Mikel Wisler (pronounced Michael Whistler) loves making movies. The Boston native has been making his own unique brand of motion pictures for some time now and I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several of them for Rogue Cinema including “Playing with Ice” and “Parallel” (for my review of “Parallel”, please go to http://www.roguecinema.com/parallel-2015-by-philip-smolen.html). Now Mikel is adding novels and full length features to his repertoire. I have always found Mikel’s short films to be riveting, original and full of perceptive observations about life so this news was really exciting. I reached out to Mikel and he graciously took time out from his schedule and answered my questions.
RC: Mikel, when did you know that you had to make movies?
Mikel: I wanted to since I was a kid. I’m not sure what age exactly, but I always loved telling stories and imagining movie ideas. But I think when I walked out of the theater after seeing “Jurassic Park” as a 12-year-old, I knew.
RC: Mikel, who were your greatest influences, both in cinema and in life?
Mikel: As far as film directors go, Terrence Malick is probably my strongest influence, followed by directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Jones, David Fincher, Alfonso Cuarón, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Peter Weir and Scott Derrickson. But there are so many more!
For cinematographers, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki, John Toll, Tak Fujimoto, and Jordan Cronenweth (specifically for his amazing work shooting “Blade Runner” and the color portions of U2’s “Rattle and Hum”, which I have been known to repeatedly watch before shooting a new project).
In life, my parents, Jim and Pat Wisler fostered a curiosity and creativity in me and allowed me so much freedom to explore the world. They also raised me as a citizen of two countries, Brazil and the US! My two older sisters, Shelly and Lori, exposed me to the feminine viewpoint (though they probably never realized this influence), which of course I’ve explored in my films.
RC: Tell me what your first cinematic experiments were like?
Mikel: I started making short films well before digital technology was a reality. I shot on mini-VHS and High8 video and edited things by hooking up the camera to a VCR (or two VCRs to each other) and having to nail in real time the timing of hitting play on one device and record on the other. I made some silly and fun projects with my sister and her college friends while I was still in high school. Later I went on to make my own projects.
My first short film of my own was based on a sci-fi short story I wrote. I shot and directed it in a single night with a group of friends. We shot on High8 video out in the woods at night. I had no concept of lighting and it was pitch black out there, so we literally lit scenes by pointing our flashlights at our copies of the script to bounce light onto whoever was on camera at the time. Surprisingly, it worked. I mean, the film is total garbage on so many levels, but, hey, it was a blast and I really stated learning so much. I went on make more projects and start getting to use iMovie to cut them. It was very much a learn-by-doing process where every project presented new challenges and was a major improvement over the previous one. I was living in Northern Indiana at the time and I just didn’t have anyone in my life with more filmmaking experience to mentor me and the Internet in those days wasn’t awash with amazing teaching tools for new filmmakers like it is today. So it was really just a process of discovery and a lot of trial and error in an effort to emulate the films that I loved!
RC: You don’t have a degree in film study, so how did you acquire the necessary skills to make movies?
Mikel: Well actually, while I didn’t get to film school, I do have a little academic training. Along with my BA in Philosophy I also have a Liberal Studies degree with concentrations in Writing, Theater, and Cinematography. So, not exactly a full-fledged degree in film studies, but while in college I did attend the Los Angeles Films Studies Center, which is a semester-long program (so not a film school in the traditional sense). There I studied filmmaking and screenwriting, had an internship in the industry and studied Hollywood culture and history under Craig Detweiler.
But there is only so much one can cram into a single semester. So otherwise, I am essentially self-taught through a lot of reading and lot of hands-on experience. I’ve worked in video production since 2005 as a shooter, editor, and producer doing all kinds of projects for a wide range of small local clients and even some major international brands. I’ve also been making projects since graduating from college in 2004 and I’m regularly hired as a cinematographer or editor for other narrative film projects. In the early days, I just jumped on every opportunity I could to be on a set and observe people with far more experience working. I’ve been on the crew for short and feature films being everything from a production assistant to assistant director.
RC: I have seen several of your movies and I am amazed at the level of characterization you are able to bring to a short film. You seem to be able to zero in on each character’s inner workings. How do you approach writing a screenplay?
Mikel: Thank you! I try to approach all of storytelling from the notion that if anyone is going to be drawn to a story I might tell, it’s gotta be because the story captures a moment that is life-changing to the characters involved. In that sense, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m writing a novel with ample room for character development or crafting a five-minute short film, the characters have to be living and breathing beings with pasts and goals.
With short film scripts, I had to learn the hard way how to effectively create the subtext and hint at what’s beneath the surface for a character in order to keep the story moving quickly. Some of my early short films were quite long. I’ve gotten better at focusing in on the essential nature of my main characters. But it was a long process of learning and refining.
For a short film concept to work—for me to feel compelled enough to take it out of my brain and put it on the page and then go make it—it has to capture a moment in a character’s life that is so high pressure or so transformative that their true nature as a person is revealed quite quickly. I also tend to focus my short films on having only one or two characters. So a short film like “Playing with Ice” is all about two characters locked in a room in a high pressure situation that leads to a level of vulnerability and self-disclosure that these two characters have never experienced before and are likely never to experience again. In that sense, it’s the story of a life-chasing moment for both. They both leave that room with their lives headed in totally new directions.
RC: Is it important to have the screenplay perfected before you shoot a frame of film?
Mikel: Oh yes. The reality is I’m a writer first. I started writing short stories and a couple of early novels (that shall remain hidden!). As a filmmaker I hate the idea of trying to “fix it in post.” As a story teller, I truly dread the idea of fixing a script when shooting or editing. If the script isn’t working for me, I’m not going to be excited enough about it to see it through the grueling work of production and editing. And to guard against my own bias, I seek out honest feedback from knowledgeable people early in the writing process. In fact, I’ve written short screenplays that I fully intended to shoot when I wrote them, but later I abandoned and never took into production because the feedback wasn’t good or I found that after a couple weeks I no longer liked the idea.
That being said, a lot of my early films were in constant revision right up to shooting. I would co-write with my long time filmmaking partner, Andrew Gilbert, and we would just keep tweaking and perfecting the script right up until the first day of shooting. That doesn’t seem to happen as much these days. I hope it’s because we’ve matured as writers, but I do think that even in the early days, all those drafts came from our focus on getting the script into the best shape possible before shooting. Having the deadline of the approaching production was an awesome motivator.
RC: You have a great eye for composition as well. How much do you storyboard your films?
Mikel: Thanks! The honest answer is, I storyboard somewhere between barely and not at all. I can’t draw for shit. But I am a dedicated and detailed shot lister. I always make a point of visiting a location with my cinematographer in advance of creating the shot list so we have a very good game plan of what the blocking and action will be and how the space works. This allows us to think about how to light a scene and how the shots should be composed and how it will all cut together. When I’m creating my shot list, I think about how the frame size and composition might most effectively tell a story. One thing I tend to do is save really tight close-ups for really emotionally vulnerable moments and limit the use of hand-held shots to moments of genuine emotional upheaval. I do love looking for the moments in the script that lend themselves to specific choices in framing a shot, such as closing off a character, or framing them with in a frame or obscuring them if it seems emotionally or subtextually fitting.
I also have had the privilege of working with some fantastic pro cinematographers like Rajah Samaroo, Bryant Naro, and Kyle Bainter who are incredibly purposeful about what exactly is and is not in frame and where it is in frame. Lately, I’ve started doing more short films with Stories by the River where I mentor new DPs on projects I’m directing. I’ll be doing this in March for a new short film called “Empathy OD.”
RC: You’ve been associated with the Stories by the River group. How did this happen?
Mikel: It’s pretty amazing because Stories by the River wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago. In 2010 my wife and I met a couple of fascinating and fun people, Kristina and Dominic Stone Kaiser. They were on the verge of launching a unique and unconventional church on the south shore of Boston. I was totally drawn in for a couple of reasons. First, I grew up with missionary parents and so this is a world I know and love and I find great meaning in engaging in a faith community. Secondly, I was also completely burned out on conventional church life within the evangelical world (a realm I now would have to say I don’t actually belong to in any practical or philosophical sense) where my being an artist and filmmaker who wanted to make R-rated “secular” films that genuinely wrestled with life’s darker aspects wasn’t always met with enthusiasm (to put it lightly). But suddenly, here were a couple of fellow artists with some rather progressive sensibilities starting a church. I was hooked!
Not long after that, we stared doing something called The River Film Forum which is a monthly event where we screen a movie and get into a discussion about how such stories help us explore meaning of life questions. We watch all kinds of movies. In fact, as I write this, I’m about to head off to this month’s Film Forum to show “The Martian.” The River Film Forum led to my pastor, Kristina, asking me about short films as a possible means to do the same kind of interactive engagement on a Sunday morning. We started using short films we could find online, but soon Kristina pitched me this idea of creating our own production company to engage in making short films that explore all kinds of ideas that might not normally come up in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. So, Stories by the River was born (and we have that name thanks to Chaz Sutherland). Kristina and I run it together and we’re currently developing our first feature film. We hope that it will eventually be an organization that can make both financially viable feature films that offer meaning of life explorations to a broader audience as well as a continued means for new filmmakers in New England to find partners in making great short films and getting hands-on experience and the kind of mentorship I would have killed for in my youth.
(NEXT MONTH: Now that Mikel has whetted your appetite about his style of filmmaking, in April he’ll fill in some details about his fabulous short films, and about his first upcoming feature. See you then!)