How does one become successful in the film industry?
It’s a loaded question, and one asked regularly here in southern New Mexico, where the industry is really just in its infancy. Ask the experts – and by that I mean anybody who has achieved some level of success – and you’re likely to get a lot of different answers: Innate talent, knowing somebody in the business, luck, etc.
The one point they all seem to agree on, however, is that in order to make it in the industry, you’ve got to produce. Every waking hour should be spent pursuing the dream, whether it be researching, writing, prepping, creating storyboards, filming, scoring, editing or any of the dozens of other critical components that go into the making of a movie.
One such expert, Las Cruces native Shawn Darling, takes this philosophy to heart. Darling’s present studio, located in the west valley, is testament to his devotion to a very specific craft: make-up and special effects. Crammed literally to the rafters in some places with molds, clay sculptures, prosthetics, otherworldly armor and paintings right out of the Night Gallery, alongside the tools and elements of the trade, including cans of paint, brushes, vises, lengths of tubing, sheets of metal and more, it is a veritable treasure trove of movie magic; a temple to cinematic passion.
It is interesting to note that as overwhelming as his studio may be, it doesn’t even begin to encompass the entire spectrum of his creative talents. In fact, so extensive is his list of interests and resume qualifications, he has a hard time settling on a title.
“I used to say I was a filmmaker, but now I kind of refer to myself as an artist who also makes films,” Darling said. “I do special effects, but I also write, shoot and edit and all that sort of stuff. It just depends on what I’m being approached for that determines the terminology used.”
Darling works constantly, whether on feature films, television series, commercials or recreating prosthetics for sale on his etsy site. He does it all through is own company Gryphon’s Egg Productions. The question arises then, how did a creative young man from Las Cruces get to this point?
“I do a lot of self promotion,” he said. “I did and still do a lot of internet research. When I’m not working in the shop or on a project, all of my free time is spent researching. I do tutorials constantly. I literally research all the time.”
It’s also important, he said, to have a backup plan. Which is why in the years that he’s been working within the industry, whether it’s in Albuquerque, Tucson, Los Angeles or Las Vegas, he’s also taken odd jobs here and there, taught classes from his garage and even did a stint as a magician.
“I tell people all the time, they need to have a back up plan,” he said. “The path in any form of art is a hard road, unless you are extremely good or you have the luck of being in a situation where you have access to avenues for people to see your work. Your other option, if you don’t have those things, is just to bust ass and constantly work.”
But what if you live in an area where work is scarce? Like, say, Las Cruces?
“I would suggest you keep making stuff. In your downtime, learn and make more stuff,” he said. “None of it has to be perfect, because they get better as you go. A lot of people don’t do work, because they don’t have the equipment they want. So, they keep putting it off and the next thing they know, they’re 80 years old wishing they had. You constantly have to crank stuff out, even if it’s not the best you will ever do. Make it the best it can be now. Build a body of work. Without a body of work, you won’t be taken seriously as a professional. You have to have something to show.”
Obsessed with movies from an early age, and citing influences such as Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Dick Smith and the great Jim Henson, Darling admits to becoming hooked on the process of creating believable creatures at the age of ten, when Michael Jackson’s Thriller hit the airwaves.
“It wasn’t my first inspiration,” he admits. “There were a couple of other things along the way, but that was the one that blew the lid off for me and started my passion. I did sculpting, drawing and painting even when I was a little kid, but it wasn’t just what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a fine artist. I wanted to make monsters, basically.”
To hear him tell it, that passion never dwindled and continues unabated to this day. Early on, he took art and theater classes, parlaying that experience into jobs with opera and ballet companies. Then, before there was even a film school in Las Cruces, he worked his way onto the set of Vaya Con Dios, an independently produced comedy romance shot in the town of Mesilla and released in 1991.
There he buddied up to the makeup artist Carol Rippy, who looked at some of his prosthetic work and insisted he needed to move to Los Angeles, where the work was. Small production work followed and soon he was on the set of Paramount’s flagship franchise Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
“I did that for about three years, which is a lifetime in L.A.,” he said. “Then I decided to leave and start my own production company.”
Still, it wasn’t until the advent of digital media that everything truly changed.
“Up until then, film was expensive and I was living in places like El Paso and Las Cruces,” he said. “I had started a very small end version of a recording studio in my apartment, to score film projects and things like that. Then I started making films. I made a feature film called Ghosts, which was kind of a goofy thing. Very low rent.”
Jobs working for local companies like Digital Solutions and Innovative Touch followed, as they moved into the digital age and needed somebody with Darling’s background to help launch new departments. Still, it was movies that truly motivated him and he spent as much time as possible researching the new technologies that were cropping up and making the art of filmmaking much more feasible to the independent artist.
“Technology has changed everything,” he said. “Anybody can make a movie, and in a way that’s a good thing, but you have to be able to weed through all the garbage at the same time. I think new filmmakers just starting out should do stuff like that, it’s how you learn. They don’t need the newest most expensive equipment, they can use their phones. I promise you, you will never get there if you save up all your money to get the good stuff, but you won’t know what to do with it. You have to build. I think that’s how you build your love of what you do, too. Make use of the opportunities available, but shoot for the stars. Get it into theaters if you can, get it onto dvd and put it out there for the world to see.”
With this philosophy firmly entrenched, the real test came in 2007, when Darling decided to go for broke with “a campy Romero-esque zombie movie” called Grave Mistake.
“It was a learning experience,” he said. “I wanted to know that I could – from my home, on a home computer – create every single thing I needed for a feature film and get it distributed. From A to Z, all under my own power with my own money. I just needed to know it was possible. My entire goal was to get it into Walmart and on Netflix. I did both.”
Distributed in 2008 through Pendulum Picture in the United States and Gravitas Ventures worldwide, Grave Mistake has taken on cult status amongst zombie enthusiasts and has been listed in the official Zombie Movie Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Of The Zombie: The Walking Dead In Popular Culture And Myth. It even has a place on the official Wiki for zombie movies.
Not one to rest on his laurels, and using the information he gleaned from making Grave Mistake, in 2010 Darling took on another large-scale project – producing, writing and directing the anthology horror series, The Witching Hour for the CW Television Network. Filmed entirely in Albuquerque, the show found its audience right from the start.
“It was on in between Reno 911 and Punk’d, so it was a good stoner time slot,” he said with a laugh. “It was probably the funnest time I’ve ever had creating and working on something, just because it was always something different. Each little story was like it’s own short film. I think that format will always be popular.”
How, then, does this successful filmmaker, who never appears to be short of work, find himself back in his home town once again?
“I come back to Las Cruces every once in a while to recharge,” he said. “It’s kind of like Frodo going to the Shire, that’s kind of the way I look at it. I’ve lived here six or eight times, probably. I’ve lived in Albuquerque five or six times. I kind of just go wherever the work is or wherever I feel I can be most productive. It’s easy to live here. It’s a very kicked-back kind of place.”
While here, he has taken on jobs for local productions, such as Into The Armoire, and Day Of The Mummy, as well as commercial work for companies like Raytheon.
“I find ways to fit local work in and I do offer cut rates,” he said. “But that all depends on what the filmmaker needs and what kind of materials I’ll be using. It’s all about time, more than anything. I’ll work with anybody. If I had a choice, however, I would rather work on projects that I’m interested in or passionate about. Sci Fi, Fantasy, Horror, I’m totally down with all of those things. I’ll look at any script. For practical work and digital effects work as well.”
Though he keeps himself busy working on paying projects, like most filmmakers, Darling has his personal projects, which he works on in his free time. He is currently in the editing phase on two short stories that he hopes to pull together into an anthology feature film version of The Witching Hour.
His pet project, however, is an ambitious fantasy epic entitled Sablewood, which he has been working on for years. When it’s completed, the film will utilize extensive puppetry and special effects, very reminiscent of Henson’s The Dark Crystal. His primary goal, he said, is to create work for the people who inspire him most: artists, craftsmen and puppeteers.
“These are people I’ve looked up to for a very long time,” he said. “Some I’ve worked with, some I haven’t. I’ve contacted a lot of them and they’re all interested in doing it. It’s just a matter of putting a budget together. Every one of them understands it’s a way of taking the art back and allowing the artists to create a film, as opposed to allowing a big corporation to do it. I’m modeling it after Jim Henson’s company and Peter Jackson’s company, so it’s a very family sort of situation.”
Currently planning on shooting the production in New Mexico, Darling plans on incorporating local filmmakers wherever possible. When it will happen is still to be determined, but he feels the timing is right to take the next step in the process.
“It’s definitely going to happen,” he said. “I’m trying to finish the writing and am doing pre-production on it. We’re initially going to do an IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds, but if I’ve got to pay for it out of my pocket, I’ll do that. No matter what, it’s definitely going to happen.”
With new avenues for distribution opening up, the playing field is becoming more accessible all the time, something Darling takes very seriously. Take Video on Demand, for instance. For many, through the advent of Netflix streaming and platforms like iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, IndieFlix and more, the wave of the future is now.
“I think VOD makes it easier for independent filmmakers to make films and get them seen,” Darling said. “To me it’s awesome. If you think of the practicality of discs – they get scratched, they get lost, they take up space – it’s why they’re going away. We don’t need them anymore. For an independent filmmaker, even if your film isn’t high quality, you can still get it seen by the world through VOD. I just think the fact the internet exists at all, to me it just makes the industry more accessible. I can make something, myself, that’s big or perceived as being big, without doing it the way it was done in the 80s and 90s, when you had to have tons of cash and equipment, friends, co-workers, peers whatever that were outlets. Now you can do it all yourself.”
The one thing he would like budding filmmakers to take away from any conversation he has with them is that anything is possible, if one just puts one’s mind to it.
“You don’t have to live in Hollywood to do good work,” he said. “Follow your dreams. Stuff like this that I do – the practical stuff – still exists and it exists here. It’s not a dying art, it’s just that things have shifted a bit.”
As for himself, he’s made himself an available resource for filmmakers in southern New Mexico.
“If anybody wants to contact me for work, I’m here” he said. “I don’t only work on my own stuff and I don’t only work out of town. I know there are a lot of people who want to work on films that I would probably be interested in. I’ll work with anybody and with any budget. I just like to work. That’s the real secret to my success.”
Darling can be reached at 505-859-6170 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A much shorter version of this article ran in the December 5, 2014 issue of The Las Cruces Bulletin. All rights reserved.