‘Very Little’: Another Interview with John D’Amico

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If you’re a fan of us here at Smug Film, you already know John D’Amico. We became fast friends when I interviewed him months ago about his treasure trove of a website, Shot Context, and he’s been contributing to the site ever since. But what you might not know is that beyond writing reviews and essays, he’s also a filmmaker and a screenwriter and a playwright. His latest one-act, Very Little, was recently accepted to the NYC Fringe Festival for 2013, and its run begins this August the 14th. If you’ll be in town, definitely come check it out. (Here are the dates.)  And do consider contributing to his IndieGoGo campaign for the project, to help cover production costs. This play is an out-of-pocket labor of love, and every bit helps.

First of all, I read the play, and I love it. It’s a very succinct work, and I get the sense that it’s sort of an amalgam of a lot of different things that interest you, from linguistics to the hell of war to pulp adventure novels to mythology. Reading it, I feel like I get a better sense of you philosophically, as well as just as far as what interests you hold dear. Would you say this is a very personal work for you?

I guess every project I start is. I don’t know how to write, really, other than to start with everything that interests me and try to make it into a whole. I’ve been living with it for a while now, every day pushing deeper into the world I made.

How would you describe the basic plot, without giving too much away?

The Everglades, 1863. A small squad of Union soldiers shoot a Native American woman. As she lay bleeding, on the hottest day of the year, the harrowed troop question their ability to survive and belief in their mission.

How would you personally describe the vibe of the play? To me, it flowed like a first episode of a really good, character-driven HBO show—except when it ended, it wrapped up so perfectly that I couldn’t imagine there being another episode.

Yeah I can definitely see that. It’s kind of a series of stories that start at the same time, diverge, and then converge. I really like the way those weirder Mad Men episodes work, the way they sorta spread out scene-by-scene so that the ending closes out a few different stories at once. It’s all set on one long hot day and I wanted to emulate that languid and sluggish yet increasingly tense vibe. It all stems from the heat and those long long summer days.

Have you spent any time in the everglades? Was there any literature or imagery that specifically informed the way you portrayed it, or just your imagination?

Yeah I grew up right around there. I have relatives who worked for the Parks department down there, I once saw them set control fires and literally stepped on an alligator. I’ve never really seen the area represented accurately on film—the flatness, the multiplicity of wildlife—particularly in this era before the panther population was decimated, the way the whole sky reddens as the sun sets. It’s an amazing place, there’s no other ecosystem like it in the whole world. It’s a place man doesn’t belong, a wild and poisonous place. It’s a great place for a drama, I hope it did it justice.

I don’t want to give too much of the play away, but can you talk a bit about the title, and its significance?

Well the title relates back to what I was saying about the nature of the war—it’s about being a very little part of something very large. From the Seminole Indians (who play a part) to these soldiers’ mission, to the very nature of the way people look at the world—we amplify the very little, it’s all we have, it’s all we are. Something as big as the Civil War is a compendium of little moments and little lives. Very little.

Were you always very interested in the Civil War? What made you choose that particular war as your backdrop for this story?

I get more interested in the Civil War all the time—there was, practically speaking, no America as we know it beforehand. It was overwhelmingly vast in a way we no longer can comprehend. Death tolls on par with Eastern Europe in WW2—2% of the population died in combat. We had no National Cemeteries beforehand, no way of notifying next of kin. We had never seen and probably never will see death on that scale again.

The sheer size of it is staggering. Units would simply disappear, killed en masse, lost on the way to a battle, or simply misplaced in files. One thing that gets me, though, is that it has this “flavor.” Every war does—WW2 is guys named Brooklyn and Tex all chewing gum and marching, Vietnam is angry stoned guys half-dressed in the jungle, the Civil War is sepia. It wasn’t sepia. It was young and terrifying and vivid. They didn’t know what if anything would survive afterwards.

But like every war, what most soldiers did most of the time was wait and worry. So that’s what this is about. Waiting, and worrying.

What are some books or films or other resources you’d recommend to those interested in learning more about the Civil War?

Just start with Ken Burns. His Civil War documentary is the most captivating. Those first few episodes where you’re waiting for General McClellan to be replaced are like as tense as Breaking Bad. The book Battle Cry of Freedom is also great. The play’s full read/watch list is actually one of the perks on our IndieGoGo.

Talk to me a bit about the IndieGoGo campaign. What expenses do you still have as far as putting the play together?

Fringe has an acceptance fee to cover venue expenses which is well into the hundreds. Then there’s insurance, costumes, advertising, and so on. Renting rehearsal space is a pretty constant one. It adds up. I’m asking for $1,200 which will be about enough to get us through to the end. It’s like filmmaking, ya know, all those little costs add up every day.

How’d you find out about the NYC Fringe Festival, and what has your experience been like with them so far?

It’s a bit legendary if you’re into theater—from Urinetown to Dog Sees God (one of my favorites) there’s always something great going on there. They’re great, they set up us with a great space (Teatro Circulo) and some of the other shows sound spectacular. It’s all pretty flattering to be a part of.

How long was the writing process in total? How long did it take you to write the first draft, and how many drafts were there?

Draft one was two weeks—I got the idea lodged in my brain and wrote it before I had any idea where it was gonna end up. I found the end as I wrote, and submitted it to Fringe as soon as it was done. While I waited to hear back from them, I moved things around and poked around at it after work and on weekends. I think it’s on draft 4 now, and the rehearsals have given me a lot of meat for another pass.

What are some of the differences you’ve experienced, if any, between directing for the stage and directing for film?

You’re dealing with different degrees of intimacy. Bad film is more intimate than bad theater because you can parse space differently, punching in for close ups and pulling away when it’s time for a wider overview. But good theater is more intimate than good film because even though you can’t do that natively in theater, you can force the eye with blocking, lighting, and the kind of things that are being said and done. You have to create an editing rhythm without editing—scenes have to run just the right length and deposit you in just the right emotional state.

Obviously it’s even more different on the back end, the rehearsals I run for a show are much more comprehensive and looser than the rehearsals I run for a film which are more devoted to line reading. Everything you do in post-production in a film, all the mood-enhancing stuff like music and tension-building editing, all of that has to be done in pre-production on a play. There’s a lot of work on understanding the space and expressing the environment which is crucial for this show—the actors have to carry the weight of the heat and their fatigue on them at all times, they won’t be helped with establishing shots and all that like in a film. It’s a whole different world, it’s a tightrope walk. It’s exciting.

Through hearing the play read aloud, did you notice anything new?

Once I gave the characters over to others, I fell in love with them. I’m suddenly so interested in what they’re doing when they’re off stage. It’s also, I think, much funnier spoken than in text.

If you could pick any set of actors, living or dead, to do a big Hollywood version of Very Little, who would they be and why?

The cast I have now. I’ve got a really fiery and smart group who are constantly blowing me away with new takes on my ideas. I could probably squeeze Henry Fonda and Joseph Cotten in there somewhere, though.

Was it difficult casting the role of the mysterious native american woman? What did you look for, and find, in your actress?

As far from Disney Pocahontas as possible. Strength, a touch of bitterness. The Seminole had a hell of a life, in a way the First Seminole War was the first battle of the Civil War. Escaped slaves used to flee to the Everglades and live among their tribes. In the early 1800s when Andrew Jackson tried to relocate them to Oklahoma, they fought rather than let their friends and family members be dragged back to slavery. We lost that war against the Seminole, but they had a hard, hard victory. Only a few hundred were left alive by the time of this play.

This woman at the core of the play—her father and grandfather probably fought the American army, probably saw many friends and lovers die at their hands and to disease, animal attack, and harsh weather in the harsh, nearly unlivable Everglades. This is a battle-hardened woman, strong and weary. I found myself a great actress and she’s just crushing it in rehearsals. I think she’ll really capture everyone.

I have to ask, is there any chance of this one-act becoming a short film some day? I know a lot of the people reading this probably don’t live in NYC, and won’t be able to come see it, and I’d love for them to be able to experience it some way. So my fingers are crossed.

I would love to. Absolutely love to. We’re clocking in at about 35 minutes now, but here’s the thing: like I said, I’ve fallen back in love with these characters and I’ve love to go further with them—whether that’s a longer two- or three-act play, a short film, or even, if I could swing it, I think there’s definitely a strong and unique feature film in this.

I agree, I think there’s a lot of different wonderful ways you could go with it. Congratulations, man. I really look forward to seeing it live!

Thanks, bud.

Bonus Bernard Pivot Questionnaire:

What is your favorite word?
Pride.

What is your least favorite word?
Bucolic. No other word sounds so different from what it means—it sounds like a word for vomit but it means pastoral. Terrible word.

What turns you on?
Women.

What turns you off?
Men.

What sound or noise do you love?
Lauryn Hill. Or 2 Chainz yelling his own name in “Mercy“.

What sound or noise do you hate?
The motorcycle gang outside my bedroom window.

What is your favorite curse word?
No more expressive word in the English language than “fuck.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Geology, but as much for the specialized vocabulary than anything else—”deep time,” “meander scars.” Amazing words.

What profession would you not like to do?
Chimney sweep.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I don’t really have any interest in meeting him.

To stay abreast of Very Little updates, ‘like’ the play’s page on Facebook!

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