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?