a lot of local filmmakers the ideal of starting your own production
company usually isn't in the cards. Getting your act in gear to
make a film alone is a daunting task unto itself and most randomly
named productions die out shortly after making their first flick. So
the few that exist and continue beyond their freshman start are
usually the ones setting the pace for the rest to follow. Much like the one we're looking at today.
--- The Dada Factory has become a prominent name in the film community since 2007, strangely enough succeeding where most companies fail, in that they've created both scripted works that have earned them awards and recognition as well as taken on documentary subjects that have resonated well with the audiences who viewed them. Embracing a strong interest in Salt Lake City and its unique eccentricities, putting them to film and sparking interest around the nation. I got a chance to chat with both founders, David Davis and Alex Haworth, about Dada and their careers so far, as well as their movies and thoughts on the local film.
David Davis & Alex Haworth
Gavin: Hey guys. First off, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Alex: My name is Alex Haworth. I was born in England and moved with my family to Utah when I was thirteen. I'm a workaholic hermit filmmaker and I run The Dada Factory with Davey.
David: I’m Davey Davis, I grew up in Salt Lake and have a pretty strong tendency towards public engagement, traveling, and bicycles.
Gavin: How did you both first take an interest in filmmaking?
Alex: I didn’t seriously think about pursuing film until I started taking classes at Spy Hop Productions. As a defective and disinterested high school student, Spy Hop really changed my life. What gets me most excited about film is its ability to pull an audience into a fabricated reality; to submerge a person's consciousness in a completely different world, it's great.
David: I grew up a very literate guy, and noticed that the best stories immerse the reader/viewer in the story’s worldview. I’ve always had a kind of angst to do good work and share information about things I care about, when Al became very adept at film I was impressed by its power to communicate. Film, for me, is a powerful teaching and persuasive tool. It’s a synthesis of multiple peoples' skills too, which appeals to me from a social perspective.
Gavin: Did you seek out any college for film, and if so, what was that experience like for you?
Alex: I dropped out of high school my senior year, but had good enough grades for the U to let me in. So in a way my options were limited, but honestly I really liked the pace of life in Salt Lake, and being close to family. Having had a major culture shocking move once in my life means I don't really have that itch to get out of Salt Lake. I've had film friends move out to New York and LA, and a lot have been really chewed up by the machines out there. It makes me glad I stayed.
David: I learned everything I know from Al. I chalk any skill and education I have in film up to his influence. In an educational non sequitur I got an Art History degree, and soon started incorporating film into my schoolwork, my honors thesis being a series of interviews. My path to filmmaking barely made sense at the time, and I still trip over how I ended up here. I’m considering getting a more technical masters degree as a result, but you can learn a good deal just from getting your hands dirty.
Gavin: When and how did you both meet each other and become friends?
Alex: Dave and I met when I moved to Sundance Resort with my parents in ’97. I think he was floating in a tube in the middle of the Sundance pond, I had to quickly find a rope to reel him in before he went over the waterfall.
David: That sounds about right. We should probably flaunt the fact that we grew up at the indy-film headquarters more than we do. We spent a ton of time in this jaw-droppingly beautiful place hiding inside playing video games. I usually frame that situation as tragic, but nerddom trained us remarkably well on computers, so much so that we were teaching stop-frame animation classes in our early teens at the Sundance Art Shack. Our pupils were usually 3-4 years younger than us, and we'd bust out these absurd claymation narratives complete with sound effects and commercial breaks.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up a production company?
David: Mostly out of a joint desire to have a creative space in which we could pursue all kinds of projects. The Dada Factory was born out of our main warehouse space on 930 South Rio Grande Street in the beginning of 2007. I had been backpacking for 5 months and would send Al all these pathetic emails about how I wanted to spend my time exclusively on creative projects. He'd been working out of a downtown apartment and was sick of not being able to make noise whenever he wanted.
Gavin: What was it like for you both getting the equipment together and establishing yourselves as a company?
Alex: We hit a really sweet spot where a slew of reasonably priced, professional quality cameras spilled onto the market. We invested in the basic essentials, a camera, tripod, and editing software. From there we only took projects that were within our limits, worked within our skill set, and used the equipment to the fullest. I had a lot of connections already built up, and we still rely on them for work. Word of mouth is the most powerful tool we have.
David: We tried, and still do try, to grow organically as a company. Digital technology lets you get so much more done with less equipment across the board, from camera costs to lighting requirements. When we get jobs we'll add to our gear to fit the job. We're always looking at new things, but the name of the game for us is to get better at small, tactical 2-3 man projects with the gear we have. The Dada Factory has only nominal overheads, which gives us tremendous freedom. To be locked into doing jobs you don't want to do is a good way to become a workaholic and commit creative suicide.
Gavin: How did the idea for “The Deep” come about, and what was it like filming it, both as your first production and your first big project together?
Alex: "The Deep" evolved from a film I made back at Spy Hop. The concept grew out of that aesthetic of machines, and gears, in a derelict society. The story festered in my brain for quite a few years before a production class at the U finally gave me the motivation to shoot it. I pre-produced the hell out of it, down to pre-planning the light setup for each shot, so shooting it was a cinch. And major props to David Spencer the lead, and Allison Baar the art director, they were both fantastic to work with.
David: "The Deep" was entirely Al’s baby. I think I helped with two on-shoot things, and secured some locations. I was mostly along for moral support. I can’t remember what I was up to at the time, I think that’s when we were making mad bank on infomercials and the like, and I was being an editing troll somewhere.
Gavin: What was your reaction to having it selected for Sundance, and what was that experience like?
Alex: Such a surprise. Sundance is one of those things you submit to, and forget about, because there's no way in hell you're getting in. I remember being speechless for a good few minutes when I got the call. In a lot of ways I wasn’t ready for it, or at least didn’t know what to do with it. I was the youngest director in the festival that year. Now I have a much better understanding of the business side of the industry. For film makers, Sundance is a business opportunity, a place to sell your film, or at the very least get an agent. If I ever get in again I’ll try and whore myself out a little more.
David: Yeah, I was like “Dood! Go schmooze your damn head off!” I’m the shameless self-promoter in the family. Al’s the talent. We work well together.
Gavin: What made you jump on board with documenting the 337 Project?
Alex: Initially it was just curiosity. I had been doing street art for several years, and followed Wooster Collective religiously. Hearing that a similar event to their Spring Street Project was happening here in SLC was really exciting. After the initial meeting with the 50 or so artists that showed up, we decided to commit all our resources to documenting the project.
David: Yeah, our involvement was as organic as the project itself. We had no idea it would be our biggest endeavor to date, we’re just really into bright, colorful stuff. We were in the middle of school and had a ton of things going on, finally as it became apparent that this was unlike anything else and we needed to make it a priority, step it up so to speak. I’m so glad we did.
Gavin: How was that time for you guys going from early start all the way to tearing it down a year later?
Alex: I personally had work inside that I was sad about losing. That’s not to say I couldn’t have ripped it out and saved it, but then it would have lost its meaning. Seeing all that beautiful work go was so heartbreaking, but at the same time incredibly memorable and vivid.
David: We spent tons of time in the building, probably not more than some of the main artists did during the painting stage, but in an even spread from concept to destruction. I’m glad we had the privilege to make the main record of it. I definitely felt moods evoked from the building, and tried to capture that, such as the large period of decrepitude between the project's close and destruction.
Gavin: What did you think of the reaction you got from that, both from the public and those involved?
Alex: The response has been fantastic. We’ve grown such strong connections with some of Salt Lake’s most talented artists. I think there is a vein in our work that attempts to build community. Part of this is the realization that I think a lot of artists are having right now: The world is so over saturated with media, building local community and culture is a far more rewarding exercise. The people who stay in Salt Lake are dedicated to Salt Lake, this is really important.
David: Amen to what Al said. We've gotten great feedback across the board, but it’d be hard not to with all the good work we were presented with at the 337 Project. For me it was very important to have our first feature-length documentary be so well-received. It helped me take the genre seriously and think of myself as a contributing artist rather than just an fan of art.
Gavin: Last year you won the 48 Hour Film Festival with your piece “Halcyon”. What was that whole process like for you and then winning it at the end?
Alex: It was the first time in the 48HFP for a lot of us on the team. We were all fairly experienced filmmakers, but had no idea what to expect. It was a physical and mental trial. As a director I’m a total control freak, so that was a real exercise in letting go and focusing on one job at a time. But it was an adventure, that’s what I think a lot of people love about participating in it. I really didn’t expect to win, I still think the script sucks.
David: Yeah, the script is the hardest part for sure. I really liked the project because it taught me I was a pretty good producer. I was running around the whole time getting all the behind-the-scenes stuff done, It was high-adrenaline and rewarding. The win came out of the blue, we just did it for the hell of it. It assembled a good team we still work with. I like 48HFP as an exercise in creativity and stamina, but the organization isn't terribly rewarding. I'd rather do a local grassroots version of the same thing for cheap or free with better prizes!
Gavin: What made you start doing smaller projects like the “Artist Snapshots” and documentary art pieces like “Smog Lake City”?
David: The artists' shorts were something I wanted to do and ended up incorporating into my Senior Thesis. It's a great little example of the community building aspect to film making. They're symbiotic: I get to make a little film however I want, the artists get something they can send to galleries or buyers or throw on their websites. People in our line of work are always, always busy, and most of the jobs are extremely laborious and intense. It's nice to scale that down and get that more immediate gratification of a short project.
Alex: "Smog Lake City" was just a spur of the moment decision. I was going to play some video games, but I decided to go out and take some shots of the inversion. That turned into two hours of wandering up and down Main Street. It became a kind of game, getting snoop shots of unsuspecting people, and having random conversations with homeless guys and parking enforcers, trying to find the best looking shots in a four block stretch. I edited it up and threw it online that night. After that it got passed around and promoted until it ended up being featured in the Tribune, on Sidewalk Cinema, and in various blogs. So the response was really gratifying and completely unexpected.
Gavin: As of right now, what projects do you currently have about to come out, and what have you got planned to film in the near future?
David: I've been working on and off for ages on a sprawling epic bicycle film called "The Tale of Don Giovanni: That Indomitable Hipster". As I entered the film game later than Al, I had yet to put a concerted effort towards a narrative project before. This film is a ridiculous and spectacular adaptation of Mozart's opera into a non-singing bike hipster world. It's fixie hipsters vs. Anarchists, with a little queer culture thrown in for fun. It's 25 minutes long and includes fast paced chases, epic stunts, original local musical numbers worked into the plot, an underground bike race filmed in real-time, and sex scenes. Good times. You can check out the trailer and learn more about screenings here, including its premiere this Saturday at the Post Theater. Next I want to work on some musical film pieces with my friend Luke Williams and do some more (shorter) narrative stuff.
Alex: We just released our submission to the 48 Hour Film Project International Shootout. It was an international competition between the teams who won in their cities. We shot it in the first really cold weekend in December, and almost froze to death. It’s an interesting film, again lacking story punch, but high production value (mainly down to the ninja skills of Lonny Danler, another U film grad). It's available on our Vimeo page.
Gavin: Going local, what’s your opinion of the local film scene, both good and bad?
Alex: I think SLC is in a really interesting place in its history, it's just finding its legs as a city. There's still a cutting edge here that feels a little burnt out in places like New York and LA. I'm excited that as local directors gain skill and reputation we all can build this community together from the ground up. In the film world there's no one above us, we can make our mark out here. So we really need to step up our game, learn the tools, write better scripts, tell compelling stories.
David: I think creatively, like most things Salt Lake, it has a "can do" vibe, approachable and fun. I'd have to go broader than the local film scene, and say that it's very, very easy to find enthusiastic people willing to include you in their art projects and community projects. Film's definitely an aspect of this, I always feel welcome to new things. However there could be some more push to create by having lucrative venues for local film, a chance for distribution and screening to the public. Booking a Salt Lake Film Society venue, the Tower for example, is like pulling teeth (in my experience). It'd be nice to have a face for that community like Gallery Stroll has created for the less magic lantern-ey visual arts. Like we mentioned with the 337 Documentary, having an audience is very encouraging. I've got hopes for the Salt Lake Film Festival, and the Film Society's Open Mic nights have a good thing going for them as well.
Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make it bigger or better?
Alex: The state is great for shooting. I’m not talking about big budget, fill up the street with trucks, multi-million dollar shoots. I’m talking about a ten person crew, illegally blocking off an intersection at three-in-the-morning to shoot a bike crash, type of shoot. On top of that you can find enthusiastic people to work with. I’d love to see more connection between actors, filmmakers, crew and distributors. Also sponsorship is a huge deal, on a small production, food quickly becomes the highest cost. If there was a way to secure sponsorship from local restaurants/companies, it may grease the wheels of small film production.
David: Yeah, I want to see more things that bring people from different creative areas and production houses together to work on communal and artistically diverse extravaganzas. Most of the people I know in Salt Lake wear many hats creatively, filling their time with different cool interests that make up their artistic identity. This means there's a ton of passion and a ton of possibility for people to work together and pull off amazing stuff. I love that we have a warehouse that can become a party venue or a logistics and planning studio for an ambitious project. More places like that with different interests would be great to see. More art nights, more inspiring projects that pull people in and get them to take risks artistically. That's how you learn and grow. I personally have a ton of learning to do, I still feel like a complete novice. I'd love it if I could be a cinematographer on someone else's project, that kind of opportunity would be fun to see.
Gavin: Any local directors you feel are at the top of their game?
Alex: I’ve been really excited by Steven Greenstreet’s success. I haven’t seen any of his films since "This Divided State", but I feel like he’s burning a trail for the rest of us. Dustin Guy Defa lives here and NYC, he just shot a feature, "Bad Fever", in November. All the kids who submit to the open mic. Shane Smith, who you talked to last week. We’re all getting better, I think 2010 will be a good year for local film.
David: The two that pop to mind both just jumped ship: Lonny Danler and Brian Patterson. Bad sign. I also like all the stuff John Schwarz and Shane Smith have pulled together in the past, I'm looking forward to seeing their recent work "Status Battles". I'd like Ashley Swanson to direct something, she's incredibly competent, thoughtful, and a little odd, I think it'd turn out great.
Gavin: What's your take on the film festivals that make their way to Utah, both national and local, and the impact they have on the film community here?
Alex: Oh festivals are good, in an ego boosting, film party kind of way. But film is an expensive hobby, and unless you can derive a steady income from it, it quickly gets prohibitively expensive. We’ve been lucky, we’ve been able to break even. On the 337 Project doc we covered our hard costs, that's really unusual for a documentary. So I’d like to see more support from local media distribution to help local film makers. I think festivals are a good way to judge film, like a natural vetting process, then maybe the top five films get local distribution??? Local media supporting local talent? I know, it's a crazy idea…
David: A festival is great the two weeks a year they're going on, then after that I feel kinda gypped. Distribution is key. Evolving beyond conventional distribution seems like a natural and needed step. Festivals need to trickle down, have the films available to download or rent after the fact. Then maybe we'd feel the effect of independent film year-round. To me Sundance is a thing that I'm busy during, or a chance to be perplexed by a drastic spike in the fur coat population. Don't get me wrong though, it's nice to catch a good indy film when one can.
Gavin: What can we expect from both of you and The Dada Factory the rest of the year?
Alex: Well I’m going back to school in the fall, jumping on board with the new masters program at the U in video game design! I’m super excited about it. I’m going to focus my studies toward the film/video game crossover realm. I've directed a couple of short films in this direction that use the "Half Life" game engine, they will be playing at the Machinima Fest on the 30th of April at the UMFA, at 3:15 PM.
David: Having just finished "Don Giovanni", I'm chillin' out for a little while, but I'll probably get the bug and be diving back in after a week or something of honest relaxation.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Alex: I keep my blog up to date with our film and art projects. It's kind of like the DVD special features: behind the scenes, sneak peaks of up coming projects, random commentary, etc. And come to Machinima Fest on the 30th, it'll be fun.
David: Come see the "Don Giovanni" Premiere! April 24th at the Post Theater (in Fort Douglas, above the U's campus) 8PM. There's also a bike race that'll take you up there starting at the Liberty Park Flagpole at 6PM. More info on my blog. I'm also the guy that drives the 337 Project's Art Truck these days, so if you wanna schedule a visit this summer drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll bring it around. Also, to put on my third hat, check out SaltCycle.com to find out all about local bike events. Man, if there was an Alcoholics Anonymous for self-promoters...