Film Maker Mike Conway talks about making movies!
--Interview by Nic Brown--
happens in Vegas doesn't stay there long if it's a film by Mike
Conway. Mike has been making independent films for over 20
years. In that time he's created over 30 short films and is
currently working on his fourth feature length film. From his
experience, Mike knows about independent filmmaking from concept
to completion and knows all about the challenges facing
filmmakers today. I was lucky enough to have the chance to
discuss some of these challenges with Mike as he completes work
on his newest film project: Exile. A not so typical family picture
with Mike on the set of The Awakening
A not so typical family picture with Mike on
the set of The Awakening
Nic-- You’ve made three feature length films and are working on your fourth. What is the biggest challenge for you in making a feature film?
Mike-- Money and time. If you don't have one, you better have the other! Money eliminates most obstacles. The difference between THE AWAKENING (low budget) and EXILE (many times that budget) was several months of saved time. On THE AWAKENING, it took us 43 days to shoot, spread out over an 8 month period (Sept. - May). EXILE was a straight 22 day shoot! What a difference. Paying the actors meant that they were excited and dedicated, everyday. With THE AWAKENING, it was hard to nail down the actor's schedules. However,......money adds up and EXILE could either hurt or heal my financial situation.
This brings up the subject of investors
or self-financing. EXILE was originally an investor project,
until the investors got worried that my story was character
based, and would require decent acting to carry it. Duh! Anyway,
they insisted on simplifying things with a more traditional body
count story. We parted ways, so my wife and I financed EXILE,
ourselves. When people start making rules about how much
exploitation and other "saleable" elements that conflict with
story, .....well, my attitude is "screw the investors!" If you
are really lucky and can find someone who believes in you and
the script, that's the ideal. I found a lot of that in Kelly
Johnston, who financed the initial expenses for THE AWAKENING.
It wasn't a project I was looking for, but he supported my
Nic-- Mike, your films such as Terrarium, The Awakening, and your newest film Exile all fall into the category of science fiction. Do you think it is more difficult doing science fiction than some of the other genres that are popular with independent filmmakers such as horror or drama?
Mike-- Absolutely. The number one question that I hate - "Are you ever going to do something, besides sci-fi?" If you look at the past 40 movies I've done (most of them shorts), you will see that I've made:
a spiritual drama,
3 spy films,
several horror (about a dozen),
several comedies (also around a dozen),
and a few industrials, including my "UNOFFICIAL" OASYS DVD Tutorial.
When I was making shorts, people asked me if I was going to do something, besides horror, so if you do two or three of anything in a row, people will ask. But, you know what? I really like sci-fi. You don't see indies doing much of it, because sets, costumes, weapons, makeup and visual effects are costly, if you're not real creative. It is the toughest genre for indies to take on. Drama and horror can be so potentially minimalistic - some blood, a few actors and a cafe, for example.
Horror can sell, because it has the possible advantage of a high concept idea and suspense or shock value through cheaply fabricated gimmicks or scenes. Put some dark makeup under your actors’ eyes and you have a zombie movie. There's a reason that there are so many of those.
As for drama, it can be the easiest to produce - a house and some actors and you are potentially all set, production-wise. But, it is the hardest to sell, If you don't have top notch performances and a situation that blows the audience away, you can probably forget about a sale......unless you have name talent. The best chance of getting a deal, is by having a recognizable performer in your cast.
Sci-fi can cash in on the benefits that horror enjoys, with the exception of a film's uniqueness. My movie, EXILE, is going to be different than the 1,000 zombie flicks that are out there. Not only that, the budget requirements lend itself to a look that has some production value - aside from props, makeup, FX - scenes are fogged; there are tracking shots, volcanic landscapes, etc. Production value is huge, especially when buyers descend upon something like the American Film Market. They watch movies and have to sift through hundreds of movies. They are competing against fellow distributors and many times the cheaper deal comes from a faster offer. Much to the chagrin of writers, these buyers don't have time to look at story. They look at the concept artwork and, if interested, will watch the movie in fast forward mode. If the production value (lighting, camera work, pretty actors) look professional, they will often make their offer.
Japan had 3 distributors at the fest and one of them watched my movie, TERRARIUM, at 32 times speed! He made his offer, right there, before the other 2 distributors had a chance to look. I have talked to other filmmakers, like RECON 2020's Christian Viel, and they also confirm this. The movies that may seem interesting, but in less demand, will often get a request for a screener. Then the distributor will possibly make an offer, later.
I believe in making something as dramatic as I can, but drama should be more than people talking. I've seen countless indie movies that do that. The last thing I want is for my movie to look like a school play. Audiences want a cinematic experience, so I try to employ many different elements. Makeup, graphics, costumes, pyrotechnics, music, camera moves...and good acting are elements I enjoy seeing in a movie. Heck, the camera work in THE EVIL DEAD 2 is enough to get me excited! Give me some real conflict, done with pizzaz! Admittedly, my first two features have plenty of boring moments. You live and learn. I want even a slow scene to draw in the audience.
Nic-- Once you have a film made, how do you get it out there for the public to see?
Mike-- Nowadays, I'm finding out about the power of YouTube, forums and dedicated websites. If you post on a forum, people will check out your website, just because it's in your signature, when you post. Aside from that, you need to get your movie reviewed from as many places as possible. Festival awards can be a big deal, as they can be listed on your artwork, website, etc. Awards can "legitimize" your movie to the wary audience, looking for something to rent or buy.
Your job will be 100 times easier, if you actually make a good movie. Filmmakers are often so close to their work, that they can even fool themselves into thinking a stinker is a good movie. Better known sites and festivals aren't going to give awards to crap. They have a reputation to uphold.
Obviously, we're in a High Def trend, where more homes and business avenues are getting 1080i TVs and projectors. George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez shot several recent High Def movies and set the tone. Filmmakers want to have that kind of resolution. They have the means to produce 1080 quality with HD and HDV cams. The latter uses much more compression, but still achieves big screen sharpness. People using these cams can project on big screens, HDTV, Blu-Ray, DVD, etc.
EXILE is my first HD video movie. TERRARIUM was 16mm, which also looks decent, when transferred to High Def. I'm confident with the resolution of HD or Super 16mm being good enough for big screen, let alone any smaller format.
It doesn't affect my writing as much as my planning. If I'm shooting film, I'm going to shoot a minimal amount of footage, because it is so costly. However, film bias still exists with buyers, so it is a better sales bet. I shot EXILE, using the P2 storage format. Though it was video, I ended up shooting less footage than my 16mm, TERRARIUM. The reason was that transfer time was cutting into the day hours of the 3 week shoot. As I didn't not have a dedicated crewmember, for transferring, I limited my angles and extra takes.
THE AWAKENING was Mini DV tape, so I shot whatever I wanted to, on that project. Still, I'm really loving my HD camera and the versatility of that format to play almost anywhere.
The newest rage may possibly be the RED camera, which can shoot 2K and 4K resolution, making it ideal for the biggest screens. Will it look any better on a 1080 HDTV, than the current HD cameras? I don't think it is necessary, but we'll have to see if it takes off and becomes the premiere video format.
Regardless of format, you should write the best script that you can.
A shuttle flies through space in
A shuttle flies through space in Exile.