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‘Zen Dog’ Director on Reinventing the Road Movie With a Spiritual Twist

Pic won Raindance’s Film of the Festival award

LONDON — Rick Darge came to the Raindance Film Festival with his first feature and left with a brand new prize — Film of the Festival — that will see him directing the event’s trailer for 2017. “I feel like I’m going to wake up back in Los Angeles at any moment,” he joked at the awards ceremony, which is appropriate since the film, titled “Zen Dog,” deals with the phenomenon of lucid dreaming, which allows the dreamer to take full control of their dreams.

“It’s incredible,” he continued. “I don’t feel completely present right now. It’s such an honor, and it’s such a surprise. We submitted very late and we came here expecting nothing. We were just expecting to show our film, and that was exciting enough. So to win Film of the Festival and be able to do their trailer for next year, it’s an incredible honor. This is my first festival for my first feature, and it’s been a very rewarding experience.”

Is “Zen Dog” your first film?
It is. This is my first feature as writer-director. I got the idea four years ago exactly, at the end of September 2012. I started writing it and we were in production a year later, so we shot it in 2013. It was in post for a while. The people that I worked with were donating their time. We paid some of them, but most were just doing it for the love of the idea, for the love of the film. So having a slower post-production period really afforded us more time to move things around and really find the film itself.

Is your background in film?
Yes. I went to USC film school, and I graduated in 2004. I worked in post-production for a little while, did a lot of indie features, cutting them. Cut some TV. Then I shot a number of things — did cinematography for a couple of years — but it’s always been a dream of mine to direct. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a kid. I picked up a little Video 8 camera when I was 13 and would force my brother and sister to act in my films. It’s always been a passion of mine, so it’s truly an incredible experience to be here in London.

What is “Zen Dog”?
I wanted to put a twist on the road trip genre, because I’m a big fan of road films. “Easy Rider” was an influence on this, but I’ve also always been a fan of [philosopher and writer] Alan Watts and books like [Robert Anton Wilson’s] “The Cosmic Trigger” and [Tom Wolfe’s] “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” — things of that nature.

It’s basically about a guy who’s living this kind of mundane lifestyle. He’s kind of stuck, he’s not able to progress, he’s too afraid to meet people and step outside of his little box. With the help of his eccentric cousin he gets turned onto this dream tonic, and when he drinks it he’s propeled into this alternate reality where he’s able to become a different person and go across country, essentially.

I’ve always been interested in the idea of being able to return to a dream narrative. Because dreams are so chaotic and crazy. Everybody experiences that moment when you have the most amazing dream, then you wake up and you want to go back into it. So this film explores that.

This is the first feature film to feature the voice of Alan Watts — he’s kind of the disembodied narrator throughout the entire film.

Why did you choose Alan Watts?
Alan Watts was very big in the States. He was from the U.K., he moved to Northern California. He was big in the ‘60s, he died in early ‘70s, and he was pretty much responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism and the ideas of the East to Western audiences. He did a number of lectures and speaking tours, wrote dozens of books, and I’ve always just been very fascinated by his voice. I discovered him as a teenager — he has a very poetic, cinematic voice.

I always used to use snippets of his audio in my short films, and when I got this idea, I wanted to put a spin on the road-trip genre. I didn’t want to have wall-to-wall music — most roads films have a lot of music montages — so I decided to use a philosopher’s voice instead. Alan Watts was appropriate, and his son, Mark Watts, is our executive producer. He came on board, gave us the rights to use the audio, and he’s been very instrumental in this process.

All the things from my youth are in this film, they’ve all crystallized, so it’s been exciting.

Was it scripted?
I had a tight script. I rewrote it many times, and it developed over the course of many months. But the way I like to work is, I like to be open. So we filmed this movie on the road. I knew a lot of producers that wanted us to shoot in California, to save costs, but I knew that we had to shoot from San Francisco to New York City, just because I knew the stress of location shooting would inform decisions on the road. So there was a tight script, but then things changed as we moved through production. Some things worked, some didn’t.

I believe that the universe, or whatnot, is giving you feedback. I mean, this is my first film, so it’s been a unique experience. It feels like a child that will talk back to you — you just have to listen and go with the flow. The film is called “Zen Dog” — it deals with these ideas of detachment and letting go, and we felt that while we were shooting. Whenever we felt resistance, it was because of something that wasn’t supposed to be in the story, and when we would let go, things would work out.

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