Interview with Micah Dahl, Director of ‘CLARENCE’

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You have a particular idea you want to develop, you want to work with someone who you have known for years and you happen to be attending a trade show in a certain city where everybody knows “what happens here, only happens here”. It is truly a delight to talk to a creator who knows his own mind and what he is aiming towards, but who is also making content that raises the issues we tend to shy away from. ‘CLARENCE’ written by Micah Dahl and Colin Monaghan is an existential short which explores death and the questions we ask ourselves in the darkest of moments. Dahl is an editor, cinematographer, and motion graphics artist among many other things, and London Rocks Festival is proud to showcase his film where the titular protagonist’s last moments of contemplation are laid bare as we follow the final snapshot of his life. 

A deliciously dark micro-budget short set in Las Vegas which leaves you wanting more.

S.S: How did you come together with Colin to write and direct ‘CLARENCE’?

M.D: I have known Colin, a filmmaker and writer in his own right, for years and even now, living across the pond from each other, we have continually talked about projects and pushed each other to write and create. I’ve found that I’ve continually made music videos over short films and wanted to move in a different direction creatively. Going back and forth with Colin on ideas and hoping to collaborate, he had sent an idea (titled Motel) that was more involved that what ‘CLARENCE’ ended up being but initially it was a possible music video collaboration that we were working towards, in the end, we took that script and changed changed it into ‘CLARENCE’.

The film came together rather quickly. I was working at an ad agency in Minneapolis called Broadhead and Cody worked at the MPLS agency colle+mcvoy. We were both headed to Vegas to go to NAB (trade show) and as we are good friends and not into gambling we thought, well we will be in a place where we could make some crazy video stuff, while then going to the trade show – why don’t we just make something once we are out of our sessions. So I threw the idea out, thinking maybe we can live inside a box and work it – meaning myself and Cody at a minimum doing the shoot – but Colin made it and his help was so needed! From getting our plane tickets to Sin City Colin and I went through a bunch of versions to craft ‘Motel’ into a script that became ‘CLARENCE’ and could live within the box that we would be in. When Colin showed up in Sin City I had just finished the boards – we shot it in 3 days, really nights because Cody and I were at NAB during the day and it really just all came together. 

Director Micah Dahl

S.S: What difficulties did you face moving into making this short from your work in music videos, did you have to adopt any different practices?

M.D: Each project I work on has its own difficulties and I don’t really approach short film work differently from music video work – they are both just film work.  With ‘CLARENCE’, timing was of the essence. As we were heading to Vegas for the tradeshow we needed to quickly format the script, figure out what EQ we would be able to bring and keep everything to a minimum.

Planning from afar was challenging as we didn’t know what any of our locations would look like so we were hoping for the hotel room, hallway and elevators to work with the vision of the film and they did!  Not knowing helped us think about what this film was about, at it’s core – it’s about the nano second before death and what might go on in one’s head about the life lived, or not. Quickly going back and forth on email with Colin on the script, and modifying it to the most minimal we could make it, one character, Cody working camera and myself as Clarence – the pre-production was fast and loose. Knowing that we were really pitted into a corner with what was possible but I think when you have to live inside a box of constraints it more than likely boosts the creative thought process.

S.S: Were there any creative differences between yourselves in the changing of the original material in ‘Motel’ to ‘CLARENCE’ and what difficulties did you face working over the pond?

M.D: Well, over the years, Colin and I have just kept sending ideas, thoughts, partial ideas and he’s such a great writer and I’ve been able to be productive in Minneapolis with music videos, other short films so we have always been in contact about ideas. As for difficulties with working across the pond from each other it’s been ok, email and the facetime/zoom hangs work but nothing beats being able to run down to the pub, have a pint and hash out ideas and really sort everything out.

I don’t feel there was any real creative differences overall (except in production I had ended up changing the script while we shot) and that posed a discussion about what ‘CLARENCE’ is answering “No” at the end of the film before he heads into the room. As for differences in the script – I don’t really feel that there was anything big – we knew what constraints we had so that helped set a tone for what was what we could feasibly craft.

Colin Monaghan: ‘Motel’ was a short, written with the intention of getting it into production a fair few years ago now, and therefore I had imposed a lot of constraints, cast and location wise – It took place in a single location (a motel, unsurprisingly) and had a small cast. It was about a man facing his past. Micah sent me the germ of an idea he wanted to develop about decisions made and consequences – fear of a future predicated on past decisions, that kind of thing. ‘Motel’ covered similar themes, so we stripped it back into something that we could make fast and I wrote a draft based on a man (the self, ID, brain etc.) trying to buy some time from his physical (dying) self, to run through past decisions, to see what he could have done differently to separate him from this physical death. It went very quickly from there.

S.S: It sounds like a very brief and intense movement from scripting to storyboarding – is this normally your way to approach work?

M.D: It kind of depends on the project. I just recently made a music video and we had a long pre-production process, shooting over a weekend and the post process was done by myself as editor but we had time and space, minus shooting but we planned for that.  So, it really depends on the project. I’m not out making some crazy bank on any of this so it really comes down to passion for the work. I’ve been involved in the music scene since I was 15 growing up in Moorhead, MN (basically Fargo, I usually say Fargo but no one wants to be from North Dakota).  Most of the music videos I make are with friends, of course that’s changed as I’ve worked with more and more newer people but it always comes pretty quick – overall I would say I try to keep a realistic time table from concept to storyboard to production to post.

S.S: I’m impressed you managed to find such empty spaces at the hotel during the conference in a city like Vegas. What advice do you have to other potential filmmakers looking to make a micro-budget short?

M.D: We didn’t ask for permission which maybe isn’t the best thing to advertise, but we were quite thoughtful about how we were shooting – how we set stuff up on the strip with the timelapse footage (which was pretty weird for me to sit there for 30 minutes still) but also setting up in the fast food place to keep logo’s out of the shots.  One thing for sure is we couldn’t have done it without Colin because he was on the phone with me going over the dialogue in real time and without that it just would have been very wonky – it was so helpful to have someone to respond to.

I come from a super DIY mentality – from music, art, film, whatever the medium. I grew up in Fargo-Moorhead and it was relatively small (100K population at that time max). A conservative place overall so the counter-culture that was being created had to really be innovative and supportive, which was huge. Growing up, there was so much support from what little percentage of the population we were, that we really just had this gung ho mentality.  So – with this, Cody (who I actually grew up with) and I were just like “fuck it, lets do this” which has just been a kind of mindset for myself and the people I’ve surrounded myself with. 

We want to “fuck shit up and make shit fucked up,” as Calvin Johnson said from the band Dub Narcotic. As for that attitude and the shoot, we lucked out with the hotel we were in, the windows looking onto the strip, the drab hallway and simple elevator. We shot pretty late at night, which might not make a difference in Sin City but we surprisingly didn’t have to wait around filming at the elevators or hallway. When we were on the strip or in the restaurant we just went in, not making it look like we were shooting anything, we set up like we were just hanging out and filmed. During the time lapse filming, I did have people come up to me or sit next to me but I just sat in character and didn’t react to what they were doing. It was pretty weird but again – what it comes down to is – are you in on this, well then fuck it, make it happen.  Other advice – don’t piss people off, roll with it and keep your head up.

S.S: You bombard the audience with flashbacks, close ups and timelapses – what feelings were you aiming to draw?

M.D: The main idea of the film is that it’s the moment when the brain finally gives up and lets go in death so Clarence is going through and questioning all of the things that have led him to his death point moment. We wanted these flashbacks, time lapses and close ups to really get into the mind of Clarence but ask more questions than answer. Making music videos helped because I wanted to make something abstract. We (as humans) don’t know what that death moment is, and we were trying to visualize what that closure of life could be. We really lucked out that Cody’s girlfriend had family 8mm footage that we used and it was so poignant.    

As for close ups – it’s about Clarence, realizing that nothing will change for him, no matter what he thinks, or remembers, since he’s having the conversation on the phone with himself –  he can’t change his past so I wanted to make sure we were in on Clarence, his reactions, his mind. So making sure that we were close in on him at open means that we are close on him at the end.

S.S: After such a collaborative and rapid production, how did you move into the post and decide on your final cut?

M.D: After we got back to Minneapolis, Cody and I are both editor/animators to make ends meet so I suggested we both edit a version for ourselves and then together show our versions to see how we both interpreted everything. I got a cut right away, and it was true to the script and storyboard but filled with a lot of overlays and glitch/film burn overlays. Cody is a much more methodical, creative person and took a long time to craft his edit. Once he was ready which was ages after we had gotten back and maybe with a little frustrated push from me he showed me his cut. 

He had switched out the middle and placed it at the opening. He was nervous about showing me but once I saw it, it made so much sense and I was so excited about it. After that I have to say it was the best post experience I’ve had because we really analyzed each second of the film, what the cuts really meant to the overall story and how they amplified or subdued what was being told. It was a real collaboration, as any film should be – but once he got that initial cut it was easy to get down to the brass tacks. Both Cody and I took our time to make the final cut and thought about each frame that’s being seen and what it means, a really good exercise for us in what we do for a living but what our passion brings us to.

S.S: Would you recommend working with such a small team in terms of the learning and the creative process?

M.D: The simple answer is yes. All of my work has been with a small team. I just want to make stuff, and as a filmmaker I’ve always just wanted/needed to make films. I told myself, I better know everything about it, from pre to post production and how it all works which I have also studied from a young age. I’ve just made work, regardless of anything and it really comes down to, what is your vision, what do you want to see, and what do you have to work with, anything, nothing?

I used to have parties where I would get friends to come over, we’d have some brews but I’d lay down certain items on my coffee table and say “ok, we have to make a short film and use this, and do this with a video camera and shooting/editing as we go. It all really comes down to what do you want to do, what do you want to see, how fulfilled are you with what you have made?  

I think it’s more of an attitude, do you want to make stuff, ok then how do you make it.  When you find those people that share a similar mindset it becomes easier because you are all working together to craft something that you all want to be proud of.

S.S: Coloring is always so important in films and ‘CLARENCE’ is a perfect example of how the colouring affects the mood of the film, how was this created?

M.D: Honestly it just came down to Cody and I knowing color work, having done it for so many projects and as post people we just have to have an understanding of a bit more than what we might want to know (software wise) – but it comes in handy when needed. So we made sure we were taking our time while shooting to make sure we were good with what we were getting, and then in post, it wasn’t so difficult to work the color work.

S.S: What are your plans for the film moving forward?

M.D: Continue to see if it can be shown in festivals. Colin and I (well, Colin has thought and I’ve listened) about breaking the film into two other pieces – we ask so many questions with this film, how can we solve or ask more questions about who Clarence is as a person? He died in Vegas, but with all of the pieces he puts down, how did he get there, why is he dead, is he murdered or did he end it himself? So we’ve talked about expanding on who Clarence is, but keeping with asking more questions than answering them.

S.S: What are you working on next?

M.D: Working on some film work and music videos. My great friend, Jacob Swogger makes custom guitars and he and I have worked for years on film stuff so I’m helping him with some video work to promote his SWEET guitars. I just worked on my good friend Adam Marx with his 3 LP masterpiece ‘Come to Life’. As a musician I have made a LP with my friend Pete Foss and it’s being pressed now so I am releasing a record and making a music video for that. I’m also working on a music video for a friend’s band called DUG, so what it comes down to is constantly working and trying to create. 

‘CLARENCE’ will screen at Whirled Cinema on Saturday 6th November 9.30 pm – 12.30 am

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