Filipino American Filmmaker Marcos Durian’s Short ‘Fish Head’ Tells Us a Coming-of-Age Story We Need To Hear

I was recently invited by the short film Fish Head’s director and creator, Marcos Durian, to the screening which was a part of the Emerging Cinematographer Awards presented by the International Cinematographers Guild. As I enjoyed the other 9 short films presented at the event, I anxiously awaited Fish Head to come on. As I was transported into Fish Head world, there was a familiarity in the air as I watched the life of a young Filipino-American boy unfold. I understood his pain and struggles, and why his mom was the way she was. It all felt like something I was well-versed in. Without giving too much away, I’ll let y’all get the opportunity to watch the short. I was humbled to meet the creator of the film after the screening and got the rare chance to ask those burning questions I normally wouldn’t get to ask. Here’s more about the master behind the film and why you need to watch Fish Head ASAP.

Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you’re about. 

My name is Marcos Durian and I’m a Filipino-American filmmaker. Film was always a big part of my childhood. I grew up on a steady diet of movies from the 70’s and 80’s from the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Zemeckis and Ridley Scott, and was enamored by films from the French New Wave, Kurosawa and Malick, and a slew of television shows, my favorites being The Six Million Dollar Man (The Bionic Man), The Incredible Hulk (live-action) and G-Force aka Gatchaman

I’m a Los Angeles based Director and Cinematographer with credits spanning a diverse body of work including indie features, TV movies, commercials, and music videos. I work with a lot of different directors shooting commercial and narrative work as a cinematographer, but I have several clients that I direct/DP for. Telling stories that reflect the Filipino-American experience has always been important to me and my short film Fish Head is just one small step in that journey. 

What inspired you to delve into the world of film? How did you get your start? 

I didn’t know you could have a career in film until I saw a TV special of “Star Wars The Making of the Empire Strikes Back” which featured behind the scenes footage of Phil Tippet creating the AT-AT Walker attack through stop motion photography. My mind was blown and from that day forward all I wanted to do was work in film. 

Outside of some film and photography workshops, I have no formal film education, and for the most part, I’m self-taught. I got a job working as a stills photo assistant and PA on TV commercial productions. My first screen credit was on Steve Buscemi’s 1996 film Trees Lounge which I was a production office intern. 

With a chance opportunity to work with legendary photographer and commercial and music video director Herb Ritts, I relocated to Los Angeles and soon joined Local 600 the International Cinematographers Guild. Here I fine-tuned my skills and learned more about the filmmaking craft working as a camera assistant with directors such as David Fincher, Francis Lawrence, Mark Romanek, Tony K., Paul Hunter and revered cinematographers Darius Khondji ASC, Paul Cameron ASC, Sal Totino ASC, Jeff Cutter, and Pierre Rouger. These were my real teachers and I’m incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from them all. 

During this time I was developing my own voice and building my directors reel, and based on the strength of my visual style other directors asked me to shoot their shorts, music videos or spec spots which eventually led to a career as a cinematographer which coalesced into opportunities directing commercials and music videos for various clients and artists. 

Fish Head is a story I’ve been working on for a long time. In 2018, I adapted the short film screenplay from the feature-length script, of the same title that I wrote back in 2006. I was lucky enough back then to generate some interest from a couple of production companies but unfortunately, no one wanted to make the film the way I wanted to make a film. That being a Filipino- American story with Filipino actors that sometimes speak Tagalog. They essentially wanted to whitewash the script. I shelved it thinking a film like this just wouldn’t get made. It was discouraging, to say the least. The good thing is that that perception has started to change and diversity specifically again representation in film and tv has become a conversation. I thought it was a good time to revisit the script and decided to turn it into a stand-alone short. We shot in October of 2018 finished the film in 2019 and went out to festivals. We’ve been fortunate enough to get into some important and great festivals and even pick up a few awards along the way. I really hope to see more Filipino representation in film and tv in the near future. 

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You are the writer, cinematographer, and director of Fish Head. How do you switch gears for these different roles? 

Overall switching gears from writer to director and cinematographer wasn’t that hard although it’s not for everyone. 

Since writing is the initial and most important step in making a film and happens before you physically shoot the film all I had to do was focus on writing the best story I could. Knowing that I was directing and shooting the film did make the writing process a little easier and allowed me to write what I visually wanted to see in certain parts of the script. There was a small amount of revisions before we shot but nothing while we were shooting so I was able to concentrate on directing and the photography. 

When I direct commercials or music videos I serve as my own cinematographer and feel extremely comfortable doing so. I actually feel more immersed and succinct with the story I’m trying to tell by being my own cinematographer. 

Was it difficult to portray your life on screen? Especially this specific point in your life? 

The difficult part with such a personal story was the fear of how people would react or receive the film. It’s a story I always wanted to tell and I think that personal stories find a way to resonate with the audience in ways that other films don’t. The big questions or doubts for me was could a personal story like this find an audience or festival programmers that felt there was an audience at their festival for Fish Head? How would the audience react to the film? Would they like it, would they understand it? Obviously, you want people to like your film and so far the reception at all the festivals has been incredible. So to know there’s an audience out there not only validates my own personal journey as a filmmaker but also the fact that there’s an audience clamoring for diversity in the stories they see. 

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What was it like casting the roles of your parents, and even for yourself? 

Casting was probably my biggest concern with making Fish Head. For one, the talent pool of Filipino actors is very small so I knew going into it that it wouldn’t be easy. Each role had it’s own set of challenges but the biggest challenge was finding our main character Milo. Finding an eleven-year-old Filipino kid that could act and had the depth needed for this role was not going to be easy and if we couldn’t find our Milo there would be no film. Our casting director Jeff Hightower and I talked a lot about the characters and the specificity of each one. I did my own research and put together a short wish list of actresses for Lorena (the mom) and examples of what the father should be like. Because of my affiliation with the FilAm community, Madison Rojas’ feed came up on my IG and I was immediately struck with his look. I dug up his IMDB page and sent that to Jeff, he found his manager and was able to get Madison in for the callbacks. He floored us. We knew right away he was the one, he was Milo. I think we felt that way with everyone we cast. 

What was your favorite part of creating this film? 

I have to say I enjoyed every aspect of making Fish Head from casting, pre-production the shoot and post, but what really stands out to me was the on set experience collaborating with cast and crew. It was an incredible experience. 

What would you do differently? 

Hmm… I don’t know. It’s difficult to say. I don’t know that there’s anything I’d do differently per se. But what I will say is that working with minors comes with time limitations and I do I wish we had a little more time. Even just a couple hours more each day would have been great. A lot of times on independent productions you shoot for twelve, fourteen sometimes sixteen hours a day but when you have a minor as the lead in your film and pretty much in every scene you’re limited to about five hours of total work time and they can only be on set for eight hours out of a ten-hour day. 

What’s next for Fish Head? For you? 

I just returned from the Philippines where we won Best Filipino Short Film, Best Cinematography Filipino Short Film and Best Lead Actor Filipino Short Film at the Asian Cinematography Awards Film Festival.  I haven’t been to the Philippines in 27 years and it was incredible to be back there with a film and to have my extended family see us win the top award. Certainly an experience I won’t soon forget. We are screening in competition at the upcoming Pasadena Film Festival on Saturday, March 14, 2020 at 12 pm and the NOHO Cinefest in April. I’m currently working on a polish of the feature-length script of Fish Head and hope to get that off the ground next.

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