Alumni director shares about debut film

By Ray Kaiser
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Image Credit: Glass Creek Pictures

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I was lucky enough to not only see one of the first screenings of “Donovan Reid,” but also talk to its director and co-writer Austin Smagalski, an LA resident and California State University, Monterey Bay alumni. This interview does contain spoilers for the film, but aside from the second question, they are all relatively minor.

The Lutrinae: You’ve said you are really inspired by films about identity, specifically noting “Fight Club” as a big influence on you, what is it about these kinds of stories that interest you?
Austin Smagalski: I like character-focused stories. Movies get too spread out – too many characters to bounce around to. People will inherently connect with one person more so than everybody else, so it’s nice to focus on one person, who they are and their most difficult choices.

To get more specific, this whole film revolves around one kind of single point, if you’ll allow me to talk spoilers for a moment – a mother just, not ever loving her child. Was there any inspiration there? Why that choice?
I was inspired by the film “Persona,” which I saw in one of Irwin Swirnoff’s classes. There’s a really powerful monologue in “Persona” where the protagonist reveals that she had a child and just absolutely despised him. It was such an intense feeling and something I’d never heard of before.

You do a really good job of weaving together the two halves of the story. When it came to the writing, what was your approach there? Did you write the part of Donovan being back with his family and Michael being stuck in the house with Ellen separately before weaving them together? Or were they written simultaneously?
Originally, I was very focused on the concept of someone taking someone else’s identity. At first, the sequence of him finding this identity and running away was the first 10 minutes of the film – but the more I thought about it as the writing process moved along, I started realising there were a lot of thematic parallels between the two stories. I felt like telling these two different stories in the character’s life side-by-side juxtaposed these different moments of significance, instead of just talking about how important they were. Lives don’t happen in a little snapshot. It was more powerful this way.

On a technical side of this same thing, some of the cuts between scenes were frankly phenomenal – particularly cutting back and forward in time between the two different stories. Do you have any insight on how hard that was or how you did it?
Particular care was taken in the writing to connect [the scenes] in the past and present. A lot of that took place in the writing. In post production, some scenes were rearranged, but some moments I had in mind since the very beginning, like the hard cut going up the stairs with things moving from the past and the present in the same shot. Originally, there were dramatically different color grades in the two timelines but after some test screenings, we decided there needed to be more ambiguity.

How was your experience with the Cinematic Arts and Technology program here at CSUMB? Were there any major takeaways or things you wished you had learned more about?
I think the process of making my capstone project really prepared me for working with a group this size. It was always really really small productions – a cast of six, crew of around 12. That was the most people I’d ever worked with on a shoot before. I wish I’d known more about how important pre-production was and not as much connected with this movie, but I wish I had learned more about making money with my film degree. I think understanding the business side of film and understanding how financing works and making money with your film degree is not normally focused on as much. There’s more focus on the art than the technical proficiency and business. I’d love to see more emphasis on technical proficiency. Once you have the stable base, there’s time and room for the free expression of art and stuff.

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Maybe I’m just a bit thick, but it was never entirely clear to me what the point of the toy puzzles that Donovan had was aside from them just being something he liked/perhaps portraying him as more of a child. Was there anything else you were doing with their inclusion?
For me, the character is very methodical. He thinks everything through and is very focused on details and sounds. So the idea of taking the puzzle, taking it apart, putting it back together. A big part of it is the repetition. That’s all he’s got, a small thing take it apart put it back together. Trapped in a routine. There was also the direct symbolism of the square puzzle looking like a cage.

Do you have anything you wish you could have told yourself when you first started this production?
There are a million things I’d do differently. I’m actually writing a small book for myself of things I’d wish I’d known. Having more days to shoot, more rehearsals, more pre-production. I had presented a few other scripts to different producers, but had gotten mixed results and they wanted to do very different things with the scripts. Which makes since, no one hires someone who has never written or directed a feature with no strings attached. The whole goal was I’m going to make a movie in 2018 and release it in 2019. So I said ‘I’m going to get a crack team of people who are killer at their job but this is their first feature. And we’re going to make that first feature together.’ So that was something that sort of defined the production.

Finally, you’ve talked just a little bit about your next project, “North.” Can you tell us anything else?
I have an outline and I’m finishing up the script. I think most of my work has a particular feeling to it. I like very moody contemplative character pieces with really high personal stakes. Basically everything I do is like that. Donovan Reid is the peak of what I’ve done so far, but I’m looking to take it up a notch.

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