I recently came across Michael McCallum‘s work online very recently through a random comment in a film noir group. I bought the filmmaker’s first film, Fairview St. and was blown away, giving it the highest marks. I wasn’t aware that Michael had a film company called Rebel Pictures which released many more of his other films (all available on http://www.rebelpictures.net to buy/rent online and some on DVD). I then bought his film after Fairview St. called Lucky and again was just immensely impressed. While this interview focuses on these 1st two features, I encourage you to check out his other films as they run the gamut of genres and styles. I am sure you will find something to like. Michael McCallum is definitely not a one hit wonder. -Dave K aka A Fiend On Film
1) OK, so who is Michael McCallum and how did you get interested in making films?
Who am I? Isn’t that the burning question for us all. I’m a Filmmaker/Director/Actor/ Writer/Producer/ Editor/Photographer and Radio Show Host. It’s a laundry list I know. All of these things I’ve been interested in for some time and have been pursuing and improving on.
As for how I got interested in making films, I am first and foremost a Movie Lover. I watched a lot of movies and TV as a kid and would also do impersonations of actors/characters at that time as well as family and friends. I really wanted to be an actor from a young age (5 or 6), but had no clue what was involved in that pursuit. I liked to entertain. We didn’t have a lot when I was a kid and my folks did the best they could, so my imagination played a big part of my growing up. I rely on it daily as a creative person.
I didn’t start making films until I was in college and took a Film Production class to just have a better understanding, as an actor, what a director went through. It definitely helped me have a better understanding of what directors go through. I felt I had a clear perspective and empathy for them the next film I acted in after that class. Now mind you, I did poorly in the class itself. I didn’t follow many of the rules and really pushed the limits of what we were “supposed” to make for the curriculum.
Then 9/11 happened and I lost all of my financial aid for school. Even at a local community college I was struggling money wise and couldn’t finish obtaining my degree. I did however finish the Studio Program for Acting and then preceded to audition for and act in some of the worst movies made in Michigan. I’d say a broader demographic than just Michigan, if we’re being completely honest. I definitely learned a lot of what NOT to do on those films.
The worst part of those times were not that the films were bad, but that the experiences were even worse. I wasn’t only embarrassed by the finished films, but had pretty terrible experiences on them as well. I then figured, “well shit, I have my own ideas and I know I could do something better than THAT and I’d have a better time doing it too.” It hit me hard that I can create my own atmospheres and have a better environment on my own films than these that I was acting in at the time. Now some of my cast/crews might disagree, but I feel overall I’ve accomplished that to say the least.
I essentially became the director I had always wanted to work with. Someone who demanded a lot, communicated well, was passionate, had high expectations, but would actually lead the team and not with an iron fist either.
A scene from Lucky
2) I have only seen two of your films so far, Fairview St. and Lucky, both starring you. Fairview St. was your 1st feature. Was it a conscious decision to be the lead in it?
Casting is an interesting endeavor. For me as a director/filmmaker it really is the most important thing to get the right people in the right places. Casting being not only the talent, but behind the camera as well. Putting the right people in the right positions is crucial. If you’re pushing and pulling with someone, they might be in the wrong place or shouldn’t be a part of it at all.
Fairview St. was set from the get-go that I would play James Winton. I had wanted to make that film for a ridiculously long time before we even started filming (9 years or so) and I only envisioned myself in it. Now some critics would nit-pick this choice, but I only cast myself when I know I’m the best person to play the part. I have done many other films where I wasn’t in them at all because I didn’t fit for anything. I’ve also recast myself twice in small parts in Buffalo and Memento Mori with a talented actor, Cody Masalkoski, because I just started seeing him in the role(s) over myself. In this life, and this creative life especially, you need to have confidence and you need to balance that with being truly real with yourself. No bullshit. When I’m right for something, I’m right. When my gut tells me differently, I don’t argue or debate it.
Now Lucky is a different story. Originally it was meant to be a story of two characters pretty equally balanced out. Kind of an homage to Carnal Knowledge where it’s about 2 friends and their relationships with different women over many years. My co-star, Justin Muschong, and I had originally thought of the film in those terms. It was probably the fastest turn around from idea to production I’ve ever done, other than a competition film. We had talked about the idea over drinks in Dec. of 2006 and by Jan. 2007 we were filming. It was an insane turnaround. But once we were about 4 scenes in Justin had dropped a bomb on me that he was moving to NYC. We had all agreed to do something really different with Lucky and that was to not shoot it in a short amount of time, which is usually what I have had to do with the combination of schedules, money, and resources. We had planned to shoot Lucky over a year and a half or so. Well, that went out the window when Justin had to move. I sat down and reworked the story so it focused more on my character and had Justin’s character, Nick, come in and out and tie things up with him at the end of the film.
That was the only time I’ve had to completely rework where a story was going because of something like that. I feel confident in how the film turned out, but man did it add a lot of stress to me at the time. I’m glad it was shot that way, but I’m hesitant to ever shoot something over that long of a period of time again.
a scene from Fairview St.
3) You seem to pick your actors well, even having your father in Fairview St. Where did you meet some of them? Do you just do a straight casting or are they just all friends you grew up with.
Again, back to casting being the most important thing to me after working out the story. Everything else is crucial, but if you don’t have a solid story and the actors to create that, then it really doesn’t matter how great it looks or sounds. You’re just putting a bow on a pile of shit.
My Father is a real character. I always say to people that if I wasn’t related to him and just met him through people that I would cast him continuously. He’s a great storyteller and extremely natural on camera. He has a great ability to not let all the chaos around him affect his performance. He can get right there and sat there in the moment. Now he does get a bit touchy leading up to a shoot. We all have our own processes so I don’t want it to sound like everything is a breeze with him because it isn’t. I love working with him, but I have to earn every moment with him.
As for all of the others I have cast in Rebel Pictures’ projects, it’s a big combination of people I’ve previously worked with and others that I’ve met in some way shape or form. I’ve been acting professionally since 1997, so I get the opportunity to meet and collaborate with a lot of different types of talent over the years. I also will see “true independent” films and make decisions from that. It’s a combination of those and seeing a lot of local theatre and watching films and checking out reels when I’m interested. I have also cast a fair amount of non-actors in roles. It’s beautiful to see their work appreciated and nominated/win awards when the audience or the judges have no clue they haven’t done it before. That’s a true testament to the trust I work hard to build with my actors. I want them to feel like they can communicate and try anything at any time in the context of the scene. I work hard to build an arena where they feel they can have the confidence to make mistakes.
4) The scripting of these two films was very believable and fluid. Are you really writing all the dialogue or is there a good amount of ad libbing going on? What is your writing process?
You want the secret in the sauce. Ha. Well, it’s another combination of things and depends entirely on the situation and the piece at hand. Fairview St. was a really planned-out, story-boarded, scripted project, where Lucky was not because of the circumstances. Now these two films for instance, meet somewhere in the middle of that. Even though Fairview St. was really planned out I still made changes during shooting with where the camera would be placed and what the actors would say. Some times what the actors are saying and how the scene is playing out isn’t working. You don’t always know why either, but it’s just not. So you have to be make changes on the fly.
I don’t usually share this, but Lucky did not have a written script at all. I had a list of scenes and notes on each scene, but what I found was that I have a very good memory and didn’t need to script everything out. I worked with a really good DP at the time, A.E. Griffin, and we would walk through every single locations possible and talk about the shots in terms of a series of numbers or letters. A to B to C or 1 to 2 to 3, etc., etc. I then knew deeply what each character and scene needed to be and worked with the individual actors on their scenes alone. So they all knew what the story was about, but the details on scenes that didn’t concern them weren’t discussed. There was and is a fair amount of ad-libbing, but it’s not like we just show up with a camera and pull people off the street to play. These are well thought out and well constructed projects in every aspect. I also do something most other filmmakers don’t do that I’ve acted for and that’s I fight hard to shoot everything IN SEQUENCE. 90% of the time or more what you’re seeing in the finished film is in the order it was shot. It is a pain in the ass to the crew sometimes, but it helps the actors and the story layers be peeled back. On so many sets the actors and the space their working in is the least of the director’s concerns. I like to make that more important on my films. Every aspect is crucial, but the actors shouldn’t be thought of last and shouldn’t be pushed into “bringing it home” to make the day under pressure when so many other departments take their sweet time. There has to be a balance there. I desperately try hard for that balance.
5) I mentioned in the review for Fairview St., the city you film in, Lansing, MI is a “character”. It just oozes that blue collar small town sensibility. Is it easy to film there? How did get you permission to shoot in some of those places?
Lansing, MI definitely has a certain vibe to it. I used to as a younger person want and need to try to get away. Born To Run playing in my mind at full volume. The problem was I had family issues that kept me here. I learned to embrace it. I definitely went through and some times still go through a love/hate relationship with Lansing. I have mainly shot in and around it, but love to shoot other places too. I like to think that I’ve shot out every place in the area and have highlighted some cool, honest and real elements of the city. It’s a little gem that a lot of people overlook. I’m glad you’ve seen it as a character in itself. I’m looking forward to your thoughts and feelings on other Rebel Pictures’ projects shot in and around Lansing.
It isn’t always easy to film there. Sometimes yes, and it has gotten somewhat easier over time because I’ve built a body of work that interested parties can look at on their own instead of me having to do a hard sell like when I was first starting prior to Fairview St.
Permit wise I get releases for every location, talent and music in the project, but we don’t need specific permits like in larger cities such as NYC, LA, etc. I have had to run and gun on a few locations here and there though. I always say, “that’s why it’s called Rebel Pictures.”
6) Finding money for film making is probably the hardest thing to do. How did you gather funds for Fairview St. and Lucky as examples? What were the budgets?
I do think the money aspect is the hardest part of it. Getting people to invest or contribute to what your creative idea and endeavor is never easy. I’ve done 3 different Kickstarters, which were all successful, and done in person. Fundraisers back in the day as well. I’ve also put a lot of my own money into my work, which some would swear to not do, but when it comes down to it the work has to be made. I’ve also played a fair amount of poker in the past that helped fund projects, especially Handlebar. I even put a message in the end credits about funding some of the movie that way.
It’s getting harder and harder to raise that sort of awareness and funds for each project. I’ve also been blessed to have met some interested parties that have helped and really made some of the shoots and post possible.
Now when it comes down to specific budgets I never like to give exact numbers because I feel it makes the viewer or audience member an instant critic. You either have more empathy for what it was made on or you go back and nit-pick ever frame trying to pull apart where the cracks are in the painting. Either way neither opinion has anything to do with the film and the work.
As I like to say, “I’m not a filmmaker/actor/writer/producer, I’m a fucking magician. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”
7) What camera (s) do you use to shoot?
Those first 3 features (Fairview St., Handlebar and Lucky) were all shot on the Panasonic DVX 100A. A lot of my early short films were as well. All the others were shot on some form of digital camera. The technical aspect is extremely important to me, but I don’t get too caught up in “oh you have to shoot on THIS or THAT” sort of mentality. As an independent filmmaker a lot of it comes down to the look of the piece and what DP has what camera to shoot said project on. Some times it’s that with a combination of what we can get when we need it. I’m also a big believer in it’s what the person does with the gear, not the gear itself.
8) As an actor, you have a very natural style. Do you have any “film idols”, maybe growing up, that give you inspiration?
Thank you. I really appreciate that. I definitely have artists that have inspired me. There’s a mixture of film, musicians, painters, writer, etc. Filmwise though I constantly go back to the works of Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Jules Dassin, Billy Wilder, James Dean, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Duvall, Robert Ryan, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Ava Gardner, Robert Wise, Orson Welles, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, Montgomery Clift, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, etc., etc. I can literally go on and on and on and…well you get the point.
I’m extremely nostalgic. I don’t hide that at all.
9) I met you through a Film Noir group online, so I know you like those types of films but what other genres/styles do you like? Any favorite films of your you think we should see?
I do love Film Noir, but I also love Comedies, Dramas, Westerns, Sci-Fi and Horror. There are a lot of musicals I enjoy as well. I would like to eventually touch on all of those genres and even combine some. I’ve been able to do a lot of different things except for Westerns and Musicals at this point. I do have a really sparse dark Western idea though. I like to allow the story to dictate the genre, not the other way around.
10) People can go to Rebel Pictures to find all your work but what can we expect in the future? Do you have anything new lined up for us to look forward to?
I’m always working on something. This current COVID19 pandemic and the quarantine has been a really difficult time. I know I’m no different than anyone else when I say that. I’ve spent that time watching a ton of Turner Classic Movies with my Father, William C. McCallum, and walking, writing and slowly learning French.
I haven’t been able to finish some of the work that I’ve been wanting to get back because I don’t have the editing gear at my place. I’ve had to learn to be patient at different times in my life and this is another learning process.
I have been able to get 2 competitions films made during this time though. Choices and Photalgia were both made for different filmmaking competitions and both won BEST FILM at their respective competitions. Choices was made for the Quarantine Filmmaking Contest in March and Photalgia was completed on June 7th for the 48 Hour Global Filmmaker Challenge-Detroit. Both are being sent to other film festivals currently and I look forward to having them available to rent down the road.
I’m really excited to finish Reverb, which is a Sci-Fi short film in the vein of Twilight Zone/Tell-Tale Heart and to get another feature film with my Father as the lead going. Money and funding are always difficult and now with the pandemic things are really slow in moving forward. We’re all still figuring out how that can actually occur. I know it’s going to be even more difficult with all the new requirements going into place.
I’ll just keep creating and telling the stories I want to tell and collaborating with like-minded talented folks.
Viewers and potential audience members can go to my site: REBELPICTURES.NET and watch/rent work there and also buy merchandise and make any donations if they would like to see the work continue.
11) Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Any advice to aspiring film makers out there?
Don’t stop. Actually don’t start. Don’t start unless you’re willing to go the full ride. The ups and downs have a lot of space in-between them. Figure out what you actually want out of this life and if it’s a creative life then give it everything you have and don’t ever stop creating. Get everything in writing and understand people change. You change as well and sometimes those paths aren’t parallel anymore. Enjoy the moment and be respectful, kind and genuine.
If you only want to do this for fame, money and accolades, don’t even start. If you can imagine your life doing anything else other than filmmaking or acting then do it. It isn’t always an easy road to say the least, but it’s an interesting and unique one.