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       Film-411 Interview Section

[Interviews Main] [Archived Interviews]

The Reality of Michael Howard

By: Nicolas Monahan


I contacted Michael Howard a bit after seeing the premiere of his debut film, “Reality of Life” (Official site).   I try and see the upcoming films around Colorado and the word of mouth was a bit higher on this film than others I’ve come across.  Michael had already started establishing a name for himself among filmmakers and audiences with some of his short films that screened at local festivals.  Upon watching the film, it was clear that this young man did a lot with a little.  On practically no budget, he made a touching film about friendships and relationships that revolve around a secret that throws everything into a cluster.  But even the secret ends up being secondary to the real heart of the film.  “Reality of Life” focuses so much on the characters and dialogue, and does it so well, that the budget doesn’t even matter.  Though even with a small budget, the film is visually striking and Michael and his cinematographer, Justin Bull, create some wonderful images throughout that make the film look like it was made for much more.

            The Q&A session after his premiere showed an intelligent, energetic young man opening himself up to hundreds of audience members about anything asked of him.  I was eager to meet him personally and get to know more.

            Rather than make me travel all the way to Colorado Springs for the interview, he kindly agreed to meet me a bit closer to my residence and we got together in Denver.  He arrived early and I was still setting up my recorder and getting my notes together.  “You’re lucky, I hate to drive long distances.” he joked as he walked in and introduced himself.  Although getting here was only an hour and a half drive for him, he says “anything is really too much, I guess.  I’d rather be at the destination doing something than just be in route.”  Wearing a blue snowboarding shirt and tan baggy pants, he looked more like High School skater than a 24-year-old who had just premiered his first feature film and recently finished work on yet another professional cinematography job. 

            Michael has a unique personality and it’s easy to talk to him. He's down to Earth and his humor shines through immediately and it’s easy to see why people are so happy to work with this young man.  Besides having some powerful work under his belt that others want to be a part of, he’s simply a joy to have around.

            Growing up mainly in Europe, Colorado, and Montana, Michael has seen quite a bit.  After graduating High School in Great Falls, Montana, he moved to Alaska where he attended school, studied Medicine, played amateur soccer, competed in semi-pro snowboarding, and worked for the Air Force.  A few years later, after accomplishing himself in those areas, he decided to settle into filmmaking.  He says, “I’d always loved movies but it was around that time that I started to truly appreciate them.  When I was little, I watched “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and thought, ‘this is the best ever.’  I wasn’t even aware of the technicalities of filmmaking.  I had no idea what went into a movie.  But one day I started noticing the visuals in different ways.  I started reading up on the process of filmmaking and was floored.  I looked at films in an entirely different way and I haven’t stopped since.  It was so incredible and I instantly knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Nicolas: So you quit Medicine to make films?

Michael: Well, that was one reason I stopped pursuing it as a career.  I have so many interests and it was either give everything up for Medicine or give Medicine up for everything else.  Medicine didn’t have a chance in the long run.

So was that the time that you first started writing?

No, I had written little stories and such when I was young and especially in High School.  I had appreciated character and dialogue before anything else in film so I started with that. I read and reviewed screenplays for a company named American Zoetrope and I had written my first feature length screenplay around the time. I’d really started noticing film more and just after that is when I first started studying filmmaking.

You made this feature before doing anything else, didn’t you?

Yeah, I did it totally backwards.  By the time I’d started pre-production for my film, I’d only done a bit of camerawork for various things.  And I was a script-supervisor for a feature film that ended just as my actual shooting began.  So “Reality of Life” was basically the first time I’d really done anything outside of researching and studying.  Most people start with smaller things and work their way up.  Because of this, some people thought that jumping in and making a feature was kinda foolish.

You documented the learning process on your site.  You had a journal you’d update throughout your shoot.

Yeah, I was hoping it would be more informative than it turned out to be but a lot of people have commented on how helpful it was so I’m glad I did it.  I basically wanted to write something for those who were just starting or thinking about starting in the career of filmmaking.  A “learn from my mistakes” type of thing, I guess, where people could see what was going on and get an idea of the process. It may at least be an interesting read for people who like that behind-the-scenes stuff. I may update it with post-production material as well if anything comes about.  Updates now will basically be about future screenings.  Oh, and I plan to put a soundtrack listing up so people can seek out the bands that were used.

I don’t know if you could hear the audible response from your place on the stage, but when the question of the soundtrack came up at the premiere, there was quite a bit of positive whispering at that point.

Yeah, I could hear some of the response which was great.  At the very beginning of pre-production, I tried making a list of all of the songs by bigger bands I wanted to use but most of them never answered us and the ones that did wanted too much money, of course.  After that didn’t work out, I started focusing on smaller, unknown bands.  I spent countless hours listening to bands on mp3.com trying to find music that fit the film properly.  Most of it didn’t fit the mood of the film but for every fifty bands or songs that didn’t work, one would.  The bands wanted to make names for themselves and so that was the best bet for finding great, free music.  Plus, the music was practically unknown so people aren’t taken out of the moment in the film because the same song was playing on their radio when they broke up with their significant other or something.  So there weren’t prior feelings already attached to the music, it was all fresh and new.  I’d get in touch with the bands, explain the “low budget” situation, and go from there.  They help me by giving music for the film and I hopefully help them by opening their work up to a larger audience.  If anything, they get to say their music was used in a feature film and hopefully that helps them out a little. I'm very pleased with the music in the film. 

How have comparisons come with other films or filmmakers?  Have you even run into that yet?

Yeah, one review I got for “Reality” said I didn’t achieve the indy film quality that Kevin Smith did nor did my actors have the intensity of Ben Affleck or Jason Lee.  Well, we did our best with what we had. I think people at times, have, um, troubles looking at a film within its limits...at its level.  That’s like watching “Star Wars” and saying “It’s a good movie but the graphics are pretty shitty.”  They have to look at it when it was made and/or what the film had to work with.  That goes for all films no matter what the content. Most of our already-tiny budget went to equipment for shooting and editing.  We tried to put as much production value into it with the visuals that we could and, you know, everything else we just went for it.  Besides the cinematographer, no other crewmember had previous experience and most of the cast was inexperienced. Finding people in a non-film town that can work for free for 20 days is kinda limiting. But this film was made to show what we could do with nothing and hopefully that would lead to something bigger. Regardless of everything, I’m proud of the work everyone did to make it happen as well as the end result of the film itself.

So talk a bit about your film on your level.

Well, I’ve talked about most everything I think in the journals and such before.  The sound was the main issue.  There are definitely sound issues throughout the film and some of them just could not be fixed in post.  I own a great microphone and sometimes it was too good and picked up a lot of noise that we didn’t quite hear.  Our sound guy was new too and so the levels change between certain scenes and others may have extra noise in it.  But overall, the sound mix is pretty good and you can still hear and understand everything that’s being said so it’s not a total bust, just a distraction at times.  The amount of public locations we got to choose from were limited and even when we got places, we couldn’t always control the circumstances.  People would make noise or get in the frame and there was really nothing we could do about it except wait and start the shot over.  Sometimes we’d get to use a place when it was closed though so that made things a lot easier.  The timing we had to do these scenes was limited as well so I never really got around to placing extras or anything like that.  So some of the public places we shot at are really empty though you can hear the sounds of others around that we added in post-production.  You just never actually see these other people because they don’t exist and we framed the shots so it wasn’t apparent.  Well, most of the time.

What about your film will turn people off?

My acting. (laughs). You trying to get people not to watch this film? Um, well, that’s a hard question to answer because it really depends on the person watching the film.  Some people love dialogue, others want action.  Some love drama, others hate it.  It varies so much.  Regarding my film, the pacing and such may be a downfall for some.  Especially since people are growing more accustomed to fast paced editing and movement.  “Reality” is very carefully paced to focus on the characters and the plot, so it takes time for everything to work out, especially in the beginning.  The film is definitely dialogue driven and the entire movie deals with a small amount of characters so I’m sure that not everyone is going to be happy about that.  Getting into a bit more detail from before, lots of scenes take place in the characters rooms or homes so that can seem boring but I think it adds to the mood and reality.  Again, we did use a lot of restaurants and other public places so it helps add to the variation.  Part of the early plot involves quite a few phone scenes in the rooms so that can get repetitive as well.  I just hope the acting, dialogue, and camerawork helps keep everything flowing.  It really depends on the person and what they’re looking for.  Even for what I was going for, it’s a flawed film, yeah.  I just want all of the good things about my film to overpower any mistakes and the low budget.  I think it has some powerful moments and it’s been very well received and so I'm happy.  To maybe spin this toward the positive (laughs), the film deals with a relationship and a friendship and so it's fairly universal. I think everyone has been in a situation where a friendship falls apart in some way or a relationship is challenging so I hope that draws them in too.

What filmmakers have inspired you?

Well, a ton have on different levels.  Um, Kubrick for sure, he's amazing and I certainly strive to make films on his level.  Kevin Smith in the area of character and dialogue.  I saw “Chasing Amy” shortly after finishing the “Reality of Life” script back in 1998 or so and our writing styles were really similar for that film.  Though he’s much better at it than I am.  Definitely Cameron Crowe, he’s wonderful.  My friend Vincent Pereira was an inspiration from the start.  We talked about film all the time and he was a great source of information and still is.  His debut film was great and he’ll definitely be going places.  Others I look up to include Fincher, Spielberg, Malick, um, Wes Anderson.  Oh, definitely Paul Thomas Anderson.  So many. Oh, and John toll in terms of visuals by far.

How do you handle the camera aspects on your films?

I hired a cinematographer for “Reality” and did some camera operation myself but other than that, I always do the DP job and actual operation for my work.  When I’m acting onscreen, I’ll use an assistant and a monitor.  When I’m not actually onscreen, I work the camera myself.

Are you going to continue in the field of cinematography? 

Yeah, but probably not as much as acting and directing.  Though all I’ve been doing lately is cinematography.  I’ve been lucky with the amount of work I’ve gotten and it’s nice to have people seek me out now rather than having to send out reels and resumes all the time.  I’ve got a couple of films lined up in the near future that I’ll most likely be DP on.  I enjoy it a lot so I’ll definitely keep with it but in the long run, it comes about third on my list.

Now you handle most of the main aspects of your films, whether short or feature.  Writing, directing, producing, camerawork of some aspect, editing...  Are you a control freak?

(Laughs) Uh, some would probably say that, yeah.  But the thing is, I’m really only that way for my own films.  I have a certain vision, of course, a certain way I want everything done so I tend to handle everything I can.  But when I’m doing other films, I’m normally only handling a particular aspect.  When I’m Director of Photography, I’ll throw ideas out when I think of them, but I’m in no way expecting them to use all of my ideas nor do I get upset when they don’t.  I do the job I’m hired for and go from there.  But when it’s my project, I’m definitely in control.  I’m always open to suggestions and love when people help expand my ideas.  Even if it’s simply adding a funny line to something or improving a shot or scene.  I'm open but at the end of the day, for better or worse, I try to get the way I see it up on the screen.

So do you feel having a wide knowledge of many aspects of filmmaking helps in regards to the process?

Oh, definitely.  Definitely.  I think it’s very important for a director to understand what’s going on around a set.  A director can have a vision of what they want and the crew is there to help make that vision come true, but it’s beneficial to have at least a broad knowledge of what goes on and what's feasible at any given time.  I’m not saying they need to know exactly how much power then can plug into each electrical outlet or all the types of microphone connections there are or anything, but anything extra is advantageous and only serves to help them in the long run.

What’s next in terms of writing?

I’ve always got some sort of writing project going on.  And at different stages too.  I have some feature scripts that are done, some that are 90% finished, and then others that only have random scenes and notes written out.  I’ll get in a block or not have time to really sit with it and so I just write as more comes to me.  I have quite a few short scripts written that I’d like to film right now but I just don’t have the time.  One takes place over a couple of years so I’m going to start filming some of the scenes soon and then I’ll shoot them randomly over the next year so it actually feels that time has passed within the characters and the environment.  I don’t want to shoot some scenes, have everyone get a haircut or something, and then film a couple more within a short amount of time.  I want the audience to see and feel the time that’s gone by.  I’ve also done a bit with co-writing a Science Fiction screenplay with a novelist by the name of Jason Gurley.  It’s been an interesting experience in both writing with someone else and taking on the subject of Science Fiction.  We’ll see what happens with that.

What are you going to do if filmmaking doesn’t pan out?

It will.  In some aspect, I’ll be doing this as long as I want.  If anything, I’ll work a regular job and make the films I want with my own camera package.  Even if most of the world hates my work and it ends up that only myself and a couple of friends are the ones watching it on a crappy TV on a Saturday night, I’ll still do it.  I love the process and everything about it so I’ll keep with it no matter what level I’m at.

If you weren’t making films or writing, what would you be doing?

I might still be in Medicine but realistically, probably not.  I’d like to teach.  One of my older sisters is a great teacher and even considered letting me do some sort of film workshop with her students – I’d love to be able to do things like that while still making movies and acting.  My other older sister is a doctor, which obviously didn’t pan out for me.  And my younger sister will probably grow up to be a rocket scientist or something, leaving me to be the only punkass sibling who plays with cameras for a living.

Thanks for taking the time to come to the interview.

Hey man, thanks for thinking I’m important or interesting enough to do an interview on.  Hopefully people read and enjoy it.