Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tobias Daniels

Filmmaker Tobias Daniels at his L.A. haven, a balcony at the Grove

At The Grove 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles (Mid-City West)

While several artists have opted to do their Jigsaw interviews at the Grove, none of them took me to the exact place in the shopping center that Los Angeles-based filmmaker Tobias Daniels did. In fact, I'm willing to bet that none of them even know about the hidden-in-plain-sight balcony that he refers to as his "hideaway."

"This is the best kind of secret because it's in such a commercial area. It sounds weird because it's the Grove, but it's like my little East Village," he shares. "When I was in the East Village I could watch people from my apartment. I would leave the windows open and stare at people, watch the world go by."

Albeit, there hasn't been much time for Tobias to do too much people-watching lately. On top of his day job as a videographer for PopStar! Magazine, he has spent the past six years working on Black Velvet, a feature-length documentary on African-American LGBT performance artist T-Boy. Filming has taken him everywhere from San Diego and Miami to Alabama and Berlin. Tobias finally has some time to breathe in between wrapping up post-production and preparing for the doc's theatrical release, so he is able to meet me at the Grove's famous fountain and lead me to his favorite spot in the entire city.

"The reason I brought you here is because if I'm editing, coming up with concepts or writing, I need that space to clear my head," he says, as we make our way to the Starbucks located on the third floor of Barnes & Noble, place an order and step out onto the balcony. "I either get a large hot chocolate if it's cold or a small latte and a triple chocolate chunk cookie. The great thing about this balcony is it's set back so you can spy on people without anyone knowing. The Grove has this piped-in, magical music, it's kind of like Disneyland here, and people do the weirdest things like dance and sing to each other. There are couples, gays and tourists – it's a people-watching situation that you don't really get anywhere else in L.A. I literally just stare at people until my own head is focused enough so I can sort through whatever I need to sort through idea-wise. I normally come in the evening after I've gone through the day and I've come to that point where my brain cannot process anything else, so I just stand here and watch people."

We watch shoppers walk along the road beneath us for a while, take in the amazing view of the Hollywood Hills and Tobias begins to tell me about his childhood. Although he was born in Jersey, most of his youth was spent in Iowa and Colorado. Because of his mother's love for film, no matter what state his family called home, movies were always a part of the household.

"Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple was the first time I was interested in the director, the actors and understood that the film wasn't just this thing to entertain me, that something bigger went into it. My first VHS was E.T. I was a teenager when The English Patient came out, and I've probably seen that 150 times. It's another sweeping epic, so put that and The Color Purple side by side, and that's one side of the coin," he begins. "On the flip side, I like the weird, dark and deep. Stanley Kubrick because I don't know how many people can do the weird things he did and get away with it the way he did. A lot of people have tried, and it's not art the way that he made it. I like scenes from Eyes Wide Shut, but I don't know if i like it as a whole. I like 2001, but I don't fully understand it. I'm not going to lie! Then, Federico Fellini because he was brilliant. It's like watching a song when you watch his movies, and they're weird also. There's a part in the middle of La Dolce Vita where I lose focus, and once I get through to the other side it changes my entire mood. 81/2, I like because it's about the crazy life of an Italian director so I'm glued to the screen the whole movie."

As a child, Tobias performed in choir and theater. In fifth grade he write, directed and starred in his first play, "Birds Fly North" about a flock of geese that, instead of flying south for the winter, flies to New York to hang out in Central Park. Performing continued to be his first love throughout high school and, just like that flock of geese, Tobias moved to New York to attend the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. 

There Tobias learned about script analysis, working with actors and being an actor. Around this time he was also featured in a Christina Aguilera music video directed by David LaChapelle, and was chosen to pose as a young Muhammad Ali in LaChapelle's contribution to the Taschen GOAT art book. All of these experiences, however, were not bringing Tobias the happiness he had expected.

"I woke up one day and said I'm not good at this – not that I couldn't do it, but I wasn't finding joy in it. My classmates said, 'You're good, though,' and I replied, 'It takes you five seconds to drop into a role. That process takes me two hours. If I'm going to do something that takes that much out of me, I want it to be something I love, that makes me happy," he remembers. "Thankfully at that time I was working on a friend's play, assisting with light and sound. I ended up running light and soundboards for equity stages and realized that I liked it. There was literally a moment when I was queuing the lights, the action of turning up the lights and the actor moved me, and I was filled with joy. I knew this was in line with what I want to do." 

To please his parents, he enrolled at the University of Illinois, majoring in liberal arts. He was able to meld his senior thesis with a TV pilot he wrote and was developing. The script landed at Nickelodeon, and Tobias was soon on his way to Los Angeles where the pilot would be produced.

"That went nowhere," he laughs. "It was a really horrible year after that, I had no plan B. Something told me to stay in Los Angeles, and I suffered through that first year. Then I got the job at PopStar!, and the pieces started coming together."

Even though his childhood was quite gypsy-like, Tobias has adjusted to living in one city quite well. I don't think he would rather be anywhere else than Los Angeles.

"I love that weather is always like it is today, that our only complaint for the past few weeks is that it's been a little humid for our fragile skin," he teases. "I have really awesome friends here. That might be a testament to working with really great people and out of that, developing great friendships. The word on the street right now is if you're artistic, you're either moving to L.A. or Berlin, so I feel like this is the place to be. I love Berlin, but it's not L.A."

Some of the places that make Los Angeles home for Tobias, include Harvard & Stone ("Their drinks are expensive but delicious and strong, and the bartenders are really cute!"), happy hour at El Carmen, a brunch of eggs benedict at Home or Alcove CafĂ© and burritos from Cactus Mexican Food No. 2 on Beverly. Since Tobias only lives a few miles away from the Grove in East Hollywood, he can reach his beloved balcony haven in a quick drive. 

It's apparent how much time he spends here, when the Starbucks barista asks him, "Do you work around here?" "No, I'm just obsessed with the Grove," he replies with a grin.

He often catches a double feature at the Grove's Pacific Theatres and raves about the Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Sorbet at the Bennett's Ice Cream Stand located at the Original Farmers Market next door.

As he finishes his latte and triple chocolate chunk cookie, we revisit his years spent in New York to the time when he first encountered T-Boy and the inspiration for Black Velvet was born.

"I was bartending, and he was the Friday-night DJ at the club that I worked at in Chelsea. He always had a good understanding of music – not just Bobby Brown sang this song, now Britney Spears is singing this song and I'm going to play the Bobby Brown version, but where did Bobby Brown get the original beats from, it's probably from a group like the Temptations. He would find a cool way of mixing the Temptations and Britney Spears; it always blew my mind. He introduced me to new music. It was about the time that hipster really began to take off, and he had that whole Solange, Afropunk vibe about him." Tobias recalls. "Eventually we became friends, and he told me what his real passion was: singing. He told me his story, about being in the pre-Don't Ask, Don't Tell Navy. He's a very tall, thin, statuesque man, who wears these crazy outfits. The best way I can describe him is if Grace Jones and Marilyn Manson had a lovechild, that would be him." 

Tobias was so struck with T-Boy's musical ear, flair and talent that he knew the performer would make for a fascinating subject for a documentary. As the layers of T-Boy's personal history became revealed, the crew traveled from San Diego to Miami, Alabama and eventually Germany to capture the entire story. To fund the the trip to Germany, the crew turned to Kickstarter, and  their goal was generously met. 

From the crowd-source support and finding an Emmy-winning Director of Photography (Greg Harriott) to shoot the film to the unexpected raw emotions expressed by T-Boy and his family in scenes, Tobias feels like luck has undoubtedly been on his side throughout this project. What began as a rise-to-fame story turned into something incredibly bigger in Black Velvet.

"It took so long to do this film because there was a bigger story about acceptance and his family that came to the surface when we were filming in San Diego. We just went there to get footage for his Navy years, and two weeks after that Don't Ask, Don't Tell was overturned. The story turned and became more about his struggle. I realized that the struggle in the end is what is giving him fans, it's what's making him a success [in Germany]," Tobias comments. "My cousin is helping me find a scholar to talk about African-Americans during the jazz era, like Josephine Baker, who went to Paris, Germany and other places in Europe to find success because here they were second-class citizens. It's the story of a lot of LGBT artists now." 

Tobias assures that Black Velvet may have moments that will make you cry and think about the bigger picture on certain issues, but it is anything but a depressing film.

"A lot of people have come up to me and said, 'This story needs to be told because it's a voice of a people.' I honestly wasn't going into it that way, but fully am embracing it now because it's how the story turned," he says. "Originally I wanted to make a movie about an artist who just happens to be gay, but now I'm fully embracing the gay because it has become a voice in it, a struggle unique to him but also a struggle of other LGBT artists. I don't have any answers, but all I have to do is say it out loud through the film. I'm not trying to find a solution, but I do know that I have to say it."

Tobias' own story is one of bravery in admitting that performing wasn't for him, which eventually led to him finding his true calling behind the camera; in taking the chance of life in Los Angeles where he had no job, family or friends to begin with; and in continuing to push himself creatively as a filmmaker.

"I have the same feeling now that I did when I was young, I knew in my heart that I was going to be in the biz. I'm the black sheep artist in my family, and there was always this 'I need to stick with this no matter what' [mentality]," Tobias concludes as he reflects on life as an indie filmmaker. "You make mistakes, and through them you learn other ways of coming to a shot that a director got with a giant budget. I can modify this and kind of get the Kubrick effect. [I've learned] that sometimes you have to do the best with the circumstances you're in. In the end, I will be a better director, a more flexible director, because of it. You can't always have the big sweeping epic, but sometimes you can create the same effect with what you have. It's about realizing that and letting go."

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