Damian Lahey is among that small segment of indies who experience success with their first feature. Lahey wrote, produced and starred in Cocaine Angel, a gritty based-in-truth story about the dark and desperate world of drug addiction. The movie screened at ten festivals in Europe and North America, took several honors, and received strong audience response and key critical recognition, which led to a distribution deal with IndiePix. Buoyed by the positive reception of Cocaine Angel, Lahey was optimistic about getting his second feature project into production. But as he is discovering, there are no guarantees — even for those who have proven themselves capable of succeeding.
By Damian K. Lahey
I was feeling great when I learned that Cocaine Angel would have a theatrical run at New York City’s Pioneer Theatre in February 2007. I would’ve planned to be there for the premiere, but I was in Wilmington, North Carolina setting up the office for preproduction on my next feature, American Vengeance.
On the heels of Angel’s run, however, financing for American Vengeance collapsed. The axe fell two days before the director was to fly into town. Disappointment doesn’t begin to describe my reaction.
I felt a little bitter, sitting back and reading positive Cocaine Angel reviews from Variety, New York Post, and New York Times. Like everything else that we’d experienced with the production, the reviews were more than we’d expected. But I wasn’t feeling it — I was more than ready to move on. What made it really sting was having been unable to see the premiere with my friends there at the theatre. Instead, I was back at the Legion Production Office in Wilmington, twiddling my thumbs.
Even more frustrating was that American Vengeance is harsh material – a family child abuse revenge drama set in a small town. If it hadn’t been for the “guaranteed” financing... Suffice it to say that it’s not something I would have written with hopes of realistically wooing investors. Especially those who aren’t savvy about independent cinema and the offbeat stories that are characteristic of it. Vengeance was uncompromising subject matter, and Legion had been ready to back it. The company believed it would break out, and it still does.
When you want something badly enough, though, sometimes you suspend disbelief that your dreams could not come true. When I was finally told that the production was not happening, I looked back and could see all the subtle warning signs I had chosen to ignore in the hopes that I was making another movie. The bottom line, as I understood it, was that the company’s investment in relocating to a larger facility had taken up the funds needed for my little project. And that was that.
I had already been working out of Legion Production facilities, overseeing post and deliverables on Cocaine Angel and directing a couple of local commercials for the company. After Vengeance was cancelled, I was obligated to be there to tie up some loose ends.
Luckily, I had learned from previous projects that didn’t come to fruition to not crew up until the money was in the bank. I didn’t want to be the guy who promised half the town a job, and then the show didn’t happen. Aside from above-the-line positions and a couple of keys, no guarantees were made to anybody. Only one other actor (other than me) had been seriously considered for a role and contacted.
I felt good about that, but I was the guy in town who was supposed to make a movie and wouldn’t be making a movie, and there was no way to avoid looking like a moron in some way, shape or form. There’s already enough of that in the filmmaking community and I felt I had unwittingly contributed to it. (My girlfriend had dumped me the week before to work as the script supervisor on Cabin Fever 2, making more money than I’ll probably ever make in my life. Because I wasn’t crewing on CF2 or any of the other films in Wilmington earning union day rates, I might as well have been a third class citizen).
If there’s anything I loathe more in this business, it’s those who talk about making movies but never do. That, and those who make a small film of not much significance (like our own Cocaine Angel) and rest on their laurels. I started to think that I was one of those guys, and it made me sick to my stomach.
Down in the dumps and feeling sorry for myself, I holed up at Lula’s Pub next door to the production office, pouring drinks into my face. Finally, I realized that it was petty to allow myself to get depressed over not getting to make a movie, and I summoned the determination to finish up post on Cocaine Angel and the commercial spots. I needed to focus on one thing: the writing and getting out of there. It was perfect timing. As I was finishing up the commercials, I picked up a couple writing gigs. We shipped off the Cocaine Angel deliverables to IndiePix, and I returned to my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida to put things back together.
It was great to be home. And very restorative.
Writing is my first love, and what’s great about screenwriting, especially in this muddled modern age, is that you don’t need to do it from any specific location. While writing in Jacksonville, I picked up another job adapting a novel for film. The bills were being paid. I began to realize how ungrateful it was to complain about not having my next project being financed when I was paying the bills doing what I love to do.
I’m writing this piece in my journal here at Sligo’s Irish Pub in downtown Boston where the 5th annual IFFB is happening. I have nothing to do with the festival, but Michael Tully, who directed Angel, is here with his indie rock band movie, Silver Jew. And IndiePix is a sponsor of the fest. They’ve flown me here for a day and a half to iron out some final details involving the distribution of Cocaine Angel. Most of it has to do with the timeline for its release on Netflix and Amazon.com, and at Blockbuster, Best Buy and independent video stores around the country.
At this point, I have to admit that I'm rather tired of it all. But what’s most important to me now is the release party for the movie at the Starlite Cafￊin Jacksonville where it all started. Without the people there, none of it would’ve been possible. Those folks might not know Cassavetes or Almodovar, but they breathe the fire of the everyday, and still stand and breathe it again no matter how uncomfortable, or ugly, or awkward, or embarrassing it may be to others. They are better for it, and so are their stories.
Thomas Wolfe may have written that you can never go home — but he also grasped that you’ll never find another one either.
Lahey is an alumnus of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org.