Interview by L.A. Strucke
QFTD: Tell us a little about yourself. Who is Noah DeBonis?
Noah: I grew up overseas where I was born in the Philippines and raised in Japan until I was about eighteen. I spent most of my adolescence and formative years in Asia where my parents worked as teachers. Then I moved to Miami for eight years. I went to the University of Miami to study filmmaking and I got my MFA in Film Production there as well. That’s when my filmmaking career began. I made short films and documentaries. I was doing different film work for companies as well as working as a freelance filmmaker. Now, I live in L.A., and I work as a filmmaker and a television producer.
QFTD: When did you decide you wanted to get involved in film?
Noah: I had started taking video classes when I was a sophomore or junior in high school. I’d be making movies with my friends, and it was the most fun thing I ever did. I always looked forward to my video class and the movies would turn out well.
When I was getting ready to apply for college, I talked it over with my parents about what I wanted to do. I was like any confused 17-year-old, very confused about life, not exactly sure what my direction should be. My parents asked me, ‘What are some things you really enjoy?’ I told them I really like my video class and video production. They said, ‘Well, you could study that in college if you like.’ My parents were always very supportive of my passions. I never really considered film as something you could do in college. So, I did a little research on that, that I could study film as a career path, and said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ What initially struck my interest was that film class in high school. That’s why it is so important to have arts classes in high school because they really do make a difference for students who have a passion or a drive for that type of thing - to be able to have an outlet for that and to be creative. There are so many people who are creative in the world, but they don’t even realize there is an outlet for what they want to do. Just to be able to nurture that at a young age in high school is so important whether its film or drama or music or drawing/sculpture - whatever it may be.
The truth is I’ve always loved movies, and I have my mother to thank for that. I grew up in a very snowy climate. It would be the dead of winter and it would be freezing outside and dark. We’d just rent five movies and watch them straight and discuss them as a family. ‘What did you think about that? Why did you like that?’ That sparked my interest in movies even before I realized that filmmaking was an art. It’s really important for a filmmaker to be literate in film and to watch a lot of movies. I’d like to thank my mom, specifically for sitting me down and watching movies on snowy days. That’s really what inspired me at young age.
QFTD: Your short film Posthumous has been very successful. Tell us about what it was like working on that film.
Noah: Thank you so much. Posthumous is a movie that I am very proud of. Posthumous was my thesis film at the University of Miami. Going in to making the film, I was thinking as an independent filmmaker, what resources do I have at my disposal to tell a really good story? I was living in Miami at the time, and I wanted to show an audience a part of Florida that they may not normally see. I lived very close to the Everglades, which is this beautiful swamp kind of otherworldly place, and I wanted to incorporate that into a story and really utilize that as a way to make a film that was visually interesting and unique. When you are an independent filmmaker, you have to use the tools that are available to you and around you because money’s tight. So, I knew I would be able to use this landscape as a tool that would set my film aside and give it a look and feel that would be unique. And that was the catalyst for making Posthumous.
Luckily, I met a very fantastic writer, Margaret Cardillo and her husband Luke Fronefield. They are both writers; they are a writing team, and Margaret was going to school with me at the time. She came to me with an idea about a young girl who lives in the Everglades whose family owns a Bed and Breakfast. And that plays a big part in the story of the movie. From that point on, we worked together to come up with the story and spent months and months writing the script. Posthumous took about two years to produce. It was seven months writing the script, about a week in production and another year in editing and finishing with sound work and color and all that type of stuff, and it was a crazy intense and laborious process two years in production and another year in editing. During that time, I gained twenty pounds and lost twenty pounds. I had insomnia and went a little bit crazy just because the act of making a movie, especially an independent film, can be so demanding and take a lot of time to craft the story that you want to tell. But I always believed in the story of Posthumous, and I always believed it had legs to become a really good movie, and a movie of quality, and I didn’t want to stop until I reached a place where I felt that I had done justice to the story and told the story that I knew and wanted to tell. It took a lot of time and help from people - everybody from investors to collaborators - to make this a reality. By the end of the movie, when I finally locked the film, I had about eighty different cuts of the film that I had made. But I think that’s typical when you talk to other independent filmmakers. They would probably tell you the same thing. It takes a long time to tell the story you want to tell, as well as a long time to define the story you want to tell.
QFTD: How did you go about casting the film?
Noah: The lead role of the film is a young girl; it’s a very strong role. And I knew that I wouldn’t be able to tell the story properly without finding the right actress. So, I used some connections that I had made with a few professors who were working in the industry and one of the professors runs a successful talent agency where he focuses on young actors. They cast a lot of movies for Disney. I just kept calling him and writing him. ‘Hey can you do me a favor? I have this script. Hey can you take a look at this? I think you have someone perfect for me.’ Through him, I found five or six actresses interested in auditioning for the role, worked with them, and through them I found the lead, Keana Marie, who was really fantastic. In some of the more recent films that I made, I’ve cast completely by word of mouth from actors. If you are a filmmaker and looking to cast a film, talk to an actor. See who their friends are, and they probably know somebody that is great for the role.
QFTD: What was it like winning the College Emmy award for Posthumous?
Noah: I put so much work into Posthumous, and I had no idea what audiences were going to say. I had this project that I was working on in my room for a year, showing it to my girlfriend, showing to my family, showing to some test audiences. I had so many different responses and so many different notes.
I didn't know if what I had made was something people were going to enjoy. So, when I starting submitted it to film festivals, it was such a relief that festivals were reacting to the movie. When you make a movie you are putting it out to the world, you put a lot of time and effort into it. You don’t know how anyone is going to react to it or if they are going to accept it. But to have that recognition, that acceptance, and that positive feedback from the audience made this whole process worthwhile because you have the feeling that what you made is valued.
The college Emmy was the icing on the cake. The whole experience was amazing. It was a red carpet affair and held in Los Angeles. There were celebrity presenters. The whole thing was so glamorous. It kind of blew me away.
What’s pretty cool is that winning that award started my professional career. As a part of the Emmy award, they give you a flight out there to attend. I took it as a one-way flight to the Emmys and never left, and started looking for careers in L.A. that very week. The Emmys was the catalyst that brought me to Los Angeles, and now I’m working full time in the film and TV industry.
QFTD: I was fortunate enough to watch your documentary Do Tell at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. What was it like working on that project?
Noah: I was visiting my family who lived in Japan. My mother was a teacher on a military base. This was right around that time that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was looking like it was going to be repealed. And I knew that this was a very significant moment in history and something I wanted to document. I was able to find a group of people who wanted to share their experiences about what it was like being gay in the military and what it’s like both under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and after “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell.”
The process of making Do Tell was an independent film in every sense of the word. We didn’t have a dime to spend. I made all the lights that we used out of house lights, shoeboxes, and parchment paper stuck on a rod that I would prop up. It was completely bare bones and kind of Guerilla filmmaking. The whole film crew consisted of my parents and me. I was behind the camera directing, my dad was on the second camera, and my mom helped with production and producing. It was a real family affair, all of us working as a team. Because of that, I had so much fun making it. The service members, who spoke with me, so opened up to me and so entrusted me with really important and secret details of their lives that they hadn’t shared before, that I knew that I had a movie. It wasn’t just a movie I wanted to make; it was a movie that I had to make. And I had to do well because I wanted to do justice to these service members who were willing to share their stories with me and many were very difficult stories.
I am so proud of Do Tell because when I screened the movie, people came up to me and said, ‘I had no idea it was like this for these people. I had no idea of the stigma that they face.’ I couldn’t have asked for a better response than that. I think if you are making a documentary that’s exactly what you want to hear. A significant percentage of the people in the movie were closeted and through agreeing to be in the film, came out, and were honest about who they were and are very happy that they did that. Lots of them have showed the film to their families, and their families have accepted them now because they’ve learned a little bit more about what their life has been like. It was an extremely positive experience across the board. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
QFTD: What actors would you like to work with in the future?
Noah: When I think of casting, it is very dependent on the movie and the role. I can tell you this: I love working with actors that are great improvisers because they bring so much to the film that you would not normally think of. When I’m able to work with actors who can improvise, that brings the scene to the next level. Working with great improvisational actors would be a dream come true.
QFTD: Are there any improvisational actors that you can think of, that you would want to work with?
Noah: The late Robin Williams. If you’re making comedy, you couldn’t ask for better than that. He was an idol to me growing up as a child. When I think of actors that I would have loved to know and work with, he would have been on the list. Just because he had such an improvisational technique and brought so much to each role. Somebody like that today would be Michael Fassbender. The reason I like his work is that he plays a real breadth of characters. In every movie, he does something different. I really respect actors who are able to stretch themselves from one role to the next.
QFTD: Who are some directors that inspire you?
Noah: I love the Coen brothers. Every movie they make is phenomenal. They have such a great style. I really like that they are dark and comedic at the same time. I like movies that hit both notes and play both ends, both comedy and drama. And the Coen brothers are able to hit both those notes, with a really interesting and unique style. They started off as independent filmmakers. So, anyone who starts on the Indie scene, doing their own thing, self-financing their own movies and making their own films, I have total respect for. I kind of idolize the Coen brothers. I really respect a lot of the independent filmmakers, like Andrea Arnold with her movie, Fish Tank. She’s a phenomenal British director and independent filmmaker. She cast her lead actress with a girl that she met in the subway. And she just said, ‘I think that that girl has the tenacity and spark to be an actress,’ and the girl had never acted before. And to me that’s just so cool as a director to take that leap. She was completely right, and the movie was phenomenal. Miranda July is another independent filmmaker who is based in L.A. who I really like. She makes movies that are unlike anyone else does. They’re kind of magical realism in a way. So, I really respect filmmakers that do their own thing. The Duplass Brothers are other ones. They’ve done so well that they are now doing a lot of mainstream work. This is the truth. If you’ve made a movie, you’ve succeeded -- even if it's a terrible film. If you are a maker of things, you are doing something positive and I respect that. And I look up to those people who are makers of things.
QFTD: Tell us some of the highlights of your career so far.
Noah: Winning a student Emmy was obviously a highlight. Posthumous was picked up by Virgin Airlines to screen as part of their in-flight entertainment so it was playing on Virgin flights all across the country for a while. I’ve had movies screen at Paramount studios. Sylvester Stallone has seen my movie at a screening. That’s like really cool to me. I’ve had some pretty big actors and directors sit through screenings of my film and come to me with really positive feedback. To me, I couldn’t ask for anything more. For a person who’s a successful, established director in Hollywood to approach me and say, ‘You have done well. Your movie is good.’
QFTD: That leads into the next question. What advice would you give young people who want a career in film directing?
Noah: My advice to someone who is starting out? I’ll make this simple: make a lot of movies, and start as early as you can. Get the bad movies out first. And then before you know it, you will start making great work. Watch a lot of films and write a lot of stories. Figure out what kind of stories you like to tell and tell those stories. Work with people that you like to work with. Surround yourself with people that you enjoy. Because Movie making is very collaborative, you can’t do it by yourself. When you are making a film, it’s going to be a very long process, so make sure you have friends who also believe in the project with you because you will fall back on them during the process, guaranteed. Surround yourself with people you like to work with, and just do it.
QFTD: Are you working on new projects right now? What’s coming up next?
Noah: Right now, I am working on a TV show called Billion Dollar Buyer that will air shortly on CNBC. Another show I worked on aired this past month called Breaking Ground. I’ve been doing a lot of television work lately. I’ve also been working on feature film projects. I want my next independent project to be a feature film.
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