Cascadia Composers May the Fourth

Making films on Portland’s Desert Island

A bustling studio in close-in Southeast Portland is a magnet for makers of short films, music videos, commercials, and maybe even movies.

|

A Desert Island Studios commercial for "Straightaway," featuring, from left: Jimmy Chen (with camera), Darrion Winters, Megan Diana, and Kayy Kash. Photo: Holly Andres
A Desert Island Studios commercial for “Straightaway,” featuring, from left: Jimmy Chen (with camera), Darrion Winters, Megan Diana, and Kayy Kash. Photo: Holly Andres

Desert Island Studios is a membership collective, a production company and a rental facility, founded by Joe Bowden and Ashley Song, whose primary purpose is to facilitate the filmmaking process for Oregon artists. All of its members share dreams of making narrative films and documentaries, and all of them do the commercial work to sustain their lives.

Desert Island is fully equipped to give local and up-and-coming filmmakers a home where they can hone their skills, do the gigs that pay the bills, pursue their passion projects in a professional environment with professional tools, and build up a body of work that will lead to a sustainable career.

Desert Island also hopes to be at the vanguard of a renaissance of Oregon’s movie-making industry. And they want to accomplish all that in a way that takes care of the people making the art. That, at any rate, is the dream.

Sound like a lot? Sure. But when you talk with Bowden and Song, you think they just might be able to make it happen. “We work for filmmakers,” says Bowden. This is the foundational principle of Desert Island, one that is borne out of bitter experience. “[Joe] realized there was such a lack of support for people who were just starting out filmmaking,” says Song. “So, he was like, ‘How can I create that support not just for myself but share that with the larger community?’”

The “how” is located at 1316 Southeast 12th Avenue in Portland, and when you walk into Desert Island’s Studio A, it feels like you’ve stepped through the looking glass into a cosmic cube of imagination. “Studio A is 2,500 square feet of shooting space,” says Bowden. “The black side lends itself to set-building,” he adds, because half of Studio A is a black cyc, or cyclorama. “One thing that’s prohibitively expensive if you’re an indie filmmaker is building a set. Having the ability to do that and – we have, basically, another storage facility in our old studio where we keep all our old flats and stuff like that which people can bring over and build sets out of.” The other half of Studio A is white. “White cyc walls are the standard for commercial photography,” says Song, “a blank infinity space.”

Studio A is not quite a soundstage, “because you have to hit precise specifications to call yourself a soundstage,” says Bowden, “and we’re not quite that – but it’s a foot-thick of poured concrete walls, it’s an air gap, then it’s regular 2×4 studs with insulation and five-inch drywall. So you can roll sound in here and not hear sound from the outside for the most part. Technically, sound stage – no, but for all intents and purposes.”

Desert Island's Joe Bowden and Ashley Song. Photo: Bobby Bermea
Desert Island’s Joe Bowden and Ashley Song. Photo: Bobby Bermea

There is also a Studio B that is exclusively for members of the collective, and a sound booth. You can find a comprehensive list of all the specs and tools and everything Desert Island brings to the table at their website. Walking around Studio A one is reminded of Bogart’s last line in The Maltese Falcon. The giant creative space feels like “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Sponsor

CMNW Council

In the beginning, Desert Island wasn’t even Desert Island. It was Joe Bowden and a bunch of film gear in a 270-square-foot living space. In his 20s Bowden played music, ran a record label and bartended, and made films when he could: “It was just me making my own films to begin with.” Those early days deeply affected Bowden, and led directly to the creation of Desert Island Productions and its mission.

“It’s so freaking hard to make a film,” says Bowden. “When I was in my 20s I would write the script, do the sound, shoot it, I even acted in some of them. It would cost me $2,000 to make a short film and it would be awful and it would take six months of my life and getting back on that horse would be so difficult. I’m thinking there’s gotta be a way to fail more cheaply.”

So, at the outset, there wasn’t a name, just a purpose. “I started in a tiny little office next to a drum shop (on 20th and Ankeny) because I needed a place to put stuff,” says Bowden. “That building had an opening in a new place so I collected a few other writers, there were some journalists involved in the early days, and a few other people who wanted to do music and film. Then the space next to us opened up. So we punched a  big hole in the wall and grew bigger. By then, the collective idea really started to take shape and was more like, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to be.’ Then we moved into a new space on North Tillamook four, five years ago. After being there for a few years I figured I’d grown the business as far as I could take it and so I brought in Ashley to help grow it further.”

“I met Joe in 2017,” remembers Song, “and then he hired me to be in a film he was directing. We started working together that way.” There is a funny story about Bowden first inviting Song to check out the studio possibly being an act of showing off, but Song was laughing when she told it and Bowden admitted nothing on the record, so we’ll leave it at that.

Then, Song says, “we started working together and I started producing. I was involved with the community, talking about the studio, working with Joe, hashing out ideas with him, then eventually he catalyzed the decision to go into business together.” In 2021, Song became an official partner and they formed the LLC. By 2022 they had launched the production wing and asked one of the collective’s long-time members, Devin Jane Febbroriello, to head it up.

The members of the collective run the gamut of positions and skills that work in film production. “They’re DPs (directors of photography), they’re ACs (assistant camera), they’re writers, they’re directors, they’re producers, grips, gaffers,” says Bowden. “The whole constellation of film workers are represented here.”

Though everybody wants to create narrative films, the reality is, “Everybody has to do commercial work,” he says. “That’s Portland. It’s really hard to live on just narrative.” One member does the Lotto commercials. Another does a lot of work for footwear companies. Music videos and short films are also staples.

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante

The idea is for Desert Island to offer as many services as possible to keep it sustainable. Bowden had worked with other production companies before; studios formed with the idea of just doing narrative or just being a rental facility, and it was never enough to keep it going. So Desert Island offers their skills, their tools and their facilities to meet a variety of creators’ needs.

Ashley Song in the short film "Private Chat." Photo: Joe Bowden
Ashley Song in the short film “Private Chat.” Photo: Joe Bowden

And ultimately, of course, the hope is to simply make movies. “The goal for us is to find the right script and produce in-house narrative projects,” says Bowden. “To be a small, mission-driven, west coast A24. We’re actively looking for scripts and trying to find filmmakers that are aligned with us and are going in that direction.”

Desert Island Studios also seeks to establish a healthy work environment for Oregon filmmakers of color. In the wake of 2020, the studio began its Damn Good People project, a database to help artists of color find work in the Oregon film industry and for the for the industry to find them.

“Damn Good People,” says Song, “is a program that was actually started during the pandemic by myself and a few other filmmakers in town at the time who formed this informal collective called D.A.M.N., which was an acronym that stood for Disrupting American Media Now. We thought it would be really cool to have a database of people who were mid-level, career filmmakers that productions looking to hire diversely could refer to in order to bring on crew for their projects. It’s like a staffing concierge service. That list gets shared out to productions that are coming into town that are looking for crew members.”

But that’s not where Damn Good People’s responsibilities end. “We have an HR pipeline component built into it that consists of an accountability workshop,” says Song. “Because a lot of times when we’re making films it’s gig-based and project-based. So, a ton of people come together and they sort of gather round this project and they shoot for one week, two weeks, three weeks. In the time that they’re working together, especially if it’s an independent project, there is no HR department, there is no service for when incidents come up, and there’s no process for addressing those things as they happen.”

It’s not necessarily a straight line in the film industry, any more than it is in any other industry. Things have been done a certain way for a while, a subculture has been established, people are reluctant to change. Song understands that, but she thinks you can have it all.

“We have a responsibility to keep the balance of maintaining a high standard of quality in the work that we make and really committing to it and investing in it as artists and professionals,” she says. “And at the same time, we need to leave space for not harming ourselves in the process. We can expect a different status quo, and we should.”

Sponsor

Cascadia Composers May the Fourth

Song’s hope is to ingrain this new sensibility into the Oregon film industry and make it the standard. But for it to be relevant, film and television are, in fact, going to have to get back on their feet in the state. Pandemics and strikes have a way of putting a damper on things. Now it’s time for recovery.

J. Smith-Cameron in "Say It Like You Mean It," a music video shot at Desert Island for Sleater-Kinney. Photo: Tim Orr
J. Smith-Cameron in “Say It Like You Mean It,” a music video shot at Desert Island for Sleater-Kinney. Photo: Tim Orr

“The film industry in Portland and maybe throughout the state of Oregon is largely fueled by independent cinema and grassroots filmmaking,” she says. “It’s up to our community to really advocate for and fight on behalf of filmmaking culture here in Portland so that we can create more jobs and create more work for people to do. We have to be ambassadors for the state of Oregon and for the film industry here.”

Unlike, say, regional theater, which is largely run through the nonprofit sector, film is primarily a commercial enterprise. The investors are looking for a return on their investment. “One of our main goals,” says Bowden, “is to prove to Hollywood that we can do that here. Lure some investors.”

 What’s next for Desert Island? “We’ve been able to level up the production side of things,” says Bowden, “just having more space and more to offer. So there’s been more commercial client work for sure, which is one of the keys to our sustainability. There’s been a lot more narrative interest. The goal for us is to find the right script and produce in-house narrative projects, to be a small, mission-driven, west coast A24. We’re actively looking for scripts and trying to find filmmakers that are aligned with us and are going in that direction.”

“We do continue to have ongoing production services available for brands, entrepreneurs, clients, anybody looking to partner with a really thoughtful, mission-driven production studio that also has these wonderful in-house assets at our disposal,” says Song. “We’re available and open for business, so give us a call.”

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

SHARE:
CMNW Council
Blueprint Arts Carmen Sandiego
Seattle Opera Barber of Seville
Stumptown Stages Legally Blonde
Corrib Hole in Ground
Kalakendra May 3
Portland Opera Puccini
Cascadia Composers May the Fourth
Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante
OCCA Monthly
NW Dance Project
Oregon Repertory Singers Finding Light
PPH Passing Strange
Maryhill Museum of Art
PSU College of the Arts
Bonnie Bronson Fellow Wendy Red Star
Pacific Maritime HC Prosperity
PAM 12 Month
High Desert Sasquatch
Oregon Cultural Trust
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.