An Interview with Miles Doleac, Asst. Professor of Classics and Film Studies and Mississippi filmmaker
Miles Doleac will release his second feature film shot entirely on location in Mississippi, “The Hollow,” in early next year. Doleac wrote, produced, directed and played the lead role in this character-driven, murder mystery set in Mississippi. It will hit the festival circuit beginning in 2016. A veteran actor of stage and film, Doleac intends to continue extending his footprint in Mississippi’s burgeoning film industry as well as increasing awareness of the opportunities afforded by the state for film production.
JC: You received your undergraduate degree in drama. Did you find it was a difficult leap for you to go from theatre acting to the subtleties of acting required of film?
MD: There is certainly a learning curve. In the theatre, you’re told to project to the back row. That just simply doesn’t work on film. I was fortunate to go to an arts conservatory (North Carolina School of the Arts, that had a film program and offered film acting workshops. I was there at a particularly fruitful time. In the film program at that time were people like David Gordon Green who went on to direct “Pineapple Express” and Danny McBride who is most known as an actor now. There was at least an awareness, an understanding that TV and film is a part of this discipline, and the importance of knowing the stylistic differences. It’s something that I still wrestle with today just coming from the theatre, growing up in the theatre and attending a conservatory theatre program. When I’m on set today, I find I’m still wrestling with is it too big, is it too much. So, yes, for me it’s very easy to stand up and project to the back row and to be the biggest, loudest person in the room, but to be confident enough in your own skin to allow the subtleties of the character and to allow the script, the words, work their magic is kind of tricky. But the best actors on film and television do that. You have to get used to the idea that the tiniest little thing reads. I don’t guess I truly appreciated those differences until I started directing films and watching performances, watching the subtlest differences between take one and take four of a particular actor. So, yeah, there is certainly a learning curve. I look at stuff I did five, six years ago on camera versus what I’m doing now, and I’ve gotten a lot better. That’s not uncommon. Watch an actor like Brad Pitt when he first started and compare it to what he’s doing now. He’s learned how to be a good actor on camera. He wasn’t always a good actor. He was always Brad Pitt. In some of his early stuff, it just doesn’t quite work, but now he’s very subtle. He’s very believable within the reality of whatever world it is being created by the filmmakers, and that’s a learned thing for him. Some people, sure, they just have it, and some actors get away with being more theatrical than others. My favorite actor on the planet is Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s a great deal more theatrical than the naturalistic actors like Sean Penn or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but it works within the reality he’s creating. But yes, it is interesting, especially if you’re consistently doing both. I still work in the theatre a lot and then jump from the theatre to film and often from musicals to film. It’s a tricky dance.
JC: What deciding factor made that leap for you, from acting on stage to film? Was it something you always wanted to do? Was it your desire to make your own films which drove you there?
MD: I think I always wanted to do film. From a very early age, I was fascinated and enamored with film. I often tell the story that I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when I was six years old. My dad took me to see “Raiders” at the old Hardy Street Theater in Hattiesburg. It sounds cliché, but really that was a defining moment in my childhood, seeing that film. I just wanted to play in that sandbox. I wanted to be in that world. It also, in a way, sparked my love of history and lent ultimately to me getting a PhD in Ancient History, but it was definitely then that I became infatuated with film. I always knew that film was ultimately what I wanted to do, but I also had this feeling that you learn how to be an actor on the stage. Theatre is the tight rope walk; it is the energy of the live audience, it’s the having little or no room for error in a live performance. It’s much more like an athletic competition. Growing up in the Deep South where we’re so into baseball and football, being on stage kind of felt like being an athlete. I just felt like that’s the place you learn to be an actor. From a very early age I was on stage in Hattiesburg, and it really never relented after that. I was fortunate to go to Hattiesburg High School at a time when their drama program was certainly the best in the state (even one of the best regional programs) under the direction of Michael Marks. We were able to travel all over the country to various forensic and theatre competitions including the Southeastern Theatre Conference where I won “Best Actor” for our production of the “Dining Room”. So I had a lot of opportunities. It was a great time to be a kid who wanted to be an actor in Hattiesburg. The Hattiesburg Civic Light Opera was sort of at its height at that point, and I was also able to do a number of their shows. The skills you develop in the process of working on a character that you’re going to go out and perform like a marathon, that’s just what it’s all about. I did have the opportunity to do a few student films at North Carolina School of the Arts. Immediately after school, I did a few more student films, some tiny indies and I appeared on a few soaps. But like I said, from a very early age, I knew I wanted to be a part of film, but theatre was always the conduit.
JC: Going from acting in other people’s films to making your own-what was the deciding factor which led you to take that risk? What was the most daunting thing to overcome to get there?
MD: I was in Louisiana right after Hurricane Katrina getting my PhD at Tulane. Immediately after Katrina, the film and television industry invested in south Louisiana, and there was a lot of production going on. There were a lot of big shows, but there were a lot of little shows as well. A lot of great indie filmmakers were doing their own projects, and I had the good fortune to be involved with two of them. One was called “Jake’s Road,” written and directed by a guy named Jake Mayhall who’s a good friend of mine to this day. He assembled this wonderful cast, none of which were huge names with the exception of Eric Roberts. It was a character driven horror film he built from the ground up. He raised all the money. He shot it for a hundred grand or some penitence. Shortly before that, I did a short film with a director named Dustin Shuetter called “Rejects,” and I saw these guys and their passion. They’re out there making their own films. They’re not talking about it; they’re doing it. Having lived in LA, the one thing I noticed about everyone there is they all have scripts. They’re all taking about making movies, but very few people actually do. I saw these guys doing it. It was Mike’s film in particular and conversations I had with Mike that inspired me. I thought, “You know, I should be doing this, too.” But it was really that moment when I said, “I need to stop depending upon other people. I need to be making my own films.” I had done this in the theatre. When I moved to New York after college, a buddy and I started a theatre company, and we put up our own shows. But film seemed so daunting, the prospect of mounting your own film. To begin, what’s the story you want to tell? I had a real treasure trove of possibilities based on my experiences in academia and some of the characters I had run across, especially at Tulane. It was a time when I was sort of transitioning. I was finishing up my PhD, doing a visiting professorship at USM and seeing what a mess higher education was. I thought, “There’s a movie in here.” So I sat down and began to write a monologue that was voiced by an old-school Jesuit educated professor of Classics who was so over the current state of affairs and the sort of malaise that has latched itself onto higher education; this assembly-line style of higher education, how students are spoon-fed everything and education for education’s sake is no longer respected. I thought, “How would this guy react in that setting?” So I wrote this monologue of him intellectually terrorizing a student in his office while demonstrating the practice of Roman crucifixion and those were the first words of “The Historian.” It sort of grew from there. I called up my buddy Mackenzie Westmoreland who had started that theatre company with me in New York, and said, “I want to produce a movie.” He said, “Well, I’ve never produced a movie, but if you think you can do it, let’s do it.” I finished the script and sent it to him, and we literally set a date, and said, “We’re going to roll cameras on May 15th, 2013,” and we did. That just doesn’t happen. So at the end of the day, I saw other people doing it, good people doing it. I saw it was possible. That made it an attainable goal. Yeah, so it was seeing other people do it. The camaraderie, especially on the “Jake Road” set, that sort of familial feel, was so inspiring. All these people who are here for the right reasons, this esprit de corps, everybody in this collaborative community working towards the singular effort to make a great film, I loved that. Fortunately, I’ve had that on both of my films, and as you can imagine, you don’t always get that on big budget films.
JC: Between the triple threat of writing, acting and directing, do you have a favorite? Which one of those components would you say is your “gift”?
MD: You should ask my wife. My favorite is acting, but I don’t know what other people would say.
JC: What would your wife say?
MD: I think she believes that there are a lot of people who can act, but there are not as many people who can create a fully realized, complicated human being, cast the right actor in that role, hone that performance in the editing room and then put that on screen and people go, “wow.” I did it [make a film] really to provide myself more opportunities to act. I didn’t set out to direct “The Historian.” I wrote it with every intention that someone else would direct it. I was just never able to find the right person for a number of reasons. “The Historian” was a very personal story for me. I wanted to say something about this world in academia I was seeing. “The Hollow” I wrote just to write a great story in a particular genre. I have never regretted the decision to direct the “The Historian.” It’s opened up so many doors for me, new worlds and new possibilities. I really do love directing. I love it primarily because I love working with actors, and I love being in the editing room and being able to really craft the film. Being on set is hard; there are so many moving pieces. Being able to create worlds and lives and then ultimately sit in the movie theatre and have people watch it and respond, it’s an incredibly powerful thing, especially when it’s something you basically created from nothing. You made this little embryo, you fertilized it, and it grew and became a person, and there it is out in the world and somebody likes it. All of us artist are neurotic attention seeking buffoons, right? We all want that affirmation that we’re doing something right, or that people actually care about what we have to say or that we’re doing something positive for humanity. Hopefully, that’s the case.
JC: If there were no audience, would you still make films?
MD: I don’t know. That’s a great question. We’re narcissistic, too, aren’t we? In the theatre, the energy of the live audience feeds you, but you know, I certainly have enjoyed working on my films and watching them with an audience of three or four people in the brain trust of the film. If nobody else ever saw it, I would still feel good that I made it. I was talking to my colorist recently, there were a couple of minor things we were working on, and I made the comment, “Nobody is ever going to notice this, but I want you to do it anyway.” He was like, “We make these films for ourselves anyway.” And we do. That’s true. We have to be satisfied with them. We have to be willing to live with them forever when everyone else has forgotten. I think in the theatre not having audience is tough. In film you hope audiences respond, but if they weren’t there, you’d still feel like you created something that will live beyond you. That’s powerful, too.