Interview by John Wisniewski
John Wisniewski: How did you get involved with filmmaking, Michael?
Micheal Mongillo: I started very young, making Super 8 movies with my cousins. We were inspired by seeing “Star Wars.” I remember attempting in-camera lightsaber effects and that the results were less than stellar so we lost interest pretty quickly. It really was “Star Wars” that got me obsessed with movies. I watched as many as I could on TV, at dollar matinees, and once there were video rentals, more than I can remember. From all the magazines and fanzines I read, plus my obsessions with sci-fi and fantasy films, somewhere along the way I got it in my head that I could be a director. That began to be more than just a daydream when I started making camcorder shorts with my friends in high school. Forced-perspective shots, stop-motion, homemade VHS-to-VHS linear editing setups, figuring out how to use both audio tracks. After that I went to college for art but before long I changed my concentration from illustration and graphic design to film and video. I ended up in student government and made my first industry connections through friends of board members. That was the beginning of developing projects with established producers, having films come to the brink of being made only to tank for some reason or another. While I was trying to get those projects off the ground in my twenties, I was also working on shorts and feature projects with my “serious” filmmaker friends. We took it seriously but didn’t take ourselves too seriously. I still make movies with a lot of them. Wind-up 16mm Bolex underground films, mostly Film Threat Video Guide fare. My story’s the same as so many other indie filmmakers. I got fed up waiting for somebody else to make it happen for me so I raised money with the support of family and friends to eventually direct my first feature on Super 16, “The Wind.”
John Wisniewski:. Any favorite film directors?
Micheal Mongillo: I suppose my taste and influences could be considered typical if not pedestrian. Kubrick is the mainstay. I watch one of his films probably every other month. I go through periods where I’m obsessed with certain directors and then years later I’ll circle back and watch all their films again. These days I’m in awe of George Miller’s Mad Max films. I puzzle over how and why they work so brilliantly as mondo cinema with real heart and soul. Excluding “Thunderdome” of course. The directors whose work I revisit most, consistently enjoy, and always find inspiring are probably Danny Boyle, De Palma, Scorsese, Malick, Peter Weir, Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Kathryn Bigelow, Nicolas Winding Refn, Denis Villeneuve, Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarantino, Linklater. I’d go so far as to say that Danny Boyle is the world’s greatest living director.
John Wisniewski: Could you tell us about making your debut “The Wind,” which was praised by Ralph Bakshi?
Micheal Mongillo: Ha! That praise from Ralph Bakshi was a fluke but I’ll always be grateful for it. I’m a big admirer of animation, too, so I should rightly add Bakshi, Otomo, and Genndy Tartakovsky to that favorites list. Yeah, part of being a filmmaker is being a film fanatic so around the time we were finishing “The Wind” I was working for KODAK MASD and making some disposable income. So when Bakshi was selling animation cels from “The Lord of the Rings” on eBay, I purchased two. I was able to reach him through that transaction and asked if he would watch “The Wind.” He graciously agreed and a few weeks later he sent me a bunch of original sketches with a really nice note praising the movie. That’s where the great pull quotes on the variant poster come from. I agree that the movie is “strangely intriguing,” which is probably its greatest strength. Making the film was strange at times too. New and exciting but strange. It was “a real movie shoot” with a complete crew of film and TV freelancers. As a director, I’d never worked with a big crew before. So it’s me, my indie filmmaker friends, and we’ve thrown ourselves into this rigid, schedule-driven process that was just strange and counterintuitive to us at the time. But we found our stride. It ended up being a very creative and enjoyable shoot. Still, for me, it’s always preferable to keep it small when you can. You have way more fun and everyone feels like they’re an important part of the process, because they are, because they have to be.
Micheal Mongillo: Other than being satisfied with the movie as a viewer and having a lot of laughs making it, it’s tough to find good things to say about Michael Madsen or what became of the picture. Michael has been publicly hostile about the movie and, in at least one interview I know about (The A.V. Club), he was so aggressively insulting of me, the team, and the movie that it’s actually funny. I know it’s petty of me to point it out but if the film is so awful, why was it selected to screen in the mockumentary retrospective at New Horizons with films like “This Is Spinal Tap.” Why did Magnolia make an offer to distribute it. How did we get into all those top-tier festivals with no connections. Michael’s real problem with the film is that there was some beef between him and its primary investor compounded by the fact that he didn’t like how he was portrayed in the film. Somehow, from script-to-screen, I’m convinced he misunderstood that it’s a satire and that the material required him to be the butt of the joke. And the movie is virtually a precise match to the script, an “insert movie star here” formula. Any name actor could have played that role. But Michael’s the one who asked for the title change (from “Turning the Tables”) and arranged for his celebrity friends and family to be in it. After that, it was all just troubles and disappointments. I’m going to avoid naming names but where to begin. It was one thing after another: from the sabotage of its publicity, to reputable distribution going south, the development of a spinoff TV show that derailed, and on and on and on to the present. The latest hitch is the that the picture has been so frequently sublicensed for terms that exceed the original contract, even though the rights have legally reverted back to its owner, he can’t get it back into distribution without hiring a team of lawyers to untangle that web. It’s all pretty ugly. At its worst, this business can be dishonest and on top of that so many decisions are fueled by fear and ego. But it wasn’t all bad. Michael’s sister, Virginia, was a delight and she liked the movie. David Carradine was easily one of the coolest, most present people I’ve ever met. Getting to work with Daryl Hannah and Harry Dean Stanton was surreal. Lacey Chabert was so nice and so fun to work with. Oh, and I got to hang out with Mick Jones at the Raindance opening night party. So many amazing experiences came from it all that I need to remind myself more often that I’m lucky to have lived it. I guess I just did.
John Wisniewski: Could you tell us about making “Diane,” what inspired you to make this film?
Micheal Mongillo: I was inspired to make “Diane” to convince myself that I still loved making movies and as a reaffirmation that I was doing it for the right reasons. Not quite art for art’s sake but something like that. After the frustrations of “Being Michael Madsen,” Jason Smith, Ty Warren and I worked for years developing various projects and we came so close at least twice to seeing our work produced by Hollywood concerns. Same story different decade. The goal was and remains to achieve a level of success that is self-sustaining. And as much as I didn’t want to put another low-budget film together it was either that or stop. A writer writes. A painter paints. It’s not that easy when your medium is narrative features. And at that point, I was caught up feeling like I had something to prove, resentful of other filmmaker’s successes. People I don’t even know. Just useless thoughts and feelings. I had to step back and commit to having no expectations about making a breakthrough film. About other people. About anything. Once I did that, and it wasn’t easy, I was ready to put in the time to make another low-budget feature. I know that sounds new agey, which I’m not, but it really does take a kind of spiritual commitment to make low-budget films. On average, it’s a three or four year haul from conception to distribution. It was quite a journey and in the end our weird little movie went on to some terrific festivals, insanely positive reviews, and great distribution. Making “Diane” with such talented friends and collaborators was easily the most fun and gratifying experience of my so-called career. It’s the movie I’m most proud of.
John Wisniewski: Are you a fan of horror and sci-fi film’s?
Micheal Mongillo: Absolutely. There’s a lot of solid, serious sci-fi movies and shows being produced these days and, my distinction, even some great space adventures. All mostly big budget stuff but most great sci-fi always has been. There’s been some remarkable art-house horror over the last decade: “The Witch,” “It Follows,” “Get Out,” “Kill List,” “The Snowtown Murders,” “Black Swan,” “Our Evil,” “The Lodge.” I’m not one of those unreasonable fans with the narrow definition that it needs to be scary or gory to be classified as horror but when you market a film in a certain way fans are justified in demanding that it delivers. My problem with modern horror is you really have to dig to find the good stuff. I love a good slasher film or ghost story, too, but so much of what’s out these days is half-baked or over-expositionized, shock value not terror, horror by sound design, everything’s telegraphed, or it’s relentless action and mayhem that just gets boring after a while. We can do better, horror filmmakers.
John Wisniewski: Could you tell us about your next film? What will it be about?
Micheal Mongillo: The goal is that “The Changed” will be our next feature. It’s a sci-fi/thriller that’s essentially the plot of “Night of the Living Dead” and the story of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” with a revisionist approach. We raised a decent budget, attached Tony Todd and Clare Foley, were all set to go but it was force majeure. Just a couple of weeks before principal photography, we had to shut it all down due to the pandemic. We’re still trying to figure out how and when we’re going to make it. With the funding spent on the false starts, and the possibility that we’re going to shoot this in December following all the safety protocols, I’ve had to finish up a rewrite over the last few weeks. I scaled back its scope considerably even though it’s mostly a one-location concept already. I wanted these time-lapse bookends between acts, some ambitious company moves involving dozens of extras, a lot of second unit. We lost most of the stunt work, some of the characters, and a few story beats, too. It was like a house of cards but the rewrite really forced me to examine the story logic and refine the characters and their motivations. If it was bulletproof before it’s rocket-proof now. It’s crazy times and I’m fully aware movies are insignificant in the grand scheme but in tough times people really do need entertainment. Hopefully we’ll get to shoot it this year, everyone will stay safe and healthy, and we’ll make a great movie.