For the past month, Summer has been in full swing here in Texas…well, truth be told, Summer really starts in April, but I digress. So while there are many ways to beat the heat this time of year, one of the dependable standbys is retreating to a darkened theater.
As part of a new series here at GoSeeTalk, we will start to shine a spotlight on some of the local Texas-born or bred filmmakers making a name for themselves. You may have heard of Shane Carruth, David Lowery or David Gordon Green, but there are similarly talented filmmakers here in the Metroplex right on the cusp of discovery. Not only do these talented individuals know a thing or two about the film biz, they live and work right in here our own back yard.
So to kick things off, we’re starting with Derek Presley who, among receiving much acclaim for his short films, recently had his latest short Stryngs selected by and shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
I’ve personally done a little production design work with Derek in the past for a TV pilot he pitched the BBC and a Terry Gilliam inspired short The 82 Peddler, so he was far and away my first choice for this series. So, without further ado, allow us to introduce you writer/director Derek Presley…
– Hey Derek, good to talk with you again, and belated congrats on Stryngs making its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Let’s start by telling us about your background, schooling and early interest in film.
Films were always a part of my childhood, as many people. Especially children of the 80s because the video stores blew up and every week you had access to hundreds of movies to watch over and over again… My father and I watched westerns. My mother and I always leaned towards thrillers or horror. There was something great about going to the video store and picking a movie with the entire family…then watch it in its entirety. Nowadays we lose interest during the movie and start
playing on the computer…Is it because movies have become worse, or is it because as a species our attention span is nil? I think the same thing happened to novels once films and television came out. Nobody read and everyone watched the tube. Funny.
I really became interested in film when my older brother passed away. My folks tried getting me to concentrate on things and not worry about this and that and whatnot, so they said focus on anything. I had two things – basketball and films. After I quickly realized I was a short white guy with no “hops”, I turned to film and never looked back. I took it very seriously, so serious that when I started I was 13 and now I’m 30 and I’m still working at it and poor because of it but I don’t care.
I took a broadcast journalism class in high school, and that was only to use the editing equipment and video cameras for my own movies…which the equipment was tape to tape linear editing decks – old school. But I did become obsessed with Barnes N Nobles and how-to filmmaking books…the library – for classic literature …and, as every kid who wants to be a filmmaker that grew up in the 90s…a video camera. It was really just a process of shooting everything I could and tell little stories and then torture my parents by showing it to them a hundred times.
– We’ve talked at length bout how Terry Gilliam and Jean Pierre Jeunet were very influential to your work, but what about them do you admire so much? Also who are your other heroes?
Gilliam’s view of the world and his ability to make any kind of movie interesting, visually. Take Brazil for instance – my favorite film of all time and it’s absolutely bat-shit crazy and visually stunning. The story is also insane and it’s easy to see why the look of the film is so crazy. But then you have Fisher King which is equally visually impressive and with that story, it could have been shot in a very drab and boring way…but not with Gilliam’s eye. Jeunet is mostly because of his work ethic which I shamelessly stole. He storyboards every single shot. He works tirelessly on the visuals and his movies are usually embedded in a fantasy world. They’re both great.
My other heroes are a combination of Authors, musicians and Directors – Fellini, Mark Twain, Dickens, Neil Gaiman, the Coens, Les Claypool, Beethoven and last but not least Graham Lineham.
– Your stories and films have very fantastical elements but still focus on the human element. How do you find that balance between the two?
Mostly, thus far, it’s come down to the human element being humor. I can’t really take too many things in life seriously. Maybe that will change, but for now, I like to explore fantastical ideas with a bit of humor. And I’m not sure if there’s been a balance yet. I’ve yet to do a feature, so hopefully I’ll find it. I think Stryngs was something that seemed funnier as I wrote it but then it became a sad story…So they don’t always come out the way I thought they would.
– Each of your shorts seem like they can exist in the same universe but are still so distinct and wildly different from each other. Do any of your ideas begin with one project but do elements or characters become inspiration for the next story?
Not really. I’ve written some features where we’ve been inspired by some short film scripts…but as for the characters in the short films, no, not really. Somebody else noticed that I like to write films about old, disgruntled guys who are kind of forgotten about or people that are out of place with society…maybe there’s a connection.
– There’s an idea that if it’s a short film the production time is shorter. But that’s not entirely true is it? What’s the longest shoot/production you’ve had and what were your most notable difficulties?
Well these last few shorts have ran pretty tight and we’ve been able to get a lot done with a few days of shooting…however, the early ones were brutal. I shot a short film about 9 years ago and it was 18 days of shooting spread out over 3 months and long hours. The problems were all associated with the fact that we didn’t know what the hell we were doing! Which was great – innocence at its finest. We just went out and tried making a good film but we didn’t have experience. That, and the scripts were always convoluted and overwritten. But we worked it out.
– Getting into Cannes must have been a big deal and quite a surprise. But which short film are you the most proud of and why? Follow that up with what changed the most from start to finish. Also, what taught you the most about being a director (or writer)?
As for which I’m most proud of…I’m not sure. I can tell you I have something from each one that has made me want to keep making films. One thing during each production that keeps me coming back. I guess I have to say The 82 Peddler is a secret favorite of mine. When we started, Cody Berry (co-writer) and I thought it would be hilarious. We were loving it and thinking it would be a dark comedy but during the course of shooting as well as the casting of certain people and then on to editing, it became more serious. I still find it humorous but that’s because I’m morbid. The tone of the movie became vastly different from what we originally thought but for the better! That’s what’s great about collaborating with people that all add to the story you’ve written and concocted in your head. Collaboration and delegation is what all of these short film productions teach me.
– This series focuses on Texas talent so tell us about local trades you work with (or want to plug), their role and why, if applicable, you work with them continually?
So many great people work together here in this area and I haven’t been able to work all of them but I like to collaborate with different people all the time. Texas has a ridiculous amount of hard working, talented people to work with.
– Fair enough, well Stryngs was different because it had no dialog which made the story more universal and allowed viewers to interpret it freely. What about the story was important to tell it that way?
It was always supposed to be silent, at least with the actual story. Although in the first draft I had a narrator but Brandon Schwindt convinced me to make it completely silent which I love because it really coincides with the Puppets. Puppet shows are visual more than anything. It only made since this story was pure visual with a score that anchored it. I was also influenced by an amazing short film that Troy Nixey made titled Latchkey’s Lament. It was a non-dialogue film with a simple story made with exceptional costumes and set pieces…When I saw that, I thought “that’s the way to make a short”.
You can read more about Derek on his IMDb page.