Interviews

Daniel Peddle Talks About His Two New Documentaries

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Daniel Peddle Talks About His Two New Documentaries

by Paul Hansen 21 November, 2020

The gifted film director Daniel Peddle recently released two new rewarding documentaries titled The Drop Shot and Garden of the Peaceful DragonIn addition to being a director, Peddle also has a career as a talent scout and, with his partner Drew Dasent, manages The Secret Gallery, a casting agency. Among his career accomplishments, Peddle can lay claim to having discovered Jennifer Lawrence.  

The Drop Shot is an eight-minute film centering on Hella Tall, a male model, whom Peddle met while Hella was working in a Japanese bakery in New York. Impressed with his potential, Peddle arranged for him to be signed with a modeling agency and Hella began working on the international runways a few days later.

Peddle discovered that Hella likes to fish in the Harlem Meer, a lake unknown to many situated in the middle of Manhattan. Peddle decided to make a film about Hella fishing in what the director has described as a “magical watering hole” in the urban landscape of New York. (The title of the film refers to an aspect of Hella’s fishing technique.) Peddle has also described The Drop Shot as “a love letter to Harlem – one of the most inspiring neighborhoods in the world with its infectious creative pulse and generous spirit.”

Garden of the Peaceful Dragon is a feature-length movie centering on Luvell Benford III whom Peddle met while vacationing on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. Luvell, who passed away in 2014, led quite a varied life. Born in Pasadena, California,  Luvell became the first African-American student body president of his hometown high school. Following high school, he joined the Marines where he was stationed in Asia and began practicing martial arts and Buddhism.  

After his discharge, Luvell did engineering work for IBM, became acquainted with Timothy Leary and ultimately made his way to San Francisco where he became a part of the counter-culture movement, which included befriending Jack Kerouac.  In addition to observing the beginnings of The Grateful Dead, Luvell was hired by famed music promoter Bill Graham to be a bodyguard for Graham’s artists, and Luvell spent 10 years traveling and mingling with the stars.  

Luvell’s next adventure consisted of personally repairing a schooner and using it to make his way to Kauai where he set up a martial arts studio on the beach. He asked his students to “pay as you wish.”  Garden of the Peaceful Dragon explores his unconventional and free-spirited existence on the island.

In addition to The Drop Shot and Garden of the Peaceful Dragon, I have seen two other of Peddle’s films – Sunset Edge and Moss. All four films have a certain meditative quality with a great emphasis placed on creating a subtle, detailed atmosphere which can have a mesmerizing effect on a viewer.

I posed some questions to Peddle about The Drop Shot and Garden of the Peaceful Dragon, as well as his discovery of Jennifer Lawrence. 

The Drop Shot

Q: Can you give us a description of the origins of your short documentary The Drop Shot?

Daniel Peddle: Well, my filmmaking is intricately entwined with my talent scouting. That is actually how I got into casting or more specifically “street scouting”. I was a grad film school student at NYU and I really did not like the types of actors available to students and the process of securing them so I decided to just go out onto the streets of NY and find my own stars. I didn’t care if they had no experience. I was convinced I could sniff out underlying talent using my special intuitive powers as a triple Pisces - ha-ha! And also as a painter and portrait artist who has spent my life studying faces, I knew that I had an eye for beauty. 

A lot of people I found were exceptionally photogenic and so I started honing my eye towards models, as my best friend at the time was an agent at a modeling agency called Next. This agency is close to NYU and every Friday I would take in a stack of Polaroids of my finds to the owner and he would give me $500 in exchange for “first right of refusal” as they say – or to represent any of my discoveries he liked.

At the time, believe it or not, there was almost no one scouting the streets of NY for talent like this. Everyone relied on the old system for models and actors, which is basically populated with folks who really want to be a model or actor, who really want to be famous, and who have been chasing this the majority of their lives. The problem with that is they develop a thick layer of crap around them – presumptions and pretensions, fears and notions about what performing for a camera is all about.  But the camera likes authenticity, purity, gut instincts and unexpected quirks. It loves naivety and even mistakes. This is way more interesting to me and much easier to achieve with people who “never thought about” being an actor or model.

So anyway, word started getting out in the small inner creative circle of fashion, and clients started coming directly to me for my discoveries. When I met my partner, Drew, he really saw the potential here and turned this into a business called The Secret Gallery. We have been casting now for over two decades. It remains a real passion of mine.

Back to The Drop Shot! So I was at this Japanese bakery downtown and this very striking young man took my order. I could barely get my order out before I was giving him my card and asking him if he had ever thought about modeling. He had not and maybe my enthusiasm got the best of me, as he never called me. Well, I kept thinking about how cool this guy looked and I would go back down there every so many months and scout him again! 

This went on for a few years - ha-ha! Finally, he calls me back. He tells me his name is “Hella Tall.” I thought he was joking but in fact that is his legal name. Anyway, I have him come to our studio, take some digitals of him and was like wow! He looked amazing on camera. With his name and all, it seemed like destiny. I sent him straight to see all the top agencies that very day and everyone wanted him! This almost never happens. He signs with one and within a few days he was walking his first international runway show! He got a bunch of bookings right out of the gate.

It was so incredible to watch and he was extremely grateful. We started becoming friends and he reveals to me that he’s an avid fisherman. Well, it struck me as unexpected mostly because this is an inner-city guy living in Harlem. I’m thinking where the hell is he fishing -right? It turns out there is a lake in Harlem kind of tucked a way called the Harlem Meer and it’s a few blocks from his home and he’s been fishing there since he was eight years old! When he starts telling me how he got into fishing and that he has this whole crew of fisher friends called “The NY Bass Kings” I was hooked! I was like I absolutely must make a film about you fishing. He was into it, so I did.

A lot of my films have fishing moments in them. I guess it comes from my childhood but I just love seeing fishing on film. I find it highly cinematic – the act of it. The silence of it. The hope and patience involved. It is like a metaphor for life or something.  Also it is kind of what I do, too. I “cast”. Go fishing for beauty and inspiration …every day.

Luvell Benford

Q: How did you meet Luvell Benford III, the subject of your documentary Garden of the Peaceful Garden? He seems to have led a very varied life. Can you give us a brief biographical sketch of him and describe why you decided to make a documentary about his life?

Peddle: Oh boy! Well, I was on a trip in Hawaii on Kauai. It’s my favorite island because it is over 90% undeveloped and has a real working-class vibe, which makes me feel comfortable. My partner and I were going there at least once a year for more than a few weeks. We would rent the same cheap spot in a kind of sketchy area by the beach in Kapa’a. It had this empty lot beside what seemed very much like a drug dealer's house. There was also a large picnic shelter on the corner that attracted homeless folks and a community center nearby where a lot of older veterans would hang out. A place where most vacationers would not stay - hah!

But we didn’t care and I would set up my painting and writing studio facing the beach, and work with the sea breeze stirring me. Well, on this trip I kept seeing this one cool looking older dude hanging out. I was seeing him every day in the morning doing Tai Chi rain or shine. Random passer-throughs were stopping for a few days to learn Tai Chi from him. I didn’t know what his story was and just presumed he was a beach bum, to be honest.

Well, one morning I’m out by the beach filming the sunrise with my iPhone and this guy walks right up to me and without a blink says, “You should make a film about me.” He didn’t even say hello he just says, “You should make a film about me.” It was uncanny and I’ll never forget that feeling I had in that moment as it is the feeling that has guided my life . . . I call it the “bells of truth” and they go ringing in my head when he says it and I turn my phone onto him and say “ok.”

And that is how it started! I said “ok” and started filming him right then and there and I didn’t think twice about it. When you get that feeling you don’t question it you just do your job, which is to listen to the universe. So Luvell starts telling me his life story. It was like he had been preparing for this his whole life. And the stories he told me seemed incredible and fabricated - like how he tripped with his friend Timothy Leary, and was there when The Grateful Dead was born -- but I just kept filming.

Well, five years go by and I am going out there filming him more and more for longer stretches of time, and he’s moving all around the island, has no phone, no email, no address and the only way to find him is literally to search! But every trip I always managed to find him. And we really bonded over this experience.

I hate the word “subject” because it is just all wrong. Luvell, like everyone I have made a film with or about was my friend, a muse, a participant and a star. He was spectacular to watch and listen to but also questioned and challenged me as a documentarian. There are several times in the film where he pushes back against the way I was describing him or retelling one of his stories or points out my own ethnocentrisms. He wanted to share control of this film and take control at times. A lot of times he definitely was the director telling me what to do and where to go and how the story was to be told. I studied ethnography as an Anthropology student at UNC at Chapel Hill and I can assure you in this documentary, as in my others, we broke all the rules!

Q: Can you explain to audiences what the title Garden of the Peaceful Dragon refers to?

Peddle: Luvell called himself “The Peaceful Dragon” - it’s the meaning of his nickname and how he was known by most - Shanawo. Everywhere he went, including the abandoned empty lot beside our rental, he would turn into a garden. He actually referred to his abode as the “garden of the peaceful dragon” and when I heard that I was like bingo!

Q: The cinematography in Garden of the Peaceful Dragon wonderfully captures the ambiance and beauty of Hawaii. Can you describe what photographic equipment was used to shoot the film?

Peddle: Yes, my iPhone! That is it. I did eventually invest in a $20 plug-in mic and upgraded my phone, of course, a few times over those years, so the footage just got better and better but I had absolutely no gear. It was a wonderful way to work because I could be so intimate and unobtrusive. It does have a certain raw quality that I also like and that suits the place.

Q: Both Hella and Luvell seem to derive a great deal of satisfaction from the natural world. Are there philosophical ideas that the films are exploring relating to nature or other matters?

Peddle: Most definitely. This is what we all shared, what connects me to Luvell and to Hella, and to anyone who watches the film. You literally witness what honoring Mother Nature does to a soul. You can feel it. It is powerful. And in some ways, it is our only hope --that everyone comes to this awareness, this incredible respect we witness by these two men for nature, this insurmountable love for the world and the wild.

That African-American men are delivering this message makes it even more poignant because they have been so terribly maligned by history and culture. That there is some ridiculous prejudice out there that Black people are “not into” outdoorsy things, like camping, hiking, fishing, gardening, nature. It’s totally and completely not true. It is a false narrative being perpetuated by popular culture that denies the very history of the people, thousands of years of Black people being utterly and completely connected to the earth in a way we can’t even fathom now.

But I am not trying to make a point with these films by featuring men of color. That is who they are and they are just being their true selves and I am trying to capture that in the best way I know how. I don’t question why our paths have crossed, I just feel compelled to listen and share.

Q: Is there anything in general that you would like to tell audiences about The Drop Shot and Garden of the Peaceful Dragon?

Peddle: I hope they slow down, take a deep breath, relax, let themselves be moved.

Jennifer Lawrence

Q: Can you describe for us how you discovered Jennifer Lawrence?

Peddle: Ha-ha - well I was scouting for a job, looking for a particular “All-American” face. I like to describe it as the Norman Rockwell face. This face has nothing to do with ethnicity by the way; any “race” can have the Norman Rockwell face, not just blue-eyed freckled folk. It’s a certain American spirit you see in the eyes, a kind of child-like wonder and hope in spite of the background or context of the painting. This is one of my favorite things to scout for because they are surprisingly rare to find but they always resonate in the market. They are the American “ideal”. You want to root for these faces. Cheer them on. Pinch their cheeks.

So I was at Union Square and looking through all the faces that gather there and I see Jennifer out of the corner of my eye. She’s with her mom and they looked sort of bright-eyed and lost. Like lost but enjoying it! Jennifer had this little “pie face” as they say. She was beaming and all shiny. She was fourteen on vacation to NY it turned out. I went up and handed her mom my card and gave her my spiel about the job and asked if I could take her Polaroids right there and of course, they said yes!

So, I get all her info and a few weeks later the client is flying her back in from Kentucky to do the shoot. Her mom calls me after and is like “Jennifer has found her passion. She loved being in front of the camera.” I actually took her pictures into that agency owner at Next and he passed on her ha-ha. Most everyone did in fact, but eventually she got an agency. The rest is history.

Q: Would you like to share with us what your future projects are?

Peddle: I just finished shooting after four years of work on the follow-up to my first feature documentary called The Aggressives. We are revisiting the original participants twenty years later! It’s fascinating and emotional! I am also in pre-production on a feature narrative film set in Chinatown about a teen immigrant. There are several scenes in the script of him fishing!

THE DROP SHOT can be viewed on the following link: https://youtu.be/o5tW8DQ9TiE

GARDEN OF THE PEACEFUL DRAGON is available on-demand on iTunes and Amazon Prime. It is also being offered by PBS starting in Fall 2020. Check your local station for more details.