Alexander Yellen is a cinematographer and director in Hollywood. He has worked on feature films, television shows, and has won awards for his work in the industry. He is currently working on a project that he shot a concept of, Daruma. The two main characters in this film happen to have disabilities. It was important to Yellen, and others working on this project, that the actors portraying these characters have the authentic disabilities themselves. The decision not to have ‘name’ actors in the film is resulting in an all too common theme—the money people don’t want to take the risk. So how does a film like Daruma get made? Finding the money has taken a creative twist. ABILITY Magazine caught up with Yellen and discussed Africa, Daruma, and what Hollywood needs to know about hiring actors with disabilities.
Shelly Rohe: Tell me a little about growing up.
Yellen: I had in some ways a very normal childhood and in other ways a very abnormal childhood. I grew up in Washington DC, but my parents are paleoanthropologists. They study human prehistory. I spent time with them on excavations in southern and eastern Africa.
Rohe: Nice! I was going to ask where.
Yellen: When I was very, very young it was South African Botswana, and later we spent a number of summers in the Congo. It was Zaire at the time, and now it’s the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rohe: How long would you be there for?
Alexander Yellen: I think it was about seven or eight weeks at a time. I lived in Botswana as a small child for about a year. Have you ever seen a film called The Gods Must Be Crazy?
Rohe: Yes, I have.
Yellen: The Khoisan, the bushmen who find the bottle?
Yellen: We lived in the Kalahari Desert with the Khoisan.
Rohe: Wow! What was that like for you?
Yellen: I was very young, so I have limited memories of that particular experience. The first thing is, when you’re a kid, you think whatever your experience is is normal. You don’t process that you’re having an unusual experience for children more broadly. So, it was like, “OK, sure, we’re going back to Africa.” “OK, sure, here are people who have cultural differences and with whom I don’t share a language, but they’re kids. They like to play. Awesome. I’ll play with them.”
Going back as an adult, there was nothing particularly shocking or surprising. The only thing that threw me a little bit was, in Khoisan culture, there really isn’t a concept of personal space. We went out to do some work during the day, and the first day when I came back, there were four people sitting in my tent, just because that’s the spot with the best shade. It was like a nice spot to hang out. “You’ve set up communal space for everybody.” That’s how it works. It’s not like first-come, first-serve on sleeping space. They acknowledge that that’s where I sleep. That was the only thing culturally that threw me.
Rohe: After childhood, tell me about school.
Yellen: I went to private school in Washington DC from pre-K all the way through high school. DC public schools are historically not great and were particularly not great in the 1980s. My parents were fairly committed to my sister and myself having a good education. They never pulled me out of school to go to digs with them. There were stretches where I lived with other family members or stayed in a dormitory. But I went to a great school and got a fantastic education and also developed a love of photography. And I have to thank my mother largely for that. I played with her cameras. She has been an amateur photographer her whole life. I can remember playing with her cameras at a fairly early age. She got me my own when I was 13, and I don’t think I put the thing down for the next five years.
Rohe: Do you have a favorite picture?
Yellen: A favorite picture that I’ve ever taken?
Yellen: No, is the short answer, but I have a collection of special images that are particularly meaningful to me. There’s a picture of my father that I took in Botswana. He’s standing on the porch of a platform fence staring out along the delta that I particularly love. Do you know what a Polaroid transfer is?
Yellen: Do you remember old-school Polaroids, not the kind that come out as a square, but the kind where you have to peel two pieces of paper apart?
Rohe: Yes, I do.
Yellen: If you take the side that has the wet chemicals on it and you press that side down on a piece of paper, you get a secondary copy of the same image on whatever medium, but it has to be at least a slightly absorbent medium. I did a Polaroid transfer of the flags at the Washington Monument when I was in high school, and it ripped a little bit as it came up, so it has this, very weathered, damaged texture to it that ends up imbuing the image with a secondary meaning that I think is ever more relevant as you look at it, like the frayed fabric of national political life.
Rohe: That sounds hauntingly beautiful.
Yellen: Those are two that jump to mind. And I’d say the picture I took of proposing to Kelli (Kelli McNeil is the writer of Daruma) is one that’ll rank as an all-timer.
Rohe: Tell me about that one.
Yellen: I had been planning for some time, I had always imagined getting a great proposal picture with Kelli that looks like, “How did you execute that?” I know some people have had friends take pictures, but one, there was no way I could think to do that that wouldn’t be creepy—
Rohe: (laughs) Right!
Yellen: —and two, I tend to be fairly particular about photography, and rarely do I trust anybody else to take a picture that I really want to take. I proposed to Kelli in Hawaii, and I had gotten a miniature tripod the week before the trip. She asked, “What is that for?” I said, “I’m going to up our selfie game.” She said, “You don’t take selfies.” I said, “Yeah, I know. I hand my camera to other people and I’m always disappointed, so I’m going to do it myself and do it right.” So, I spent three days looking for the right spot and the right opportunity to propose. It was the story of three days of missed opportunities. Either there would be too many people or the vibe in the atmosphere was wrong or the weather wasn’t right. But I’d still set up this tripod with my camera on it and we’d take some self-portraits everywhere, so she got fairly desensitized to the operation. On the third day, we found a beach at the very western end of the island that was deserted, the sun was going down, the light was absolutely gorgeous. I set the thing up on a timer. It was taking one picture every second. I walked her out into just the right spot, walked out next to her and we stood there. It had been a normal routine of self-portraits that she had gotten used to at that point. So. when I went down on my knee to propose, she was completely stunned, totally, totally surprised. It’s this picture against this absolutely stunning backdrop of beach and ocean with glowing orange light.
Yellen: And I have this very sweet, hopeful look on my face with a ring and her hand brought to her mouth in total surprise. It’s one of those things that you couldn’t hope to execute much better.
Rohe: That sounds amazing! Congratulations!
Yellen: Thank you. She probably told you we just got married.
Rohe: She did.
Yellen: So, you were asking me about school. I got a good education. I developed a love of photography. I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut thinking about a career in photography. I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. That was my passion, my dream job when I was in high school. The photography department at Wesleyan and I just didn’t click. But I started taking some film classes, and that really clicked with me. It turns out that there is not an enormous—or I should say, it turns out that many of the skills from still photography translate well to cinematography. I shot a couple of guys’ thesis films. One of my best friends lived in LA and offered to let me stay with him while I got things sorted out, figure out if LA was a place I could live. I tried to make some inroads, but I didn’t have any clue what I was doing when I moved to LA. I didn’t know anybody, at least anybody in the industry. I didn’t have a jumping-off point. I started from scratch and found my way.
Rohe: When you were moving to LA, did you have other jobs you did?
Yellen: Initially—during college, I had a summer job selling knives. I was a Cutco knife seller for a couple of summers, which is a thing a lot of college kids did. I think they still do.
Rohe: Yup, I think they do.
Yellen: I had saved up some money from doing that, and even though it gave my father deep anxiety—my father has had a government job his whole life. He’s had security and job stability, so the idea of a free-lance art job was absolutely terrifying to him. But my parents were both fairly supportive of my career choice. They said, “If it all goes south, you can always come home. We’ll make sure you can get home, so don’t worry about that.”
Rohe: That’s a great thing, that support.
Yellen: And things like, “We’ll make sure—you’ll have health insurance. Don’t worry about that.” They were supportive. But no, I never had another job. I didn’t do the waiting tables thing or take on a side hustle to make ends meet while I was trying to get a film career going. I got my first paid gig about two months after I moved to LA. I spent a lot of time doing student films. The American Film Institute and USC have renowned film schools, and their alumni want to do bigger and better things. Once you develop a reputation for being somebody who’s a hard worker, who shows up, shows up on time, has a good attitude, and maybe even has a decent skill set, people will recommend you to their friends. It really is a network-based business.
Rohe: You’ve told me a little about how you started in the industry. Can you talk about what you’ve done?
Yellen: Are you asking how I moved forward in the industry or the work that I’ve done?
Yellen: From the get-go, my goal was to be a cinematographer. Again, I love cameras, I have always loved the visual storytelling aspect, the power of the image to tell a story. I gravitated towards the camera department right from the get-go doing all these student films. Once people realized I had an aptitude for camera work, especially the ability to pull focus, which is a very niche skill set and one that’s in demand, those were the jobs I was offered. I spent some time also in other departments. I tried to work in just about every department, just to understand how they all worked, which would let me do pretty much any job better. I still very much believe that anybody who works in this business should spend time in every department, so they understand all the components that go into making a movie.
Rohe: I do, too.
Yellen: Camera was my first and favorite home. I worked my way up as a first assistant, starting on short films and music videos and growing into the independent feature world. I got into the union that way and was building that career, still with the goal of ultimately becoming a cinematographer, and to further that end, any opportunity to create images of my own. Whether that was working with other friends from various sets who were aspiring in other areas, aspiring directors, actors, editors, assistant directors, producers, all these creative people getting together and combining their talents to create content they were passionate about on the weekend. People are fairly supportive of that kind of thing, especially when you’re not undercutting them or competing. And then I would offer to go do second-unit work on some of these features I was assisting on for the credit. I wanted to start building up a list of credits. Some of the B-rolls that they couldn’t get, establishing shots, cityscapes, sunsets, driving shots, stuff like that, I would go do for the credit. I built up a reel that way. I had a couple of projects that earned some notoriety, most notably the film Quinceañera, which was a Sundance winner I believe in 2006 or 2007. That gave me a degree of credibility. So, when an assistant director I’d worked with said, “Hey, a buddy of mine is directing a movie. It’s a low-budget sci-fi film. I think you guys might get along,” I had a reel and a résumé and enough credibility that the company, which turned out to be The Asylum, took me seriously and ended up giving me the job. And now they’re a famous or infamous company, depending on how you look at them.
Rohe: (laughs) I know of them.
Yellen: They’re now most famous for the Sharknado movies. At the time, they did a lot of straight-to-video horror movies and mockbusters, movies that have titles that sound like blockbuster films but are just a little bit different. My DP (Director of Photography) career really took off with them. That was in a lot of ways film school on wheels for me. They required certain things to meet their delivery standards, but beyond that, they really gave me a lot of space and freedom to experiment and to create looks for films and to take some risks. The great benefit of that was learning what doesn’t work—when you can do that on a smaller budget, lower-scale productions, then when you get to bigger-budget things, you really understand what works and what doesn’t and also how to create and intuit your way out of a corner. So when something doesn’t show up, or you wind up with different weather than you were hoping for, or the set doesn’t look like you want it to, or isn’t as big, you already have a huge tool kit of fixes for all the problems that you’re likely to encounter on a small set.
Rohe: Tell me of one you now have in your toolbox.
Yellen: I think the thing I probably encounter most frequently is just not having the set, as it were, not having a location that reflects what’s in the script. You’re supposed to be on an aircraft carrier and what you have is a parking lot by a beach. How do you make the one look like the other? A lot of that comes down to your field of view. The audience doesn’t know what’s outside the frame of the image. There was a famous behind-the-scenes documentary about Seinfeld, where they showed the apartment building that Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment is in. They said, “If you’ve ever wondered why this is the only shot we ever have of this building, here’s why.” And they panned the camera to the left, and it’s this obvious LA tableau, with all the trees. For years and years, all you ever saw was this building, and your mind says it’s in New York.
Rohe: I used to live in New York, and people would ask me all the time where the Jerry Seinfeld building was.
Yellen: Absolutely. And the answer is, “It’s in Los Angeles.”
Rohe: Exactly. They didn’t want to hear that.
Yellen: So it was, in the case of the aircraft carrier, it was getting a gray piece of foam, like a movie flat, like a 4×8 piece of foam, painting it military gray and moving it around so it feels like different bulkheads on this aircraft carrier and then having a $20 party fogger so there’s smoke moving through the background and shooting out towards the water.
Yellen: So, you can see the ocean in the distance, your mind says, “OK, we’re on the water.” You see this wall that says, “This is the right color for an aircraft carrier,” and you see the smoke coming through which is something you imagine from seeing catapults. And with the right sound design, you can create a fairly convincing illusion.
Yellen: As I spent time building a cinematography career, that created opportunities to direct. I worked for a number of inexperienced directors, so I was sort of a major support element for them to learn and feel comfortable and be successful. And people around you notice that when you’re helping directors out. They say, “Maybe this person would be a good director.” First, I got two features, one was a werewolf movie and the second one was a haunted house movie, both for TV. And then through the zombie series that I spent five years as the DP of, I got some additional opportunities to direct episodes for television. I built a fairly strong reputation as a director, in addition to being a cinematographer. But by far the bulk of my work has been in genre- horror, science fiction, disaster films, Westerns, and war movies. I haven’t done a ton of rom-coms (Romantic Comedies), or a ton of certain melodramatic pieces. One of the fun things about genre is that you can craft subversive messages. You can have a moral or a point, but it’s sort of buried under the mask of mindless entertainment. I’ve always wanted to tell stories that are meaningful and that are meaningful to me and hopefully say something about what’s important to me in the world to a broader audience. There are some other projects that I’ve played around with, but when Kelli showed me the script for Daruma, which by the way was the first piece of her writing that she let me see, other than her kids book, within two pages I was laughing. She came in from the other room and said, “Why are you laughing? Is it bad?” I said, “No, it’s funny.” She said, “Funny bad?” I said, “No, it’s funny!” It’s these two cantankerous characters who are—it reads like grumpy old men yelling at each other, and it was really funny. I connected with the characters right away. I saw the potential in the story. It said something important to me. It evoked in a lot of ways things that I want to say, that I care about for the rest of the world.
Yellen: That was three years ago now that she showed that to me, no, two and a half. I said, “The story and the logistics of this aren’t especially complicated. We could make this movie.” And she said, “OK, but we have to cast authentically. We have to cast actors with disabilities.” My first reaction was, “Wow, that’s really powerful. Do you have any idea what’s out there?” She said, “No. But we have to do it anyway. I have to believe that there are talented actors with these conditions in the world. We just have to find them.” I said, “OK. Let’s see what’s out there.”
Over the next year we built up a game plan. We reached out initially to a number of our contacts. We have different overlapping Venn diagrams of contacts in our networks. The reaction we got was generally,
Kelli did a pass on the script just for Toby once we had him because it’s worth it. When you start thinking about disability, this whole process has been extremely educational and eye-opening for me in terms of how to think about disability and actors with disabilities and writing for them. The thing you realize is that the story doesn’t have to change at all. The things that you’re adapting are so minor and so relatively—like, those actions in and of themselves are so unimportant that this person can live this experience you’re describing in your script, and the actions are completely adaptable. There’s nothing so sacrosanct that you can’t make it work for somebody regardless of their ability.
Rohe: You were saying when you were growing up that you weren’t really aware of the differences in people. It was just all what your experience was. We want to do that with disability.
Rohe: Actors with disabilities can play anything. They don’t need a role specifically written for them. Do you see Hollywood changing at all?
Yellen: I hope so. I mean, I do. It’s changing already. Hollywood is making progress. Granted it’s in fits and starts, particularly on racial and gender fronts. But disability is still a thing that’s so poorly understood because the issues are not quite so front-and-center in the public discourse. Race, in particular, is front-and-center every day in public discourse. There are stories about how race affects people’s lives and racial unfairness, racial disparity. Same thing with gender. Gender inequality is something that is in the news every day. But disability isn’t, and mental illness isn’t. There is an awareness gap, and that is also reflected in how people think about representation of people with disabilities in mainstream media. But in a lot of ways that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: because you see fewer people with disabilities in mainstream media, it’s an issue that is last in minds people who consume that media.
Rohe: We apply symbolic annihilation, that’s when you don’t see a certain group of people in media. They’re not represented so that population feels that they don’t matter. It’s called symbolic annihilation. It’s been used in the past more for race and gender equality, but it can be equated to disability as well.
Yellen: Sure. So, I’m describing something that you have a name for. I’ve heard the argument, “Well, so we’re telling a story about a character with a disability, but it also has to include a time when they were able-bodied, telling about how they became disabled.” The first thing I think about it, if they can put Chris Evans’ face on a short, skinny kid from South America, why can’t they do the same thing with somebody in a wheelchair? Granted, that’s not cheap. That’s not something that’s practical on the lowest-budget films. But certainly, if you’re telling a story about a person who represents a person with a disability, technology isn’t the barrier to casting authentically. It’s a political choice.
Rohe: Do you think there are enough actors with disabilities in Hollywood to cast authentically?
Yellen: I guess the short answer to that is, no, I don’t. Are there enough people with disabilities that have the talent to do it? I think the answer is yes. There isn’t enough demand for those people to attract people with that talent to try acting. I think that there is a group of talented people to serve the needs of Hollywood when it comes to authentic representation. I just think a lot of those people aren’t working as actors right now because they can’t get the work. They don’t know that it’s an opportunity.
Rohe: Kind of a catch-22.
Yellen: Exactly. That’s what I was looking for. And again, that’s very much the point that Kelli and I are trying to make, and that’s why this is meaningful to me on a deeper level.
Rohe: October is the kick-off month for raising funds for Daruma. Tell me about that.
Yellen: Initially, I was optimistic about the traditional financing. I thought our proof-of-concept was strong, we had half a million dollars which was the goal at that time. I expected a better outcome. I was initially fairly resistant to crowdfunding, but I also confess that I did not understand crowdfunding well at that time. It felt like I was just going to be hitting up friends and family to give me money, which I don’t think anybody would be anxious to do. I wasn’t for it. I’m not sure what your experience with Seed & Spark is.
Rohe: I’m wasn’t aware of them.
Yellen: I wasn’t either. I had never heard of them. Kelli had met the founder at a Women in Film event, Emily Best. She said there was an informational seminar that Kelli couldn’t go to but would I go and take notes. It was a really interesting experience. One of the first things that they tell you is not to friend-fund. You shouldn’t look at crowdfunding as friend-funding because that’s not what your goal is. You don’t want to raise money because people feel sorry for you. You need to be building an audience that is genuinely interested in the story you’re trying to tell before you tell that story. One, because those are people who want the product that you’re selling. Two, because they’re willing to give you money because they believe in it, not because they pity you or they feel like they owe it to you personally. And three, because they’re people who will consume your product once it comes out. That’s information you can use to demonstrate the viability of the idea and the demand for it in the marketplace to distributors.
Once I had that mindset adjustment, suddenly crowdfunding seemed like a great idea and I was all for it.
Rohe: So, you shot a proof-of-concept, correct?
Yellen: Yeah, we’ve done a proof-of-concept, and we have a pitch video. We’re launching our campaign on October 1. Kelli, in particular, and myself under her tutelage, have been doing a promotional push ahead of the campaign launch. Kelli has a background in marketing and PR in addition to being a talented writer and actress. She is a quadruple threat. She’s been incredibly effective at getting sponsorships and partnerships from places like the Reeve Foundation, Media Access, and RespectAbility and helping us make additional inroads in the disability community as well as spearheading our PR push through social media. My strength, one, is in the creative aspects and the physical production aspects, and two, in one-on-one salesmanship. This is something that means something to me, and because I believe that it’s important and that this is an honest-to-God way to do good in the world, using the skill set that I have, that it’s something that has to be done. This is something that is going to get done, whether we raise our full budget through Seed & Spark or we beg, borrow, and steal and find another way, we’re going to make this movie. It is going to happen. Hopefully, other movies will follow. We saw The Peanut Butter Falcon last weekend, have you seen it?
Yellen: I think there’s a lot of similarities between what they have done and what we are planning to do. There are obviously differences, but we are fortunate to have that film and the good press and good social energy that comes off of that going into doing what we’re doing. Because they did a thing that nobody believed in, and it’s good.
Rohe: Good! I’m looking forward to seeing Daruma, too. Can you talk briefly about the story line?
Yellen: Sure. Daruma follows Patrick, who is a down-on-his-luck guy with paraplegia living in a disabled vet community who finds out he has a daughter from a one-night stand he never knew about. He’s being given custody because the mother had died. Initially, he takes his daughter on to get an insurance payout. That tells you something about the kind of guy Patrick is. He learns fairly quickly that he is not able to take care of this child, so he enlists his neighbor Robert, who’s a double hand amputee and with whom he has a particularly cantankerous relationship, to help him drive this little girl across the country to live with her grandparents. Suffice it to say, hijinks and chaos ensure. It is a road of twists and turns, and really, at the end of the day, it becomes a story about forgiveness.
Rohe: You said you had some eye-opening moments. Where any of them related to how you directed? What kind of things would you tell other directors?
Yellen: I had eye-opening moments in regard to how I think about disability. I haven’t had tremendous exposure to people with disabilities in my life generally. I have a second cousin who’s deaf, and I’ve worked with some actors with disabilities in generally small roles. I did a Lifetime movie with Marlee Matlin, which is the most substantial project I’ve done with an actor with a disability, but certainly the depth of my exposure, the depth of my experience with people with disabilities was very limited. Number one, being educated and impressed by the creative systems that people with disabilities have come up with just to participate and function in everyday ways, the ingenuity and the passion and how they don’t look at their disabilities as disabilities. It’s just a word for a lot of them. And that their daily lives are their daily lives. They don’t think about it the way I think about it. That was incredibly eye-opening.
For directors in general, number one, just treat them like anybody else. Certainly, be respectful, but don’t dance around disability like it’s a thing that you have to be afraid of or that it’s an elephant in the room. They know who they are. They know what their situations are. They are comfortable with who they are. It’s only awkward if you make it awkward. That’s the first thing I would say. John’s a double amputee, Toby is a quadriplegic, so how they interact physically, like helping Toby transfer from his chair into a car, for example, let him take the lead and be there to support. In terms of giving direction, that’s my job. I know how to do that. I treat them as I would any other actor. When it comes to things that are in their specific experience, let them take the lead and just go with it. I think those are probably the two best pieces of advice I would give to other directors working with people with disabilities.
Rohe: Did you have any fears or concerns working with people with disabilities at first?
Yellen: My initial concern was because I didn’t know what was out there in terms of talent, my big fear was finding people who have the acting ability to handle these characters. Because the characters in Daruma are deep, rich, nuanced characters—they’re challenging for any actor. I’m excited that these guys get to do these roles, and I know they’re excited to do them because they never get to see parts like this.
When you see actors with disabilities in lead roles, nine times out of 10 it’s a short film, so you don’t get the time and the distance to explore the full range of what a character’s experience is and on the few major projects where you do, I only know one or two actors who do that, and it’s not somebody who has the conditions we’re looking for. How many double-arm amputees are there, and how good will they be? I had no idea. Just finding people was the biggest fear for me. And that fear has been assuaged. If you can find people who can do the roles, then we can do anything.
Rohe: Give me a timeline for your goal to end product.
Yellen: Our ideal scenario, we start fundraising in October and ending November 30th. We do soft pre-production before the end of the year with an eye towards shooting in the spring. It’s not a winter movie, and a lot of it is more daytime than nighttime, so having at least an equinox or later time, so starting from mid-March—sometimes between mid-March and mid-May going into physical production. And basically having a festival-ready product by late summer, so that the film is going to festivals in August and September of next year, or at least we’re doing submissions at that point, so that it can be released in a little over a year from now.
Rohe: That’s an ambitious timeline!
Yellen: It is, but it’s also not. One thing I’ve learned from doing all these low-budget films and all this genre stuff is that you can turn a project around pretty quickly. I don’t want to be rushed. I think there will be a lot of very subtle differences in the performance this could take, and I want to make sure we have time to devote to making this film as good as it can possibly be in the edit. That said, having two or three months to do post on a film, this film shouldn’t require a tremendous amount of visual effects, so the finishing shouldn’t take forever. We’re hoping to on-board some of the creative, like composing and sound design, fairly early so that those people can be working with us even during production to generate the base pool of assets that we can then acquire a little more efficiently towards the end of post.
Rohe: It sounds like a really good idea and plan.
Yellen: I guarantee there’s something we haven’t thought of. We’ll learn what that is at, I’m sure, the most inopportune time. Sometimes that’s where the magic is.
We, at ABILITY Magazine, have colored in one eye of our Daruma doll, wishing for the success of this film. We can’t wait to color in the other.
To support Daruma, go to: darumamovie.com