May 20, 2021


Damon Laguna, from Thousand Oaks, CA is a 2020 graduate of the MFA program in Film and Television Production. He is the recipient of the First Look Faculty Award in Directing.

What’s your First Look project about and what drew you to the subject?

HEADLOCK is a coming-of-age drama about an introverted Latinx high school wrestler who must stand up to his father and come to terms with himself after his secret sexual identity is exposed. As a filmmaker, I am drawn to coming-of-age stories about compelling, underrepresented characters in authentic, untold situations. When I was writing and preparing to direct this film, I drew upon many of my own experiences and relationships. I was a competitive athlete my whole life and was exposed to the world of wrestling through my brother. I was very intrigued with the sports’ mental, physical, and emotional impact on the athlete and thought it was something that hasn’t largely been explored in film. It was also very important to me to tell a story about an authentic Latinx family and I hope that this film emotionally connects with a wide audience and sparks conversations about masculinity and sexuality in men’s sports and the Latinx community.

What was challenging about making it and what was most enjoyable?

One of the most challenging aspects of the film was the wrestling. The actors and I spent weeks before production began consuming as much wrestling content as possible. We worked with the USC wrestling team, watched their practices to not only study how the wrestlers physically held themselves and interacted with each other, but to also learn how to actually wrestle. I wanted the wrestling in the film to be very authentic so, while on set, we had college wrestlers and a college coach advising the wrestling components. I love working with actors and this was a very rewarding experience. The most enjoyable part was seeing the actors dive into their characters and deliver diverse, poignant performances each take.

Collaboration is extremely important in filmmaking. Who were your key collaborators on this project and what did you learn from your work together?

Throughout the creation of this film, I had the pleasure of interacting and working with many incredible filmmakers that had a significant impact on this film. One collaborator that was with me from the beginning was HEADLOCK’s producer, Vivian Ip. She was instrumental in making this film happens and worked tirelessly to go above and beyond her call of duty. She taught me to continue to fight for my vision despite all the obstacles we were presented with. Another collaborator whom I’ve worked with before on many projects was HEADLOCK’s editor, Rommel Villa. He’s technically gifted, has a strong grasp for story, and I learned so much from him in the editing process. We rearranged the story, tried new things, and experimented with the footage to identify what could help to elevate the film.

Why did you choose the School of Cinematic Arts and your division and/or track?

I loved USC’s MFA Film and Television Production program because I wanted to be exposed to all aspects of the filmmaking process from writing to cinematography to sound design, and more. That education and experience was paramount and has allowed me to better communicate and work with other filmmakers as a director. And, of course, USC is the best film school in the world, so it was a very easy decision.

What have you learned about yourself as a creator from being at the School, and how has that prepared you so far for the career you want?

While at USC, I had the privilege of working on numerous projects with many different filmmakers. Regardless of the positions I held, I spent a lot of my time observing and listening to my colleagues, trying to understand how they worked and seeing what made them successful. When I had the opportunity to direct, I understood that good ideas can come from anywhere, especially when you surround yourself with very talented filmmakers. I found myself listening with intent, ensuring my collaborators felt empowered and their ideas were heard, and then making decisions I thought would best serve the film as a whole.

What advice do you have for prospective students looking to apply to SCA? 

Create a film that is authentically you and tell the story that you can’t stop thinking about. Take risks, be bold, and be honest