Interview: ‘Engaged’ Director David Scala Talks Micro Coming Out And Everyday Insecurities

David Scala is a second-generation Filipino-American writer, director, and producer whose previous short films won top awards at over 40 film festivals in the US and around the world.

His latest short film, Engaged, shares the story of a man whose insecurities hinder any attempts to propose to his long-time boyfriend. This topical short film is now set to screen at the Oscar-qualifying Palm Springs International ShortFest and San Francisco LGBTQ+ Film Festival.

Q: I have to admit, this short film introduced me to the term ‘micro coming out’. Can you tell us more about this reality?

A: Thank you! That really means a lot. One of the intentions of this film was to sort of “coin” the term micro coming out – not in the sense that I wanted to claim the phrase as my own, but in terms of bringing a spotlight of this idea and occurrence to a wider audience.

Micro coming out is something many people in the LGBT experience, and it’s something I still encounter even in a city like New York. It’s not a negative thing per se, but it can sometimes weigh on you, this feeling of feeling like an outsider, or an exception, or not fitting into the rigid cultural or societal expectations that are built around us.

As a writer, I want to create work that talks to the issues I see in the world around me, and this one was staring me straight in the face like – wow, how could I not make a film about this?

But above everything, Engaged is a love story, about two people wanting to take the next steps in their life together. I really wanted Darren to go on this authentic journey through the film, and I think audiences really enjoy going along with him for the ride.

Daniel K. Isaac in ‘Engaged’

Q: Could you relate to Darren’s insecurities and the self-sabotaging mindset he finds himself in?

A: Absolutely. It’s weird, they always say art mimics life, and now, even talking about the logline of this film is a sort of “micro coming out” in certain situations! I feel like making this film put me in a place where I became much more conscious of my own insecurities, and then I really began wondering why is that, and how could that be affecting my relationships?

This film is definitely based on my own life, perhaps more so than any other film I’ve made so far, so Darren is a fictional extension of myself and my own thoughts, but of course to more extremes (I don’t have a peanut allergy). That was why it was important for me to have an Asian-American actor as the lead, and for it to be a mixed-race couple, and just these small things that to me are every day life, but then you realise – hey, when was the last time we saw an LGBT romantic comedy? When was it two people of colour?

There are many things that seem ground-breaking, which feels wrong to still say in 2019, but at least we’re here now and making those strides.

Q: What would your advice be to someone who finds themselves in a similar position to Darren?

A: Ooh, now I get to play therapist. I would say every situation is different, but it all starts with awareness. For a while, these micro coming out moments sort of came out of left field, and caught me off guard, which can feel intimidating or uncomfortable.

However, being aware of it, and also having experience with tactics and ways to play it off more humorously, or more subtly, have helped make them less awkward, and more of a teachable moment to educate or enlighten. To see it that way really helps, that you have an ability to create this visibility, which hopefully in turn will lead to understanding. If you stay silent, nothing is ever going to change.

Q: Daniel K. Isaac (who plays Darren) and Ryan Jamaal Swain (Elliot) are fantastic in the lead roles. I should also mention Victoria Meade (Lara). What did they bring to their characters and this project?

A: We have such an amazing cast and they each brought so much to the roles. I remember sitting down with Daniel K. Isaac going through the script, and trying to find the balance between Darren’s wordy, verbose neurosis, and the more subtle, loving moments where it’s just them laughing on the couch.

Ryan Jamaal Swain also brought a whole character to the table, and we went through his whole history – how he met Darren, what his job in the city is, whose friends they hang out with more. To get engaged, you’re in a much deeper type of relationship, and he very much wanted to bring a whole world to this character. We actually found out a lot about Elliot through that.

And Victoria Meade just crushes the whole thing. That ending scene in the bar was actually the first scene we shot due to location and timing, and I really thought – oh god, we’re starting with the heart of this film. So for her, on our first day of set, to go into that speech, and have this resonant moment which really is the spine of the whole film – both her and Daniel connecting in that way – was just incredible, and set us off in the right direction.

Q: There are some incredibly talented people involved in the film behind the camera too including Chester Algernal Gordon (costume designer), Ariel Max (music), and Jesse Coyote Sanchez-Strauss (cinematographer). Can you talk about the team you put together for this short and the type of creative atmosphere you fostered on set?

A: Honestly our entire crew had this magical energy about them. Jesse and a lot of the camera team had worked together previously, and they had this intuitive nature of knowing what each other were thinking without even speaking. That helped tremendously, because we had a 4-day shoot with about 9 locations, at least one company move per day. It could’ve been a disaster, but it worked really well and we actually wrapped most days early – which is crazy.

Chester would show up to set with these incredible costumes that he sourced from a million places, and they bring the whole thing together. That yellow jacket Elliot wears is almost iconic in our minds now, it’s such a hit and works with the character so well.

And for music, that’s a whole conversation in itself, because Ariel signed on as one of the first people before the script was even finished. We hope to collaborate on future projects as well, and this was our first film working together, and I had a very clear distinction for the music from the beginning. There was a very specific tone and beat I was going for, and as we worked to find it, I knew exactly how I wanted that ending scene to feel, where the beat would come down, then we cut to black, and end with the title.

That was the last page of the script, but the first thing I wrote. Everything else changed a lot through the writing process, but not that last page, and the music is written in very specifically into the script just as it happens.

Ariel is incredibly talented and she self-recorded all of the tracks herself I believe on guitar, and then the rest of the score fell into place based around that ending moment.

Daniel K. Isaac (Darren) and Ryan Jamaal Swain (Elliot) in ‘Engaged’

Q: ‘Engaged’ is currently on the festival circuit and will be seen around the world in the coming months. What are your hopes for the film and the way it engages audiences?

A: I hope this film encourages a broader perspective and conversation about different communities and the challenges they face, and how ultimately we’re more similar than we are different.

It was funny, after one screening, a guy came up to me and said, you know even though I’m straight, I completely got that character and what he was going through, because it’s like all these other moments I have in my own life. I think there’s a universality to how specific this story is, and I hope people can find a bit of themselves in the film somewhere, and not just LGBT audiences.

Some of the best responses have been from general audiences and screenings, where they didn’t realise this is something that happens, and now they have this newfound understanding and appreciation.

Q: Your previous LGBT short ‘Grotto’ (2013) had an impressive festival run. How do you feel you’ve grown as a filmmaker since that time?

A: From a filmmaking perspective, Engaged is the most ambitious project I’ve completed so far. Of my previous five shorts, this has the most speaking characters, most extras, most locations, we shot in a moving car, exteriors at day and night, just everything. So I’m proud to have accomplished it with this team and that everything came out the way we envisioned it, because even getting to that point is a luxury, regardless of where it screens. I’ve also grown intellectually as a person.

Grotto fittingly was about a coming out moment, and now Engaged is like the grown-up version of what happens next. Of course Grotto was 6 years ago, so I’ve also grown as a person in that time. I’m now writing this whole new slate of features and films and feel like I’ve really started tapping into my voice as a filmmaker, and the stories and the conversations I want to bring to the world, and I can’t wait to the next project.

There’s a lot of conversation about the LGBT community right now that’s coming through a “non-fiction” lens, like through articles or interviews or in a historical sense, especially with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and World Pride in New York right now. And as a filmmaker, I see my job is to further these conversations but in a narrative sense, so every film always comes back to plot and character, and I’m trying to find stories we haven’t heard and voices that might have been on the periphery to bring into the spotlight.

Q: I hear you are working on your debut feature. Can you reveal anything about that and any other projects you have coming up?

A: Right now I am writing multiple projects at the same time, and I’m even beginning to explore a sort of ‘cinematic universe’ where different films can tie-in and relate to each other while still being present-day comedies and drama – quite ambitious, but I love it. The overall narrative is they continue to explore the LGBT community, starring people of colour, set in modern day, very much in the same vein of Engaged but with a more worldly scope.

Also, I am still very eager to get my first play Among The Furies to its next home after its incredible runs in 2017 and 2018 in New York, but I am also writing a new stage play.

For me it comes down to the story, and then you decide the medium – short, feature, episodic, theater. I can’t wait to start bringing these new conversations and perspectives to the world.

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