Christian Simonsen interviews local producer Michael Laird about turning a second Pint Sized Play script into a film.
One of the most enthusiastic audience members of Theater Pub’s Pint Sized Plays Festival IV was Michael Laird. Luckily for me, he also happened to be an aspiring independent filmmaker who works through the Scary Cow film collective. Michael chose my Pint Sized script, “Multitasking”, as his first short film project as an independent producer. Not one to remain idle, Michael immediately set his sights on another script from the same festival: the clever and poignant “Mark +/-” by Daniel Ng (also recently remounted by original director Adam Sussman at the 2014 Titan Award Directors’ Showcase).
So, who is this Michael Laird guy?
ML: A regular guy from Nor Cal who always had creative thoughts but no outlet. Went to UC Santa Barbara to study physics, but ended up with a history degree – which I still read for fun (history, I mean.)
What made you want to become a filmmaker?
ML: I got tired of thinking great comedy lines and skits but doing nothing about them, or watching movies and thinking they could be more creative. Several years ago I heard about Scary Cow, where people make their own films; last year I finally decided it was time to do something, rather than just wishing that I did.
How does the Scary Cow film collective process work?
ML: Every four months they have a member’s meeting, where people who want to make a movie pitch their idea, to draw others into their group. Usually a movie takes twelve people, including a couple actors, but also someone who owns light equipment, knows how to run a camera, wiling to hold a boom microphone, and the most important – who will bring food?
The producer is the one who owns the film, pitches, recruits volunteers, juggle schedules, and rides the volunteers until there is a finished project. If the length is within 10 minutes, the film is then shown at the Castro Theater, where Scary Cow screens their results every four months.
What have you learned most from working as a crew member on other filmmakers’ productions?
ML: My first lesson – going up to Marin County one Friday evening, spent four hours, all for 20 seconds of finished product showing a scared women walking through an alley where several homeless stand around a fire. The lesson: making films takes a lot of time and patience.
The second lesson – you volunteer, give, help, be a friend, and then people are more willing to help you on your film.
Producers in both film and live theater are stuck with a lot of the unglamorous dirty work needed to bring a production to completion. What qualities do you think are most needed in that role?
ML: Organization and people skills. The producer is the one ultimately responsible for all the details – if a key actor doesn’t show up when everyone else is at the set, it isn’t the cameraman’s responsibility. Which means a lot of leadership skills, to bring out everyone’s best (since no one is getting paid).
You need to bring many different people with diverse talents together for a common goal. How would you describe your “management style”?
ML: I have to be a good listener and accept a lot of direction from those who have more skills. I don’t know as much about key lighting or camera angles as those who bought their own equipment and worked it for years. It would be different if I studied film in college and worked on a dozen films.
Most short films are based on original screenplays. What inspired you choose playwrights’ scripts from the local live theater community?
ML: In live theater you get an idea how the finished product looks and sounds-though film is different, since you get close ups and softer voices.
What drew you to Daniel Ng’s script, “Mark +/-“?
ML: I saw it live and almost fell off the chair laughing. But that wasn’t all – I immediately “boxed” the view, meaning I could see how to film it. Two actors around a table, one scene, no complicated locations or scenery. An easy shoot, compared to some that takes five days and renting three apartments for an extended story.
The script presented unique technical challenges, since the main character interacts with both past and future versions of himself. How did you overcome them?
ML: There were two possibilities. I first imagined “green screening” the main actor. You film him in front of a green screen, and then in editing you use a computer to paste his image over a café scene. That way you paste his image three times.
But on the day of the shoot, the cinematographer and director though it best to shoot him three times, with same unchanging background, then paste the images together in editing. That was easier for lighting and cinematographer, since not filming over an imagined background, but proved immensely more difficult for the actor – he had to repeat his words, hand movements, and timing exactly for all three shots of him sitting around the table.
So overall, was producing your second film easier or harder?
ML: The only harder part of a second film is I got over confident. My first film went so easy, I forgot that most films actually take longer to shoot and have more fires that need to be put out. We almost didn’t get the second film shooting finished, because it took longer than I expected.
What do you look for when you are hunting for a potential new “Michael Laird Production”?
ML: I still love the funny skit, Saturday Night Live style. I love funny dialogue rather than beautiful costumes or scenery. And something that isn’t a rehash of a dozen TV shows you already seen.
Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
ML: Editing my last film is taking longer than my first film. I am working on that, and also helping others on their films – which will come in handy when looking for volunteers for my Next Great Comedy.