D.J. Higgins | The Price of Following Your Passion
D.J. Higgins’ Award-Winning Short Drama Super-Woman
Delivers A Teachable Moment
Fresh off of his Best Director and Best TV/Web Series win at the Cutting Room International Short Film Festival, director, writer and producer D.J. Higgins just garnered another well-deserved award for Best Drama-Short Film at the March 2019 Brightside Tavern Film Festival for his film Super-Woman, which was also nominated for additional prestigious awards including Best Director for D.J. Higgins, Best Cinematography for DP Dennis Cahlo as well as Best Actress in a Drama for Anais Almonte.
Super-Woman is a film about sex trafficking where on a personal level a female NYPD police officer and her same-sex life partner have to deal with her dangerous line of work saving a young woman from ruthless trafficking predators. The film was nominated alongside Nick Vallelonga’s film Unorganized Crime. With that, Higgins was in good company, considering that Nick Vallelonga’s 2018 feature film Green Book just received the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Motion Picture in February 2019.
This American writer/director of Italian and Irish descent, who is fluent in Italian and Spanish, is not your typical filmmaker as his work challenges the norms of society and his films focus on social impact and reform. He also has been way ahead of his time when it comes to inclusion and diversity. Long before the Time’s Up movement started, Higgins was already working with female filmmaking counterparts in a meaningful way. Just ask his producing partner, African-American producer Julie Robinson whom he met in film school and who has since worked alongside him for many years.
His women-respecting mindset has obviously originated during his childhood influenced by his nonna (Italian for grandmother) Lisa Perillo and his mother Debra DeMeo, two strong women he unconditionally loves and respects and is grateful to for having raised him to become the man he is today. He even wrote, directed and produced a short film inspired by his grandmother entitled Santino, which he filmed in Italian language with English subtitles.
With 4 Master’s degrees in Italian Cinema, Italian Literature, Spanish Generalist Studies and in Film & Television, he is now completing a Doctorate in Modern Languages through Middlebury College. While following his passion of filmmaking he holds teaching positions at schools in Greater New York. This kind of commitment, however, comes with a price. Higgins, 33, has sacrificed most of his personal life to succeed in the world of entertainment and he’s laser-focused to get to where he wants to be.
His newest film, Armed and Dangerous, shot in Danbury, CT, touches upon the opioid crisis in the Northeast and the role of female police officers in society. The film follows, Super-Woman, the backstory of the film’s lead character Maxine, expertly played by Anais Almonte, and her journey as a Latina immigrant cop in the NYPD.
Prior films include the feature-length Meet Mario, which is about racism and can be seen on Amazon. The film details the journey of a young Italian man, the son of an African-American father and an Italian mother, who finds love while battling racism from his fiancé’s Italian-American family. It challenges all viewers to rethink identity and racism.
His 2016 multi-award-winning short film Pasquale’s Magic Veal, which also can be seen on Amazon, ends in a clever way that allows viewers to decide, how to interpret it. It’s a dark comedy about a magic piece of veal that forces all who eat it, to tell the truth. This short film won 14 awards including the Best Comedy/Best Dramedy Short Award at the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival, Best Narrative Short at the California International Shorts Festival as well as the Best Actor in a Comedy for Joseph D’Onofrio and Best Ensemble Award at the Brightside Tavern Film Festival.
The Hedonist Magazine had the opportunity to chat with D.J. about life as a filmmaker and more. Read his answers in the following revealing interview.
- Please introduce yourself briefly. Who, in your own words, is D.J. Higgins?
Who am I? This is a tough question in a world of so many people that seem so certain of so many things. In short, I embrace retrospection as one of the highest forms of intelligence but also believe in having a great glass of wine and a nice meal with the people I love the most. I try my best to be there for the people that need me but also have a killer shoe and watch collection… perhaps a spiritual hedonist?
- What was your path of consciously deciding to become a filmmaker?
My journey to becoming a filmmaker consisted primarily of being a lover of films. I have a Master’s Degree in Italian Film and fell in love with Neorealism. I think the short answer is that there are films that create a world that I like better than the one we live in and I strive to be a part of that creation!
- Who influenced you when you started out as a director, and why?
There are so many people that have blessed me with their guidance and help that I could do an interview just based on this question! I could mention such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Gianni Amelio and Woody Allen, but truly there are too many to mention. I believe in great storytellers and learn technique from basically any “picture” that I see nuance in. The proper why of answering this question is to mention my family.
My nonna brought me to the movies as a kid and I fell in love with the movie theater next to her! My stepfather loves movies and I have many fond memories going to Blockbuster on a Friday night in high school and discussing how we would spend his five dollars in rental fees! I remember combing through countless films and talking plot and story. My mom is really the creative one in our family and we always bonded over artistic projects. She always encouraged my art and I would like to think I inherited most of my creativity from her. I lucked out and both my sister Sarah and brother Nick love movies and tell me that they like mine!
My Uncle Louie was instrumental in going to film school and he has been a father figure in my life who has always pushed me to follow my dreams and fight for what I believe in. I also had a great Italian Film Professor, Antonio Vitti, who was the first teacher I ever had who truly believed in me. He taught me what a film really was and that a director’s job is to push for reform. Last but not least… Julie Robinson! I met Julie in film school, and she is the most supportive partner anybody could ask for. I wouldn’t have made one movie if it was not for her friendship and support.
- How has your professional experience as a filmmaker contributed to your personal growth?
Wow! What a question! Each film brings a new set of challenges and is a humbling experience. There are times that you think your idea is great and it blows up in your face and there are times that you must fight for what you believe in as nobody else can understand the obscure vision that you have in your head before it is realized on the big screen. I think making a movie is much like creating a small family and you can really only hope that you did the right thing while you spent time with each and every person on set. I trust that the process will speak for itself upon the film’s release.
- What is the most difficult part of independent filmmaking, in your opinion/experience?
To be original and still reach an audience. We live in a world of such profound insecurity that originality has become a point of contention! To be truly original and be accepted (and therefore have people watch your movie) is no easy task in an oversaturated market.
- If you could change anything in the entertainment industry, what would it be?
I would want to change the self-righteous journalism that focuses on being “politically” correct rather than just being correct. For example, I thought the film Green Book was great and that the message was that of unity and peace. I was surprised that so many people lambasted the film and treated it as an inferior product.
- What goes through your mind when you are directing the actors in your films?
One of my favorite actors, Craig Thomas Rivela, always says that I am, “a director’s actor”. I would like to also believe this. We work hard to pick the actors that we truly believe in (alongside Julie, I personally cast each of our projects) and we trust in their contributions to the film. When “action” is called it is up to the actors to bring the heat! I can only give suggestions and trust that our selection of their talents will bring home the message of the project.
- When casting your films, other than the obvious trait required for the role to be cast, what do you look for in an actress/actor?
This question is so important! I always ask a question that perhaps most directors would find strange… “do you like the script?” If an actor is looking for a paycheck, it shows. I live to make movies and expect everybody on set to be as excited about being a part of our project as I was writing it.
- Have you ever realized that you made a casting error when principal photography started, and if so, what did you feel in that moment?
Thanks to Julie, who organizes all of the auditions, no! We take a long hard look at all applicants and really assemble our movies from the ground up. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really phenomenal talent and many of our actors have remained close friends.
- Your short film Super-Woman just won Best Drama in the Brightside Tavern Film Festival. The series started with SMACK with Armed and Dangerous being the latest installment in this web series. What inspired you to write and produce these type of social impact scripts?
Smack is a series that is designed to scare kids from trying Heroin. It is a series that shows the good and bad of the police force and quite frankly of the world. Once again, it is not a politically correct series… it is a “correct” series. The Brightside Tavern is truly one of my favorite festivals out there and CJ Cullen and Chris Capaci do a stellar job in Jersey City.
- What would you say to a producer interviewing you for an important directing job, that would be your dream come true, as to why you are the right person for his/her project?
I am lucky enough to say that at 33 years old, I am living my dream. I am making the projects that I love alongside a fantastic partner. I would say what I always say, “have you seen my last movie? What did you think?” The great part of being a filmmaker is that you can be quiet and let your work speak for itself. Needless to say, not everybody is going to love everything that you do and that’s ok. It’s the people that love your work, that you want to work with!
- Having received numerous awards, what do you feel the minute your name is called during the award ceremony?
Grateful. I am thankful to God that my health is intact and that I feel great and that I have been allowed to make films while having my stamina and family around me. I also think, “Yes! Somebody out there understood our message!”
- Name 2-3 actresses/actors you enjoyed working with in the past 2 years, and why.
Alex Montaldo – Alex is a powerhouse and a great guy. He lives for his craft and is very humble. Alex also has more talent in his pinky toe than many have in their entire bodies. He shows up on set willing to leave it all on the table and I am grateful for having met him and have him in our SMACK series.
Anais Almonte – Anais is a star. She brings the intensity of an athlete to set and is a warm and kind person. Anais truly wants the best for all of our projects, and I know one day we will see her doing huge things.
Artie Pasquale – Artie is one of my favorite actors of all time. I was a fan of his on the Sopranos and consider him to be a dear friend. He is a brilliant actor and has a huge heart.
- How do you embrace the experience, which we call life?
I think life is being a perpetual student. If we look at what it is that we do not understand as exciting, life allows us to have many great teachers and truly be an enriching experience.
- Who is the most important person in your life, and why?
My mom. My mom has made many sacrifices in her life for her kids and truly lives to help those around her. She is a nurse by day and an all-around Super-Woman to her three kids by night. She is truly the most generous person I have ever encountered, and I strive to be half the person that she is.
- What is it like to switch from your teaching position to filmmaking?
I am lucky to say that I have fantastic students who make my job enjoyable. Making a movie and teaching are very similar tasks as they both involve patience, dedication and passion.
- It was just reported in the news that several wealthy people including two well-known actresses allegedly bribed university entry officials to get their kids into an ivy league college by cheating on entrance exams. As a teacher, what is your reaction to such news?
There are no shortcuts in life and the parents are to blame! So many parents put unnecessary pressure on their kids and need to focus on letting their kids create their own paths.
- Are you involved in any charity organization or humanitarian cause, you would like to talk about?
I run an Italian Club at my local high school where the students donate toys and food to the homeless. They do all the work, I just really am the monitor. It’s amazing to me hearing all of the negativity in the media about how bad the world is and work with such great kids. I think the world is improving and that the youth of today are kinder than we give them credit.
- The spirit of The Hedonist Magazine is “The Essence of a Joyful Living.” How does Joy during the creative process affect your own experience and in consequence the final manifestation of your actions?
The true joy of being a filmmaker is being able to accept collaboration as your bread and butter. A director’s job is to hire people smarter than her/him and movies involve great people to support your vision. Whenever I watch a film of mine from the past, I laugh to myself remembering what it took (and who it took) to pull of that particular shot. Being on set and having the support of two plus cast and crew members defines “joy” for me.
- When you hear: “You can be, do and have anything you want,” words from the teachings of Abraham-Hicks. What is your take on such a statement?
Wear your seatbelt and buy car insurance. Kidding aside, I live by my Uncle Louie’s advice, “you are where you are supposed to be, enjoy the ride!”