“How do I think you get more films made here locally? You make films yourself. You lead by example.”
[This is part 1 of 3 in a series of interviews with self-starters creating opportunities for themselves in Hawaii.]
Darieus Legg is a local filmmaker from Big Island who will be premiering his first feature-length film at this year’s Hawaii International Film Festival. Why we’re stoked on self-taught filmmaker? He’s the definition of passion. After a grueling two-years of what he calls his own personal film school, Ecila will be his culmination of a lifetime in love with moving pictures.
<photo_credit>Profile Photos by Aaron Yoshino
You started surfing professionally at 17. Why did you stop and start pursuing film?
Well first and foremost, I wasn’t having any results. I wasn’t succeeding like I thought, and I didn’t want it as bad as what I want with film. Growing up on Big Island, you surf because that’s just what you do – there’s nothing else to do. I started getting paid at 17, and I got to go around the world, saw a lot of really cool stuff, made a lot of friends, but my passion wasn’t there for it. It’s funny how that translates to a life in film. For me, filmmaking is not a career, it’s a lifestyle. It’s what I am. I think in that fashion of film all the time. Everything I see is a piece of something I’ll use somewhere I’m sure. That passion is what was really lacking for me in the surfing career. And I really wanted to go to school too.
So did you go to film school?
I actually got denied from film school. I was already going to Shidler School of Business at UH Manoa and they said it was just a conflict of interest, because I was already so far along in business school. So I got a marketing degree, and learned how to finish things that I didn’t want to finish.
When did you start making films?
Technically, 8 years old. We had a family video camera, and my brother Cyrus and I used to set it up in the living room, and connect it to the TV so you could see yourself on the TV through the camera. Man that really blew me away. I just loved seeing me and – well particularly me, I guess, because at that age, that’s all you think about. I was so fascinated by that fictitious world, and I really loved that there’s a world inside that box, so to see myself on there, now imposed on that screen – I was really blown away. So I started doing imitations at the time. I remember doing George Bush, and Ross Perot, imitations of the Gulf War, and things I heard in the news but didn’t understand because I was only 8 years old.
Oh and I loved Spielberg. At 8. I’d take a knife and use fake blood, and cut myself, and be like, “This is how you do a knife cut!” At the beginning of Ecila is one of those recordings. It’s me in front of the camera and I’m 8 with a bowl cut, and I say, “I’m Darieus Spielberg.” Freeze frame, and the camera pulls back and says, “Network Projex since 1992.” So people can really understand that Ecila is not a one-time thing for me. It’s a culmination of a lifetime of movies that is just another stepping stone to my own personal journey in film.
What made you decide to do a feature length?
Sitting on a plane with my brother going to Big Island on Hawaiian Airlines during college. I remember asking him – mind you he wasn’t really paying attention, I was just kind of talking to myself; I do that a lot – but I was like, “we’ve been doing this film stuff for a long time.” He was like, “yeah I know.” I’m like, “well you know how dad always said to us, ‘we should just do what we like in life,’ well why don’t we just keep doing that? Let’s make a full-length movie. What’s stopping us?”
Robert Rodrigues, who made the movie Desperado, was very inspiring to me. He made a film for $7,000 called El Mariachi. And I was doing my research, and I kept pitching my brother, like, “Come on we can do this! Lets make a movie together! Let’s do it.”
So we pulled our money together, bought a camera, bought some really janky production equipment, like really cheap stuff, and we started making a movie called, Honolulu, The Untold Story, which I’m thinking that’s going to be my next film after Ecila. It’s about these two New Yorkers and they come here and they start a gypsy cab service, and it’s about their experience here. But we tried and we tried and we failed, and it just wasn’t working. Then my brother was getting really busy, and he was losing interest pretty quick. So I was like, OK, I’m gonna have to do this alone. I have about a year and a half to graduate from college. By the time I get done from college, I’m going to write a script. I’m gonna make a movie no matter what when I get out of college, and I don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but it’s going to be this culmination of ideas in my head, put into one story.
I feel like there’s so many little details. It’s not like there’s one simple answer to any of this. Because it’s been such a process. A lot of people just think there’s a switch that goes on, like one day you’re not a filmmaker, the next day you are. But no, it’s a lifetime of a thought just growing. And people don’t see that process. They only see the end result. They only see Ecila the movie, and they’re like well this guy came out of nowhere and decided to make a movie. Well, no, I didn’t. It took me a very long time to get myself together, to get elements in my life together to get to that point.
Still from Ecila.
You once wrote, “To truly understand what being a filmmaker means, one should think about the art of breathing. You do not think about it, it is inherent, but yet you do it all the time.” Explain that.
Well, I always felt that humans are storytellers. I mean, almost all the native cultures are based on oral tradition. So what I mean by that is it’s inherent in us to tell stories. All a filmmaker does is tell stories, but they just use a medium that’s a camera. Breathing is something you don’t think about, you just do. It’s spontaneous. Storytelling is the same way for people, but they just don’t realize it. You have to consciously stop and go, Oh my god, I’ve been telling stories my whole life.
Can you talk a little bit about your crew?
My partner in the film is Robert Campbell. He’s out promoting the film, getting it on the streets, creating a buzz about it, and he’s also my backbone in the sense, where if I’m stressed out and completely shattered about doing whatever, he is there to put an arm around me, and be like, no man, you’re doing good, keep going. Let me help you. What do you need help with? Or he may see what I’m creatively frustrated with. Shooting the film, we had a crew of people. I had a lighter, a camera operator, sound guy and all that stuff, but in post, I’m like a one-man crew. I’m doing like seven jobs in post-production. Editing, rewriting of the story, the visual effects, the graphic design, the color aesthetics, the logo. I had to have an enormous amount of help, but yeah, essentially it does come down to your spirit, and how strong you are. And people respond off of that.
[sidebar] “WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO IS CHOOSING WHETHER YOU WANT TO BE A SLAVE TO SOMETHING YOU LIKE OR A SLAVE TO SOMETHING YOU DON’T LIKE.”
Since you didn’t go to film school, where did you learn these skills?
I’ve spent hours – well, two years – studying editing and principal storytelling. I mean, Lajos Egri, Joseph Campbell, Walter Murch – those three have been my teachers. Of course, I’ve watched countless amounts of Scorcese and Coppola films, but those were filmmakers. There are certain components of a film that you need: One caters to the writing, one caters to the mythology behind what you’re writing, and one caters to the actual edit of a film. Editing is one of the most fascinating things in filmmaking. You can put two images back to back, and create a third meaning. For example, you have one image of a guy who’s staring intensely, and you put that right next to an image of a baby about to be hit by a truck. Those two images being back to back like that creates a feeling. You may be disgusted, happy, sad. But you’re creating feelings with every edit, every cut.
So to sum it all up, I had to study that stuff intensely. Because I made the film, and it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. The film totally broke me, and broke my spirit. Broke everything. But that rebuilding process… It’s like being born again, kinda. Being a born-again filmmaker. Because you get broken and you choose the way you want to be rebuilt. If it wasn’t that way, I don’t think the film would be anywhere near what it is today. No way. It would’ve been what it was two years ago, which was a really bad film school film.
What has been the biggest challenge, the most frustrating thing?
Staying grounded. Staying grounded in knowing why I’m making the movie. It’s a very big battle. Like it would be easy to fall into making the movie just to make a profit, making the movie just to make noise in the film community. Making the movie to just do a lot of things not true to my inner truth. Because you’re constantly thrown distractions. What do they call it? Like threshold guardians at the gate. Ogres, snakes in the grass. You’re constantly thrown these obstacles. To stay true to that inner reason, that’s what I struggle with.
So what is that inner truth for you?
That making movies just really makes me happy. But it’s the process really that makes me tick. It’s my life source. I think if you stop and listen to yourself, you hear what you really need. So to further define it, I’m not making Ecila to get rich and famous, and I’m not making Ecila for any of the materialistic things that can come with making these projects. My goal at the end of my life is to look back and say I had a great life in film, and my personal journey through film helped people somehow. That’s what I want to do, is make movies that affect people. I don’t want to change people’s lives – I don’t think that a movie can, by the way – but my impact, my contribution to society would be my work, which is film.
Where did you get funding?
All our selves. I’m extremely in debt. It was like going to school again. Some people helped us along the way, two in particular are Xanadu Kekuewa and Daniel Dabs. They just trusted us. Really believed in the film.
What do you think about all the big-budget films shooting in Hawaii?
Well I think to understand that, there has to be some things said. Those movies that come here and shoot, they’re financed by Universal, Paramount, so they have no interest in local film. They’re not here to promote local film. They’re just here to get a tax break, save money, use the location and leave. So they don’t really have anything to do with indie filmmaking. And they never will probably. But there’s no reason why there isn’t more films being made here by local filmmakers. Everyone thinks it’s an impossible dream, everyone thinks that it’s this illusion that you have to have certain things to do it. But the only thing you need is your drive. It sounds so cliché to say, but that’s what I believe in. So I think a lot of indie films should and could be made here.
What do you think needs to be done to create a more thriving film community?
Well that’s one of the things I’m hoping to do with Ecila, as far as the film community. I’m hoping to use that as an opportunity to inspire other people to do it, because a government is not gonna be able to aid that – that’s really gotta come from inside. Like I hope there’s some kid in Kalihi who just wants to pick up his or her mom and dad’s video camera, and make a movie, because that person wants to do it. A government or an organization can’t instill that. What you can do is inspire. If we just get one kid who comes out of the nowhere in four years, who’s says, I watched Ecila four years ago and I decided to make my own – that’s totally success to me. That’s how I think you get more films made here. You make films yourself. You lead by example.
Is filmmaking a viable career?
To be honest, you really can’t think of it as a career. It really has to be something that comes from within you. You wanna do it, cuz you wanna do it. As long as you think of the whole process as something you would be doing anyway, that’s all you need. Yeah society says you need to go work 9 to 5, you need to do this and that, but I guess what it comes down to is choosing whether you want to be a slave to something you like, or a slave to something you don’t like.
That’s a hard choice.
It is. And it takes a lot of strength. I mean it’ll break you in half. It tested my low, and my spirit and my belief in God even, to a certain extent. It will break you. That’s the breaking process.
What was your lowest point like?
One of the lowest lows, I bought a ticket to New York and just left. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t tell my partner, I didn’t tell my family. I just had to get out of here, to remember that there’s a life out there.
What happened leading up to that point?
Just constant failure. Like constant, constant editorial failures, story failures. Like the movie is not making sense. Why does anyone care about this? The pressures and the anxieties of all these people who’ve already heard about the movie. It was supposed to be my private film school, and it turned into a monster. Like, oh my God, this film sucks! And people are expecting things to be great! And it’s gonna suck. And I’m gonna fucking kill myself. I’m gonna be ostracized by the film community in Honolulu, I’m gonna be looked at as a failure, and I will be working at the mall. I mean those things go through your mind. Those were the hardest thoughts. That category of thought happened four times in the process, and it drove me bonkers. Until I finally got to the point – the point I’m at now – where I just feel good about everything. I’m solid inside now, so I don’t care if my film shows and people don’t like it. I mean, I’ll be kinda bummed, don’t get me wrong. But at the end of the day, I know I did it. And I accomplished my personal goals, not what other people wanted. I did a film, I learned a shitload from it. I went to a great film school for two years called Ecila, I been in the ringer, I gone through my ten rounds, my 36 chambers of Shaolin, and now I’m ready to do it all over again.
Do you have any last words you’d like to share?
I guess doing it, is the reward. That’s what I want people to know. I don’t want people to get a misconception that making the film was a success because of finances or accolades – or forget finances, because technically the movie could not make any money. But even accolades from people who see the hat and are like, Oh did you make that? That wasn’t the success. The success story is dreaming of something that’s larger than you and accomplishing it. And that’s part of being an addition to society, that is doing your part. And that’s all you have to do, I think. I’m pretty sure that’s all – whatever you believe in, any God – that’s all he would want of you, to be an addition to your brothers and sisters on the planet. That’s the success. That’s my finishing words.