Faster than Fassbinder! An Interview with Filmmaker Michael Fredianelli
The prolific independent filmmaker Michael Fredianelli doesn't let the microbudget scale of his productions limit his imagination -- or his creations.
"Independent film" has come a long way since its heyday back in the '90s. For a very brief period there existed a mutually beneficial intersection between filmmakers and distributors in which unique films with micro budgets were able to achieve surprisingly wide theatrical releases and critical attention. But unlike the independent films of earlier generations, films such as Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994), Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998), and Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi (1992) were essentially "backyard films", glorified home movies made by filmmakers whose auteurship was unquestioned as not only did they write, direct, often photograph and edit these films, they also often cooked the meals and swept the floors, too.
The personal struggles and stories of these filmmakers were a large part of the sell. It was the filmmaker who was often being sold more than the film itself. Distributors saw the value of selling films on the novelty of these bold individuals investing all of their money and hard work into endeavors that were pipe dreams at best. So we learned about Smith shooting Clerks all night in the same convenience store where he worked during the day and most famously Rodriguez raising funds for El Mariachi by being a human lab rat in an experimental drug study. Those films were successful but many others were not, and this unusual relationship between distributors and filmmakers soon dissolved.
The Sundance Film Festival acted as the primary gatekeeper for most of these films and its reputation became a myth of sorts: an invitation to the fest began to hold the same magical aura as Willy Wonka's golden ticket. A series of high profile films were sold for around a "million dollars", which has always been the magic number most of us common folk see as the bar for great wealth and prosperity. The filmmakers who were fortunate enough to sell their homemade movies were well promoted and many were able to establish careers inside the Hollywood film industry with varying degrees of success.
But soon after this initial gold rush of grassroots creative freedom the studio system saw an opportunity to swallow up the indie film as though it were just another genre to be exploited. Studios created "Indie Film" divisions which would make "edgier" films featuring stars looking to expand their range or change their image. Sundance became Hollywood-lite and courted red carpet glamour over struggling filmmakers shooting their films on weekends with whatever they could beg, borrow, or steal. Requiring larger budgets in order to compete, the "independent film" suddenly became very dependent again. The handmade backyard film was dead.
But not buried. The indie films of the '90s were mostly shot on film and cost a whole lot of money to produce, even when they were considered dirt cheap. But with the arrival of digital filmmaking the whole production process became almost as accessible as pen and paper. From a financial standpoint, almost anyone could conceivably make a movie. But as Francis Ford Coppola learned years earlier with his failed Zoetrope Studios, owning the means of production wasn't enough. One had to own the means of distribution. Well, today everyone does. Distribution, which used to be akin to winning Wonka's golden ticket is now no big deal. No longer is there a need for a "gatekeeper" like Sundance. You can upload your film to YouTube or Amazon Prime without anyone standing in the way get it out in the world.
The biggest obstacle to such filmmakers these days is being noticed. Without the stamp of approval and publicity of gatekeepers like Sundance and no organizational infrastructure in existence, these films often end up lost in the streaming labyrinth. Even the late, great Orson Welles had his film
The Other Side of the Wind buried within the Netflix queue. Since anyone could make a movie, many movies have been made. So it has become very hard for any single film to get attention and turning a profit or return on investment has become an almost insurmountable challenge.
None of this seems to concern Michael Fredianelli. He's too busy making films.
Though he may not be a household name outside of his Bay Area film community yet, Fredianelli has been making feature films for over a decade now; 37 of them and counting. By the time you finish reading this article he may have finished 40. A filmmaker as prolific as Fredianelli would be impossible to imagine in the '90s. He's almost impossible to imagine even now. Watching his films will make your jaw drop. These are not small scale indie dramas set on the director's couch. These are wild genre films: Horror films, Westerns, War films, Thrillers, Sci-Fi, Crime films and above all ACTION. They defy all of the common wisdom of microbudget filmmaking. The films are shot in many locations, are set in various time periods , feature large casts, and one film, Desert Mirage (2016) even mixes live action with classic 2-D animation. Fredianelli does not let the microbudget scale of his productions limit his imagination. He seems to find a way to make almost anything work and has the skill and confidence to pull it off.
With his aptly named production company, Wild Dogs Productions, Fredianelli has built a small scale microbudget studio akin to Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Corman had drive-ins while Fredianelli has a Youtube channel. Corman had scores of people working for him while Fredianelli has produced his vast body of work virtually alone. Not only does he write, direct, photograph, and edit, he often stars in his films as well. However, the New World comparison only goes so far. Corman's films were much more costly and needed to turn a profit. So he never attempted to push the boundaries too far. Without the financial pressure, Fredianelli is free to do whatever he wants. So he will make a black and white noir picture set in the '40s like 2016's The Home Invaders or a surreal sci-fi thriller like 2015's The Enemy of My Enemy or a very meta black comedy like 2015's Cross Cut, and move across as many styles and genres as he wants.
His most high profile film, 2011's The Scarlet Worm, is a western of startling moral complexity. Working from a script by David Lambert, Fredianelli tells the story of a hired killer (Aaron Stielstra) who is sent to kill a brothel owner (Dan Van Husen) performing abortions so that his prostitutes can keep earning him money. But no one in the film is exactly what he seems and it questions killing in all its forms and the motives that drive those killings. Just scroll through his credits on IMDB and you can see the extraordinary volume and variety of his work.
I recently spoke with the busy filmmaker who was, unsurprisingly, in the middle of finishing up several more films: another western written by David Lambert called The Rogues of Flat Oak, a spy thriller called The Infinity Project, as well as a post apocalyptic film called Through the Ashes. I could've asked a hundred questions about any number of his films but I really wanted to know more about his overall process. There are filmmakers who spend years on one often unfinished project while Fredianelli completes several per year. The truly amazing thing is that the films don't look rushed or reckless but rather quite polished.
From the poster of Zero to Heaven (2018)
You're faster than Fassbinder. So what's the secret? How is it that you are able to produce films at such a rapid rate?
After my first dozen films, I found a groove that allowed me to enter the process with a somewhat mechanical approach and doing what needed to be done became second nature. I've never had any formal training as I'm all self-taught, so I've had to learn from my mistakes, make my own rules, and find my own shortcuts.
I usually have at least two to three films in process at any given time. While one is currently in production, there's another one being finalized in post, and yet another that I'm casting. I think at the most, I've had five films in some phase of production at the same time and it became a nightmare. Juggling three films is doable for me, although two at one time is the ideal.
The biggest factor is locations. If I'm offered a great location, I'll jump on it and film there as soon as possible because those very kind offers usually don't last long. People move, you lose contact, and businesses close down. Capitalizing quickly on the people, places and things that are made available to you is key.
While it may be possible to find the time and resources to shoot many films in succession, it's often difficult to quickly develop the screenplays needed to make them. Especially when they are mostly the work of you alone. Do you write complete scripts for each project or are the scripts loose outlines or beat sheets that you expand upon while shooting?
Developing the screenplay is actually the quickest step of the filmmaking process for me, and I always have a completed script before I begin casting or start any pre-production. Once I have an idea for a film (it can be a specific genre that I've always wanted to try, or a great location that I suddenly have access to), I map out a quick plot outline, which includes generic ideas or desirable set-pieces. I then discipline myself to write a minimum of 10- to 20 pages per day until it's done, which usually takes a week or less. Rarely, almost never, will I add anything or improvise on the existing script, unless I'm forced to. There are a few past exceptions where I've filmed as the script was being written, with no ending in place (the films Cross Cut and The Enemy of My Enemy, for example), but you run the risk of painting yourself into a corner halfway through filming, and things can get a bit scary.
What is the typical production schedule for a Wild Dogs feature? How long does it take for an idea to go from script to screen?
Casting/finding locations takes about a month. Actual production on each feature usually consists of eight- to ten shooting days over the course of two to three weeks. On the days off I'll prepare footage for the edit or even start editing, so by the time production wraps I have about half to two thirds of the film completed. Once I have all of the footage captured, it will usually take me one to two weeks to get through post, unless there are special effects shots needed, which are farmed out to specialized artists. But compressing the entire film shoot into eight- to ten-days means we're working long hours, shooting at least ten pages per day, and scheduling is based on the specific actors and locations that are available on a given day. Getting your locations and supporting actors turned around in one or two days of shooting makes it a lot easier to secure reliable commitments from people.
Add another week to make up the posters, author DVDs, schedule a premiere and all of that stuff. So within three months of concept, the film is usually finished and there's always two to three of them overlapping. There are exceptions. For example, our live-action/animation hybrid, Desert Mirage, took three and a half years, as it was animated traditionally with dozens of artists. We did about ten other films during that time period. Or, some films get stuck with only one day of filming left because a location was lost or an actor had to drop out one day, and it takes a full month just to get rescheduling worked out because the rhythm was broken. When that happens, I just get a head start working on the next script.
The "common wisdom" in microbudget / indie filmmaking is to avoid setting your story in the past. I've noticed that several of your films have period settings -- the Old West, the Korean War, The Depression era etc. Did you find these projects to be more challenging?
Period pieces are definitely more challenging and much more of a pain in the ass overall, but the results can be more satisfying. I don't really take them on as some kind of challenge. It's just that many genres that I enjoy take place in different time periods, and I make movies that I want to see. Many times, I'll make these with budgets and timelines that are no bigger than films set in present-day, so more preparation is required and there's a large margin for error.
You think you've swept an entire set for anachronisms for your 1800s Western, but then you happen to hear an air-conditioning unit kick in or you catch a small contemporary logo in a window reflection when you're back home reviewing the footage. Costumes and period weaponry are also huge undertakings, but the biggest blocker for these films is locations. If I can find at least four to five big locations that fit the look or time period that I need, it's enough for me to start on the script for that period piece.
The shooting days are also much more exhausting on these, as it takes at least two to three hours to get the entire cast in makeup and camera-ready, and you have to make up for that time somehow in order to get the pages filmed before the sun goes down. So in a way, these are more rushed when more attention should actually be paid to them. I'm fortunate to live in the Bay Area, which has allowed me the landscape variety to shoot the Korean War, the Old West, feudal Japan, the apocalypse, and the Prohibition-era South, all within an hour of where I live.
What is your casting process? Do you pay your cast and crew?
I'll rarely write with specific actors in mind. Once I have a completed script, I'll first go to past actors that I've worked well with. If that doesn't pan out or if I need a very specific type, I'll go through reels on casting websites to find what I'm looking for. The budget usually goes entirely to locations, props and screenings, with cast and crew graciously volunteering their time and talent.
The crew is usually just myself shooting along with one sound person, but for days that require the wrangling of, say, 30 actors or some extreme action mechanics or complicated locations, I'll have a main production assistant who is more often than not my dedicated co-producer on these films, Maralynn Adams, who can rally troops like no-one's business. She's a major component in acquiring locations, extras, specialized crew, and basically everything else.
Wild Dogs seems to me to be cast in the mold of genre / old school exploitation based companies like New World Pictures or Cannon Films. Do you have plans to make films with larger budgets in the future? Have your goals changed over the years?
Whether it was meant as one or not, I'll take the Cannon/New World comparison as a compliment. [laughs] I had a few creative outlets when I was younger (such as drawing, sports, and music) and while I got into filmmaking much later, it easily gave me the most joy and it felt like what I should have been doing all along.
The goal when I was just starting out was to learn and grow and create whatever I wanted. Stuff that I wanted to see, but studios weren't making at the time. This was around the mid-00s, when there were nothing but fantasy and superhero movies everywhere (not much different today), while I was consuming '70s exploitation movies and film-noirs. So, I initially wanted to make genre pictures with a hard edge. I'll deviate from that formula every now and again with some comedies or horror or even a rare straight drama, but I almost always return to some kind of action thriller.
Do you find that a combination of DVD sales and YouTube to be the best way to get your films seen? Have you considered releasing your films on Amazon Prime, now that the platform is open to independent filmmakers via upload? Or do you feel YouTube is still the best platform for indie films?
Where independent filmmaking is at this point, I think self-distribution is the way to go. With YouTube, Amazon Prime Video and other outlets, you don't have to give up anything you own and you aren't forced into re-edits or re-titling, and you get just as much if not more exposure through those avenues. I've gotten the best response from YouTube in regards to reaching an audience (as opposed to traditional physical media distribution), but I also intend to try Prime this year as another alternative.
I've noticed that with several projects -- Year Eight, Home Free, and The Woods of Purgatory [all 2018 releases] for instance -- you released two versions -- a web series version and a final feature length cut. What is the motivation behind this method?
I've been lucky enough to work with a private investor for the past couple of years and he suggested the web series approach. Whether the story is a film or web series, it doesn't change much. With the exception of Home Free, which was written and filmed in an episodic manner (a process I didn't particularly like), Year Eight and The Woods of Purgatory were written and filmed as features and then simply cut up into six parts and first released that way. In the future, I'd like to stick with the feature approach. In all three cases, the response and the view count were vastly superior as features.
Photo of Michael Fredianelli Courtesy of Aim Publicity
Have you considered seeking funding for a larger scaled feature film?
I have in the past, but I'm not actively seeking a huge film at the moment. I wouldn't turn down a large budget if the opportunity was presented to me, but constantly going after it is too much of a headache and I need to always be making something. There came a certain point where I was pressured by others (and myself) to branch out and work with bigger budgets, which was the logical step. Only you aren't given bigger budgets just because you've made a movie before (or five or ten or fifteen). And with it comes a lot of wasted time in meetings, talk and false promises, and ten times out of ten, it just doesn't work out.
People think money solves everything, but it actually opens up a whole new can of worms. After dealing with all the bullshit for a while, I realized that I was much happier just making my own films with full creative control and no one breathing down my neck or holding anything over me. Obviously, that comes with its own limitations, but I'm okay with that. And with gear getting better and cheaper, and more amazingly talented and generous folks being brought into the Wild Dogs family with each film that we do, those limitations are shrinking.
An argument could be made that if you can achieve this level of quality moving quickly from film to film then you might really benefit from doing a slightly larger film on a longer schedule.
It's tough to say. My whole approach would need to radically shift. Over the last 11 years and 37 movies, I've become very clear on who I am and what I do. There are many ways to make movies and although some may see my methods as hasty or schlocky (it's definitely been said), I'm able to produce tangible results. Luckily for me, the appreciation or disdain for movies is completely subjective.
So, is someone else making one movie in three years "superior" to me making 9- to 12 movies in that same period of time? My drive is to tell interesting stories and work with people who are driven to do the same. Making movies with Wild Dogs may not be a fit for everyone, but if it is, those folks can count on making something rewarding in an insane amount of time, and they'll have some fun doing it. For that, I am proud.
For a very entertaining introduction to the wild world of Michael Fredianelli and Wild Dogs Productions, check out this video