Facets Favorite Michael Smith on His New Film, ‘The Catastrophe’

Michael Glover Smith, Chicago-based independent writer-director, film studies instructor, and regular contributor to Facets Night School, is premiering his latest short film The Catastrophe this month at the Illinois International Film Festival at Chicago’s Viaduct Theatre.  Smith took a few minutes from his busy schedule to answer my questions about the film’s production.

Brittany Pyle: As the film’s website explains, the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe” provides a loose framework for your film. How do you feel the Hawthorne story lends itself to a contemporary narrative?

Michael Glover Smith: When I read the Hawthorne story, two things struck me: I thought it was very funny, which is not how most of his work is perceived, and I immediately saw a way to adapt it into a contemporary film. His story is about a traveling tobacco salesman who foils a murder plot, and it just so happened that when I was reading it I was working in a tobacco shop. I personally knew a lot of the Midwestern sales reps of the big cigar companies. They were always coming through the shop and so I thought, “These guys are the contemporary equivalents of Hawthorne’s hero.” That’s what got the gears turning initially, but if you read the story and then watch the movie, you’ll see they’re actually pretty different.

BP: Do you feel it’s more difficult to get a short film into the festival circuit as opposed to a feature-length independent film?

MGS: I think that both are difficult for different reasons. Digital cameras and digital editing have greatly democratized the filmmaking process. People are able to make movies more easily than ever before and that makes the competition stiffer. Every time I hear back from a festival they always say they’ve received a “record number of submissions.” This is especially true for shorts because everybody’s making shorts. However, it’s probably also easier to sneak a bad short through a bunch of festivals. Nobody wants to show a poor quality feature.

BP: How exactly does one go about requesting (and being granted) permission to use a Bob Dylan song in a film with a low budget?

MGS: The short version is that I know someone who knows Bob Dylan’s manager. I wrote a letter requesting the use of a specific song and mentioned that this was a low-budget independent film, and that got passed along. His manager got back to us and gave us a good deal, the exact terms of which I won’t reveal. Now I don’t know if Bob himself ever knew about it, but I’d like to think that his manager ran the concept of my movie by him; I like to picture Bob saying, “A surreal mystery about a cigar salesman? Sounds right up my alley.” I would also like to add that in the past I’ve requested songs from artists who were not nearly as famous as Bob Dylan, and most of them couldn’t be bothered to get back to me. So I have nothing but good to say about Bob Dylan.

BP: What’s the funding process like? The Internet is rife with fundraising websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo for artists and filmmakers, and there’s the more esoteric process of artist grant writing… What resources do you use? Do you ever end up paying some bills out of your own pocket?

MGS: Raising money is the most frustrating part of the filmmaking process, but it’s easier now than ever before because of what is called “crowd-sourced funding.” Obama was the first presidential candidate to really use the Internet as a fundraising tool, and a lot of people took their cues from him. All of a sudden, you didn’t need a few people to invest a lot of money; you could get a whole bunch of people to give you $10 and $25 donations instead. I raised the budget for At Last, Okemah!, my previous short, through online donations via Paypal and then we used Indiegogo for The Catastrophe. I think sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter legitimize your project in the eyes of potential donors, and they also make the process very simple. My wife and I also ended up investing heavily in both films.

BP: Do you have a crew you normally work with, or do you seek people out for each new project? What about actors?

MGS: When you work with someone and you have a good experience, it’s only natural that you want to work with them again. The process is easier when you work with people you know because you can then communicate with them in shorthand. With certain actors, you know what they are capable of doing. I know what actors like Mia Park, Duane Sharp, and Suzy Brack can bring to the table, so I don’t need to audition them. I just tell them when to show up. Of course, they’re also like good luck charms; I’m now afraid to make movies without them.

BP: When you left undergraduate school with your BA (at Columbia College), and then graduate school (at Humboldt State University), did you leap right into making films? How did you start your career, and what trials and tribulations did you face (if any)?

MGS: I went about things in an ass-backwards way. I wrote a script for a feature and tried to solicit producers on the Internet. When I had no takers, I thought I would buy a mini-DV camera and make it on my own with a skeleton crew of whoever would work for me for free. I naively assumed that people would respond to a digital feature made with no money and impoverished resources. I thought it was a punk rock film! Since then, I’ve learned where the money needs to go: the rental of high-end equipment and the hiring of experienced and highly skilled crew people to use that equipment. My advice to anyone who aspires to make features is to get good at making shorts first and then become more ambitious each time out.

BP: As someone who teaches film studies, surely you have a hefty collection of filmmakers that inspire you. Who are some big influences?

MGS: The French director Robert Bresson is my favorite of all time. He made the most perfect films I’ve ever seen. My favorite American director is John Ford. I also love Bunuel, Hitchcock, Murnau, Dreyer, Welles, Rossellini, Mizoguchi, Renoir, and many more. My favorite contemporary directors are Abbas Kiarostami from Iran and Hou Hsiao-Hsien from Taiwan. You can learn more about my interest in cinema at my film studies blog, White City Cinema. 

BP: What was your favorite aspect of making the film?

MGS: My favorite part of making any movie is the actual shooting stage. I hear some directors say that they like pre-production or post-production better, which strikes me as madness. Working on set with the actors and the crew is where it’s at. The feeling of having something turn out better than the way you imagined it is indescribable. Between “action” and “cut” is where the magic happens.

BP: Where can we see The Catastrophe?
MGS: The world premiere will be at the Illinois International Film Festival on Saturday, November 19, 2011, at 3pm. Many of the cast and crew, including me, will be present for the screening. You can learn more about the festival here
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4 thoughts on “Facets Favorite Michael Smith on His New Film, ‘The Catastrophe’

  1. This sounds terrific. I can't wait to see it. For those of you who are fans of Night School, you will remember Michael from his presentations of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, DANCE GIRL DANCE, and THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE.

  2. Thanks, guys! Our poster was created by a great artist named Mike Cooney. I told him I wanted something that looked like Daniel Clowes and this is what he came up with.<br /><br />Hope to see you at the premiere!

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