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21-year-old director Neal Mulani's edgy ‘Fish Tank’ gets CA premiere at FilmOut LGBT Film Fest

Photo credit:
"Fish Tank"

At 21 years old, Neal Mulani is a bit of filmmaking wunderkind. His most recent film, his Junior thesis project called Fish Tank, is a dark, tension-filled study of shame, desire, and power struggle, and it will grace the screen at this year’s FilmOut San Diego Film Festival.

The film centers on a young man named Noah who sets out late at night to meet an older man named Paul. From the moment Noah enters Paul’s home, however, something just doesn’t feel right.

Noah is visibly nervous, and he clearly did not know everything he’d signed up for on this random hookup.

For the young writer/director, the road to San Diego has been a voyage of self-discovery and finding his voice, and he recently spoke to San Diego Gay and Lesbian News about that journey and how he created Fish Tank.

“I grew up in a sort of small town outside Cambridge, Massachusetts which is a pretty liberal, chill area,” Mulani explained. “I came out early. I was in middle school. Still, what I found when I move to Los Angeles for college was so overwhelming.”

Mulani had come to terms with his gay identity, but there was still a lot he did not understand about the physicality and intimacy of gay relationships. He admits that when those doors began to open, it was a frightening time for him.

“There were times when I would go over to someone’s place or something and suddenly that voice would show up in the back of mine asking ‘Am I going to die tonight?’” Mulani said. “Those kind of behavioral cues that happen on those meetings fascinate me.”

When he was asked to write a script for one of his sophomore film classes, he funneled those thoughts and that uncertainty into his story, but it would be more than a year later before those ideas would come to life.

He decided that it would be his junior film project, and immediately was surrounded by the voices of fellow filmmakers and professors, each with their own ideas of how the film should play out.

“One professor kept pushing me toward this more positive ending that would tie everything up with a neat little bow and I kept fighting him on it,” he laughed. “It was important to me that you don’t really know what has happened, and that is emblematic of Noah’s internalized shame. I could not cop out on the ending.”

Despite those outside voices, Mulani was soon casting his film and preparing to begin shooting. For Noah, he knew it would be important to find an actor with a young ingénue quality that also had a bit of an edge.

He found his Noah in a young actor named Tristan McIntyre. He had both of the necessary qualities to carry out the very special mission that the writer/director had crafted for him.

“It was very important to me to make it clear that Noah went to this house of his own volition. His choice is the last time the playing field is even,” he explained. ‘He might be walking into danger, but he’s doing it because he wants to be there.”

McIntyre was soon joined by veteran actor Marcus DeAnda, and together the three of them set out to bring Mulani’s vision to life.

The filmmaker drew upon some of his favorite recent films to help create the vision and tone of the short film. The Invitation, Get Out, Black Swan, and even 50 Shades of Grey helped informed his decisions, and he could not be happier with how the final edit came together.

He had created a film that spoke exactly to the themes he had identified with personally, but he was surprised at first to see similar themes in other films as Fish Tank began to play festivals. That surprise gave way to understanding, however.

“The queer community has been suppressed in this county, and it’s created a communal anxiety,” he said. “We continue, even with apps like Grindr, to live in places of discretion and anonymity because I think we remember, as a community, that society wants us to hide. Someone could write a whole dissertation on this.”

The young filmmaker has time to think about his own dissertation, but in the meantime, he plans to continue exploring these ideas across genres.

You can see Fish Tank at this year’s FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival.

FilmOut presents the San Diego LGBT Film Festival on Thursday, June 7, 2018, at 7 pm to Sunday, June 10, 2018, at 7 pm at the Observatory North Park.  

The Observatory North Park is located at 2891 University Ave, San Diego, 92104

Get your tickets by clicking HERE.