Dog days of storytelling: A chat with filmmaker Nathan Deming

Joran and Clayton Backes in 'Dog Days'
You can almost see the movie version of Nathan Deming becoming a filmmaker.
Picture it. Young man growing up in small town Tomah, Wisconsin, digging into his studies as an English major at Webster University outside St. Louis. He’s drawn to the clergy, considering a life devoted to serving God. But then there’s another call. One a little bit stronger. The movies.
Really storytelling, you might say. After all, story is what ties those three passions together - literature, religion and the power of the moving picture.
And the story Deming tells of producing the short Dog Days, which premiered in April in the Wisconsin Film Festival - and how he got there - fills in all the plot points along the way.
We recently chatted with Deming about the making of Dog Days.
Midwest Movie Maker (MMM): Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into filmmaking?
Nathan Deming (ND):  I was always making movies with my brothers and sister, cousins, with toys, with friends.  Best way to spend an afternoon.
I grew up making movies in my backyard, which is one reason why Dog Days was the most exciting short I've directed so far. I was back in my backyard (with nicer toys) making movies just like I was as a kid, with my friends.
Nathan Deming at work
MMM: When did you make the leap from films in your backyard with friends to films in your backyard with professionals?
ND: After college, I knew I wanted to give filmmaking a real try, and I wanted to study abroad. I was excepted into my dream school, the London Film School, and spent an amazing few years studying there.  I really enjoyed the British approach to filmmaking. Less emphasis on celebrity, or hype, or whatever you want to call the defining characteristics of pop American filmmaking, and a real emphasis on storytelling, and being allowed to explore whatever topics you found moving or interesting.
MMM: Tell me how you came up with the idea for Dog Days?
ND: In my senior year at Webster, I wrote a short story for our story workshops called, "Dog Days."  It was sort of similar to the film, and it ended up getting published in our department's annual review, the “Green Fuse.” It was a fun experience because it was the first time I wrote about something from my own life (which is basically all I do now), and tried to find some drama in it.
Dog Days is about two memories - one is the opening premise of the film, a boring summer day when my younger brother and I were stuck at home. We thought we heard our dog barking for help.  
We wanted to help, but we were also pretty scared of what we might find or encounter. So we found these "weapons" in the garage to make us feel a little safer.  
Later I realized how dumb that was - and that was kind of the focus of the story, this discovery of violence.  
A lot of student movies are coming of age stories, which I think makes sense because student filmmakers are usually younger and processing their own lives. Most are about sex or loneliness or something like that, and I wanted to try to tell a coming of age story that was about discovering violence - or, at the very least, that the world wasn't as safe as I was raised to think it was.  
The second memory was a time that our dog wandered back into our front yard, limping and dripping blood.  Somebody shot him in the back. He never left our property. We never found out who did that, and that changed the way I thought about our backyard for awhile.
MMM: What surprised you the most during the process?
ND: There were a lot of good surprises along the way. think my script was a lot darker and more atmospheric, it took itself more seriously. Then I met Clayton and Joran (Backes, brothers who portray the fictional brothers in the film).  
I looked around Wisconsin for a month trying to find the right actors, and then I stumbled on these two, who happened to live a mile down the road. I sorta knew them growing up, and, although they had never acted before, they were perfect.  
They brought their own personalities to the film, and I ended up shaping the film around them.  Several of the scenes weren't even written in the script - like the scene on the hill top, with Clayton shouting into the hills - but improvised on the spot.  Mark (Khalife, director of photography) and I set up two close-ups. Then I got them talking to each other. Now that's my favorite scene!
MMM: You were selected to the Wisconsin Film Festival - what does that mean for you and your collaborators and the film?
ND: It's really exciting to get into a Wisconsin film fest, since the film was made in Wisconsin, about Wisconsin, I'm from Wisconsin, it's starring two kids from Wisconsin...the list goes on.  
Obviously it's always exciting to get in anywhere, but I think this'll be especially fun and meaningful for me and Joran and Clayton.  
I think it was also nice, then, that the crew was made up of people from everywhere else. They brought a fresh perspective to the place we grew up, and noticed things we took for granted.  
Wisconsin's beautiful - I wanna make more movies here if I can!
MMM: What's next for you and your team?
ND: I've made a few more shorts since Dog Days (Crazy and Orbit Day). But all my energy's focused on a feature called Speaking in Tongues. I'm shooting in Chicago this summer.  Mark (Khalife) is on board, and I hope I can convince a few others to come back too.  I'm pretty sure Joran and Clayton will have parts as well. I like them too much.
MMM: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What do you hope to accomplish?
ND: Whoa, ugh, hopefully a sizeable way into paying off my student loans, and maybe, just maybe, making one or two features. All my energy's going into Speaking in Tongues, and I guess I'll see what happens after that.  Right now I just want to do my own projects, and luckily I'm surrounded by people with similar interests.
MMM: Going west or staying in the Midwest?
ND: I spent a year in Los Angeles and it wasn't really for me. That's where I shot those last two films. That was fun, but there's too many people trying to do the same thing.  
The nice thing about filmmaking now is you can do it anywhere. I'm in Chicago, and I'm really inspired. I think there's plenty of work to do here and across the Midwest.
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