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“It’s About the Energy You Bring to the Life of Your Movie, Not Just About the Movie Itself”: Al Warren on Dogleg’s Six-Year Journey


in Filmmaking
on May 8, 2024

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“I love the feeling of the room in a packed house watching a good movie,” says writer, director and actor Al Warren on the phone from Los Angeles. “I want to model my career on that. It’s become a priority for how I approach my work. How will it be shown to an audience in-person? When I see a friend who has put their soul into the making and completion of their movie and then they don’t really have any plans on how they want to show it, I am confused.”  

At this moment, when the future of independent film distribution has more brick walls and question marks surrounding it than ever before, thinking outside the box is not just a good idea, it just might be the only viable option. The way Warren brought his film Dogleg to the audience is an inspiring example of intention, patience and dogged DIY determinism. But, really, those words can describe the making of the movie as well.

Warren was born in Mississippi, where his dad was a local filmmaker. “I grew up with a houseful of gear,” he said last year in our conversation for Filmmaker’s Back To One podcast. “The language of film was always in my house.” That influence manifested in Warren as a desire to act. He was constantly performing as a child, and at age 15, a Los Angeles talent agent signed him with a promise of stardom. But that stardom never materialized, and Warren began to focus on his other passion, music. He found some success when his band signed with a label and toured. But his dormant passions — film and, particularly, acting, — never totally left him. He moved to LA, started making shorts, writing scripts, acting in friends’ films, and he began to get a reputation as a solid filmmaker. He was approached by a new micro-budget film company with an offer of $50,000 for a feature. Warren took that offer to his producing partner, Babak Khoshnoud, who was optimistic that he could find a matching $50,000 somewhere. That would give them the money they needed to make the feature film Warren and his writing partner, Michael Bible, had written.

Shooting was about to begin when they got word that the company folded and the $50,000 was gone. The production was in limbo until Warren’s sound recordist friend, Fred Helm, put up $5,000 to get the film going. Then, to gather the rest of the budget, Khoshnoud offered Warren directing gigs through his company, Yours Truly, with the arrangement that half the money made would be put toward the feature. So Warren took every directing job that Khoshnoud threw at him until they had enough money to start the film that would become Dogleg.

The idea Warren devised with Bible was similar to Richard Linklater’s Slacker — a continuous presentation of different stories that have connective tissue from one character to the next. They shot three episodes in Mississippi, one in Colorado, and two in Los Angeles. A few more were scheduled to shoot in New York and Tokyo when the pandemic hit. The pause turned out to be auspicious. Warren and Bible were worried that the audience wouldn’t sustain interest through all of these stories. Structurally, they had backed themselves into a corner. “So we had time to kind of re-approach the material that we had already gotten,” Warren explains, “and our desire to entertain an audience and not necessarily push them away.”

Bible’s idea to solve the structure problem was to create Warren’s “Alan” character, the fictional director of these shorts, whose own story of trying to find his lost dog and not have a total meltdown in the process, would act as a “shish kebab” to skewer the stories together. This ended being exactly what the film needed to work. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the film without this storyline.

In the middle of 2021, the filmmakers were able to shoot the material needed for the Alan character and throughline and finally finish principal photography. The day after wrapping production, Warren was having breakfast at Rae’s Diner in Santa Monica and feeling amazing. “Life could not be any better,” he remembers thinking. “We wrapped the movie last night. Everyone is happy. This was such a long process and now it’s in the can.” He looks over and sees David Mamet. Feeling high on life already, Warren goes over and introduces himself to Mamet and they end up talking for awhile. “He was so nice…and I leave that breakfast thinking ‘God is good. I am so blessed.’”

The next day, Warren gets a call from his data manager, who begins the conversation with “Are you sitting down?” It turned out all the sound files from the final three days of the shoot did not transfer properly to the drive, and the cards had been erased. “I go into one of the deeper depressive moments of my life,” Warren says, reliving that day. “Physically, I couldn’t get up.” Four data recovery places told them it was impossible to recover the files. They were referred to a place in Wisconsin that the FBI uses for data recovery, but the job would cost thousands of dollars. With no other options left beside a total reshoot, “We just bit the bullet,” Warren says. “And they were able to extract all of our data and we were able to have our sound files.”

With that nightmare over, Warren embarked upon the edit. After significant versions were completed, he and Bible would have screening parties for invited guests whose opinions they valued. Then, after assessing those notes, they’d head back into the edit again. “It became less about their notes and more about how the room felt. Is it really working? Let’s pay attention to the gasps in the room.” They repeated this exercise over the course of a year-and- a-half until they got it to the place they felt it was right. “We were never really in a rush. We wanted to make the movie the best that it can be. Then, when we felt like we were there, we wanted to take the most ownership of how we were bringing that to audiences.”

For Warren, that meant bringing intention to the idea of distributing this film. Early on, he was approached by a company and told that, for a movie the size of Dogleg, the best-case scenario would be to have the it play in ten cities throughout the country during the same 10 to 14-day window, and that would be t. “That was so unappealing and unattractive,” Warren told me. Instead, it was his days as a touring musician that inspired the approach the filmmakers decided to take. His band used to support bigger headliners and tour with them. “I remember the value of playing in Lincoln, Nebraska, to a bunch of people that had never heard of us before. They were there for the band playing after us.” But after playing the best show they could, they’d set up at their merch table, or set up at the bar, and connect with the people there, have a drink and talk with them. And then, on the next tour, this time as a headlining act, returning to Lincoln Nebraska, those friends they connected with at that first show would bring 10 people with them this time. “There’s a value in just putting the work into going and exhibiting whatever it is you’re doing and then communing with the people,” Warren says.

So after Dogleg played three times in LA and then three times in New York, chatter began to happen online. Warren began to get DMs from programmers and various film people throughout the country asking him when the film was coming to their city. “I would just throw the ball back in their court. ‘When do you want it to? What theaters are you connected to? How could we do this?’” With no money, renting theaters wasn’t an option. But ticket splits were possible. And Warren’s idea to make the events special was to get a local artist or someone who has a local audience to moderate a Q&A. And he’d get other people to throw an afterparty. “That feels better in my gut than going, ‘Let’s have it play in Austin for ten days at 2:00 PM on a Wednesday.’ Nobody’s going to go or care. And if they do go and care, it’s going to be two people who will have a very limited need to be responsive to another audience member because nobody’s there.”

And so the Dogleg tour happened throughout the Summer of 2023. Excited programmers in cities like Toronto, Austin, London and Seattle, booked it with people like Pauline Chalamet, Zia Anger, Edy Modica and Ben Sinclair moderating Q&As. Throw in an afterparty and suddenly these screenings feel more like “happenings” that people didn’t want to miss. “I feel like it has worked. There’s an audience around Dogleg because of this process.”

But Warren isn’t delusional about this being the surefire answer to independent cinema’s distribution problem. “Your movie is similar to a restaurant,” he explains. “It wouldn’t make sense for a taco truck in LA to serve that cuisine necessarily at Musso and Frank. Similarly, it wouldn’t make sense for Musso and Frank to do their cuisine from a taco truck. So if your movie is about your dying father, and it’s a serious-type film, maybe a tour where you’re bringing moderators and throwing afterparties doesn’t really work for you. At the end of the day I do believe in that Mark Duplass quote that was going around, which is, ‘The cavalry is not coming.’ You’re not going to have this kind of angel character that works at a studio, or a financier from Switzerland. No one is coming and saying ‘you are the next great thing.’ And even if they do come, you’re still going to have to be the motor to that vehicle. We have to ask ourselves what can we do to push our movies forward, that we can control from our phone, from our computer. What is the way that we can keep the integrity of the life of our film and also reach the biggest audience? And I don’t know if we did it the right way, but it’s the only way that made sense to us. It’s about the energy you bring to the life of your movie, not just about the movie itself. When you don’t feel like something is right, don’t do it. And that’s been kind of the impetus behind Dogleg.”

Dogleg is now streaming on MUBI.

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