Interview: Damian K. Lahey

❉ Indie filmmaker Damian K. Lahey discusses his latest feature, which sees the return of the elusive Cristina Marsillach.

“Everybody in this business has that person that they want to get ahold of and work with. For me it was Cristina Marsillach. I had revisited Dario Argento’s Opera recently and thought about seeing if Ms. Marsillach was retired or not and reviving this story I had that I thought if retooled could become something special.”

Damian K. Lahey & Cristina Marsillach

Sometimes your dreams do become cinematic reality and this is one of those instances where a filmmaker was able to pull off something miraculous. We Are Cult’s Nick Clement spoke with indie filmmaker Damian K. Lahey about his latest feature film, Simple Like Silver, which sees the return of reclusive Spanish actress Cristina Marsillach (Dario Argento’s Opera, Gabriele Salvatores’ Marrakech Express, and Moshe Mizrahi’s Every Time We Say Goodbye).

Lahey is an award winning writer, producer, and director, best known for his festival favourites Cocaine Angel and The Heroes of Arvine Place. He recently completed a trilogy of genre shorts starring Tarah DeSpain, which consists of Soccer Moms In Peril!, District Quarantine and the upcoming and festival-bound Captain Traer Smiles At The Stars. Lahey took some time out of his busy schedule to shed some light on his mysterious new project, and to throw down some intense movie madness!

First, congrats on pulling off a 20-year vision quest!

Ha! Thank you.

Let’s start with the obvious. Cristina Marsillach is one of those cinematic Holy Grails – an actress no one could get ahold of. How did you get her to be in your film?

Well, tracking her down was the most difficult part. As often happens in this business I had a couple of projects in development with ‘people who know people,’ but those weren’t going anywhere. I’ve already wasted years of my life on those types of projects so I have an arrangement with myself where for every couple of scripts I have ‘in development’ – one has to be something I can get on the books myself. I had just finished shooting a short film in Los Angeles and wanted to do a small feature. I had revisited Dario Argento’s Opera recently and thought about seeing if Ms. Marsillach was retired or not and reviving this story I had that I thought if retooled could become something special.

Cristina Marsillach in Dario Argento’s OPERA (1987) Image credit: CultFilms

You’d written this script a while back?

Yes. The first script I ever wrote was this Fellini/Argento/Antonioni mash up titled Fiora In Prague, which was for Cristina, and I was inspired to write it after seeing her in Opera and then Marrakech Express. It was about a woman that goes to Prague and sees a murder. It was a senior project I did in high school. It really bit off Fellini’s Juliette Of The Spirits and Antonioni’s The Passenger with a Bird With The Crystal Plumage-type murder. It was meandering and boring and artsy in the kind of obnoxious way you do things when you’re young like that but the seed of it – about a foreigner being in a strange country and thinking she saw a murder – I always liked it.

Reminds me of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.

Yes! It carries a very similar tone. So every couple of years I would do a couple cursory searches because I felt a sort of loyalty to her and the project as it was the first thing I had written and I saw no reason to give up on it. I was also about to turn 40 and this is one of those things I wanted to get done. Everybody in this business has that person that for sentimental and creative purposes they want to get ahold of and work with. For me it was Cristina Marsillach. As I did more projects and had more contacts in the business, I had more people to reach out to but everyone seemed to affirm that she did not do interviews, could not be contacted, and wasn’t interested in working. And this legend seemed to grow. Honestly, over 20 years I had dozens of people tell me I would not be able to get ahold of her let alone get her to do a film.

Cristina Marsillach (Photo: Damian K. Lahey)

“Cristina was very classy as well as self-deprecating which is very important to me when it comes to working with people. Self-awareness is an essential quality, I believe… She is very funny, very mischievous, a clever woman….”

Didn’t she run the Marsillach Acting Studio?

Yes, but it was closed years back and none of that contact information was valid. I actually contacted some of her students who were very nice but also did not know what she was doing or how to get ahold of her so that only added to the mystery. They all spoke very highly of her however. One day I saw that my friend and independent filmmaker Jane Spencer was friends with Cristina’s sister Blanca, also an actress. I had Jane send Blanca a message on Facebook letting her know I was legit and that my intentions were genuine and that I wasn’t some crazed horror fan wanting to bug Cristina about Opera. I then forwarded the project proposal on to Blanca. I heard nothing. Other leads went cold and I was busy working on other things. Finally three months later Blanca finally sent me a message out of nowhere saying Cristina was interested and gave me her phone number and we set up a time to talk.

What was it like to finally speak with her?

She was very classy as well as self-deprecating which is very important to me when it comes to working with people. Self-awareness is an essential quality, I believe. During our first conversation she showed me how to use WhatsApp! She’s quite the student of comedy so my knowledge of Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Brothers really helped break the ice when I first started talking to her about the project. She is very funny herself, very mischievous…a clever woman. Lots of jokes. Anyway, I pitched the story to her and she dug it.

Wow!

Yes, my timing was good, too. Which is a critical part of getting any movie made. While she was still active and doing theater in Madrid, Cristina was interested in doing something in film again but preferred if it was minimal and not involving a lot of crew. This was good for us as we didn’t have a lot of money!

Cristina Marsillach (Photo: Damian K. Lahey)

“Cristina actually offered to fly in her own personal chef and translator at her own expense to assist with filming. Who fucking does that?”

I can imagine she was nervous after not doing any film acting for a long time.

Which is totally understandable. I felt a working vacation type deal would be the best way to position the shoot and make things comfortable for her. Creating the most comfortable working environment for her was very integral to all this.

That makes sense.

But she was a doll. She actually offered to fly in her own personal chef and translator at her own expense to assist with filming. Who fucking does that? And the person she brought on board, Carmen Olmo – turned out to be a wonderful asset. She was not only a great co-producer but was also able to assist with the story. It was important I have a Spanish voice developing the story with me and Carmen became the perfect collaborator. Like Cristina, she was very funny and self-effacing and believed in creating good memories – that was just as important as making a good film. And of course I paid for Carmen’s ticket and stuff. It was nice of Cristina and Carmen to offer but I would never make her do that!

Cristina Marsillach (Photo: Damian K. Lahey)

“When you’re working with someone who’s been acting since they were a child, coming from a prominent show business family, having done commercials directed by Scorsese, you have to be respectful of where they come from and offer them guidance when appropriate and in an appropriate fashion.”

Once Cristina was on set, what were your initial thoughts about working with her? How was she as a collaborator?

 She was a real pro. We did this steadicam shot, for example. I made a reference to The Shining. In the next take she did the shot, mimicking Nicholson’s exact choreography from a couple of the famous steadicam shots in the film. It was great!  She was focused but never uptight. In between takes she was always down for a good laugh.

That being said, Cristina still had some spells of anxiety that all actors and actresses have from time to time. She mentioned a couple of times feeling this way after we were filming but that she had exercises to work through it that she did on her own, away from set.

When you’re working with someone with that type of background, who’s been acting in television and film and theatre since they were a child, coming from a prominent show business family in Spain, having done commercials directed by Scorsese, you have to be respectful of where they come from and offer them guidance when appropriate and in an appropriate fashion. Before shooting she was very involved in the development of her character and sculpted it in a way so that she could use her own life story to shape the performance. We established the mood for the piece and her character by sending songs back and forth during pre-production.

Cristina Marsillach (Photo: Damian K. Lahey)

“Originally, Simple Like Silver was going to be loose yet still scripted. My co-producer and editor felt the film would work better as a silent film with voiceover so we had more flexibility and we could play around with it more in post-production.”

You’ve directed a bunch of award-winning films, shorts, including the feature The Heroes of Arvine Place. How did the process of making The Heroes of Arvine Place compare to shooting Simple Like Silver?

With the previous pieces we’d done – it was all heavily scripted with shot lists and once we got on set – we didn’t really deviate from that. My co-producer and editor Craig Moorhead had been suggesting over the years to explore new things and find happy accidents. Originally, Simple Like Silver was going to be loose yet still scripted. Craig felt the film would work better as a silent film with voiceover so we had more flexibility and we could play around with it more in post. Cristina also wanted more of a show-me-don’t-tell-me type thing. I had been reading up on how Keith Richards had cooked up the Wingless Angels projects and thought that was a good creative flow to follow.

So basically the process is that while certain narrative beats needed to be hit, it was shot in a way so that it can be pieced together in multiple ways and then the voice over for the distinct characters will be written accordingly and when appropriate, exploring certain themes, etc. This really worked in our favor and made things more relaxed while shooting, too. It felt great to experiment like this and go out and shoot stuff and jam and just let the magic naturally happen. A lot of freedom comes with doing something small like this.

“We had so much fun! I can’t stress that enough. Everything an indie production should be – great food, great footage, and great people! Truly, one of the best times I’ve ever had.”

Following on the heels of Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Soderbergh’s Unsane, you shot the film using an iPhone…

I’m certainly not the filmmaker those guys are but I will explain how that came to be as I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about shooting a movie on one of these things. The last short I shot was this green screen business out in Burbank, CA – Captain Traer Smiles At The Stars. It was shot on one of these RED cameras that when built out was the size of a fuckin’ Buick. My cinematographer Tarina Van Den Driessche did a wonderful job but I found the whole experience rather mechanical and I was a thousand miles away from my actress and felt the whole thing was being swallowed up by ‘production’. Now, to be fair – everyone did a really good job. I just personally felt detached and that I couldn’t give my actress, Tarah DeSpain, the attention I wanted to. Tarah is a five star talent and still delivered regardless but I felt that the production was running me instead of me running the production.

I have a lot of work to do as a filmmaker. I am not too proud to admit that. In order to learn and grow I wanted to either shoot or edit my next film. Craig was originally going to be busy and I was going to cut the piece and Tarina would return to shoot it. But Craig didn’t want to miss out on the chance to work with Cristina and as long as I could work with his schedule – he could do it. Now, originally I was going to be shooting this on a Sony As7ii but discovered it would be difficult to run and gun with that camera which was really important to me. Unsane had JUST been released which was shot on an iPhone 7.

“I have no plans to start running around like Doug Liman or Peter Hyams and shoot my own films! Don’t get me wrong, it was a blast. And I learned a ton of stuff. But context is key, and on my next project I will be using a cinematographer.”

That’s right. So that led to your decision?

It pointed us in that direction. After some research, I decided to shoot the film with an iPhoneX due to the ability to run and gun, and the auto focus is to die for, so that really sealed the deal. I went and bought one and downloaded filmic pro with the cinematographer kit and began doing tests with Craig to find the right look we wanted. We wanted the film in B&W and with a slight metallic feel to it. We found when the shutter speed shot through the roof we hit upon a sweet spot that really clinched the feel of the film for us – which was usually soon before the camera would overheat and shut down – a kind of hyper real just slightly out of step and out of time look. I am obviously skimming over a lot of technical details here. I just really need to clarify something. Was this the perfect tool for this job? Yes, it was, given the production parameters we were working with. We shot some beautiful stuff with it. Would I recommend shooting a conventional narrative film with an iPhone X? No. I would not. But in this context – it was awesome. And I am giving the cinematography credit to my best friend in High School, Alex Hornung, who died tragically in a drunken car accident shortly after we graduated.

Do you plan on shooting more of your films in the future?

No. As fun as this was and as important as it was for me to shoot something to strengthen myself in this area, no, I have no plans to start running around like Doug Liman or Peter Hyams and shoot my own films! Don’t get me wrong, it was a blast. And I learned a ton of stuff. But as I mentioned before – this was a special circumstance. It worked in the context of this – an experimental type story and the way the stars aligned with everyone working on it. Context is key, and on my next project I will be using a cinematographer.

How long was the shoot?

We shot for three weeks, just Cristina, Carmen and I, in and around St. Augustine, Florida, pretending we were tourists. No one knew what we were doing. We had so much fun! I can’t stress that enough. Everything an indie production should be – great food, great footage, and great people! Truly, one of the best times I’ve ever had.

And no one knew you were shooting a film?!

No, which is one of the reasons why we shot it the way that we did! We didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves.

“…while we’re going to be playing in the world of Bela Tarr and Antonioni, we’re keeping it a tad more playful, and there’s a sly wink to it. No one involved wants a stuffy art film… This is a small movie. I make small independent films.”

That’s nuts! Any particular great memories of the production you can share?

Cristina and I shamelessly rocking out in the car to Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom driving back from shooting one day.

Awesome! I love Elton John!

Me, too!

What kind of films are in its wheelhouse?

It certainly takes its cues from The Passenger, Ida, JauJa, The Bicycle Thieves. But look, while we’re going to be playing in the world of Bela Tarr and Antonioni, we’re keeping it a tad more playful, and there’s a sly wink to it. No one involved wants a stuffy art film. From the very beginning, we planned to keep this film around 70 minutes in length – which I think is appropriate for a film of this nature. This is a small movie. I make small independent films.

“My motto is: if it’s not fun, you’re done. I’m no longer in my twenties where I get hung up or bent out of shape about film things. I’m all about making the best movies I can while having the best time I can.”

When can we look forward to seeing this?

Well, I just finished shooting some B-Roll and footage with the other two actors and then I need to comb through it and send to Craig to begin working on. Captain Traer Smiles At The Stars has it festival tour or whatever happening next year. I hope to have this done by late next summer.

Captain Traer Smiles At The Stars (2017)

How did it feel pulling something like that off?

It was at times overwhelming but in a good way of course – to see this project through as it represented so many things coming full circle for me in my life. Not only to get to work with someone I’d wanted to for a long period of time – but also to have it turn out to be such a great time. My motto is: if it’s not fun, you’re done. I’m no longer in my twenties where I get hung up or bent out of shape about film things. I’m all about making the best movies I can while having the best time I can. When Cristina gave me her watch as a gift at the end of the shoot…for that moment – I promise you I was the wealthiest man on the planet.

What else do you have coming up after Simple Like Silver?

Well, outside of the scripts ping-ponging around Los Angeles, I’m developing a small thriller about a UN aid worker and a Middle Eastern woman trapped in a building together after a bomb goes off. I plan on shooting that in 2020 at the latest.


❉ ‘Simple Like Silver’ is currently in post-production. Director: Damian Lahey. Screenplay: Damian Lahey, Carmen Olmo. Starring Cristina Marsillach, Susanna Nelson, Hudson Sims.

❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.

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