Jules in Light and Dark: An Interview with Director Daniel Laabs

Jules in Light and Dark is described by Daniel Laabs, its director, as ” “This was the small film that could, we came from nothing,” as he considers the way his original concept for a film became an idea that Kickstarter Contributors, Investors, and grant-giving organizations all supported at various percentages.

Daniel currently lives in Dallas, TX where he works as an editor and a festival programmer for the Dallas International Film Festival and previously the Oak Cliff Film Festival. In 2014 he co-founded Dallas’s first monthly LGBT film series at the historic Texas Theatre. He currently serves on the Austin Film Society Filmmaker Advisory Council.

We had an opportunity to speak with him before the fest about his passions, his takes on filmmaking, and more importantly, his views on storytelling and audience.

Jules in Light and Dark screens Sunday, June 9 at 6 pm, at Oak Cliff Film Festival

You say this is the little film that could: can you tell me more about your growth process? How did your vision expand from: “I have no idea how x will happen?” to “We did it and the unexpected happened?” 

The tallest hurdle for us was trying to shoot on-location in Pennsylvania. I spend years planning that version of the film and actually relocated out there twice only for production to fall apart at the last minute. One of the creative producers on the team suggested a plan to rebuild production in our backyards and film in Oak Cliff and the surrounding areas. It was an impossible creative transition from my point of view until we really dug in and found that the roots of the characters and stories were inspired by my experiences here in Texas. Once that clicked, the film became a lot more personal, and it was like a wave had washed over what had been built and we went about rebuilding. The story fundamentally changed because of location, but also because of us, we’d grown and the film is a reflection of that.
Oak Cliff and Texas are home to a lot of amazing people. The Texas Theatre is always very supportive of local art. Can you elaborate more on the local end of your journey? 
Every arts community has a hub, be it a bar or park or gallery, where on any given night you’ll meet a new a visual artist, a dancer/choreographer, a actor… and the Texas Theatre has been that and still is that for the Dallas area. There are so many friendships I have built just hanging out there. I spent a brief but lively summer working at Spiral Diner in my first month living in Oak Cliff and made a ton of friends. There are people who worked on the crew that are from that time, but a lot of those friends are in the film as extras.

What would you say your main impetus in filmmaking for this project was?

I wanted to try and continue to make personal films as my shorts had been. I didn’t want to take my coming out story and fictionalize it, that wasn’t inspiring to me, I knew I wanted to express some of those feelings of first loves, regret, and show characters reconciling deep private pain in healthy and not so heathy ways. I have always found that I grow more as a filmmaker when my subject feels or is very personal. I put more care into the film, and I fight harder for what matters to me.

Did you have any moments where the project seemed stalled and you had to fight for inspiration, or did it come naturally? 

The hardest part of any independent film is getting over what can’t be done and just doing it. Logistically most of our money came from grants and kickstarter and the rest came from investors who wanted to work with us. That took a lot of time. 

What are you most pleased about with this film and its developments? 

I am most happy with the acting, the cinematography and the way the score works within the narrative. I believe the characters are real people. The cinematography is very pleasing and very close to my paper vision. The score was written and performed by Brent Sluder who is a childhood friend who is just a total natural at crafting moments that weren’t previously there with a single unexpected note. I am also pleased with how it has prepared me to make future films. I tripled my post student onset experience as a director on this film. I have close to two hundred set hours now, before shooting Jules I had maybe fifty accumulated over seven years. How I move through set now is very different than before. I generally know how to trust my gut in ways I couldn’t recognize previously. The difference is knowing how to align variables better in favor of the vision.

What does your end of the LGBTQ community look like? It’s more diverse than people let on.

It feels very much like we are in a renaissance for LGBTQ film at the moment. At the same time I believe it is also a critical time to be making queer film especially set where I live in the South. Jules of Light and Dark is in many ways a film about loneliness and more specifically queer loneliness. It can be extremely isolating to know yourself and feel unwelcome in your surroundings. Growing up in small town texas there wasn’t a clear pathway towards coming out or living openly gay or even having progressive political beliefs for that matter. Things have gotten so much better, but there is still lots of work to do. There are corners of the queer experience that are still unreached by cinema. When you think about the thousands of films made for the straight white perspective in film, it is staggering. We are only just beginning to turn this tide. I long for a day when I go to pitch my queer thriller and it isn’t considered edge-y solely because the main character is gay. I still have a lot of fun with it, but it still happens. When I talk about Jules, I have to mention that it is a LGBTQ film, but I wouldn’t say that it is solely for the audience. It isn’t. I find going to festivals that the audience is very diverse, I almost never feel like I am screening the film to exclusively queer audiences. I am grateful for that because that’s the whole reason I made the film, to open a window on LGBTQ people and communities in small town Texas. It is a modest goal, but it is one that means something to me.

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