It’s a Catastrophe! An Interview with Director Michael Glover Smith

Having been casting director, food gal, executive producer and all around moral support for the 2011 short film, The Catastrophe, I feel a certain kinship to this film. After having seen it about ten times, I am still left with questions regarding writer and director Michael Glover Smith’s intentions.  So why not ask?  Smith was gracious enough to pimp his movie a little and give me some face time, a.k.a. sitting across the dining room table Sunday morning in our jammies over coffee.

JM: Could you please describe The Catastrophe in one sentence, and I’ll leave it up to you whether you’d like to describe the plot, the story, the general feeling, etc.?

MGS: This is tough but, in one sentence, here goes: The Catastrophe is a dramatic story, told in poetic, dreamlike images, about a man who has the gradual, dawning realization that he may have made the wrong decisions in life.

JM: I know that this story is based off of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story, Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe, but have any of your own decisions in life or lack thereof influenced your adaptation?

MGS: Yes, I fell in love with this Hawthorne story, which was written in 1837, but I would have never used it as the basis for a film if I hadn’t felt a personal connection to it and seen a way to make an adaptation that I felt was relevant and contemporary. I always say The Catastrophe is a cautionary fable about the dangers of not doing what one should be doing in life.  But it’s not like I’m Zeus criticizing the character from on top of Mount Olympus.  It’s more like commonsense advice I’m also giving to myself.  You know, “Don’t waste your time doing things that aren’t important. Don’t do anything just for the money.”  It’s personal in that sense.

JM: Have any other directors influenced how you wrote/directed this film?

MGS: In terms of specific shots and specific effects, yes, but not in terms of the end result.  I did show a lot of different film clips to Justin Cameron, our brilliant director of photography, as visual references for the kind of “feel” I wanted to go for in certain scenes.  For example, I showed him the interrogation scene from Zodiac in order to communicate how I wanted our opening bathroom scene to start out distanced and objective but then become increasingly ominous and paranoid-feeling as we steadily bring the camera closer to the actors and the shots become more and more subjective.  But obviously, our film as a whole bears no resemblance to Zodiac.  I did a similar thing with the hanging scene; we watched parts of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and talked about using lots of close-ups to fragment the human body the way Bresson did.  Also, I dedicated the movie to Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, two unfairly imprisoned Iranian filmmakers, but that was more a show of political solidarity than anything.  If any Iranian director could be said to be a stylistic influence on this movie, it would be Abbas Kiarostami; I was thinking of his films when I was writing the script because I knew I wanted to have a lot of scenes of our protagonist driving in his car and talking on his cell phone.

JM: When you write and direct a film, do you keep a certain audience in mind?

MGS: I used to try and have a general audience in mind but I think that kind of thinking has gotten me into trouble.  In the past, I would always second guess myself and think, “Well, if this film isn’t successful, it’s because I wasn’t thinking commercially enough.”  So I would rely on formulas and genre conventions to communicate ideas in a shorthand way, knowing that those things had worked in other movies (I’m specifically thinking of the use of faux-documentary interviews in my previous film At Last, Okemah!).  When you try and second guess how a general audience (i.e., a faceless blob of people) will respond, I think you also sacrifice some of your own understanding of what you’re doing.  So, with The Catastrophe, I decided to just go with my gut every step of the way.  Whether it was writing, directing or editing, I kept thinking, “This feels organically right. This makes perfect sense to me even if it might seem weird to others.”  Or to put it another way: I considered myself to be the audience.  I finally made a movie that completely satisfied me personally, which makes me feel like it will have the same effect on others, even if that’s a very small group of people.  I’ve come to realize I would rather completely satisfy a small group of people than partially satisfy a lot of people.

JM: When you write and direct a sex scene, do you feel like you do it from your personal perspective, a [general] male perspective, or something all together different?

MGS: That’s a great question. I think it depends on the specific film because, in terms of perspective, sex scenes can be as varied as murder scenes or any other type of scene.  In the case of The Catastrophe, we are telling a story that sticks fairly close (but not exclusively!) to the perspective of our main male character.  So, I wanted there to be a certain ambiguity in the sex scene between these other two characters.  I wanted the audience to ask themselves, “Is this happening for real or is this the paranoid fantasy of the main character?  Is this merely what he fears his girlfriend is doing while he’s on the road for business?”

JM: What do you aim to achieve by showing us nudity, male and female, and a sex scene?

MGS: Well, I wanted to achieve two things: I wanted to depict the sex act in an honest way and I also wanted it to be somewhat blunt and shocking.  In regards to my first objective, I feel like there’s something dishonest about not showing nudity in a sex scene.  You know, sometimes you’ll see a Hollywood movie and the actress will have a bra or a shirt on during the sex act, and that can take you out of the movie completely.  The first thing you think is that the actress obviously has it stipulated in her contract that she won’t do nudity.  This, of course, is not the kind of thing you should be thinking when you watch a movie.  In regards to the second objective, it goes back to what I was saying about the protagonist’s paranoid fantasy.  If you believe that’s what the bedroom scene in my movie is, I don’t think there is any better way to indicate that paranoia and that fear than by showing you the penis of the “other man.”  And I think I was successful in these objectives because both of the actors (whom, I should add, I think are very brave performers) really liked the scene when they saw it and felt that it was artful and not gratuitous at all.

JM: As the movie comes to its end, it leaves the audience hanging because not much has been realized by the characters/is not a finished story.  Do you feel that because the film is the first part of a longer script, it will be more difficult to be taken seriously by the audience?

MGS: First of all, you should always leave the audience wanting more – better that than overstaying your welcome!  But it’s a fifteen minute film so there’s only so much you can accomplish.  I did want to show that both Dominicus and Carlie, the male and female protagonists, have realizations in those fifteen minutes.  It’s not as dramatic of an arc as what I could show in a feature but I think you actually do see these characters change in a realistic way.  In the case of Dominicus, I liked the irony of his situation: here’s a guy who is always on the road selling cigars to make enough money so that he can get married.  But the very thing that’s allowing him to make money is the same thing that’s pushing his girlfriend away!  This is the realization that his character comes to.  With Carlie, it’s different; she’s pissed off that he’s always on the road but then comes to a realization that she doesn’t need him to be happy and that she can imagine a life without him.  Now, because the movie is somewhat abstract (transitioning from black and white to color, having a dream sequence, having a character recite a poem, etc.), I know that some people are not going to think of this as being an “actors’ movie.”  But I do think that both Peyton and Marla, who play the leads, successfully show their characters evolving in just a few short scenes.  I am very, very proud of the work they did in this film.  Hopefully, we will get the chance to make the feature-length version of this script and tell the whole story.

JM: At the end of the film, Carlie does something with her face (I won’t spoil the surprise) that makes me think that she is actually not happy, and in that way I do not read it in a way that she feels that she can exist without him.  Can you comment on that as a possible interpretation?

MGS: If that is the way you feel, I’m not going to say you’re wrong.  I wanted Carlie’s gesture to be ambiguous and evocative but I never even discussed what it meant with Marla, so I’m sure she had her own interpretation of what it meant.  The important thing is that she’s had an epiphany and epiphanies can be scary.  They can have positive and negative consequences.  The ultimate meaning is up to each individual viewer.

JM: Thanks Mike, and we’ll see you at the Illinois International Film Festival on November 19th for your Chicago premiere!

Director Info: Smith is an independent filmmaker and Film Studies instructor based in Chicago, Illinois and currently teaches film studies/history at four (yes, four) colleges around the Chicagoland area.  The Catastrophe is Mike’s third film.

For information on the film, please check out The Catastrophe’s website and trailer on You Tube.