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Interview: Damian Voerg talks Cigarette Soup

Readily overcoming seemingly difficult and unnerving challenges can prove to be a powerful learning experience for people striving to achieve their goals. Not only is that the case for new filmmaker Damian Voerg, who made his feature film writing and directorial debuts with the independent war action movie, ‘Cigarette Soup, but also with the movie’s protagonist, Sam Grady. The main character and the scribe-helmer of the drama, which is set to have its Long Island Premiere at the Long Island International Film Expo (LIIFE) on Saturday (July 12) during the 4 PM block at the Bellmore Movies, fearlessly venture into unfamiliar territory to realistically showcase the struggles American soldiers face while serving in war.

Writer-director Damian Voerg discusses his independent war drama, Cigarette Soup
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Cigarette Soup,’ which is set at the height of the war in Afghanistan in 2006, follows a young aspiring journalist, Sam Grady (Joshua Wills), who gets the opportunity of a lifetime when he is embedded with a small band of American soldiers. After a surprise attack, they become separated from their unit and find themselves trapped in an insurgent bunker, as they’re surrounded on all sides by the enemy. During their time together, Sam is able to interview these brave soldiers, including Skinner (Joseph Perrino), Julian ‘Monti’ Montgomery (Tobias Truvillion), Luis ‘Crook’ (Perez Elijah Moreland), Dillon ‘Butch’ Moore (Jonathan Sale) and Mason ‘Lennie’ Mills (Shahn Christian Andersen). The group is also forced to contend with an apparent suicide bomber, Zarmina (Dina Shihabi), surprisingly enters their bunker. In the process, the group members discover who they are, where they come from and their reasons for being there.

Voerg generously took the time recently to talk about writing and directing ‘Cigarette Soup’ over the phone. Among other things, the scribe-helmer discussed how he wanted to make a war movie that truly focused on the people who serve in the military, instead of the actual fighting, and how that desire was fueled by his brother revealing his experiences in the military to him; how he used the found footage technique to showcase Sam’s practices, and urged the actors to improv lines on the set, to make their characters’ relationships and experiences feel more realistic; and how he was honored to have the drama premiere at LIIFE, in part because it’s a great festival and it’s local to where he lives.

Question (Q): You penned the screenplay for the new war action film, ‘Cigarette Soup.’ Where did you come up with the idea for the movie’s story, and what was the writing process like overall?

Damian Voerg (DV): Well, originally I wanted to write a war film that really focused more on the men and women who serve in the military, rather than the war itself. I started interviewing several people in the military, and one of them was my brother, who served in Desert Storm. The stories he was telling me really captivated and inspired me to write the film. He was telling me about his fellow Marines, and the struggles they went through.

Talking to him allowed him to open up to me in a way that he never has before. So not only did I gain a lot of information about people in the military, but it also brought us, as siblings, closer together. That was a true inspiration for me.

Q: Speaking about talking to your brother and other American soldiers about war, what kind of additional research did you do before you began writing the script?

DV: Well, there are a lot of fun aspects about filmmaking, but one of the ones I enjoy the most is researching for the script, because I learn so much. For this movie, I was interviewing servicemen and women, with my brother being one of them. Once you speak to them, you get first-hand experience on what it’s like to be in the war. There’s no better research than speaking with these men and women. They gave me technical information, as well as details about the rankings.

We also had military advisors on set, and they showed us the proper way to hold a rifle and enter a bunker. Those were things you just don’t know about. You can read any book that you want, but the direct contact with these guys give you a true understanding of what they went through.

Q: Besides writing the screenplay for ‘Cigarette Soup,’ you also directed the film. Was it always your intention to helm the movie while you were penning the script, and did writing the film influence the way you directed it?

DV: It definitely did. One of the things I kept in mind as I was writing the film, knowing that I was also going to be directing it, was that the more I interviewed these service men and women, the more I realized how real our movie needed to be if it was going to maintain any credibility. This was especially with the style of filmmaking being found footage.

Then when we got on set, I really encouraged the actors to ad-lib a lot of the scenes. They didn’t do that with all the scenes, but when it was appropriate. I felt giving them the structure of the script, but also allowing them to create their own dialogue while staying true to the script, allowed the scenes to remain fresh and seem unrehearsed. I felt comfortable directing the actors this way, because they knew their characters so well. The actors bonded so well together on set that the scenes came together naturally.

Q: Speaking of having the actors bond on the set, were you able to have any rehearsal time with them before you began filming to help build their relationships?

DV: We did have one rehearsal before we began filming, which was more of a meet and greet between everybody. I prefer working this way, and fortunately, the actors agreed that less rehearsal time was better. We went over the script and discussed the characters and what they were doing, but we didn’t want to over rehearse, to keep everyone natural and real. I really feel like that showed.

I feel like what was more important than the rehearsal was the free time the actors had together on set. They were guys goofing off, having fun and getting to know each other. When they were brought to set that just carried over, and you could see how comfortable they were with each other.

Q: Speaking of the actors, what was the casting process like for the main cast of the action film, including Joshua Wills, who played the embedded journalist, Sam Grady, as well as the actors who portrayed the American soldiers, such as Elijah Moreland, Jonathan Sale and Tobias Truvillion?

DV: The casting process was a lot of fun. We were truly happy with who we casted. There were certainly elements and qualities we were looking for, from the minute an actor walked through those doors (into the audition).

With these guys, I was really concentrating on their personalities. They all listened to direction extremely well. I also needed to see their chemistry with the lead character, Sam, who was played by Josh. I knew in the film they were going to have a lot of interaction with Sam, and to me, that was the most important thing.

I think when we casted the film, we knew we needed to pick the right actors for the roles. But it wasn’t until we got to the set that these guys opened up to each other, and that shows in their performances. In working with an ensemble cast, everyone wants to be the hero, but these guys knew what was being asked of them. When I asked them to make a scene more dramatic, they did it without question, and that’s how selfless these guys were

Q: You mentioned shooting the film in the found footage style earlier. Do you feel that combining that technique with the classic narrative way of filming was beneficial to telling the story through Sam’s point-of-view?

DV: I do, and it was one of the first things I thought about when I was planning this film. Found footage films are popular, but because of this movie’s genre, I felt using it on this project was different.

This isn’t a horror film (in which the found footage genre has become popular in recent years), but I felt like having this journalist have his own camera equipment made the story be as real as you’re going to get to the realities of being in an actual war. He was following the soldiers around, so I wanted to keep the authenticity of war time and military life. I think it raised the bar to bring in a camcorder and show the events through the eyes of this journalist.

Q: The drama was filmed independently. Did shooting independently pose any challenges while you were making the movie, or do you feel it helped influence the project’s creativity?

DV: I’m very happy we filmed this independently, as it does help with the creative aspects. I’m proud to say that I feel this film is very unique. There are pros and cons to having a unique film, and one of them is people taking chances on it. We knew that might be an issue for us, until we actually shot and produced it. Getting the support for it isn’t that easy.

But making it independently with a closer group of people as filmmakers and financers was helpful. As financial people, they really put a lot into this, and they believed in the script. With this type of film, I’m glad we went the independent route.

Q: What was the process of creating the action sequences in the film, particularly when the American soldiers were fighting the Taliban members?

DV: Those scenes were a lot of fun, as well. Craig Washington was our military technical advisor on the set, and I don’t know where the film would be without him. I learned just as much on set as the actors. Craig helped us in terms of where the soldiers would be positioned, where they would shoot their rifle, where they would run to and the terminology.

He helped us with things we didn’t really think about until we were on the set. Craig really made this film as authentic as possible. That was certainly true with the ambush scene, and when we entered the bunker. He was also there for all the action sequences.

Q: ‘Cigarette Soup’ is set to make its Long Island Premiere on Saturday night during this year’s Long Island International Film Expo. What was your reaction when you found out the movie was accepted at the Expo?

DV: I was overjoyed, as were the entire cast and crew. Deb Markowitz (the director of LIIFE and Nassau County Film Office) has such a great festival there, and to be a part of it is really an honor. The fact that it’s local for me hits home even more.

Q: Do you have any plans yet on when and how you’ll release the film? Are you hoping for a theatrical or VOD release?

DV: In terms of release, every filmmaker’s dream is to have their film shown in theaters, so that’s something I’m shooting for. We’ve also submitted the film to about a dozen festivals, with LIIFE being the first one we got into. But we should find out the results of the other festivals, which would start in the fall, over the next month or two. We’re hoping to get exposure through the festival circuit.

We’re also trying to screen the film for veterans through other organizations. Yes, the movie is part of the film business, but the reason this was shot was for the military. So I want to spread the word about the film as much as possible.

When I was interviewing the servicemen and women, they said one of the things that’s the most frustrating is how unrealistic war films can be. So from that point on, I made a commitment to making this movie as realistic as possible, because that’s what they deserve. So if we can screen the movie at other organizations and raise awareness, that’s important to me.

Q: What messages or emotions do you hope audiences will take away from ‘Cigarette Soup,’ including about how American soldiers fight for their country’s freedom, and how they contend with the terrorists in the countries they’re stationed in?

DV: I think the main message of the film for all viewers, for both military members and civilians, is that everyone has a story to tell. Everyone comes from diverse backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. But at the end of the day, there can be a common bond that brings us all together and leads us to fight for each other.

Also, if anyone sees a man or woman in uniform, and they have the opportunity to go over to them and thank them for what they do for us, please do. These are great men and women who truly fight for our freedom, and that’s an incredible thing they do for us.

Q: Besides ‘Cigarette Soup,’ do you have any upcoming films lined up that you can discuss?

DV: I wrote a script a while ago called ‘Cope,’ and we’re hoping to get that off the ground in 2015, after we promote ‘Cigarette Soup,’ of course. It’s a completely different direction, but it is an action drama that takes place in Detroit. It’s about an undercover narcotics officer who falls in love with a drug runner. He fallows her all over the city for her boss, a mysterious kingpin. I really can’t wait to start working on it.

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