An Interview with DeSales

Winner of the Athena Best Director Award

Q1 IndieKINO wants to first off congratulate you on your achievements at the IndieKINO International Film Festival. Please give me a few comments about your achievements.

Thank you very much! It was a great honor to win "Best Director" at the first IndieKINO International Film Festival. I am very happy that kalin’s prayer has resonated with so many different kinds of people around the world - especially because a lot of my film professors at New York University Graduate Film School advised me to change almost everything about kalin’s prayer that makes it what it is - the story, the look, the cutting, the music! It is especially cool that a festival in South Korea would be so supportive.

I'm very proud that, to date, kalin’s prayer has been invited to 111 film festivals in 26 countries and has won over 35 awards, including 14 First-Place awards in both the narrative and experimental categories - 12 in the professional category. The awards span a broad range from the mainstream to the cutting-edge to the socially conscious, and include four Audience Awards. I think this is a testament to the fact that there are universal emotions, passions and truths that defy political boundaries - which is what makes art so great and so dangerous to the powers that be.

I'd like to acknowledge here the courage of all my actors, who went very deep inside themselves to find and reveal those emotions.

Q2 What made you start making films?

DeSales: On a strictly personal level, I wanted to start making films because I wanted to be able to go to the movie theatre and feel what guys often say they felt - empowered! As a young girl, I was encouraged by my father, mother, grandparents and teachers (I went to an all-girls school) to be independent, to use my brain and to play sports. But when I went to the movies, I would only see women who were cast as the most hideous of characters - they were always weak or had been demonized and they always lacked any heroic qualities - I could never identity with any of these women!

I think it's like when Spike Lee went to NYU in order to put real Black people up on the big screen, rather than the white man's untruthful version of what Black people were like. Today, I hear girls complain about this lack of female heroes all the time. I also hear frustration from the female actors in Hollywood who say there are no good roles for them to play, no strong female protagonists. I think there is a huge market for meaningful films featuring strong female protagonists that has yet to be tapped and I'd like to tap it. On a broader level, as a civil rights attorney, I realized that film was a great way to provide images and myths that could promote positive change in the world, both for women and for men - I believe that men will never achieve true happiness until they find the courage to set women free.

I also believe that Hollywood/Indiewood writers and directors present only a very narrow vision of the planet and the way we are supposed to relate to it - and that vision is too often patriarchal, materialistic and violent. Not to mention the fact that in their vision everyone looks the same! I'm afraid we are exporting all the bad things about the United States to other countries in our movies and that young people in other cultures are beginning to adopt the most stereotypical and consumerist ideas. I fear that we will become one big homogenous marketing category for United States businesses. In my future films, I'd like to give girls and boys healthier role models - it seems that the kids in Hollywood movies are mean-spirited and superficial. The kids I know are just the opposite!

In my first feature, Rock the Planet, the message is that we should learn to be true to ourselves, whoever we are, despite our natural inclination to want to please others. We must learn to celebrate our individuality and believe that we don't have to behave a certain way because of our gender, our nationality, the color of our skin or any other superficial characteristic.

Q3 Do you have any concepts or principles in directing films?
I want to make films that seem "real" emotionally, no matter how fantastic the story. I also want to tell complex and meaningful stories that connect with working people on an emotional level as well as challenge them on an intellectual level. I know that's a hard thing to do - writing a screenplay is very tough. I'd hope my films could positively change someone's life - even if it's in a small way, like to make them understand someone else a little better. With all the money we spend making films while millions of people are starving in this world, it seems wrong not to provide something positive to the planet in your movie. People are always telling me that the movies out there are so "stupid" and a "waste of money." It doesn't have to be that way.

I think that people are smarter than Hollywood thinks they are. Hollywood itself is always saying it's two steps behind the audience and that "nobody knows anything" in Hollywood. Well, it shows - only about 10% of Hollywood movies actually connect with audiences enough for them to make a profit. I think people want to see the kind of movies I want to make, despite what "Hollywood" says. I also want to push boundaries with visual and sound elements. I love that in a film!

I've been told I do have a style, but I'm not sure I could explain it. Maybe "Ken Loach meets MTV"? I think I need a few more movies under my belt to be sure. I do know that I want to continue to grow and experiment - that's what pleases my brain emotionally and keeps me happy.
Q4 Do you prefer writing a script or a draft when you make a film?
Again, I've only made one narrative film, and for that I tried to make as firm a script as I could. However, because I also had to go to classes 18 hours a week and work as a Teaching Assistant, I don't think the script was as tight as it should have been.

In my past lives as a professional athlete, coach and civil rights attorney, I've always been a firm believer in preparation, so I think my method for my features will be to write a very complete and story-boarded script, but to stay very open to all suggestions and modifications as we go from pre-production to production - especially from my actors.

I believe some of the best work and truest moments in a film come from structured improvisation. But I also realize that the input of anyone can be valuable - grips, production assistants, drivers. In the end, film is a great way to make art because everyone has to work as a team and collaboration is my favorite part of the process.
Q5 Regarding short films, is this a good way of selling short films and how big is your domestic market for short films.
I'm not sure what you mean by "is this a good way of selling short films." The domestic market for short films has supposedly "exploded" in the past year with the growth of the internet. However, the internet short film distributors seem focused on an even narrower vision of film than Hollywood - they typically are looking for comedies and animation aimed at adolescent boys. I think this is completely wrong-headed because you can see these types of films bigger and better in theatres all the time.

I think the smart thing would be to program stories and genres that aren't promoted in the "mainstream." People who can't relate to Hollywood stuff would suffer the inferior format in order to see something they can't see on the big screen - some story, some character that they can relate to.

It seems that the demand for short films from internet distributors is once again decreasing as it becomes clear that very few people have internet connections that are fast enough to make watching a movie online anything other than painful. Right now only 6% of the United States have fast-speed connections - it's even less in the rest of the world, except perhaps the Scandinavian countries. Once the technology catches up, I think there may be more of a demand again.

Also, in the past 5 years, cable channels such as The Sundance Channel and The Independent Film Channel have provided programming for short films. Finally, airlines in this country are also licensing short films.
Q6 Let me know how well your country protects the rights of feature/short films against illegal copies.
Although there will always be bootlegs, the United States has some of the strongest copyright protections in the world and, to the extent one has a lawyer to enforce one's rights, one is pretty much protected. In fact, our national Constitution is very much concerned with the protection of private property. Moreover, because our country is very entrepreneur-oriented, the theory is that we need strong copyright laws to provide incentive to create.

Of course, now it's becoming easier to make copies of DVD's on the internet. A new body of case law is thus developing to protect copyright holders against piracy over the net, as in the case of the Napster and decisions, where the courts found in favor of the copyright holders.
Q7 Is it easy to show a feature film in the movie theater and make it VHS to sell.
It's difficult to get a feature film in the movie theatres unless it has major studio backing because there are so many films being made now. If a movie does get distribution, it will only last a few days if it doesn't do very well, very quickly. It is thus crucial to devote a large part of the budget to marketing the film before it hits the theatre.

Creative use of the internet in promoting the film is, I believe, crucial. The directors of The Blair Witch Project used the internet to create a huge audience for a very "experimental" film. As for VHS and DVD's, studios rely on home video sales and rentals for about 55% of their domestic revenue. Many films that go straight to video are very profitable. As more people get DVD players, they will buy rather than rent movies because it is so much cheaper to make a DVD than a VHS.
Q8 When you cast actors or actresses, are they willing to join your film, even though their roles may not be a big one in your film? Let me know how the way you cast actors and actresses.
I cast most of my actors by placing an ad in our New York actor's paper called Backstage. I devoted a lot of time to casting because I believe that actors are the most important component of the film. I auditioned over 150 women for Kalin, many with Master's Degrees in acting from Yale, Juilliard and New York University. I eventually cast Kris Carr, who didn't have a degree in acting at all, but who was fantastic! The women actors said they were intrigued by Kalin's story because they said that there were so few parts for female actors that were as multi-dimensional as her's.

I also cast from actors I saw in Wynn Handman's acting class at Carnegie Hall, which I attend as an auditing director. Wynn is a very famous acting coach - he's coached people like Denzel Washington, Mira Sorvino and John Leguizamo - and he accepted me into his class as a director on the strength of the recommendation of one of his students, Denise Wilbanks, who plays Kalin's mother.

I am very lucky, because there are long waiting lists to get into his class. I also was very lucky to cast actors from his class for non-speaking parts who are now acting in big Broadway productions! They were all very generous with their time and understood, as I do, that every actor is important to the story, no matter how little screen time or dialogue she or he has. They said they typically didn't work on student films, but that they wanted to work with me on a story they felt was important. Because it was a student film, everyone worked for free. I just tried to provide the most professional working environment I could (as well as the best food!).
Q9 Did you have any chance to see films made in Asia or Africa? And, if you did, what are your comments on them?
First, as a former civil rights attorney and athletic coach, I don't have a lot of background in watching films of any country! It was a joke at NYU film school that I hadn't seen very many movies - not even the American "classics" such as Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind (I still haven't J). As I noted before, I really couldn't relate to most films growing up (I still don't) and preferred to be out playing sports or doing something active to sitting in a dark room watching women play pathetic characters. It's been said to me that my lack of knowledge helped me be more creative with kalin’s prayer because I didn't have a preconceived notion of how a film should be constructed and helped me make a movie out of real life rather than from other movies.

Second, I have a hard time critiquing anybody else's films as films. They are extremely difficult to make and anyone who completes a film should be complimented. I also know that film, like all art, is completely subjective and I'm not good with all the aesthetics class concepts like my classmates were. However, I have no problem in stating how I related to it.

With that being said, I have seen all of Wong Kar-Wai's movies and I am a big fan of his visual and musical sense. His films take me someplace that always stimulates my brain, even if the story is non-linear. I have seen one John Woo movie, but it was made in the U.S. (Face Off). It too was beautiful visually - in a different way from Wong Kar-Wai - but much too violent for my taste. It is dangerous to make violence so beautiful! The screenplay also was very misogynist - so disdainful of women.

I recently saw Xiu-Xiu: The Sent Down Girl and found it very much from the male perspective, even though it was directed by Joan Chen. I felt it would have been more truthful if it had explained how a girl would be compelled to sell her soul like that and shown how it is like a living-death. I saw the "female" action flick The Heroic Trio with Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh. It was fun to see the three women interact, but it basically was also a male-oriented film - a lot of glorified violence and women in scanty clothing. Chinese Box by Wayne Wang was fabulous visually and acted beautifully (in my opinion). I loved the music so much I bought the soundtrack. It seems that Asian directors are not afraid to use the visual medium to support the emotion of the film, which I hope I can learn to do.

Another amazing film visually was Temptress Moon, by Chen Kaige. The whole movie was poetry and the story was very powerful. I also saw a Taiwanese film that I liked very much at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, called Mei-Li Zai Changge (Murmur of Youth). It was not visually spectacular, but slow and wonderful. I recently saw After Life by Hirokazo Kore-eda, which had a documentary feel that I like in movies and a philosophical idea behind it that is missing from most U.S. films. I can't say I got emotionally involved in the story, however.

Last, but not least, I am very, very psyched to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when it is released! Strong female protagonists, beautiful ballet-like martial arts and a director who does not have a chip on his shoulder against women (Ang Lee went to my film school, NYU). I have never seen a Korean film, but I am looking forward to seeing Kwon Taek's Chunyang.

I've seen only one African film and that was a South African film by the playwright Athol Fugard, who presented it to my class at NYU. I forget the name of it but it was very moving and very powerful in its anti-racist message. I'd love more suggestions for films from either region, if you have them!
Q10 Let me know what products you have made besides the awarded film.
kalin’s prayer is the only film I have taken to release print. The other films that I directed were for my Master's Film Degree Program at New York University. I made a 4 minute b&w reversal 16mm film with no dialogue in my first semester, first year at NYU and a 10 minute 16mm documentary (b&w and color) called Paula¡| in my second semester, first year.

In accordance with our curriculum at NYU, these projects were evaluated by the NYU faculty at the fine/rough cut and scratch mix stage and then we had to quickly move on to our first narrative film for our second-year. I hope to have the time and money to finish Paula¡| at some point - I have enough footage to make it an hour-long documentary. A lot of people have had very nice things to say about this film, which also is a tragic one because our instructions from NYU were to find a subject for our documentary who was going to be similar to the main character in our second-year film. So, I had to find someone who had been sexually abused and who was self-medicating with crack-cocaine, like Kalin.

I'm now developing a film that I describe as an international Fame meets Good Will Hunting set in the East Village in New York City. I'll be shooting some of it in documentary style, some of it in a kalin’s prayer style and some of it in very lush, traditional cinematic style. It will all depend upon the scene. A lot of the performers are actual up-and-coming musicians from around the world that I cast while I was travelling with kalin’s prayer. The protagonist is a rock singer from New York who was just signed by a record label and her mentor is a real-life former international opera star, who also won acclaim on Broadway.

I've had interest from studios, but I want to get my entertainment company, insite started first. I want insite to produce the soundtrack, as well - I used to manage a band and executive produced their first album. We are now looking for international investors. We'll use the studios for the distribution of the film, while we pay for 75% of the production and advertising in order to keep control of the product.

I don't want to be like the guys in Blair Witch, who made Artisan millions and who walked away with very little in their own pockets. I also don't want Hollywood to mess up the film, like they did with Blair Witch II!
Q11 The film uses various expressing like step printing, B&W, out-of-focus, and still cuts. Those ways were used to show psychological descriptions of the main actresses?
Actually, only 3 shots were created in post-production because I did not have enough money to do them in post. All of the other "special effects" were done in-camera. I shot a lot of the effects, especially the slow shutter speed shots, on my hi-8 video camera, which I then transferred to film. As it turns out, I like in-camera effects better.

Yes, I try to use the medium of film as a visual palette to support the emotion of the scene or, once in a while, just to do something that stimulates my visual brain in a way that doesn't conflict with the story. Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express was the first film I saw that used these in-camera effects (much better than I) and it was fantastic!

However, I do believe that visual effects should be used to enhance a good story strongly acted - not take the place of it.


Director's point of view about lesbianism seems to be too emotional. Do you think that your standpoint is well exposed in the film?
I am not sure what you mean by "too emotional." I also am not sure what you mean by my point of view about "lesbianism" per se. The story is simply about a woman's love for another human being who values her for her brain, not her body. And that person happens to be a woman. It is about the fact that love does not mean "sex" but, rather, accepting someone unconditionally.

I have been approached by many, many people of all sexualities who told me they could relate to Kalin's journey - one fellow burst into tears in my arms in the middle of the aisle in the Castro Theater in San Francisco! I think that films should be about emotions and things I feel emotional about - and I think that's exactly what makes kalin’s prayer attractive to a lot of people, especially young people.

As for the hassle Kalin gets from everyone about how she wants to present herself and what interests she has, I have experienced all of that oppression. Many women I know who grew up athletic also were hassled because they wanted to wear comfortable clothes. I've also had a lot of women tell me that they totally identify with Kalin's choice not to present themselves sexually.
Q13 Viewers can think that it is a little conventional that the story about the main actress "Kalin" especially moving to lesbianism in her childhood. What do you think?
To believe that sexual abuse "causes" a woman to "become" a lesbian woman, tells me more about the viewer than the movie. It is well documented in this country that over 25% of all women have been sexually abused - women's organizations believe the figure is much higher, but that this crime is very under-reported. Because out lesbian women account for about 5% of the U.S. population, obviously 20% of those women who have been abused are practicing heterosexuals. Thus, a lot more women who are sexually abused become practicing heterosexuals than lesbian women. Further, psychological research shows that people tend to compulsively relive their traumas as adults. Therefore, a woman would be much more likely to be "attracted" to an abusive man if she were abused by a man in her lifetime. Thus, as a survivor of abuse, Kalin made the unusual choice to be with women instead of a man! I think she made this choice out of the little bit of self-love she had in her. That the compulsion to destroy herself was stronger speaks to the absolute devastation of sexual abuse. The whole lie that lesbianism is "caused" by male sexual abuse is just the patriarchy trying to explain away the subversive act of "choosing" to love a woman instead of a man in a society where heterosexuality is enforced socially and psychologically by a male-dominated society. It thus makes a relationship between two women a pathology per se, rather than a choice of self-nurturing.
Q14 What is the attitude about minorities including homosexuality in the USA? In your point of view, is there a lot of oppression on minorities?
Like in any other country, people here who are different from the ruling class (of white men) are oppressed for their "difference." However, the United States has very strong laws against discrimination - they are the laws I enforced as a civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C. In fact, I litigated a gender discrimination case against the lawyer who later became White House Counsel and who defended President Clinton in his Senate impeachment trial regarding the Monica Lewinsky affair.

The United States also has the principle of equality built into its national Constitution. However, as long as there are insecure and inept people who want to hold power, there will be discrimination. Prejudice is for the weak. I wish there were a lot less prejudice in my country - and in the world as a whole.

Hopefully, my future movies will promote understanding among different peoples and encourage them to celebrate, not fear, their diversity.
Q15 If you want to say any comment to all viewers of your film, let me know.
I would like to thank the IndieKINO International Film Festival for opening up its world to me and kalin’s prayer and for supporting so generously filmmaking that is made outside the box. Although I received a lot of advice to change kalin’s prayer - to make it more linear, more "upbeat," more conventional - I feel that I made the right decision to stay as true to myself as I could. It seems to have been the right decision because it has connected to people - especially young people - all over the world.

To be validated by your festival gives me courage to continue to make films that I feel are important to make despite what the "experts" say! I would also like to thank all of the viewers who voted for kalin’s prayer and for those who took the time to support the festival - I thought the web site was fabulous!

Cheers from the East Village in New York.