Today I have special success story interview. Writer and award-winning director Michael Mongillo joins us to discuss success and his awesome new movie out on video on demand, DIANE.
Real People Success Stories
Michael Mongillo is an award-winning director and screenwriter best known for the mocumentary, BEING MICHAEL MADSEN (2007), and the supernatural-mystery, DIANE (2017). He earned the reputation as “indie filmmaker on-the-rise” [Starz] with the micro-budget features, THE WIND (2001) and WELCOME TO EARTH (2005)
My questions are in bold, and his answers follow.
How did you get started?
I’ve always been in the industry. Even back in high school, I was involved in doing video work on the wedding video level, that sort of thing. So, I went to school, started at Boston University as a graphic design and illustration major, and I was unhappy there because I really couldn’t take film courses. It was challenging to take classes between schools. I was at the fine arts school, and the communications program was where the film school was at the time.
So I ended up transferring to the Hartford Art School, where it was much more friendly for interdisciplinary studies. And even in college, I continued to work as a video tech; the guy who “ran” the film department when the professors weren’t there so other students had access to it. And right after that, just continued to make films and shorts. That’s what I do professionally and have done professionally in some capacity my whole life.
What does a typical day look like for you?
You start early, and you end late; sometimes you’re starting your day at night, and then you’re finishing your day in the morning, so it’s a lot of practical nuts and bolts work. I often describe making a movie to people who haven’t done it before by asking, “Were you involved in planning your wedding?” And most people say yes, so I say, “It’s like planning a wedding every day for as many days as your production lasts.” Those kinds of practical logistics, making sure people and gear are in the right places at the right times and that coordination of people and resources.
It’s not a lot of fun. For me, it is. For a cinematographer it’s a lot of fun and, usually, the lead actors, too, but it’s a lot of hurry up and wait and sitting around, so it’s not nearly as glamorous as I think people might imagine it.
Looking back, is there something you found out about the industry that you thought was surprising?
It really is more about luck and timing over talent or even tenacity. I’ve never really been able to achieve the level of success or have that breakthrough hit film that I’ve always wanted, and even though I feel very fortunate and lucky to be in a position where I actually have a body of work that people want to see, to break through to that next level has never seemed to be about the kind of work and perseverance you might put into another profession.
If I had, perhaps, put in the work and energy and time into being a lawyer for example, I would probably be one of the most successful lawyers on the planet versus something like the film industry where your level of success is often based on the whims and tastes of other people or nonsensical circumstances. That’s something that I didn’t really expect. I naively thought, oh, I’m talented. I’m good at this. I’m going to be a tremendous success.
I think we all have felt that at some point.
Absolutely. I always try and have a good mindset about it. Of course, I’m a little jealous of other people’s successes or perceived success from my perspective. It seems to me like James Gray has never really had a hit film, yet he keeps on making these big productions, most of which are great films; but, as far as I can tell, nobody’s seeing them except other cinephiles.
I could probably say the same thing about ten other directors. And then you also have these filmmakers, who make an indie darling or sleeper of some kind, who get the bank to make, I don’t know, a Marvel production or the next superhero movie. It’s like, who do I have to meet and impress in order to have either one of these scenarios occur.
What advice would you have for people that are trying to maybe either make films or get into acting?
I think the second part of the question is easy. For actors, move to New York or Los Angeles, at least to get a start and get an agent or manager and get out as much as you can and be seen. Being from Connecticut, I’ve run into a lot of local actors who are very talented, but you’ve got to make that commitment if you really want to make a career out of it.
As far as advice for people who want to make films, it’s advice that most filmmakers would give, which is, do everything you can to get your film made. Don’t wait for other people to help you make your film. You’ve got to make those steps yourself, and maybe you’ll get lucky, and perhaps you’ll get financed, and you’ll have a storybook existence as a filmmaker.
But, for the most part, everybody wants to make their own ideas a reality, not yours, so convincing a producer or potential financier to jump into a particular project is very difficult. So, figure out what you can make and make small, and try and get noticed in the festival circuit and through the press and maybe your career will launch from there.
I guess the other advice I would give is, set your expectations at a realistic level.
Do you have any tips for productivity hacks you’ve maybe learned and any books you’d recommend; any tricks that help with staying on task?
Gosh, short answer, no. It is part of the process, especially on an indie level that you need to develop your own workflow and your own methods to make it effective. If you’re working on a more professional level of production, which is not suggesting that indie films aren’t professional, but you’ve got your call sheets, you’ve got an assistant director, you’ve got a unit production manager, and you’ve got all these people managing all the pieces for you, so you can really concentrate on your vision.
At an indie level, you’ve just got to be really good at multi-tasking and try to surround yourself with a good group of people who can help you.
Are you involved in social media?
Reluctantly, yes. We have a Facebook page for Mean Time Productions, and I think a Twitter account, both of which I manage pretty halfheartedly. I used to be a lot better at self-promotion but it just seems to me, you get lost in the shuffle doing that, and I think the proof is with the great publicity that Random Media got for Diane.
We’ve got an amazing individual, Justin Cook, doing publicity. Real press shows the futility of pounding away on social media.That’s not to say you can’t have a good social media campaign. I personally have not figured out how to do it.
Let’s talk about Diane, that’s doing well.
Sure. Where to begin. It was about a four-year process between the time we started pre-production and scripting to the point where we are now with distribution through Random Media. We had the limited theatrical in Los Angeles last week, and now it’s on demand. Fandango Now, Google Play, Amazon, and iTunes.
Going back to productivity: that’s something aspiring filmmakers might want to think about. It is not a short process because you have pre-production, production, post-production, then you have to promote the film to the festival circuit and then, after that, you’re usually working with sales agents or various representatives in order to get your film sold and into distribution. And then, you get the long laundry list of what you need to deliver for distribution, which is not just a movie; it’s your movie in all these different formats, the artwork, stills, and on and on. It’s the contract, it’s the chain-of-title, so you really have to be prepared for a long road.
I see filmmakers interviewed, at the high levels, talking about, “Oh, I was wondering if I really wanted to do this project if I had to commit a whole year of my life to it.” A year?! That sounds like a gift. When we started Diane, that was one of the things that we had to buckle in for. We’ve got a low budget production. Money can accelerate the process but, with or without it, you are always looking at something that’s going to take quite a chunk of your life.
I just didn’t realize that it takes over four years. That’s crazy.
You can do it quicker. To be fair, we had a full year in post-production. That really is longer than even most indie films take and it was because I was editing the initial cut of the picture myself, between my steady job, where I’m the Director of Creative Services at a company called HB Live in Connecticut. All the collaborators have other paying gigs that we need to give our full attention to when they occur.
So, after that, it was the process of fine cut, bringing in Emmy Award winner Jeff Reilly and working with my longtime partner Taylor Warren to complete the picture. It’s a haul. If you are going into a production where you’re not working with a financed producer or production company, to get your film turned around and in distribution on a relevant level is at least a few years.
That’s pretty impressive. It takes that much time, and then, I imagine, to get all the capital and everything laid out, so you got to wait, I imagine, that long for any revenue or anything to come in.
Right, yes. We’re still waiting for revenue to come in. We expect it will but that’s another thing, especially when you’re dealing with investors and partners, that budding filmmakers need to be aware of. So, you have to wear a lot of hats and be honest and forthright with your backers about what they can expect for an ROI timeline.
As investors, are they people that are familiar with that and expect that to some degree, or do they get antsy and pressure you?
I’ve only been in one situation where somebody was antsy and started to pressure me but, for the most part, I’m dealing with people I know and, if they’re not friends, we at least have a friendly, professional relationship, where I’m very frank about what they can expect. I often start with the pitch with something I’m sure everybody loves to hear: “Don’t do this if you can’t lose the money.” It’s a high, high-risk venture.
Do you have a favorite project?
The timing of the question makes it tough for me to answer because I’m so sick of Diane right now, it’s almost tough for me to speak kindly of it in that faraway, looking back on it way, but I can tell you this: making Diane was the most fun I’ve ever had making a film and it was the most creatively satisfying experience I’ve had as a filmmaker.
About five viewings ago, I was like, yeah man, I’m really proud of this. This is a really great film. If another filmmaker made this and I sat down in front of it, I would be impressed and I would enjoy it. I would find it entertaining. But in about the last five viewings, I’ve been like, oh my God, I can’t take it anymore. I just see nothing but flaws now that probably don’t even exist.
Still, I am very proud of it, and I think maybe if you ask me the same question in a year, I’ll probably count it as the film that not only did I have the most fun making and collaborating on with so many talented people, but it will probably be my favorite.
One of the things I’ve come to say about Being Michael Madsen, now ten years old, it that I certainly wouldn’t call it a perfect film, but I wouldn’t change anything about it either. Maybe I’ll say the same thing about Diane someday.
Is there any particular movies that you worked on and then years later you’ve gone back, and you go, “I can’t believe that’s what I made.“
Yeah, for sure. I’m not a big fan of our first two features, The Wind or Welcome to Earth. But, let’s be honest, even Kubrick’s first two films aren’t very good. I certainly wouldn’t want to offend any fans who like our first two, or even love them, because there are people who do. In fact, most people, even in our production circle, point to Welcome to Earth as their favorite. So what do I know.
I guess that’s why George Lucas was always going back and tinkering with stuff
I think a true artist knows when to walk away from a project. You never really finish anything, you just abandon it. And especially when you’re at a level like George Lucas, where what you create is no longer yours anymore and it becomes the public’s. Painters don’t go into a museum and touch up a painting that they did twenty years ago. It’s a monument to who you are as an artist, a person, at that time. I actually think it’s your responsibility to yourself and especially your audience just to leave it all alone.
Anything I should ask that I haven’t?
I want to give a shout out to Jason Alan Smith, who’s my business and creative partner and the star of Diane, along with Carlee Avers, who plays the title role. As well as Taylor Warren, who has been the producer and my partner in so many capacities on all the features I’ve directed and who I also work with in the corporate world.
So I guess that another shout out definitely needs to go to the event production company I work for, HB Live. We do everything from live events, concert sound, to commercial and corporate production work. With HB’s resources, support, and kindness, I’ve been able to continue to make films while earning a steady paycheck.
If you could produce one of those superhero movies, what would it be?
Wow. I should have a prepared answer for a question like that. In the Marvel universe, I’ve always been a big fan of Iron Fist. They’ve made that into a series now on Netflix, of course, but I always thought Iron Fist would be a great character to bring to the big screen.
What would you do with Iron Fist?
I would go back to the original source material which was terrific, which was, I believe, a fifteen-issue miniseries that the great John Byrne did the pencils on and I think Chris Claremont wrote it. I’m going into my own memory banks here so you might want to check, but I remember that original fifteen-issue run so well.
There were a lot of significant elements that could just be pulled from that to make a nice, tight ninety-minute narrative that would be action-packed and entertaining, and could easily be transposed to present day.
What Movie from DC?
From DC, I must admit, and I know I’ll be crucified for this by many … I don’t think they’ve ever done Batman right, ever, any of the versions. So I would love to take a crack at the Dark Knight series, and I would probably just go straight to Frank Miller’s books and make them almost panel-for-panel.
Thank You, Michael, for doing this interview.
I hope that everyone checks out Diane! It looks amazing and features a lot of talented people.