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Interview with Terence Michael of Michael/Finney Productions

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Published: Feb 11, 2009
 

Credits, among others, include: I Shot a Man in Vegas, Fall, If Lucy Fell, Wirey Spindell, There's No Fish Food in Heaven, Chill Factor, 100 Girls.

Q. Hopping a fence at Warner Brothers Studios and literally landing in a job was a mix of luck and chutzpah. What do today's aspiring filmmakers need more of, and why?

A. If you're talking about producing, then I'd say more experience and knowledge in business. Today's deals are often a combination of collaborations, which require dexterity in working with everyone from bankers, brokers, bondsman to foreign buyers, venture capitalists, and other various equity groups. Because producers can't rely on one-stop studios anymore to simply pick up the whole tab, having a background in manage mentor finance is helpful. Now, of course, that only covers the economical side of producing. More importantly is the creative side, where you are able to develop and package any one project in the first place. And I'm not sure that much has changed for writers or directors when it comes to creativity. You've either got it or you don't.

Q. The adage "Everything old is new again" seems to aptly apply to the number of remakes being turned out in Tinseltown, one of the most recent being Tom Skeritt in HIGH NOON. With as much fresh, original material as there is from new writers, why does Hollywood insist on revisiting classic territory?

A. Revisiting simply widens the bullseye. To put together a film is one thing. To make it work is another. And to market it correctly and have the audience accept it at the right time is a miracle. When you do a remake, you've already got a built in audience. I'm not just talking about the paying audience. I mean everyone from the financiers, to the crew, to the actors. You sell the concept with its title. So from a pure business sense, it's a no-brainer. And making films that are modernized or even sequels helps dampen the risk on other original films you want to get made. If the bottom-line of putting money in the pockets of shareholders wasn't relevant, then there'd be no need for remakes or sequels. But as long as this is showBUSINESS, they will continue to flourish.

Q. Which of your own films are you the most proud of, and why?

A. Probably a little film I did called "Fall" that MGM picked up when we premiered it at Slamdance. It was a very small, under $1 million dollar budget love story that we painstakingly gave a look of about $5 million. We had this wonderful soundtrack with The Verve Pipe, Jars of Clay, Korn, and Aimee Mann that would normally have cost more than the budget. We used some of the best keys to give the film a rich glossy look. And the performances from the actors were impeccable. It's one of those films, for me, that wasn't supposed to be. It was this small "Last Tango In Paris" type of film with little commercial appeal. But the love story really resonated with audiences, and we actually made decent money after selling off the foreign to Capella International (Austin Powers). The gravy was in MGM taking it out theatrically. I think for both the story's emotional moments and the achievement in producing this film, it is probably my favorite.

Q. A number of Internet sites (Writers Script Network included) are narrowing the gap between aspiring screenwriters and industry professionals. What effect will this new electronic accessibility have on the future of filmmaking? How will this change the middle-man role of agents?

A. It changes everything, especially for independent production companies like ours. Although we respect agents and admit that the overall quality of the material they send us is higher, the percentage of scripts we read and acquire from the Internet or direct e-mail has now overshadowed those from the agencies. Agents don't usually have the time or patience to go through and tell you about every single writer they have. And they don't like to send out faxes with their writers' material. With the Writers Script Network, however, we can log on anytime and search for exactly what we want. We don't have to trade phone calls for two days just to see what's out there. It's instant gratification. The downside, of course, is that you have to tredge through a lot of amateurish writing.

Q. You've indicated that your own company is receptive to seeing the work of new writers. What do they need to do to get your attention?

A. Simple. Just send an e-mail (tm@terencemichael.com) with any pertinent info (usually just a synopsis is sufficient).

Q. What's the very first thing you look for in a script?

A. Concept. A one-liner will go a long way. When I have trouble pitching the project quickly to anyone from the publicists to the product placement person, I know we're in trouble.

Q. If you had it to do all over again, what would you change in your career path?

A. I would have worked my way up through the studio system before jumping off on my own. Because I left prematurely, I was spinning my wheels for three years before.

Q. Describe the dream client/writer you'd like to work with. Likewise, how would you define the Writer-From-Hell?

A. The writer-from-hell won't change a word of the script and has approval over additional writers. Go write plays if this is your attitude. It'll never fly in this business where your project has to be bonded and insured for the financing, altered creatively for the actors, and colored various shades for the director. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you perceive film, the writer is building a strong foundation for the director to then take it and do with as she pleases. The dream writer is collaborative and is open to suggestions and feedback.

Q. What is your advice to today's aspiring screenwriters?

A. Come up with a unique concept, but don't stray too far away from reality. Keep your story modern for today's audience. Have a clear and distinct voice. There are really only 7 movies out there that are told in different voices. Many of them blend into one because they have no voice. Be different in your approach, but keep the foundation that the audience expects. Sometimes taking the basic boy meets girl, or girl gets job, or guy changes jobs, is all you need. It's your execution of and new perspective on the subject matter that will separate it from the rest and attract other filmmakers.

Interviewed by Christina Hamlett.