Filmmaker David Meiklejohn talks Damnationland, pursuing struggle in Los Angeles


David Meiklejohn is a filmmaker and one of the co-producers of Damnationland, an annual Maine-based film anthology that “features genre-defying original works” and celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. The premier takes place at The State Theater on Friday, October 17th with additional screenings scheduled throughout the remainder of the month

The event will also serve as a going-away party for Meiklejohn, who leaves for Los Angeles in November. He who I have known since we worked together at Casco Bay Books back around 2002 and 2003 reports that he needs a new struggle, a desire Meiklejohn clarifies a bit in this interview. Our stint as coworkers ended in 2003 when, along with artist Hannah Barnes, he traveled across the country while publishing a multi-format zine. Along the way, Meiklejohn connected with Davy Rothbart, the creative force behind Found Magazine, about whom he made directed the documentary My Heart is An Idiot. Meiklejohn returned to Portland in 2010, where he has been producing and directing films since.

I would be remiss to omit mentioning that not only have I known him for some time, I have long looked up to, respected and admired Meiklejohn. His contributions to the city of Portland, both specific to the filmmaking community and to the culture at large, are admirable and his absence will be felt by many. I wish him the best in this endeavor.

We talked about his decision to head back across the country, Frozen, the concept of cisgender queer identity and — of course — the life and legacy of Damnationland.

Why are you leaving Maine? Do you hate us? Is it something we did?

That’s a very Maine way to put it. “Why do you hate Maine?”

Oh, it’s not that I care about Maine, I’m just a narcissist and making sure it isn’t something I’ve done.

Well, I’m just trying to get away from you. [Laughs] I am really excited about L.A., but I love Maine, which is why I moved back here after being gone the first time around. I have done a lot of great work that was really valuable to me. I learned about my process. I needed to come back here [from Ann Arbor, where Meiklejohn had been living and working on My Heart is an Idiot]. There was a certain type of struggle I was after and I knew I could get that here. I struggled with my work and I did a lot of valuable work. I learned about my process but now I need to learn a different thing.

We are not short on struggles here.

Plenty of struggle. Plenty of struggle. But I need a different type of struggle.

I am a bit jealous, as I love L.A.

You know, on New Year’s Day, I had this moment where I had the idea to move. My friend Charlotte had pointed out that I do what is unexpected, and that’s something she enjoys about me. I was raised on art film and so presumably I might be snobby about movies, but I really love Frozen and I am obsessed with it. To Charlotte that makes perfect sense for what she knows about me. So when I had that idea to move to L.A., it was so jarring for me to even consider that it made sense. L.A. is not the kind of place that I would expect to enjoy myself, but every time I find myself there I do. What does that say? That’s the exact series of thoughts I had on New Year’s Day.

I think that people who feel comfortable in Maine and also feel comfortable in L.A. are very particular people. They tend to be the sort of people who have an appreciation for both art films and, in your case, Frozen. You have to be able to live in a couple of different worlds to make all of those things work. The people I have enjoyed the most and you have always been one of those people— possess a queerness, not just in the sense of sexuality and identification, but of an overall approach to existence.

An ex-lover and I were talking about queer identity. I’m a cis-bodied male who dates women and by all of my sexual history I am as straight as can be. But we were talking about how I am actually quite queer, meaning deviant. In her community and in my community of friends, that’s what queer means more than an indication of which people touch your genitals, it is about your approach to sexuality and to all of your life. I feel like in that sense, being deviant is definitely a part of my thinking and engagement with the world. That’s why I am obsessed with Jean Genet. He intentionally wrote in high English because he wanted to pervert high English. He wanted to use the oppressor’s language and make it deviant. I feel like me going to L.A. is kind of a similar effort.

That is something I have thought about a lot with regard to my own sexual identification, but have never heard it articulated in that way.

What’s tough is that it is really important for me as a person who presents as straight to not call myself queer. It’s really problematic for me to present as straight but call myself queer publicly. To do that would appear shitty and I think that’s important to remember.

I wrote something a while back about Michaud’s sexuality and I addressed it to “fellow straight people.” A few friends reached out to suggest that seeing me self-identify as straight was jarring. While I found that flattering, I am passable in every way  I am married to a woman  and it would be irresponsible to indicate otherwise. I get all of the benefits of the cisgendered male I can pass off because the whole of my queerness transgressive, but it is ultimately philosophical.

Yes, it’s tough. It is one thing to have an idea or philosophy, but the way it participates in the world is not just up to your philosophy. For me, I know that I am queer and that I identify as queer, but I also know that in the world, what’s more important for me is the safety, security and identity of my queer community. If that means taking a loss and not being able to identify myself with the easiest shorthand, but inaccurate way – if I can’t call myself queer publicly out of concern for my friends, I’m okay with that because the larger goal is most important to me.

Taking it back to your pursuit of struggle, what role has Damnationland played in that pursuit?

I made a film for the anthology in 2011, but I have operated largely as a producer. Between that and having worked on My Heart Is and Idiot, I have really come to understand my work and how the audience responds to creative work. Gaining that perspective was really important to me. I love movies and I love watching movies. I will watch any movie once, even if it is going to be a shit show. I will still watch it because I know there is value in doing so. A lot of people will got into the experience really open and that is such a valuable thing to participate in.

With Damnationland, I have learned that all of the different dynamics that go on between when a work is finished and when it is seen are important. There is a lot of work that goes into that and all of it is valuable and all of it changes what is seen on the screen. We’re doing our world premier at the State Theater. If you walk in there and it is dead silent, that is one possible impression, and if you walk in and Renee Coolbrith is singing really depressing Billie Holiday songs in the balcony, it sets a mood and it sets an expectation of how people go into that viewing experience. A film is not just what you see on screen, it is everything else as well, every experience you have in the lead up to the film. That’s one of the things I have learned.

What have you seen Damnationland become over the past 5 years?

Eddy Bolz, Allen Baldwin and I were the producers of the first Damnationland. We came in with a combination of ideas. One was that Eddy really loved horror movies and really wanted our community to make them. Allen and I came from filmmaker backgrounds and we saw a lot of our friends making films separately but not making films with a shared goal. We thought it would be really valuable for a community glue to bring everyone together to have them work on the same projects. In filmmaking, especially indie filmmaking, you can have islands of people that don’t have to intersect if they don’t want to. Unless somebody makes an effort to bridge them, those islands can go on working alone forever. We wanted to create something that would force them to come together.

The first year we had seven filmmakers. Some of them knew each other and some didn’t. It brought us together to talk about our films and our processes. Since that first year, it has done a lot to congeal the Maine film scene into something where there is more resource sharing and camaraderie. You have actors directing and directors working on other peoples’ films whereas before I might make my own film with my own tiny group of people and that would be it. Now there is so much crossover, like is the case with the Portland music scene. That is really friendly and people are always swapping musicians and everyone is always going to everyone else’s shows. I feel like that was a goal for the film scene with the start of this. We wanted it have more crossover in the work flow.

And in that sense, you feel as though it has been a success?

I think so. You see it in films like Neptune, which is directed by Derek Kimball. It is a feature length film shot all over Maine and a ton of that crew has made Damnationland films in the past. Derek can work really well by himself. He is really sell-motivated and self-disciplined and he has a vision that he knows how to get but I think with Neptune, he couldn’t make that film with a minimal crew. You need a lot of people doing a lot of work. I think that because of Damnationland, it was easy to rally that. I would hardly say that Damnationland was the reason for it getting made — he had a big cast and big crew — but I think when you have an infrastructure like Damnationland bringing people together, it creates the mindset that people can come together to do big things.

I think the Portland film community has a wealth of creative people who want to create video and film, but it has a shortage of people who want to be creative with infrastructure, or think creatively about infrastructure. We wanted to address that and create all of this great work that people we know — and people we didn’t know were able to make those things. Without that infrastructure, there is no payoff. Like you could make a film, show no one, put it on a DVD and hide it under your bed. That’s hardly what drives people to make movies. I would say that being screened into an audience is the big payoff for most filmmakers, so without people who are creating interesting infrastructure where work can be shown, it is not going to be developed. That concept is depressing. I can’t imagine doing that—making something and never seeing it screened.

It’s a lot of work and it takes a creative mind. There are few champions in town who are putting in that work. Jon Courney [of SPACE Gallery] is one in the film scene and he is killing it. He is bringing quality movies here, creating an audience and rewarding them with good films. Without a dedicated indie cinema in town, the odds are stacked against doing cool events here but we do the best we can. Damnationland is our biggest effort with out indie crew.

What has Damnationland ultimately come to mean to you?

It is incredibly special because of the role it has in our community. There is so much affection in the air between all of these filmmakers. We had a retrospective event recently, and there were these filmmakers that had never met and they were so chummy with each other. There is this Damnation alumni. There really is that alumni feeling similar to when you go to a university and see someone else from that university in some other city… While you don’t know anything about this person, you don’t need and of that to feel a connection with them. There is a shared affection there. That’s happening with Damnationland. We are only seeing that because we’ve put in the work over many years.

Are you going to continue involvement remotely from L.A.?

Good question.

Alright, movie on… [Laughs]

[Laughs] No, we have such myopia with it. We’re days away from the event and we’re just looking at this right now. You’ve got to play one game at a time. We’re playing this year right now and we will debrief before I leave and figure it out. We call each other co-producers, but a lot of the work I have taken on has been in creative direction. I edited the trailer, did the poster, and designed the DVD art. I have overseen and been responsible for all of that stuff, which is all stuff I could do from anywhere. I could easily be involved in future years, but we just haven’t gotten to that yet.

It sounds like you are going to miss it.

I am going to miss a lot of things about Maine, but there are things I want for myself. The magnitude with which I want to fuck myself up creatively is so strong that it’s worth the immense sacrifice that I am making emotionally to leave. That is how bad I want this change. I want it so bad that it’s worth leaving all of my dearest people. That’s how important this adventure is for me. That’s how you measure everything. What are you sacrificing to achieve this thing? You’re sacrificing your time, your money, your energy, your loved ones. Any choice is a sacrifice in something, but usually the thing you’re choosing is worth the sacrifice. For me, this is a huge choice, but it is a huge necessity and a huge goal.

IMAGE CREDIT: David Meiklejohn

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.