Dustin Kahia is an aspiring young film director from San Diego who, along with Catholic Answers Live host Patrick Coffin, founded Immaculata Pictures, a production company that makes films in the tradition of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The company has just released its first film, Call of the Void, a black-and-white thriller set in 1949 which tells the story of a man’s lost love. Dustin recently spoke with CWR about his new company and its first film, and his desire to revive classic storytelling through high-quality movies.
CWR: How did you get your start in filmmaking?
Dustin Kahia: I got into it accidentally. As a kid, I thought I’d be a pilot, doctor, magician, or actor. I never thought I’d be a filmmaker.
When I was age 14, my father did something I thought was quite peculiar. He installed some video editing software on our computer. He told me to play around with it and edit our home videos. He said, “You’ll never know what will become of it.”
He died a year later from cancer, and I never knew what inspired him to say that. It’s a shame, because I really would like to go back to him to ask him what made him think of it.
When I was in high school, I took “Film as Literature,” an English class that focused on watching films and writing about them. The teacher assigned us a group project to make a short film about whatever we liked. I took on a leadership role, both writing the script and directing. When the project was complete, it was named best in the class; in fact, it was the best in all our high school.
My teacher encouraged me to pursue a film career. It was the first time I considered it.
I wanted to go to film school, but it was too expensive. I interned at some production companies, which gave me a good understanding of how the business side of the film industry works. I was able to do a summer screenwriting program at USC, and subsequently I purchased and read all the books they used in the entire screenwriting program. So I was self-taught; I got a USC film education without actually going there.
I had a good sense for filmmaking: where to place the camera, when to go in for a close-up, when to do a wide shot. I had already made two short films.
CWR: How did you meet Patrick Coffin?
Kahia: We had a mutual friend and talked one day when I visited his office at [San Diego area apologetics apostolate] Catholic Answers. I was shooting a documentary…as yet unfinished due to lack of funds…and I interviewed Father Vincent Serpa, who is on the staff.
CWR: And you started Immaculata Pictures together.
Kahia: I actually already had the concept in mind and a logo had been designed and trademarked. I told Patrick I was looking for someone with whom to work. My idea was not to produce movies with Catholic content, but good movies. I thought that was something lacking in the industry.
He wanted to get involved, and we incorporated the company.
CWR: Are you an active Catholic like Patrick?
Kahia: Yes. I am a Chaldean Catholic, an Eastern rite in union with Rome. I serve as a lector in my church in El Cajon, St. Peter’s Chaldean Catholic Cathedral.
CWR: Losing your father as a teen must have been tough.
Kahia: It was. My father died of colon cancer when he was 51 and I was 14. There were many things I would have liked to have asked him when I was a teenager growing up, but he wasn’t there.
CWR: Do your pictures have the objective of evangelizing?
Kahia: It depends on what you mean by evangelizing. Are we making Catholic films with Catholic themes? No. But if you look at many films made in the 40s, 50s, and 60s by people like Frank Capra or Orson Welles, their films had Christian themes but were not overtly Christian. They helped shape society in a positive way.
We want to make good films with good themes, but without an overtly Catholic message. We’re looking to tell a good story. It’s a different form of evangelism. But so much of society is so far away from the Church that we look at ourselves as building bridges between the two over which people can cross.
CWR: There are many Christian films out, some of which have done quite well at the box office. What do you think of them?
Kahia: Many of them are, from an artistic and technical standpoint, terrible. They are heavily into evangelism, and people hostile to religion are turned off. They proclaim that people must come to Jesus Christ, and end up sounding more like people who proselytize door-to-door or who preach on street corners.
We think a better approach is to create good films that touch people; give them something to which they can relate. People learn more easily by watching how others live their lives. As the saints would tell us, actions speak louder than words.
There are Christian films, of course, that are done well, such as The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson, its director, may have his own personal issues, but from a technical and artistic standpoint, he did the film brilliantly. Even though it is done in another language, it can still move you to tears. He hired one of the industry’s best cinematographers to help him, and the film was nominated for three Academy Awards. No Christian filmmaker has yet to reach the same level of expertise.
Christ tells us in Scripture to be as wise as serpents, yet simple as doves [Matthew 10:16]. I think we have to be wise in learning to speak effectively the language of the world, yet maintain our purity of heart.
CWR: Give me an overview of your new film Call of the Void.
Kahia: It’s a film about letting go. In this life we get attached to many things, whether it be to other people or inanimate objects. But it is wrong when we have unhealthy attachments. We need to learn to let go, especially when our lives don’t go the way we plan.
In this film we look at the life of the main character, and are invited to assess whether or not he lived in a way that was good. You make your own judgement. The main character loses his girlfriend to another man, and he has a hard time coming to grips with it. He is obsessive about it, and wants to win her back. But is that the best thing?
In the end, it celebrates the power of hope over despair. You may have to watch it a couple of times to grasp all the elements of the film. I think the intellectual viewer will like it. But the non-intellectual can enjoy the emotional aspect and the suspense of the story.
CWR: Why did you select Call of the Void for Immaculata Pictures’ first film?
Kahia: I made the best film I could with the budget we had. I made it in the tradition of the great filmmakers of old…Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, Orson Welles…I think there is a real shortage of such films in our time. In fact, it’s amazing to me companies are spending millions of dollars to develop stupid movie concepts. I want to remind people of a time in history when films were made a certain way. Our film is in black and white because stylistically that’s the way they’d be made back then.
CWR: You are unhappy with the quality of the movies being made today?
Kahia: There are some good ones, but a lot of garbage. Some are saturated with sexual content and bad language. You can’t take your kids to go and see them. While you certainly can show a character engaging in bad behavior, how you depict it is important.
Some movies glorify bad behavior. One that comes to mind is Fifty Shades of Grey. It is a disgrace; sexuality is degraded. Hollywood needs to go back to making great movies.
Part of the problem is that many studios and production companies have been taken over by corporate lawyers always looking at the bottom line. They have no artistic side. They want to make the most money possible, and lately have been making a lot of big comic book movies. If you read the critics, they concede the films may make a lot of money, but bash them for their poor quality. I remember the great actor and filmmaker Dustin Hoffman complaining that the quality of today’s movies is at an all-time low.
CWR: What budget did you have to work with?
Kahia: We made a 54-minute film for $74,000, which is nothing when it comes to filmmaking. We raised $66,000 through the funding platform Kickstarter, which, after we paid the fees for the service, left us with $59,000. I put in another $15,000 of my own money.
We shot the film in four days. If you talk to people in our industry, that is unheard of. It is a period piece, set in 1949, so we had to make sure everything was accurate to that time. Our cost of production was $10,000 per day. We also had to build sets and get wardrobe.
We filmed in Los Angeles, on real locations permitted by the city. The LAPD and LA sheriff closed down the areas where we filmed. Other days we filmed on sound stages.
CWR: How did you cast your actors?
Kahia: We hired a casting director and had four weeks of auditions in Los Angeles. On our second audition we found our lead actor; his audition blew us away.
We contacted James Morrison through his agent. He played CTU director Bill Buchanan for four seasons of the television program 24.
CWR: What challenges did you have in filming?
Kahia: Time was our biggest problem. We only had four days in which to shoot, which gave us an unforgiving time clock. We had much to get done, but because of the actors’ union, we could only film so many hours in a day.
On our third day we shot 21 pages of our script; a typical independent feature film shoots between six and seven. We used three cameras, so one could give us our close-up, the second our medium shot, and the third our wide-angle shot.
CWR: Where can people go to see the movie?
Kahia: We’ll be screening it on Sunday, April 24, 2:30 pm at the Newport Beach Film Festival. It will play at the Island Cinema in Fashion Island; tickets are on sale now. We’ve submitted it to 12 other film festivals, and we’re waiting to hear back. Each one is different.
Since we don’t have a marketing budget of millions of dollars, we’re doing film festivals to get a broader distribution. If you go to festivals, you gain credibility. We hope to then take the film to a distributor and get it a limited release in the theaters.
We’re also hoping streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes will get the film out there. There is a hierarchy of ways to promote and distribute a film. The last stage will be pay per view online.
CWR: Were you pleased with result?
Kahia: Yes. Under the circumstances with which we worked, I think we produced something special. One of our producers, Sean Saint-Louis, said we had “captured some lightning in a bottle.” It is not a perfect film—we’d need more time and money for that—but overall I’m pleased.
CWR: What future projects are you working on?
Kahia: Patrick and I are developing a project that is based on a true story of something that happened in 1917 involving the United States. When we heard the story, we couldn’t believe it hadn’t been made into a film. We’ll be making an announcement about it soon.
I also have my own project I’m working on, a science fiction thriller.
CWR: Is launching a production company difficult?
Kahia: Definitely, considering that we’re competing against studios and companies that have millions of dollars of funding behind them. It’s a David vs. Goliath situation. But, as we’ve demonstrated, it can be done. We’re reaching out to talented people in the industry to help us, so I feel good about our chances to grow the company. We think the 1917 movie will really open a lot of doors for us.
[Editor’s note: This story originally stated that the Call of the Void was set in 1951. It is set in 1949.]
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