Damian Lahey Shares Insights on the Indie Filmmaking Landscape

Damian Lahey Shares Insights on the Indie Filmmaking Landscape

The fiercely independent filmmaker Damian Lahey is back on the scene with his newest effort, Pillars of Lost Futures, which recently wrapped principal photography in Tunisia. It’s a deep and personal production that sees Lahey traveling across the world to explore the fate of his own nation, while examining all that has come before him, and us.

An award-winning writer, producer, and director, Lahey had a career breakthrough with 2021’s Simple Like Silver, a nearly-Herculean effort given all that went into the micro-budgeted production. First, he tracked down and then convinced the historically elusive Spanish actress Cristina Marsillach (Dario Argento’s Opera) to appear as the lead, and then flew her and co-producer Carmen Olmo into the United States from Spain, where they proceeded to travel around St. Augustine, Florida, filming guerilla-style under the guise of being tourists.

The mind-bending, beautifully lensed black-and-white film was shot in 2019, and then got an unexpected delay due to COVID, before finding release last year to excellent reviews and strong viewership across multiple streaming platforms. It’s a deeply intimate piece of existential storytelling, a mysterious and challenging work that comes from a thoughtful place, with passion pouring out of every frame. Centering on three characters whose disparate lives and fragile psyches intersect in manners most unexpected, Lahey, who wrote, produced, shot, edited, and directed the film, tips his storytelling hat in the direction of various cinematic inspirations (Antonioni, Tarr, Roeg, and Soderbergh) without ever allowing imitation to rule the day.

Rather, his crafty effort takes on further visual texture and thematic dimension precisely because the introspective story offers up an enigma-laced narrative that can be interpreted in any number of ways, and presents us with characters that we can identify with, so that their personal journey feels inclusive. Starring the great Marsillach as the leading force of the picture, Lahey also gets strong, evocative work from newcomer Susanna Nelson, while the self-reflexive voiceover provides witty, smirk-inducing notes that lace the story with a playful edge.

Shot in silky and elegant monochrome and filmed on location in various southern Florida locales, Lahey demonstrates a keen eye for sharp visual compositions, and the moody, all-together fantastic musical score by David Wingo (Midnight Special, Take Shelter) really adds strong personality and sonic grace to the proceedings. Swiftly paced at 70 minutes, Simple Like Silver is indie art cinema that deserves to find a wide and appreciative audience. Patient and exacting, you just know this is the dreamy vision that Lahey had imagined before cameras started to roll. It’s currently available as a rental or purchase on Amazon Prime.

Some of Lahey’s other credits include festival favorites Cocaine Angel and The Heroes of Arvine Place. He also created a loose trilogy of genre shorts starring actress Tarah DeSpain, which consists of Soccer Moms In Peril!, District Quarantine, and Captain Traer Smiles At The Stars, all of which have picked up awards on the festival circuit.

Lahey recently took some time out of his extremely busy schedule to speak with Pipeline Artist’s Nick Clement about his newest cinematic endeavor and the world in general.

This interview had been edited for length and clarity.

It’s great to chat with you again, Damian—congratulations on your latest project!

Thanks, brother. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you about movie madness.

So, how did the idea for your new project come about?

Like a lot of these things, it was born out of a project that didn't happen. Originally, my friend Lacey [actress Lacey Marie Meyer, of the NY Collective, who’s done voice work and shorts with Lahey], and writer Shawn Harwell (Eastbound & Down, The Campaign), and myself were developing this project, The Ruins of Elena, but it just wasn't shaping up in the manner I wanted it to, and we began developing something else …

Do you mean that untitled follow-up project with Cristina Marsillach that you had discussed doing with independent filmmaker Jane Spencer (Little Noises, The 9th Cloud)?

Yes. But the research I had done for The Ruins of Elena inspired this new one.

If there’s one thing I’ve come to learn about the filmmaking process, these things never go in a straight line.

No, they don’t. But something about the footage of those Tunisian ruins and current events here really stuck with me. I thought this was something I could do in case this other project with Cristina stalled out. And sadly, it did. Casting issues and then financing fell through when Omicron hit the scene and then when the market turned with the Ukraine war, inflation didn’t help matters, and many of the folks involved in the project were getting busy or preoccupied, so I decided to move forward with this.

What's the general description of Pillars of Lost Futures, the extended logline, if you will?

A westerner visits the ancient ruins of Tunisia and sees reflected in them the future of his own country.

Interesting. What sort of message are you trying to convey?

This is something where you see the inevitability of not learning from the past and the past repeating itself over and over. No matter where you are or what culture—you’re not immune to it. Here’s living proof of that inevitability from across the world … the simple act of breathing, and speaking to you from chasms of time and civilization.

This is a documentary?

Yeah, it’s kind of a Werner Herzog-styled doc with narration. Drawing from, well, it’s kind of a poetry deal, blending history and myth from across the centuries. So, it’s in the vein of Pound’s The Cantos, some Ferlinghetti, and it’s got a Dylan-esque flare, with dashes of Dante and obviously, the Aeneid. But with a rhythm—the kind of rhythm Ginsberg talks about in his poetry work—I want it to find that stylistic groove. I don’t want to speak too much about the overall approach, but this is the appropriate vehicle for this theme. Every project calls for different things and I’m excited to be trying something like this …

Chris Walldorf, editor of Netflix’s Night Stalker series, is co-producing and providing the score for this. How did that come about?

Chris Walldorf was in between projects. He’s an old friend from The North Carolina School of the Arts, which is where I graduated college, and we’d gotten back in the mix because I had sent him a final output of Simple Like Silver to proof. He really dug the film. And I knew he was a musician. And when I was thinking about pulling the trigger on this, I reached out and asked if he possibly had any music lying around that he wanted to see put to good and effective use.

He had a bunch of tracks he had done with screenwriter Ben Best (Your Highness, Eastbound & Down) not too far removed from when Ben passed away. He sent the tracks along, and it was a lot to choose from and work with, but it was all great stuff, and a perfect fit for the project. He’s also on standby to assist with any extra editorial issues that might come up during post-production.

What did Tunisia offer you as a filmmaker that couldn't be accomplished elsewhere?

In this case, it’s a vitally important character in the film. Essentially, it’s the star of the film. The ruins of Carthage and elsewhere and its rich history of multiculturalism, and I just felt that it’s the right place for this story to be told.

How hard is it communicating with your second unit team from back here in the states?

Thanks to email and social media, it’s easier than it would be otherwise, but there are still hiccups here and there. There’s also a language barrier so translating needs to be done. But they’re great people, and a lot of fun to work with. And this is a loose enough project, structure wise, so if there are any interruptions, we can accommodate. Potential communication snafus are already baked into the overall scope of production.

That makes sense. How did you come to select your crew? Had you ever worked with your dual cinematographers in the past?

No. I was actually going to use some students from a local university for B-Roll and then I was going to go to Tunisia and shoot for a period of time. However, my close friend over there, Mariem Selmi, through social media she had met Amine Djelassi, who’s a local filmmaker, and Mariem put me in touch with his people—Seif Weslati and Ghada Ben Salah—who have this small production outfit there.

It came together that way. It’s always “who you know,” no matter how big or small the project. Also my girlfriend was looking for something adventurous for us to do and that’s how it all came together. I could not have done this without “Super” Mags Piper. She’s wonderful, and we had a great experience doing this, and we’d love to go back. Tunisia is a magical place.

Filmmaking and romance—you have to love it! So, what's the end goal with Pillars? What do you hope to have happen as a result of making this film?

Well, with any of these projects, you want to fulfill yourself artistically, get the message out there, and hope it puts you in contact with the kind of people you want and need to be working with to continue in this business.

Like they say: you’re either making films or you’re not.

That’s true. This is the year 2022. If you’re a filmmaker, you’re either creating content or over in the corner crying.

How has COVID changed the indie filmmaking landscape?

I think it really cemented the legitimacy of all the different ways you can get your film out there now. And it kind of cemented the limitations and decline of the festival circuit. I want to add that the festival circuit has been great to me over the years and invaluable in many ways. But a number of things have changed the scene: complacency, corruption, and cronyism have led to its decline. It’s just hard to take seriously. And if you can bypass it and still get your work out there and get the next one set up—you should. There’s a staleness that the festival circuit can’t seem to shake.

How so?

It’s many of the same gatekeepers, for example, that have been on the scene since the late 90s. I recently read an article by one of these guys. It was the same talking points from 20 years ago. Literally 80% of what this guy said no longer even applied to the independent film world anymore. But these same cats still want to preside over it, still be king makers. They’re just fatter, balder, and their hipster band T-shirts have more sweat stains on them.

Ha-ha—ouch! How did the success of your previous feature, Simple Like Silver, change the way you approached making this new project?

I’m now more comfortable editing this next project, but I also want to add that if I hadn’t had previous success and connections within the industry, I’d never have been able to have accomplished with Simple Like Silver what I did. I had a network already in place I could shoot that film to, and had the mobility to get it out there and move chess pieces this way and that in my own small corner of the business.

What are your feelings right now about Hollywood, and the way the industry is taking shape?

With all the civil unrest, political upheaval, and the unending pandemic, the industry has circled the wagons more than ever. It’s locked up like Fort Knox and everyone inside is scrambling to get that money while they still can. Letting in new talent and new voices isn’t something they really care about. They might say they do and dazzle you with some surface level variety but not really. And content wise, you’re going to keep seeing more nostalgia pandering reboots and sequels, with the maximizing of certain IP brands.

But don’t you enjoy those types of movies as well?

I absolutely do. There’s a time and place for everything, and it takes a certain type of filmmaker to make these behemoth-sized productions. I don’t turn my nose up at that stuff at all, especially if it’s well-written. I’ve loved many of the Marvel movies. Hell, I grew up on the Infinity Gauntlet comic book story arc. So seeing that come to life was, without a doubt, massively awesome. I don’t sign off on all of it though like some do, and I find the nostalgia coddling to be a bit much, but yeah, I’m not a precious cinephile that thinks he’s too good for those big movies and big franchises.

Over the last few years you’ve developed projects with producer Lucas Foster (Morbius, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Man one Fire), screenwriter Shawn Harwell (Eastbound & Down, Red Oaks, The Campaign), and director Sean Ellis (Metro Manila, Anthropoid, The Curse) … what did you learn from those experiences?

You do your best but always keep something in your back pocket ready to produce in case those projects don’t happen—something that keeps your dreams alive and keeps you in the game. For example, the money I made writing on that Foster project I used to finance Simple Like Silver.

Wow. Nice.

When you’re a writer, you and your work are often discarded pretty quickly. Even if people love it, people will just up and move on to something else. This is not a business where people are friendly, considerate, or even professional. They’ll cut all ties with you in a heartbeat for no reason, so it’s best to not be left holding the bag. I’ve been there. That’s not a good feeling. There’s still good people out there, though, and those are the people I try to align myself with.

I bet. Before we go, the last 5 movies you watched are …?

I re-watched Thief and Comes a Horseman in honor of James Caan’s recent passing. Love those, Thief especially. It was even better than I remembered it being. Tangerine Dream was really large and in charge in that movie—just a total “wow.” Before that I watched Torso, this Giallo from Sergio Martino I hadn’t seen. I recently watched the Netflix doc The Girl in the Picture and Ridley Scott’s fashion crime picture, House of Gucci.

*Feature photo credit Seif Weslati/Djelassi Amine

Writer at Pipeline Artists, Variety Magazine, Arrow Films, and We Are Cult. Screenplay consultant and independent film producer.
More posts by Nicholas Clement.
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