Not a bit. I take it more as a thing that, if it happens, it happens. But I’m not making it some kind of Plan A, even though filmmaking is my passion. I do have other interests – psychology and counseling, and I’ve been pursuing my degree in the field here in Cincinnati. I also love to do film theory and write film reviews and analyses, so my love for film branches far and away from my own work so there’s that aspect to my passion as well. In a way, I feel I'm working toward a filmmaking career but I’m also not making it my sole priority. Hollywood itself doesn’t interest me. Probably because of the cautionary tales I’ve experienced in the movies themselves. So many of them pull back and show it as a place of illusion. Underneath the glamour is a literal hell where dreamers go to die. I see myself as someone who would prefer a Toronto, a Portland, or even Seattle.
11) As always, we finish with the question...for all the filmmakers feeling overwhelmed/frustrated/discouraged, what words of encouragement/hope/insight do you have for them?
Just make something. Money or not. Don’t worry about the polish. Don’t worry about making films simply for the sake of success. Just create and then share. The more you do it, the more surprised you’ll be at what you’ll find yourself interested in and what you’re not interested in. As Werner Herzog recently said in a Reddit AMA concerning his view on amateur filmmakers: “Find your own voice, and don’t be afraid of doing it because there’s no such thing as amateur filmmaking”. When you don’t have the money, don’t make a film that would cost even $1 to make. Accept where you currently are, know your limitations and work within that. The more you do, the more your passion grows and the readier you’ll probably be when you finally take the step into the real deal. But until then, you’re still an artist and you’re still capable of making an effect on others like you.