From his early shorts on 16mm, director Damion Dietz found his calling as a passionate filmmaker focusing on the gay experience. Andrew Georgiou chats to Dietz about his beginnings and the success of his 2008 feature film Dog Tags.
So Damion, what first attracted you to filmmaking?
Well it's funny, because I was just having this discussion with a friend of mine and I remember being in preschool and they had a toy camera and I was just fascinated by it. It was my favourite toy. And I would direct little plays in grade school and it just continued on and on and on.
Did you graduate to Super 8 after that or did you go straight to video?
No I went to Super 8 because I went to the film school at USC, which is a big film school out in LA, and the first thing they made us do was make five short Super 8 films and edit them ourselves. It was before video. Well video was there, but they were purists.
Have you always made films in the queer space?
My first 16mm short that I did at film school was a coming out short that played at gay and lesbian film festivals before they were sort of in vogue. It was about 1997.
Outside of the queer film festival circuit, is it quite hard to get films backed by financers or screened at other film festivals when they have a queer subject matter?
Oh, it's definitely improving. I think that just like people's sexuality, the lines are definitely being blurred, which is clearly a major theme in Dog Tags as well. Before it was like, "here are the gay films and here are the African American films", but now film festivals are much more diverse, there is a huge cross-section and a lot of my films now play straight film festivals.
That must be pretty exciting for you as a storyteller to be able to share stories from within the queer community to a straight audience.
Exactly. I'm so glad that you said that, because a lot of times people are criticised for breaking out of there little box, but I don't break out of my box to leave it, I break out to have everything spill out for everyone else so that we can all meld together.
Yes, that's fantastic. It means that we get to share our experiences and not just insulate them within our own communities.
How you would describe Dog Tags to someone who had never heard about it?
Well I think it is certainly about a young man's journey to discover himself and he is not one thing or the other. He is not certainly gay or certainly straight or someone's son or someone's father. He is himself and that isn't always easy to define.
There is a very gentle sensibility about the film. Was that your intent from the beginning or did that just unfold as you were filming?
Well it was both. It was definitely my intent from the beginning and I made sure that the script was exactly what I wanted and that it was cast very authentically and then once I did that when I got to the set I was just able to let it go and let it unfold naturalistically.
Where did the inspiration for the story come from? Is it a personal experience or from someone you know?
It's really personal actually. Out here in LA in the middle of the desert there is a marine base and we actually shot right outside it, which is where the drive in movie was. I actually met a marine and we are very, very different people and it was such an unusual circumstance but we got along so well and really clicked. We spent a couple of days together and I learnt a little bit about him, his history and background, and I dropped him off at the base and I realised that there was a lot more I wanted to know about him and so this movie is my own projection of who he might have been.
I think there is always an attraction from the gay perspective about people in the forces.
Yes, really it's like it is a fetish. We could speculate about why that is. Maybe it's a masculine stereotype, I don't know.
What kind of festivals are you most pleased to see your films being screened at?
It really doesn't matter, it could be at the smallest festival, but as long as there is an audience of people who are willing to open there minds past what they think the film might be. Of course, in order to sell these films they package them in a certain way, not that Dog Tags doesn't live up to its press, but I think it is more than that. So when I go to a festival and people are willing to go with it, which always excited me the most.
Well I know it was a huge success at the 2009 festival in Melbourne.
Yes and it sold out a few screenings and the space where they screened it was fantastic and the festival was so well done. I just had a blast.
I'll wind it up by asking about your next project.
I am in postproduction for a project at the moment and have had an offer, but part of the deal is that I have to keep quiet about it. I'm sure you'll hear about it. It's very different to Dog Tags, but still about the journey. It's definitely something that gay people will relate to. It has a lot to do with a prominent gay icon.
Queer screen is holding a special screening of Dog Tags on Tuesday Dec 8.