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A Look at Filmmaker Katie Damien

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Katie Damien.jpg
Some people just know what they're destined to be.  

For me, I reached the last day of high school and still didn't know what kind of career I should pursue.  I thought I'd work a bit and take classes until it became more apparrent.  Eventually, for better or worse, I sorted it out and found some semblance of a trajectory in my life.

Katie Damien is one of those people that always knew what she wanted to do.  What a luxury that must have been to know exactly the field of work that was right for you. By the way she had made this decision before she was even a teenager.  So when the time came, she applied for film school at the University of Central Florida.  No backup plans.  No other school choices. The film program at UCF is where she intended to be, period.

After completing her studies and working in the Florida market Katie decided it was time to see the world.  How do you do that?  Her way was to work, under contract, in broadcasting on cruise ships.  It agreed with her and she spent several years sailing the sea and earning her keep.  

"And if you've surrounded yourself with a really good team, when everything clicks and everyone can set their egos aside, it's like magic."

During this time, when she was doing these tours aboard ship, her parents had moved from Florida to Asheville, North Carolina.  Not really needing a house or apartment since she was away so much of the time she started calling Asheville her home base and stayed with her parents when not aboard ship.  After the cruise contracts ended she took up permanent residence in Ahseville.  Which leads us to her soon to be released feature length film.

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The seed from which My Toxic Backyard unfolded came from her attempt to buy a house in Asheville. A rather continental city skirted by the Pisgah National Forest.  Progressive, with a touch of the old and new, it receives people from all over the world to see the sites and to enjoy the fresh mountain air.  It does have a dirty little secret though, as Katie discovered.
After finding some nice homes that were affordably priced just outside the city limits, it seemed too good to be true.  Most homes in Asheville are very expensive.  Thank heavens she was curious enough to find out why.  Many of the homes in this area have wells where the toxicity levels of the water reach hundreds and  thousands of times the amounts the EPA considers safe and has resulted in a higher than normal rate of cancer among the residents.

My Toxic Backyard tells the story about what happened in this area.  Katie investigates the history behind the contamination and talks with the residents about the issue and what can be done to resolve it.  Hopefully, having seen this film, we will understand better how to prevent it in the future and how to deal with it if it's already happened in our  community.

One thing I've noticed about Katie is she likes to "play" with her equipment and effects, as you will see in her demo reel below.  This experimentation has paid off with some dramatic footage and five Emmy awards for her.  In fact, she made a fun little film of her trip to the Emmys using her iPhone and a lens attachment that looks like it's done with a pro rig.  Proving, once again, that it's not the equipment but the talent behind it.

Katie's Demo Reel

Katie Making a PSA for Homeward Bound WNC

Road Trip to the Emmys 2013

I see you majored in film production at the University of Central Florida.  How did you know a life in the film business was your calling?  Did you have a backup plan?

Fortunately or unfortunately, I had no back up plan when I went into filmmaking.  I was twelve at the time and just decided that that's what I was going to do the rest of my life.  Whether I could make a living at it or not was irrelevant.  I was just going to make movies until I couldn't make movies anymore.  As it happens, it all worked out pretty well.  I didn't even have a back up film school (which in retrospect seems like a silly thing to have done.)  I only applied to UCF's film school because I had decided that's where I was going to go.  I didn't apply anywhere else because it didn't occur to me that I wouldn't get in, even though I knew it was very competitive (the Blair Witch Project had just come out and the filmmakers were UCF film school alumni.)  Maybe that's a part of the secret to success: don't leave yourself any other options and you will find a way to make things happen... because must.  That, and be really lucky.

The irrelevant part of making a living as a filmmaker factors in when you just have a passion for something.  It doesn't matter whether or not people like what you do, as long as you love it and you know that you don't need the approval of others to make yourself happy in what you're doing, then you are free.  You might be limited in the type of film you can make on your own and that's not to say it doesn't hurt when you get rejected (and if you've spent any time in any art form, you've had your fair share of rejection.)  The difference is that if you're really passionate about what you're doing, you can keep going after you've been turned down, turned away and in all other ways turned inside out.  Just keep going.  That's how I do it.  

I agree with you 100% Katie and I think that is the way all true artists feel.  They must do it so they're all in, odds be damned.   What drew you to Asheville?

I'd been doing freelance work in Florida and had gotten by okay, but I was doing a lot of below the line work, which was very fun and good experience, but I really wanted to direct and that's a hard thing to break into.  No one wants to hire you without the experience, but you can't get the experience because no one will hire you.  I already had a good body of work in short films, but that wasn't enough.  Plus, I'm impatient.  I also wanted to travel the world and I saw no need to wait until retirement to do that.  So I started working in broadcasting on cruise ships, doing 6 month contracts.  I was going to do 2 contracts for 1 year figuring that would be enough to get the traveling bug out of my system.  5 years later, I finally decided I was done.  I packed everything up and moved it into my parent's basement because I didn't want to pay for an apartment when I wasn't living in it most of the time.  My parents had moved to Asheville and when I wasn't working on a ships, I would stay with them.  When I decided I was done with ships, I didn't want to move back to Florida.  I liked Asheville too much, so I stayed.

That's very interesting Katie.  What led you to My Toxic Backyard?

A: It all started because I wanted to buy a house. In Asheville housing prices are generally high no matter where you go. So when I found a section of town where the houses were affordably priced, my first thought was, what's wrong with this area? There was no high crime rate, no dilapidated houses, it was close to city limits, but not too close. I thought I might have stumbled upon a hidden gem. My realtor showed me multiple homes in the area and I started to get excited. I told a friend of mine about this amazing find and as soon as I told him where it was, he stopped me. "There's something bad in the water out there. Don't buy a house there!" he said. "What's in the water?" I asked, perplexed that I had never heard about this before and I had lived in Asheville for more the five years. "I don't know, but it's making people sick."

I stopped looking for houses in that area, but I was curious and started digging. There were newspaper articles, and TV news stories, it was no secret. There was a whole community fighting for clean, safe drinking water that I had somehow managed to remain oblivious to. Even when I had been actively looking for a house in the area, there were no red flags, no warnings from my realtor or anyone else. If I had not done my own research, I never would have known that there was a toxic Superfund site leaking chemicals into the water table. I felt like I had dodged a bullet, but I couldn't stop thinking about all the people still living out there who weren't as lucky. That's when I started making the documentary.  It was just a story that needed to be told.  I was amazed at what I had uncovered in making this film.  Most of my work in film is meant to entertain.  With this documentary, I feel like I have the unique opportunity to make a difference.

Hard to imagine the realtor didn't know this and if they did shouldn't they be required to inform you of it.

Property disclosure is not always as cut and dry as you might think.  For example, if your water has been testing negative for contaminates, but your neighbor's water is contaminated, you don't have to say anything.  You only have to disclose what is on your property.  Even though common sense would dictate that if there's something bad in your neighbor's water and there is a large source of contamination near by there's a good chance it's heading your way.  You don't have to speculate about what might happen in the future when selling your property.

What stage of development is My Toxic Backyard in and what are your plans for it when it's released?

It's nearly finished.  I just have to review everything one more time to make sure that there aren't any errors I've overlooked.  The first chance it will have to screen in public will be at film festivals (providing it gets into any of the ones I have chosen) from January till May.  After that I'll submit it to local PBS on UNCTV.  I'm also sending copies to the state legislature who are right now deciding whether or not to loan the city money to run municipal water to all the houses in a one mile radius.

The EPA hasn't been testing more than a one mile radius, though it could reach further especially where rivers are concerned.

Tell me about your other films.  What other genres do you work in?

I've worked in a lot of genres.  I've made dramatic films, comedy, stop-motion animation, horror and even a western. 

I imagine that finding actors and crew is fairly easy in Asheville and there are lots of varied locations to work with.  Is that assumption correct?

The more time I spend in Asheville, the more talented people I run into.  I've found if you have a decent production going on, film professionals will come out of the wood work.  There are a lot of industry professionals living in the mountains who travel for work.  They leave for months at a time working on a picture and come back home for a few months before their next gig.  There are also a lot of really talented actors that I am finding here who have only done theater work, or  who have never acted before, but some of these people you put in front of a camera and they will blow you away with their performances.  I think this town in particular draws a lot of artists and creative types in general.  That makes it easier for me to find talent.  

And as far as locations go, everything is amazing.  You can go to a number of national and state park to get rivers, waterfalls, woods and mountain vistas, but sometimes you'll find those amazing scenic views in someone's backyard.  We get every season too.  In the winter there's snow, in the summer everything is lush and green, in the fall there's plenty of color.  And because we have kind of a small town feel, you can go up to business owners and private residents, tell them about your project and most of the time they are happy to work with you and let you use their space for shooting.  Everyone is just super nice.  This really is an ideal area for indie filmmaking.

You've won five Emmy Awards. Is that right?  How does it feel being  nominated by your peers much less winning one?

I do have five Emmys and it's so freaking awesome!  It is truly an honor.  When friends and family tell you how great they think your work is, that certainly feels fantastic and helps bolster confidence, but they're biased.  When complete strangers who are industry professionals honor you with an award like that, it's validating in a different kind of way.  I think it gives me the confidence to take on bigger projects.  Those kind of wins definitely make you want to reach even further and strive even harder.

I've noticed you often work with Eruch Adams, Rebecca Morris, and Matt Shepard.  Should I be keeping my eye on these people and what they're accomplishing?

Yes, yes and yes!  Eruch is a brilliant writer who is working on his first novel.  He's very funny.  Comedy is a hard thing to master, but he does it effortlessly.  I'm terrible at comedy, but I make good comedy films mainly because of his scripts.  Rebecca is super talented, so is Matt.  Rebecca has a very diverse range.  I feel like I could throw her into any role and she would nail it.  She has the ability to hold in character, something I find most actors have difficulty with.  She can give a brilliant performance with her eyes and nothing more.  I find with many actors, they perform better if you give them something to do.  It helps them to focus and act more naturally.  Rebecca can just be and she can do it in character.  It's brilliant to watch.  She's a hidden gem in this area.  Matt has a great look.  The camera loves Matt.  If you meet him in person, he's still good looking, but it's not the same as when he's in front of a camera.  He just has a natural charisma that translates well to film.  He's also very raw and not afraid to go to dark places that might appear false in less skilled hands.

Do you know Kira Bursky?

I've worked with Kira a few times.  She worked on my documentary a little bit and she also worked on the comedy feature, One Hell of an Angel that I directed (in post now.)  Everyone in the crew wanted her in their department.  People were literally fighting over her.  I wished I had had ten of her on that shoot.  She reminds me of myself when I was younger, only she's leaps and bounds ahead of where I was at that age.  She has a ton of natural talent and good instincts, and you can't teach that.  She's also honing her craft and it's great to watch.  I've seen so much improvement in her abilities from film to film.  She will make it.  Not everyone can make it in the industry, it can be really brutal, but she will.  She has a great attitude and people just want to work with her.  She is also crazy talented on multiple fronts.  She writes music too.  She's like a one man band of awesome.  I'm always excited to see what she'll do next.

What excites you most about about making films? 

I think production is the most exciting part for me.  I love being on set.  I feel like when you're shooting, that's the biggest culmination of all that you've been working toward.  It's generally the largest gathering of people all there at the same time to make a movie happen.  There's generally a lot of down time on a set, but everyone is there for a reason.  From the cinematographer who shoulders the formidable responsibility of the visual end of the film to the lowly PA who fetches coffee, everyone on set is important.  And if you've surrounded yourself with a really good team, when everything clicks and everyone can set their egos aside, it's like magic.

What do you know now that you wish you'd known early on in your career?

That's a great question. I know now that there are some stories I can tell well and some I can't. You should always do what you know. And if you want to tell a story you don't know anything about, be sure you do your homework. I've learned to find stories that resonate with me. I've also learned to say no when a project isn't a good fit. I think that just comes with experience though.

You have a catalogue that includes a  mixture of commercial work, photography, writing, and film.  This must keep you very busy.  Is the variety something you prefer or just the way things worked out?

All my work has to do with story telling, so to me it's just different disciplines that accomplish the same thing.  I love doing all of them.  When I was a kid, I had to take one of those tests that grade schools make you take so that they can figure out what job you will have as an adult.  All the other kids had jobs like detective, fireman, scientist.  My job came out as "undefined."  I was mad at first because I wanted it to tell me I'd have a cool job too.  Later someone told me that I had so many interests that I could probably do just about anything and enjoy it.

I am always very busy, but I love it.  Some day I'll find balance.  Maybe tomorrow.  Right now, there's just too many fun things to make.

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Coming up: A review of My Toxic Backyard