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Entries in Independent Film (13)

Wednesday
Oct282015

SCHLOCK AND AWE: THE CHRISTOPHER R MIHM INTERVIEW.

Schlock auteur Christopher R Mihm is the reigning Overlord of the ‘Mihmiverse’, a collection of films inspired by the B-movie, drive-in gems of the 1950s. The Minnesota-based maverick has been making next-to-no-budget sci-fi/horror visions since 2006, when his debut The Monster of Phantom Lake made a big splash at genre festivals. Inspired by fan response, he has produced, directed, edited and acted in a film a year ever since, including It Came From Another World (2007), Cave Women on Mars (2008), Attack of The Moon Zombies (2011) and The Giant Spider (2013). His latest, a kind of Goonies-meets-puppet-aliens thrill ride called Danny Johnson Saves The World, has its Australian premiere at the SciFi Film Festival in Sydney’s west this weekend. He spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about his films, fans and family from his home…

You’re open about the role your late father plays in inspiring you. What were his skills as a storyteller that you adhere to when crafting your films?

My father was a fan of movies in general, particularly horror and science fiction. To this day, I treasure memories of him taking my family out to the local drive-in. I’m not sure I ever thought of my father as a storyteller (though he could tell an inappropriate joke better than anyone I’ve ever met) but he did have an appreciation for good stories, regardless of their ‘packaging.’ He never seemed to judge films by the ‘quality’ of their presentation but, instead, by the effectiveness of their stories. I think learning that from him is what allows me to truly enjoy those classic films for what they are, not for what people might wish them to be. I think of it like this: “tell a good story first, everything else comes second.” If I’m telling a compelling story, the ‘cheesiness’ of my films shouldn’t negatively affect the quality of the final product.

Is the casting and crewing of The Mihm Family in your productions your way of instilling similar values in your children?

As a person who adores movies and the movie-going experience, I’m mindfully exposing my children to some of the fun movie-related experiences I had as a child, from going to the drive-in to movie marathons. I make a point to see films in a theatre, not just in the comfort of our home. Some of the casting and crewing of family has more to do with sharing my passion for making movies with my kids. Most of my children were born after my filmmaking career began so this is something that’s always been a part of their lives. They took to the movie-making process very quickly. (Pictured, above - the young cast of Danny Johnson Saves The World).

Describe the balance you strive to achieve on-set that happily melds ‘Chris the dad/husband’ and ‘Chris the director’…

Well, I don’t know that the balance of dad/husband Chris and director Chris was always effectively struck [laughs]. Working with children in general is often difficult but having that familiarity of being their father made for some very interesting moments during shooting. Then again, I could always threaten to take away privileges if my kids acted out while filming so, maybe being so closely related to the people I’m working with, and having the luxury of being “the boss”, wasn’t all bad!

What was the genesis of Danny Johnson Saves The World?

My kids have been making it clear for some time that they wanted to make a movie starring them and for them. I sincerely believe they all have real talent and, seeing as they understand the process so well, I figured it was finally time to make a movie with them. My oldest son, Elliott (who played the title character) is now a teenager and I knew if we were ever going to capture those last moments of true child-like innocence, the time was now. The story itself was built on a character Elliott played in two previous films, as a five-year-old version of Danny Johnson in Terror from Beneath the Earth and a slightly older one in the opening scenes of The Giant Spider. All of my films take place in a shared universe, so it made sense to expand an already existing character into his own self-contained adventure. (Pictured, above - Mihm directing his son Elliott, centre, and daughter Alice).

Apart from your father, who inspires your work? Who are the filmmakers that you recall most fondly?

Roger Corman for his prolificacy; Bert I. Gordon (pictured, below) for his contributions to the special effects field when creating such gems as “Earth vs. The Spider” and “The Amazing Colossal Man”; George Lucas because every kid who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s loves Star Wars, including me; Steven Spielberg for his absolute mastery of the craft and for being a great storyteller in every sense; and, Tim Burton for having a truly unique cinematic point-of-view.

There have been films that mimic the ‘Golden Era of B-movies’, like Mars Attacks! (1996) and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001), but many fail to capture the genre’s essence. Why do your films achieve that?

It’s a combination of a couple elements. First, a lack of resources forces me to do the best I can with what little I have. This mimics the ‘drive-in era’ of filmmaking, [when] filmmakers had to make things up as they went along. There was no CGI and not much that had come before to build upon. There was an innocence, because of the age in which they lived, but also because half the time they were just trying to make things work with no money - exactly like I do! Mars Attacks! is a fine movie but, with a budget that made anything possible, doesn’t have the authentic feel of those old movies. Second, I try to instil a sense of heavy seriousness into my direction. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (which is also a fine film) is a straightforward comedic spoof, poking fun at the wooden acting, low-budget effects and nonsensical plots. My scripts are serious attempts at making ‘good movies’ which are [then] presented in a very specific style. I direct actors to ignore the sometimes ridiculous nature of the situations their characters are in. I make it clear that, in the universe of these films, that man in a monster costume is a deadly creature and [my actors] should act as such. This earnest seriousness, and a palpable ‘community theatre vibe’, captures that old ‘look and feel’ so well.

Have the production techniques you employ during a shoot changed much since The Monster of Phantom Lake?

If one watched all ten films in the order they were released, it’s pretty clear that my ability, and the ability of my crew, to tell an effective story has improved. Budgets have generally stayed the same but we have expanded our reach in terms of locations and sets. However, at their core, my films retain the ‘fun factor’ of my first film. The biggest improvement has come mostly in pacing. The earlier films tend to be a touch more deliberate, like the older films which they emulate. The later ones, [notably] The Giant Spider (pictured, right) and Danny Johnson Saves The World, have picked up the pace to match modern audience expectations.

The festival love that your films receive and the fanbase that follow your films suggests what about the appeal of your films and this genre?

There are still folks out there who understand what it is I’m going for and that those old films still have a place in modern consciousness. The innocent ambience has broad appeal, especially in films that are just plain fun and aren’t necessarily challenging anyone’s preconceived notions. My films and the films they seek to emulate are often simplistic, with (pun intended, I suppose) black and white plots and character motivations. The world we live in is so caught up in the gray areas of life, people like to spend an hour or two in fantastical worlds where the good guys are good because they’re good and the bad guys are bad because they’re bad. Also, people sometimes want to enjoy films that aren’t made by hundreds of digital artists; they want movies where everything in them is ‘real,’ and though they may look very fake, they at least exist in the physical world.

When your first film wrapped, did you envision spending the next decade making a film a year? Was a reputation as America’s modern B-movie master, to the point where your films screen in Australian film festivals, the plan you had for your life?

When I finished The Monster from Phantom Lake (pictured, right), I thought that might be the end of it. I figured ten years down the road I’d still have 600 copies of the DVD sitting in my basement collecting dust. However, the first run of the film sold very well and it started me down a path which has taken me exactly where I wanted to go…into Australian film festivals [laughs]. I often brag at events that I have following in Australia, where the fans have been very good to me. Gaining a foothold in Australia can be directly attributed to Nigel Honeybone’s Schlocky Horror Picture Show. Without it, I have no idea how I would have ever had my films shown there, let alone at the Skyline Drive-in Blacktown! And I never would have met Norman Yeend, the amazing Australian artist who has created for us several stop-motion critters, including the show-stopping dinosaur seen in Danny Johnson Saves The World! Admittedly, I never imagined any of the great stuff that’s happened was going to happen. I’m grateful to be able to pursue my passion for filmmaking and introduce people to the glory of cheesy old movies!

The full catalogue of Christopher R Mihm's films can be found at his website, sainteuphoria.com .

Friday
Aug072015

BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS: THE RHIANNON BANNENBERG INTERVIEW.

Debutant director Rhiannon Bannenberg tackled her debut feature, the striking and thoughtful Ambrosia, with a bold self-belief rarely seen in first-time filmmakers. Thematically entwining loss, memory, grief and love, Bannenberg’s script follows a troubled young woman named India (Rebecca Montalti), who returns to her childhood home with family and friends to find peace; a chance meeting with an enigmatic stranger called Harriet (Natasha Velkova) changes the lives of everyone. A deeply personal, skillfully realized drama, Ambrosia puts the local industry on notice that Bannenberg is a unique talent. Hailing from the Illawarra region on the New South Wales southern coast (a key locale that her camera captures exquisitely), Bannenberg spoke to SCREEN-SPACE ahead of her film’s hometown debut…

The film exhibits a very strong European sensibility, comparable to the likes of Mia Hansen-Love; it will play very well in upscale festivals overseas. What filmmakers, artists, writers inspired your vision?

I grew up in an old house, with a family that encouraged me to value both the past and present. As I grew older, I was drawn to English literature, painting, poetry and history. I have a particular love for John Keats ‘Endymion’, John Fowles ‘The French Lieutenants Woman’, Gillian Armstrong’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’.

It is clearly a very personal film. But is it a recollection on a moment in your life or does the ‘personal’ extend to something more cathartic?

The film is in part drawn from my own experiences of chronic pain as a young adult, and also just as much a figment of my imagination. Now when I watch the film in its entirety, I can see the cathartic qualities that helped me accept and manage life with chronic pain.

The chemistry between the cast is very strong. Was there an extended rehearsal period or were they chosen from a core group of colleagues? Was there much improvisation?

I am very fortunate to have a supportive, energetic and creative group of friends – all of whom I recruited to become the cast and crew of Ambrosia. We didn’t have much rehearsal time, but we did have open discussions about the tone and style of the film and everyone was able to put their ideas forward. I knew if the cast and crew had a strong friendship, it would be reflected in the story we were telling on screen.  These friendships have lasted beyond Ambrosia and I hope to work with such a vibrant and talented group of people on another film. 

It is an exceedingly ‘beautiful’ film – it’s rich look, the beauty of all the cast members, the photogenic setting, the lush and varied music, the costuming. How does the ‘styling’ of your film, its aesthetic qualities, enhance the drama?

The visual tapestry of the film was influenced heavily by my home environment and my own desire to find and be immersed in beautiful, haunting places. I wanted the story of India and her experiences to take place in a slightly altered reality, one where there was an ambiguity of time and place. I also wanted to bring the characters to life in the very places I spent my own childhood – the beautiful Illawarra on the South Coast of NSW.

Be it painting or poetry or prose or even kite building, creativity and artistry fuels and defines every key character in your film. What does Ambrosia, your own artful creation, express about you?

In reality, I’d say I was quite pragmatic but in my imagination and creative expression, I am a complete romantic.  I’m fascinated by the idea of being connected to people and to places and I definitely have a romanticised nostalgia for the past. I am constantly driven forwards by the desire to connect to others and express human thoughts and emotions – and I think film is such an eloquent, powerful and experiential medium to express these stories beautifully.

Ambrosia will screen August 8 at the Gala Theatre in Warrawong; session and booking information can be found here. Further information about the film’s screening season can be found at Fan-Force.com

Wednesday
Jul012015

THE PLAYER: THE DAVIDSON COLE INTERVIEW.

When Davidson Cole announced his talent in 2002 with his feature debut Design, the film world took notice. The AV Club said his leading man turn had, “…Nicolas Cage-like volatility, (making) for a compelling, put-upon hero”; Variety called his direction, “…comparable to the David Lynch of Blue Velvet”. Thirteen years later, his multi-faceted talents utilised in fields such as video game design, short documentary and experimental filmmaking and fiction writing, the LA-based auteur brings audiences Hollywood, his slightly screwy, darkly-shaded, wildly engaging sophomore effort. Ahead of the international premiere of Hollywood at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, Cole spoke at length with SCREEN-SPACE about the passion it takes to stay committed to your vision, the origins of his latest narrative and the dark, funny love letter to film lore his new work represents…

You’ve a very eclectic film resume, from the documentary The 95th to Design and now Hollywood. Who are the artists and filmmakers that have inspired your creativity?

The movie that inspired me to make films was Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have no desire to ever make a movie like it, but the summer it was released, I must have seen it 20 times. I even knew the inflections of the dialogue by heart. This past year, my favorite film was Godard's Goodbye To Language. His work has always been a touchstone for me. Love Lynch, Altman and Cronenberg. I try to watch American Movie at least once a year, my favorite film about making movies. Sam Shepard's dialogue, especially how he navigates a monolog. Dogs inspire me too. Big fan of dogs.

Hollywood represents the type of adventurous but assured work audiences rarely get to see in this era of ‘palatable product.’ Was the determination to film Hollywood on your terms part of the reason it has been over a decade since Design, which Variety called, “a most auspicious narrative debut,” citing your “fascinatingly complex screenplay and bold direction”?

Following the Sundance premiere of Design, I planned on shooting Angels, this twisted, low sci-fi take on the after life; an ambitious project, tried for years to put it together, with actors attaching then moving on when we couldn't wrangle all the financing. It was frustrating. It can be a time-sink to remain too hopeful on a project getting financed at the expense of creating. The last couple years I've become more focused on what is possible with the resources at my disposal, shooting shorts or micro-budget features. I'm much happier with the prospect of shooting 3 to 4 films for next to nothing, than running around for 3 to 4 years trying to finance something for millions. That being said, I never stop trying to develop big ideas. Before we decided to make Hollywood we were tossing around this psycho-sexual nightmare titled Bathyal; insanely ambitious at the micro-budget level, but doable. After script reads and discussions with my producers Sam (Zuckerman) and Tom (Bailey) (pictured, above; on-set, with the director) and my cinematographer Dominique Martinez, Hollywood emerged as the film within reach, the one with the fiercest hold on my imagination at the time.

How did you pitch the look and decidedly offbeat narrative of Hollywood to potential investors?

I always make it clear to investors that I don't plan on playing it safe as a director but the discussion starts with the script. The narrative flourishes and visual style are rarely apparent for me at that stage. That develops, throughout the process, so I let the script and my past work be the pitch.

The heightened reality of Hollywood is brought to vivid life by some extraordinary characters.  How much of ‘Dave’, ‘Champagne’, ‘Brad Pitt’ and ‘Mary Elizabeth’ was on the page, and how much came alive in rehearsal and on-set?

I don't rehearse with my actors. I enjoy the danger of discovery on-set. I convey my own impressions of a character beforehand with a meeting or two, then rely on the actor to bring their own inner life, make their own choices, adjusting quickly on-set if need be. It seems counter-intuitive, on a micro-budget project, where time is so precious, but it works for me and keeps the cast and crew vibrant and focused on set, and when a moment really hits, is genuine, everyone knows it and that is contagious. (pictured, right; Michael Serrato as 'Brad Pitt', left, and William Belli as 'Champagne').

As important as the eccentric, larger-than-life cast is, the need for two central perfs that ground the film is even more crucial. Tell us about the creating the chemistry with Dana Melanie…

The role was a challenge for Dana, very different from anything else she had ever done. We knew going in Farrah was the toughest role to cast, to execute. My initial vision for the role changed to encompass the innocence Dana naturally brings to the screen, but then there is this strange fire and mischievous flicker that pops into her eyes when least expected. That combo is why we cast her. I was very proud of Dana. (pictured, below; Melanie as Farrah).

You dabble in some well-worn genre clichés – the hooker with the heart of gold; the Las Vegas gambler, in deep with The Mob; the flamboyant homosexual archetype. Yet the story beats, stylisation and drama feel fresh. Is Hollywood your take on classic B-movie lore?

The film is loaded with tropes and references, some more obvious than others, but all of them woven into the narrative with satirical intent. The big film biz is morbidly obsessed with trotting out the same clichés, the same narrative structures. Whenever someone mentions the "Hero's Journey", I get hit with a slight wave of nausea. Audiences are tired of it. As a framing device for the real narrative, I introduced overused tropes then push them into unexpected directions. Familiar territory quickly becomes unfamiliar, unsettling. It was fun finding opportunities to morph a trope then chisel it into our narrative.

Hollywood explores reconciling with one’s heritage. It is inherent to some of your other projects, too – your grandfather’s life and legacy in both The 95th and There is No Car, for example. Why do the ‘sins of the father’ hold such a thematic fascination for you?

While there are certain aspects of my relationship with my own dad in Hollywood, fearing the inability to avoid the failures of your bloodline is more reflective of my dad's experience with his father. Ultimately, as much as he tried to be different, in many ways he wound up making some of the same self-destructive decisions with his own family. It haunts him a bit, I'm sure. I think we all secretly dread the prospect of becoming just like a parent, no matter how healthy or toxic the relationship. The demons of a bloodline are difficult to shake, though.

The tech aspects are very slick – the production design; the cinematography. What was your ‘directorial mantra’ to the key creative crew?

Dominique (pictured, right; on-set) and I spent a lot of time crafting the shots beforehand. She has an amazing eye for composition and many of the most striking shots in the film were the result of her taking our initial ideas and adapting them to the confined space. I wanted long takes, wide shots, subtle moves. Let the action unfold within a single shot as often as possible, which proved a challenge to G & E and production design, since an entire room was in play most shots with the camera moving through the space. Given our limited resources and time, the skill and creative energy of the crew was vital to the visual style of the film.

From here on in, is your career geared towards being before the camera or behind the lens?

Acting for me is the loosest, most chaotic part of the process. I enjoy the physicality of acting and the immediacy of it, but I don't have much interest in pursuing a career as an actor. First and foremost, I consider myself a writer. My ideas always begin with character, with an exchange of dialogue. The narrative and visuals evolve from there. As a director, I base the visual beats of my scene off the characters - who currently has the power, whose point of view matters most at a particular moment - and move the lens accordingly.  Traditional coverage doesn't interest me. I rarely shoot a master shot. I almost never use them in post-production. If the opening beat of a scene warrants an extreme close-up, then we shoot that. If the next beat needs an uber wide to establish the tension of distance, we shoot that. No need to waste time shooting anything else, acquiring coverage. I love Werner Herzog's quote on coverage..."When you do open heart surgery you don't go for the appendix or toenails, you go straight for the beating heart".

Hollywood has its International Premiere at Revelation Perth International Film Festival on Saturday July 4, with further screenings to follow. Ticket and venue information can be found at the official website here.

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