The main character of Harrison Montgomery never speaks (let alone sings) the words, "Girl, there’s a better place for me and you." Yet Daniel Davila’s S.F.-set debut feature assuredly mirrors the theme of The Animals’ defiant anthem "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." The tale of a young bottom-rung Tenderloin drug dealer with aspirations of becoming an artist, the film charts from every angle the gulf that separates hardnosed reality from dreams of a better life. What sets Harrison Montgomery apart is its mix of tones; it unfolds in the gritty terrain of Rob Nilsson’s 9@Night series, but often adopts a tone of absurd realism that evokes memories of the indie amateur-heist flick Palookaville (itself inspired by the seriocomic masterpiece Big Deal on Madonna Street). With Martin Landau providing ace support as the eccentric codger downstairs, Harrison Montgomery screens one more time, February 20, in S.F. Indiefest. We conducted this interview via email with Daniel Davila, now based in Los Angeles.
SF360: What brought you to San Francisco?
Daniel Davila: I’m originally from Ecuador. When my family moved to the States, we landed in the Bay Area. Though there has been some bouncing around over the years, I have always come back to the Bay. My family currently lives in the South Bay, and shortly after I finished film school at USC I moved to San Francisco, where I lived from 2000 through 2007. In that time, what had been my home became my love. I live in LA now for professional reasons, but my heart is with Tony Bennett’s somewhere in the 7×7, and I will return someday.
SF360: What attracted you to this project?
Davila: There really is no other city like San Francisco. The mix of geographic beauty, cultural diversity, well, you get it—you live there. So, visually, it’s a fabulous place to shoot—Hollywood certainly agrees with me on that point; witness the host of films shot in the city because it’s a lovely backdrop. But I was living there, and I know that San Francisco is a lot more than a pretty face. There are dark alleys, there is grit, there is heartbreak, and no other place shows this off with as much flair as the Tenderloin. To be clear, I say flair intentionally—the Tenderloin is a raw and exposed collection of human struggles, and to my mind this has rarely if ever been explored in the feature film context.
So when the original draft of Harrison crossed my desk, I was immediately taken by this new perspective. Even more so, I was enthralled by the story’s magic—a magic born of a beautiful city with a dark heart. To walk the Tenderloin at dusk is unique. So many people on the make, desperation in hollow eyes, and immigrant families trying to get a foothold in the city. I’ve heard said that the Tenderloin is the first and/or last place many people live in San Francisco—a place where people are hoping to find a way up, or are clinging by a thread on their way down. And this is the story of Harrison Montgomery—our hero Ricardo is on his way down, while Margo and her young daughter Lattie are struggling to find a way out—their lives intersect and are forever changed because of it. Like the city, in which you can go from the rundown corner of Turk and Golden Gate to the top of Powell, the height of wealth and the pinnacle of world, in a few minutes, so the adventure of the film goes from the simple trials of normal people to a racing and magical finale.
SF360: To what degree do you identify with Ricardo, who has a Hispanic father and a Caucasian mother?
Davila: I am a product of a bicultural home, and as such have always sought to understand my place in the world. While I still grapple with this question, the process through which Ricardo’s heart is opened and he is able to find a new community, in some ways a new family, mirrors my own sense of how we, in this society of individuals, can connect with others. Many in this world feel isolated. Our big cities are at times alienating. But it doesn’t have to be that way, if… there are more people like Lattie willing to take a chance. If there are more people like Ricardo willing to open up to others. These ideas are important to me as much because of my cultural background, as because they represent what I believe is one of the most effective strategies for achieving peace/happiness. If I can open my heart and my mind, I can experience the world fully. And the world can be a wonder-filled place.
SF360: Are there specific subjects, themes or characters that you wish to make films about that, perhaps, other directors aren’t addressing?
Davila: I want to tell stories that amaze—whether amazement at the magic of wizardry or at the power of human emotion, or both, I want audiences to leave my films uplifted—believing, if only subconsciously, in the sublime richness of human experience, in the power of humanity’s capacity for transcendence. Lofty rhetoric aside, and please indulge me for a moment of fandom, I point to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as an example of this kind of storytelling—the melding of surreal and real to express the full spectrum of emotion involved in human relationships. Even in the folly of these characters, [screenwriter Charlie] Kaufman and [director Michel] Gondry revel in the bittersweet ironies of love. And it’s delicious, delightful and consistently surprising—surely life can be like this. I aspire to this experience as an audience member, and I aspire to deliver this as a filmmaker.
SF360: Talk a little about how you convey on film the light, mood and feeling of San Francisco. What are the advantages or disadvantages of shooting in a city where you didn’t grow up?
Davila: As I mentioned earlier, I consider San Francisco my home, and I do feel I know it intimately. In addition to walking the streets of every neighborhood, I am a fan of cycling and have circled the city and wound my way to its far corners many times. (In my practice of meditation, as I center myself and let go of the stresses of everyday life, unbidden, images of San Francisco will float through my mind. It is where my mind goes when I relax.) That said, I didn’t grow up in San Francisco, and this may be why I have forged such a strong association with the city in adulthood. In terms, then, of making the film, I would hope that this active interest in the city afforded me a keen eye for detail—an interest and devotion to highlighting the nuances of this complicated city.
There is a pallet to the Tenderloin, rich tones, many of them earthy, all yellowed by age—a forgotten opulence that typifies the late 19th-early 20th century architecture of the neighborhood. Our production designer Roxy Hayden and our director of photography Ben Kutchins went to extraordinary lengths to highlight the available features of our locations, and to recreate these elements when we were on set. The really cool thing is that working with the Cinealta package we were able to take advantage of many existing lighting elements for the street scenes. Though, to be clear, Kutchins busted his ass to make them look right, both during production and during the extensive color timing we did in post. Beyond that, I feel San Francisco is captured in the characters. There is obviously no way to be comprehensive in the representation of a city’s population, but this story endeavors to represent the diversity of the city—if not all available diversity, at least some of it.
SF360: In some ways, Harrison Montgomery could be set in any big city. What makes it a uniquely San Francisco story (or film)?
Davila: San Francisco is a magical city, as much for its appearance as for its layered diversity. In 49 square miles there are so many possibilities, so many threads of human experience that can be woven together, that to my mind Harrison Montgomery could not have been set in any other city. I experience it, too, as a compassionate city—a city that cares about its citizens. The finale of the film is an expression of selflessness—of concern for others. In a world in which many big cities are alienating, San Francisco has always seemed to me uniquely intimate, and therefore ideal for a story that encourages open interest in the struggles and plights of others.
SF360: The film blends various tones, from absurdism to realism to fantasy. What’s the key to keeping the viewer a bit off-balance, but also sufficiently clear about how to read each scene?
Davila: Harrison is the confluence of two artistic instincts, naturalism, and magic realism. Naturalism born of a desire to represent how things are, and magic realism born of a desire to express how things feel. It is this mix that makes Harrison Montgomery what it is, gritty and ethereal—a tenement window with a view of the universe. Therefore, to keep the audience engaged is a matter of playing the reality of the emotional lives of the characters. If the audience is engaged on this personal level, the twists of plot and of cinematic device serve as fresh accent to the characters’ journeys.
SF360: The film avoids the cliches of both inner-city realism and main-character redemption. What methods or techniques did you employ to prevent yourself from succumbing to those pitfalls?
Davila: Interesting question. Karim Ahmad and I worked with the script for several years, and struggled to preserve the wonder and surprise of the original (by Cliff Traiman)—a realistic story that explodes with magic—while making it accessible to an audience. To accomplish this we focused on understanding our main character, of really having compassion for this ne’er-do-well. In this way, we were able to come to understand why he makes the choices he makes, while not necessarily agreeing with them. Along the same lines, we were able to shape his actions so that his tactics were aligned with universal human desires of companionship, self-esteem, security etc. In this way, we hoped to create a character the audience might empathize, and if not, certainly sympathize with.
As an aside, we did push the story too far at one point—we had a draft that satisfied many of the traditional modes of redemption and narrative structure. What we discovered is that the story lost its natural resonance—we had sanded it too smooth—there were none of the character imperfections that provide for the subtle dynamics necessary for this story. At that point we had to take a step back. We kept some of the satisfying elements of this smooth draft, but resurrected a Ricardo who was flawed, and therefore more realistic. Beyond that, we wanted to create a world just past reality, in which the harshness of real life was present, but in which magic was possible. To that end we chose to shoot classically, and strove towards a production design with an almost theatrical scope—a world of textures, a suggestion of reality, rather than reality itself.
SF360: How would you assess the present and future of American indie film?
Davila: That’s a tough question because of definitions of indie. Broadly, I think American indie film as a mode of expression is in fine shape. Indie film as a business, however, is in transition. The simple fact is that while the means of production have been democratized, and quality production is within the grasp of many, distribution remains a bottleneck, and perhaps rightfully so. The only measure I can think of for this is whether films that ‘should’ be seen remain obscure, or inaccessible. Truly, this is a subjective gauge, and difficult to apply with any rigor. There is a potential way around the bottleneck through digital distribution. But monetizing streams is a challenge in itself, not to mention the difficulty of driving traffic to any given film.
From my personal vantage, I like the independent production opportunities in front of me. My team knows how to extract excellent value from every dollar in the service of emotionally resonant storytelling. Of course we’ll have to overcome the challenges of dried up capital markets, but I think we are poised to do more with less, an advantage in this economic environment. Going forward, I believe that there will continue to be a limited appetite for truly indie films, and there will be commensurate exhibitor support for this demand. While there may be a reduction in the number of cineplex screens available for smaller movies, small digital theaters will provide new opportunities for theatrical exhibition—essentially a wash. What this means is that, as has been the case for at least a decade if not longer, very few films will be shown on the big screen. (Whether they are the ‘right’ films will remain the domain of critics and acquisitions execs.) Many more films, however, will make it to the small screen in the form of internet downloads or even VoD. The revenue model for these efforts will stabilize, and provide limited opportunity for budget recoup, and in a few cases profit. Bottom line, indie film is crazy risky, but if you have something to say there has been no better time to construct your own proscenium and mount a production.
SF360: Last question: What’s your favorite piece of gear?
Davila: Without question, my Mark V Director’s Viewfinder. I’ve had it for well over a decade and it never fails to excite me. As soon as I hold it up to my eye the world becomes a movie set.
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