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With at least 35 filmmaking awards already under his belt, and many more music videos and films planned, filmmaker Daniel Fickle is just getting started.
Originally from a small town outside of Atlanta, Georgia, Fickle decided to give filmmaking a try and moved to New York at the age of 20. After only eight weeks at the New York Film Academy, his professors were so impressed by his work that they offered him a teaching assistant job, and before he knew it he was working full-time.
“It was almost like I got paid to learn even more,” he admits. He stayed in New York another five years doing freelance work before heading to San Diego with his future wife. Now in Portland, Fickle is the founder and senior creative director of Two Penguins Productions.
Arts & Life recently talked with Fickle about what it’s like to run his own company and what inspired A House A Home.
Q & A with Daniel Fickle
A&L: Tell us more about your company Two Penguins.
Daniel Fickle: Things in San Diego were pretty dry as far as business goes, so that’s actually when I started my company Two Penguins. I thought, ‘I need to make work happen, I can’t just be this freelancer anymore. I need to have a company behind me to be able to find and produce work.’
I ran my company there for about a year before moving to Portland. San Diego was just really not my thing. The idea of perfect weather and the beach sounds good, but I don’t know, I’m just not really a big beach bum. So I came here and brought the company along with me. We started off in the basement of a house. I had one intern and just me; it was a lot of knocking elbows in a small space. Luckily I had a lot of connections in New York from when I was a freelancer, and so really by networking and knowing people the company started to grow and we moved into our first office in Old Town.
From there the company grew quickly. We gained multiple employees, and now we’ve been in this bigger location, our second office, for almost four years. We now have six employees. We do a lot of commercial work just to help keep the lights on, but our more passionate stuff is music videos such as A House A Home and other things like that.
I never started the company because I had money. When it started I literally probably had $300 to my name. It was the ebbs and flows of freelancing, you know. Sometimes I would make good money and then other times I would have nothing. It really kind of started when a good friend of mine who was the multimedia editor at GQ magazine got me in with them. It really kind of facilitated everything you see here, at least initially. It got me enough steady work at first to maintain, and then eventually to buy, more equipment and computers so we could expand.
It was a turbulent time when I decided to start the company, because Anna — she was still my future wife at the time — she found out she was pregnant. And so it was one of those ‘Do I continue pursuing what I want to do artistically and what I’d been working on over the past seven years, or do I just cash it in and go figure out whatever kind of job that I know is going to support us?’ But I went with my gut, which was a huge risk because I didn’t have any kind of investors or anything like that. It was literally just me and my camera and computer. But it worked out.
A&L: What got you interested in filmmaking?
DF: I was always interested in filmmaking. Music is really my first passion. I’ve been in countless bands. But with film, I always had an interest in it and was always doing it for school projects instead of actually being in front of the class. I did it at first without actually realizing that ‘Hey, I’m into film.’ I’d made all those videos, but before then I had never really assessed that this is something I really want to do. It was kind of a quiet passion at first, and then New York just kind of burst that passion open and exploded it everywhere. At that point I just couldn’t give up.
A&L: What have been some of your biggest challenges as a filmmaker?
DF: I have been very fortunate. Aligning yourself with the right people, I’ve had some challenges with that. But having the right team and aligning yourself with a good team, whether it’s a crew member or even just some good general guidance, I feel like it’s so crucial because filmmaking is not a solitary job. Sure, there are a few guys out there who are the writer, producer, director, actor, etc., but really and truly it is a team effort. The most talented person in the world still needs some help sometimes from someone. Finding that team has been a big challenge, but I’ve been lucky with that. That, and of course finances.
A&L: What is A House A Home about? What inspired it?
DF: Well, the inspiration came from the song itself, written by the Alialujah Choir. Adam Shearer, the main writer for the band, wrote the song a few years ago as part of a compilation album that was put together to help save the Lone Fir Cemetery. The song was about the beloved Dr. Hawthorne. He was a famous psychologist here in Portland years and years ago. He had two patients who had various mental instabilities, and they had fallen in love with one another. But the man somehow got the notion that Dr. Hawthorne was having an affair with the girl, which was not the case whatsoever. The male patient then killed himself because of that. That’s what the song is about.
Dr. Hawthorne’s tombstone is in the cemetery. But this is a very heavy story, so I did not really want to go there. So when the producer, Mark Smith, approached me to do a music video for the song, I decided to take it where the actual story and the song lyrically kind of left off. I just knew that I did not want people to feel sad or sympathetic, and I didn’t want to see any imagery of being in a graveyard, at least until the very end. I basically just decided to take this underground.
The characters in the video are only loosely based on the real-life characters. I wanted it to be a kind of mystifying story and one about really building a relationship. Here’s some lonesome guy and he has a hobby; he’s drawing these various sketches of this caribou head and these various places. That was my way of showing that he’s dreaming of the outside world. All of a sudden this girl next to him arrives. So I really wanted to focus on the relationship building, but also keep it very platonic. I wanted to kind of live in that awkwardness.
One of my favorite performance moments is when they’re sitting on the couch together the first time and you can just sense that awkwardness. I really wanted to play that up and not skip over it. I guess that’s the minutiae in life that I’m interested in. So that’s the inspiration for the video as a whole, and then I just kind of went to town on imagining where they could go and what this could be doing, and then realizing that this is actually their resting place at the very end.
A&L: What went into the actual making of the video?
DF: The sets took many weeks to build. Mark Smith, and some other people, including myself, built the sets and we all kind of helped out with everything. It was really a community effort. And Mark is an amazing person. He’s one of those guys that if you are working with him on a project, he’s going to go not an extra mile, but more like an extra hundred miles.
We built two headstones: one for each patient. For the sets we built two 5’ x 7’ rooms, and we really went era specific. The boy’s is sort of late 1800s and the girl’s is more early 1900s. The rooms were on casters and each wall could be taken off, as well as the ceilings, so that way we could really get the camera anywhere we needed to. Typically we swung the rooms around so we wouldn’t have to move our lights too much. We shot the whole thing on Mark’s property; he has a house that he rents out with a huge empty garage that we were able to shoot in.
I gave the actors very specific life goals, and a goal for every scene, but they did not know what each other’s goals were. I think that really kind of helped build that relationship aspect. That’s what life is, you know? You can assume what somebody needs out of a moment or out of a relationship, but not until you really get to know that person do you really understand.
It’s really an interesting thing directing a video that has no dialogue. It’s all quiet moments. That can be unsettling for a lot of people. I purposefully spent hours filming all of the scenes in her room when they first initially met as kind of a montage. I was like, ‘Look, you’re going to be in this room for a long time and we’re going to let the camera roll and we’re not going to be talking to you very much at all, except maybe to direct you to do something.’ You could tell at the very beginning that they were very awkward, but then all of a sudden it was like they began actually showing each other stuff and got into this very deep zone that I just had to let breathe. I think that’s the only way I could really arrive at these very nice quiet moments, where in actuality people would be talking to one another. In this case they had to figure out their silent language and it really worked.
A&L: Do you have a day job?
DF: This is it, this is the day job. It’s about 80 percent this and about 20 percent residuals from music projects.
A&L: Is there any advice you could pass along to others?
DF: With making film, don’t expect to learn that very specific thing so much, but rather you really have to learn about the big picture. Every film and every set is so vastly different that you’re going to learn all kinds of new things and what the big picture is, and you kind of start adding up all those little things based on that.
Watch Daniel Fickle’s film A House A Home on August 27 at 10 p.m. on OPB TV.