Interview conducted and written by Becky Darke
I’d like to start by asking you about how you got into film-making. What’s your background, and is making movies something you’ve always wanted to do?
Yes, I’ve been making pictures since I was a swarthy young deckhand aboard the disassembled steamboat of Captain Fitzcarraldo. In aught 8, I finally made it back to the Port of Milwaukee, where high school principal Bill Henkle was waiting. He wanted to hire haberdasher Mike Cheslik and I to make both a promotional video as well as a history video for the high school. We agreed. Folks enjoyed them. So for some reason this gave Mike and I the idea that people would also enjoy a spooky seafaring comedy about monsters and drinking.
Why the aquatic focus for your first monster feature?
The idea for the picture and its aquaticism came about one rainy afternoon whilst sitting on Wine Rock along the shores of Lake Michigan listening to pirate metal with Erick West (Sean Shaughnessy). We were smoking Djarum Black Clove Cigarettes and drinking $3 sweet red wine when I turned to my companion and said, “What if a mermaid washed up on shore and we were the only ones around to see it?”
One of the most exciting things about low budget projects is how the financial restrictions can force invention. Was there anything you wanted to do on Lake Michigan Monster that you couldn’t quite stretch to, but you feel turned out better because you had to approach it in a different way?
You’re quite correct. Having virtually no money forces you to be creative in all aspects of the filmmaking process. Hell we never even used a C-Stand. I had to clip and tape old colored bulbs up, or take the shade off a lampshade to create high contrast, big shadows, or simply shine a camping flashlight underneath someone to give them a sense of spookiness. C-Stands be damned! But to answer your question, I feel as though the cinematography benefits from the lack of a professional director of photography. I feel as though because my friends and I had to be camera operators, this allowed for much more creativity. Instead of this shot being a mere static single of this character delivering a piece of dialogue, lets push in really fast and Dutch-it-up as we go! Oh, we don’t have a glass camera box and monitor for filming underwater? No need to fear! A guy I work with has a knockoff waterproof GoPro! Let’s use that! It’ll look fine! And I suppose it did, because for some reason Lake Michigan Monster went on to win Best Cinematography at a couple of film fests. “I get by with a little help from my friends.” ~ Mickey Dolenz, The Monkees
I was blown away by how you balance the aesthetic styles in the film – for example, silent cinema, pop art, anime. Can you tell me about some of your visual influences?
Guy Maddin certainly. His film Brand Upon the Brain! was the main inspiration for the look of the film and gave me confidence to try my hand at making a feature. I would also say old German Expressionist films. Early Sam Raimi, as well. And of course as you say, anime. I am a major proponent of anime action lines wherever they reside.
Lake Michigan Monster pays homage to a lot of classic movies. Was there anything you asked the cast and crew to watch, to get them in the mood for filming?
No, I didn’t want to take up anymore of their time then I already was. They all made this picture out of the kindness of their hearts. I wasn’t about to ask them to study a film or character or have them learn their lines.
It looks like a film that was a lot of fun to make. What was your favourite scene to shoot?
Operation Annihilation. It was the first beach shoot. Bright, beautiful weather; small rolling waves. The whole team was there; all 5 of us. Morale was at an all-time high. Plenty of passionfruit La Croix sparkling water to drink. Lots of energy. It felt as though we were a band of merry pirates marooned on a deserted island hunting down our very own Moby Dick — the feature film.
The film has such a confident sense of humour. What kind of comedy are you into, and did anything directly influence your writing for Lake Michigan Monster?
I suppose I was subconsciously influenced by Monty Python, The Simpsons, The ‘Burbs, The Zucker Brothers. I enjoy movies with teams. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In its purest form, Lake Michigan Monster is a comedy. One, because it has some funny moments. And two, because its very existence is laughable.
There are a couple of creepy/jumpy moments in the film, which was really exciting. What are your top five horror films?
Evil Dead II, Eyes Without a Face, Signs, Alien, The Wedding Planner.
You’ve worked closely with friends and family, what benefits does that bring to you professionally? And does it bring any downsides?
My friends and family are the best crew mates a captain could ask for. If it were up to me, we would all go on many more cinematic voyages together. The only downside is they were too helpful, too punctual. They never gave me a reason to make an example of any of them. No one even had to walk the plank! Quite frustrating as I paid a hearty some for that plank. 100% beechwood!
An upcoming project of yours is Hundreds of Beavers – what can you tell me about it? Has production been interrupted by the pandemic at all?
Hundreds of Beavers is a no dialogue, physical comedy set during the height of America’s fur trade. The whole movie is being shot over two winters in sub-zero degree weather in northern Wisconsin. So tell me, do you think we’re afraid of some itty bitty virus? Ha! I drink Corona for breakfast!
Is there an upcoming movie you’re excited for and would tempt you back into a theatre?
This question insinuates that I’m afraid to go back to the theater. On the contrary! I’d be back in the theater today if they were open. The air conditioning in my castle is horrendous! I would see Tenet. Chris makes fine pictures.
I’m pretty sure that in amongst all the brilliant black and white cinema references, I spotted an homage to The Powerpuff Girls. So… if you were a Powerpuff Girl, which one would you be?
No one ever picks Blossom. And I’m not about to start. Bubbles.