Michael Mongillo is not an easy filmmaker to categorize. His two feature films, “The Wind” (2001) and “Welcome to Earth” (2006) don’t quite fit into neat genres. “The Wind” is a horror film, but it is also a psychological thriller and a sharp dissection of emotions out of control. “Welcome to Earth” take a “Big Chill”-style approach and expands it into a sprawling party among an excitable group of people awaiting a promised visit from extraterrestrials.
Mongillo has also provided other filmmakers with a chance to shine via the New Haven Underground Film Festival, which he co-founded. Ironically, this annual celebration of indie cinema has been held in several Connecticut cities but not New Haven (the most recent incarnation was in Hartford). Unlike other festivals, Mongillo’s NHUFF seems to have a Midas touch – all of the features that won its Best Picture honors subsequently landed distribution deals.
Film Threat caught up with Mongillo at his Meriden, Connecticut, home to discuss his eclectic output and the challenges he faces (and overcomes) in bringing his distinctive vision to the screen.
Q: What have been the joys and challenges of producing independent films in the middle of Connecticut?
MICHAEL MONGILLO: The single biggest joy of producing independent films in Connecticut is that the community really rallies behind you and gets excited about the process. As this pertains to local and state government, I have yet to run into anyone or any organization that has not gone out of their way to make things easier for us. Most of the time, they waive permit fees or unofficially look the other way. The local airport even reroutes their flight paths to help us get better sound. And neighbors of every public or private location where we’ve done shooting do what they can to help too. After informing the proper authorities, I then go around and put site-specific flyers in the mailboxes of any given community, informing the people who live there of the days and times we’ll be shooting, and ask if they would be so kind as to avoid mowing their lawns, souping up their muscle cars, setting off fireworks, things like that. A lot of independent filmmakers think that it’s best to do things guerilla-style, and there’s no denying that sometimes this is the only way to get things done in certain places or at certain times, but I find that full disclosure is really the best way to go. You don’t annoy or offend anyone, no one feels slighted or circumvented, and so this contributes to a fun and harmonious shoot.
The challenges producing independent films in Connecticut are probably the same as almost anywhere else, faced by almost everyone else: never enough time, never enough money. Specific to the region, the challenges are usually weather-related. Rain is sometimes an issue but, for me, it’s the heat and humidity. No matter how hard I try, my productions always seem to come together in the summertime. I’ve shot in the Mojave Desert so I can confirm that the “dry heat” cliché is true and, let me tell you, dry heat is always preferable. Shooting exteriors in Connecticut in the summer is like shooting inside someone’s mouth.
Q: “The Wind” enjoyed considerable acclaim from no less a figure than Ralph Bakshi. How did he come to experience the film?
MICHAEL MONGILLO: Like a lot of filmmakers, I’m a bit of a fanboy. I love animation and so, naturally, I am a fan of Ralph Bakshi’s work. I found out that his daughter was selling cels from many of his films on eBay and so, being a fanboy, I ended up buying one. I sent my payment in a Mean Time Productions (my LLC) envelope. Under the company name, it reads, “Filmmakers,” which apparently Mr. Bakshi spotted because, in addition to getting the signed cel and background art, he sent me a charcoal drawing from the controversial “Coonskin” autographed with the note, “Hi, Mike. I like filmmakers.” I e-mailed his daughter and asked her to thank Mr. Bakshi for the bonus and also asked if he would be willing to watch “The Wind.” Soon I received a friendly e-mail from Mr. Bakshi himself, agreeing to watch it.
Within a few weeks, he sent me another e-mail from which his praise of “The Wind” was quoted. We e-mailed back and forth a few times and he was nothing but kind and supportive. To return the favor and give him praise, I need to say that among my favorite animated films is his version of “The Lord of the Rings,” that I first saw in the theater when I was a kid. Now, I love Peter Jackson and his team’s adaptation of Tolkien’s famous trilogy and would, in fact, contend that they are, collectively, the best fantasy-action films of all time. Yes, even over the original “Star Wars” trilogy. But, to my knowledge, Mr. Jackson has yet to cop to the influence of Ralph Bakshi. There are not just similarities in the written adaptation, there are exact shots and entire sequences taken directly from Mr. Bakshi’s version. Peter Jackson seems like a cool guy so maybe he has acknowledged Mr. Bakshi’s influence and I just don’t know it, or maybe he figures it’s self-evident to those “in the know,” but, either way, I wanted to give Mr. Bakshi his props.
Q: “The Wind” is several intellectual and emotional levels above your typical horror film. Did this present problems in trying to market the film for distribution?
MICHAEL MONGILLO: Yeah, “The Wind” is intentionally multi-layered, perhaps to its detriment. Certainly to its detriment when it comes to the film’s marketing. It didn’t really present a problem as far as our efforts marketing it to distributors because we had a lot of great press and awards to slap on the DVD cover (the same art you can now see at the film’s web site: www.thewindmovie.com). But I think the “intellectual” and “emotional” levels of the film presented a challenge to MTI, who ultimately released “The Wind” on DVD. From the DVD art to the sellsheet text, it was marketed like a Dimension or New Line horror movie. I am very grateful to MTI for distributing “The Wind” and I completely understand why they marketed it the way they did, and I don’t begrudge them for it, but I have a hard time understanding what has become the norm in today’s marketing.
Marketing professionals in almost every field tend to sell products through misrepresentation. They want you to think it is something other than what it actually is, which, invariably, pisses people off. If you’re expecting to see a scary movie with spectacularly bloody and elaborate deaths, which is how “The Wind” was marketed, and instead you get a paced, character-driven, creepy allegory, of course your expectations are going to govern your response. Again, I understand that a distributor needs to make choices to maximize the best possible chance of a return on their investment but I know that if “The Wind” was marketed as the film that it is, fans of independent films, not just fans of horror movies, would have seen it too. That would have meant stronger word of mouth, less disappointment from horror fans expecting one thing and getting another, and, hence, stronger sales and more profits for everyone. Hell, Fangoria magazine did a full-page article on “The Wind” before it was even in release because Anthony Timpone (Editor) and Michael Gingold (Managing Editor) both loved the movie that much, praising it for what it is as much as what it is not. Horror genre fans are smart people who like all types of horror movies but like anyone with anything, you want to get what you’re told you’re paying for.
Q: “Welcome to Earth” is a fascinating concept. How did it originate?
MICHAEL MONGILLO: Like everything I’ve directed, it was an exercise in reverse engineering. My partners and I tend to start by saying, “Okay, we want to make a movie. How much money and what resources do we have to do it?” Once we figure that out, we bounce around ideas that are achievable: generally, concepts that have few characters, few locations, and only a few explosions. With “Welcome to Earth,” my co-writer James Charbonneau came up with the premise: “More than a year has passed since beings from another planet revealed themselves to humanity. Now, on the eve of the worldwide broadcast of the first historic summit between representatives of Earth and the ‘Visitors,’ Albert and his friends decide to have a ‘Welcome to Earth’ party.” From that, Jim and I worked out the characters and their stories and wrote the screenplay together. Sometimes this reverse engineering process limits the writing but I find that, with those limitations, we rise to the challenge and come up with characters, situations and scenarios that are more likely to be true, in the literary sense of the word.
Q: “Welcome to Earth” also has a surprisingly large ensemble for an indie film. How were you able to coordinate so many people into the span of the film?
MICHAEL MONGILLO: One of the self-imposed blocks we had to break through in order to make the screenplay work was allowing it to be a large cast. It is a party, after all. We tried and tried to make it a small get-together with just the core group of close friends but it just didn’t ring true and, trying to force that, we ended up writing ourselves into a few corners. Since I do the majority of planning and coordination on our movies, I made the producer’s choice to open it up and then the whole thing flowed. But it wasn’t easy to coordinate so many people. It was a huge undertaking of tiresome legwork, casting, and logistics. We had a cast of about twenty-five people and every one of them was a speaking part, although not everything made it into the final cut.
Keeping the shoot to six days and shooting the scenes with multiple digital cameras and having two units helped. It was a pretty dictatorial shoot from the producer’s side. If you were in the cast, you had to be there every day, whether you were on the schedule or not. I break down our productions very systematically yet I know how to deviate from the plan if either external or creative forces call for it. With such little time to shoot the principal photography, I couldn’t take the chance that if I needed to change the plan that the right people wouldn’t be there. I warned actors not to wait until the day before a big monologue was scheduled to commit it to memory because, at the drop of a hat, we could be shooting any given scene. Deciding to shoot it all documentary-style allowed me to let the majority of the visuals be organic, which, as hoped, became the process for all things creative. What wasn’t planned is how this feeling of freedom overflowed to the logistics and business of the set, which made “Welcome to Earth” a genuinely fun and high-spirited shoot.
Q: You also co-founded the New Haven Underground Film Festival. What is the story behind that happening?
MICHAEL MONGILLO: Sure, I’ve faced a lot of rejection but what I remember most throughout my so-called career is that I’ve been fortunate enough to be the recipient of advice, help, and encouragement from some pretty amazing people. It’s like with Ralph Bakshi, Anthony Timpone, and Michael Gingold: these guys did not have to go out of their way to help me yet they did. I also have some very talented and successful friends in the industry who are always there for me, from giving me their honest, constructive opinions on my work to giving me moral support. I guess I just wanted to spread the wealth. If I can encourage another filmmaker not to give up then I’ve achieved what I set out to do by co-founding the festival.
Not wanting to come off as too earnest, it was also a good reason for co-founder Todd Dzicek and I to hang out, watch movies, and drink beer. And it really has been Todd who has kept it going, mostly by taking the reins, but also by reminding me again and again that we do it to help our fellow filmmakers. And it’s a good thing he has a level of resilience that I sometimes lack because when it comes to NHUFF, let me tell you, it sometimes feels like no good deed goes unpunished. But then the festival comes and between the filmmakers and the viewers the event is practically a love-in, which gives me the energy to do my part to keep it alive.
Q: What are your next projects?
MICHAEL MONGILLO: With my next feature, I’m making the big leap from micro-budgets and unknown actors to an adequate budget and name talent. We’re, apparently, just days away from full financing being in a production account for the project so I’m guardedly psyched. The movie is tentatively titled, “Being Michael Madsen,” starring Michael Madsen, of course. We have a few other big stars lined up but I can’t drop names since we’re still in the process of officially contracting them. I can’t give you any more details on this movie because part of the marketing we’re planning requires that its premise remain top secret until its release. What I can tell you is that it’s very cool to be in a place where I’m dealing with people who I admire and respect that really dig the work that me and my team is producing.
After this one, I want to direct a fairly big budget screen adaptation of “The Philistine,” (www.thephilistine.com) based on the comic book series I created. “The Philistine” was in development with an executive producer, producer, and an agent for about a year but despite the very positive and enthusiastic coverage the property and screenplay received from the major studios and some high-profile directors, it never got off the ground. After that fell through, I returned to developing the “Being Michael Madsen” project on my own. It’s based on a screenplay that James Charbonneau (co-writer of “The Wind” and “Welcome to Earth”) and I wrote a few years ago, which was another feat of reverse engineering. Essentially, the scenes requiring our stars can be shot in only a few days yet the stars remain the predominant figures in the film, making it very affordable and doable and, at the end of the day, very appealing to any distributor.
Without getting into a dissertation on the ironies of art as commerce, the likelihood of a high return in relation to cost is staggering on this project. Let it be known that I wholeheartedly want to make a profit for my investors. I am indescribably grateful to all of them, past and present. Yes, I genuinely want to do right by them for having faith in me but I also know that the only way I’ll get to keep making movies is by making money for the folks risking the green. Am I overstating how much I love my investors?