While presenting a festival screening for his latest film and promoting his highly anticipated upcoming feature, filmmaker Damian K. Lahey chats with us.
Damian K. Lahey is an award-winning independent filmmaker and screenwriter. His films include Cocaine Angel (2006), The Heroes Of Arvine Place (2013), and a recently completed trilogy of genre shorts, consisting of Soccer Moms In Peril!, District Quarantine, and Captain Traer Smiles At The Stars. His latest film, the existential mystery Simple Like Silver, is in post-production and stars Cristina Marsillach, the enigmatic star of Dario Argento’s Opera (1987) and Every Time We Say Goodbye (1986) with Tom Hanks.
I interviewed the filmmaker while he was at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival for a screening of Captain Traer Smiles At The Stars shortly after the trailer for Simple Like Silver was released.
INTERVIEW WITH DAMIAN K. LAHEY
1. Hello, Damian. Let’s start with an easy icebreaker. What made you want to be a filmmaker?
Well, the movie that probably set it all off for me was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest which I watched when I was around 10 when we first moved to Florida. I was into movies from a very young age. But before that movie, the only thing I saw that had touched me in a different way other than say Ghostbusters, Star Wars or Clue were The Mosquito Coast and Apocalypse Now which my parents had taped off television.
And here’s a fun fact for you. Back then, Harrison Ford was such a big deal that, even though he’s only in Apocalypse Now for two minutes, they would advertise he was the star of the film when it aired on TV to get people to tune in! Papillon was another one that stuck out to me when I was very young, around 8 or so. And I remember watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with my grandfather. But One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is where I really pieced it together that film could have this profound emotional impact and motivate you to fight for things you believe in.
In terms of me getting together with friends and playing with a camera, the Evil Dead films were probably the biggest influence there. Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson were a huge influence in regards to physically getting off your ass and making something, anything. Dead Alive and Meet The Feebles were a big deal coming up.
2. You currently finished a loose trilogy of award winning genre shorts with actress Tarah DeSpain. Could you tell me more about that?
Yes! I went to college with Tarah at North Carolina School Of The Arts, actually. She is phenomenally talented. Can do anything. I ran into her years later at the Cucalorus Film Festival. I think that was in 2013. We both had films screening there and decided to work on some stuff. We did Soccer Moms In Peril, a comedy/horror piece in 2014, District Quarantine, a pandemic thriller, in 2015 and then Captain Traer Smiles At The Stars in 2017, which is a sci-fi fantasy piece.
3. Tarah’s very versatile. Soccer Moms In Peril is a oner. How many takes did that require?
We did six takes total, but we nailed it on the 5th take.
4. Nice! I know you’re based out of Florida. Is that where you shot these?
These shorts were all shot in Los Angeles. A lot of people don’t know it, but if you’re shooting a low budget one location short or feature, Los Angeles is the place to be. You’d be amazed at the talent and crew you can get for cheap to come out, and everything is a phone call away. Multiple locations? That’s another story, ha ha. But if you have one location, you can get the best bang for your buck in L.A.
5. Any plans to expand these shorts into feature length films?
District Quarantine was actually taken from the world that we created for a feature film titled Call Center. It revolved around a remote call center managing emergency response teams for an outbreak of some crazy virus that was taking over the country. We were actually going to shoot that feature after Soccer Moms In Peril but it fell apart. So we popped off this proof of concept short in a friend’s apartment for possible use to secure funding for that feature — and to test out the idea on the festival circuit.
Craig Moorhead, my editor, co-producer, and partner in crime and I had put a lot into building the world for the script, and it was nice to capture some of that. The purpose was to make a lean, mean lil’ genre number in the style of Don Siegel, John Carpenter. As often happens in this business, we wound up not pursuing the feature for various reasons.
6. I really dig the trailer for Simple Like Silver. Who did the music?
Ah. David Wingo. He’s done some of David Gordon Green’s and Jeff Nichols’ stuff. And that really cool Arnold Schwarzenneger zombie flick, Maggie. I reached out to him about doing the score for this or possibly recommending someone if he couldn’t do it. I sent some stills from the shoot along with the e-mail. He sent me back this score to some project he did a few years back that never went anywhere or barely got released, and it was incredible. Uncanny how well it fit our film, so we’re lucky to have it.
7. What was the inspiration for Captain Traer Smiles At The Stars?
I was stumped working on this feature for Tarah to play the lead in, and that’s when I came up with it. It’s a minimalist deal, but the concept is…ya know, episodes of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Martian, Gravity? The person in the movie or episode always gets saved at the end, right? Well, what if it was a forgone conclusion you were going to die? There was no race against the clock to save you? It simply wasn’t an option. You’re going to die. What would you do with those last moments of your life floating in space? I’m also a big fan of Ursula Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke, so there’s some shades of their stuff in there as well.
8. How did it feel getting those three shorts finished?
Great! I mean, I had a wonderful time shooting them, which is very important to me. This is a business where you strive to get what you want, but getting what you need is a victory in itself. And we certainly got what we needed with these. Unfortunately, what held us back from getting what we wanted was silly stuff. Just incompetence on the part of certain people. And this was not fair to myself, Tarah or Craig. My life is built on second chances, and I was handing out second chances like they were kittens on those short films. But some of these people were just bleeding me dry. It was time to do something different.
9. Which led to this project with Cristina Marsillach, who is legendary for not being able to get ahold of!
Yeah, I definitely gave myself an undertaking. Off and on, I had been looking into getting ahold of her about this project for nearly 20 years. But the closest I came were first hand reports confirming she was impossible to track down. When I was in high school, I had seen her in Argento’s Opera and Marrakech Express. Actually, the first screenplay I ever wrote was designed for her to star in, which Simple Like Silver is based on.
Yeah. But Cristina didn’t do interviews or anything. Finally — through a combined effort that involved many phone calls, some of her old students, her sister, and my indie filmmaking pal Jane Spence — I got ahold of her. It took months. But when I spoke to her, she let me know she was active and was interested in doing something small. She still did theater but had not done a film in quite some time. She was extremely cordial and professional. I will say that a lot of time was put into building trust and getting to know each other. We’re all friends now, but we communicated quite frequently for a year before she actually came here for the shoot.
11. Tell me about the film. A Giallo of sorts?
Simple Like Silver is a small feature film about a woman who learns she has a brain tumor. Terminal case. And she decides to take one last vacation but while on this vacation, she sees a girl murdered…but she is not sure, and the audience is not so sure either. Yes, it is an existential mystery or giallo. But this is more like Antonioni and Bela Tarr with some sly humor rather than Argento or Bava.
12. What was it like working with Cristina as opposed to Tarah?
Oh, they’re very similar. Both self-deprecating, cultured, but not stuck up — down to earth. And funny. Both of them are very quick witted. They’re not too precious about things, and they want to enjoy themselves. But they also want the work to be good. They want to look good.
13. Did Cristina have any good stories about working on Argento’s Opera?
Not really. She mentioned they shot the footage with the crows for days and that she was proud it was considered a classic now. But it was not successful when originally released. She autographed a couple Opera Blu-rays while she was in town, too. Look, as a general rule, when you’re working with people on something they don’t really talk a lot about other films they’ve worked on.
14. You used the iPhone to shoot this. It looks great. Would you use that again?
Thank you. I would for a certain type of project where the narrative lent itself to it. I wouldn’t use one for a conventional narrative with lots of coverage, sound and interiors etc. I think if you play to its strengths, you’re in great shape and can get a very good quality product with a fraction of the money and the headaches. I mean, we spent the same amount of money on Captain Traer as we did on that whole feature. For two days of shooting! Blows my mind.
So…sorry, there’s no way I would go back to another hostage situation like Captain Traer was. Don’t get me wrong. It was a good time. But, no thanks. Shooting Simple Like Silver was a great palate cleanser and really opened my eyes to some different ways of doing things on a low budget level.
15. Is it true you flew Cristina Marsillach in from Spain and then shot the movie in St. Augustine, Florida — pretending you were tourists?
Yes. Tying it back to the previous question, that’s why shooting it on the iPhone was ideal for this. I flew Cristina and the co-producer Carmen Olmo in from Spain. Carmen was essential to putting this together. She was invaluable. We all had so much fun. To pull something like that off, everybody has to be game for it. And Cristina was certainly game for it.
St. Augustine, Fl, is a beautiful place but also heavy with a lot of tourist traffic and people wandering around with cameras, smart phones. We blended right in. They had no idea. This experience…it was really one of the best times of my life. Things don’t always come together like that when you’re trying to make movies. You need to cherish it when it comes along.
16. You’re a screenwriter as well. How do you balance that and independent filmmaking?
You’re always on blast in this business. Like, you always have to have content. Product. And it’s best to have the next one lined up before the previous one comes out, no matter how small you are. I don’t see any other way for anyone in this business at this time. No matter what area you’re trying to get ahead in — producing, screenwriting, teaching, crew — if your IMDb is a Sahara desert, it just doesn’t look good.
Also, the screenwriting bit can be a beast. Keeping these indie projects going keeps me from getting discouraged and too tangled up in the outcome of those things. So in my opinion, it’s not only a sound professional strategy but a sound psychological strategy as well. I also work normal jobs and teach. I don’t survive on screenwriting by itself.
17. Your projects have played a lot of film festivals over the years. What are your plans for after the festival run? Any plans for other types of distribution?
A couple of these shorts I’m going to get ready for release on Amazon. Craig and I are still finishing Simple Like Silver and getting it ready for its festival run next year. When that’s done, we’ll release it on VOD, limited Blu-ray release, etc.
18. What is your favorite scary movie?
Hmmm…I have to throw out a couple. I think The Shining, Verbinski’s remake of the Ring and Ju-On. Some of The Shining you have to chalk up to youth. Ya know? Seeing that when I was young. The Ring was one…I mean, I saw that and Ju-On when I was in my 20s. Beyond the age where I was getting scared at horror movies. And those movies genuinely freaked me out. Scared me legitimately.
Spiral and one of those Tomei movies was pretty creepy, too. But to be honest, I didn’t get scared again watching anything horror until The Haunting Of Hill House. That Netflix series from last year. I thought that was the real deal. Marianne, that French series that dropped this past Halloween had some serious business in it, too. And was incredibly well made.