I recently chatted to director Michael Mongillo about his award winning independent feature film 'The Wind'. Read on for Michael's very honest and insightful thoughts on the genre, education and critics.
When did you first become interested in the medium of film?
My story is like most people my age. I became interested in filmmaking after seeing "Star Wars" in the theater, when I was a kid in 1977. I am not a fan of where Lucas took it after the first movie, but I must admit that's where it started for me.
You studied at various institutes for a number of years. Did you feel that your training and education provided you with a lot of knowledge that would prove invaluable once you actually set out to make a movie?
Yes and no. On the "yes" side: My education was not like most people I know who went to film school. It was more of an art school philosophy than a film school curriculum. I graduated from the Hartford Art School where the concentration was in conceptual and video art. At school I was mentored by some brilliant professors and I was motivated by many equally smart peers, all of whom demanded that you be responsible for every choice you make in your work. It all boils down to form and content and being answerable to the choices you make with each. The range and depth of the exploration of narrative, aesthetics, and thematics can become self-defeating until you understand that level of "responsibility" is not as pretentious or pedantic as some artists (be they painters, writers, filmmakers, whatever) allow it to become. If, for example, your reason for shooting something a certain way is simply because, "It looks cool," then that's okay. You'd just better know that's your reason because you may have to defend it. Defend it to someone you're working with, like your cinematographer, maybe a critic down the road, whoever. But it's not about defending your choices; it's about knowing why you're doing what you're doing. That's what makes a good filmmaker - a responsible one, anyway. Instincts and talent are certainly a factor but there's no learning that stuff. On the "no" side: I didn't learn anything about the business side of actually getting a movie made from my formal education. But from the few seminars I've been to since on financing and producing, you can't really grasp any of it until you do it. It's like almost anything: you can learn about it from a book or a class but it's all just theory until you're actually doing it.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I did an experimental feature called "White Car" when I was in college. Through my activity in student government, a board of trustees' member took an interest in my work and got "White Car" to one of his friends in the movie industry, an executive producer named David Stern who did "Mighty Ducks" and "Iron Will" for Disney, among other things. From that I had a few original projects in development with David over the years but, long story short, nothing panned out. It wasn't anybody's fault; that's just how it goes sometimes. That's what led me to seek financing on my own for "The Wind" and to produce it myself. Once I had the film done, David was very gracious and gave me his input on it and then put me in touch with the right people to get the film seen and ultimately distributed. For this he was given a much-deserved Executive Producer credit on "The Wind." So, I guess you could say my start in the industry goes back to the connections I made in college.
You are also interested in art & music. Do you feel that it is worthwhile to study other aspects of the creative and cultural industries; so that you have a far greater knowledge and understanding that can be applied to other areas such as film?
Absolutely. Everything informs everything else, especially today. It has become the Global Community, as predicted. From art to literature to science to religion to history to politics to pop culture, etc., obviously the more you learn the better you can relate to people and communicate your ideas. It's not knowledge as a weapon; I hate people who use knowledge that way. You know, beating you over the head with all the facts they've accumulated and memorized. That's not what it's about. It's about trying to achieve a greater understanding of, well, everything and everyone.
Where did the idea for 'The Wind' originate?
The idea came from a dream my awesome co-writer, James Charbonneau, had. He describes the dream as being in Clair's head, seeing through her eyes, witnessing the events and scenarios that we ended up dramatizing in "The Wind." He says he was a completely lucid, separate entity in her mind but he was attuned to all her thoughts and desires. What made it scary for Jim was that, through this, he truly understood Clair's motivations and self-justifications and how everything she did made sense to her.
Director Michael lines up a shot.
How long did the entire process from the initial idea to the release take?
From idea to release was over five years, which is about average for a true independent.
Did the process go smoothly?
No, not really. It was a struggle every step of the way. Making the film was the easiest part. It's the before and after that takes forever. Raising money for a movie isn't easy when you don't have a track record and then, once you finally get your film made, there's the marketing and promotion. Applying to festivals, screenings for distributors, going to markets, all in the hopes of getting your film into release. Honestly, after you make your movie the rest is so draining that you end up wondering if you're a filmmaker or a salesman. The journey is not without its rewards and joys, but I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't rather just make the films and let a studio or distributor worry about the rest. But if I can do it, there's hope for anybody who's willing to give it a try. My only advice for first time filmmakers is that you'd better love you material because you'll be living with your movie for a very long time.
Are you pleased with the final result?
Definitely. All things considered, it couldn't be any better. Sure there are things I'd like to go back and do differently but considering the limited time, money and resources we had available, I'm very pleased and proud of the film we made.
Were you surprised at all of the nominations and awards the film received?
Of course. I made up a little "joke" in college that says it all: What's a filmmaker's daily affirmation? I'm great ... right? It's not that I lack confidence but you see a lot of crap in the festival and market circuit and you cringe, thinking, these people honestly believe they're doing good work. And not to be unkind but a lot of it just sucks, even what you see in the more prestigious festivals. And so that makes you wonder, well, I think I made a good movie, too, but what if I'm just as wrong as they are? So, yeah, the good press and the awards and nominations are a form of validation.
Did the mis-marketing of the film that has been discussed on the Internet by viewers annoy you?
It's all a matter of expectations and I don't think any of us can escape that. If you sit down and you think you're going to be watching a bloody horror movie and you get "The Wind," it's only natural that you'll be disappointed. But there's this cruelty that comes with the anonymity of fan web reviews that is really unfortunate. People write things that are usually nothing more than taste-driven, knee-jerk, half-thoughts and brainless complaints without putting their name to and that's just gutless and irresponsible. If you have an opinion, that's fine, just have the guts to put your name to it.
Are you annoyed at the success of movies such as 'Cabin Fever,' which from what I gather appears to attempt to do what you have done in 'The Wind' but went gory in order to appeal to youngsters?
No, I'm not annoyed with the success of movies like "Cabin Fever" because it was a true independent film that proved, yet again, true independent films can earn big for distributors. If distributors acquired more true independents like "Cabin Fever" they'd definitely see their bottom line increase. It's simple economics. Let's use "Cabin Fever" as the example. It cost 1.5 million to make and as of November 2003 it grossed well over 21 million, and that's just in the US. So, if a true independent movie costs in the neighborhood of a million to make a distributor can still spend ten times that on prints and advertising and be virtually guaranteed a profit. So, again, I don't understand why these distributors, many which were built on acquiring true independent films, no longer take that "risk." And, let's be clear, I understand their reasons, which all comes down to what they think Americans want in their movies (stars, sex, and violence); I just don't think their reasoning is very sound. People like good movies. Period. So, does it annoy me that you really need the blood and gore and tits and ass for a distributor to deem your movie marketable? Yes, that is a little annoying but, then again, that is the nature of not just the genre, but also the marketplace. A film like "The Wind" is, apparently, too difficult for most marketing departments to figure out, which was a complaint I heard more than once when shopping it.
I have noticed that many viewers have said that the film is not actually a horror film. Would you care to disagree?
Yes, I disagree. "The Wind" is a horror film. It's what I call social horror. It's in the vein of Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock," Philip Ridley's "The Reflecting Skin," Todd Haynes' "Safe," or even Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut." To me, those are horror films. Horror can be creepy and eerie instead of gory and scary. I usually find that much more disturbing than blood and guts. But if you like "The Wind," you can classify it however you want as long as you tell your friends to go buy it.
You are a self-confessed horror fan. What are some of your favourite horror movies?
"Psycho," "Night of the Living Dead," "The Shining," "The Exorcist," "Dressed to Kill," "Jaws," "The Thing," "The Dead Zone," "Poltergeist," the "Evil Dead", "Storm of the Century," "Session 9," "The Others," "Frailty," "Signs," and the movies I mentioned earlier. I am a big fan of the horror "revival," too. I loved "Final Destination" 1 and 2, "Resident Evil," "Wrong Turn," and "28 Days Later."
Love comes in many forms in 'The Wind'.
And your favourite directors?
I have to admit my taste in directors is pretty predictable, if not pedestrian: Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Ralph Bakshi, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Peter Weir, Sam Raimi, the Coen Brothers, John Carpenter, Peter Jackson, Kathryn Bigelow, Danny Boyle, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola are among my favorite directors. Perhaps not as predictable are the directors I admire who aren't as celebrated because they've done only a few films or haven't had a big hit yet. I think Rob Bowman, who directed a ton of "X Files" episodes, the movie, and "Reign of Fire," is brilliant. Visually he is unmatched and his take on well-trodden material is always fun and original. A director from the UK named Julian Gilbey, who I met in the festival circuit, is so talented it's scary. He did a low-budget thriller called "Reckoning Day" that I fond as inspiring as "Evil Dead" or "Chungking Express." After I saw "Reckoning Day" it made me want to grab a windup Bolex, run out and just start shooting. It was amazing to see what Julian and his team did with so little money. I can't wait to see what Julian does with a bigger budget. I think he and his team are making a movie right now called "The Film Maker" that's got a pretty decent budget. I'm sure it'll kick ass. I could probably think of a few more but, for the purposes of this interview, I guess the last person on my "Directors to Watch" list ends with Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of "Samurai Jack." I am a huge animation fan and I say there is no one today who's doing better work in that field than Tartakovsky. People who look down on animation just don't understand it so I won't make this my platform to defend it but if you are one of those people watch "Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie" and I challenge you tell me that Tartakovsky isn't one of greatest directors working today.
What are your plans for the future and when can we expect to see the movie across here in the UK?
I'm in pre-production on a science fiction, dramatic comedy titled, "Welcome to Earth." The Hollywood pitch is "Dazed and Confused" meets "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." If all goes as planned, I'll be shooting it in August. I have plenty of horror scripts sitting on my shelf that I wrote on my own or with James Charbonneau and I hope I'll get to make them all someday. "Welcome to Earth" just made the most sense to pursue right now with the money we have to shoot it and for the kind of story I want to share with the world at this moment in history. As for "The Wind" in the UK, that's up to my sales agent, Artist View Entertainment. I think now that "The Wind" has sold well on DVD in the USA some UK distributor is bound to pick it up. Maybe you and your readers can start a petition for me?
"Thanks ever so much for taking part in this interview Michael.
And we wish you the best of luck in the future."
You can visit the official web site for Michael's 'The Wind' right here: www.thewindmovie.com