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Mongrel Filmmaker: Deniz Demirer
by Aaron Rappaport
Director Deniz Demirer gets excited about the transformative power of cinema during the below interview. photo: A. Rappaport
Deniz Demirer has only been making films for four years. But his unusual blend of intimacy and hardscrabble urban existence has never yielded the stories we expect. Demirer’s 2009 feature debut, “Nocturnal Jake”, about a saxophone player who’s lost his vision only to find it through his deceased mother, walks a thin edge between gritty despair and unexpected warmth. Closer to home, “Not I” (2010) is an portrait of two immigrants—a jaded, destitute dreamer from Poland and an accomplished ballerina from Cuba—who struggle to connect as lovers.
Demirer, 35, is no stranger to the alienation of the immigrant experience. Born in Warsaw, he spent his youth first in Poland, then as a refugee in Austria, finally coming to the East Coast of the United States with his family at the age of ten. Though always interested in film, he did not attend film school, concentrating instead on philosophy and psychology at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
Seeking to establish verisimilitude through an immediate relationship between audience and story, Demirer's films have explored such subjects as exile and self-destruction, often with an eye toward the human frailties these conditions reveal. Situations are frequently presented "in medias res," without the pre-formulated fanfare and plot exposition that typically introduces scenes and events in Hollywood movies.
Part of his fresh approach can be traced to Demirer’s discipleship under local maverick Rob Nilsson. An acclaimed force in the world of independent film, Nilsson is an innovator whose contributions to filmmaking include the technique of “Direct Action”, a method that relies heavily on improvisation. By means of Direct Action, both Nilsson and Demirer endeavor to sweep away the thousand contrivances that dilute the film actor’s performance when chained to an inflexible script, creating an experience that is as raw for the viewer as it is in the making.
Demirer’s third and latest film takes these themes and runs with them—literally. “American Mongrel” (2012), made in collaboration with actor/producer Daniel da Silva, is ostensibly a road flick ranging as wide as the American West. It follows the ad hoc journey of a group of escapees—Marcos the immigrant pretender, played by da Silva, an embittered alcoholic named Johnny, and Janice, the lost girl who’s been following the wrong muse or man, Kris Caltagirone and Alléne Hébert, respectively—from a life that has cornered them.
(Lf-rt) Daniel da Silva (actor), Deniz Demirer (director) and Kris Caltagirone (actor) relax between takes in Antelope Canyon, Arizona. photo: courtesy D. Demirer
Currently in post-production, they are raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign, which goes live September 20th (see '
' on Kickstarter.Com). Demirer recently spoke with us about the evolution of "Mongrel" and creating film by hook or by crook. We started by asking him where he got the idea for the project.
It was during the time of the Arab Spring and the various revolutions in the Middle East and in North Africa. The economy was suffering here in the United States and [Daniel and I] kept trying to imagine what it would be like if the streets suddenly erupted here in the United States like they had in Tunisia and Egypt and Bahrain.
We didn't have any answers and thought it would be interesting to build a film around a road trip that would enable us to go out into the western United States and get our fingers on the pulse of what people were thinking and feeling about these issues…to re-examine the meaning of the American Dream.
To what extent do those political issues tie in with the plot of the film?
We don't build the plot around any particular issue like Occupy Oakland or the Middle Eastern conflicts—this film had no budget and the politics are not overt. These things are happening out in the world as the characters are dealing with their own issues. But the characters’ dilemmas and problems and issues could easily be allegorical devices that reflect some of these world conflicts.
Was that the genesis of the film becoming a road film?
I think the road film idea itself came from our need to simply get away to create something. We had to remove ourselves from our familiar surroundings in order to focus on the development of the characters through the story. Whatever spontaneous circumstances arose on the road were just that—spontaneous—and we didn't have any control of that necessarily.
Were there instances where the setting influenced the story?
On the actual road with 'American Mongrel': Johnny/Caltagirone along railroad tracks in Valentine, Arizona. photo: courtesy D. Demirer
On quite a number of occasions. The strongest example is when Marcos [played by Daniel da Silva] finds himself doing things he’s never done before. Over the course of the film he comes to liberate himself. He has a lot of repressed things that he is dealing with in his past. Johnny [Kris Caltagirone] and Janice [Alléne Hébert] are rather haphazard people, flying by the seat of their pants and doing reckless things: stealing horses, getting drunk in the mornings, and getting lost. They lack direction.
By taking wrong turns they eventually find themselves in places that help Marcos to see things in a new light: an organic farm where they meet the Angel character; a swim in a lake in Oregon. All of these things lead them to loosen their hold on what they find familiar and comfortable. When Marcos has an artistic awakening in the story, the environment out in Idaho provided us with the perfect setting for this scene. What came about was spontaneous. Our production allowed for this mode of operation, which was to meet people out on the road, out in the world, whom then helped us to find the right 'sets' and settings for the circumstances we had scripted. We knew what needed to happen in the story.
We made some connections through friends and friends of friends, and we knew when we had written the script that we were going to need a location for this scene where the Marcos character begins to paint. He was left alone by Janice and Johnny as they go off to ride stolen horses. We had a general idea that we were going to be in Idaho, we had a general idea that we were going to have access to a horse farm, and that Marcos was going to find himself and express himself in this moment alone, monumentally.
What we didn't know was that we were going to meet this fascinating man who was an ex-CIA agent named Dan. We called him 'Idaho Dan'. We didn't know that he owned property nestled in this dry gulch where there was an abandoned mining town that was perfect for our scene. We didn't know that we were going to go to all these paint shops and body shops in a little neighboring town where the proprietors were going to give us paint, where they were going to give us beautiful paintings of Native Americans that we would incorporate into the scene.
What would you have done if that had not happened?
[laughs] There was never an option that that wouldn't happen. And this is part of the format in which we make films. Yes, we were on a tight budget, very tight. Yes, if we had producers and studios breathing down our necks, they probably would have taken care of all of those material needs—especially if they had a genius location scout and a masterful set designer—but we would never have been able to afford them and we wouldn't have had that element of spontaneity as available to us. What we would’ve done, to answer your question, is we would have kept looking. And the actors and practitioners that were with us on this journey made sure to leave the time to find what we needed to find. And we always found it.
It seems that spontaneity is very important to you as a writer and as a director, and that it was very important in this film. Can you give an example where there was no spontaneity?
Well, part of the paradox of this style of filmmaking is that spontaneity alone does not [necessarily] reach a powerful objective. Spontaneity would provide us with a certain setting, say, or a certain gesture from one of the actors. But if that wasn't good enough to achieve the dramatic objectives that we wanted, then the scene would have to be rehearsed and practiced before we got what we really thought was worth getting.
Marcos buys a bottle of whiskey on Route 66 as Janice and Johnny look on. photo: courtesy D. Demirer
And was that a typical scenario?
That was quite a typical scenario.
Is that something you've wanted to do as an artist or filmmaker? Experimenting this way—where it ‘had to happen’? It seems like you dove off a cliff.
I am fascinated by something that you cannot master. Humanity is the ultimate expression of that: I cannot master you, nor you me. Art is similar. Leaping into a film knowing all boundaries—having everything perfectly story-boarded and having everything figured out to the T—negates what makes life interesting to begin with. What makes friendships interesting to begin with? When I go to hang out with a good friend I can never know what he or she is going to say to me or what mood he or she is going to be in. What happened to this person last night? Mystery keeps things fresh and fascinating between friends.
Can you talk about the metaphor of the jazz ensemble that you've spoken of?
Yes, sure. Originally, it was my mentor of many years, Rob Nilsson, who’d proposed it. The reference concerns the way that technicians and practitioners, directors and actors work together to create that art. Just like the jazz ensemble creates jazz music, we create the visuals and story by listening to each other, watching each other, playing off of each other. Actors become extremely aware of the camera because the camera is moving without too much blocking, like a documentary film camera would. The director has to offer suggestions in real time to the actors, because stopping a charged moment could be fatal to the drama. Everything has to jive to create that song which is the final film.
What is the American Dream to you? You headed out to the Northwest; what did you find?
I'd never been to the Northwest. Kris was quite well traveled around the United States and had a deep, well articulated knowledge of terrain, landscape, trees, and roads. The Northwest presented a sense of wonder which often conflicted with the production: there we were making a film, but at the same time awestruck by our surroundings! And what beautiful people... I am very disappointed with the media, with the way in which it has portrayed our lives here on earth together. When you really get out there, all of that fear mongering is for naught, because most of the time you will encounter a giving, generous, welcoming person—not a murderer who wants to kill your children.
Can you give us an example of someone you met?
Yeah, there was a guy named Steve who lived on a peacock farm in Oregon, about 45 minutes from Eugene…and here is a guy, a hard working guy who never quite assimilated into the system. He would turn down promotions at work. People thought this was completely insane, but he was happy with his job. He was beaten over the head with mores that he found quite alien. He had a huge heart. He heard that we were going to be in town making a small movie, and welcomed the entire crew into his home, though he'd never met us. He prepared home baked bread, homemade beer and mead, a spread of olives, and pesto from his garden. [It] was one of the most special moments during the whole journey…
The characters Marcos, Angel, Janice and Johnny take a swim in a lake in Oregon. photo: courtesy D. Demirer
Did your idea of the American Dream change?
I am an immigrant from Warsaw. I'd always been conflicted about what home is. I felt like an exile because we were taken into this country and my parents didn't have any idea about the ways that Americans conduct themselves. I could never figure out what the American Dream was. So much of what we were told here in the States was somehow not applicable to us as foreigners. In some ways that saved me: my parents’ inherent inability to assimilate was ancient and strong. I was saved from falling too quickly for some idea or fad: I couldn’t have become a conditioned consumer if I’d wanted to.
Coming back from the road trip, I don't think there is a definition of the American Dream. It’s an illusion. People who bought houses were conned; conned by the same people who sold them the American Dream. In Mongrel, this is embodied in the interaction between Blaze Livingston (David Lee Jensen), the cowboy-woodsman, and the three travelers. He charms them and robs them. He feeds on their idealistic hopes.
Isn’t that a little cynical?
No, actually that's very liberating. It's extremely liberating. If we know where we stand we can make better decisions about where to go.
How do these ideas relate to your characters?
Marcos has sold his own family, betrayed them: he's a Mexican immigrant who's left his parents and siblings and pretended he was an American. He’s betrayed his Mexican family for the American Dream. He married a beautiful white woman and tried to forget about his past as much as he could. For Johnny, the American Dream is tied up with the law. He’s been mistreated by the American justice system and falsely accused. The cause of his imprisonment remains ambiguous: we only know that he has suffered a great deal. In the end, his problems are unresolved.
Janice leaves the traveling party two-thirds of the way through; she frees herself from the hopeless dream of trying to find love with Johnny: it’s dissolved. Her dynamic with Marcos is unhealthy and her pursuit of Johnny is an illusion.
How is it that people can get in a car and go on a road trip…what is it that the unfamiliar gives you, the landscape?
Soon after the Second World War, Jack Kerouac set out on the road. The world was in disarray at that time, and I think it is in disarray now. We hit the road to try and find that nebulous anchor… The American road trip is a rite of passage, a Walkabout of sorts. But in our case, we don't travel outside the country—it’s a different kind of lesson, a journey of depth, if not breadth. We abandoned ourselves to this journey, which was a dance with mystery, with the unknown. We didn’t know where we would eat, where we would sleep, whom we would meet, what places are safe and what places are not, where the beauty is hiding—
Janice (Alléne Hébert), Johnny (Kris Caltagirone) and Marcos (Daniel da Silva) argue about the American dream in an opening scene of the film. photo: courtesy D. Demirer
Walkabouts are a rite of passage. They have a tremendous yield of creative energy. Every time you go on a road trip and find yourself in a new environment, you tend to do things you might not otherwise have done—like jump into the clear freezing water of a beautiful river, for example.
So Daniel and I uprooted everyone temporarily, and we put them in cars, and we said 'We're going to make this movie, and there are not going to be any distractions, and everything you do while we're on the road—one way or another—is going to be for the film.' Everything that has to do with the film becomes primary: no scheduling conflicts, because we're all together! We're going to scrap all of it. There we are. We’re flying by the seat of our pants. We’re broke. We don't have any money to really do much, except for Daniel's credit cards.
What were your early influences in film?
When I first started to get into film, I watched experimental video and film works—Michael Snow, Stanley Brakhage, Bill Viola—and when you pin death and life up really closely in that rectangular frame…a birth coming to be, and as that child is emerging from that woman's womb, simultaneously another person is dying, right there in the neighboring frame all packed into that rectangle. That is a powerful use of the medium: wow! I’m referring to a Bill Viola piece: in the center, bookended by the birth and the death, there is a man incessantly floating in a dark pool. He is submerged completely, just floating there underwater. And this floating mass is our life. This was attractive to me.
As we grow, we communicate to each other. We shouldn't suddenly stop growing and learning the moment we start making money. It should be a progressive movement towards wisdom, not a career. Remember I am an immigrant. My family was very poor. Most of the time my family and I were sailing in the darkness when it came to American culture. I had to work my way back from the nonsense in Hollywood and the inaccessibility of experimental video which was relegated to small galleries.
Hollywood would always lift me up (momentarily) and then drop me really hard because ultimately there was nothing there I could hold on to. I felt worse after watching a movie, like a bad drug or an abusive relationship. Sometimes I would cry, I am not kidding about this. I still feel that way with most films made in Hollywood.
Fellini, on the other hand, holds me up and never puts me down. I want to be carried by his films for a long time. I feel a similar admiration for Nilsson, Resnais, Bergman, Ray, Cassavetes, Kieslowski, Tarkovsky, Parajanov, Klimov, Wertmuller, Bertolucci, Wajda, Kurosawa, Noe and some others.
John Cassavetes once said that his films are about philosophy; he defined that as a study of where to put love. What do you feel your films are about?
I definitely know that what dominates my thinking is this idea of exile. You can be an exile in a number of different ways. You can be a religious exile, you can be an exile from your own land, you can be an artistic exile, and all of these affect the way that you relate to others and to yourself. What interests me most is healing. Each of us exists with a certain rift, a certain crack in his or her being that may be either closed up or opened up depending on that person's unique journey in life. To explore that rift, that crack, is what interests me.
What makes the characters in 'American Mongrel' 'cracked'?
In the film, Marcos is somehow unfulfilled, unwhole—he’s removed himself from his family by a false pretense, by a false theory—by the false idea that his mother and father weren't working hard enough to take advantage of what America had to offer. They worked like dogs, but not in the American way where your job defines you as a person. They worked humbly for very little money. He hated that and didn't respect them for it, so he's cracked.
Johnny's character is cracked because he cannot reconcile himself with what the system has subjected him to and forced him to be: an exile from his home. It’s a corrupt system that does not help to heal the human heart. The crack widens because of his alcoholism, and he can't quite find his footing in the world. And why is that? Janice is an exile because she feels like she is not quite jiving with these travel companions, Marcos and Johnny. She exiles herself further by removing herself from these false friends.
Can you tell us a little about your understanding of Direct Action?
Direct Action was developed by my mentor Rob Nilsson. Its about 'getting dirty and doing it.' I think people obsess over technology—cameras, sensor size—because everyone wants the magic key. Very few of us really want to do the work, the personal work—the hardest kind—to express in a unique way the complexities of our time.
Direct Action says 'Forget all of that!' Get rid of all of that. What do you have? You have a little video camera? Great! Can you figure out how to capture some decent sound? Great! Can you get some interesting characters together who by their faces alone could tell a remarkable story? Great! Let’s make a movie. Now go to the heart of the matter, the heart of the neighborhood, the people. Lets see how things really are. What's the conflict here? What’s the seduction? No tricks. No gimmicks. No cleverness. No cuteness. Show me who you truly are in this character.
[Excitedly] 'This is real stuff!' You know what I mean? Yes, its narrative fiction and it speaks to the deepest parts of us, like good literature. It transforms us. We've started a film production company called Public Shore Films. Public Shore Films begins with “American Mongrel”. I have three or four projects sizzling and ready to go into preproduction. One is about a Polish immigrant and an American Hasidic Jew—both artists—struggling to resolve Polish-Jewish relations as descendants of people who were directly involved in WWII.
We're also putting together a couple of city films, including a modern version of something like “My Night at Maud's” (1969), where we look at the dividing line between the decreasing presence of religiously minded single adults and their secular counterparts. Sexuality, expectations, and 'values' find their way through a small, tight knit cast.
How has San Francisco affected you? Why San Francisco?
It’s a progressive journey from being in exile to being a normal, functioning, productive, happy human being. That's a very strange journey. San Francisco, like most places that I've ever lived, has never been as satisfying as I would have liked it to be, mostly because I was never happy with what I was doing. But San Francisco is progressively becoming better. Its beauty is becoming illuminated: mainly because of the people that I meet and because of the collaborations that we end up getting involved in.
What Public Shore Films ultimately hopes to be is a collective of people—writers, directors of photography, producers, editors, actors, and people who are at least like-minded enough to say 'we are not really interested in what the "market" wants.’ As long as we find the quality people that are willing to participate in this group—and we're slowly starting to find them—then I think ultimately I will be able to reflect on San Francisco as a very special place, and that's just beginning to happen.
Posted on Sep 19, 2012 - 04:14 AM