Exploring Feminisms sat down with director Michael Glover Smith to discuss his forthcoming feature length film, Cool Apocalypse. This is Smith’s fourth film to date, ranging from a tobacco-slinging thief, a misguided folk singer, a cigar salesperson who stumbles onto a murder plot, to finally, a 24-hour tale that takes the viewer on a journey through the gamut of relationship ups and downs.
JM: Tell me, what is your new film about and how did you come up with the title, Cool Apocalypse?
MGS: The film is about the relationships between two 20-something couples: Paul and Julie meet and go on their first date, while Claudio and Tess, who’ve been together for years, finally break up for good. All of these characters interact with each other over the course of a single summer day in Chicago. It’s probably best categorized as a drama but I hope it’s also funny in a realistic way – the way that life can be funny.
“Cool apocalypse” was a phrase I had read a long time ago and I always wanted to use it as the title for something. I like it as an ironic juxtaposition of words: we think of an “apocalypse” as something that is very hot and loud and obvious, but “cool” implies the opposite of that: that it might happen with a whimper instead of a bang. When I came up with the idea for this film, I thought the title fit.
JM: Are we to assume the obvious, that the “cool” refers to the coming together of a couple, and the “apocalypse” is the breaking up? Or could it be read another way, that out of apocalyptic chaos comes calm, like the calm after a storm, and we are to assume that the break-up of the couple will allow for positive transformation?
MGS: As far as the title goes, however you want to interpret it is fine. It’s like coming up with the name of a band: ultimately, I just think it has a nice ring to it.
JM: Where did you get your inspiration for the script? Was it culled from memories of your 20s, or is it informed by your life now, in your upper 30s and expressed through 20 somethings?
MGS: It’s a combination of both of those things. All of the characters are amalgamations of different people that I’ve known in my 20s and 30s. I take aspects of people I’ve known (including myself, of course), and things that people I’ve known have said, and then spread them around among all of the characters. And then some things are just made up out of thin air. My philosophy is that if I feel like something fits, I’ll use it.
There’s a great French film from 1998, The Dreamlife of Angels, made by a guy named Erick Zonca. It was his first film — even though he was in his early 40s when he made it — and it’s about the friendship between two women in their early 20s. When I first saw it I thought, “This clearly represents a point-of-view on people in their 20s that was made by someone who’s older and wiser.” I hope that people have a similar reaction to my film — that they can sense that it wasn’t made by someone who is the same age as the characters. There have been a lot of low-budget indie films in recent years about “aimless twentysomethings” where the style and structure of the films also feel aimless. I want the style and structure of our movie to feel formal and elegant – but then also have spontaneous, naturalistic performances within that structure.
JM: It’s interesting that you’ve taken personal details from your friends and from your own life. I would think that it would help to make the experiences and dialogue more relatable, as opposed to it all merely being created out of thin air. Sometimes, I watch films directed by men and find myself screaming out, “this would never happen in real life!” especially when it comes to parts for women written and directed by men–obviously most often in movies with sex scenes.
By writing for characters who are twenty years younger though, does it risk feeling inauthentic due to the experiences/dialogue seeming incongruous to what a typical 20 something year old may have experienced, or does it hope to serve as a cautionary tale to 20 year olds- learning from the mistakes that others have made when they were their age? Who do you envision as your prospective audience for this film? Is it meant for people in their 20s specifically?
MGS: One of the things I tried hard to do in writing this script was to create interesting and realistic female characters. I think that the experience of being married and living with a woman for years has allowed me to be better at doing that. I don’t think, however, that the film risks being inauthentic just because the characters are younger than I am. As a filmmaker, I think I tend to be more interested in the aspects of relationships that are universal and timeless (rather than in, say, making pop culture references that might be specific to young people today) – so I hope that people of all ages will be able to relate to it. Having said that, I’m also looking forward to working very closely with the actors and allowing them some dramatic license with the dialogue. During auditions, for instance, I told one actress to put the dialogue in her own words. So instead of saying, “I really like your shoes,” she said, “Those are some sick-ass shoes.” What she said was way better than what I had written and so I consequently changed the line in the script.
JM: Do you think that actresses improvising their own lines, and again, the dialogue that you take from your own personal life, will help to make the characters more life-like and relatable, as opposed to the typical Hollywood drama or rom-com, a la Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, and Kristen Wiig characters where they still fit so predictably into the same box?
MGS: Exactly. We’re going for the opposite of formula, the opposite of cliche. I hope that when people see my film they say, “These are the kind of people I know in real life but who I never see in the movies.”
Michael Smith (left) on the set of his last film, The Catastrophe
JM: I once heard you say that you have to separate the art from the artist (I believe we were discussing the homophobe who wrote Ender’s Game). Given that so much of the script is taken directly from your personal life, wouldn’t you say that in this case, the art cannot be separated from the artist?
MGS: Ha! Not really. In my opinion, this film will be successful if people see it and then, when it’s over, talk about what they think it says about the world. Ideally, viewers will leave the movie wanting to talk about people, emotions and relationships – not what they perceive to be the personality or the point-of-view of the author.
JM: But you can admit that the characters – their experiences and emotions – are manifestations of your own experiences, and therefore the POV of you, the director, is inherent throughout the film?
MGS: Yes, but I would say that the film is personal, not autobiographical. To me there is a crucial difference between those things. I’m not interested in making the kind of art that is like an extension of my diary.
JM: How does Cool Apocalypse differ from your other three films?
MGS: I think everything I’ve done before this was the work of an amateur. Before, I was making movies to learn how to make movies. Cool Apocalypse is the first film I’ve made where I feel like a professional. In particular, I’m very excited about collaborating closely with the actors this time. Even something as simple as having the actors improvise during the auditions – that’s not something I would have had the confidence to do before. But it’s something I now look forward to continuing with throughout the entire process of rehearsing and shooting this film. We are going to treat each scene like a little one-act play and just go over every little moment again and again until everything feels authentic.
JM: When can we expect to see this film on the big screen?
MGS: We finish shooting in late August and then we’ll work on post-production throughout the fall. I hope to have it ready for a film festival premiere in early 2015.
JM: Awesome, I can’t wait to see it! And who knows? Maybe we’ll have to do a He Said/She Said after it premieres…