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Arts and Music

Ready For His Close Up

Alex DeMille and the art of DIY

When the surname DeMille comes up in conversations of a cinematic nature, the first reaction is to think of Hollywood titan Cecil B., the director of epics like The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments.

But in the world of independent film, Alex DeMille (no relation) of Garden City may very well be who people will be talking about in a few years, thanks to the modest success of The Absence. A short piece that was originally shot as a senior thesis towards earning his MFA in directing at U.C.L.A. film school, this near half-hour story was screened at numerous competitions, winning the Judges Choice Award at the 17th Annual Comic-Con International Film Festival.

A sci-fi thriller steeped in equal parts suspense and supernatural elements, the plot revolves around a mysterious Orwellian corporation and a black-suited cipher sent to a bleak rural area where he is forced to choose between his employer’s vague but ominous intentions or take a moral stand in the face of dire consequences. Its impact was also enough to snag DeMille the award for best entry in the science fiction/fantasy film category at Comic-Con. And while he received positive accolades at other genre-specific film festivals, DeMille admits that wasn’t always the case.

“I applied to all the major [film festivals] like Sundance and Tribeca, full well knowing because it’s long and the genre it is, that it might not necessarily be their cup of tea,” he explained over lunch at his hometown Grape Vine Coffee Shop. “I think it’s because it’s weird and a bit confusing. Most shorts you set up, shoot and it’s done. This one had more of a feel of a feature or part of a feature. Some people appreciated that and some didn’t. But I played some good festivals. On Long Island, I played at Stony Brook, which was great and [my] biggest audience.”

Even though the seeds for a creative career can be credited to the filmmaker’s father Nelson, himself a best-selling author, the younger DeMille took a circuitous route in getting behind a camera. A history major at Yale (“because history was my major, people figured I was going into law or banking and I had no interest in either one of those things. I wasn’t an academic and I wasn’t good at it”), his post-graduation path led to working in a number of Manhattan-based postproduction houses before moving to the West Coast for school in 2005.

Influenced by Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 political drama The Conformist, DeMille decided to go with a story that was a mix of noir and sci-fi thriller. With shooting done in Los Angeles, Manhattan, Oheka Castle and Long Island’s North Fork, the film took 19 days to make, an extraordinary amount of time for a short project like this, according to DeMille.

As is wont to be the case with independently produced features, numerous obstacles cropped up. They ranged from the November when the crew shot outdoors on the East End being the coldest on record in nearly three decades to the film lab calling the director to say the five days-worth of film he’d recently shot might have been unusable (it wasn’t). And while The Absence cost nearly $80,000 to make, much of it was done through cashing in various chits from the social group of filmmakers he met at U.C.L.A. It was the one facet DeMille was unable to find while working at those Manhattan postproduction houses and wound up being a crucial part of the creative toolbox he feels is necessary for any aspiring filmmaker.

“Filmmaking is a social art form. It’s very collaborative and even though everybody wants to be the boss, it’s with the understanding that you can’t get there without helping someone out with grunt work here or there,” he explained. “It was really fun to be on the location shoot. It was a combination of guys I worked with in New York along with a bunch of people from Los Angeles that I flew out that owed me favors or whatever. It was cheaper to fly people out and put them up rather than hire people here if I could get them to work for free. Again, it’s that currency of favors and also, you want your friends around when you’re doing this kind of thing.”

With the positive feedback he’s received from the various genre-specific film festivals where he screened The Conformist, DeMille’s networking has found him making contacts at all the major Hollywood studios. He’s currently splitting his time between adapting his award-winning short into a full-length film and working on the script for a geo-political thriller he calls “an academic Fight Club.” When asked for his advice to aspiring filmmakers, he admits drive, determination and malleability are what’s most needed.

“There is definitely value in non-creative work in the film industry as a way to stay in the world and be exposed to creative work, whether you’re doing it or not,” he pointed out. “Let’s say you want to be a director and you need a job. So you get a job doing something non-creative like production, and that’s good because you’re still meeting people. Just make sure it doesn’t side line you and keep your eye on the prize.”

Alex DeMille’s Screening Room

Everybody loves somebody and for Alex DeMille, these are the cinematic giants he looked up to in crafting his art.

1. The Coen brothers — “I think they’re masters of genre and whatever genre they choose they elevate. There’s a precision to what they do. Every single shot, every single actor, every single line is exactly what it should be. They’re geniuses. No Country For Old Men is one of my favorite films and it’s so different from their other films but they took this different feel with this sparser and bleaker style and completely owned it.

2. David Lynch — “[It’s all about] the feeling you get watching his work even if it doesn’t make sense. It’s okay that his films don’t make sense. They’re so specific and the feeling they imbue you with is almost beyond reason and logic. That’s also a level of genius and I don’t know how he does it.

3. Paul Thomas Anderson — “Even though I wouldn’t say I find his films to be perfect the way I find the Coen brothers to be perfect, I think his level of ambition and command of whatever form he’s working in [is great.] I feel like he’s doing his own thing and not quoting as much. It’s very impressive.

4. Bernardo Bertolucci — “The Conformist was so influential on my movie but his other films were as well. There’s a real moral voice to him that I think is really interesting.”

5. Terrence Malick — There’s something spiritual about his films. They’re big and ambitious and I like that, especially because he can pull it off.

- Dave Gil de Rubio