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Gravestoned – an Interview with Michael McWillie

October 27, 2009

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On Nov. 3, “Gravestoned” the first film from artist Michael McWillie, will have its DVD release. McWillie recently answered a few questions about the film, inspiration and art.

OFF: You said in a recent interview that seeing Kubrick and Coppola films helped influence your decision to move into the realm of filmmaking along with your other art forms. What specifically moved you about those films – was it a visual component or storytelling, or something else?

MM: It was the visual element at first, especially with Kubrick. The more I became involved with filmmaking the more I appreciated the storytelling aspect. I am still in awe of Coppola’s storytelling and humanity. How Coppola could have directed “The Godfather” with all of its intense nuances regarding people and “family” and their complex interactions and emotions in his late 20’s and early 30’s is beyond me. I love that you can take the film on so many levels. Is it a film about gangsters or is it a film about family or is it a film about  the art of making films? And the answer is yes. And then there is “Apocalypse Now.”

The opening scene could be a film in itself with its metaphor on filmmaking. It’s like when they finally come to tell you that you have the okay to make the film your first reaction when you open the door is “what are the charges?”

OFF: Can you tell me a little about pre-production to shooting to where you are now about to release the film nationally? How long was the process?

MM: The film had a fairly standard pre-production phase with breaking down the script, casting actors, discussing my vision of the film with the director of photography and directing the creation of the props and special effects for the film. My first vision of the film took about three weeks to shoot. I spent a lot of time editing and a lot of time in the sound mixing studio getting the music and sound right.  As the characters were developing I shot some additional footage to enhance some things that I liked. I could do that because I also produced the film and had some executive producers who were fans of mine from the art world and were having a great time and that gave me the luxury of spending the time needed to create the film that I wanted. The film is currently wrapping up a Texas Roadshow engagement and we have been discussing showing it perhaps in New York and Chicago.

OFF: What did you learn about filmmaking while taking part in this film? Anything you would change looking back on it?

MM: Actually the things I would change about the movie I actually did change. I think the main thing I learned is you have to be in with the editor and tightly direct the editing. Nobody knows all of the shots that are available better than the director. The shot lists don’t really cover the nuances. There could be a perfect glance from a character that is at the end of a take that isn’t mentioned on the shot list that only you remember that could make a real difference in your film. Also there is a real difference between realism, meaning a person who can play a role and be realistic  and an actor creating a character which goes beyond realism into magic. That magic is essential.

OFF: Painting, printmaking, film all are very different mediums – what are the challenges of filmmaking compared to the others? What were you able to bring from your artistic background into film?

MM: In painting you are mixing the colors and holding the brush and touching the canvas. With film someone else is holding the brush. ie: the cinematographer, and the actors, unlike the paint you use, may or may not be the ideal color/texture/intensity you want for your film so you have less control. But the beauty of film is that with the right actors they can create characters that can exceed your initial expectations. Then again I have never had a tube of paint get mad at me because I didn’t give them top billing.

Because of my artistic background I was able to bring a very strong visual and compositional sense to the film. I was coming from a very visual world. Whatever happened I wanted the film to very visual. I was able to bring a certain vision and interpretation of the world and a different viewpoint towards editing that someone would have with a background in the film industry. I wasn’t limited as to how things should be done. In fact, part of what I wanted to do was to do some things differently than the way it is usually done.

OFF: What prompted you to jump headlong into a feature film and specifically a comedy-horror genre?

MM: I had made some “art films” a while back and I was having quite a bit of success with painting including some high recognition works of art that were becoming well known, including a few paintings in The White House (they can be seen at michaelmcwillie.com). So I was pretty happy but a friend approached me and reminded my that I was this “great artist” and all, but that I was lacking in my career because having started out as a filmmaker I had never made a feature film!

That aggravated me because I knew my friend was right and so I knew I had to make a feature film.

I made a film in the comedy horror genre because I always loved horror films and I always loved comedies. I am a big fan of Chaplin and he was a major influence in me choosing the Scottie Dog as the main motif/character in my paintings. The Scot was my Tramp.

OFF: You are known for your images of Scotty dogs and you, of course, incorporate a dog into this film. Tell me more about the dog actors that you used – there were three?

MM: There were actually four. Ruckus was the main Scot in the film – he’s the one that carries the arm at the end of the film. He is actually in most of the film. He steals the panties, jumps out of the van, etc. I also used my own Scottie Mackintosh for some scenes in the film before he was abruptly retired from the film because he bit one of the actresses. Then there is Whiskie the Scot in the opening scene of the film. Whiskie was also in Oliver Stone’s film “W” and played Barney. The fourth Scot was Chivas and he played the Scottie owned by the infamous new mogul at the end of the film.

OFF: Who do you believe is the audience for your film?

MM: Anyone that wants to have a good ride. Younger audiences seem to get it. Although I know of many older people who have seem it quite a few times at the screenings so they must get it too. And, of course, the stoners really seem to have endorsed it. And then there are the Scottish Terrier people who are calling it The SCOTTISH TERRIER Horror Movie. Fans of horror films with a campy/comedy edge should like it as well as fans of Cheech and Chong and stoner films.

OFF: Recently I read an article about art being on one side and film on the other rather than film being considered one of the arts. Being that you are in both worlds, what are your thoughts on this?

MM: I really believe that film is an art form. Fellini, Antonioni and Bergman proved that a long time ago. I think we hit a blockbuster mentality in the commercial film world, but I like what I’m seeing in the real Indie world. It’s very trendy right now for the top New York artists to venture into filmmaking. There is Art and art. In the New York art world someone once said that everyone in the art world wears black. But is it the right shade of black? That’s what we’re dealing with.

OFF: Tell us where we can see it – on DVD, Netflix?

MM: It will be available on DVD from NetFlix, Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, BestBuy.com, Blockbuster.com and the usual places on November 3rd. You can put it in your NetFlix queue NOW or pre-order it at online at most of the major retailers.

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