Segun Akande in "Dirt"

Sundance ’16 Interview: Darius Clark Monroe on Unearthing “Dirt”

When Darius Clark Monroe first found out he got into Sundance, there was the immediate feeling of elation, followed by some slight concern.

“It’s one of those things where because it’s so short, it’s tricky to play at a festival because it’s the type of piece that I’d like people to come back to it many times because I feel with each viewing, you’re going to see something different and notice something that you didn’t notice before,” said Monroe, shortly before the premiere of his latest short film “Dirt” in Shorts Program 2 in Park City this evening.

It’s a good thing then that Monroe has made something so distinctive with “Dirt,” it keeps replaying in your head after seeing it just once. Already elliptical in nature, the film, which begins with an unnamed man (Segun Akande) ominously digging a grave in an empty field, is a bit of a brainteaser, exploring grief and acceptance of the past as if it were an unending cycle. But it is not only the structure of the film that forges a loop in the viewer’s mind, but the indelible images that Monroe and cinematographer Daniel Patterson create in following the terrifically expressive Akande from his lowest point in the middle of the nowhere to the moment that broke him and back again, all in a beat-up Cadillac that keeps running despite various roadblocks.

Though Monroe insists the two have no connection, “Dirt” would seem to echo the director’s previous film, the riveting documentary “Evolution of a Criminal,” in which he dove deep into his own personal history to look at the socioeconomic circumstances and personal choices that led to the person he ultimately became, feeling as if it were a film he absolutely had to make in order to put a chapter of his life behind him. Following in its footsteps, “Dirt” plays out as a rebirth with Monroe showing a strong sense of identity as a narrative filmmaker, leaving enough room for an audience to create their own interpretations while investing himself fully in every frame. As Monroe prepared to unleash this conversation starter at Sundance, he spent a few moments having one with us about the film’s inspiration, finding the perfect location and how he and his crew captured a couple of “Dirt”’s most striking scenes.

How did this come about?

Around 2012, a really, really close friend of mine passed away and she and I were around the same age. I was trying to process her loss because it was completely unexpected. Just thinking about it, I started to write down this idea for a film because I kept seeing this vision of a body in the trunk, like a mob or gangsta flick, but it was something that had more important meaning than that. I kept digging deeper trying to explore what this girl meant. What really inspired me was the fact that as you get older and as the planet ages, in order to survive, there’s parts of ourselves that have to die and have to be buried and put away in order to keep going. Sometimes you can do that once or twice and occasionally things in the past come back that you have to again try to push away, so this came from processing my own mortality, dealing with just the pain of getting older and having to realize that the way you view the world when you’re young shifts when you get older. You begin to see what the world really means to you.

How did you cast Segun Akande as your lead? He has such a remarkable face.

He is a friend of a friend in the acting scene here in New York and we’ve known each other for about six years, but we never worked together until summer of 2014 when we did a HBO [Theater Workshop] together. For this, I knew that we were doing a story that didn’t have any dialogue, so I wanted to go with someone who definitely had a presence and also a face that you could see so much emotion in with a lot of nuance and subtleties. We talked about it for about maybe a year before we shot it, just about the character and the story and it was a very organic experience once we talked about it.

After casting him, did you think you could push things a little bit further in terms of relying solely on his expressions rather than dialogue than you might have before?

No. Those type of conversations don’t really come up, but you’ve got to always try to push. A lot of times, I already know based on just the relationship I have with the actor and the [cinematographer], with the whole team, how far we’re going to go. And sometimes you don’t know. But “Dirt” was a very organic process for all of us because a lot of times with my work before it’s made, the idea is germinating for years so by the time we get on set, everybody is not only just on the same page but we are truly in the spiritual space trying to capture exactly what that is. We wanted to ship everything away and simplify and just truly focus on nature and the beauty of the human spirit and allow certain things to unfold and develop naturally.

What area did you actually shoot this in?

I’m from Houston and when I went to the Houston Film Commission, I told them what the film was and what type of locations I was looking for. And Houston’s a big city, so every park and other piece of land that was suggested was surrounded by traffic and a lot of noise. I just thought that wasn’t going to be conducive to the piece. so this is shot about two hours outside of Houston in a super small town called Eagle Lake, Texas. My mom’s husband John is from there and he told me, “Hey, fly out a few days before the shoot and I could drive you around. I think that there are some spaces here that you would like.” Sure enough, there were these huge fields and the second we rode down this long dirt road, I saw these giant trees that were in the middle of a field but they looked to be dead. They were so stark and graphic, it stopped both of us. And I said, ‘This is where we’re going to shoot the film.”

The property was not public — it was someone else’s land — and the gentleman who owns that property owns like 2000 acres of land, so essentially, it was us having to fight with the cows to shoot on this great big property. But it was beautiful, man. The film originally was supposed to be in a very heavily wooded area, but there was something about that land. As soon as I saw it, I knew instantly that this was where we had to shoot the film. And the town itself has a gas station, the train tracks — it was perfect.

There is a great shot of the car at that gas station as the train passes by, which gives it a slightly surreal quality, both in the blur of colors and the rushing sensation of the train cars. Was that difficult to capture?

Yeah, that shot was tricky because normally you would not be that close to the train tracks. The camera was literally about five feet away from the train and we had a police officer there for safety reasons. Plus, they were just curious about what we were out there doing and that wasn’t even going to be the shot. The train wasn’t even a part of the film. We were trying to shoot at the gas station and earlier that day, we couldn’t shoot there because owner didn’t want us to be around — it was the night before Thanksgiving. This whole town shuts down essentially around 6pm. So we went away for about an hour-and-a-half, we came back and there was no one around. And when we were pulling back up, the train happened to be passing by. Both the [cinematographer Daniel Patterson] and I commented on how beautiful it was, just the sodium vapor [light], the train coming, where the car was.

We thought we’d do the whole shot after the train left, but then the police officers came — the police station was two buildings down from the gas station — and they told us how to look for another train by looking down the rail and seeing the lights. Sure enough, about 20 minutes later, another train came in the opposite direction, so we just set up outside of the tracks and shot almost through, like underneath the train to the car. There was no doubt in my mind that shot was going to end up in the final film.

The sound design for the film is also quite striking and you make the sound of the dirt a big part of it. Was that there from the start of this idea?

Yeah, I love exploring sound. It’s one of my favorite things in post, so for this film, even before we shot it, we knew sound design was going to be a problem because there’s no dialogue and I refused to put on any score. I didn’t want to put any music. So all of the sound had to be natural and come from the [surroundings of the] character. I was really really fortunate enough to work with an incredible sound designer who got exactly what I wanted. He did me a huge favor in coming on board for this short film and he knew what we were trying to elicit from the viewers. It was just playing around with these real sounds in very sometimes realistic and sometimes surrealistic ways.

There’s another shot I had to ask about – there’s a haunting quality to a shot at night involving the car where you see it’s lights head-on and one is far brighter than the other. Was that intentional?

No, that was just an old Cadillac. We were shooting in the daytime and my mom’s husband was driving the Cadillac up for us to use for the shot of Segun looking in the trunk. When it was coming up the street, I just turned to the [cinematographer] and I said “Once it’s nightfall, we’ve got to get a shot of this Cadillac coming up the dirt road with nothing else but the lights.” It just so happened that the front lights on the Cadillac were a little wonky. That’s what I liked about it. Of course, we did a color grade [later], but we didn’t do anything to change the volume or the effect of the light coming from the car. That was just it being an old car and one of the lights was probably brighter than the other one.

Was there anything actually significant about your choice of the car?

If you look at the film, it’s very monochromatic. The car’s all white and even when he takes off the layers, you see the greens, the greys and the browns of the natural environment and even of his skin tone, and [on the car], the windshield is cracked, the leather inside is ripped and the door is rattling, so the car’s really just a physical embodiment of the main character. It, too, is broken down and has been through a journey of many miles, so it’s just an extension of this man.

What’s it like getting into Sundance?

It’s crazy because I had no expectations. I also didn’t know that they would be into this film because I felt like I was pushing myself a little bit outside of my box. Sundance chooses all different typed of shorts, but you never know which way it’s going to go, so when they called me and said they want to screen it, I thought “Wow, you want to give a platform to this interesting little experimental fiction piece?” I hope people enjoy it.

“Dirt” will show at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Shorts Program 2, playing on January 22nd at 6:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema 1, January 23rd at noon at the Broadway Centre Cinema 6, January 25th at 11:30 am at the Prospector Square Theatre, and January 28th at noon at the Temple Theatre.

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