The following interviews originally appeared on the indiegogo.com site for The Catastrophe when we were still trying to raise the budget of the movie. All of the interviews were conducted by me except for the interview of me, which was conducted by Jillian McKeown – MGS
Michael Glover Smith (Director)
JM: What inspired you to write this script and where do we see Mike in the plot?
MGS: I was initially inspired by a very funny Nathaniel Hawthorne story about a traveling tobacco salesman who foils a murder plot. I used to work in a tobacco shop and I knew real life cigar sales reps who struck me as being the contemporary equivalents of Hawthorne’s protagonist. But I cross-pollinated that with some influences from Iranian cinema and literature and the result ended up being quite different from the original idea. As far as where I am in it, all of my films are rooted in my personal beliefs even though they’re not “autobiographical” in the literal sense. I think of this film as being a cautionary fable about the dangers of not doing the things one should be doing in life.
JM: The last movie that you directed, At Last, Okemah!, got into more than 10 film festivals, which seems like a tall order to fill for this next project. Do you think that this project will surpass the previous film and if yes, in what ways?
MGS: We’ve had a lot of success with Okemah, which premiered less than two years ago and is still playing the festival circuit. We’ve won a few awards and I’ve gotten to travel around the country with it and meet some great people. The goal for The Catastrophe is to surpass that by getting into bigger festivals and not just the small-to-medium sized ones that Okemah has played. Also, we’re aiming for more international festivals this time around and not just those located in the States. Finally, I hope The Catastrophe surpasses Okemah on an artistic level; it’s less of a genre piece and more personal in nature – although that won’t necessarily translate into it being more successful.
JM: I’ve received several e-mails from you asking for donations, and I feel like I get e-mail requests for donations all the time from other groups/projects. Why should people give money to your project? In other words, why are getting donations so important to you?
MGS: The donations are absolutely crucial because they are our ONLY source of funding for this movie. Independent filmmaking is a very expensive proposition (even in the digital age) and all of the money we raise is going towards making this film look and sound as good as possible; quite simply, the more money we raise the better the movie is going to be. As far as why people should give, they should donate if they feel it’s important to support the arts, in this case independent film production. I try and support my artist friends when they’re working on their own projects and I believe that what goes around comes around.
JM: Now let’s talk about what everyone really wants to know more about—the nude scene. What made you want to show female nudity in a short film? Additionally, by showing male nudity, are you just trying to throw heterosexual women and gay men a proverbial bone?
MGS: I don’t understand the weird stigma about nudity in American movies. Sex is a fact of life, one of the few things that virtually everyone has in common, and I think it should therefore play a correspondingly important role in cinema. But there’s actually much less of it now than in, say, the 1980s even though movies have become increasingly violent during the same time frame. In regards to your “proverbial bone”, I think it’s only fair that in a bedroom scene between a man and a woman, if you’re going to show one you should also show the other.
JM: Last question: what does being a filmmaker mean to you?
MGS: I think of it as a calling – like the priesthood.
Justin Cameron (Cinematographer)
MGS: Tell me about your background and how you got into cinematography?
JC: I was born and raised in Wisconsin where filmmaking isn’t exactly the sort of work you find yourself getting into. I played football since I was a boy and worked selling Christmas trees, on a farm, a golf course and did landscaping. During high school I became good friends with the teacher in charge of media. It was there I began fooling around on Hi-8 tape and MiniDV. I made the choice to study radio/tv/film my freshman year in college and shot my first short film and never looked back. I studied experimental film my second year of college as well as film genre studies and then transferred to Columbia. I spent my remaining years of college there and worked on countless projects shooting on 16mm, 35mm and digital formats.
MGS: Who are your influences in terms of cinematographers?
JC: The beautiful thing about cinema is how it affects people in different ways and I’ve been obsessed with this idea since I was a boy. As I grew up I began observing light and how it affected the world around me but more importantly how it was a storytelling device in cinema. I tried to figure out whose job it was to light or create the mood of a movie and once I discovered it was the cinematographer I knew that’s what I had to do. During college I discovered the work of Roger Deakins, Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond, Conrad Hall, Michael Ballhaus, Gregg Toland, Ellen Kuras and many others. I started watching films by cinematographer instead of the typical American director fixation. Obviously I have many films that are close to my heart but I certainly don’t have and could never pick a favorite film. I watch specific films once a year or once every fall, that sort of thing. I watch films from around the world as well. I’d say I’m influenced by feeling – the way a film makes me feel or what it leaves me with in regards to the characters, story arc and most definitely the look of the film. I find myself particularly interested in stories of passion, redemption, love and the MacGuffin. I try to soak up anything I can because there is always something to learn from every movie.
MGS: You have experience shooting both feature/short length films. What are the biggest differences between them and which do you prefer?
JC: Well, this is a tough question. Both feature length and short length films have pros and cons. I am currently working on a feature film and I’d have to say the sense of family that you develop with the crew, be it production, camera, G&E, is unlike anything you can experience on a short. You spend 12 to 14 hours a day with these people in incredible situations and you form an unspoken bond, a friendship. In regards to the photography, you have more time to allow the style to develop on set. You obviously go into a picture with a shot list and a plan but you never can predict the “happy accidents” that always affect the photography. Simply put, on a feature film you have more time with the camera, the lights, the crew to experiment and create. On the flip side, short films are truly special in that everyone on that set wants to be there and has an agenda. We shoot short films to better ourselves within our craft and to tell stories plain and simple. In my experience, short films create possibilities and relationships with new people and new equipment. I can’t say I prefer one or the other. I prefer to be on set.
MGS: What appealed to you about the script for The Catastrophe?
JC: After I first spoke with you, I would have to say that you appealed to me the most. Don’t get me wrong. The script is incredible but your vision of the characters and how you wanted to photograph them is what appealed to me the most. After our first meeting to discuss the photography, I felt we were on the same page from day one. From a paper standpoint, I’d say the most appealing aspect is the room for camera movement and the stylized lighting needed to create the world these incredible characters live in.
Peyton Myrick (Actor – Dominicus)
MGS: You studied acting at two conservatories, The North Carolina School of the Arts and DePaul’s Theater School, both of which follow the teachings of Viola Spolin. How would you describe her technique and how has this informed your approach to acting?
PM: Well, what is interesting to me (in retrospect) is how my two Spolin teachers approached her work so differently. Bob Moyer (NCSA) was a direct disciple of Spolin, and so I think he was much more devout in terms of keeping to the spirit of her work, which centers around playing games to learn acting for the stage. His primary emphasis was on using the structure of the game itself to teach a corresponding lesson, such as the principle of “give and take.” It was more of a Zen like approach to acting, that is, doing the thing, focusing on that, and learning the technique or idea indirectly though the actual playing of the game, kind of like The Karate Kid, I reckon. It was a very fun and liberating way to approach acting. On the other hand, my next teacher at DePaul was very specific in his interpretation of Spolin’s ideas, but not the spirit, which I felt held a certain degree of irony. It was quite rigid, with a heavy emphasis on “space objects,” which I often found frustrating, especially coming on the heels of Moyer’s wonderful and light-hearted approach. But at the end of the day, I think Spolin was just saying to us, “Focus on the moment, pay attention to the other person, and for God’s sake, have some fun with it.”
MGS: What attracted you to the script of The Catastrophe?
PM: Aside from the fact that you wrote it, there was a wonderful resonance I felt with it personally, as at the time I too was going through circumstances similar to Dom. You know, the whole selling your soul for a buck thing, versus following your heart, which is one of the primary themes of the movie, and something most people can also relate to. Also, there is a seen in a gas station bathroom that just jumped out at me. It isn’t heavily significant to the plot necessarily, but I could see it so clearly in my mind’s eye that it really hooked me in a big way. It is the same scene that I suggested to you would make an interesting short film too, which is interesting…
MGS: How would you describe Dominicus Pike and what are the challenges of playing this character?
PM: At the risk of sounding boring, I think he is just an average guy, trying to do the best he can, but he is a “good” guy, clearly. However, compromise is the key for him – how much is he willing to compromise in order to achieve his objective? It is his ability to compromise that defines his character and the story, as he is always having to compromise something of value as he makes his way down the sometimes treacherous path laid before him. So the challenge is to show that honestly- to make it dramatic, not melodramatic.
MGS: In addition to being an actor, you’re also a visual artist. Tell me about the paintings you’ve created specifically for our fundraising campaign.
PM: Well, there is an interesting correlation here as well between Dom and I. These paintings come from a dark place in my heart and soul. The last few years have been pretty tough for me, and that is definitely reflected in these paintings. There is a lot of frustration that was unleashed in this series, and I think it is the same frustration that Dom feels as he is on the road, or in his hotel room alone, wondering if it is worth it – if he is on the right path, or if he missed a turn somewhere along the way. If nothing else, I think the energy that was unleashed is powerful, and so they possess a genuine, potent vibrancy.
MGS: Are things ever as bad as they really are?
PM: No, Mikey – as you and I both know full well, things are never as bad as they really are. Thanks for the questions! We’ll have to do this again sometime.
Marla Seidell (Actress – Carlie)
MGS: Marla, you lead what looks like an exciting, globetrotting life. Tell me a little about your background and what brought you to where you are today.
MARLA: Thanks to my mom ushering me into the world of community theatre, I started acting at age 5. I played a penguin in Mr. Popper’s Penguins! Throughout adolescence I continued performing in local theatre, and I was very active in my high school theatre department. Memorable experiences include playing Ermengarde in The Matchmaker, and directing a one-act play. Freshman year of college, I attended Evergreen State College, where I got my first taste of experimental theatre. I studied mask theatre and wrote and performed in a one-woman show based on the concept of the “American Mask”—addressing how pop culture informs behavior. The next year, I transferred to Hofstra University and played the role of Mother in Endgame. Shortly thereafter, due to being inspired by a particular professor, I became engrossed in history and writing, which led to landing a scholarship to study European history and culture at the University of Amsterdam. My love affair with Amsterdam followed, which lasted several years. My return to acting occurs within the framework of indie film, due to my huge love for the genre. Here in Chicago, I played my first (supporting) role in the indie feature, The Interrogation, and the rest (acting in over 10 films) followed.
MGS: How has your varied background (including your travels and Master’s Degree in European Studies) informed your approach to acting?
MARLA: I have been a Method actor for years, due to many rich life experiences. Big loves and big losses, being surrounded by other cultures and languages and customs, and the huge challenges of adapting and then returning home to my native country and readjusting. Due to leaving behind other lives, and also leaving people who were like family behind, I have a vulnerability and deep emotional reservoir I draw on in my acting. My Master’s Degree in European Studies involved the disciplines of languages, culture, film, and art history. I also spent a good chunk of time in Italy, studying Italian and art (and love!). Through my studies and experiences, I came into contact with other ways of thinking and understanding that informs the characters I create in my acting. In terms of my mentality, I’m a Euro-American hybrid, with an 80-year-old soul and 21-year-old’s enthusiasm, which allows for flexibility.
MGS: What appealed to you about the script for The Catastrophe?
MARLA: I love dark comedy because it’s realistic and often sad, yet wickedly funny at the same time. I’m a huge fan of Six Feet Under for this reason. Carlie is a character so many women can relate to, and when reading the script, I immediately connected with her. She’s the kind of character I’ve always wanted to play: edgy and independent, sarcastic and jaded in a humorous way. She’s been through hell in her relationships, but she’s a survivor, and refuses to compromise in order to maintain the status quo. I can definitely identify with her strength and highly strung emotions.
MGS: Some actresses are intimidated at the prospect of doing a nude scene. Why wasn’t this a problem for you?
MARLA: Perhaps this is very Euro of me, but I don’t feel nudity is something to be ashamed of. It’s interesting, you see more nudity in American films than in European films, yet most Europeans are so blasé about nudity. And, as I learned from studying Meisner at the Black Box Acting Studio, fearlessness is the key to good acting. As an actor, if you are being stretched out of your comfort zone, and you can run with it, you are growing and doing your job well.
MGS: In addition to acting, you are also an accomplished journalist. What plans do you have for the future as far as each of your careers is concerned?
MARLA: Lately I have been doing more entertainment reporting, which I enjoyed immensely. I covered Charlie Sheen’s Torpedo of Truth Show and Oprah’s final show for the New York Post. I see my writing pursuits heading in the direction of entertainment. I’m also writing my first screenplay, which involves some of my experiences in Amsterdam. This is a huge challenge—to channel my life into art. I see myself continuing to write and act, and continuing to grow, in both my careers and as a human being.
Mouzam Makkar (Actress – Forough)
MGS: Mouzam, you’re an ex-investment banker. How the hell did you make the leap from doing that to a acting?
MM: Haha, it took a trip halfway around the world to convince myself! I started acting in junior high, did it all through high school, and loved every second of it. However, when it came time to pick my major in college, I decided to pursue my other interests and graduated with a degree in Finance. I really enjoyed investment banking too – I worked with some brilliant people and it was an incredibly demanding and challenging field, which made it all the more exciting – but something was missing. I decided to switch to private equity but not before taking a solo, soul-searching trip to Tanzania to figure out what would really make me happy. The trip was amazing – I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, camped out in the Serengeti and had some intriguing fireside discussions with folks I met along the way – and I came home with the realization that life was too short to not do something I loved every day. While I pursued my full-time job in private equity, I also reengaged the world of acting. The more I did, the more people I met and along with it came more work. All of a sudden I found myself saying no to opportunities because of my full-time job. I wanted to continue growing as an actor and that required commitment. I left private equity to pursue acting full time two years ago. I haven’t looked back since!
MGS: What appealed to you about the script for The Catastrophe?
MM: I love a suspenseful script and The Catastrophe keeps you guessing. The audience has to figure out what’s real and not real, and what all the characters represent to each other. The character of Forough was especially fascinating to me. She only appears in a dream sequence so she’s a very mysterious figure in the movie but the words she speaks are hauntingly honest and revealing. There is a sense of calm and clarity within her that all the other characters in the movie are yearning for, and I found that captivating.
MGS: I was blown away by the amount of research you did prior to your audition. Are you always that prepared?
MM: Sometimes I just can’t shake the investment banker in me! The amount of research depends on the role, but preparation is always important to me. Research is vital in understanding the world the character lives in, and the status quo that the character accepts as the truth. There is always more research if the character exists in a world or situation that I am not intimately familiar with, but I always prepare to make sure the character is a fully formed human being with wants, dreams and desires.
MGS: You have extensive experience with both film and theatre. What do you see as the differences between acting for these mediums and do you have a preference for one over the other?
MM: Film acting demands a fundamentally different type of performance than stage acting. Even within theater, the performance can vary depending on the venue – a proscenium setting vs. a small black box theater. Beyond the obvious technical differences, such as volume (unlike film, in theater you have to project so the guy in the very last row can hear you, even after the air conditioner kicks in), one of the biggest differences is subtlety – the smallest amount of movement is captured in film and can be used to convey a range of emotions. The fact that movies are shot non-sequentially with time gaps require the actor to thoroughly understand the character and his/her emotional and mental arc throughout the piece.
I enjoy and am challenged by both forms and I wouldn’t be fulfilled as an artist without both. In theater, you perform the entire piece each night, from beginning to end with no second takes, so you truly live and breathe the character. The ability to connect with and feed off a live audience is exhilarating. In film, there is so much that happens after the scenes are shot – editing, sound, music – that are vital to telling the story so the final unveiling of the movie is always surprising and exciting. The ability to create a tangible piece of art that can be preserved forever is selfishly gratifying.
MGS: I know you know the lyrics to every Metallica song. What’s your favorite?
MM: Ohhh, tough question! Seriously, I think it’s impossible to choose. Hmmm, the obvious choices are also some of the best: Master of Puppets, One, Welcome Home (Sanitarium), Seek and Destroy….I better stop before I list all of their songs! I’ll just leave you with the one that I’ve been listening to a lot this summer – Battery.
Jillian McKeown (Casting Director / Craft Services)
MGS: How did you land the job of “craft services”?
JM: I actually volunteered when you were talking about how much work you have to do for this film.
MGS: What sort of experience have you had that qualifies you for craft services?
JM: Well, I was born a woman, and we’re inherently wired to know the fine arts of food craft. By the way, have you checked out my blog Exploring Feminisms?
MGS: Yes, I subscribe to it. Would you say you take a feminist approach to cooking?
JM: Yes, I make sure that no man is expecting me to cook for him. And I watch Daughters of the Dust while doing it.
MGS: All of our contributors want to know how their money is being spent. What can you tell them about how you’ll be feeding the cast and crew?
JM: Food and drink from restaurants and catering are extremely expensive, especially when your budget is so limited. With the money that the director allots for food, I will spend 100% of the budget on food and drink. I think that the best way to do this is to buy ingredients that I can stretch over more than one meal and food that can feed many people. For example, Trader Joe’s has a pound of pasta for .99 cents, and I can feed a large amount of people by making pasta salad. Also, buying a loaf of bread and making sandwiches is a good way to provide everyone lunch while keeping costs low. Also, instead of buying disposable cups, I can find cheap reusable water bottles so that we keep the waste low, which is good for the environment, and again, this will keep costs low by not wasting mass amounts of plastic cups.
MGS: What can you tell me about the importance of nutrition on a film set?
JM: I’m glad that you asked that, Mike Smith. I don’t believe that carbohydrates are good for every single meal, and every movie set that I’ve worked on is packed with nothing but chips, cookies, doughnuts and other sugary snacks. After shooting is done, I feel nothing but eater’s remorse and my body doesn’t feel so good. For this shoot, I am going to include healthy snacks, such as nuts, dried fruits (with no sugar added) and homemade granola. I am also a strict vegetarian (as are you, I hear) so all of the meals that I make will be mostly vegetarian. Further, before the shooting begins, I will contact all the cast and crew to see if anyone has any dietary restrictions.
MGS: You’re working on this movie for free. How can I ever repay you?
JM: With love. Love and subscriptions to my blog.