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Interview with RELATIVE writer/director Michael Glover Smith

June 13, 2022


“Relative” is writer/director Michael Glover Smith’s fourth feature film and it revolves around a family reunion on the northside of Chicago that’s taking place over the course of a long weekend. Once again, Smith shows a knack for bringing authentic and real relationships and personalities to the screen, while managing to tackle the complexities of life with a dash of comedy and poignant drama.

You can find my review of “Relative” here and below is the official description of the film:

RELATIVE is a comedy/drama about three days in the life of a modern American family. Karen Frank (TWIN PEAKS’ Wendy Robie) and her husband, David (Steppenwolf Ensemble member Francis Guinan), are retirement-age progressive activists who have lived in the same Victorian home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood for 30 years. It’s the house in which their four children grew up and where two of their children, adult sons Benji and Rod, still live. On the eve of Benji’s graduation from college, daughters Evonne and Norma return home from out-of-state for a weekend celebration. Evonne brings her daughter, Emma, and newly separated wife, Lucia; Norma arrives alone, with thoughts of wasted potential as she reconsiders her suburban life; Rod, an unemployed burnout, pines for Sarah, the “cam girl” ex who left him years ago; and all Benji wants to do is escape the party to rendezvous with Hekla, a free-spirited actress he met the night prior. As David and Karen announce the potential sale of their home, each member of the Frank family finds their bonds with the others being tested – and strengthened – in surprising ways.

Along with Robie and Guinan, “Relative” features a stellar ensemble cast that includes: Clare Cooney, Cameron Scott Roberts, Melissa Duprey, Keith D. Gallagher, Emily Lape, and Elizabeth Stam.

I’ve had the pleasure to interview Smith three previous times, for each of his feature films (“Cool Apocalypse”, “Mercury in Retrograde”, and “Rendezvous in Chicago”), but it wasn’t until interviewing him for this latest feature, “Relative” that I realized how lucky I am to have documented an artist’s journey. Way down below, you can find links to my previous interviews with Smith.

I’ll be moderating a Producers Panel Q&A at the Gene Siskel Film Center this Wednesday Smith and producers Aaron Milan Wertheimer and Brian and Jan Hieggelke of Chicago Film Project. Tickets can be purchased here and if you can’t make it out that night, there is also a Thursday night screening at the Siskel where Smith will be in attendance for a Q&A alongside cinematographer Olivia Aquilina, editor Eric Marsh and production designer Stephanie MacDonald.

There’s also two screenings in the Chicago suburbs coming up where Smith will partake in Q&As following screenings of “Relative”. This Friday, the film will screen at the Hollywood Blvd. Cinema theater in Woodridge, IL, where Kicking the Seat’s Ian Simmons will be moderating a Q&A with Smith and actress Emily Lape. Tickets can be purchased here. Then on Saturday night, “Relative” will be at the Wilmette Theatre in Wilmette, IL. Tickets for that screening can be purchased here. 





David J. Fowlie: Alright! Let’s get this thing started! Have you poured a drink?

Michael Glover Smith: Ha! Not tonight. I’m actually feeling a bit under the weather.

DJF: Oh no! Too much “Relative” activity lately?

MGS: As you know, we just had two huge screenings at the Music Box Theatre and the Gene Siskel Film Center with the full cast present. It may have been a case where I was running on adrenaline between those two nights and then my body let its defenses down as soon as the second show ended. I got a rapid COVID test yesterday and it came back negative.

DJF: Whew! That’s a relief. Now you have a break between this week’s screenings at the Siskel and Hollywood Blvd. out in the burbs. You feel well enough to continue with this right now though?

MGS: Oh yeah. To quote Special Agent Dale Cooper: when the spirit is willing, the recuperative powers of the physical body are simply extraordinary.

DJF: Ha! Since I got that “Twin Peaks” reference, let’s talk about how that relates to your cast…when did you realize that Wendy Robie would fit perfectly for the Frank family’s matriarch?
MGS: I realized it pretty early on. She was one of the first people I cast. It’s funny: I didn’t know until 2019 that she lived in Chicago even though she’s done a ton of theater here over the past couple decades. She keeps a low-profile. Anyway, as soon as I found that out, I approached her agents with the script. She got back to me pretty quick and said she wanted to meet me for coffee. We had a long talk about the themes of the film and the character of Karen Frank. Wendy spoke very intelligently about how she saw RELATIVE as a film about what children inherit from their parents. She also talked about her belief in the power of art to end bigotry and hatred. I was blown away by her sincerity and compassion and I knew she was right for the role.
DJF: Would you say you also share that belief or is it more of a hope? 
MGS: I don’t know if I shared her belief at the moment we had that conversation, which was in December of 2019, but I definitely do now. The pandemic, which forced us to postpone the shoot by 13 months, has changed me as an artist and as a man.
DJF: On that note, in hindsight, do you feel like the COVID delay hindered or helped the process of making “Relative”?
MGS: Oh, it helped without a doubt. Postponing the shoot was one of those things that ended up being a blessing in disguise. First, because I revised the script extensively during that time, which made it get a lot shorter and tighter. Second, because everyone really bonded on the set in a way that they wouldn’t have otherwise. A lot of the cast and crew hadn’t done any film work in the year after that first lockdown. Some of them hadn’t even left their homes very much. But when we shot in June of 2021, everyone had recently been vaccinated and we were all very excited to get back to work.
DJF: That must have been a tremendous feeling for everyone. Those extensive script changes, were they related to themes, dialogue or characterization?
MGS: On one level, it was about paring the script down to what was most necessary: getting rid of dialogue — and even entire scenes — that we didn’t need. But on another level, I think a new kind of gravitas entered the script as well. The film is about family but it’s also about the impact of time on a family. Even though it only takes place in a span of three days, you should be thinking about how this family has evolved and will continue to evolve. Death is a specter that hangs over the whole thing although not in an obvious way (e.g., none of the characters die or even get sick). I think this latter aspect became more pronounced in the revision process.
DJF: Was the subject of time and mortality something that was weighing on you at the time or did it just seem to fit for these characters and the story your were telling? 
MGS: I think it was a bit of both. I turned 45 during the first year of the pandemic. It started to feel like the days of tender youth were fading fast. COVID also made me more cognizant of the fact that one day I’ll no longer exist on the face of this earth. So, naturally, I started thinking about my legacy. All that will be left of me will be the work that I leave behind and the memories that people have of me. So I’m trying to always come down on the side of love and kindness now.
DJF: That’s evident in “Relative” since I can’t think of a time when I saw a more loving, kind, and patient set of parents on screen recently than Karen and David. Did there performances accentuate what was already in the script or us that simply Robie and Guinan? 
MGS: I think the patience is in the script but Fran and Wendy both have a presence that is naturally very warm and human so they accentuated it. Having said that, there are also times in the film where we see them express frustration with their kids and each other — as when David calls Rod a “fungus” or says he regrets “ignoring the shortcomings” of his children; or the moment at the end when Karen tearfully tells David that she’s allowed to change her mind about selling the house. For me, it was very important to show the love that exists between all of these family members but to do it in an honest way. Familial love is complicated and I wanted to show its negative aspects in addition to its positive aspects.
DJF: Right. I liked how they were truly real with their adult children, but quite frank with each other. It provides a definite honesty for them as people, not just parents. I think that’s one of many things that “Relative” does so well, it reminds us that parents are people too!
MGS: Right! Children often forget that their parents were ever their own age and just like them. Like when Karen tells Evonne about her college boyfriend. Evonne’s response is, “Mom, I’m not ready to hear this!”
DJF: Exactly. Including something like that is one of many ways this film is relatable to viewers. I’d like to ask you to reflect and possible compare and contrast…how was the process of writing and directing “Relative” different from your three previous features?

MGS: Well, the process is always pretty much the same. What I hope is different is that I hope I’m getting better at it. I always say that there are a million things that can go wrong on a film set. On every shoot, you find out what more of those things are and, hopefully, that will prevent you from making those same mistakes in the future. More specifically, I think I’ve gotten better at working with actors.

DJF: Speaking of which, are you the kind of director that assigns your actors films to watch before the shoot to prepare them?
MGS: It depends on the actor and the character. I did that only with Elizabeth Stam on “Relative”. I had her watch “The Awful Truth” and “The More the Merrier”, because I wanted her to understand what screwball comedy was. I mean, that wasn’t EXACTLY what we were going for in “Relative”, but I think it was helpful for her to see those films in terms of talking to her about tone.
DJF: I can see that from Stam’s portrayal of Hekla. She really stands out in “Relative”, primarily because her character is so different from any of the Frank family members. Did you feel like that was a needed element in your story? 
MGS: Yes! It’s like creating an abstract painting. For some reason, you feel that a certain corner of your canvas needs a new, unexpected color splashed onto it and that this different color is somehow going to elevate the whole thing. That’s how I conceived of the character of Hekla.
DJF: That’s a great way to explain it! When some artists finish their work, there’s often an itch that still needs to be scratched – meaning, there’s a tendency to want to go back and remove or add something. Do you ever feel that way or do you exorcise all that out in the post-production process?
MGS: During post-production, I try to be ruthless about cutting what might not be working. I always say to myself, “If you watch this years from now, are you going to be able to live with it?” The final cut of “Relative” is 18 minutes shorter than the rough cut and it was already a tight rough cut. We lost some things that I was fond of but, in the end, I think we got it into the best shape we possibly could have. In terms of wanting to add things, that never really happens although sometimes I do think that a certain scene or character or line of dialogue is interesting and that will serve as a point of origin for a future movie. There are ways in which “Relative” has its roots in all of my previous films.

DJF: Well, I certainly feel there’s much potential to revisit these characters again. You have shared that “Relative” features your favorite ensemble cast in all of your films to date. Clare Cooney is the only one you’ve worked with before and you wrote Evonne with her in mind. Are there plans to work with anyone else in the future?

MGS: Oh yeah. I would like to work with them all again. There is also a long list of actors I’d like to work with that I haven’t worked with yet. People who I’ve seen in movies or plays and been blown away by or people who auditioned for a part and impressed me but, for whatever reason, weren’t quite right for that particular role.
DJF: I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this before, but would you ever consider acting in your own film?
MGS: I’ve never actually thought about doing that. It seems like it would be difficult to act and direct at the same time. I do, however, want to be cast in other people’s movies. Both Clare Cooney and Emily Lape have said that they will cast me!
DJF: Well, Eastwood is one of your favorite American directors, so if he can do it…

MGS: It’s probably easier if you’re an experienced film actor who becomes a director rather than the other way around.

DJF: Melissa Duprey said something about your directing in your last Q&A at the Siskel that made me think your approach must be quite similar to Eastwood’s, maybe it was the warmth and quite nature you carry on set? Are you cognizant of this?

MGS: What exactly did she say? I just remember her saying that she both loved and hated the minimal number of takes I did.

DJF: LOL! I don’t recall myself, but I do think it was how comfortable you made everyone feel and how easy-going you are…do you quietly whisper like Eastwood? I doubt you yell, “Action!”

MGS: It’s true that I like a quiet set. I also like it when people are focused on the work. I try to make that expectation clear in advance of the shoot.

DJF: In “Relative”, Benji asks Hekla during their initial meet-cute if there was any formative time in the past when she knew she wanted to pursue acting. I’d like to ask you the same question about writing and directing. 
MGS: I think I always wanted to pursue filmmaking, even when I was a kid, because I loved movies. I just wasn’t sure how to do it. It was much more difficult and expensive in the 20th century, back when everything was shot on film. Also, it especially didn’t seem like a viable career path for someone growing up in North Carolina, where I grew up. So I went into acting instead because theater is everywhere. When I moved to Chicago, the idea of making films seemed a lot more realistic.
DJF: That makes sense. The story in “Relative” touches on some heavy subject matter such as depression/anxiety and PTSD, along with feelings like regret and grief. You manage to add enough levity and relief for these characters though. How do you find the right balance when including all of that in one film?
MGS: I love combining comedy and drama and that really starts at the screenwriting stage. I think about how many of my favorite directors were good at that: John Ford, Jean Renoir, even Yasjuiro Ozu is funnier than he gets credit for. I try to emulate my heroes. I absolutely want people to laugh and cry when they watch “Relative”. Casting is also important in this regard. Some people are natural comedians and others aren’t. Elizabeth Stam is a riot. Melissa DuPrey is a literal stand-up comedian in addition to being an accomplished actress. So they were the right performers for those roles.
DJF: In a recent Q&A for “Relative”, it was revealed that you had asked Heather Chrisler to write a monologue for a scene that her character shares with her young son. That speaks volumes about your collaborative approach. Did this happen with any other actor in the cast? If not, why was it important to you that her character had something meatier for this moment in the film?
MGS: That was kind of a happy accident. Heather’s character only had three brief scenes in the script and the third one originally didn’t involve any dialogue. She was just supposed to kiss her son on the forehead while tucking him into bed. It was supposed to be part of the montage where we see what all of the characters are doing after the party. Well, because of the way the shoot was scheduled, her scenes fell on three different days and she had to travel from her home in Chicago to Skokie just for that final scene. I said to her, “Heather, if you’re going to come all the way to Skokie for this one shot, we might as well film you saying something. Why don’t you write a little 30-second monologue of something you’d like your character to say to her son.” I loved what she did and we kept it in the film.
DJF: It was indeed a happy accident. Those who truly know you know that you’re a Bob Dylan aficionado. I picked up references to two Dylan songs in “Relative” and one album title. Off the top of your head, if you were able to include one Dylan song in this film, what would it be and where would you place it?
MGS: Funny you should ask: I originally wanted to use “I Contain Multitudes” for the montage scene. I wasn’t going to use Dylan’s version though, I was going to use Emma Swift’s cover. I have a feeling that I could have gotten a good deal on the publishing rights if I approached Dylan’s manager. But then he sold his catalog to Universal Music Group and I knew I would never be able to afford it if I tried to go through that large corporation.
DJF: Dang it! In closing, as the “Relative” train keeps chugging along, you have some upcoming screenings in the Chicago suburbs around the bend. Where else can film enthusiasts find your film? Will they have to wait till next year for online rental or streaming availability? 

MGS: The plan is to keep it in theaters for the rest of the year. We’re starting in Chicago then expanding outwards. So we’ll go to the suburbs next and then the states surrounding Illinois. Ideally, we would keep expanding outwards until we reach the coasts. It’s the opposite of how most films are distributed. My Executive Producers at Chicago Film Project, who are also distributing the film, call it “the atomic model.”

DJF: Thanks so much for your time today! I will see you very soon. 

MGS: Thank you, David. I really enjoyed this. See you Wednesday night!

Interview with Michael Glover Smith for “Cool Apocalypse“, “Mercury in Retrograde” and “Rendezvous in Chicago
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