Becoming Director

I didn’t even know I wanted to be a director till about seven years ago. I had thought about it, but never really took it seriously. After all, I was AN ACTOR! The first time I ever even considered directing, and again, it was just a passing thought, was in the fall of 1996. I remember it specifically because I was a freshman at USC in their theatre school. I had just been cast as the lead in this bizarre play by Lanford Wilson called The Rimers of Eldritch. I was playing Robert Conklin, the kid accused of raping Eva Jackson, a physically disabled girl Robert went to school with. It was an intense role. Our director, Professor Eve Roberts, was masterful at drawing out the rawness of everyone’s performance. She knew how to communicate with actors. I looked up to her. Took her seriously. Took myself seriously.

We were in rehearsal one day and taking a break. Eve and I were chatting inside the rehearsal room. Out of nowhere she asked if I’d ever considered directing. I was taken aback. I didn’t like that she was implying that I should consider doing something other than acting. In fact, I hated it. At the time I brushed it off like nothing even though I was kind of insulted for some reason. Then I heard it again from another acting coach of mine. Again, I was annoyed. Was there something I was missing here? I’d always just thought of myself as an actor. Nothing else. I didn’t like that other people were thinking of me as something else.

Shortly after, I dropped out of college. Had some fun with drugs. Moved around the country. Eventually made my way back to Los Angeles and got my shit together. This was 2000. In 2002, I was cast in a gay indie film called Gone, But Not Forgotten. From then on, I worked pretty consistently as an actor. I was satisfied to an extent but knew something was missing. When I started producing, I recognized that I liked being in control of a production. This suddenly became crucially important to me. But there was a problem. I absolutely hated producing. I still do. Hate. It. Ultimately I discovered that what I really wanted control over was the creative aspect of a production. Around this time I decided to go back to school and finish my bachelor’s degree at USC, the same school that I dropped out of many years prior.

It was in 2011 when I realized I wanted to actually be a director. I had been taking a theatre directing class with theatre director Jon Rivera. Studying with him made me realize how much of a passion I have for working with actors. It was through his mentorship, guidance, and encouragement that I began to understand that directing was my future. It was here that I discovered that more than being just an actor, I was actually a storyteller. And I knew it was time to truly explore that and see if this was something that I needed to take more seriously than a passing thought.

Getting into USC film school changed my life in a lot of ways. It was where I learned what kind of storyteller and filmmaker that I wanted to be. I had always been a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan from a very early age. As a little boy, I would watch old black and white movies with my stepmother on a regular basis. Nobody else in my family was interested when she had these movies on, so it was usually just me and my mom watching some old classic flicks like Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, and pretty much any Katherine Hepburn or Cart Grant film. I had no idea that all of this was eventually leading me to seek out and study the kind of filmmakers whose work I wanted to emulate. This was how I eventually discovered Hitchcock. In the age of the #metoo movement, there is obviously a lot that can and needs to be said about Hitchcock and how he treated women. He wasn’t a very good man. But he was a great storyteller. He had a way of crafting a story that took you through a twisted emotional and mental/psychological journey with his characters as they sought to resolve something crucial and life-altering. There’s a reason he’s considered to be the Master of Suspense. He was absolutely gifted at it.

I have a lot of favorites when it comes to Hitchcock films - Strangers on a Train, The Birds, Vertigo (of course), etc. But there is one movie that has stood out among all the others - Rope. One location, minimal cast, takes place over the course of one evening and is one of the most suspenseful movies with true character study that I’ve ever seen. It was shot mostly in one long take but that part has always been secondary to me. The overall simple plot of two men trying to get away with murder just to prove that they could and were therefore superior beings was something that really resonated with me as a storyteller because it was such a basic premise. Yet, as the viewer, you are hooked and engaged throughout the entire movie. You forget that you’ve stayed in one location the whole time and you don’t even care. This was impressive to me as a budding filmmaker. I knew I wanted to explore something similar.

When I decided to write Devil’s Path, I was in grad school, studying film. I had recently shot a short film that revolves mostly around two characters and was a kind of revenge story. I knew I wanted to expand on this concept. I also knew I wanted it to take place entirely in the woods. This was partly a production decision, but it was mostly a creative one, a metaphor for the unknown. Throughout the development of Devil’s Path, it came up a number of times to add in other locations - the main character in his home space before venturing to the gay cruising spot, for example. We talked a lot about this. But I was adamant that if we were really going to shoot mostly in one location, then I really wanted to embrace it as opposed to resisting it and trying to add in locations just so we didn’t stay in one place. Devil’s Path is a state of mind, a mental place, just as much as it is an actual park in the story. It was important for me and for the story to keep the two main characters trapped in this space from the opening image to the closing image of the film. I knew it would be challenging but it was worth it to me for the sake of the integrity of the story. 

Fun fact. I was originally going to play the other lead character of Patrick in Devil’s Path. When I started working with my co-writer and lead actor, Stephen Twardokus, I began to discover that not only did casting myself not work, I downright opposed it (for a number of reasons). After all, I was now the director, and it was my job to protect the story and make choices that I knew would ultimately serve the story and support it. Playing the other lead no longer made sense. I knew I had a very specific vision and I wanted to focus on just that. One of the best decisions I ever made with Devil’s Path was casting JD Scalzo to play the role of Patrick. Aside from the fact that logistically it would be difficult to direct myself, especially in my first feature, the truth is that JD Scalzo came into the auditions and truly knocked it out of the park. This was an actor that made bold choices and was an artist I could trust creatively with the role. In a lot of ways, casting him saved the movie for me. It was the moment that I learned that one of the most important things as a director is to be able to extract your ego when it comes time to tell your story. It’s no longer about you, the director. It becomes about the story and the characters and guiding the actors through this space safely in order to tell the story that needs or wants to be told. Instead of being bummed out because I was no longer going to be playing the other lead, I was thrilled. It was like a weight had been lifted that I didn’t even know was there. It was then that I truly knew I was meant to be a director. Because it didn’t matter anymore that I didn’t get cast in this role. What mattered to me instead was that the right person was. And that turned out to be JD. 

Working with actors is one of my favorite things. I love digging into character and discovering things about the story that I didn’t even know was there. This was a consistent event working on Devil’s Path with Stephen and JD. They always came to the table with bold and risky choices - they forced me to up my game as the director and I found that I became very protective of them. Even paternal to a certain extent. Production was insane. I’m not gonna lie. We had a lot of logistical challenges making the movie. But throughout all of it, not once did it ever occur to me that this was not what I was supposed to be doing. In fact, the opposite happened. The obstacles we went through further enforced that I was hell bent on making this movie. But moreover, it made me realize that directing was something that I wanted to do again and again and again. I was hooked. I had found my calling.

I’ll always be an actor. It’s in my DNA. I like to describe acting for me as something that I was born with. It has just always been part of me and who I am. It will always be there. But directing - this was a discovery for me. A soul discovery that I never even knew was there. There’s something very special about making that self discovery that makes you feel alive like nothing else. You suddenly realize you have a bigger purpose even more than what you may have originally thought for yourself. When this happens, it opens a whole new world of possibility that you never knew existed. Becoming a director was something I resisted for so long. I’m glad I eventually snapped out of it. Because now my own personal journey feels as clear as day to me and open to new discoveries.

To the people that helped me reach this discovery (Eve Roberts, Bill Rauch, Jon Rivera, Stephen Twardokus, David Lewis, Rachel Feldman and many others), words can’t describe my gratitude. You helped me find my truth and trust myself as a creative soul. For anyone out there listening, or reading, if you take nothing else from this ramble, I hope you take this. Trust yourself. Trust your voice. And by the way, if there’s something you think you can’t do, because you think you don’t have the experience or skill or whatever, chances are, you should probably be doing it.


Matthew MontgomeryComment