Interviewed by Rohan Bhattacharya
CULT- We at Cult Critic had had the chance of watching and reviewing your film ‘SKAT’ not so long ago. I’ve noticed that the narrative structure of both ‘BLANK FUGITIVE’ and ‘SKAT’ go hand in hand. Do these movies tell the same story but in two different ways?
Michael – Fair question, but I really don’t think so. These characters were vastly different but their individual paths lead them down to the same final road to some degree but eventually SKAT was saved by himself, which was real growth because he really had a hatred for his self being. Ethan in BF was actually a chill, happy-go-lucky sort suffering from a disorder that was polarizing. His conscious did him in and to lose trust in yourself is quite scary. No doubt both were very flawed characters.
CULT- ‘SKAT’ dealt with the story of an established painter, while ‘BLANK FUGITIVE’ showcases the struggles of a lost musician unable to find a job. You had worked as a walk-on wrestler yourself for quite some time; do you see yourself in the protagonist?
Michael – Absolutely I see myself in both protagonists. Wrestling is/was an amateur sport, very pure and you against the world in every sense. It was a great discipline builder for myself and set me up early for a no-quit attitude, if you will, and I still have that drive to push myself in so many ways.
CULT- It seems you’ve given ‘BLANK FUGITIVE’ a VHS/Video Camera look, with a rather small aspect ratio. What was your motive behind this style of presentation?
Michael – Hah, frugality as a filmmaker is the biggest factor in this. This was my first film shot on an Iphone, very gorilla and without a crew. I had a real learning experience during this and after as well – still more to learn. That was the 11 version, and I plan to upgrade to the 14 very, very soon! I’m very excited about this. I had really experimented with a lot of lenses up until we shot but once the actors were on set, it was hard to find the time. I boxed the picture in, tightened it to save its resolution. A VHS/Video look is rather cool, I think though. I plan to shoot my next project on an Iphone in black and white, as a 1970-era story.
CULT- ‘SKAT’ was inspired from a book that had influenced you quite deeply, did you draw inspiration from a literary text for ‘BLANK FUGITIVE’ as well? If not a literary text, then was it a different art-form that inspired you?
Michael – No, I didn’t have the advantage of a Sara Sepulcri book this time but this one hit me on the side of the head out of nowhere and I was ready to try and shoot something on a mobile device. It really had the feel of a dark comedy but damn, it became pretty serious in the end. No regrets, though. Really my first short film under a $5K budget, most going to the cast. I wrote around the budget really. Free locations and I really wanted to have fun with it, keep it quirky by all intentions. The yellow truck finding it’s way at night in the Tehachapi Desert was actually an 8-inch shelf model I pulled with a fishing line in my front yard after I got home from work. Took me three nights to get it right. I love the turns around the large desert rocks. I really want people to ask, hey is this guy trying to fool us with this little truck? I thought the little truck was adorable and no insurance needed, haha. It was a blast! I shot the interior inside a friend’s classic pickup that hasn’t started or moved from its spot in two years. The car lot is merely a tiny parking spot behind an apartment complex. I drove out to the desert by myself and shot everything on a tripod or hand held. If it was a one-minute shot, I’d have to run back to the car, hold it in front of the air conditioner for 5 minutes because the desert would overheat the phone, then run back for another take. Good times.
CULT- How was it like to direct, shoot, edit, and act all at the same time? Please share your workflow, such that our young readers who shoot on a budget can make more films in the future?
Michael – Very little directing needed. The actors came very prepared. Actors self-tape a lot these days, so as a flow, it was a matter of setting up the shot, adjusting any lighting and taking a moment to rid myself of any exterior concerns and jumping in as the actor. Editing, which was an end of the day thing for me, became very fun. I used the VideoLeap app for that. Very inexpensive, month-to-month commitment, user-friendly and if I can do it, anyone can! It’s a rather easy task. Please know that I use wonderful actors in all my films, I trust them and they are very helpful to me as well. So surround yourself with such. John Haegele and Timo Gates… we were in a tiny space, luckily none of us fell. We shot the bar scene in my living room, believe it or not, and we moved those heavy wood panels to adjust to the height requirements needed, moved the lights around, very fluid. We really didn’t waste time and kept the shooting day moving.
CULT- Between all the processes that go into pre-production, production, and post production, which is your favorite and least favorite part in filmmaking?
Michael – Favorite part is preproduction when offering and getting a commitment from the actors I feel are perfect for the part. I usually write the part for them and tell them later. I have them read the script and see if they buy into the story. It feels so good. Worst part is, okay, what am I going to do with all these props I bought or perhaps built. But the ultimate joy, and I never want to lose sense of this, is the acting itself and working with everyone.
CULT- From being a walk-on wrestler in college, you had then decided to attend the American Academy of Dramatic arts, and then enter the world of cinema. What inspired this transition?
Michael – I love great stories, love film. It was bound to take me over. Being in athletics as a kid or maybe thru some college, at least, is a gift. I was the only one in my family to really do that. It really can be a springboard for all people, I think.
CULT- Do you think working with a crew of technical professionals limits your creativity? Why did you choose to not hire people for other duties and solely concentrate on your role as the director?
Michael – Limit, oh no, would not think that at all! I just wanted to try it and see how the whole process would work out. I’ll always want to have a terrific DP in my corner and have been blessed by this. Worked with two of them twice and hope to do so in the future. And the rest of the crew as well. People have been making mobile phone films for quite awhile now and before that it was with $200 video cameras. I spoke with a a cinematographer who had worked 30 years on features and he said the new phone cameras are brilliant, multi-tasking pieces of equipment and he endorses them. Steven Soderbergh is the perfect testament to all of this, I think.
CULT- In your long running career in the film-industry, you have directed several short films. Is there a chance that we would get to see a feature-film from you soon?
Michael – That would be my dream but short films are special. I’ve made a 1 minute to a 36 minute version and I love the challenge to tell a story in a least amount of time. I will always have a true passion for this format.
CULT- Many filmmakers believe that it is harder to make a short than a feature length film? Do you agree with them? As a storyteller yourself, what do you think is the key narrative difference between these two forms of cinema?
Michael – No, I think, it really starts with the writing. The less is more approach, maybe make that single shot represent more than just being a piece of the scenery. There’s really no room for throw away, cute little lines that in the end mean nothing. Everything is tighter. What’s the character’s attachment to props? Are they really needed? Those boots on the floor, what do they represent? I look back on most everything I’ve done and I still want to edit it more.
CULT- BLANK FUGITIVE’ has undoubtedly shown several interesting experimental elements in its narrative, cinematography, and editing. Do you wish to continue with this style of filmmaking in the future?
Michael – Really had fun with this one but little time to execute all that I wanted to. But I never want any film to look the same from here on out. It’s too easy to fall into the same look or scenario and there’s so much that can take us away from the mundane.
CULT-What is your message to all the young filmmakers who want to make a film, but are either restrained by socio-economic challenges? Do you have any words of encouragement for them?
Michael – Share! Share the cost of a phone camera, the monthly fees and the responsibilities, and allow yourself and your friends to fail. Start with 1-minute films and be the director one day, an extra the next. Build your trust with all of them. Make a pact with all of them to have equal participation. Always write with a budget in mind, don’t be married to big, find the simple, little things in life that tell a beautiful story. I think one of the best feature films I’ve seen in the last five years was Chloe’ Zhao’s “The Rider”… simple, pure, less is more to the tenth degree. Nothing elaborate, take away all the union-related costs and that film is dirt cheap brilliant.
PS-Thank you for the recognition your festival provided our film, and thank you for this interview and the amazing questions!