Growing up Filipino-American as the son of a single mother who never knew his father, Marcos Durian was a victim of constant bullying all the way to seventh grade. He finally fought back against his oppressor classmates, but he still had to contend with the frustration of wondering who his father was and if he would ever meet him.
The Pasadena-based Durian has taken those two highly emotional sets of memories and woven them together to create the short film “Fish Head,” a “visual poem” that makes its Los Angeles debut this weekend at the Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles. As the veteran cinematographer looks forward to unveiling his first project of his own, he recalled the long journey of taking his life creative vision to the screen.
“I originally wrote a feature length version of the script, back in 2006, sent it out and got a little bit of traction,” says Durian, who has built his career working on a slew of commercials and music videos. “I got some meetings and unfortunately some of the people I talked to loved it but wanted me to change the main character’s ethnicity to Caucasian or African-American.
“I gave it a try, got about 15, 16 pages in and I just knew it just wasn’t working,” he continues. “All the nuances that go along with the cultural aspects of being Filipino and the language that was happening with the bullying. I shelved it, but in the last few years diversity has made a big step forward so I was inspired to go back to the script and I thought try making it as a short film. I took the first and second part of the feature and turned it into the short.”
The 16-minute film tells the touching story of a young Filipino-American boy trying desperately to fit in with his classmates while constantly wondering about his father. As he struggles to get through each day, he finally has had enough and takes a dramatic stand.
The style of the film — which was shot in Torrance, Covina and Montrose — is elliptical, replacing a traditional narrative with a series of flashbacks and flash forwards, as well as dreamlike moments designed to show how the young boy sees the world in his own unique way. Throughout, the look of the film has a magical realist effect and the young lead’s performance is impressively layered.
“I wanted to do something that was purely visual, held some subtext to it but also in a way ambiguous and not hitting too much over the head with the audience,” says Durian, who moved with his wife to Pasadena from Los Feliz in 2015. “The fact that it’s not quite clear to the audience could be a talking point afterwards. As far as the visual poem of it, there were elements I wanted to make ambiguous.
“There are fleeting moments that you might recognize from your life or mine as kids, like Milo looking up to the sky in a field and sees a plane and sees escape and starts to float off the grass,” says Durian. “Or in a dream where he’s reaching out to a man’s hand but can’t touch it, and mom turns toward the camera and is crying. It’s a visual where the thought process behind that was Milo is seeing something he maybe shouldn’t be, that perhaps mom doesn’t want him to see her in that state. Pieces like that where I wanted to go for something a little ambiguous, has subtext but also doesn’t hammer anything over the head too much in telling the audience one thing or another.”
The goal now is to keep entering the film in prestige festivals, with Dances With Films growing in prominence this year as the Los Angeles Film Festival died off. He has already submitted to the prominent Sundance Film Festival competitor Slamdance, and is preparing to submit it to Sundance itself in the coming weeks.
But Durian has already been named one of this year’s recipients of the Emerging Cinematographer’s Award, to be presented by the International Cinematographer’s Guild on Oct. 6 at the Television Academy (the organization behind the Emmys) in Burbank. It’s an impressive feat for a man who overcame such a tough childhood, and he’s proud of every step of his journey.
“My parents met at the US Consulate in Toronto, when my mom dropped her gloves, he picked them up and they struck up a conversation with each other,” says Durian. “That kind of first meeting was abnormal in the 1960s, when people trusted each other to talk more. They began to date for a few years, then mom became pregnant and from there details of my father’s history came to light that imploded the relationship.
“I thought I might have seen him once, when a gentleman was standing at the front door of our house,” he concludes. “Just like it happens in the film, time seemed to stand still. I was completely taken over by this person’s presence, but a friend snapped me out of looking at him and it didn’t hit me until several hours later that he could have been my dad. I’ll never know, but I tried to make something meaningful out of it.”
“Fish Head” screens as part of a program of film shorts at the Dances With Films festival at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the TCL Chinese Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Visit www.danceswithfilms.com/fish-head.