There is no foolproof guidebook on how to make a living as an artist. For Michael Glover Smith, his passion for film has taken him many places before he arrived in the director’s chair. He taught classes, he wrote reviews and he had to relearn everything he was taught in film school. When he finally made his feature debut, 2015’s “Cool Apocalypse,” Smith had many years of cinematic expertise under his belt. That may be why his marvelous picture feels more like the work of a seasoned pro than a scrappy rookie. It contrasts the frayed relationship between two exes, Tess (Chelsea David) and Claudio (Adam Overberg), with the budding attraction between young would-be lovers, Julie (Nina Ganet) and Paul (Kevin Wehby). All four characters end up having dinner together on an evening charged with conflicted emotions, leading to (as the poster indicates) comedy, tragedy and yes, vegetarian beef stew.
With “Cool Apocalypse” set to debut on DVD, while also screening twice as part of Chicago’s Movies in the Park series, Smith spoke with Indie Outlook about making the film on a six grand budget, exploring Chicago’s history of silent film production and utilizing a much bigger budget on his next film, “Mercury in Retrograde.”
How have you approached balancing filmmaking with film criticism?
I feel like it’s becoming more and more common for people to have one foot in each of those two worlds, especially in Chicago, where we have this great legacy of film criticism. You have people like Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Kevin B. Lee who started off as critics and are now successfully transitioning into filmmaking. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. That was my goal when I started taking film production classes over twenty years ago, but I could never figure out a way to make money by doing that. I started teaching film history because I thought, ‘Okay, if I can’t make money by making movies, at least I can pay the bills by doing something that is related to cinema.’
I don’t really consider myself to be a critic because I don’t do it full-time. After I started teaching, my wife convinced me to start a blog. I thought that was a good idea because I wanted to show my students what I expected from them in terms of the film criticism they would be writing for class. It turned out to be a way of connecting with my students by writing criticism and having them respond to it. The dialogue we’ve created at White City Cinema is a continuation of the dialogue that we had in the classroom. The students really enjoy it because they’re already used to commenting online, and I’m just trying to get them to do it in a slightly more academic way.
Do you feel teaching has altered or enhanced your view of cinema?
Yeah, it definitely has. I sort of drifted away from filmmaking after I graduated from grad school. I went to Humboldt State University, which is where I got my Master’s in film production in 2004. I eventually realized that I had graduated at the worst possible time for anyone to get a degree in film production. I had only ever shot anything on 16mm film as both an undergrad student and a grad student. When I moved back to Chicago, which is where I had gone to school to get my undergrad degree, everybody who was making microbudget independent films was shooting digitally. I had to learn a whole new set of skills, and it was really daunting. I ended up working in a tobacco shop, just punching a cash register in order to make end’s meat. My first teaching job was at Facets. I was working for almost no pay, and I was doing it for the fun of it. I think the first class I taught there was on Takashi Miike, because I was excited by him at that time. After that, I started teaching more and more.
One of my students was a great film scholar named Susan Doll, who recommended that I start teaching at the college level. She was teaching at Oakton Community College and was getting ready to take a semester off so that she could write a book about Elvis. She said, “They like it when I can name my replacements, so would you be interested in doing that sometime?” I said, “Oh yeah, definitely.” I taught only one class in the beginning, and now teaching has become what I do full-time. It was teaching that led me back to film production. When I teach film history, I focus enormously on aesthetics. I talk about what filmmakers do with cinematography and editing and sound and mise-en-scène and how all of these things are used to create meaning. Talking about that with my students got me really excited about filmmaking again, and I went on to make a couple short films that played the festival circuit. By the time 2014 rolled around, I figured that I was ready to take the plunge and make a feature, and that was “Cool Apocalypse.”
Before we delve into that film, I’d like to ask about your fascination with the silent era that led you to co-author the book, Flickering Empire.
That started because of a blog post I had written about Charlie Chaplin. I knew that he had made a film in Chicago over 100 years ago, but I didn’t know the story behind it. I didn’t know how long he was here for or how many movies he made here. You’d just hear these urban legends about it and I felt I needed to get to the bottom of the story. After I wrote the post, a friend of mine named Adam Selzer, who is primarily known as being a young adult novelist, said to me, “This shouldn’t be a blog post. This should be a book and I should help you write it.” So the two of us started writing that in 2010. It took us a little over four years and then Columbia University Press put it out in 2015.
Kino Lorber’s recent “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” set illustrates how Chicago was a hub for silent film production.
There was the Foster Photoplay Company, the Ebony Film Company and then there was Oscar Micheaux, of course, who was probably the most important African-American filmmaker in the first half of the twentieth century. He got his start in Chicago. I’ve always been obsessed with silent cinema ever since I was a kid. I love visual storytelling, and I feel like there’s a real poetry to silent films. Even the worst silent films have a lyrical quality to them, because they can’t rely on dialogue. After I started researching Chaplin in Chicago, I realized the silent era in Chicago was really important and that it had never been told before in book form. The premise of our book is essentially that Chicago was the center of film production in the United States before the rise of Hollywood. The two major studios were Essanay and Selig Polyscope, both of which were located on the north side of Chicago.
In the book, we explore how Chicago became the mainstream center of film production in the country, and why it went into decline as an industry. Then we have kind of a postscript about Oscar Micheaux. We devote one chapter to him and his film, “Within Our Gates,” at the very end. At the time he started working, Essanay and Selig Polyscope were both gone. The first film he shot, “The Homesteaders,” was the first feature film ever made by an African-American, and he shot it at the Selig Polyscope studio after it had shut down. That one has been sadly lost forever, but “Within Our Gates” is the earliest surviving feature film by an African-American director, and it was also shot in Chicago in 1920. It’s very subversive.
Has it been thrilling for you to be making films in the same city a century later?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I love Chicago and I love the history of Chicago cinema. I’m really interested in studying it and I think there’s a lot of great work being done here today. Whenever anybody talks about the local industry, they’re talking about the television shows, but there’s a lot of good film work being done today on the microbudget level. I feel like we’re on the verge of a Chicago New Wave. Stephen Cone is obviously making really terrific films and the Swanbergs are fortunately still in town, as is Melika Bass, who is a great experimental filmmaker. These people are doing incredible work, and I definitely see a continuity between what is being done now and what was being done 100 years ago.
What spawned your idea for “Cool Apocalypse”?
I’ve been working towards this movie my whole life. You have to understand that when I shot it two years ago, I was 39 years old. The characters in the film are all in their 20s. Nina Ganet was 22 when we started shooting, and I think the oldest actor was 27, so I was more than a generation older than all of the characters. In a sense, it’s me looking back on who I was back in the mid-to-late 90s. It wasn’t that I had a specific story or characters in mind. It was more about me looking back on who I was, hopefully from a place of wisdom. I wanted the audience to feel a critical distance between myself and the characters.
A lot of the “mumblecore” films are about people in their twenties who don’t know what they’re going to do with their lives. The characters are aimless, and that causes the narratives to become aimless as well. There’s something kind of easy about that, and I wanted to make a film that had a rock solid structure in terms of the parallel editing, cutting back and forth between the two couples. I wanted it to have a musical or mathematical flow. I’m also proud that Julie and Tess are just as prominent as characters as Paul and Claudio. I think that too many microbudget indies focus too heavily on male characters, which gets tiresome. I anticipate that at least half of the lead roles will be women in every movie I ever make. This is a trend that will certainly continue with “Mercury in Retrograde.”
I love the film’s evocative visual style, which reminded me a bit of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” in terms of its nostalgic texture. When Tess and Claudio look at Julie and Paul, it’s as if they are regarding reflections of their past selves.
That makes me very happy to hear you say that. I definitely wanted the black and white to add a layer of poetry to the film. Some audience members have said, “I really liked Paul and Julie. They’re so cute and I wish the whole movie had been about them instead of this other bitter couple.” I never saw it that way, personally. I always thought that they were the same couple, in a way. Paul and Julie could very easily turn into Claudio and Tess, and Claudio and Tess probably started off like Paul and Julie. I wanted to explore how men and women communicate at the beginning of a relationship versus how they communicate at the end of a relationship.
Which is amusingly conveyed in the cut from Paul and Julie in deep conversation to Tess and Claudio silently sitting at the table. He’s reading the paper, she’s texting and they might as well be in separate rooms.
Exactly! My conception of mise-en-scène is to capture bodies in space and show how couples communicate not only verbally but also nonverbally as well. I wrote that scene into the script and my editor left it out of the film. I had given him the footage and asked him to give me a rough cut. When I saw it, that was the only shot he had left out. He didn’t think it was necessary, and I said, “No, no, you’ve got to put it in there.” Every time the movie plays in front of a crowd, people laugh at that shot.
How did you find your cinematographer, Vincent Bolger?
He is a former student of mine. We made the film for about six grand, which is about as little as you can spend and still have a feature film. A big part of the reason why we were able to get it done for that amount was because everybody on the crew worked for free. Vince was a freelance cinematographer, and was shooting a lot of music festivals. He showed me some of his work, and I thought it had a really nice quality. I thought we should collaborate at some point, and he ended up working on the film for free, while allowing us to use his camera. I shot most of the film in my own apartment, and I tailored the subject matter of the script to the budget. Before I even started writing it, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to raise $10,000. So I thought about what kind of movie would be worthwhile to watch that could be made on such a small budget, and ultimately I decided that it would consist of people talking to each other in my apartment.
And yet, the film’s potentially claustrophobic setting never becomes oppressive.
We do see a lot of different rooms within the apartment—the kitchen, the dining room, the two bedrooms—and there’s a lot of variety in terms of how we shot it. The Lake Shore Drive sequence really has a liberating quality to it. When the characters get in that car and they head out on Lake Shore, it is such a breath of fresh air.
That sequence, which is set to the 1971 tune, “Lake Shore Drive,” by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah, feels instantly iconic, a glorious love letter to the Windy City.
That is absolutely based on something that has been in my head for decades. Back in the mid-90s, I used to have a little Volkswagen Rabbit. I lived on the north side of town, and I had a friend who lived in Hyde Park. I would drive once a week down Lake Shore Drive to his condo, and we’d have dinner and watch a movie. I think all Chicagoans love driving down that road because the lake really defines the city. There were numerous times where I would be driving down Lake Shore and I’d be channel surfing on the radio. That song would come on the classic rock station, and I always thought it was the coolest thing ever. I would just go crazy in my car and start banging on the steering wheel and singing along. I knew that scene was going to be in the film even before I started writing it.
How did you go about getting the rights to that song on a six grand budget?
Fortunately, I was able to get the rights to use it from Skip Haynes, who wrote the song. He gave it to me for virtually nothing. I had stupidly written the song into the script before I acquired the rights, and I didn’t even know who owned them. When I tracked Skip down, I found that he was living in Laurel Canyon and running a dog rescue. He’s still making music, but all of his songs are basically about dogs. I sent him an e-mail and he wrote me back right away. He gave me his number and I talked to him for a really long time. He ended up giving me the rights to the song for forty bucks, which is amazing.
What inspired the film’s opening dedication to Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais?
They both died within a week of each other while I was in preproduction, so I was thinking about them a lot. I’ve shown their films in my classes, and their work is kind of the opposite of what I was doing in my film. They are both surrealists and subjective filmmakers. Even a film like “Groundhog Day” is very much about what’s happening inside of somebody’s brain, and that’s true of Resnais’ early work as well. My film is very objective and very distanced. You don’t see any point of view shots in “Cool Apocalypse,” except for the scenes where somebody is looking through a camera. In a way, it was dumb for me to dedicate the film to them because at every Q&A, somebody always asks, “Were those your two biggest influences?” I even had somebody say, “I can see how this film was an exact cross between Ramis and Resnais.” I did it simply because I love their work and they happened to pass away while I was in preproduction.
I was intrigued by your decision to occasionally disrupt the black and white imagery with color.
That was not in the script. I decided to do it shortly before we started shooting because I knew that I wanted the footage to look a little different. Tess’ character is a video journalist and I knew that her footage should look different from the rest of the film. It should have a different quality because it’s her camera, it’s not our objective camera. I didn’t want to do any of those cheesy things like have a red circle in the bottom of the frame or include the letters REC to show that it was a recording. I decided that switching the film to color would be an interesting way to do it.
After seeing her as the uptight and introverted sister in Stephen Cone’s latest film, “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” I was amazed by Nina Ganet’s beguiling portrayal of Julie. It’s the polar opposite of her “Henry Gamble” character.
I love her, and I’m very proud to say that I was the first director to cast her. She was a theatre student at the University of Illinois downstate, and she auditioned for my film in May of 2014, the week before she graduated. She knew that she was moving to Chicago after graduating, and that’s why she was auditioning for my film. Stephen cast her a week after I did, and she shot both films simultaneously. The hardest thing about making this movie was the scheduling of it because we only shot on weekends. Everybody had day jobs and a lot of people were working Monday through Friday. I was teaching Monday through Thursday for the summer semester, and we could only shoot on Saturday and Sunday. My producer, Clare Kosinski, and I had to puzzle together everybody’s schedules because every actor had a certain weekend where they couldn’t work. When I finally saw “Henry Gamble,” I was thrilled to see her playing a character so different from what I had asked her to do.
I’m proud of the fact that “Cool Apocalypse” has a true ensemble cast. I wanted all four lead actors to have an equal opportunity to shine. I like trying to write dialogue that I think will be fun for actors to say. I wanted each of these characters to be distinct and memorable and the four lead actors all brought something to the table when auditioning that made me feel like they were going to make these characters come to life.
It was everybody’s first film. We posted ads on two great websites, Actors Access and Backstage.com, which are the hub for local theatrical actors. I liked all four of these actors right away, but there were other actors I liked a lot too. It was all about getting actors who had good chemistry with each other. This film is really about the chemistry between the couples, so we had callbacks where they would all act with each other. I even had them do some improv exercises, and at the end of the day, I just felt like Adam and Chelsea had the right chemistry to play the jaded couple that was past their sell-by date. Kevin and Nina had the freshness and exuberance of a couple coming together for the first time.
In your next film [currently in production], “Mercury in Retrograde,” there are three couples instead of two.
[laughs] That’s exactly right, it’s the same type of film but on a bigger scale. It’s also much more ambitious and has higher dramatic stakes. By the time we get to the end of the film, we will have fully entered the realm of intense psychodrama. The process of making “Cool Apocalypse” gave me the confidence to do that. I honestly felt like I wasn’t done with this type of subject matter. My approach to constructing narrative is very much focused on characters. I don’t really care about plot, and it took me a long time to realize that. “Cool Apocalypse” was probably the seventh or eighth feature-length script that I’ve written in my life, and all of my earlier scripts are films that will never be made. I was trying too hard to create a story that I thought would be interesting, and with “Cool Apocalypse,” I realized that I don’t really care about plot or genre. All I want to do is make films about people.
I’m also very interested in relationships, and when I was making “Cool Apocalypse,” somebody said to me, “It’s really easy to make a film about people falling in love, and it’s really easy to make a film about people falling out of love. What’s really hard is to make a film about the middle of a relationship.” That’s sort of what got the wheels turning. I thought, “Oh yeah, that’s what I need to do—make a film about the middle,” and that is what led me to start writing “Mercury in Retrograde.” It’s about three couples who go on a vacation together, and the hidden problems and tensions that come to the surface once they get to this lakeside cabin in Michigan.
What made the film’s bigger budget possible?
“Cool Apocalypse” was entirely crowd-funded, mostly through small donations from family and friends. With this film, we have just a couple of private investors who came on. It’s very surreal for me to be making this kind of leap from no-budget filmmaking to low-budget filmmaking. Every day, I wake up and feel absolutely amazed when I think about the cast that I was able to assemble.
Among your cast is the wonderful French actress, Roxane Mesquida, who I first saw in Catherine Breillat’s galvanizing 2001 masterpiece, “Fat Girl.”
I’m a fan of French cinema, and frankly, to be a cinephile is to be a Francophile. She’s been in three films by Catherine Breillat, she’s worked with Benoit Jacquot, but I had never seen her as an adult. She’s incredible in “Fat Girl,” but she was just a kid when she made it. In May, Philippe Grandrieux showed his new film, “Malgré la nuit,” at the University of Chicago, and it’s the best film I’ve seen all year. It’s a really dark and disturbing film, and even though it’s a French film, Roxane speaks English for most of it because her character’s boyfriend is English. When I saw her in that movie, I realized that this was who I wanted for my film. This is what I wanted one of my characters to sound like and look like. I thought it was a shot in the dark, but I reached out to her agent and said, “I just saw Roxane in ‘Malgré la nuit,’ and she has this combination of vulnerability and toughness that I think is just perfect for a part in my script.”
A couple of days later, Roxane wrote me back and said, “I read your script and I’d like to Skype with you.” I knew that was a good thing because if she didn’t like the script, there’s no way that she was going to have a conversation about it. The only thing that worried me was the possibility that she didn’t realize how low our budget was. Even though this is a quantum leap from “Cool Apocalypse,” Roxane is very experienced in both France and America. She was on “Gossip Girl” and has worked with directors like Gregg Araki. When I talked to her, I said, “You know, we can’t really pay much more than the SAG minimum for an ultra-low-budget film,” and she said, “I don’t care about the budget or the salary. I’m a cinephile. I want to work with good directors and I want to make interesting films.”
We really lucked out with her. There are very few performers who are famous and have the integrity to only make films based on scripts that they really like, and Roxane absolutely fits that bill. She has said in interviews that she’d rather babysit than act in a bad movie. She’s saying the sort of thing that most actors would like to say because they’d like to think they have that much integrity. But Roxane really walks the walk. She’s taking a chance by being in this film, and I already feel indebted to her forever.
How did you pitch the project to investors?
I always like to quote the movie “Ed Wood” when I say, “The script for ‘Mercury in Retrograde’ was the acorn that grew the great oak.” We showed the script to people, whether it was investors or actors, and then we showed them “Cool Apocalypse” and “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Shane Simmons, who produced “Henry Gamble,” is both producing and acting in “Mercury in Retrograde,” while Jason Chiu, who shot “Henry Gamble,” is shooting “Mercury in Retrograde.” The standard line that I used to pitch this project was, “Imagine the content of ‘Cool Apocalypse’ but with the production value of ‘Henry Gamble,’” and I think that was a successful sales pitch for us.
I’m 41 now, and what’s interesting to me about making films at my age is that I have a very relaxed attitude towards film production. A lot of young filmmakers graduate from film school and they’re desperate to be successful. They want to make a huge splash on the international scene, and they want to get into the biggest festivals. When that doesn’t happen, they become disillusioned and then quit. That is literally what happened to everybody I went to film school with. Nobody is still doing it today. Over the past couple decades, I never gave up and kept plugging along. I wrote screenplays, I made short films, and with “Cool Apocalypse,” I made a film to satisfy myself, first and foremost. I knew that the film would play small, regional festivals, and I didn’t even bother submitting it to Sundance or SXSW. There’s a glass ceiling for what can happen to a no-budget film like this. But when we won awards at each of the first three festivals that we played, I thought, ‘Maybe this film has a little more appeal than I thought it did.’
After I submitted it to the Gene Siskel Film Center, Barbara Scharres and Marty Rubin told me that they really liked it and wanted to screen it twice. I was floored by that, because I thought that it was a long shot. I didn’t think this was the kind of thing they were interested in programming, and I never would’ve imagined that it would play there. I never imagined that it would play at Movies in the Park either. I had to submit it like you would to a film festival. I also never imagined a distribution company would be interested in putting the movie on DVD. When I made it, I wasn’t thinking about trying to be successful or following in anybody else’s footsteps. I was just trying to make a film about the kind of characters I thought were interesting. I was trying to capture human behavior that would feel truthful, and I feel like I’m doing the same thing with “Mercury in Retrograde,” even though the budget is much higher.
“Cool Apocalypse” will be released on DVD Tuesday, August 30th, courtesy of Emphasis Entertainment Group. It will also screen as part of Chicago’s Movies in the Park series on Wednesday, August 31st, at Palmer Square Park, and Friday, September 2nd, at Pulaski Park. For more info, visit the film’s official site. Also make sure to check out Michael’s indispensable blog, White City Cinema.