The independent filmmaking business is not for the faint of heart. This much, at least, is not news. It takes talent, determination, creativity, (at least some) money, and the efforts of a veritable village to have a chance. And even, then, it takes luck.
I first saw Portland director Steven Doughton’s film Earthlings when he sent me a link to a preview cut because I had quite liked his first feature, Buoy. That was on, according to my email archives, March 3, 2020. We all know how much the world changed over the next couple of weeks.
Three and a half years later, Earthlings is finally having its Portland theatrical premiere at Cinema 21 on Monday, November 6. In it, wealthy divorcee Tom (Kelvin Han Yee) hires a pair of Mexican day laborers, Diego (Daniel Edward Mora) and Javier (Luis Chávez), to do some yard work in preparation for a dinner party he’s hosting that evening. He ends up inviting the pair, only one of whom speaks English, to stay, and they are eventually joined by unhappily married Diane (Tina Holmes) and abrasive, wealthy Conrad (James Le Gros). Liquor flows, a suckling pig is consumed, and the night devolves into a drunken discussion of cultural differences and similarities, with a little bit of sexual tension on the side.
The making of Earthlings is a prime example of the power of Portland’s creative community. It’s based on a story, “The Suckling Pig,” by Jonathan Raymond; Todd Haynes is an executive producer; Jacob Pander was brought in to edit; Malia Jensen did the art direction; and so on. Monday’s screening is sponsored by the gallery ILY2 and is a benefit for the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, which provides assistance for immigrant Oregonians in need. It will be followed by a discussion with Doughton, Raymond, Chávez, Brooklyn-based film writer Nolan Kelly, and artist Patricia Vázquez Gómez.
I spoke with Doughton about the challenges and pleasures of making Earthlings. Our conversation, which sheds light on the vagaries of independent film distribution, has been edited for length and clarity.
OREGON ARTSWATCH: It’s been over three years since you sent me a link to view Earthlings. That was right before COVID shut everything down, so can you catch me up on what’s transpired with the film since then?
STEVEN DOUGHTON: Well, we spent a year or more being unable to do any refinements to the film because of the virus. And then my mother passed away that year, and that took a lot. Eventually, we decided to try and get the film out to festivals and we were unsuccessful with that for the most part. We got accepted to the Bend Film Festival, but it was online-only. We were working with Jim Brown of Argo Pictures and he recommended that we not do an online-only festival. So we waited and then we got accepted to the Port Townsend Film Festival, which I was very excited about.
But in the meantime, somebody from Sweden managed to see the film because I had put a link to the film on Kickstarter for the backers but I didn’t realize it was a public link. So this guy in Sweden was searching for films based on Jon Raymond’s writing and he stumbled across the Kickstarter page and was able to watch the whole movie. He wrote us and referred us to a producer in Sweden, Anna Byvald. She has a company called Silver Films, and she was able to get the film into the Gothenburg Film Festival. But that was another year later, and they wanted a world premiere. So we pulled out of Port Townsend, and I felt terrible. They were very understanding.
We went to Gothenburg, which is a bigger market and had an international audience. We had four screenings there and they were really well-attended, but nothing really came of it. No other programmers picked it up.
OAW: That is surprising, considering that it’s a polished piece of work and has at least one actor, James Le Gros, with some name recognition. It must have been a surprise to you as well.
SD: Well, I am in talks with an agent who loves the film, so maybe it will get some traction. It might be headed to the Berlinale film market in February. I was surprised, because I think the story is compelling and I believe in the film and the work that everyone did. But I also don’t expect anyone to like anything I make, honestly. I’m just that way.
I had the same experience with Buoy. I had a rep who was able to get that film into the hands of plenty of programmers for really good festivals, and it only played a handful. And there’s so much saturation. I don’t want to disparage any festivals; think about how many films are submitted to any of them. It’s almost like playing the lottery. If you’re not a famous director, you can have a great film and it can just get overlooked. There’s so much content.
OAW: What were the origins of the film, did it come from Jon’s story? How much was he involved in the scripwriting?
SD: Jon and I met in New York back in the mid-90s. He at one point told me this kernel of an idea, part of a group of short stories about suburbia. He knew somebody whose recently divorced father lived in Lake Oswego and used to hire day laborers to party with him. He said he wanted to write a story about that and I told him I wanted to make that movie.
At the time, I had a project with a couple of very well-known producers involved and a budget of almost two million dollars and a very famous actor interested in the project. But it was taking forever, and I was feeling this slow death of my hopes as years went by trying to get this thing off the ground. So I decided I just wanted to make something inexpensive, and then Jon told me this idea for his story.
A couple of months later, he sent me a polished draft of “The Suckling Pig,” which ended up in his book, Livability, which also contains the stories that Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are based on. That was probably in 2007 or 2008. In the meantime, the project with the famous actor fell apart and I had written Buoy, which was a film I could make for nothing. So I made that one first, and it didn’t create the easy path to another feature that I had hoped it would, so it took another eight years or so to raise the money and make Earthlings, which we shot in the fall of 2018.
OAW: And then you still had post-production.
SD: Yes. I had an editor where some things didn’t work out, so I contacted Jacob Pander, who’s a very old friend of mine and a fantastic editor. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he had the time to work on the film, although he also had a lot of other projects going on. I didn’t have enough budget to pay myself, so I was working my day job and had to squeeze in editing time when I could.
OAW: That is a remarkable amount of persistence.
SD: I appreciate that because it is really very hard.
OAW: In a small ensemble like this one, casting is especially crucial. How did you go about finding your actors?
SD: James Le Gros got involved through [Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy director] Kelly Reichardt and her producer, Neil Kopp. Kelly offered to get the script to James and Neil offered to contact Mark Bennet, who had done some casting for Kelly. He was great. The script resonated with him, and he found Kelvin Han Yee and Luis Chávez. I knew at that point that I had some really good actors. Luis’s agents said that if I could offer him a producer credit, we could probably work together. And I was happy to bring him on. He did so much. He got the film to Danny Mora. We had a couple of other actors who wanted to play the role of Diego, but they had scheduling conflicts, so Luis reached out to Danny. And that was a great fit. Luis also helped with the script and with the Spanish translations. And with giving me insight into the experience of being an immigrant from Mexico. All the actors have real authorship of this film, they took it to places I wasn’t expecting and was pleasantly surprised by.
OAW: So here we are. How did this screening come about?
SD: This gallery, I Love You Too, which is Allie Furlotti and Jeanine Jablonski, approached me and said they wanted to do something with my film. They made this happen with Cinema 21 and hopefully once we’ve done all the heavily lifting to get the film ready to screen publicly, it won’t be so difficult to do that again, maybe in another city. ILY2 is devoted to supporting artists and they’re philanthropists, really. They are doing this for the benefit of the arts community and they’re donating all the proceeds to an organization that is in keeping with the film. I’m happy to be able to contribute to that cause.
OAW: From your perspective, what’s the theme of the film? What does it say about us Earthlings?
SD: I didn’t even know or care at the time. I was just intrigued by the notion that these people have nothing in common. They’re strangers trying to relate to each other. I know what it is to get sat at a table at a big party and you’re with strangers. This is that but far more extreme than any experiences I’ve had as a white guy in America.
I’ll be screening some of my earlier short films on Monday as well. I made a lot of shorts that had a solitary character, a displaced figure out of place in a foreign landscape. When I was editing Buoy, I realized I was doing it again. That film just has a woman, alone, on the phone talking to a person who’s literally been in a survival suit floating on the Bering Sea after a shipwreck. Again, a total sense of displacement.
What I realized was that we look at the world from the self, this perspective of being the center of your universe. Your closest people are still separate from you. It’s a tragedy. It’s at such odds with our need to connect and have companionship. In the introductory scene of Earthlings, I go back to some of that imagery and try to make that statement again, but this time in a more emotional context. All of these characters are so alone.
OAW: It makes me think of the line from “Piano Man”: They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.
SD: [Laughs] Yes. One of the few things that can make you feel less lonely is knowing that other people are lonely too.