Damon Cardasis

BFA, Drama '06

What brought you to Tisch?

Tisch was always #1 on my list. I know that sounds like B.S but it's true. I actually wasn't accepted to Tisch the first time I applied. I got into another NYC based University but I was so adamant that I would go to Tisch that I took a post-graduate year at my High School (aka a 2nd senior year of High School even though I technically had graduated) applied to NYU's School of Education, wasn't satisfied and transferred into Tisch my sophomore year at NYU. I had heard of people that took a PG year for sports, in order to improve their skills, and figured I could do it for arts. I had only really started acting in my Junior year of High School, after moving to Brooklyn, and figured I could use some more training before applying. I'm glad I did. It was embarrassing at the time but it was the best decision I ever made. My "post grad" year involved a dance internship at Broadway Dance Center, which was 12 dance lessons a week for 7 months, working the front desk 12 hours a week, and high school. It also was a great lesson in, "if you really want something, you have to fight tooth and nail for it". Until that point I hadn't truly pushed myself. When I didn't get in, I was really devastated. I had wanted to go to Tisch ever since I was in middle school, bizarre I know, and not getting in was a shock but I rolled up my sleeves and refused to take "no" for an answer. Another University wasn't an option for me. Looking back, I can see that it was a turning point in my attitude and created a crazy tenacity that I'm happy has stayed with me ever since and been part of all of the decisions I've made. And now I've been asked to write for the alumni site so that's kinda cool. So screw you to whomever rejected me, but also thank you! I learned something even more important...Sweet.

Tell us what it was like to study at Tisch.

It was great but also massively intimidating. I was in no way a stage kid and looking back, I'm so grateful for that. I remember my first day at Atlantic. We were sitting in a circle and all of the other students were talking about their past accomplishments "I was on the national tour of "x production", I was the "forensics champion of New Jersey" (I still have no idea what that is). I sat there thinking "shit, I played the waiter in the High School production of SHE LOVES ME" and that 1 role was actually divided into 3 parts. There was an excitement but an arrogance to some of the kids. One girl used to spout off Shakespearian quotes as if she was some expert and I remember talking to my advisor and saying I felt underprepared because I didn't know what "The Forest of Arden" was. And she said something to the effect of "The ones that talk the most are usually compensating for their lack of talent". That stuck with me. Ha! Other than that, it really was great. I felt like I was a sponge and the teachers appreciated that I was eager to learn. Some didn't love me as I would make jokes a lot but others took me under their wing and let me be myself. I did work very hard. Everything they asked me to do, I did 150%. We had to practice our repetition work 4hrs a week, I did it. We were supposed to do voice exercises once a day, I did it. It was a balance of working hard and not turning into an arts drone that followed whatever the teachers said mindlessly. I was separated from my best friend Shannon Walker because we would always make up jokes and scenarios together. We were kicked out of class and then banned from being in a group together again because "we talked too much". I understand us needing to put a lid on it at times, but we naturally had chemistry and it should have been encouraged. It's funny because Shannon and I ended up being nominated for two Writers Guild Awards together for the same reason we were kicked out of class. We also started The Lower East Side Film Festival together because of that chemistry. So they ultimately couldn't stop it.

Thinking back, what was the biggest lesson you learned?

To be yourself and work your ass off. There are so many opinions in that place, between the students and the teachers. Everything felt so personal because you're "creating art" so it's a very vulnerable process. I also learned to be an open listener, but have a strong opinion, to be a good student, but not a push over and that you can't take no for an answer. You have to trust your gut and your instinct above all else. That was a great lesson I learned. It's funny because I feel that that was the center of the teaching there, and that is the most important thing you can have as an artist, but at times I felt myself fighting for it against the very people that told me I should trust it in the first place. Bizarre.

I remember you went to London, and didn't exactly enjoy the experience. Has your opinion of that experience changed over the years?

My opinion of the London program hasn't changed massively, although I recently went to London with my boyfriend and had an incredible time. My problem with the London program was that they were very stuck in their ways and it was their way or the highway. They were "The Royal Academy of Dramatic Fucking Arts" as a teacher so kindly told me in a class and we were merely the students and had to listen. I remember when we first started the program there we were doing tongues stretches for 2 weeks (something we had learned 1st week of 1st year and anyone can accomplish in 3 seconds). My classmates and I agreed that this was very basic level stuff and since we were juniors/seniors we would like to learn more. I mentioned it to the teacher and the response was "this is how we do it here" and that was that. Clearly not open to ideas.

The best part of the program though was my Theater In London class. We constantly went and saw shows. It was wonderful. So many great shows and such cheap tickets. I loved that. Very informative.

Would you recommend studying abroad in general? How would you advise someone to choose a program that is best for them?

I would absolutely recommend studying abroad to someone. Even if you don't love the program, the experience of being in another country and traveling is irreplaceable. I think everyone should study abroad in college. 

I think people should choose a program that helps them grow but also one that takes place in a country that they love and want to learn about. It could be a combination of both!

You were a drama major. How did you make the jump to creating the LES Film Festival and now producing movies?

My whole career has been a series of events that don't look like they should line up, but ultimately did; me being thrown into the deep end of something and having to figure it out or me saying "there is no road, I guess I'll have to make one". I stopped waiting for someone to give me the green light years ago, for better or worse. I'll try my best to summarize:

Throughout NYU, even though I was acting, I took on various internships in casting and producing to learn the other side of the business. I thought that it could only benefit me as an actor to know what the "other side" thought and that it would be good to meet people in the industry early on. I also struggled with having strong opinions about things and then keeping those opinions to myself. If I thought a scene was bad, I would say it. If I thought a director was giving a bad direction, I would say it. It didn't mean I was right, but I couldn't sit meekly and just nod.

Flash forward to a few months after college. I had moved to LA to see what it was like, having gone to High School and College in NYC and was waiting tables and auditioning. To me, it was thrilling to perform Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams etc but having to go out for a toothpaste commercial and end up having my fingers crossed afterwards was somewhat depressing to me. I had continued to intern for a casting director in LA, while waiting tables, but found the auditioning process to be somewhat soul sucking, especially when it was for things I didn't want to do in the first place. I realized I didn't want to do just any work for the sake of acting and that as a young actor, being picky really isn't an option. I didn't have my nose up in the air, in fact I did a kids show in NYC where I dressed up as a tomato in a sequins costume as well as a red hot chili pepper - which was a lot of fun - it was just that I wasn't satisfied auditioning for the local car commercial. I started thinking "If 99% of the time, I'm waiting tables and not acting and then for that 1% of the time when I actually am acting - 99% of that 1% I'm not enjoying it because it's not work I'm proud of - I'm going to be miserable for a large part of my life."

Oddly, the day I decided I wanted to start looking for assistant jobs in the industry, I ended up speaking to a regular at the restaurant I was working at and he said his friend at ICM (the agency) was looking for an assistant. I applied and got it. Thankfully I had a bit of a resume because of all of my internships. It was great to have my first taste of working in the industry but after a year, I felt I wanted to move back to NYC. I ended up getting a job with producer Scott Rudin and moved back. That job gave me a real taste of what it was like to work on films and I worked harder than I ever had in my life. It was thrilling because of all the great projects Scott was working on, including the Academy campaign for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

After that I ended up getting a job as director/writer Rebecca Miller's on set assistant for her film THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE. It was only supposed to be a 7 week job, but we got along so well, I ended up staying on and becoming the post supervisor, having never done it before. It was stressful, and I didn't know what ADR was, but I figured it out.

From there, I had the choice to either start the search for another assistant job, or start to create my own work; something Rebecca encouraged me to do. I went back to waiting tables and it went from there. I think other assistants thought I was crazy to go from being Scott's assistant and then Rebecca's back to a waiter, but I figured it was now or never and taking that leap was only going to be more difficult the older I got.

I waited tables for a few years, and became an event planner at an NYC club and in the meantime really dedicated myself to creating my own work. A sketch Shannon Walker (my friend from NYU) and I created, ended up turning into a store front performance that got nice press, sold out and got extended. We had no idea what we were doing, but we were determined to figure it out. It was called VICKY & LYSANDER and was about a deluded man and his effeminate wife who are trying to climb the New York social ladder.

Then, a group of friends and I decided to make a movie. A feature film. From concept to completion of shooting took 6 months and we shot it in seven, 8 hour days, for under 10K. It was a total shit show but again, a great lesson in setting your mind to something and finishing it. I remember saying "I don't care if I have to film a pigeon flying from the street to the ledge of a building" we are going to have something to show for it. That ENTIRE process was a complete learning experience.

After that Shannon and I thought "You know, there are probably a lot of people out there that are making movies for no money and after they get rejected from the bigger festivals, have no where to show it other than their living room. Let's find a venue and create a festival that will support other low budget filmmakers". We decided to turn the storefront we performed VICKY & LYSANDER in, into a movie theater with 30 fold out chairs and a pull down screen. We teamed up with our friends Tony Castle and Roxy Hunt and from there The Lower East Side Film Festival was born. We flyered the Lower East Side searching for movies, put ads on Craigslist, swept the floor, set up the screens, cleaned the toilets...literally everything. People ended up coming to the storefront to watch the films and New York Magazine came and put us on their approval Matrix as "Highbrow & Brilliant". It was pretty surreal. We're going into our 6th year this Summer and now show at venues all over the City, have 70 volunteers, sponsors and a team of 12. It's kinda crazy. I'd never been to a film festival in my life when we started ours and now our judges have included: Susan Sarandon, Parker Posey, Laverne Cox, Marky Ramone, Rebecca Miller, Rachael Horovitz and more. You just figure it out. A film festival needs: a place to show movies, movies, an audience, and hopefully a theme of sorts. Start with the basics.

All of this was going on as I continued to work the day job. At this point, web-series started to pop up and Shannon and I thought we might as well try to do something with Vicky & Lysander, since the response had been positive. After ignoring a snide remark of "Ugh, another web series" from one of many "know it alls" you encounter along the way, we created the 1st Season and through a series of events LOGO bought it and we got into the WGA. Then LOGO cancelled all it's web series, which was a bummer, but we didn't give up and a friend strongly recommended we try it on YouTube, so we did. We ended up getting nominated for 2 Writer's Guild Awards for that second season so I've very happy we did.

As all of this is happening, I was still working away at my day job and Rebecca Miller asked me if I had any interest in helping her with a documentary she was going to work on about her father, the playwright Arthur Miller. I agreed, having never produced a documentary, and after finding the footage, got it digitized (not really knowing what that was), transcribed (didn't fully know the best way to do that) and then applied for grants (again, figured it out). It started moving along and we're currently editing it. Rebecca and I got along so well and had so much in common that we decided to start a production company called Round Films. From there our film MAGGIE'S PLAN (Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore) was born with producer Rachael Horovitz. We sold MAGGIE'S PLAN to Sony Pictures Classics and it comes out May 20th!

We now have a variety of projects in development for film & tv including two scripts of my own. Rebecca has continued to act as a mentor to me for my writing.

It's all exciting and looking back seems somewhat insane. We also produced The Arthur Miller Centennial which was an amazing night at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway with Bradley Cooper, Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Tony Kusher, Laurence Fishburne, John Turturro and more. All proceeds benefit The Arthur Miller Foundation which puts theater and arts education back into NYC public schools.

What's your next big thing?

We have many projects in the works including a script I wrote that I am going to direct which Rebecca is producing alongside two other producers. Shannon and I have also written our first screenplay together which is a “high concept” comedy. A lot of exciting things for film, tv and possibly theater. Also the 6th year of The Lower East Side Film Festival.

One piece of advice that you’d give to someone considering attending the school?

Be prepared to work your ass off. You have 4 years to network, take internships in NYC and create your own work. Don't sit around, party and live off your parents credit card (if you are lucky enough to have them bank roll you). If so, great, even more reason to work work work as you have no excuses. If you don't have the luxury of your parents paying your way, even better. I didn't either. I went to school, had a job to help pay my way through and still interned. You are talented, but talent only gets you so far; hard work, not being lazy and being adaptable are key. Also be a fun, friendly person to be around. You're creating art, how lucky. You have no reason to be an asshole or a dick and no one wants to work with one. WORK, WORK, WORK. Don't wait to graduate. Also don't take no for an answer and trust your gut above all else. It's a balancing act between trusting your gut and seeking advice from wise individuals, but at the end of the day, you can only follow your own path. Don't compare yourself to others. You have your own life and it's a complete waste of time to look at someone elses, including mine! :)

For the 50th anniversary of the school, we chose the phrase Celebrating the Past / Creating the Future. Any thoughts on your future, the future of the industry, or what we can expect in the next 50 years?

Hopefully creating more fun, outside the box work. My career has always been about "taking the side roads" which were ultimately much more enriching, even though "the freeway" seemed more appealing at the time. I feel lucky I get to work in this industry and am so grateful for it every day. I know that it's a true gift. I appreciate it, especially because I toiled away at day jobs for so long, but I'm happy I trusted my gut and did it my way. It was ultimately the only way I could.