In the United States, regional filmmakers rarely get the same attention as their big-city counterparts, at least until they premiere in New York or L.A. This denial of certain geographic perspectives is bound up with the country’s ongoing polarisation – politically, economically, culturally – and it often undermines the many things that make a small town or mid-size city worth living in: close-knit communities, enduring relationships, a well-informed sense of place. But many of the best filmmakers in the country live outside its cultural capitals, at least when they aren’t showing there. Portland, Oregon in particular, has become a haven for independent filmmakers to live and collaborate. Kelly Reichardt lives there, as does Todd Haynes, Brian Lindstrom and Chel White. Jon Raymond, a screenwriter who collaborates frequently with Reichardt and wrote the teleplay for Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, grew up in Portland and returned to live there as an adult. His friend, the director Steven Doughton, had the same parabolic trajectory – though it took several years of living in New York for their paths to cross.

Doughton, an experimental filmmaker whose work is held in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, has been shown at Anthology Film Archives and Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, and was represented by Civilian Warfare Gallery in the ‘80s alongside David Wojnarowicz, made his name and reputation as a New Yorker before returning to his native Portland to raise a family. Interestingly, his approach to filmmaking changed when he came home, and he now makes short, disarmingly effervescent feature films that bear only subtle traces of the structurally rigorous experimental work of his past. At one point hemmed into a format that was, by the nature of its production, required to be short and extreme, his Portland filmography has extended itself generously into a more sustained and meditative mode. Still obsessed with ongoing questions of alienation and connection across time and space, he seems now to share his preoccupation with a subject Raymond once gave to a collection of Portland short stories: Livability.


Earthlings, Doughton’s latest feature, adapted by the director from a short story by Raymond, played at Portland’s historic Cinema 21 theatre this past November as part of a celebration of Doughton’s work by the local gallery and performance space ILY2. The film tells the story of Javier (Luis Chavez) a Mexican day labourer who, alongside his friend Diego (Daniel Mora), find themselves at the dinner party of their employer (Kelvin Han Yee) whose incipient loneliness seems matched only by his self-assured paternalism. As the night drags on, all the guests (the fantastic Tina Holmes and James Le Gros included) reach unexpected insights brought on by mixed company. The following is a conversation between myself, Doughton and Raymond on the film, compiled between Zoom, the post-screening moderation at Cinema 21, and digital exchange. 

– NK 

NK How did you come together for Earthlings? When I first spoke with Steve, he said this was something like 15 years in the making. 

JR This goes back a long time because Steve and I have had a very long friendship and creative conversation. We first met, I guess, back in the last moments of the ‘90s. Actually, was it before that?

SD It was mid-‘90s, ‘95. 

JR There’s a whole meet-cute story I can tell about us first meeting at a Bruce Nauman show at MoMA. I was just visiting, but Steve was already living in New York at the time. That was the initial meeting where our conversation began, and then I moved to New York in like 2000. We stayed in touch and worked on some screenplays together that Steve was developing, and he brought me in on some projects that were super interesting, turned me on to a lot of great films and just a way of working that was really, really interesting to me. 

NK Had you been writing scripts at that time already? 

JR Not in a very concerted way. I had an interest in film, like everybody, and there had been some fairly ridiculous projects I’d worked on. But Steve’s projects were way more professional compared to what I’d been doing. I learned a lot talking to him about that stuff and following his process. But Earthlings sort of had its own gestation. It came out of a book of short stories I was working on, called Livability, which all take place in a medium-sized city that is a lot like Portland, Oregon, and comes at that community from different angles. 

I grew up in the suburbs here and wanted to write something that had to do with a suburban experience. The origins of the story actually started with a conversation I had with a friend of mine from high school, whose dad actually got into a situation like this. After my friend grew up and left home, his dad got divorced and started hiring day labourers just to come party with him – not even to do anything, just keep him company and get loaded. My friend told me about it and it was one of those moments where I was like, ‘I don’t wanna hear anything more, that’s all I need to know.’ The main character in this story was kind of patterned on this friend of mine’s dad, along with a few other composited elements. But it was hard for me to ever get to the purity of a storyline of just hiring random guys to party with you; I couldn’t exactly figure out how to make that happen, so naturally some other elements came into it. But that was the genesis: There is someone out there who really did something like this, though probably it resembled this in no way at all. 

NK Steve, what spoke to you about it? You said right away that it was something that you knew you wanted to make.

SD Yeah, my memory of the story is that I was into it immediately. I think this was still way before Livability actually came out.

JR You probably saw the story before it was published. That book came out in 2008, but it was being written from 1995 up until then. 


SD I remember an initial conversation when you hadn’t even written it yet; you just gave me the setup. And I said, ‘That would be a great film. Can I make a film about it?’ And you said, ‘Well, I need to write it first,’ something like that. And it became “The Suckling Pig” and I read it and thought it was just fantastic. I mean, it’s such a great premise, these people having nothing to do with one another, partying all night. Plus, I really love Jon’s writing so I knew it would be good. But I was just thrilled with it. At the time, I was in the middle of trying to make another film, and that went on for years seeming like it was going to fall apart. I kept thinking, ‘Well, you know, there’s always “Suckling Pig,” I’d like to make that.’ The other project never did come to fruition. It was actually a script that Jon and I had worked on together. But in the meantime, I had written the script for Buoy, which I decided to make first because I knew it would be so cheap that I could probably get it made more easily than “Suckling Pig,” which became Earthlings. There was only one onscreen actor in Buoy, so it was a way easier project.

Anyway, it was many years of me wanting, hoping that I could get Earthlings made before it actually happened. Once our producer Jacqueline Gault came on board I knew it was gonna get off the ground, but it still took a few more years but I felt the momentum was with us. I guess that’s the story of filmmaking for a lot of people. It takes a long time to develop and create something.

NK All the more exciting, then, that it’s having its moment now. I’ve got to say, hearing the scenario before watching the film, I expected something treacherous, like the dinner parties of Buñuel, and was really pleasantly surprised while watching it. There’s tension, of course, and real awkwardness. But the film devotes real attention to the needs of all of these people for companionship and makes something out of their humanity.

SD I agree, that’s one of the reasons I responded to the story in the first place. It’s funny – I was reading some of the comments from the audience members in Gothenburg, where Earthlings played in a festival. There were comments like, ‘Not the most awkward dinner I’ve ever been to,’ or ‘I don’t get it. Nothing awful happened.’ But that’s what I love about it. No one’s life is going to be transformed from this evening, but at the same time, it’s a night no one’s going to forget. It’s kind of small, but I love that about it.


NK I’m curious if either of you felt like this story, politically or demographically, revolved around things that were specific to Portland. It obviously has a lot of very universal elements to it, but I was curious if there was something about the makeup of the people there that captures this community you both know so well.

SD I do think the characters are universal, but there does seem to be a Portlandesque quality to it. That landscape that that they live in, up in the West Hills, does seem to inform the personalities of a lot of the characters in the film, Tom and his friends.

NK It seemed to me like a very natural relation for the film: We start down by the waters, where the people are, where transactions are made, where life is teeming. While up in the hills, it’s a little bit more rarefied. It’s a little lonely.

SD I hadn’t thought about that, the water but it’s really so well-articulated in the characters. They’re up in the West Hills, where they’re free to be themselves and they’re free to express their real opinions about race and class. Somebody like Conrad is able to be like ‘I can say it, we’re here in Tom’s house, I can say it. It’s my friend. He’s not white. And I have license to use racist humour with him.’ Maybe it’s really just the dynamics of being on home turf but certainly Conrad feels protected up there.

JR I mean, for me, this story goes back to really specific people and places. There is something about suburban Portland that can be weirdly uncosmopolitan. There’s a sheltered quality to those spaces, to the point that this formation of people could be totally natural and free-flowing in somewhere like New York or L.A. – a bunch of different people at the same party, who cares? But in Portland, there is something still slightly remarkable about this particular congregation of people coming together.

NK Jon, I know you’re no stranger when it comes to seeing your stories adapted into scripts. What did you and Steve talk about as this project went into development?

JR I tried to really give Steve space to do his thing with it. I didn’t want to muddy his process. I did get to visit set, which was fun, and there were definitely conversations we had as things developed from place to place. But I feel like there’s a certain understanding with a script that it’s going to be its own new thing. It’s interesting when you’re as close as we are to try give someone their space with a story, but that is definitely what I was trying to do. 


SD Yeah, Jon had some notes for me after the first cut that I think were really good but other than that he let me run with it.

NK Did you collaborate on the script together? 

SD I don’t even think I ever sent Jon a draft. But it never got that different from his story. I mean, the opening sequence was mine, and there were a couple of scenes between the two day labourers, Javier and Diego, that were my invention as well. But so much of the dialogue was already there. It’s funny, the actors were very complimentary of my writing, but if you look at the short story so much of it was Jon’s.

Earthlings opening sequence

NK In the opening sequence of Earthlings, a man in a spacesuit walks across the empty desert. It’s a powerful image, alluding to both the U.S. migration crisis and something oddly transcendental. It also calls back to Forming, an early experimental work of yours that features an alien in a space suit intercut with new-age architecture and quartz formations, studies in geometry. What brought you first to that imagery, and how did it make it into Earthlings

SD Forming was made in Portland in 1987. A year or two earlier, I had read the writing of Robert Smithson, the sculptor, who had made a film called “Spiral Jetty.” I read his book and I thought, ‘I’ve got to make that film. Either I’m going to make a sequel to it or I’m going to make an answer to it or I’m going to make it what I imagine this film is.’ So I made Forming. My intention was to make a film with visual elements that are staples of the science-fiction genre to denigrate new-age philosophies that I felt had failed me personally. Architecture, slime and crystals made sense to me, I had used them in earlier works, and it was important that these elements be at odds with one another structurally in order to best attack the foundations or ideas that they had come to symbolise. 

At the time, I hadn’t yet seen “Spiral Jetty.” Years later, I saw it, and they share a certain theme in common but visually and structurally they’re very different. But Smithson’s work really stuck with me, I just can’t escape it. I kept coming back to argue with Smithson. Smithson was himself obsessed with entropy, and I became obsessed, and for a while I think the more I tried to escape from Smithson and Forming, the more I just failed. It became very hard to escape. The kind of science fiction-based things that I made just became more and more convoluted and polluted, in a bad way. Eventually, I made a sort of travelogue with my series of diary films, “Circuit.” I managed to claw my way out of that Smithsonian pit with “Circuit,” and then certainly with Buoy, my first real feature film. So when it came time to make Earthlings, I just thought, I want to go back to it. You know, now that I’m safe. I just felt like Earthlings was a great way to revisit Forming and on some level just touch on it. Circle back.

NK Steve, both of your features seem informed by a sense of Portland’s landscape and geography. They both seem to almost emerge from the Willamette River in their opening shots.


SD I’d never really thought about that. It’s funny, actually, one thing I love about the first scene of Earthlings – not the alien sequence, but when we’re going across the bridge – there’s this drone shot where you can actually see one of the buildings where Forming was shot, which made me so happy. But besides that I didn’t really think about that part. I wanted to show the landscape and, I mean, with both those films, which are cheap films, I felt like you’ve got to make it look as professional as possible at the beginning – add some money shots. 

I feel guilty saying it, but I feel more like a New York filmmaker than a Portland based one. Although when I was in New York, all my friends making films at the time were part of the whole “cinema of transgression” movement. Whereas my work, films like Forming or “Betwixt” or even the film that David Wojnarowicz and I did, “Around Clown,” did not fit into the style of that movement at all. 

NK How did you end up working with Wojnarowicz? You made your movie “Around Clown” with him the same year as Forming. Did it fall under some of the same influences? 

SD I first met David through Keith Davis on a visit to New York in the summer of ’83 and we kind of hit it off. I moved to NY in the fall of ’83 and David and I became fast friends. In 1985 I discovered the films of a guy named David Markey, who was part of the whole punk scene in Los Angeles and making these films with members of like Black Flag and the Meat Puppets, Redd Kross, Circle Jerks. And I just loved them and felt so inspired to see this guy making these Super 8 feature films. And so that got me to want to start making films. But again, I didn’t want to make the kinds of films he was making, I wanted to do kind of more like some kind of take on Smithson – intentionally arty, fake science fiction-type things. Anyway, by 1986 I had moved away from New York and was bouncing around out west. I ran up to Portland to visit my family for the holidays and found my old Super 8 camera, and that when I began shooting Forming. In February, I visited New York and looked up David, and I had the camera with me. We went out to breakfast and I said, ‘I’ve got this camera. You know, I’ve got a roll of film. You want to make something?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ So we went to his apartment where he lived. He lived in the same building as Richard Kern, I think it was on 13th over around B or something. And he said ‘Let’s go up on my roof and shoot something.’ And he just grabbed this clown head and this stuffed rattlesnake, and we just ran up on the roof. And I looked around and I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ And he just puts his clown head on and starts dancing. And, you know, the thing about David that I think people have not come to realise historically is how funny he was. He was hilarious! He loved laughing and he was constantly finding humour in stuff. So anyway, he’s up there dancing around in this clown outfit. I had just seen the film Faces of Death, this old shock-documentary on people dying. And there was this sequence of this surveillance camera panning back and forth as this guy tries to hop over a chain link fence and break into a building. And these two Doberman pinchers attack him and the camera is moving, back and forth, indiscriminately sweeping, showing the action of their attacks as it pans but never stopping on it. So I thought, “I’ll just film like that. That would be funny. Yeah. Oh, you know, we just threw this thing together.” That’s how that project came about. 


NK What prompted you to move back to Portland in 2003? Was it different from how you remembered it, and was there an adjustment after living for almost 20 years in New York?

SD While on a visit to Portland from NYC in 2002, I met my future wife, Erin Boberg, and decided to move back to Portland. I gave up my lease and moved out of the city in 2003.

At the time, Portland felt fresh and rather foreign compared to the place I had known as a child. A lot of artists had moved to Portland from other cities in the 1990s, so the art and music scene was larger and, at least for the art scene, more sophisticated. Leaving New York was difficult because I had so many close friends and I had spent the best years of my life there. Leaving the museums behind was a real loss, but at the same time, so much of what I loved about the city seemed to be disappearing. I was happy to be back living in Portland and reconnecting with old friends and family.

NK The ending of Earthlings really hinges on something that feels a bit unique to the immigrant background, with Tom’s decision not to give Javier that money because he thinks that Javier should have earned it. There’s a bit of tension based on this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative that this richer, second-generation Chinese immigrant has clearly based his whole life around. I’m curious how much of that was in the initial story, or even the real life situation as it was passed down to you. Since that time, a generation has passed in immigration policy, and our collective understanding of upward mobility has shifted. That ending feels very relevant to now, dealing with the potentially outdated nature of that idea that you should make your own way, especially as an immigrant. 

SD That’s all in the story, and I thought it was just a brilliant aspect of it. I mean, here’s this guy who’s so sure of himself. Tom, the host, makes all these declarations throughout the whole story and, to me, it feels like here’s this moment where for the first time that night, he kind of questions himself. I talked a lot with Kelvin Han Yee, the actor who plays Tom, and with Luis Chavez, who plays Javier, and Daniel Mora, who plays Diego. I wanted to get their sense of it all, and there was a real debate about it. The actors could see it both ways. I think Luis said, ‘Me personally, I maybe would have felt a little insulted, but I would have wanted him to put the money back.’ But there’s a question there: is this the right thing to do or not? And none of us could answer it. I still don’t know.

NK Did those conversations on set inform how the actors played that scene? 

SD Oh, yeah. Luis is very analytical, and they were questioning my choices far more than I was. So I often found myself saying, “Yes, let’s roll with that.” But I felt very provoked by Luis’s questions in a way that forced me to reconsider the plot from new perspectives. I don’t know how to explain it exactly, just holes that I didn’t realise were in the web. So I learned a lot about the character from Luis, from their questions.

For an actor, I also think it was a great opportunity to show something new about the character of Conrad, because it’s his one moment where we get to see another side of this person who is otherwise very stingy with his own emotions. I think it was a really nice opportunity for James Le Gros. I mean, he just knocks it out of the park there. But there’s almost a danger in that scene, when the sole white guy ends up having maybe the most decent moral moment. I could see some people taking that the wrong way. 

JR Ideally though, Tom’s decision is also weirdly grounded in this kind of egalitarianism. It’s like he’s trying to treat this day labourer as an equal, you know? From that perspective you also could view Conrad’s decision as a kind of patronising paternalism. Hopefully it’s a moment where absolutely everyone is wrong. 

SD Exactly. I’m so interested in the choices Kelvin made as an actor, in terms of how to play Tom. I think he made some pretty challenging choices that make it into the film, he didn’t play him as macho. Kelvin complicates the character in a way that I think works well. At one point, pretty far into the project, he said, ‘I think Tom may have voted for Trump.’ And I said, yeah, I could see how that’s possible. 

And I loved Tina Holmes’s decision to fill out the character of Dianne by countering the bawdy hedonist that appeared on the page with a sweetness and grace.

There’s real irony to this story, that these two characters from Mexico, the only ones who are actually indigenous to this continent, are the outsiders. And no one seems to question it! Not even them! Which brings me back to your question: how sad it is that this story is still so relevant. I remember speaking with Luis about the story, and they pointed out that no matter what happens with the politics of immigration in this country, the theme will always be relevant. Even beyond the specifics of immigration and class, it gets at what we consider to be our territory, our home, our borders, and The Other.  

NK What’s so interesting to me about Earthlings is the way that’s asserted throughout the film, alongside what is so clearly this loneliness. We need these other people, these outsiders, even if we can only think of them as alien.

SD I mean, that’s one of the things that first attracted me. You know, when I first started making films I didn’t really question it. But across all of my early films I’ve got these single, solitary characters facing down a landscape. It’s this dislocation that continues into my recent work. The film I made with Wojnarowicz, “Around Clown,” is maybe the first one that has that situation. I just loved the wrongness of it, that juxtaposition. I didn’t question it. Then later on in the ‘90s, I made “Circuit,” where the main bodies on screen are all tourists. Tourists are such a symbol of that dislocation to me – we can’t stand tourists, even if we’re all tourists at some point in our lives. Again, there’s this kind of displacement. 

When I was editing Buoy, I realised that this is still going on in my work. I’ve got this woman alone with her secrets, up in this empty house overlooking the city. It’s this very lonely situation. And she gets a call from her brother, who’s a difficult guy – he’s a drummer without a band, he’s the sole survivor of a shipwreck. And he ends up telling her about floating in this survival suit out on the icy waters of the Bering Sea. I realised while making that film that I’m still using the same imagery as from those earlier films, the ones with no dialogue or no real plot to them, but now it’s more about exploring the psychological situation of this dislocation. 

I’d already wanted to make Earthlings before I even wrote Buoy, but it’s wasn’t until I was cutting Buoy that I realised, ‘Oh, this is also going on in Earthlings!’ You’ve got all these lonely characters, these two migrant workers so far from their families and where they consider to be home. You’ve got Tom, estranged from his family – for different reasons, but alone in this remnant of his past, dwelling in the relic of his marriage. And Diane, married to this guy she loathes, and wanting to create secrets that would isolate her even further. And then you’ve got Conrad, who’s only friend seems to be Diane. It’s a situation where all these characters seem so alone and isolated. And it’s tragic. I think it comes down to these displaced bodies, which is the situation of the body as we experience it in the world. We experience everything from this lonely position, you know, the self. And it’s at such odds with our need for connection and companionship.

JR It makes me sad for you, Steve, stranded in your meat sack, out in space somewhere. I haven’t thought about it before but that makes sense to me as a great through line to all of your work.

SD At first I thought it would just be fun for Earthlings to tie in visually to Forming, or those other those fake science fiction films. But there’s a reason for it. Thematically it makes sense, and not just as a play on the idea of ‘aliens.’

NK Watching a lot of your older films this past week, I really noticed that in your work: this idea of people having to travel very great distances to see the humanity of one another, and then eventually coming together. One of the beautiful things about Buoy is how it builds to this natural point of really encountering one another, those two characters, after all of this time and space. Seeing that gave Earthlings a new depth for me, in retrospect, seeing it now as the accumulation of this theme. 

SD I’m glad you feel that way. I think that’s ultimately what I was aiming for.

About The Author

Nolan Kelly is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Brooklyn, New York.

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