I met Dorjan Williams back in 2011 when he was on the festival tour with a film he edited called Kink Crusaders. With a title like that, you can probably guess (correctly) that the film enjoyed one of the best after-parties of the festival. I briefly talked to Dorjan at the party as he held court for audience members appreciative of the film (and after-party). More than five years later, we reconnected and he agreed to talk about his directing work, including two sharp short films, Rubicon and VGL Seeks Same.
Hunter: You tackle the very provocative topic of transracialism in Rubicon. And seem to be winking at the audience that this concept is a construction from a medical industry seeking profit. What was it about this topic that inspired you to make a film?
Dorjan: Well, I wrote the script for Rubicon about eight years ago so when I saw these topics start to pop up in real life, I found it fascinating. Listening to someone like Racheal Dolezal empathically embracing a cultural identity that she wasn’t born into was very compelling. I also found a lot of similarities between the overall backlash of intolerance from mainstream culture I heard around transgenderism and transgendered individuals.
Whether or not we’d like to admit it as a society, American culture is extremely polarized when it comes to what we’d consider social strata, particularly when it comes to race. Which can (and often does) include the treatment and civil liberties of any demographic outside of straight white men. So I thought it would be interesting to see a film about individuals seeking social agency and fluidity.
Aesthetically, my approach to the film was inspired by two radically different sources. Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind and Dr. Suess’s Island of the Star-Bellied Sneetches. Eternal Sunshine posited a world where an imaginary process could change your life and, just like the film, I don’t delve at all into the mechanics of the procedure just the ramifications of it.
The Island of the Star-Bellied Sneetches told the story of a society where privilege was assigned to the physical attribute of having or not having a star on your belly. A classic have or have-not scenario until a stranger shows up to town with a typically ludicrous Suessian contraption that can upset the status quo (for a small fee of course).
Hunter: VGL Seeks Same also seems to delve into a similar emotional terrain in terms of examining what it means to be our authentic selves. I don’t want to give it away, but I found it to be very clever. Are we less authentic within the gay world now? If so, is there any way we can turn it around before we are completely commoditized?
Dorjan: That’s an interesting question. I think that culturally we’re only as aware of our generational dynamics when we have the benefit of a little hindsight. I came out just before my 24th birthday in 1999. Which was just a few years before the deluge of chat rooms, hook-ups sites and social apps. So for good, bad or indifferent, the bulk of my social interactions took place inside of bars. So I had to develop my social skills if I ever wanted to actually talk or connect with anyone, personally or physically.
But to answer your question, I do indeed think that it’s tougher to find a genuine connection when most encounters are initiated digitally. I wrote this script shortly after I split up from my partner of nearly seven years. This left me trying to navigate an environment that didn’t quite exist when we first met. That digital marketplace offered the illusion of more options and opportunities but in fact it just became a ‘quantity over quality’ scenario which became exhaustive and not to mention disappointing very quickly.
In our (the gay community) efforts to prevent disappointment by so-called vetting the crowds of potential suitors, in my opinion I feel we create more electronic hurdles than actually facilitating an authentic encounter.
Hunter: Your films – and especially Rubicon and VGL Seeks Same – have the quality of a “cautionary tale” to me. Do you see them that way? As warnings?
Dorjan: No, not warnings. Or at least that wasn’t my intention when I wrote both of these. However, I think the best types of these short stories which I was inspired by – like Twilight Zone – provide commentary about social issues. So as a gay man and a Black man, I think it’s important to see stories that illustrate our experiences in mainstream society. Like the film Get Out, which is just as much about racial constructs and mores as it is a brilliantly constructed psychological thriller.
Hunter: How did your background as an editor influence your development as a director or the way you make choices as a director?
Dorjan: My experience as an editor has indeed affected my creative decisions as a writer-director. In fact, I cannot begin writing a script until I have an ending in mind all the way down to a final shot and line of dialogue.
I cannot say that this approach works for everyone, but for me it’s an essential component of the process to have a ‘God’s Eye View’ of your story. That helps me maneuver the terrain much better when it comes to editorial choices.
Hunter: Speaking of editing, I noticed that – for the most part – even though you have a background with editing that you choose not to edit the films you direct. Why is that?
Dorjan: My decision to not edit either VGL Seeks Same or Rubicon was purely a practical one. My film partner, Vincent DeVries, was a much better colorist than I was. Also, a big part of my pre-production process is to have storyboards and shot lists completed before we ever filmed one frame of footage. So we had very few differences of opinions when it came to the final edits.
Hunter: Do you think it’s important to have an objective eye on the film?
Dorjan: Absolutely. When I would cut my first couple of short films, I wouldn’t even look at, much less edit any footage for weeks until the ‘on-set’ experience had waned and I had become less attached to certain things about the material.
Hunter: What’s your process like with actors? Do you like to spend a lot of time with them doing table-work and script analysis? Or is it more of a case of guiding them here or there are set? Some directors prefer to talk out every detail with his actors, while others like to leave actors alone and hardly ever communicate with them. Where do you fall on this spectrum?
Dorjan: I’ve always made the analogy of being a filmmaker to being the ringmaster of a circus. You have your clowns, your acrobats, your animal wranglers, and assorted other areas of wonderment in a circus, but it’s the ringmaster that oversees and juggles all of them.
Because ultimately no matter what’s going on behind the scenes, the audience never needs to become aware nor should they care about what almost didn’t happen. They’re just there to enjoy the show. A good director is able handle all of those spinning plates without worrying what could or could not go wrong, but handling every situation with composure and confidence.
That being said, when it comes to my talent, I like to let them embody their characters with whatever quirks and idiosyncrasies they see fit. If something doesn’t work for me, I can always pull it back, but i respect that skills of the actors to breathe life into what was merely words on a page.
Because nothing in the world makes me happier than seeing an actor deliver a line or act out a scene in a way that I didn’t envision initially. It’s a tentative process because not everyone processes feedback or direction the same way, but it’s a skill worth developing.
Hunter: What are you working on next? How’s it going?
Dorjan: As it stands lately, I have two irons in the production fire. One is a project from a few years ago that had stalled out the room post-production, but I am looking to finish that up in the near future. The other is a drama that tracks the seasons of a relationship. I have just started doing table reads for that one. My main actress is out of town, so I have to deal with scheduling as she becomes available
Pre-production wise, I am finishing my first feature length script from a story I started working on several years ago back in Los Angeles. I decided that I wanted my first feature to have main characters who were LGBT and for an extra challenge, I set it in the 90s.
Hunter Lee Hughes is an actor-filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and founder of the open source production company Fatelink.