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Film Maker Mike Conway talks about making movies!

--Interview by Nic Brown--

What 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.

Nic-- Mike can you tell us a bit about your film company, Midnight Sun Entertainment?

A not so typical family picture with Mike on

the set of The Awakening


Midnight Sun Entertainment is a name I came up with, prior to shooting THE BLACK CRYSTAL, in 1989. It is just an "aka" or "doing business as" moniker. When I sell DVDs or sign contracts, it takes place under the Midnight Sun banner. If it sounds like an indie film studio, then cool, because that is my goal. I would like to form into something along the lines of a Cannon Films type of studio that produces outside the Hollywood system.

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, adds up and EXILE could either hurt or heal my financial situation.

A bit from Mike's newest

feature: Exile

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 ideas.

Permits and locations are another pain. Location shooting, around Las Vegas and most cities, usually requires getting a one million dollar Insurance Bond and then Workman's Comp insurance. That makes a differene on a budget of 5K. For the EXILE shoot, I tried to do things the right way, but I was turned down by my insurance company. Fortunately, people in Utah were very cool about issuing state land Encroachment permits, so we ended up going the hotel route and shooting, up there.

Because of some of the indie level hassles, I have gotten a reputation for shooting movies in my backyard! You don't need government permits for private property. TERRARIUM (aka WAR OF THE PLANETS) is the prime example of that, where an entire alien world was basically a 70' by 150' rectangle. Three of EXILE's sets were also in the backyard. 

Some people have a shed or a pool in their back yard... Mike Conway put the 70' x 150' set for Terrarium in his! Don't tell the Home Owner's Association!

(Left - Mike's yard by day during filming, Right- an alien world from Terrarium)

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,
a western,
3 spy films,
several horror (about a dozen),
several comedies (also around a dozen),
and a few industrials, including my "UNOFFICIAL" OASYS DVD Tutorial.

Mike works on a special effects shot for The Awakening using

a model and a green screen.

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.

Not the kind of head-shot most actors are hoping for....

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.

Tamra Ericson Frame as Lara in The Awakening

Good movies are usually made by people with a lot of experience. You can point to the Robert Rodriguez's shorts leading up to EL MARIACHI. The director of the short, BROKEN, has commercial experience. Great movies from first timers are rare, but that is a case of having the right crew and true artistic vision. What I'm saying, is that if you aren't getting rave reviews now, keep making movies, with an eye on improving.

The movies that get deals are either concepts that the studio is looking for (like my movie, TERRARIUM, being around at the right time, when Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS started firing up the box office), or films that have a following from fans and critics, alike.

Exposure can be hard to get, but it's harder to expose a bad film.

Nic-- Many of the independent films being made today are for “the small screen” viewing such as DVD, over the internet or for cable/satellite broadcast. When you make a film does how it will eventually be exhibited play a part in your creative process (from writing the film all the way through the finished product)?

Mike-- Format matters. If you are planning a lot of greenscreen effects, an HD cam is going to allow better color space than a Mini DV or HDV camera. Higher resolution cameras can get better landscape shots, with images that don't break up, like they do on Mini DV.

Technology-wise, this is an awesome time for the independent filmmaker. The downside is that

affordable production is available to more filmmakers and wannabe filmmakers, hence a glut of bad indies. You have to aim higher than the average bear. I pay attention to technology. When the Panasonic DVX100 came out, it became the indie rage. Of course, I picked one up, because it was the first video camera, that I saw, that used cinegamma and 24P to make video more film-like. Today, such a camera is still effective for the festivals and direct to DVD market.

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 Exile.


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