Q&A Interview with Michael Mongillo
Writer/Director of DIANE
Arthur Glover: So obviously this film touches on a current topic with what troops go through, but did you interview soldiers that had similar conditions such as PTSD before making this film?
Michael Mongillo: One of our producing partners, Derek Zahler, is a combat vet; he provided many of the insights into the postwar soldier aspect of Steve’s character. Derek, Jason [Alan Smith], and I worked on a reality TV pilot together about tactical fitness awhile back. I met other wartime vets, current soldiers, and a group of young men going into the military. Naturally, PTSD and related topics came up. This gave me a lot to go on in the writing. I did the research, too.
Arthur: Primarily, what was the inspiration for the idea of plot of this film?
Michael: The seed came from the setup in Matt Giannini’s screenplay, “Death Special.” “Diane” is loosely based on Matt’s script. A social misfit finds the body of a woman in his back yard, takes her picture, fixates on her image, and off it goes. Very different than what “Diane” became but that setup and some facets of the police characters remain. It was that terrific setup that started me thinking about French theorist Roland Barthes’ essays on the deconstruction of the photographic image and that’s almost always where stories take root for me: in the big themes I get excited to explore.
Arthur: When the lead character, the soldier Steve, becomes the prime suspect in the murder of Diane, was this something you felt like could actually happen in reality? It definitely seems probable.
Michael: Given Steve’s background and history with the local authorities, briefly touched upon in the interrogation room scene, it’s very probable, yes. Especially after his attitude and lack of a solid alibi. It’s funny how much I’m questioned about the “aggressiveness” of the police. It’s what we see in a lot of popular TV shows and movies that’s often wrong. Or so I’m told. I consulted with two chiefs of police and other experts on the legalities after I did my own research. Even the very ending is accurate; it’s just police procedure. Spoiler alert. As the viewer, we get to see the whole story, learn the facts, but all the detectives have to go on is what they’re told and what they’re left to conclude from what’s verifiable. Even if the detectives believe every word and are sympathetic, in the end, there’s still no less than two prosecutable felonies in the mix.
Arthur: What is it about Diane’s corpse and the photograph Steve takes of it that makes him feel so connected to her? How does the photograph impact him, eventually leading to supernatural occurrences from beyond Diane’s grave?
Michael: Great question. It’s tough for me to answer without spoiling some of the discoveries viewers will make or, worse, cement what is intended to allow for multiple interpretations. Keeping it to character motivations, not getting too deep into the nature of photography and Roland Barthes’ concepts, remember, Steve verbalizes the answer to your question to Marcus (Doug Tompos), Diane’s widower. Steve tells Marcus how death in wartime is ugly but that Diane, even in death, is beautiful. He wanted to capture that image before the police came and took her body away because he somehow felt like he could help her. Of course, he’s partially talking about himself but more to his trauma over his lost friends, whose deaths he feels responsible for because he wasn’t there to help them after being discharged for combat injuries. Sadly, this is a common feeling for returning vets.
Arthur: Would you compare your film to any other ones that might have helped inspire it?
Michael: “Diane” is not directly inspired by one particular film or filmmaker. It’s been compared to Lynch a few times now, and I can see that, but it’s more in the ballpark of his “brand” than anything else. “Diane” is a weird movie that has erotic elements, strange melodrama, oddball moments, but none of that exclusively belongs to the Lynch universe. Influences seep in on some level; I think all artists are, equal to their own life experience, products of their heroes and mentors. My trifecta is Kubrick, De Palma, Malick. Ask me to name my top three next month, the last two will probably change. Like concepts and ideas, influences are fluid and often determined by what’s right in front of you. The trick is being mindful and not letting it dominate your original voice. That’s not to suggest I think “Diane” is trailblazing but it’s far from derivative. What’s the point in making movies if you’re only goal is to ape another filmmaker.
Arthur: What are the common themes that you tend to embrace and inject into your films? Do you have any signature styles that you feel makes you stand out as a director?
Michael: It’s been pointed out that the features I’ve directed are about friendship and betrayal. I think that’s accurate. In a word, conspiracy is the theme I’d say is most common. A device that’s consistent, even if not consciously a stylistic choice, is that I use genre as backdrop. It may be a thriller, but it’s really about blank. It may be a mockumentary, but it’s really about blank. This can be said of a lot of films and filmmakers but what I tend to do, for better or worse, is subvert what’s expected in a genre piece or just not deliver the desired outcome. Usually those conventions aren’t honest or realistic. I mean, who runs into the cellar when the shit hits the fan in a real-life ghost story.
Arthur: Do you feel like most soldiers are typically projected to even more hardships after they serve in
Michael: From what I know, it’s person to person. I can’t speak to other people’s experiences, but I’ve known men and women who have served in every major conflict since World War II and only a few weren’t able to return to a productive civilian life. I guess that’s probably a better question for a veteran.