By Ron Wagner
The opportunity to get behind the scenes at one of the largest movie production operations in the world could be deflating for the indie, cash-strapped filmmaker. Doug Mallette, however, has found it validating.
“There’s clearly a lot that I’m not privy to and a lot that I don’t understand, but being on set I’m able to realize that movies all kind of function the same way,” he says. “It’s still a lot of people running around freaking out and sometimes not knowing what they’re doing next and things going wrong. Money helps smooth out a lot of issues, but it’s not an entirely different work environment from independent filmmaking, which I’ve found really interesting and a valuable lesson to learn.”
Mallette has been a costume warehouse coordinator at Marvel Studios in Los Angeles for more than two years, working at the facility where the last 10 years’ worth of superhero character suits are stored. A 2010 Watkins graduate with a degree in screenwriting and directing and a full-length movie under his belt, Mallette—who moved to L.A. eight years ago—has grown accustomed to the starry elements of Hollywood. But that hasn’t dimmed the inspiration he draws from the celluloid capital.
“I go to a lot of events for Marvel, and the actors are always there. They never do much for me,” Mallette says. “The only person I’ve ever gotten star-struck by was Stan Lee. He’s the first person that I saw and was like, ‘I really have to meet him, and I don’t know if I’m too nervous to approach him.’ … I guess the allure of celebrities you can get used to, but there are certain people who transcend celebrity in a way. I think Stan Lee was one of those.”
Mallette was recalling his only encounter with the legendary mind behind Marvel Comics the day after Lee died on November 12 at the age of 95. Lee created or co-created a slew of iconic superheroes, including Black Panther, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, and Ant-Man, that have become the foundation of multi-billion-dollar franchises. “The reason we have jobs is because of him,” Mallette says. “There was a lot of sadness, but the nice thing about it was you got to hear a lot of people’s personal stories you might not have gotten to hear if it wasn’t such a sad occasion … Everyone at Marvel had a story about meeting Stan and how much of an influence he was.”
Mallette has long been a fan of the Lee’s comic books and is a fan of the movie adaptations, though his personal imagination tends to hang out in a darker realm. “My No. 1 love has always been horror movies and science fiction and things that are weird and creepy,” he says, and that inspiration culminated artistically in 2013 with Worm, a movie about genetically engineered parasites that give users vivid dreams.
Shot in Nashville, Mallette made the film in collaboration with fellow Watkins alums Jennifer Bonior, Julian Herrera, and Jeremy Pearce under the banner of a company they formed together, Untrademarked Productions. The resources—such as they were—couldn’t have been more in contrast to what is poured into an Avengers movie, but money can’t buy artistic gifts and motivation.
According to Bonior, those Mallette accounts are full.
“The best way to start talking about Doug is he is almost annoyingly talented,” Bonior, a producer in Nashville, says with a laugh. “He is so good at what he does it’s kind of incredible. He’s a really fun person to be around, because the wheels are constantly turning and he’s really witty and he thinks on his feet … I’ve worked with him in many different capacities, from him just being a writer to being a director to him being a creative consultant, and honestly he’s just a Swiss Army knife when it comes to talent in the filmmaking world.”
Recently, Mallette has been using only one of his tools, focusing on writing since Worm. But other gadgets stowed inside the handle might be flipped out soon. He and Bonior have recently begun trying to get funding for a pair of features and are working on an animated short film.
“Writing is one of the things I was always most passionate about, and it’s one of those things you can do without a big machine behind you. There’s nothing to keep you from writing and sitting down and doing that for yourself,” he says. “I still have the independent spirit, though, that seems to not be able to be silenced. I know it sounds super counterproductive when you work at Marvel Studios, but I really want to get back into making smaller movies with my friends.”
Hollywood films are often derided for their formulaic plots and dubious artistic merit, but Mallette thinks there actually may never be a better time for movies, both in quality for viewers and creative opportunity for filmmakers.
“I think that great movies are still being made every year, and, to an extent, there’s so much good content that it’s actually easy to miss a lot,” he says. “I think a lot of complaints about modern film come from this notion that big studios are only interested in remakes, reboots, and existing properties, but even if that’s true—and I don’t believe it is—it’s never been easier to make something on your own at an independent level. Film is becoming more diverse, unique voices are being heard, so I think it’s a really exciting time for both creators and fans of movies.”
A native of tiny Carmi, Illinois, Mallette grew up “surrounded by cornfields,” and he’s still getting used to the second-largest metropolitan area in the country. As long as he wants to create movies, however, he won’t be anywhere else, and Mallette wants nothing more than to create movies—especially if the process is hard.
“What makes a quality film will always be subjective, but I believe that any one made without cynicism is worth creating,” he says. “I miss the grind of independent filmmaking and having to settle for things that cost little money and having to make hard decisions when you don’t have the resources. There’s just a real connection and relationships that you build when you’re making movies under circumstances that are not ideal.”
It’s those real connections—the most meaningful of his life—that Mallette says Watkins provided him. “All the valuable relationships that I made early on were because of that school,” he says. “My greatest takeaway from my time at Watkins were the people that I collaborated with and continue to collaborate with. I met a lot of incredible people there.”
For more information on the Watkins film program, click here.