Man’s Be(a)st Friend :: Jorge Ameer on ’D’Agostino’
Since his first film, 1994's psycho-sexual thriller "The Truth Within," through three installments of the "Straight Men & the Men Who Love Them" series, to the mythologically-based horror movie "Medusa," and now to his latest work, the slightly sci-fi and homoerotically-charged "D'Agostino," filmmaker Jorge Ameer has taken independent film to provocative new places.
Ameer releases his films, and those of other filmmakers, through his own distribution company, Hollywood Independents, and pursues an acting career in parallel to his work as a screenwriter, producer, and director. He often appears in his own films in small roles, and in "D'Agostino" he takes the part of Niko, the property manager who drops in on main character Allan (Keith Roenke), an American businessman who lives and works in London but who has come to Santorini, Greece, to inspect the house his late grandmother left him.
Niko's appearances are almost comic in nature; he knocks on the door at inopportune moments and picks up on awkward details like the dog dish on the floor. "We don't allow pets on the property," he warns Allan, who hems and haws and comes up with the implausibel explanation that the dish is a souvenir for his dog back home in London.
But the truth is far stranger: Allan has discovered a feral man living in his aunt's house. Even more peculiar is the man's provenance: He's wearing a tag that identifies him by the name "D'Agostino." With a little Internet research, Allan discovers that his house guest is a human clone who was lost at sea en route to America. D'Agostino, it turns out, was scheduled to have his organs harvested for the benefit of wealthy people who had him created in order to use his tissue to ensure their own longevity.
D’Agostino has seemingly lived his entire life in a cage. He’s not capable of speech; he scampers around on all fours and has no idea how to use a toilet or wear clothing. Allan promptly takes the lost clone under his wing, but rather than trying to teach him to be human, Allan makes D’Agostino into a human pet -- hence the dog dish.
The film’s themes are somewhat reminiscent of Mary Shelly’s novel "Frankenstein," a classic tale of human beings engineering human life, with unexpected results. In the movies, of course, Frankenstein’s re-animated creature shuffles around, growling and killing; in the novel, however, he evolved from a beast driven by instinct to a highly intelligent and articulate man motivated by revenge.
"Funny you mention ’Frankenstein,’ " Ameer told EDGE during a recent interview about his new movie. "Not quite, but close. I studied another classic called ’The Brain That Wouldn’t Die,’ " a 1962 thriller by director and co-writer Joseph Green. In that film, a scientist preserves his girlfriend’s decapitated head while he sets about trying to procure her a new body.
"I watched it many times when I was a kid and it scared the wits out of me," Ameer continued. "I also had my actors watch it as a study for their roles, but mostly ’D’Agostino’ is a political and social commentary on the state of the human condition -- about how people treat each other and, given the opportunity, without supervision, how someone (or a system) would take it upon themselves to totally take control of another. It’s about dominance over servitude and the information we put into someone/something’s head and the after effects from the information given.
"For example," Ameer continued, "if we condition a baby with thoughts of hate and violence the aftereffects are violent and criminal behavior to the detriment of society. As a statement, ’D’Agostino’ is a reflection on how we treat ourselves and our pets. If our pets were human, we would see D’Agostino in them. It’s a condemnation of our ways and the manner in which we have evolved."
Another source of inspiration, Ameer disclosed, was the director’s own pet cat. "He recently passed due to old age at eighteen years and four months," Ameer recounted. "I lived more years with this cat than I did with my parents. I came to love this pet as an equal, yet I knew he was a pet. Where do we draw the line?
"For many, pets become a replacement for what would be another human relation. I’ve always been amused by the intelligence and sensitivity of animals in general. My cat was so in tune with me that it could have very well been a person responding to my emotional needs. It knew when I was sad, or when I was happy.
" ’D’Agostino’ is a character study of what happens when we have a void in our lives," Ameer added. "We seek to fill voids with anything or anyone who’ll accept us, yet there are always consequences to our actions. The relationship between D’Agostino and Allan is, at first, about control. It then evolves to dependency, then to obsession. As humans, we are programmed to want, to fill our needs and desires, and if they are not met, we look elsewhere until that happens. It’s the way of man as a creature himself. D’Agostino is a physical representation of that: A want... a need."
The sci-fi background, which implies that the film is set in a near future where human cloning is commonplace and clones have no legal status, provides another layer of meaning. Ameer explained how this backdrop was also intended as a commentary, and referenced one of the film’s less emphasized plot points: namely, that Allan and his girlfriend, whom we meet briefly at the film’s beginning and who then plays a part at the climax, are having a tough time in their relationship following an unsuccessful attempt at fertility treatment. It’s a nice touch, this observation that even in a time when biological science is coming under man’s dominion, the miracle of life can still elude our grasp.
"I believe technology and science is moving quicker than we as a society are able to process," Ameer mused. "Probing the natural world is not enough. We must create and generate [new organisms] to maintain our way of life. We see that in genetically altered foods and fish which we now consume. The controversial process of cloning for repair and replacements is now happening. ’D’Agostino’ goes a bit further in a realm of reality where science and technology has advanced so quickly that moral grounds have been lost in order to propel reparative therapies to regain life, and sometimes restore youth.
"To be honest, I choose to deal more of the moral consequences than the scientific one because humans and/or governments set the standards for these things. Individually, people raise their families under their personal moral code based on information that was given to them by their ancestors. That information is then passed from generation to generation. ’D’Agostino’ is about that passing of information; the issue at hand here is the kind of information being passed, and when is the cycle broken whether the information is no longer relevant.
"I wanted to create a fantasy world where everyone who watches the film can imaging having a real life ’imaginary friend’ that would be at his or her disposal," the filmmaker continued. "What would you do? In a sense, a baby is a clone -- human clone of our DNA mixed with someone else’s information. A copy that, with information given by its ’creators,’ will eventually evolve. The results may be good or bad.
"However, if we mess with nature, that has its consequences. We can see that now, with all the natural disasters that surround us [due to climate change]. They are bigger and they happen more often. Someone or something is trying to warn us about the cost of what we are doing with our natural resources. I feel like we have been neglecting the signs, but now that these natural events are proving to be bigger and more disastrous and are impacting us directly, we are now paying attention."
In keeping with this train of though -- the dangers inherent when humanity attempts to exchange a role of stewardship of the natural word to one of mastery, with the potential for whimsical abuse an inevitable result -- "D’Agostino" takes a turn for the erotic when Allan begins to view his pet clone as a property for him to do with as he pleases. There’s a hint of slavery to this turn of events, including sexual slavery.
"D’Agostino does become a slave to Allan in many ways," Ameer noted. "A slave to his needs, his wants and his desires. D’Agostino progressively becomes everything and anything Allan has always wanted. He combines many different elements, some real, some imaginary. The real element is the void he fills in Allan’s being; the imaginary one is the role he plays in Allan’s life." Allan is, after all, a man who is sick of his work life and his boss; he’s a man who has been disappointed in the pursuit of fatherhood; and he’s on the cusp of seeing his romantic relationship falter.
But can any one individual fill so many roles? Almost certainly not-- and yet, the film reminds us, it’s human nature to want someone who could be our All and Everything.
"Most of us, unless you hold someone hostage, won’t have the opportunity, whether by law of the land or societal moral compass, to wreak such havoc on another human being, to do as we please, the way Allan does with D’Agostino," Ameer pointed out. It’s an issue Ameer has explored previously, most notably in his film "The Singing Forest," which recounts the torment and murder of a pair of gay lovers under the Nazi regime, then follows the couple into a subsequent reincarnation where their love has a chance to rekindle. The theme is a hopeful one, in the face of historical horrors: Individuals can be oppressed and murdered, but the nature of love transcends human folly and wickedness.
As for the issue of Allan’s sexual use of the clone, "D’Agostino"’s underlying sci-fi setting has more to do with things than might immediately be evident. "In ’D’Agostino,’ there is no ’straight’ or ’gay,’ " Ameer explained. "By the time the film starts, society have surpassed those hurdles of sexual labeling. We have progressed to a place of understanding that there is only human sexuality and that people, just like animals, morph according to situations and circumstance."
That might also explain why Allan is so comfortable with D’Agostino’s nudity that he never bothers to teach the clone how to wear clothing. But what about the actors? How did they feel about shucking their kit for the camera?
"Michael Angels, the actor who plays D’Agostino, understood the role and the significance of the character in terms of physical appearance," Ameer recounted. "He understood the film was a character study of a human who devolves, and another one who evolves: One goes from human to animal-like behavior, while the other progresses from an animal-like, feral manner, to a human-like self. What kinds of self will be determined as the viewer unfolds the many layers of story this film hides."
Underscoring the film’s literary layers and characterizations are the images that Ameer uses, and cinematographer Zach Voytas helps him achieve the look he wants. Voytas also showcases the setting by filming the Santorini locations with an artful eye.
Ameer praised Voytas, calling him "a genius in imagery," and recalling how they met when Voytas worked as a film loader on Ameer’s earlier film, "The Dark Side of Love," a movie about two brothers in conflict who work to resolve their differences after their mother’s death. (The film also examines how the gay brother struggles with his attraction to a straight friend.)
"We kept in touch because his career was ascending," Ameer said of Voytas. "I know his main interest was cinematography. I called him one day to tell him about the opportunity to shoot this film, and he jumped at it. We talked a lot about the look of the film, the colors, the tone and what I wanted out of him, and he surpassed my expectations. Last I spoke with him, he was about to shoot a commercial for Kobe Bryant, so things have been good for him since people have discovered his talents, seeing his work on this film. I am very happy and proud for him."
It certainly did not hurt that Ameer chose to set his story on such a beautiful Greek island.
"I chose Greece because one of my favorite films is ’Summer Lovers,’ " a 1982 Randal Kleiser film in which Peter Gallagher, Daryl Hannah, and Valérie Quennessen meet on Santorini and become a threesome.
"I must have seen this movie over a thousand times," Ameer enthused. "Every time I watched it, I felt inspired to want to shoot there. That film is a little time capsule of how things were back in the early eighties. I always feel nostalgic after watching it.
"Years later when my film ’The Singing Forest’ had its world premiere in Barcelona at a film festival, Randal Kleiser was one of the jurors. It being a small festival, the jurors and filmmakers were always together, and we became close friends. He knows I’ve always been a die hard fan of his -- I still am -- and he also knows that his work has been a huge inspiration on my work as well.
"Shooting in Santorini was dreamlike," Ameer added. "I woke up in the morning and had to pinch myself to make sure it was all for real because it was so splendidly beautiful. I will never forget that experience, the people and the food. We ate every day at ’Mama’s House,’ the restaurant of one of our executive producers. The food at this restaurant was island grown, and since Santorini is the product of a volcanic eruption, the food has a very special taste to it.
"We stayed at Hotel Kavalari, which belongs to my other executive producer. His hotel is on the water overlooking the ocean and the sunset. We would stop filming every day to take in the sunset. This place is so heavenly that sunsets become an event every day. People stop what they are doing, locals and tourists alike, to admire a beautiful sunset that takes about forty five minutes. After the sun goes down, everyone cheers. It was like being at a concert where the main star is the sun.
"There is something magical about that place," Ameer went on to say. "You add that component to the movie, and now you have something really special."
For his next project, Ameer has struck out in a different direction: He’s currently i post-production on his first documentary feature, a film that celebrates the movies where they live. The title of the upcoming opus: "Classic Hollywood Cinemas."
"This is a very personal project of mine," Ameer confided. "The documentary records the history of movie theatres in Hollywood, California, and their contributions to the legacy the world knows as Hollywood.
"I created this documentary as a way to preserve, educate, and entertain," Ameer continued. "By documenting preservation, this film project details the architecture, the struggles, and the latest information on the state of several iconic movie theatres in Hollywood such as the Chinese Theatre, The Warner Theatre, and The Dome to name a few.
"In a progressive and rapidly changing world, stars share their thoughts and concerns about the impact technology is having on the motion picture industry and the way audiences experience cinema. The documentary is star filled with personalities such as Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss, Shirley Jones, and some of my favorite stars: Perry King, Stephen Collins, Antonio Sabato Jr., Loretta Devine, Richard Grieco, Bruce Davison, Jake Busey, Bai Ling, Bruce Boxleitner Ed Asner, Jason Ritter, and many more...
"These celebrities share their experiences about coming to Hollywood: How things were back then and how they have changed, for better or worse, and why preservation is as important as progress."
"D’Agostino" will be released on DVD on April 23 from Ariztical Entertainment.