TALENT CAMPUS: NUCLEAR FAMILY: Interview With Dominic Mercurio
In recent months I have been invited on three separate occasions to speak to the film classes of respected colleagues. Megan O'Hara invited me to the Art Institute of California / San Francisco (Art Institute) to speak to her "Bay Area Film Scene" students on alternate micocinema venues. Federico Windhausen invited me to talk about contemporary Latin American cinema at California College of the Arts / Oakland (CCA). Most recently, Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid (both affiliated with the Pacific Film Archive) invited me to discuss online film writing at UC Berkeley. The dialogues with each group of students have been unique and distinct. The Art Institute class was composed of filmmakers, the CCA class was an elective for an interdisciplinary group of artists (primarily painters), and UC Berkeley was a curatorial course for doctoral candidates. Underscoring all three campus visits, however, was my personal commitment here at The Evening Class [and by extension Twitch] to balance celebrity coverage with commensurate focus on up-and-coming student filmmakers. Many of these students have not yet entered into the festival circuit with a first film.
"Talent Campus" is an Evening Class / Twitch sidebar dedicated to exploring the work of student filmmakers within student showcases. I hope my readers will join me in supporting and encouraging the work of these future generations of media makers and storytellers.
First up is Dominic Mercurio, a young filmmaker I met in Megan's O'Hara's course who listened when I recommended that each student filmmaker should try to get a journalist in their pocket as part of their marketing and distribution plan. Whereas the rest of the class appeared to dismiss this as unsolicited advice, Dominic made a point of keeping in touch with me, friending me on Facebook, and inviting me to the sneak peek screening of his graduate thesis film at the Art Institute's student showcase "The Moving Picture Show" venued at VIZ Cinema.
Anticipating the event, Dominic engineered a passionate promotion of his film through social media, creating a website for Nuclear Family whereon he posted a series of character profiles and interviews with his main cast, and a few of his crew, all methodically announced on his personal Facebook page, while at the same time setting up a separate Facebook page for his film and another for the student showcase, while the trailer and behind-the-scenes promos for Nuclear Family went up on Vimeo.
Overkill for a 28-minute short? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. Because it caught my attention and drew me in to "The Moving Picture Show" whose standing room capacity crowd cheered on the five senior thesis films on view. I'm not going to pretend I liked them all--the to-be-predicted navel gazing by way of coming-of-age relationship stories was conspicuously present--but I fully enjoy Dominic's Nuclear Family, which revealed an admirable collaborative ethos in its production and a professional level of execution that furthered its wry critique of a family wealthy of means but impoverished and disconnected at heart.
This is especially imparted in a scene where the family is all together in the living room, each on their own laptop. A chilling sight gag that reminded me of the dinner scene in Clueless where each family member is having their own cellular conversation at the dinner table. The tools of communication become exactly the wedges that drive people apart. And, as Dominic's film poignantly suggests, music is the communicative tool that brings them back together.
As Dominic himself synopsizes: "Marc Benheimer (Joe Stricker), an introverted 17-year-old boy, is beginning to feel like he doesn't belong. As the emotional distance from his family grows, he finds solitude in music. After tragedy strikes the Benheimer family, Marc's parents buy a comforting distraction: a beautiful limited edition grand piano to decorate their living room. Marc is told he is not allowed to touch the piano, but what's really on Marc's mind is what would happen if he began to deconstruct the walls of his family's values?"
Since Mercurio was attentive and respectful enough of his cast and crew to take the time to individually interview them regarding their participation in his project, it only seemed fair to ask him out for coffee to talk a bit about his education at the Art Institute, his clever film, and his hopes for the future.
* * *Michael Guillén: Dominic, could you speak to your involvement in the Digital Filmmaking and Video Production program offered by the Art Institute of California?
Dominic Mercurio: I have definitely enjoyed my time at the Art Institute and the main benefit I've received from studying there has been meeting the crew of people I've worked with. I chose the Institute over other options simply because I knew I wanted to study in San Francisco and be in the middle of the city. A couple of friends of mine had gone to the Academy of Art and their impression was that its focus was corporate-based. I knew one friend who had gone to the Art Institute and from what he said it seemed like a better option for me. I wanted to have control over my own films while I was making them and be able to collaborate with people I was interested in working with. I went directly to the Institute straight out of high school. In retrospect, I probably should have taken a year off to relax; but, I'm graduating in June, so I will have been at the Institute almost four years. It's billed as a three-year program but that's if you're doing five classes every quarter and--though I actually did that for the first few quarters--it became too difficult as my studies ramped up to also hold a part-time job.
Guillén: I admire the collaborative ethos revealed at the Art Institute's recent student showcase. You, among that group, had the most evident social media skills and a keen sense of the importance of getting the word out on your film and creating an audience even before the event. I was intrigued by your multiple interviews of your main cast members and some of your crew--I've never seen so many interviews for a short film in my life!--but it was impressive, and revealed your passion and enthusiasm. Your compatriots, on the other hand, seemed to arrive to all of that much later. Was this a mutual decision on your part? Were you appointed to be the social media guy?
Mercurio: [Laughs.] Oh no, no, no. It was definitely whatever we each wanted to do by way of advertising. It wasn't a requirement by the school, in other words. It was my choice and that choice was made due to the fact that I use social media a lot to find out about events and to network. I felt it was important to build up to the student showcase. I know for myself, when I'm really excited about a movie, I follow any tidbit I can, so how I chose to promote my own movie was exactly the same way I like films being promoted to me. That's what I kept in the back of my mind when I thought about what I wanted to do with the promotion of my film. I had already set up the website for the film before I launched the Facebook page, which I decided to launch a week before we started filming. I felt that there would be a lot of updates while we were filming.
Guillén: Do you have a sense if your strategy of promoting your film through social media and involving your audience by Facebook updates actually helped to bring the audience in to the showcase? You guys were standing room only!
Mercurio: Yeah, that was great!
Guillén: I've never seen the VIZ Cinema that full.
Mercurio: I'd never seen it that full either. I was humbled by how many people showed up.
Guillén: And as I was sitting there eavesdropping in the audience, you clearly had a sizeable contingent there to support you. Did your strategy of promotion via social media work or do you just have a large body of friends who support your projects?
Mercurio: I'm sure it's a mixture of both. There definitely were close friends who were going to go no matter what.
Guillén: Also admirable in the collaborative ethos among the films in the student showcase was the sense that you were each there--not only with your own film--but with your contributions to the films of your colleagues so that, in effect, you each brought something like five films to the showcase. It was almost funny as the credits were rolling after each film to see your names shifting around between duties. Was that collaboration a natural consequence of moving through the program at approximately the same time?
Mercurio: It's a natural thing. We just all worked together pretty often and it became natural that we would want to work with each other on our own and on each others' projects. For me, all the projects I worked on I believed in and I wanted to help out however I could.
Guillén: So as you're all getting ready to graduate from the program and your thesis films are looming on the horizon, and there's only a handful of you that are going to graduate, is it requisite to work with each other or can you pull people in from outside the program?
Mercurio: It's whoever you want to work with. The Institute is pretty open to that. You have to make your film and you pick the people that you want to work with. Generally, it's people that you've worked with before. When I picked the crew for Nuclear Family, it was people I had worked with before and trusted and those were the exact people I wanted to work with. They were all first choice people.
Guillén: Do you guys intend to keep working together as a collaborative ensemble?
Mercurio: I definitely want to keep working with everybody I've been working with.
Guillén: Nuclear Family is a wry satire achieved through a mature, finished feel in its production value. I got the sense the script had been worked on for quite a while, the performances were solid, and the editing, pacing and sound were great. Often with student films, those are the key elements that are dead giveaways of amateurs. What particularly came across as a signature touch was the mottling effect in the cinematography during the flashback sequences. Is there a term for what you were doing there?
Mercurio: My friend Wilfred Galila once called it "the cerebral interludes of the main character" and I loved that, so I like to call them cerebral interludes. I collaborated with Dana Shaw on those particular sequences. I knew there were a couple of moments in the film where I wanted to enter his mind and, to me, when you think about things, you don't think about them in a clear sense as you experience them; you think about them as a gestating series of images. While we were shooting I had Wilfred, my DP, shoot things around the house, the yard especially, the sky and the grass, the hills, and the sunset, so that--throughout the whole filming process--I ended up with these little bits and clips of things that the main character would see and experience. Then I pieced those together by roughly overlaying them. Initially, I didn't know if that was going to be it, if it was just going to be that, but then watching it a few times I felt it was still incomplete. It didn't feel as cohesive as I wanted it to be. So I talked to Dana--especially after seeing some of his work with celluloid film and Super8 on Keeping It Reel--and I wanted him to do something practical over those sequences. I didn't want to just throw a digital effect on it.
Guillén: It felt like film.
Mercurio: Yeah, exactly. I wanted it to feel like a memory. Memories can feel older and I think people associate "older" with film. Basically I wanted it to have a handmade and smooth feel. Dana added the colorful stuff going on through a filter on top of it.
Guillén: You were shooting digitally, however?
Mercurio: Oh, yeah, yeah. All five films in the student showcase were shot on the Canon 70, an HD DSLR camera.
Guillén: Speak about the genesis of the story.
Mercurio: The story started with the characters. Basically, I outlined the characters back in the Summer of 2009. I wasn't sure if I was going to go further with those ideas or not; but, I did. It started with the Mom character (Keely Dervin) and I was fleshing out this idea that there would be this upper class family that protects everything from their kids. Initially, I just wanted to make a satire about rich people.
Guillén: Thematically, another element I appreciated in your film is something I've discussed now and again with my friend Stephen Parr about how people are so plugged into their iPods that they've lost an understanding of the true meaning of sound. I liked how you contrasted the scene where Marc was looking out over the valley, headphones on, with the scene where he's looking out without them and--as if for the first time--truly listening to the different sounds of the world around him. Do you have any preference towards fiction or documentary work?
Mercurio: I definitely want to stay with fiction. I enjoy writing and directing. I enjoy the whole process. I wrote, directed and edited, which is the lead role in all three stages of pre-production, production, and post-production. I'm kind of a control freak with my own films; even as I want to collaborate. Nuclear Family was actually the first time where I had a full crew. With my previous film Frank's Mug, there was a crew of five people; but, basically I realized it was me taking on too much. I also produced that film. By comparison, Nuclear Family was nice for being more collaborative. I had a DP for the first time and it was great being able to talk to my DP about the look of the film and to trust him. Wilfred and I have worked a lot together in this last year at the Art Institute and so we have a good understanding of each others' work. We barely had to say anything about each others' project and instantly knew what we were each going for. We had a few meetings initially about the look of Nuclear Family and from there it was smooth sailing. It's so easy to communicate with him.
Guillén: Are you taught guerrilla aesthetics at the Institute? To grab things on the fly?
Mercurio: I think now more than ever it's easy to tell stories in digital short form with HD DSLRs in particular. You can create a story in the beginning of the day and get a lot done and it looks good enough so where people can just enjoy the story and not deal with technical problems. There's so much to watch on YouTube that the second you rise above even a little bit beyond that, people pay attention more, instantly, and they take your stories more to heart. It's actually easier now more than ever to create a quick story like that.
Guillén: You used Vimeo to promote Nuclear Family; but, do you think of it only for promotion? Would you make films purposely to stream on Vimeo?
Mercurio: I would use it, for sure. If Vimeo were to contact me to include my film in one of their festivals, I would. Vimeo is growing and it feels like the content there is a little bit above YouTube, a bit more crafted.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.