In Conversation With: Darius Clark Monroe at Sundance

Darius Clark Monroe Director

Darius Clark Monroe is a filmmaker and producer based in New York. His film Evolution of a Criminal, a grantee of the Austin Film Society and an Official Selection of the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, toured internationally to significant acclaim. In 2016, his short film Dirt had its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival; while another project for Time Inc., Two Cities: A Portrait of Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, had its festival premiere at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival.

Back in Park City to present Dirt, Monroe spoke with Sean Malin of C.M. Film Commentary and Criticism about his Sundance screenings, his upcoming feature, Year of our Lord, and why six minutes and forty-six seconds was the perfect length for his newest project. This conversation has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.

Photographs of Darius Clark Monroe courtesy of the director and Katie Grillo.

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Editor’s Note: Darius Clark Monroe’s Dirt and Two Cities both continue to tour the international festival circuit. You can watch the latter now on the filmmaker’s Vimeo page. Visit Evolution’s Facebook page for updates and screening information.
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Sean Malin: Even by Sundance’s standards, Dirt is a very short short.

Darius Clark Monroe: Oh, yeah. Six minutes forty-six seconds.

SM: I was just talking to two Austin-based filmmakers, Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan, who have a twelve-minute short in competition here. They were saying that they got pressure to turn that into a ten-minute short instead. When you talked with your producers and the people helping you to make Dirt, was the “keep it under ten” advice something you considered?

DCM: For all of my shorts, you are looking at the producer. For my fiction shorts, there is never someone else telling me to come in, although I was commissioned last year to do two short documentaries, one for Time Inc. [Two Cities] and another for ESPN. Usually, the film tells me how long it will need to be. We didn’t need to have any conversations about it.

SM: That is exactly what Patrick and Ivete told me. Sure enough, they kept their film’s length.

DCM: I thought Dirt was going to be a ten-minute film. I even got into a debate with my DP [Daniel Patterson] on set because he was saying, “I think it’s going to be between six and eight minutes.” And he was right: 6:46.

SM: It’s such a tight movie, but you get it all in there.

DCM: Even with a short that’s thirteen minutes long, I like for you to say, “I could not tell that was thirteen minutes of my time.” I want to be in and out – it shouldn’t make you suffer *Laughs*. Why should a short make you suffer? If anything, you should want much more. So I’m happy that it’s so tight.

SM: The economy that you have with this story is impressive because Dirt is actually a more complete narrative than a lot of films that are at ten minutes or even feature length. You start and stop…there is a kind of circular narrative, a wrap-around, in it.

DCM: Absolutely.

SM: That narrative structure is very rare. What was the inspiration for that editorial technique?

DCM: It’s definitely weird. Someone asked me if it was a flashback or a flashforward, but no. It’s just the nature of the story.

SM: It reminded me of Inside Llewyn Davis or this film Bloomin Mud Shuffle from a friend of mine, Frank V. Ross, who’s a Chicago filmmaker. Ross’s film does this remarkable thing where it circles back to a character having a drunken scene in a bar. Yet when we get back to it, something is different; it’s the same scene, but not quite exactly.

DCM: Yes, we did that same thing. I guess the inspiration behind that structure is the life cycle. A lot of times in life, we’re taught to expect a kind of repetition: “Here, Darius, it’s Christmas again. It’s Thanksgiving, yet again. It’s New Years Eve…yet again. Here’s another birthday.” Sometimes it feels like every day is Groundhog Day, if you truly break it down, yet no two moments are the same. So if you come back to this diner [in Park City] at this exact same time tomorrow —

SM: And talk to you again on the record for an interview about the exact same things.

DCM: — the same conversation with the same tape recorder, there’s going to be a different vibe, a different energy, a different conversation, even if the change is small or nuanced. It’s not the same. We try to create this illusion of normality, but this whole thing is shifting and evolving in different ways.

SM: It must be a challenge for the actor, Segun Akande, because the idea is that he repeats himself exactly, but not so. He has such an incredible face, too. Did you go hunting for faces that look good in close-up?

DCM: No, he’s just a good friend. *Laughs*

SM: He’s got the features of an Easter Island statue, such a beautiful face for the camera. But did he struggle with the fact that your goal in the film is to get him to make almost the same expressions in almost the same positions over and over again, with you just saying, “Good, repeat, repeat, repeat”?

DCM: I didn’t want to do “repeat, repeat, repeat,” with him – I don’t like to do a lot a coverage. For the most part, it was shot in a linear fashion, except for the very end when we come back to the daylight. But otherwise, the whole film was shot in sequential order.

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SM: The concept of shooting this film in a sequential fashion beguiles me. It’s like how 21 Grams was shot in linear order only to be jumbled around in the edit. This is the kind of narrative that could have been shot any which way, and the film would still look nearly the same.

DCM: We did a little tweaking in the edit, but yeah, everything was sequential, especially since we knew the car shot had to happen. Even up to that shot, everything was still shot in linear order including the night-time stuff. So [Akande] knew the style of acting I was looking for.

SM: What’s his dramatic background?

DCM: He’s a professional actor, mostly in theatre. He was an athlete at Duke University; went into politics; and then decided to go into acting five or six years ago. The conversation never turned to, “I need you to repeat your behavior exactly.” We just discussed the mood and tone. We also talked about the fact that, for me, one of the inspirations of the film was the idea that you have to kill off parts of yourself in order to survive. Whether it is the loss of a friend, the end of a relationship, or an addiction – if there’s something you want to put away – those funerals are very different from a traditional funeral. When you go to traditional funerals, you see people crying at the grave site.

SM: They look sad. Everyone’s in their mourning uniforms.

DCM: For [Akande’s] character, the whole goal was for him to be mechanical about what he was doing: “I want to get this thing in the ground as fast as possible.” Then, once he got it down there and had to sort of sit with the fact that this thing has to be buried, you have this sense of loss.

SM: As the actor plays it, it feels almost triumphant. The magic of his face in the car shot you mentioned is that it turns that shot into the closest thing Dirt has to a climax. You would traditionally say in terms of film structure that that’s the climax of the narrative.

DCM: Oh, yeah.

SM: But it is by far the quietest and least expressive – or the least clear, I guess – scene in the film. There’s this great ambiguity to how Akande’s character is behaving in the car where you can’t tell if he is upset or fulfilled.

DCM: Why is that? Because it is a mixture of both. In order to survive life, you have to feel accomplishment to put that thing away. Yeah, it hurts, but you do feel stronger for having the opportunity to continue. That’s due to the fact that…this film was inspired by the unexpected death of a close friend in 2013.

SM: I didn’t know that. I’m sorry to hear it, Darius.

DCM: No, no, life is like that, when you think about it. Things happen unexpectedly.

SM: But it is always sad, though, when something happens like that.

DCM: Yes, it is. It’s this sad and beautiful thing. Like you said, it’s both sad and triumphant. I was talking to my great-aunt, who just turned eighty, about aging. She was telling me how it is both a blessing and a curse. She says she feels grateful that she’s still here.

SM: Eighty is a pretty amazing age. Where is she, is she in Texas?

DCM: She’s in New Orleans. She’s lost children. She recently lost her husband. As a black woman living in the South, growing up in “waterproof” Louisiana, she’s been through a lot. She has had to earn every single bit of her eighty years. It hasn’t been easy.

SM: It sounds like she’s seen some shit. What neighborhood does she live in?

DCM: She’s in the Treme.

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SM: I did a lot of research in the South towards my Master’s thesis, and I see a profound Southern connection to your films.

DCM: *Laughs* I keep trying to shake it but it keeps coming back.

SM: *Laughs* No, I prefer it. I think it gives your films an edge. I see the semblance of the South in small things, like the shirt the main character wears in Dirt. Evolution of a Criminal has this more obvious connection to diaspora in the South, the fact of the main character in that’s being of African descent. These are equal parts of the Southern experience, and I’m seeing these little tropes exhibit themselves more than ever in the wake of Katrina. But you’ve been trying to shake them?

DCM: Well, I’ve lived in New York for almost twelve years, which is beautiful. I was talking to another filmmaker earlier over lunch, and she’s also from Texas, Dallas specifically. She’s also been living in New York for twelve years. We were talking about how I don’t go to church in New York City. I still believe in a higher being, but I’m not religious and don’t believe in organized religion. Yet themes of spirituality, religion, and art always creep into my work. My next feature film is even called Year of Our Lord. It’s getting more ridiculous as we go. I’m like, “I already made a film about purgatory. Will you please stop? I’ve got a short called Testify. Enough!” It keeps coming back.

SM: Nah, you’re definitely shaking it.

DCM: Although I try to deal with different themes in my work, despair is always a part of it. In Evolution, I never brought up religion or god or anything like that while I was asking questions. Yet the subjects all spoke to me about spirituality and religion so much. It wasn’t intended at all. But in the edit, I realized how natural that was; and what’s interesting is that this wasn’t just happening with my family. People who were inside of the bank talked so much to me about god. One of the main characters ended up being a pastor.

SM: That film got you a lot of notice. I remember the hype because I was living in Austin at a time when you showed the film at the Austin Film Society and got some money from them. How better to describe Evolution then as a movie about someone surviving while simultaneously not surviving, like Dirt?

DCM: I would absolutely agree with that.

SM: And the fact that it is firmly set in this world…

DCM: How to survive in a contemporary world.

SM: I think seeing a contemporary version of Texas onscreen like that is what drew AFS and other Texan viewers to that film, I really get that. So now, I’d like to compare how the reception was to Evolution to how audiences at Sundance have been responding to your new film.

DCM: It is very different with a short because now my film is in the Shorts Program. I was spoiled by having a feature because I got used to having a real dialogue after it screened – if we’ve got the time, we can go a little bit deeper. With Dirt, because there are six other films in the program, I may be able to get a question in. Even though the film is just over six-and-a-half minutes, we could talk for a while about it. The great thing about shorts is that there are some you can just watch over and over again, and still get a new detail each time. There are so many layers to this film, especially because there is no dialogue. I haven’t said this out loud yet, but for instance, there are different parts of the film where the character’s wardrobe mimics the natural environment.

SM: I’m glad you brought this up because if you hadn’t, I was going to. This character wears a thermal, a waffle shirt, that somehow gets cleaner as he’s shoveling dirt. Why is that?

DCM: Some of what’s going on in the film is unnatural. You hear a gunshot, but you don’t see any blood. When the film opens, he has a gray button-down on that’s very similar to the gray bark on the tree right behind him; when he has a white thermal on, he gets into a white Cadillac. It’s like he’s blending in.

SM: Watching the actor hit these marks and start to assimilate into his surroundings is an amazing thing. He seems to have a strong sense of his own physical space, like where he stands and how big his body is in the world, you know?

DCM: Absolutely. In addition to being a technically trained actor, he was also a star athlete for many years. He played basketball, football, and rugby. So yes, he is very well aware of his space and his physical movements. All I told him was to dig that hole like you would dig a hole. I’m not going to say, “How about you dig it like this and dig it like that?” I was just like, “How about you dig this damn hole?”

SM: *Laughs* You were saying that these are the kinds of things you don’t really have the opportunity to say after the shorts program airs, but when you were touring with your feature, people had the chance to dig into it and to you if you were at the screening.

DCM: Right, and actually, I’m sort of glad that isn’t happening with this short. The Sundance audience is an interesting audience. There have been a few viewers who watch it from a very literal standpoint. I had an older audience one day, and I had at least six people over the age of sixty-five come up to me saying, “Please explain what the hell…I can’t stop thinking about it, but I need you to just tell me what I saw. Just give me something.” So I explained the inspiration behind it and we got to talking; after that, they were like, “Oh my god, I got it.” One guy said, “I’m angry at myself,” because he was watching it from a very literal vantage point. But he knew after we talked that it was allegorical – I wasn’t just talking about what he saw on the screen – and he said, “Now I’ve got to watch it again.”

SM: What about when you’ve screened it for younger audiences? How do they respond differently from an older crowd? Is there a less literal interpretation in the younger people?

DCM: I think it depends. We had an audience at Prospector Square [in Park City] that really got it. Sometimes you can just tell that from the energy in the theater. It is a film that if you’re not used to watching films without being given clues by the storyteller and you just get thrown into the dirt, this movie will already be over by the time you get what you’re seeing. You’re likely to say, “I’m at a loss because I didn’t get what the storyteller was trying to feed me.” But if there’s a viewer that’s open to having a two-way conversation…

SM: Yeah, then that person will gel with your vision.

DCM: My goal is to get people to think of films as being a two-way discussion, especially if I’m not present at your screening. It is not just me vomiting all over you for twelve bucks. You’re taking this precious moment out of your lifetime to come experience this.

SM: Unfortunately, at film festivals, the questions that people ask are often pretty simplistic. Or they ask questions that should be off-limits, like, “What was your budget for this film?”

DCM: All the time!

SM: This is what the people who contribute their own time and money to see movies do: they take an interest in the actors or the labor, but not really in the thought process behind the construction of the film. I imagine that Dirt is particularly at risk for these kinds of questions for a few reasons. It is a dialogue-less film; it’s extremely brief, barely even as long as an experimental film might be; and there’s no music. When you heard that this film was getting into festivals, were you concerned that you were going to be asked stupid shit?

DCM: You know what? No, I wasn’t: because there’s no dialogue, and because there’s no music, that six minutes and forty-six seconds of film feels like a nice, lengthy six-and-a-half minutes. So it doesn’t feel like we’re in a rush. With every short film I do, I put some rules out.

SM: What were those with Dirt?

DCM: One actor. No dialogue. No music. All exteriors. Those were the rules before we even got to set. I knew that there was never going to be music. There was one little moment when we were in the edit where I was like, “Should we put a little music in?” but then I thought, “Hell, no.” I love sound design, and I thought that there were so many great things you could do with sound in a film like this. The sound of his breathing, the atmosphere – that was why there’s no music. It’s all the soundscape.

SM: Now a question about your technical choices before reaching set. When you make a short film like this, in addition to setting out your rules, do you map out the shots yourself or with your DP before going into production?

DCM: We did have a shot-list for Dirt. Daniel Patterson, my DP, and I are best friends. We’ve known each other for almost twelve years. Excluding one short, he’s shot everything I’ve done. Both of us are incredibly visual. Then there were moments where we were on set, and they’re changing the lens, so I’m walking around, looking. I remember walking to go get a water bottle, and I turned to Daniel who was right across the field from me. I said, “When it gets dark, I want that Cadillac to come up here with nothing else but a light.” Stuff like that would change. But we knew we needed to get the car shot. We knew we needed to get the shot of [the main character] looking in the camera when he opens the trunk.

Again, Daniel and I don’t like to do a lot of coverage – we don’t like BS. We are very efficient. I am super clear and he always knows what I want. It is very rare that we’re standing around on set debating where to put the camera. The location for Dirt was found two days before we flew down from New York to shoot it.

SM: Where did you shoot?

DCM: Originally, we were supposed to shoot the film in May, but due to the actor’s scheduling and my schedule, it didn’t work out. So my mother’s new husband is from Eagle Lake, Texas, and that’s where we ended up shooting. He took me to many different places in the area. There was one moment where he pulled off some dirt road and we crept all the way to this dead end. From the side of the road, I saw this huge dead tree in the middle of a field, and I said, “Stop the car, stop the car!” I got out of the car. I saw that [the tree] was surrounded by a few others. I always thought that the film was going to be shot in a heavily wooded area; but from the moment I saw that tree in that small grove, I knew that was going to do it. I started sending pictures to Daniel in New York. Sure enough, the crew gets in to Eagle Lake, we walk around the area, and he says, “Where do you want the camera?” I walked to a location and he says, “That is exactly where I would put it.”

SM: Okay, one last thing out of personal curiosity. You are in a position now where you don’t have to do this, but shorts filmmakers often get accused of simply making calling card films, or films that are intended to develop into something bigger. When you were writing, shooting or editing Dirt, did you consider expanding it into a feature?

DCM: No, no, never a feature. I’m absolutely not against that, and I’ve seen it happen and work.

SM: Me too, and I don’t mean it offensively. It’s something that gets used as a weapon against shorts filmmakers, but Dirt is so complete that it doesn’t strike me as something that would get such accusations.

DCM: Yes, I think that when people see Dirt, they know that this is not a feature. Watching it, you can tell, “He is not doing this to get funded for a longer Dirt.” Dirtier. Still Dirty. That’s not the impulse behind it. I’m just hoping that people watch this and think, “This is an artist expressing himself.”

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