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Interview with Michael Glover Smith, director of “Cool Apocalypse”

November 17, 2015

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director Michael Glover Smith, behind cinematographer Vincent Bolger, filming “Cool Apocalypse”

 

I had the opportunity to chat with local film critic Michael Glover Smith last night – literally. We used Google Chat. He was a real sport. Smith isn’t just a film critic though, he also teaches film here in Chicago and has written and directed a few shorts. That’s right, it’s not unheard of for a film critic to get behind the camera. Smith follows in the footsteps of French New Wave greats, like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol – who started out as critics – as well as American film critic, Kent Jones. In fact, the reason we scheduled some time to talk was due to the Chicago premiere of his new feature, “Cool Apocalypse” at the Gene Siskel Film Center this weekend. 

“Cool Apocalypse” follows a day in the life of two couples – Claudio and Tess are dissolving, while Paul and Julie have just met as we meet them. We see them starting their day like we all do – turning on some music, making morning coffee and leaving their homes to make their way to their respective jobs. Claudio and Tess are video journalists, Paul works at a used bookstore and Julie works as a receptionist at a women’s clinic next door. There is something about each of them we can relate to. They are people we know or are related to – maybe even individuals exactly like ourselves.

With a strong focus on character, Smith immerses us in a Chicago he knows – free from locations visited by tourists – telling a compelling story that is feels authentic, honest and real. Expect my review shortly, but in the meantime here’s my chat with writer/director Michael Glover Smith. Enjoy….

 

David J. Fowlie: “Hey, Michael…”

Michael Glover Smith: “Hey, David”

DJF: “You ready to get started?”

MGS: “Yes. Fire away.”

DJF: “The cool thing is – we’ll basically be transcribing as we chat!”

MGS: “Exactly.”

DJF: “So, I want to first start off by discussing you….”

MGS: “Okay.”

DJF: “I want to tell you how I came to know about you. It comes down to us using WordPress for our film reviews. That’s how I found White City Cinema and your work. I’ve probably been reading for about 5 yrs.”

MGS: “Holy smokes!”

DJF: “I dug further and realized you’re not just a film critic but also a teacher – not unheard of, but that had me hooked all the more, because I’m always looking to learn.”

MGS: “I started my blog in July, 2010, so you must have been reading since the beginning. I started my blog as an extension of my duties as a teacher.”

DJF: Yeah? Was it more for you or for your students?

MGS: “It was for both. It was a way for me to organize my thoughts about cinema and it was also a way for me to let them know more about me and my own take on film history.”

DJF: “I hope they found it invaluable because I sure did and I wasn’t even taking one of your classes – but now I want to!”

MGS: “Hey, you’re always welcome to sit in! Some other critic friends have.”

DJF: “That would be great! So, let’s back up a bit – what came first: screenwriter, film critic, teacher, director? Put them all in some kind of order if you can…”

MGS: “I used to write a lot of original content for my blog (e.g., 1000+ word reviews) but I started writing for Cine-File Chicago and Time Out Chicago and now I use the blog primarily to link to pieces at those sites – as well as to promote my new podcast.”

DJF: “It’s hard to do it all.”

MGS: “I’m a workaholic but it’s honestly not as hard as it looks to a lot of people on the outside. All of these things are interrelated after all.”

DJF: “I suppose that’s true – you can shorten and elongate your work when it’s possible, as you see fit.”

MGS: “For instance, I wouldn’t be able to blog about cinema if I was teaching another subject – like, say, Geometry.
But the teaching and the blogging and the podcast and the filmmaking all kind of feed one another.”

DJF: “you’d be blogging about Geometry, because there’s a writer in you!”

MGS: “Exactly! Anyway, to answer your question, filmmaking came first. That’s what my degrees are in. I started teaching as a way to pay the bills while still doing something related to what I love. And then I discovered I had a passion for teaching too.”

 

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Kevin Wehby as Paul in “Cool Apocalypse”

 

DJF: “Gotcha. So, were you sitting on “Cool Apocalypse” for a while or….??”

MGS: “Not really. It took a while to write but I wrote it specifically so that I could make it quickly and cheaply. I finished the final draft in early 2014 and we shot it that summer. It came together pretty fast.”

DJF: “had the idea for it been swirling in your head for a while? gestating?”

MGS: “Not consciously. But, you know, I’ve been living on the north side of Chicago for over 20 years now so the film is a reflection of a certain milieu that I’ve been seeing and responding to for a long time. During that time I wrote about seven other scripts that I discarded – and also made some short films.”

DJF: “Did Cool Apocalypse always consist of two couples – one dissolving and one just starting? Are these characters based on people you’ve known? friends? any of yourself in there?”

MGS: “Yeah, that was the central idea that got me excited about doing it. I wanted to make a film about relationships and I thought it would be fun to contrast two couples at opposite ends of the relationship spectrum. Specifically, I wanted to focus on how they communicate with each other. It’s not autobiographical in any explicit sense but I take things from real life all the time. I always say that the best lines of dialogue came from things that my wife said.
For instance: “I’m not a control freak. I just think that when I’m in charge, things get done correctly.”

DJF: “I appreciate that we just dive right in – a day in the life. one couple has no more life but there’s an odd/rare dynamic there and one is just figuring each other out – both are wholly relatable.”

MGS:  “Or – “I never yelled at you. I yelled at the situation.”

DJF: “I liked that line – a lot. I think I used that one before.”

MGS: “Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve noticed some people say that they like the Paul/Julie scenes more and some people say that they like the Claudio/Tess scenes more. I didn’t intend to provoke this reaction but I think in a way the film is like a litmus test for each viewer’s philosophy towards relationships…”

 

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Nina Ganet as Julie in “Cool Apocalypse”

 

DJF: “A litmus test – I could see that. Sure. I don’t have a preference, but if I were to eavesdrop on either – I’d prefer Paul/Julie.”

MGS: “If you’re idealistic and romantic, you’re going to prefer the Paul/Julie scenes, which are like a romantic comedy. If you’re bitter and cynical, you might prefer the Claudio/Tess scenes, which are more dramatic. But I personally “like” Claudio and Tess as much as Paul and Julie. And in fact I wanted to suggest that Paul and Julie could turn into Claudio and Tess a few years down the road.”

DJF: “Well, I don’t think anyone WANTS to be bitter and cynical and I get uncomfortable listening/seeing two people dig into each other like that –  but nevertheless, that dynamic in a couple is quite absorbing – you think “how nuts is this gonna get? what’s their deal?””

MGS: “The scene where he tricks her into kissing him is the most dramatic moment in the film. I always knew that was going to be the climax.”

DJF: “It clearly is. So, knowing that – did you write around that or was the writing process all chronological?”

MGS: “It was chronological, but I knew where it was going to go. I spent a lot of time thinking about the structure of it.”

DJF: “The structure hooked me as well. it felt like you bookended it with the Tess/Claudio story – primarily Tess.”

MGS: “I think Tess became the heart of the film. The scene of her shaving her head is really cathartic somehow.”

DJF: “Well, speaking from experience, shaving one’s head is a great way to close a chapter in life!”

MGS: “Exactly! And to open a new chapter – like a Buddhist monk first entering the monastery.”

DJF: “Right on. That’ll be in the sequel. Let’s talk length – did you always figure it’d be a little over an hour. Is it a short feature or a long short? (not that it matters)”

MGS: “Okay. I always knew it was going to be a short feature. The first rough cut was about 86 minutes. I tried to be shrewd about cutting it down to only what was necessary.”

DJF: “My bet is you had more material?”

MGS: “But at the same time, it’s not a plot-driven film. It’s a character-driven film. So it needs to breathe and I want viewers to feel like they’re hanging out with the characters. There were two whole scenes that we cut – one involving the character of Paul and Claudio’s landlord stopping by to pick up their rent. That was originally at the beginning of the film and it was classic exposition – it completely clarified who everyone was and what their relationships were at the outset. In the editing phase I realized that the film was stronger without it.”

DJF: “Films generally are stronger with little to no exposition – if you can help it. Immersion is ideal. One thing I noticed about these four characters right away – you show all of them at their places of employment – or, at least, doing their job – except Claudio. It’s because he’s stuck in life, in a holding pattern?”

MGS: “Yeah! He’s unemployed. This film is about a typical day in their lives. It’s about the rhythm of city life – getting up in the morning, putting a bagel in the toaster, taking the train to work, going on your lunch break, coming home, making dinner, etc.”

DJF: “Right. but clearly there’s more going on with him, right? I mean, there’s a reason he’s unemployed. he’s not asserting himself. Is he crippled with doubt? fear? (or is that me projected my own experiences onto him?)”

MGS: “Well, I like to keep this stuff more on the level of subtext but he’s definitely insecure because he feels competitive with Tess (in addition to their romantic entanglement). He feels emasculated because they used to work together and he got laid off while her career is taking off. We talked a lot about this stuff in rehearsal.”

DJF: “Gotcha. I think the subtext is what viewers will clue into right away. the older we are, we can probably relate to Claudio/Tess more, but Paul/Julie had me thinking of how I was long ago in my twenties.”

MGS: “I hadn’t thought of it that way but that’s a great way of putting it.”

DJF: “How long did it take you to nail down a cast?”

MGS: “Casting was key. My producer, Clare, has a lot of theater experience and she was able to funnel a lot of good actors my way. We had three days of auditions and one day of callbacks.”

DJF: “And for timesake, did you dive right into rehearsals?”

MGS: “Yeah, we had six days of rehearsals, which were very helpful.”

DJF: “That’s a good amount of time though.”

MGS: “Yeah, I wanted to make sure that the actors really understood who these people were and what the dynamics between them were. They were really prepared by the time the camera rolled.”

 

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Chelsea David as Tess in “Cool Apocalypse”

 

DJF: “It shows. let’s talk locations, you made a very conscious decision to give the Edgewater are some props. I haven’t been in that area in a while and I wound up googling: Little Corner Restaurant, Carnitas & Cookies and Armadillo’s Pillow.”

MGS: “Yeah, well, that’s where I live!”

DJF: “I figured. Are those just spots with character you wanted to include?”

MGS: “We cheated it a little bit because Paul and Julie talk about working in Old Town, but they can walk to the Little Corner Restaurant on their lunch break.”

DJF: “I DID notice that.”

MGS: “Only people who know Chicago very well are likely to notice.”

DJF: “Yeah, I figured only locals will know. When you take it to Italy, no one’s gonna notice!”

MGS: “But I love all the locations. I love Chicago and I wanted this film to be like a valentine to Chicago — but from an insider’s perspective. I didn’t want to show the Sears Tower or the Hancock building or the bean or any shit like that.”

DJF: “Of course, you didn’t! Audiences have seen all that before.”

MGS: “People who live in the city never go to those places unless they’re taking family and friends from out of town!
But all Chicagoans love driving down Lake Shore Drive.”

DJF: “It’s true! LSD during any season is beautiful (except in rush hour), but there’s definitely something relaxing about it. I would be like Tess and have that on my exit list, if I moved.”

MGS: “Yeah – to see the lake one more time. The lake makes the city, you know?”

DJF: “That’s a great way of putting it. And a fitting song too, such a classic. So, countdown to the big premiere at the Siskel Film Center – how’re you feeling?”

MGS: “I’m really excited about the Siskel Center screenings. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s playing at my favorite theater.”

DJF: “The first time I went there, I realized that a film enthusiast will witness the idea viewing audience – respectful and focused. It’s a great place for this film!”

MGS: “There’s nowhere I would rather have it play – and I really mean that. I’ve been going there since 1993. Barbara Scharres and Marty Rubin are genius programmers.”

DJF: “I’m just getting to know them and they seem like gems.”

MGS: “I initially worried that my film would be “too small” to play there but I sent them a DVD screener and they were very encouraging.”

DJF: “So, you have two nights at Siskel?”

MGS: “Yeah, Saturday and Monday.”

DJF: “And then…next stop: Italy?!? (like in the movie)”

MGS: “Yeah! I’m very excited about that. It’s the first time anything I’ve done will have played outside of the U.S.
I had to subtitle the film in English so that they can translate it into Italian.”

DJF: “Will you be shaving your head before you leave?”

MGS: “I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it. My wife and I just bought a condo so I’ll have to see where I am financially at the end of the year.”

 

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Adam Overberg as Claudio in “Cool Apocalypse”

 

DJF: “Oh, so you won’t be there. How did you land the festival in Italy?”

MGS: “But, I’m sure it would be incredible to see it with an Italian audience. I really hope they laugh at Claudio’s line about how “Italian men think all American women are sluts.”

DJF: “That’ll will get a laugh, for sure.”

MGS: “Just through the festival website. This is a really exciting fest. It was founded by Gillo Pontecorvo who directed THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. They’re going to be showing 200 movies.”

DJF: “What an honor! Finally, you dedicated the film to Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais – two directors I would’ve never thought I’d see listed next to each other on-screen. How come those two and what are your favorite films by them?”

MGS: “Well, they died within a week of each other around the time we went into pre-production so I was thinking about them a lot and I realized they have a lot more in common than many people realize. They were both Surrealists who made films about the power of imagination. Ramis is thought of as a crass entertainer but he had his philosophical side. And Resnais is thought of as a cerebral Serious Artist but his films are frequently hilarious.

DJF: “I know nothing of Resnais (see? you’re teaching me) but Ramis always came across to me as a storyteller who trusts his audience to find the intelligence and authenticity in his characters – even the truly zany ones.”

MGS: “There is actually a reference to CADDYSHACK in the movie – when Claudio says “. . . so I got that going for me,” he’s quoting Bill Murray.”

DJF: “Ha! I DID catch that!”

MGS: “My favorite Ramis film is GROUNDHOG DAY but I think THE ICE HARVEST is criminally underrated and deserves to be better known.”

DJF: “Two great ones right there.” 

MGS: “For Resnais, it’s a toss-up between LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and MON ONCLE D’AMERIQUE.”

DJF: “I’ll seek them out and add them to my ever-growing list!

MGS: “Thanks so much for the great questions. It was fun to do this via g-chat.”

DJF: “Michael, I really appreciate your time tonight. Have fun at Siskel!”

MGS: “Thank you, David. See you on Facebook.”

 

You can subscribe to Michael’s blog, White City Cinema and purchase tickets to this weekend’s premiere screenings at the Siskel Film Center hereMichael will be attending as well as producer Clare Kosinski and cast members Nina Ganet, Adam M. Overberg, Chelsea Dàvid and Kevin Wehby (pictured in order below, holding Michael Glover Smith) for a Q&A following the 11/21 show and all of the above (minus Kevin) for the 11/23 show!

 

 

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