I’ve known Mike Conway for a while now, and I actually had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time at last year’s, It Came From Lake Michigan film festival. He’s an incredibly talented writer, director and musician, but he’s more than just his work. He’s also one of those people that naturally draws others too him because he’s such an incredibly nice and friendly guy. So it was my pleasure, not only to be able to meet him, but to interview him about his latest film, which he himself co-stars in, The Awakening.
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It’s been a while since I last interviewed you, so let’s start off by having you tell everyone a little about yourself.
I’m an indie filmmaker who lives in Las Vegas. I’ve made around 50 shorts and 3 features. My most widely distributed film is WAR OF THE PLANETS (aka TERRARIUM).
Your producer Kelly Johnston brought the script for The Awakening to you, but did you ever actually meet up with or talk to the film’s writer, Erik Manion, or was it more of a, "Here’s the script, make the film," kind of a thing?
The latter. Erik lives on the opposite coast, in Florida. Kelly was our go between guy, since I didn’t know Erik.
Kelly bought a copy of TERRARIUM, from Borders, and then he found my website on the DVD case. He emailed me and we got together a few times. At the 2004 Las Vegas IndieMeet (a filmmaker gathering that I host, once a year), Kelly asked if I would do THE AWAKENING. Four months later, we were shooting it.
You wrote your previous film Terrarium yourself, but this particular story was written by Erik Manion. Did you feel constricted in any way by having to work with someone else’s ideas, or were you free to modify the script to sort of shape it into your own style of film making?
For any director to succeed with someone else’s script, I think they need to get immersed in the material and put their stamp on it. Kelly and Erik were very liberal with letting me do that. Erik was writing it in a story, chapter style. Kelly and I added a few characters and military scenes, then I wrote the eventual screenplay. Doing so, married me to the material.
Tell us about the locations in the film. I know there are some interesting stories about how the different shots were set up in various locations.
While it’s about as guerrilla as you can get, we covered a lot of ground. We shot at multiple desert locations, including scenic Red Rock Canyon, pine covered Mount Charleston, a reservoir and many other spots. Interiors were shot at a Mini-Storage, a Warehouse, an office complex and a bar. We also turned my garage into several locations, including the lab, a radiation room, an autopsy room, a double for the Mini-Storage (for the bloody finale), and a green screen truck driving scene was also shot in there.
Tell me about the Airsoft guys. They played a huge part in this movie. How did you hook up with them and what all did they contribute to the film?
I have to credit Kelly and his military background for that. He went to a military bar and started talking to people. He eventually hooked up with a couple of Airsoft weekend warriors, who introduced us to their group. A lot of them are former vets, so Kelly and them hit it right off. It was really an honor to be working with these guys.
Since they had their own weapons and tactical gear, we only had to buy marine and black op uniforms. There usually wasn’t any crew, so the Airsoft guys also jumped in on some of those duties. One of them, CJ Hyatt became a regular PA and camera guy, for us.
There were LOTS of cloning effects used in this film, making it look like there were a lot more people than there really were. How time consuming was it to create those scenes and were there any specific difficulties in shooting for those kinds of shots?
Most of this fell on Kelly. Fortunately, he works for himself, so he was able to put in many more hours, than your average effects person. Once I saw what he could do, I started pushing his limits. He was wary about doing a shot where Lara gets hit with a cue stick. I knew that Kelly could move around mask handles, in After Effects, so I told him she was going to get hit in a single shot – no cutaways. The trick with that one was keyframing the handles on both sides of her body. Her mask was on the left side of the shot, yet it had to have 2 sides to it, so we could see the cue stick breaking on both sides of her.
Other shots were easier to do. Forget moving shots, I kept most of the effects shots static and we just split the clones onto the left or right sides of the frame, keeping a safe zone in the middle of the frame. We only had 6 guys, but Lara fights 12 of them, in one scene. Every shot was done twice – once, with the 6 guys on the left side, then again, with the same 6 guys on the right side of the frame. As long as the lighting doesn’t change, you don’t even need a greenscreen. You just shoot it twice (or 3 times, for more guys!), then blend the 2 shots together, feathering the middle of the frame, so it looks seamless.
The hard part is blocking the scene, because there is only one Lara. She has to fight all 12 guys. Once it’s all thought out, you shoot it and line up the dual actions, later. We must have done about 20 different scenes, like this!
I have to note that the movie was so cheap, that we only had one labcoat, at first. We did a scene with the doctor and his assistant. They both had to be in a lab coat, but we only had one! We ended up cloning the scene, shooting me wearing the coat, first, then shooting Greg Parker wearing the coat. When you watch that part, we each have a coat. Nobody knows it’s the same coat!
There’s a part in the movie where Lara frips over a van. Who’s van was that and what happened to it after the stunt?
That van belonged to my friend, Scott Aldridge, who also plays the driver. It wasn’t running, so he let us tip it. Then, we used a towstrap and uprighted the van. It was finally given to charity.
You had your kids and your dogs around the set while shooting various scenes. How did that work out for you? Any amusing stories to tell about that?
While shooting so many scenes near the house is convenient, you pay the price with kids and a dog. The dog would start barking, during a shot. One time he walked in front of the green screen, when I was carrying Lara, during the base explosion.
I like the kids to see how a movie is made and that we aren’t committing real acts of violence. I want them to know what make-believe is. But, they occasionally forget what "action" means and start talking or actually walk into the shot! They are learning and they will be my future crew.
You had some particular problems shooting in the desert didn’t you?
Mainly high winds. We were stupid and actually shot a cliff scene, around November 30th. Well, it was fricken cold. We all huddled in my little motor home, between takes. We started shooting in September, so the scene called for us wearing T shirts!! That was tough. There is a closeup shot of the 3 of us on the cliff. If you look closely, you can see the frozen nose drip on one of us!
Have you had any major equipment changes between Terrarium and The Awakening? New cameras, etc…?
Yes, TERRARIUM was shot with a Canon Scoopic, 16mm camera. THE AWAKENING was shot on Mini DV, with the Panasonic DVX100. I bought a light kit, with soft boxes, the green screen, and 4 microphones. This was my first video feature, so I overlit it out of fear for how video usually looks. Next time, I will be much more subtle! It was also nice to have sync sound, on THE AWAKENING. That saved a lot of time.
How do you feel you’ve grown as a film maker between your last film and this one? What new skills or techniques did you aquire that will help you out when you do your next project?
Each feature is like its own film school. However, all 3 of my features have been a different format (Super 8mm, 16mm and Mini DV), so there is a lot to learn about the format itself. The next feature will be shot on High Def, but I think the Mini DV experience will translate well to that.
As far as new skills, I would say that the knowledge cloning and composite effects are huge assets, especially for the action/horror/sci-fi that I like to do. Unlike cartoony CGI, compositing allows you to layer real life elements. The result can be powerful.
I’ve also decided to put my foot down on short-changing myself. THE AWAKENING is an action movie, with 43 cast members, many locations and only a $5,000 budget. That meant that we couldn’t hire crew and we could only pay the actors for the 3 biggest days. Same with TERRARIUM. Well, never again. From now on, I’m hiring enough help to get things done, right. The cast will be paid to be there. I feel that I can be so much better, if I allow enough resources to be put into play.
You co-starred in this film, although originally you weren’t supposed to. How did that come about and how do you feel about your performance in the film?
I wanted to cast my acting friend, Jake Bass, in the lead. Kelly thought that I would make a better, more vulnerable David. Again, when you’re dealing with volunteer cast, reliability becomes a crap shoot. From a practical standpoint, I would always be there and I would do a good job. I love to act. However, it is so much to take on. After all, I’m also the one setting up the camera, lights and mic.
I like my performance in the movie, but I’m making a point to remain behind the camera, for the next one. To really focus, I need to be on one side. With the proper help, I will act, again, in the future.
What’s the one thing you’d do differently with The Awakening if you had the chance to do it over? Also, was there anything specific in the film that impressed you with how well it turned out?
I thought the effects ruled! The action scenes are very good and the movie is a damn fun watch. I’m happy with a lot of the off-beat performances in it. If I could do something differently, it would be to allow for a bigger budget, so that we could shoot it in 4 weeks, as opposed to 43 days, spread out from September to May! That one to two day, per week shooting is hard, because it breaks momentum. Working around people’s schedules (especially my own) is tough. I would wait until we had the budget to allow us the proper resources.
The next person who approaches me about making another 5K budget action movie for them can jump in a lake. 🙂
You do the music for your films, and you’ve got an impressive number of synthesizers at your disposal. You just got a new one though that will basically replace all of them. Tell us about that and how it’s going to make things better and / or easier for you when it comes time to write the scores for your films.
That’s an interesting question. I have so much gear, that I have longed for the day of working with a single, powerful platform. You can do a lot with a computer, but I like reliable, dedicated hardware. My latest synth is the Korg OASYS. It led the way on THE AWAKENING score. It is changing my work flow, by having what I need under one hood. In the past, I would MIDI together 14 different synths/keyboards to make a score. Why so many? I do a lot of layers (multiple strings, brass, guitars) and each unit has only a couple of effects processors and a small amount of polyphony. Put 14 together and you have some serious firepower, as well as different synth technologies (FM, Physical modeling, Virtual Analogue, Wave Sequencing, Vector, Sampling, etc.)
The problem with 14 different units is that you have to configure each one into their own multimodes, which allow for all the sounds to combine in a song. The OASYS is one synth with several different technologies under one hood. Remember the old days when a synth could only play a single note? This baby has 172 note polyphony and 16 FX processors, which allow me to do some nice configurations on a single piece of gear. Plus it has a Hard Disk Recorder, dynamic mixing (automate the levels, pans, etc.) and a ton of audio routing possibilities. You don’t get the latency and low performance issues like you do on a desk top computer.
I know you’re working on a new script now. How’s that coming along, and when would you like to start shooting it? And even though it’s in the writing process right now, maybe you could tell us a little bit about what the basic story is.
This is still under wraps. Shooting starts in March, using the HD format. It is a full blown sci-fi movie. Conceptually, it has some things in common with TERRARIUM. However, it will be a different ride. The pace, the effects, the makeup (areas where TERRARIUM suffered) will all have special emphasis. It will be quite an adventure.
My prediction is that this will be a breakout project – far above the last efforts. I really like this story and I’m getting some good help, this time. The lead actors have been cast and they are very good. Should be ready in Fall, 2007.
Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap this up?
If there is something I want to get across, that is I’m a filmmaker who learns his lessons. Trust me, the best is yet to come. Thanks, for the opportunity of this interview!