An Interview with Michael McCallum – By Cary Conley

A couple of months ago, I was lucky enough to review two features from director Michael McCallum. As the founder of Rebel Pictures, McCallum is not only an extremely talented writer/director/actor, but he’s also, as I soon discovered, an all-around good guy. In this interview, McCallum talks about his very funny comedy, Handlebar, as well as his dramatic tour-de-force, Fairview St. in addition to getting us up to speed on his soon-to-be-released third feature.

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Cary: Michael, tell us a little about yourself.  How did you get into the filmmaking business?

Michael: Well, Cary, I originally wanted to act since I was a child, but I had a terribly excruciating middle/high school experience. So once that was over with I enrolled at the local community college and started taking some acting classes. I then went back and forth between some filmmaking classes as well, because I wanted to have a better understanding of what a director goes through. After I made a few student films I was off making my own short films outside of school and I began writing my first feature, Fairview St.

Cary: What are some films and directors you count as influences on your life and work?

Michael: Elia Kazan is a definite huge influence on me (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfrot, East of Eden, America America, Babydoll, etc.), Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Cassavetes, David Fincher, Jules Dassin, etc.

Cary: You’ve released a handful of film shorts as well as two features and you are in post on your third feature which will be released soon through your own production company, Rebel Pictures.  Tell us about how Rebel Pictures was established.

Michael: Rebel PIctures was established in ’99. I was making student shorts at the time and needed a company name for the credits. I didn’t think too long about the choice. The "Rebel" speaks for itself. Everyone from Jesus to James Dean and anyone in between. People that go against the grain to do what they love and believe in. The "Pictures" came from how movies used to be referenced as pictures instead of just movies. It’s a nod to the nostalgic.

Cary: Speaking of production, you are a one-man production company yourself, having written or co-written, directed, produced, edited and starred in both Fairview St. and Handlebar.  What part of the filmmaking process do you enjoy the most, and why?

Michael: I love every aspect of it. I truly do. There’s something so magical about the idea stage. When the ideas are just coming together. There’s a charge there. There’s also an incredible energy on set and working with actors and seeing these moments come to life. I also love to adlib and improvise, and seeing moments occur that weren’t planned is watching miracles happen in front of your eyes. In the editing room, the dungeon as I like to call it, there are possibilities truly realized when putting certain moments with certain pieces of music or silences that just fascinates me. It is also very magical. I love each stage for different reasons. The only part of it I don’t like is scraping the money together to get them made. That and the constant drain of the promotional aspect.

Cary: Your first feature–Fairview St.– was a serious, adult drama while your second picture, Handlebar, is a very silly and funny comedy.  Your upcoming feature, Lucky, is billed as a "dramedy."  Obviously you have a wide range of tastes.  Is there any one genre you prefer over another?

Michael: I don’t have one specific genre that I like to do. I can definitely see going back to noir over and over again. But I’d also like to try my hand at many different genres as well. Horror/suspense, western and even a musical short would be a challenge and something I’d like to tackle when the piece is right. A.E. Griffin, (who is a very close friend and a talented writer/director that I collaborate a lot with) and myself like to just tell the stories that we like to tell. The genre only comes into play after we’ve come up with the idea.

Cary: As I mentioned before, Fairview St. is a very serious drama about how the negative influences in one man’s life brings him down.  Talk a little about how you came up with the idea behind this picture.

Michael: I wanted my first feature film to be a specific genre picture. I love noir and the movies that had a darker edge to them from the 40′-50’s. I wanted to tell a story where wherever the protagonist went, fate was there to trip him up, which is a much-used formula to noir. I wanted to see the main character, James, struggle and show that even when you give your all and try to do the right thing, it doesn’t mean everything will work out. I get asked a lot if there’s anything in the film that’s autobiographical, and there isn’t. There are some similarities with certain circumstances with some of the characters and some of the actors, but that’s it. It only gave me a certain edge to understanding some of the points of views of the characters. I also wanted to shoot in black and white without a doubt. A. E. Griffin, who was the director of photography on the picture, worked masterfully with me to get the right look for Fairview St.

Cary: You give an absolutely haunting portrayal as James Winton in Fairview St. and follow that up with an almost slapstick role in Handlebar.  Is it difficult for you to both direct and star in your own films?

Michael: I feel I can do both. I’m comfortable doing both. My brain can do this split where I can focus on the technical aspects of the picture and also be completely in the moment. It’s pretty rare and I thank God for that ability. Also, the ability of patience from myself and the cast/crew is incredible. I communicate very well with them and make sure that we’re all on the same page. My next film, that A. E. Griffin and myself are writing, Buffalo, I’m not in at all. Only directing/producing/writing/co-editing. My father, William C. McCallum, will be the lead in the drama.

Cary: In both features you act opposite your real-life father.  In Fairview St. your actual father also plays father to your character, James Winton.  Discuss your off-screen and on-screen dynamic with your father.  Is it difficult for you to act along with him?

Michael: It really isn’t. He’s not only my father, but my best friend. We’ve been through so much together and I really feel over the years we’ve only become closer. He was nervous going into Fairview St. and rightly so. I had been talking about it for some time and had a lot on the line for myself emotionally. Everyone that was a part of that film felt that. But once we started filming he was fine. He’s also the only actor I’ve ever worked with that can make me break character. (I did in Handlebar twice and I never break character). He’s fantastic and can do a heavy dramatic scene and then turn around and be hilarious. It’s amazing. He’s extremely natural.

Cary: Speaking of your father, I couldn’t help but notice in your two feature films that you work with the same people.  Do you have an "ensemble," either cast or crew with whom you like to work?"

Michael: It changes from film to film. It all depends on who is right for each role and also what the project is calling for. I’m thankful to know and surround myself with extremely talented and dynamic performers. There are people that I feel are so versatile that they can play many different types of roles.

If you want to call some of them an "ensemble", that list might look something like this: Jerrod Root, Christine Therrian, Cody Masalkoski, David M. Foster, Shane Hagedorn, Jeffry Wilson and of course William C. McCallum. Shane Hagedorn and William C. McCallum both gave strong powerful dramatic performances in the award-winning "Fairview St." (which just won it’s first international award for BEST FEATURE FILM OF 2010 at The Stepping Stone International Film Festival in India.) and also turned around and gave comedic performances in "Handlebar". They really show their range when you watch the two films back-to-back. I could work with my father, William C. McCallum, on every single project. We’re aiming to shoot "Buffalo", my fourth feature film, sometime in the late winter of next year. It’s a drama with a man making a road trip to a funeral. Sort of his last hurrah. I don’t want to give too much away about the story. It will kill the experience.

As for crew it comes down to who does the job and who does it well. I’ve been blessed to have met and worked with the most talented people in the state: A.E. Griffin, Jonathan Worful, Marianne J. Bacon, Stuart Poltrock (Sound Post) and Richard L. Barnes II. If I could I’d have them on every single film, big and small. A lot of those collaborators are frequent because we work well together. We’re able to compliment each other’s talents and abilities and we still have a great time doing it. We take care of each other. The work is more important than anything, except the people involved.

Cary: Handlebar was shot in five days and Fairview St. was also shot extremely quickly.  How do you manage to get such high production value and quality performances while shooting so quickly?  Do you prefer to shoot quickly or is it a budgetary decision?

Michael: I like shooting in a short amount of time. I think it adds to the energy of the set and the actors. There isn’t a lot of time to sit around and talk about what could, would, should work. We have to come in with a plan and then be flexible enough to know when it’s not working and when to try something else. It keeps everyone on their toes and I’m blessed to have such talented people around me that are willing to jump and do the work. Money and time always play a part in how long we have to shoot. We all, currently, work day jobs so the time that we sacrifice is important to all of us. But I know if we would have had more time to shoot both Fairview St. & Handlebar, there would have been something lost.

Cary: Even before our country’s economy took a downturn in 2006, Michigan was in financial trouble.  How have you managed to raise money for your projects in such a poor economic climate?

Michael: Money is always an issue. We hold fundraisers locally to raise money for different aspects of the picture. It gives us the chance to raise some funds to finish the work and also creates an incredible buzz locally for the work before it comes out. We’re also trying to work out some ways to raise money as well. It takes a lot of energy, tenacity, modesty and creativity to put those events together. Marianne J. Bacon, my production supervisor, is fantastic with helping these events go smoothly.

Cary: Lastly, what one piece of advice would you give any potential filmmakers about the movie business?

Michael: Just to never give up. Be confident enough to make mistakes, just don’t keep making the same ones. And don’t compromise the integrity of the piece for anything. Money, fame and friends can come and go. The work is cement and it’s not going anywhere.