The name Michael Worth may not ring a bell, but his face should prove familiar. With a steady flow of performances scattered throughout the action realm, Worth built an extensive acting resume before recently deciding to enter the directing ring and take a seat behind the camera.
His debut as writer-director came with Killing Cupid, which achieved indie acclaim by garnering attention and wins around the festival circuit. Worth directed, wrote and starred in his latest release, God’s Ears, which depicts the uncanny relationship between an autistic boxer and an exotic dancer. The film’s success has managed to surpass that of his previous work, acquiring a spot in the Japan’s highly selective Skip City Festival, taking place now through July 20, 2009, as the only U.S. film in the 2009 program.
Here Worth talks to MM about his newfound international recognition and his friendship with David Mamet (and their new project together).
Eilssa Suh (MM): I read that you made your first movie when you were just 10 years old. Since then have you had any formal training in moviemaking or theater?
Michael Worth (MW): I really realize how early the moviemaking bug got into my system. In fact, as a kid, my only backup plan was moving to Africa and living like Tarzan in the jungle—but I was too scared of the shots I needed to get. I was about 10 years old and had written two movie scripts (“scripts” being a loose term); one was called The Tire and the other was called Dracula vs. The Sea Monster. This was before the video boom so we went to the Montclair camera store in the Bay Area and I haggled with the owner on a price on an old Bell + Howell Super 8mm camera. My mother then took me and my brother to Mill Valley where I played Dracula and my brother played the Sea Monster and we fought it out with my mother taking my direction as the cinematographer.
I went to local bay area film classes through my teens, including theater stage fighting classes and acting classes at Jean Shelton School of Acting in San Francisco. Once I was in Los Angeles, alongside of my studies as an actor with Ivana Chubbuck, I went to Santa Monica College where I studied screenwriting and film history. Outside of that, my schooling came from on-set experience. Even when I was strictly focused on my acting, I would watch the directors work while I was not needed on set. I found not only creative focus, but the grasp of understanding the feasibility of making those creative choices work on set very intriguing. My bookshelf at home [filled with books] on the filmmaking process and director and cinematographer biographies is pretty overwhelming. I do a lot of reading. And now with DVD commentaries, the amount of avenues to learn about this field is pretty massive. I try to absorb as much of it as I can. But I never found myself going through an actual film school.
MM: Your latest, God’s Ears, has received numerous awards, including international recognition at Japan’s Skip City. How does it feel to be the only U.S. moviemaker accepted to this year’s Skip City?
MW: Doing Skip City is an incredible honor for me as some of my biggest filmmaking influences have come from Japanese directors. Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, etc. have been such inspirations to me as a filmmaker. I mean there are guys like Casavettes and Clint Eastwood that as actor-directors have greatly influenced me in my path as well, but the stories and styles that come from these amazing [Japanese] talents have just always humbled me. Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story, Ugetsu monogatari…
So, having a chance to walk the space where these films were made is going to be a real treat. And just being one of 15 films from 800 submissions is pretty mind boggling. Makes you count all your blessings in life, I tell you. But this film has meant more to me than anything, not just because it has been the first time I had such creative freedom (which may be good or bad), but because the whole point of the film—the striving for communication and understanding when there appears to be none—so outweighs all the filmmaking technique and performance in the world and I am so glad to get that out there.
MM: How do you find the festival circuit to be effective for indie moviemakers in general? How important is it?
MW: I think at one time the festival circuit was the main way independent films got noticed by buyers. Today, there are so many festivals and a hundred times the amount of filmmakers, so getting into a festival is not always going to be about discovering the company that is going to release your film, but more about getting your film seen by an audience and watching other filmmakers’ work. It is also a great way to network and be a part of the community. Getting into the festivals, and winning awards, does certainly have an effect on your film and your personal career, especially in those top-tier festivals. The success we have had with God’s Ears has gotten it in front of some really strong people in Hollywood this year. But the real benefit of these festivals has been just watching this project do what it is supposed to do—shine on the screen in front of a group of strangers—and watching the audience become engulfed in this story.
MM: Japan’s Skip City is unique in that it honors films specifically shot and edited digitally. Why did you choose to shoot digital for God’s Ears?
MW: Well, I had two reasons really, one practical and the other creative. Since God’s Ears was on a limited budget, hence a limited amount of time, I felt my ability to “sling” the camera around quickly and allow me to shoot with more natural light was more practical with digital. Of course, being more sensitive to light I had to try and be more careful with the camera and with controlling the natural light so it was not too washed out or “video looking.” But my cameraman Neil Lisk and I planned out the shoot so we were outdoors mainly at day start and day end and then would find our interiors in the top-light part of the day, when [natural light] was at its most intense.
I personally can “feel” digital and film differently, so I want to make sure that the story suits the medium. And being that this story is contemporary and was conceived as more of a “docudrama” in some ways, I felt digital could work visually. The camera we chose was the Sony F900. We had discussed the Panasonic VariCam, but ultimately working in the full 1080p [of the F900] was what I went with. My post house, Digital Jungle, was also familiar with the format and that made things run a lot smoother in post color timing, etc. It is important that I really understand my cameras inside and out since I like to operate a lot. The digital era continues to grow and change faster than film ever did, so it certainly requires a lot of attention to the innovations in that technology.
MM: From your previous roles/experience, you display great interest in the action genre. While God’s Ears certainly has an action element, it is also a drama about human struggles. Where did you find inspiration for this story?
MW: Yes, as an actor I found myself in a lot of action films, but that was less a choice of creative desire and more a choice to work as an actor rather than a waiter. I have been a martial artist for most of my life, but that was really a personal journey, not something I was eagerly trying to tie with my professional one. My first leading role was as a fighter in this film [Final Impact] with Lorenzo Lamas. I wouldn’t see it at the time, but it was a beautiful example of how to shoot a film in 10 days. It did really well for the company [PM Entertainment Group] and so they asked me to do a couple more of a very similar nature. Though I find the idea of doing effective and creative action scenes very valid and compelling, that in itself is hardly my life’s dream.
God’s Ears, though set in a familiar setting for me—the boxing gym—is not so much about boxing, but about the parallels and metaphors I see within the sport and with autism. I see the fighter in both, the constantly shifting environments, the pain, the contact, the impact. I wanted to play with that story-wise. The script was something I had written, never expecting it to get made. Why write it? Because I had been writing these very genre-focused films and was beginning to question my ability to place “truth” on the page. I was ghostwriting for these sci-fi films and erotic thrillers for a living so I wanted to get myself back into the groove of my own personal stories; I really began to discover all of that in this off-beat love story about a man with autism and this dancer. I spent some time with people dealing with this affliction and pulled much of the character from what I saw. I am just very lucky that someone came along and believed in this story.
MM: Writing or directing a film does not come easy for many, but this is the second time you’ve done both, in addition to acting. Is this your preferable way to work? Which aspect of moviemaking do you enjoy most?
MW: Yeah, I admit the whole process of filmmaking fascinates me. This interest was there as a child and even though for many years I focused solely on the acting, I continued to study the other areas. Directing your own scripts can be a very fulfilling experience, but if you are not careful and aware of what you are doing, your vision may not translate because you can be too close to your story. I love working from my own scripts as it feels like a natural progression from the writing process for me. I have written for other directors and even recently directed from someone else’s script, a film called Fort McCoy with Eric Stoltz. Both experiences have taught me a lot about translation and vision. But one has to remain focused first and foremost on the goal and betterment of the project rather than our own passionate desires when making a film. By that I mean it is easy to suddenly say, “I want to do it all,” and find you have lost some focus in one area or another and not give the film your best in each one of those roles.
Film is a collaborative effort for sure, but I take a pretty deep involvement into all the facets of the films I direct. I will chose the film stock and camera, pick the lenses I want to use as well as the type of lighting I want to rely on. I find the visual story I tell (composition, lighting style) is just as important as the structure of the script. There are guys like Antonioni and Tarkovsky that really have a unique grasp on that; they have such an “architecture” and dimension to their filmmaking and I really admire that. Though I am so very happy to have someone toss a good script my way to act in, I do find my time consumed with trying to structure interesting stories. It all really depends on the project.
When I did Killing Cupid (aka Warrior Or Assassin) it was, and still is, the lowest budget I have ever worked with. I still consider the film more of an experimental film than a feature film. I shot on Super 16mm as well as some Super 8mm. I pulled together a group of my close friends—actors like Lorenzo Lamas, Jeff Fahey and Christa Sauls—and went out there with a crew of about 10 and started shooting. It was like two steps up from my Dracula vs. The Sea Monster days in terms of available resources, but a great experience for my first time at bat. It was a very off-beat, and as I said experimental piece, but sometimes I feel one really needs to take a chance to break new ground and learn. That felt like a good place for me to do that. By the time I got to God’s Ears I was already aware of many of the traps not to fall into.
MM: Since you have an acting background, do you look for anything specifically when you are casting?
MW: I look for passion first. You can usually tell when someone is just here to show up and get paid. I don’t even care if the person does it differently than what I have in my head, as long as I see they are getting into that character and trying to take it over. I’m also not a big audition person. I hate making people read. I never really liked doing it and didn’t ever feel I was very good at it even though I felt I could play the role well. So I usually watch people’s reel and see if they have the look or vibe of that part. Then I just sit down and talk with them and see how they are as people; you deal with the person a lot more than the character.
I find working with people I have worked with before a great way to get through my projects. As an actor I made a lot of friends that were actors so I already had a good grasp on them. Many times when I write, I write with them in mind. There is a shorthand you develop between the writer, actor and director that can really make the film flow. I have people like Christa Sauls (“Acapulco H.E.A.T.”), Tim Thomerson, John Saxon, Rance Howard and others who I just enjoy watching how they handle a character. For instance, Christa is one of the easiest people in the world to work with and she always loses herself in what she does. I met her doing “H.E.A.T.” and wrote her the role of the brothel girl in Ghost Rock and then the assassin Starfish in Killing Cupid. She usually sees what I am going for when she reads the script and if there is a problem, she has a one-line question and immediately gets my one-line answer. Not to say there are not times where we sit down and hash something out, but it is great to develop as many of those symbiotic relationships as you can on a set. I can see why guys like Bergman and Scorsese work with the same people most of the time. Thomerson I usually just hire to make me laugh but he isn’t too bad of an actor (laughs).
MM: You were chosen by David Mamet to direct his next feature Come Back to Sorrento. How did this come about? How do you feel about directing someone else’s work, specifically a writer who is not only held in high regard, but who has a very distinct style to their work?
MW: Dave, [his wife] Rebecca Pidgeon and their daughter Zosia came to the premiere of God’s Ears. I had worked on Dave’s show “The Unit” as an actor and have knew their family on a social level for a few years. A couple of months after the screening, Dave told me that he and Rebecca had several years before adapted a novel called Come Back To Sorrento but it had been sitting on the shelf ever since. They were impressed enough with what I pulled off with God’s Ears, I suppose, and offered the project to me to direct. I still sometimes keep waiting for the “April Fool’s” line to come in. So, we are currently in the development stage with some actors coming on board and the financing being finalized.
In a case like Sorrento, I try to involve myself as little as possible in terms of style and let the story just dominate. It’s really always tricky anyway, because anything you do, from your lighting to the composition, has to benefit the scene but not stand in the way of the story. You see films where you can just tell the director is trying to “star” in his own story with a bunch of shots that just scream out, “See me!” Sometimes the overload of style can benefit a story. So for me the trick is to make every shot, every bit of staging tell the story or the scene in some visual way, but not draw too much attention to itself. Antonioni was a great example of [a director who did just that] in many of his films, as was even John Ford.
So with Sorrento, and what people expect from Dave, I will really lay back as much as possible and just use my camera to “suck up” the story that is there and not try to paint it with much more color, if that makes any sense. I obviously have to build the stage to make the film work and create a pace and feel so the viewer feels like they are in the 1930s for a couple hours, but trying too hard with it would be a mistake. So my job will be less about adding to the script and more about—taking the old sculptor adage—“chipping away at the non-essentials.”