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Interview with MERCURY IN RETROGRADE writer/director Michael Glover Smith

November 27, 2017

 

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Life has taken a few distinctive turns for both local writer/director Michael Glover Smith and myself since our first and last interview, which took place two Novembers ago for this feature-length debut, “Cool Apocalypse”. That’s inevitable. It would be illogical and tragic if everything remained the same for us in two years time. Smith, who is also a Chicago-based film critic as well as a college film professor, spent a good deal of time writing and filming his sophomore effort, “Mercury in Retrograde” in that time. It’s a relationship drama that receives its Chicago-area premiere this week – on Thursday, November 30th at 2:00pm at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois, for Smith’s 4th annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival (OPUFF) – and is the occasion of our latest discussion.

In “Mercury in Retrograde”, Smith maintains the authentic, honest and real look at relationships that was evident in “Cool Apocalypse”, while taking us out of Chicago and immersing us into the lives of three couples at various relationship stages. Peggy (Najarra Townsend) and Wyatt (Shane Simmons) are the greenest of the three, having recently started dating with their status seeming both optimistic and uncertain; Isabelle (Roxanne Mesquida) and Richard (Kevin Wehby) seem disconnected and unhappy, despite five years of dating; and as the only married couple, Jack (Jack C. Newell) and Golda (Alana Arenas), seem stable and comfortable, although they’ve had bad luck at conceiving a child. All three couples converge over the course of a long weekend trip to Jack’s father’s (Andrew Sensenig) lakeside cabin in southwest Michigan for some relaxation and memory building.  As feelings are aired and secrets revealed, each couple find themselves experiencing some unexpected turns they’re not quite ready for.

I’m happy to promote Smith’s films – not just because I’ve been an admirer for years, but also because he’s my friend and it helps that I generally (and genuinely) like his films. Well, at least the two that I’ve seen – and yes, that includes “Mercury in Retrograde”. But, what if I didn’t? It’s a question that gnawed at me a little in anticipation of viewing his final cut, to be honest. Film critics have been friends with directors in the past, but I feel it would be a disservice to myself and my friendship with Michael, if I wasn’t being completely honest with my response to his work.

Below, we obviously talk about his new film and his experience making it, yet we also briefly touch on the relationship between a film critic and a film director. It’s an illuminating conversation, which is no surprise since I wind up learning something new every time I talk with Smith. Maybe you will too….

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: Here we are at the end of a Thanksgiving weekend and I find myself a little envious of you.

MICHAEL G. SMITH: Ha! Why’s that?

DJF: Well, I guess it depends – did you fulfill your plans with you and your wife laying low and catching up on some movie-watching?

MGS: Oh yeah: UNCLE BUCK, LOVE ACTUALLY and THE TRANSFIGURATION. Quite the triple feature.

DJF: I’ve seen two of those – UNCLE BUCK is a classic, I have to give LOVE ACTUALLY another look and I have no clue what THE TRANSFIGURATION is. Is making a movie something of a transfiguration? You start out one way and by the end of it all, you’re somewhat different, no?

MGS: I think that’s true – at least in my experience. Cinema is, for me, a kind of investigative tool. I like to make films about things that I don’t entirely understand or things that I find disturbing. It’s a way of understanding both myself and the world. If you’re only going to be executing something that you’ve meticulously pre-planned then what’s the point?

DJF: You went from investigating two couples at different stages of their relationships in COOL APOCALYPSE, to three couples at varying stages with MERCURY IN RETROGRADE – what is it about yourself and the world that your are trying to understand?

MGS: What do you think the odds are that the next film will be about four couples? Just kidding. In my opinion, the two films are very different in intent. COOL APOCALYPSE feels more universal and timeless. I think MERCURY IN RETROGRADE is more specific to 2017 and more political. In the new film I wanted to interrogate the very notion of gender roles in today’s society. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? How much have things really changed in the past 100 years since Dashiell Hammett wrote THE GLASS KEY?

 

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Sign language on the set of “Mercury in Retrograde” with Roxane Mesquida, Michael Glover Smith and Kevin Wehby.

 

DJF: So, those questions that you just mentioned – are they the type of questions that led you to write the screenplay? Do questions comes first and then ideas and characters, setting, etc?

MGS: It starts more from making observations about the world and then questions arise from that. In this case it was: why are women socialized to believe it’s okay to show emotion and men are not – even in the 21st century? The theme, structure and characters all flowed from that. The first idea I had was for the climactic scene – juxtaposing the men having a book club discussion with their wives and girlfriends having a more personal discussion at a nearby bar. I knew that was going to be the climax even before I knew who the characters were or what book was going to be discussed. I think a lot about the structure and themes when I’m writing. The characters arise out of meditating on those things (i.e., what kind of people can I create that can best express these themes?). I never, ever think about plot or genre when writing.

DJF: Watching that particular scene, it dawned on me that its kind of a gender reversal of our expectations. Usually, we’d see three men out getting drinks and three women sitting down to discuss a book. I think that made me pull in a little closer, to see where you were going.

MGS: Right. And it’s Jack who makes dinner on Friday night – in an apron, no less! And it’s Isabelle who “strays” in the relationship. We tried to upend expectations about gender roles in a way that feels truthful.

DJF: I appreciate that such an approach never feels too obvious or repetitive. Although, I’ll admit, seeing Jack as a yoga instructor would be a hoot and the women would definitely liven up the disc golf outing.

MGS: Ha! That was based on another observation I had made: men are competitive! I wanted to show the men and women doing things that were “physical” during the day and “intellectual” at night. The men are being ridiculously competitive when it comes to disc golf and discussing a novel. You know: who’s the best at this? The women, by contrast, are looking to make connections with each other – even when, or especially when, there might be tension between them.

 

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The women of “Mercury in Retrograde” (from left to right): Roxane Mesquida, Najarra Townsend and Alana Arenas

 

 

DJF: Tension is kind of a prerequisite for a story involving three couples going away for the weekend. Was there something you were specifically trying to downplay or steer clear from, in an effort to not make any tension too obvious or stereotypical?

MGS: My favorite director, Robert Bresson, once said something like: Hide your ideas but not so well that the viewer can’t find them. Those are words that I live by. I think it’s always best to keep things offscreen or at the level of subtext for as long as possible – until they come bubbling up to the surface (as in the case of Peggy’s confession in the bar).

DJF: That’s a great Bresson quote! Problems for the viewer arises when you don’t follow that line of thought. You run the risk of confounding your viewer or pulling them out of your story altogether.

MGS: Yeah, and I’m very aware of the fact that people today watch movies with their ears more than their eyes. In this “Netflix and chill” age, people listen to the dialogue of whatever they’re streaming while they’re simultaneously scrolling through Facebook on their cell phones or playing Sudoku or whatever. Then, if there’s a loud gunshot, they look up to see what’s happening on the T.V. screen. Our film can’t be watched like that because our dialogue doesn’t hold your hand and take you through the story. The dialogue doesn’t tell you what it’s about – in spite of the fact that there’s a shitload of dialogue. It’s more about the body language of the characters and how they’re physically relating to each other and what they AREN’T saying to each other.

DJF: It’s interesting how you say “our film” and “our dialogue”, when this is a film you wrote and directed. It either speaks to the humility of your ego or you truly see this as a collaborative venture.

MGS: Oh, it was very collaborative. The actors had a lot of agency to come up with their own lines or put things in their own words. If the film had been cast differently it would have been a totally different movie.

DJF: Let’s talk about casting. There were some actors you specifically sought out, one you reunited with and others you selected locally. Do you like that process and how do you know when they are a perfect fit to play the characters you created?

MGS: I actually hate casting because it breaks my heart to have to see people read for a part and then turn them down. Ideally, I would like to cast a movie entirely by just offering parts to actors. In the case of MERCURY, I had only worked with one actor before: Kevin Wehby. Three of the actors were people whose work I had seen in other movies and greatly admired and I straight up offered them the parts: Najarra Townsend, Roxane Mesquida and Andrew Sensenig. The rest were local Chicago actors who auditioned. I couldn’t be more pleased with the work that all of them did.

DJF: They bring a lot to their roles, for sure. You mentioned they often came up with their own words and yet, it’s like you say, much of what they say without words winds up resonating the most.

MGS: Well, we spent a lot of time talking about the themes of the film – so they knew what the overall meaning of each scene was before we started rolling.

 

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Pajamas, sunlight and smiles, on the set of “Mercury in Retrograde” with: Alana Arenas, Michael Glover Smith and Jack C. Newell

 

 

DJF: Getting out of Chicago and spending weeks with this cast must have proved to be an enlightening experience. I can only imagine there are unexpected “lightbulb” moments on the set. What did you learn about acting from them?

MGS: I learned a lot from all of them. One such example was during the Friday night scene with Jack and Golda in bed. In the original script, Jack and Golda were supposed to make love (to try and conceive a child) on Friday night. On Saturday night, we were only supposed to see them sleeping next to each other. Before we shot the Friday night scene. Alana (who plays Golda) said to me: “I ask him if he still finds me desirable and he starts talking about ancient philosophy. It seems like he’s pushing me away. Why do I want to jump his bones?” I said, “What do you want to do?” And she said, “I think she would just turn off the light and go to sleep.” So we moved the lovemaking scene to Saturday night, which improved the arc of their story 100%.

DJF: Well, that’s credit to you as well, for providing an open enough atmosphere to have the wherewithal to offer such a question as “What do you want to do?” It further proves how you don’t just see it as “your film”. How much did your environment change the way you approached shooting this film?

MGS: The biggest mistake a director can make is to be too married to his preconceived ideas of what should happen. I mean, we had a 109 page shooting script, we had a detailed shot list that was 30 pages long but when you get on set with your actors and your crew, you have to make the scene as good as it can be given what you have and who you have. Things are always a little different than how you imagined them.
In this film, the location was everything. When I first wrote the script, it took place in the mountains of North Carolina. Then I had to rewrite it when I realized it would be much more cost-effective to shoot it within driving distance of Chicago.
I looked at the profiles of about 200 cabins online before I found one I liked. I wasn’t looking in just Michigan either. I looked in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

DJF: I recall you were aiming at the Upper Peninsula at one point, but there was something about Fennville, Michigan, I gather?

MGS: The cabin in Fennville looked right from the inside and it looked right from the outside. It looked like a vacation home. It was in the middle of a very dense forest and it had a kind of fairy tale quality to it. There were a lot of homes that looked great inside but when you saw the exteriors, they looked like they could’ve been located in any generic suburban neighborhood. Or vice-versa.

 

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The set where most of the story takes place in “Mercury in Retrograde”, just outside of Fennville, Michigan

 

 

DJF: Earlier this year, you spent some time test screening MERCURY for some select viewers. Do you like that process? Do you find it integral, beneficial?

MGS: Yeah, it’s very helpful. You don’t really know what you have on your hands until you watch your movie with people who didn’t work on it!

DJF: It makes me think about the relationship between a film critic and a working film director. Since you’re both, I can only assume you think of this as well. I think of Roger Ebert, who became friends with several directors, Scorsese in particular, but he didn’t always like his films. So, as a film critic, you can think, what if I don’t like this film, even though were friends? Do you spend any time on this critic/artist relationship?

MGS: That’s a good question. I have at least one critic friend who watched COOL APOCALYPSE and told me he wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic about it to review it. I didn’t hold it against him. I appreciated his honesty and I know that’s the way it goes. I’ve been asked to review a lot of microbudget indies and if I didn’t really like them, I just passed on writing about them.

DJF: Well, I’m not passing on writing about MERCURY IN RETROGRADE!

MGS: Okay, good! Bless your heart, David.

DJF: The final cut is done. There’s no turning back. Now the film will premiere in the Chicago area at the 4th year of your annual Pop-Up Film Festival! How are you feeling about it all and how does it feel to your own film included in a film festival you’ve curated?

MGS: The best part of filmmaking is being able to share your work with a live audience in a theatrical setting. It’s like playing a live show if you’re a musician or a stage actor. It’s a great feeling to hear people laugh (even if they’re laughing at things you didn’t anticipate) and it’s great to feel the tension in the room during the more dramatic parts. I’m particularly excited about the Pop-Up screening because five of the cast members will be there. A lot of them haven’t seen each other since we finished shooting a year ago. It should be a hell of a reunion.

DJF: Finally, the actual Mercury in Retrograde – when it appears that the planet Mercury looks to be moving backwards – is set to take place on December 3rd at 2:30am in North America. Any plans?

MGS: I’ll be carrying on as usual. That’s all pseudo-scientific nonsense to me.

DJF: Well, this is just the beginning of our conversations surrounding MERCURY IN RETROGRADE and such, so congrats on your big week – thanks for participating in this chat once again and I’ll see you soon!

MGS: Thank you so much for watching the film in its rough cut and in its final state, David. I greatly appreciate it and I greatly appreciate your devotion to independent film.

 

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Michael Glover Smith and Najarra Townsend posing on the set of “Mercury in Retrograde” in August 2016

 

 

NOTE: This week’s screening of “Mercury in Retrograde” at the 4th annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival (see above) is FREE and open to the public and will be followed by a Q&A with actors NaJarra Townsend, Alana Arenas, Jack C. Newell, Shane Simmons and Kevin Wehby, and writer/director Michael Smith, moderated by film critic Pamela Kammer Powell. More info about the festival can be found here. 

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