Our guest at the Edinburgh Short Film Festival this year, Damon Mohl is an Indiana-based artist and experimental film-maker, previously nominated for a Student Academy Award, Damon’s films have been screened at dozens of film festivals and he has been a jury member for film festivals in Serbia and the US.
3 of Damon’s short films screened at the 2015 Edinburgh Short Film Festival.
Your films have a Gothic feel with Lynchian elements, would you say that was a fair description or were the films more informed by other influences? If so, which ones?
Yes, that is definitely a fair description. As an undergraduate I studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. David Lynch attended the same school many years before and from what I have read the city of Philadelphia had a huge effect on him during his formative years as an artist. The city of Philadelphia also had a huge effect on me as well. I had a number of classes with one of his former classmates who now teaches at the academy, Bruce Samuelson; a fantastic artist and painter. So early on I was aware of, watching and influenced by Lynch’s work. I responded primarily to the abstraction, ambiguity, and mystery in his films. The mood and atmosphere he is able to evoke is just fantastic.
But there are of course many other directors and films I have been influenced by and really like as well. Off the top of my head, here’s a list of directors, but it is by no means definitive; Werner Herzog, Paul Tomas Anderson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Jon Hillcoat, Jean-Luc Godard, Darren Aronofsky, Jonathan Glazer, Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam, Bela Tarr, Jim Jarmusch, Andrei Tarkovsky, the Cohen Brothers, Cory McAbee and Roy Andersson. I like cinema that presents a very specific, creative, poetic, imaginative, and transportive view of the world.
I love the handcrafted sets and props in the films, tell us about the process of making the spacecraft used in The Dust Machine Variation?
This is one of the aspects about filmmaking that I really love, getting the chance to build numerous sets and props by hand. Often when I start a project there are a few specific things I want to make for it, but then as the idea grows and develops over time I end up creating things I never planned on and that is always really exciting to me. It comes back to the old adage in art: if you know exactly what you are going to create then why create it. The process of discovery within an idea is extremely important to me as an artist because it is that mind-set that I live in and inhabit for years at a time. The film itself becomes a visual document depicting the mental process of exploring an idea.
The space station set was created entirely by going to local junk and recycling yards in Boulder, Colorado were I was living at the time. Searching for objects that were white and preferably made of plastic, the original function was never important to me, only that they had a certain look or shape that would fit in with the design of the set. I was known as “the guy who was building a space station” at one recycling yard. After I finished the set I took a picture and gave it to them for their scrapbook of customer projects. Surprised, one of them said to me, “Wow, you really did build a space station.”
What were the practicalities of filming in the spacecraft set?
It was really difficult. I didn’t have the funding to hire someone to act the part so I did it all myself. The astronaut suit was incredibly hot; to the point my clothing was completely drenched in sweat after only a few minutes. Also, on top of the heat, I could hardly see anything through the visor because I had tinted it so the astronaut’s face would not be visible. It was also I really cramped in that set. I had very little space to move around, add the addition of a camera, tripod and sound equipment made for some rather contorted positions. I feel like the set actually looks larger on the screen than it actually was. There was also dust constantly floating around in the air, landing on the lens of my camera, as well as water dripping from the ceiling that was generated from condensation forming around a mist machine in the pipes. I thought, “Forget about hiring someone to do this- I would not wish this on my worst enemy.” Actually the first time I tried to film anything I climbed right back out of the set after only a few minutes and said to my wife, who was helping me that evening “I can’t do this, there is just no way.” But that really wasn’t an option since I had spent all the time and money building the set and it was a part of my graduate school thesis project, so I climbed back in and just kept trying to get something I could use. The first couple nights were really rough, but eventually I kept plugging away at it and started getting footage I could use. I am not complaining about any of it though, since I am the one the came up with the whole absurd idea. In the end it was worth it, but I massive amount of work went into getting that footage. I get tired just thinking about it.
The soundscapes you use in the films are very haunting and provide an edgy, unsettling mood, how did you come to the soundtrack you used and why?
The sound is usually the last thing I work on but it is by now means secondary, it’s just as important as the image, as any filmmaker will say. The sound is a really enjoyable part of the editing process because not only are you close to realizing a finished film but it is when the project begins to take on a life of its own. I spend a lot of time on the sound, building layers and trying out different options and combinations until something clicks and I get a gut feeling that it works well with the images. A lot of the time I’ll have a specific idea about how I want a particular sequence to feel, that happens early on when I’m editing. I am drawn to working with droning sound without distinct rhythms as well as classical / instrumental works. I also really like using natural sound specific to the environment when I can. I am not a musician but I have always collected instruments and objects that I can use to record and manipulate into soundtracks.
The Abandoned town in ‘Mysterious Disappearance’ is a fascinating location; tell us about the process you use in finding and selecting locations? Tell us about the background to the town used in the film.
I guess when it comes to filming on location, my process is to take my equipment out into the world and simply see what I can find. There is so much out there beyond anything I can specifically visualize or imagine, unless I am constructing the environment from scratch and completely controlling it in my studio, I like to visit places I have never been before and simply discover images, walk very slowly and compose compositions that I like. It is a very meditate process. Hours drift by. Actually, I was recently in Novi Sad, Serbia jurying a film festival and had a great late night conversation with two other filmmakers / artists about this very process. You really slip into a specific creative mental state when filming on location. All of your senses become attuned to the images you are framing and you become oblivious to everything else around you. You are also completely enraptured in the idea of the film you want to make, so you are imagining the location in that context, not as it actually exists. I also try to stay really open and receptive to narrative possibilities a location could possibly provide me. I’ve discovered certain locations that have shaped and reshaped the story I want to tell as I film them. That has happened a lot with the project I am working on right now.
In terms of the specific location you asked about. The town is called Bodie. It is located in the state of California and from what I understand it is the largest preserved ghost town in the United States. It was once an extremely prosperous during the gold rush boom and also extremely violent. I remember reading one statistic that said there was something like one murder a day. There was a saying when settlers moved there, “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie.”
I have always been drawn to vast, empty landscapes. Landscapes that have a strong visual relationship to the sky above, if that makes sense. I have always loved the American west for that reason. I was actually recording for another project in Bodie and ended up getting so much footage I discovered an additional short film when I went back and looked at it all. At the time I filmed it I had no idea I was going to make “Mysterious Disappearance.” It’s almost like approaching a project from a found footage aesthetic, but the funny thing is it was my own footage that I was going into and re-imagining.
There aren’t any conventional human characters in your films, is that a conscious decision if so, why and would you ever consider using actors?
That’s a really interesting question. I came to making films through art, that is, many years of studying and making paintings, drawings, and sculptures. I started using video because the ideas I was getting did not fit the traditional media I was working in. That being said, I have always approached making films from this kind of odd, if not idiosyncratic, individualized art perspective, the perspective of a single artist creating a work of art as a vehicle for self-expression. In a lot of ways, I approach my live-action films with the sensibilities of an animator, in my recent work my main characters have consisted of a remote control machine, puppets and toys, animals and two-dimensional still images. I have worked with people but they are always masked or canceled in some way with how they are framed and blocked, so that they become more like archetypes instead of individualized personalities.
I would absolutely be interested in working with conventional characters (real live human beings / actors) if the right idea came along. Actually, with the film I am working on right now there are over 20 people involved in it, but perhaps still not in a traditional or conventional way actors would be involved in a film, they appear as these sort of living breathing portraits, staring straight ahead at the camera, but none of them have any dialog.
What’s next, when can we see it and will you be planning to use any Scottish landscapes in your next film?
My current film is in post right now. It’s about a psychological expedition that takes place in imaginary geographical landscape. The title is, The Expedition. It should be done in 4 to 6 months, I hope. This has been a really long project for me in terms of the amount of time I have been working on it. I think I started collecting footage for it in the winter of 2011. After The Expedition I plan to complete a short 2D animation using a lot of NASA imagery. The project won’t even involve using a camera, just a flatbed scanner. After that I am going to work on a project combining 2D animation, drawing and painting, and live-action landscape plates filmed in the US, Scotland and Serbia. Beyond that, I have an idea for a film based on the town in Indiana where my wife and I just moved so I could take a position as an Assistant Professor of Art. It involves insects and would probably take the shape of some kind of wordless abstract haunted / surreal narrative montage. But who knows if I’ll ever get to that, that’s many years from now, so the idea may turn into something else entirely or a new idea might take precedent by then.
And yes, there will definitely be Scottish landscape imagery in my new work coming out. Last fall I traveled to Aberdeen for the Aberdeen International Film Festival and was able to record footage throughout the week I was there, specifically for The Expedition.
You can find out more about Damon’s work at his website: