I’m really excited to share this interview I did with Carlo Mirabella-Davis – a filmmaker from upstate New York. He’s a great guy with a heap of noteworthy advice to offer on the industry and the wonderful practice of filmmaking. So, here it is:
Hi Carlo, I’d like to begin by asking you what sparked off your first real interest in filmmaking?
I’ve always been interested in filmmaking. My favorite toy was an old 1970’s portable tape recorder. I’d spend endless hours constructing radio plays and casting my friends and family as voice actors. I would also spend a lot of time drawing. I initially wanted to be an underground cartoonist. I was that weird kid off in the corner constructing vast, fictional worlds.
As a family we also had a movie night every Sunday. We’d order Chinese food and then watch some old film from the golden age of cinema.
So your whole family has a passion for film?
Yeah, my sister Francesca Mirabella is also a filmmaker. She’s just started her first year at NYU grad film school. She’s making beautiful films over there. It’s in the blood I guess.
Which movies and filmmakers influence you most?
That’s so hard to answer. There are so many movies I cherish and obsess over. I used to watch 4 films a day, which was insane. Now I’ve cut it back to 2. I love horror films, genre films. I also love art films and experimental cinema. David Lynch is obviously a huge influence. Also Flannery O’Connor. I love her. Terrence Malick. Badlands is a massive influence. I love classic horror films from the 70s and 80’s like John Carpenter’s The Thing or Possession by Zulawski. Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite films of all time.
Psycho is another film I’m completely obsessed with. The Night Porter is a brilliant film. So is The Servant by Joseph Losey and Night of the Hunter. Killer of Sheep is fantastic. I love all sorts of flicks though. I can go back to the classical era and watch silent films like Metropolis or The Passion of Joan of Arc . Of course there’s animated films that I love, Akira, and also science fiction. To be honest, I pretty much just digest anything I can get my hands on. But, I also love just a good solid drama, like The Verdict, City of God, or Oldboy. I adore Chan-wook Park. I got him to sign my hammer!
Do you find Asian movies a significant influence on your work?
Yeah, I love Asian film. Takeshi Miike’s film Audition is incredible. I also love Akira Kurosawa. Seven Samurai is one of my favourite films. I think Korean and Japanese films in particular have a tone to them and a pacing that I really admire. There’s an economy and ruthlessness of vision that I think is really masterful.
What inclined you to set up your own production company, Elkcreek Cinema?
When I turned 13, Chris Dapkins, my life long cinematic collaborator, found an old super-8 camera at a yard sale in upstate New York. That was, like, the moment of “ahah!” We set out to make this black and white film about necrophilia in my parent’s basement, which was the start of many movies to come. This led to us setting up Elkcreek Cinema as a collective to represent our brand of grass roots, by-the-skin-of-your-teeth filmmaking. It also made sense, as the road that runs through our hometown is also called Elkcreek. It was a natural fit. My sister joined the collective as well. It wasn’t until we met the brilliant Nick August-Perna, who co-directed The Swell Season, that we really decided to make Elkcreek Cinema into a viable production company.
Your short film Knife Point comes from a very strong psychological standpoint and could be seen as quite controversial, what was your message here?
I wanted to make a film about how people who commit sinister acts of brutality often believe they are doing the right thing, the moral thing. The most hideous deeds are often committed in the name of freedom and justice. It’s very rare you find someone who consciously knows they are doing something wrong and does it anyway. In reality, most extremists believe they are protecting something sacred and important. I wanted to explore that psychological mentality.
I was also examining the “culture war” in the United States. Today, literally, our government has been shut down by a group of tea party right-wingers who are threatening to destabilize the entire world economy unless they get their way. I thought, what would it look like if the cultural war in America had reached an extreme, nightmare-world scenario?
I was also interested in religious extremism, which is really at the heart of the film. I deeply respect all religions and feel strongly that everyone is entitled to believe what they want as long as they don’t try to impose their beliefs on other people. Knife Point examines how extremists often take a peaceful religion, in this case Christianity, and twist it to justify their violent or hateful actions. Like that preacher who stated after Hurricane Sandy that God was punishing the east coast because we support gay marriage. It’s not religion that’s the problem, it’s those who misuse the religion for their own sinister agendas.
I love thought-provoking horror films. One of the reasons Rosemary’s Baby is so evocative and brilliant is because it’s not a film about Satanism. It’s a film about sexism, the pressures of conformity, and how women are often oppressed in traditional marriage. I see the horror film as an interesting excuse to get into politics, sociology, and philosophy.
How do you take to the online revolution, using social media as a form of distribution, rather than perhaps just taking a film to a festival?
I’m very intrigued by these new technological developments. I think it’s very interesting and opens up a lot of new possibilities. I did this music video, Cry For Judas by the Mountain Goats, and after the video had been put out, people who liked it took clips and reassembled collages and gifs and put them on Tumblr. They made new art from my video, which I totally love. What a great way to interact with cinema. I think when you love a work of art, that’s what you do, you incorporate it into your identity, you cherish it. It’s like saying, “This piece of art represents my inner essence”.
In terms of online distribution, Vimeo is amazing. I was just looking at the geographical spectrum of who in the world is watching my films. It’s amazing. People in Russia, India, Iraq and Poland are watching my films. On Vimeo I can see what they’re doing and watch their movies too. The only issue with the rise of the internet is that piracy is a huge problem for independent feature films. When Chris, Nick and I made The Swell Season, our feature music documentary, we lost so much money from pirating. We’d finally gotten a genuine distribution deal, it’s on iTunes and Netflix, but every day I’d get Google alerts about people ripping a Swell Season DVD and disseminating torrents. This is bad for the entire industry, but big budget films can take the hit more because their returns are still so massive. For independent movies, it’s a killer. I think people should always pay for feature films. I buy everything, because it supports the filmmakers who made it. I’m that guy who spends loads of money on iTunes.
This is a good attitude! In terms of crowdfunding platforms, have you ever engaged with Kickstarter or Indiegogo at all?
I think websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are a wonderful miracle for filmmakers and other artists. When I was younger we had no way to raise money except to go into credit card debt or have a bake sale. These new platforms are definitely the wave of the future. Kickstarter is an incredible resource for artists around the world. Thumbs up.
What’s your attitude to these celebrity campaigns – do you think they will take away the independent audience or create more buzz around independent film?
My feeling is, the more the merrier. There are a number of profoundly talented filmmakers with an established name who just can’t get funding from the studios anymore. I don’t think these people should be denied from raising money on Kickstarter. I wish Kickstarter had been around when Orson Wells was banished from the studio system. Look, I understand how people could feel these big names are hogging all the backers, I understand that. I still feel it’s unfair to say people like Spike Lee can’t use these programs. He’s a brilliant filmmaker and I love his work. If Kickstarter is going to help him make another movie, then what’s the problem? That’s my feeling. It’s an interesting question though.
I’ve heard Elkcreek Cinema has potentially a couple of features in development. How are you handling this?
My big advice to young filmmakers would be, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Have three scripts you’re working on, have three feature projects in development. This industry is so unpredictable and you never know which project will take off. If you spend ten years just working on one project and it doesn’t have what it takes then you have to start over from scratch. In that spirit I have two projects that I’m working on.
One is feature horror film called Bulldog, which I really can’t talk too much about right now. It has a similar aesthetic to Knife Point and it’s a real horror film. It’s a genre film. It’s inspired by real events I witnessed as a kid in the 80’s in upstate New York. I’m really excited to make it. My agents are just about to send the script out to producers.
The other feature is called On Evil. This is a project I went through the Sundance Labs with. I got into the screenwriting and directing labs up at Sundance, which was a truly amazing experience. You literally get to go out there and shoot scenes from your film for practice. Robert Redford and other amazing industry professionals watch your scenes and give you incredible guidance, which was just mind-blowing. On Evil is a drama with thriller overtones about a family of academics in upstate New York. I also have a science fiction film I’ve just started writing.
People say screenwriters write about what they know, to what extent do you agree with this?
Personally, I need to write about what I know. Within your unconscious mind lurks all these dark, beautiful creatures you must harvest and display in all their bizarre glory. A film’s authenticity often comes from the screenwriter drawing upon real childhood experiences and emotions.
Any noteworthy advice you’d like to give to young filmmakers?
There are a couple of main things I’d like to say. You have to have thick skin as a filmmaker. This is not an industry that is going to be kind to you. You have to be able to protect the fire of your passion for cinema. It’s like a little candle you have to build strong, thick metal around and keep alight. People will attack you as soon as you start making your first film. They’ll say, “What are you doing? Making a film? That’s insane! You should be a doctor or a lawyer.” You gotta have courage. Have the faith of your convictions and say “You know what? I wanna be a filmmaker and I’m going to stick with it no matter what.”
You have to be prepared to make mistakes, especially early on. You can’t give up when you hit a wall. Many people pack it in if they don’t acquire instant creative success. Stick with it no matter what. Remember, you’re not making films to make money or win awards, you’re in it because you love cinema! You love telling stories. You love to enter the world of your imagination. Holding onto that fire is a hard thing to do, but you have to hold onto it forever. That fire is the light of your soul, flickering in the vast, impenetrable darkness.
The other thing I would say, in terms of actually making movies, is that finding the right people is important. Find people who like the kind of films you like and want to make films too. Make sure they share your passion and then, like Shakespeare wrote, “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to you with hoops of steel”. A good director surrounds themselves with talented, interesting people. If you meet somebody who is like you and has an unquenchable passion for creativity, become close with them. It’s you and them versus the world. It’s those collaborative bonds that ultimately lead to great movies.
Also, don’t be afraid to admit that you’re still learning. Continue to teach yourself. Once you say, “I’m done. I’ve figured it out.” you die. Good filmmakers are always evolving. Try new styles. Try new technology. Try everything.
Do you feel the same way about genre? Do you think that directors who stick to only a certain genre are limiting themselves and therefore can’t be a great director?
I’m a big Kubrick fan and I love the way he went from an amazing science fiction film to an amazing horror film to an amazing drama. He did everything. I do like the idea of mixing it up. But at the same time, I’m also a big Hitchcock fan and he really understood genre and was into the idea of picking one and honing your skills in that arena. He embraced being The Master of Suspense. I think both are totally valid ways to do things. Either way, filmmakers must do everything in their power to avoid stagnation and predictability.
Thanks Carlo, there’s some remarkable insight here. Good luck with your projects!
Thanks Charlie! Good luck with your projects as well.
Watch Knife Point below: