Friday, July 26, 2013

“Choosing Signs”: Choosing to Make Your Own Movie in Your Own Way

It takes more than the luck of the Irish to become a successful filmmaker. I first met Owen Dara when we both volunteered for the Citywide Reads project sponsored by the Santa Monica Public Library. But this congenial Irishman had bigger aspirations than leading Santa Monicans in literary give-and-take. An actor, singer, and comedian, Owen was out to take Hollywood by storm. Now, some years later, his first directorial effort is making its official debut at indie film events on both coasts. Choosing Signs has already won the Best Feature Film award at Tribecca’s Golden Egg Festival, and an appearance at Monrovia, California’s AOF International Film Festival is slated for August 21. It’s not exactly a premiere at Graumann’s Chinese, but maybe that will come.

Choosing Signs is sweet, slight, and endearing. Fans of Silver Linings Playbook will recognize the quirky but ultimately heartfelt world these characters inhabit. There is, first and foremost, a love story, between a down-to-earth Irish boy and an up-in-the-air American girl who makes life-choices by consulting the powers of the universe. Eamon’s all blarney and puppy-dog affability; Jennifer is tightly wound. That’s partly because of the other two males in her life: a brother with serious mental issues and a fiancé caught up in a mad scheme to provide low-cost immigrant housing by designing tiny “hallway apartments” in which furniture is suspended from the ceiling when not in use. Eamon, for all his good cheer, turns out to be fighting his own demons. The final major character is an acerbic young Russian housekeeper, played by the award-winning Betsy Douds. It is she who triggers the crisis that ultimately helps the others get their lives in order. This is a story about various kinds of failure to communicate, but there’s hope for them all in the end.

Since Choosing Signs was a shoestring production, no surprise that Owen Dara wore many hats. Aside from directing, he also wrote the script, edited the footage, composed the music, and played a leading role. (If you study the end credits, you’ll also see that a certain Arad Newo was responsible for several technical jobs.) Opposite Owen was Jessica Lancaster, both his real-life romantic partner and his producing partner on this film. I’m told that she also oversaw makeup and costumes, and that cast members obligingly filled in on the crew when not needed in front of the cameras.

Though this small story could have been set anywhere, Owen quickly realized he would save money by moving his locale from L.A. (where outdoor shooting would have required expensive permits) to his native Cork. Yes, key members of the team had to pay their own airfare to the Emerald Isle, but Owen’s family and friends welcomed them warmly, and were always helpful when it came to securing locations and key props. The famously changeable Irish climate smiled on the effort. (On Owen’s next filmmaking venture he would not be so lucky.) The catch-as-catch-can nature of indie filmmaking is suggested by one wee tidbit. By the time the film was finally shot, Betsy Douds was visibly pregnant. Since no one wanted to recast her role, Owen incorporated her pregnancy into the script. For me it made perfect sense in context: just another of those happy accidents that indie filmmaking sometimes inspires.

About prospects for future success, Owen is philosophical: “I don’t know what will happen with Choosing Signs, but I can say that if its creation yields nothing more than my having been part of creating it, then as an artist I will consider it to have been a valuable journey.”


  1. It's boggling to me how many movies are being made - now that digital video has made $5000-$10,000 movies viable as feature films. (Not that I'm saying anything specific about the budget for Choosing Signs.) Mr. Dara's film sounds warm and pleasing - and I wish him much luck with it. It seems to be a bigger chore to get the movie released that it is to get it made. My friend Nick Searcy (the exposition flinging boss on the F/X series Justified) wrote and directed a terrific period drama called Paradise Falls in 1997 that still sits on the shelf, despite numerous festival awards. It seems that in the year just after its production there were no "stars" in the movie and no theatrical distribution company would take the movie. They might have had a cable sale, but the other co-writer refused to consider anything but a theatrical release - so the movie is coated with dust on the shelf, sixteen years and counting. Some other friends shot a microbudget horror flick here in Wilmington NC in 2007 - they added some footage through some reshoots and had the movie ready to go in 2009 - it finally dribbled onto home video in 2011. It's now been repackaged onto a movie 4 pack you can find in grocery stores (!) for $2.99. Suffice to say they did not make even their tiny budget back yet, though there's some hope when the movie comes back into their hands in another three years or so.

    I hope for better things for Mr. Dara's movie - but maybe that valuable journey will be a springboard to movie success on a larger scale.

  2. My hat is off to aspiring filmmakers everywhere. I think you're right about the difficulties of distribution, and I wish your friends the very best.