Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Interview with Michael S. Rodriguez of MSR Studios

Pure unbridled passion and drive are the fire inside Michael Rodriguez. His personal inferno fuels this ambition. While many have tried to extinguish his dream, repeatedly he perseveres, and he does so on his own terms. This photographer turned filmmaker is taking control, and he's got something to say.

Body Count Rising: You told me you wanted to “tell it like it is” and mentioned being ridiculed with regard to your craft. I’ve always thought of the horror community as being very supportive of each other. Obviously this isn’t always the case. What exactly happened?

Michael S. Rodriguez: I think I could write a book about this stuff, but I would say first and foremost don’t simply rely on your non-industry friends to make a film with you and expect them to act as if this is their job and show up every weekend. Usually it isn’t a big priority for them. Then, I had a production meeting in a pizza parlor. I storyboarded everything, I had all the paperwork and was speaking to the crew about shots and how I wanted things to look and some of the patrons started laughing at me, but I jut ignored it. Same thing on the home front, especially when you come from nowhere, the Hollywood dream won’t happen to you. It can’t happen. I was told that from an early age. So I took a job here and there and I realized that is not who I am. Now I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I am running out of time, so this is my time.

Body Count Rising: Despite everything, you are driven and have a positive attitude. What gives you momentum and keeps you going?

Michael S. Rodriguez: Sometimes I think the negativity propels me. I’m kind of a rebel and I don’t like to be told what to do. I think the more resistance I get I move forward. Someone I respected criticized my directing and I took that and grew from it, but I also know that if I can create “Night of the Seamonkey” and make it work I have the self-confidence that I can do a dozen more projects and make them work. I sold my Dad’s car to make that movie. I was in the game. Negativity keeps my drive alive. “Can’t” or “shouldn’t” motivate me. I flip off everybody on camera like Carol Burnett tugs her ear. That’s my message to everyone who told me I couldn’t do something.

Body Count Rising: Does your family support your career path? Do they understand it? I read about your Grandpa telling you to wear a tie for an interview about your films and maybe they’ll hire you. That was great! 

Michael S. Rodriguez: They’re totally in the dark. They know what I do, but they have no idea to what level people know of me. They’ve never seen any of my movies. They just think it’s a rather expensive hobby. I live in a rural area and I may go to a convention where people know me and my work, but when I go back home I’m nobody special. Well, I suppose it keeps me grounded anyways. (laughing)

Body Count Rising: Has it affected your marriage?

Michael S. Rodriguez: It’s rough at times because I have to leave, and I have to commend her for battling a lot of storms. And as a testament to my dedication as a filmmaker to my craft I’ve missed some special moments of my children growing up. They understand though, from my five-year-old to the highschooler. My daughter came to me and said her friends liked and knew of my work and I told her I was glad she knew what I did and was proud of me for it. The time and travel it takes to do a production isn’t easy to understand if you haven’t lived it, so I’m thankful that they appreciate what I do. It makes it all the more rewarding.

Body Count Rising: Have your kids indicated that they would like to go into film too?

Michael S. Rodriguez: No. My daughter is in the background in one of my movies and my son got stage fright and had to run off and vomit before we could film him, so he never made it in the movie. Now my five-year-old has memorization skills like you wouldn’t believe and goes around quoting films plus he has showmanship. He absolutely would have the skills to be an actor, but I don’t push my kids into that. They can make their own decisions on what they’d like to do.

Body Count Rising: Now is the five-year-old the one that looks like your little clone?

Michael S. Rodriguez: The stocky one with blue eyes? Yeah that’s him!

Body Count Rising: He’s adorable!

Michael S. Rodriguez: He puts on for the camera. He’s my little Arch Hall Jr. there.

Body Count Rising: Hey, how did you get connected with Arch Hall Jr. by the way?

Michael S. Rodriguez: I remember watching a late show “The Sadist” and I was just blown away by him. For a black and white film, it was absolutely colorful.

Body Count Rising: Oh yeah, that’s a great one.

Michael S. Rodriguez: When social media came around I looked up Arch Hall Jr. and friended him. I really wanted him in “Night of the Seamonkey” but didn’t have the guts to approach him. Lynn Lowery was in it, but I just couldn’t bring myself to ask. So when it came time for my next piece, I knew that if I didn’t reach out to him I’d be absolutely filled with regret.

We started corresponding through email and eventually we called each other and talked. I told him the clock was ticking on making another film and would joke around about him being 70. I sent him the script and he turned it down. And that was fine. OK, I tried. A month went by, he went on vacation and came back and decided he wanted to do the film after all. Now I had already cast his part, so I wrote in a new part for him that he and I developed together.

Later I asked him why he decided to work with me because I was basically a nobody, and he said “I saw fire within you, but mostly because you reminded me of my Dad.” I’ve always held Arch Hall Sr. in high regard and that was the biggest compliment I’ve heard from anyone. He came out, he delivered and to this day we’re dear friends.

Body Count Rising: How did you remind him of his Dad? What did he say specifically?

Michael S. Rodriguez:
Arch Hall Sr. was an old cowboy actor in the John Wayne films who decided to open his own studio in Van Nuys. He didn’t have enough money for big actors like Cary Grant, so he looked around and decided “Hey Arch Jr. you’re going to be an actor!” That wasn’t Arch Hall Jr’s dream, but he couldn’t turn his Dad down. Unfortunately every time his Dad made a film, the overhead just killed any profit and he would have to sacrifice a lot financially. Once Warner Brothers wanted to come in and work with him, which would have meant needed income, but he turned them down because he couldn’t have complete creative control. That’s the same kind of person I am. I’ve had offers, but these are my babies and I won’t butcher them. They need to be my vision or I will not be involved.

Body Count Rising:
So, how did filmmaking transition into a profession for you?

Michael S. Rodriguez: I was a professional photographer for children and still do some work on the side. Now I knew I could direct because I look like some biker, but I can make little children smile for the camera. On my down time of doing photography I started corresponding with other writers then I got involved in the Writers’ Guild. For the first 2 ½ years I was just writing then I transitioned into filming.

Body Count Rising: Did you get started with filming your kids growing up? I saw some you posted on YouTube.

Michael S. Rodriguez: I enjoyed doing photography with children so I started filming parodies with my own children, like “Once Upon a Time in the West” to test the waters of making short films. My wife gave me an ultimatum when I was writing that if in a year I couldn’t make a go of it, I would need to go back to a regular job. Within that year I started building a name for myself, so she extended my lease on that. (laughing)

So I was basically unemployed and I got my first film together and took it to a studio. I gave them the script and $6,000 and said “Here you go. Can you make a movie for me?” They were very pompous and I didn’t know the technical terminology so they tried to push me around and tell me what to trim like I didn’t know what I was doing, so I packed up my shit and decided I would go off and do it on my own. I had some friends in Arizona that did video production, so I flew out there and we knocked it out in four days. It got a cover for Fangoria and I knew this is what I was supposed to be doing.

Body Count Rising: Your film “Homewrecked” was based on true events. How did those affected react to you telling their story?

Michael S. Rodriguez: I never really approached them about telling their story. I buried the true story enough that it would not affect them if they saw it. I changed a lot of facts and names even though it is based on that true story. In my own fashion the victims had the upper hand. The statistics I used in the opening credits are all true and from the Department of Justice. It’s a touchy matter so I approached it with a lot of respect.

Body Count Rising:
What was your goal in telling this story? Raise awareness? Honor those who were killed? Just tell a story?

Michael S. Rodriguez: I wanted to raise awareness about home invasions and drug use. I have family members addicted to drugs and this is a reality of what goes hand-in-hand with certain drug use. I also wanted to raise awareness about PTSD. I will do whatever I need to do to tell the story the way it needs to be told, even if the violence needs to be gratuitous to be realistic.

Body Count Rising: Why shorts as opposed to feature length?

Michael S. Rodriguez: I’ve always been a fan of anthologies. I grew up watching Night Gallery and the Twilight Zone. It’s just a love of mine and I’m seeing it come to life, and that’s wonderful.

Body Count Rising: Are you influenced by Jim Van Bebber’s shorts?

Michael S. Rodriguez: Jim Van Bebber is one of the biggest influences in my whole life and I knew I had to work with him. I was so amazed that he is on this independent level, but would hit so hard. He is so visual and I take a page from him and am truly inspired by him. I think we really made something cool together.

Body Count Rising: In an outtake for “Homewrecked” Jim busts out some abrupt advice in a very Kinski-esque way. Did he give a bunch of filming pointers while on set?

Michael S. Rodriguez: We just got done watching the Richard Stanley doc about Island of Dr. Moreau and we were musing over how Marlon Brando was so demanding on set and wore the ice bucket as part of his scenes. By then it was Frankenheimer directing and he was a little fanboyed out because of Brando. So Jim and I were doing that torture scene, and we just decided to do that on a whim…

Body Count Rising: Really? That is a strong character building point in the film.

Michael S. Rodriguez: We were reminiscing of Marlon coming on aggressively and so Jim would say things like “Where the hell is Michael at? Let’s get him over here!” and I’d give it right back to him and offer him an ice bucket. We just had fun with it. I just love Jim.

Body Count Rising:
Will “Homewrecked” eventually become a feature length film?

Michael S. Rodriguez:
I would love for this to become feature length. I feel like I can really expand on these characters. It certainly has the potential to be a feature film. I actually have a feature length film called “The Deadly Kind” in the works that is kind of like a biker film meets Carpenter’s “The Thing”. I have some really good cult actors set to be involved, so I’m pretty excited for that.

Body Count Rising:
I know you grew up with your sound guy for “Homewrecked”, and you said you choose your actors from those you are actually friends with online…

Michael S. Rodriguez: I think when I first started writing I wasn’t social media savvy yet. At that time I got a hold of Fred Williamson’s email. I don’t even think he had a MySpace or Facebook. I corresponded with him through emails and was like “Oh my God I’m talking to the Hammer!” to myself. I actually arranged for him to be in a film and right when we were to meet and close the deal the funding fell through. I learned a very important lesson. Never line up actors until the money has been finalized. So I had to tell Fred Williamson face-to-face that we didn’t have his money and he was livid. He called me every name in the book and said I wasted his time. He was right. I couldn’t argue with him so I stood there and took it. In the end I think he respected the fact that I faced him like a man and took responsibility though. But yeah, lesson learned!

Body Count Rising:
I see you post a lot of Rudy Ray Moore and blaxploitation films online. What are some of your favorite drive-in films, or films that inspire your art? 

Michael S. Rodriguez: I’ve always liked the way “The Big Bird Cage” was shot. I totally love exploitation films. Most people think horror films are my favorite movies, but in all actuality, I love musicals. Rogers and Hammerstein… “Oklahoma” and stuff like that. I’m very eclectic. My inspiration is all over the map. Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, Jack Hill, Russ Meyer… I find inspiration in them all. I try to use elements of all of these in my films. I don’t like films that pretend to be exploitation pieces, where they really hammer you over the head with an aesthetic. I just try to make it as natural as possible by controlling the colors to reflect the decade of the piece.

Body Count Rising: You offer horror that is a play on risk taking in everyday life. “Homewrecked” was basically don’t open the door for a stranger. “Lamb Feed” seeks help after a tire blowout. “Love Starved” is Christian dating site adventures. I’ve always felt the scariest horror films are those with a believable premise. Your first film “Night of the Sea Monkey: A Disturbing Tale” is a more fantastic monster flick. Are you transitioning now toward more realism in your films?

Michael S. Rodriguez: I don’t go to the movies a lot. When I go and there’s a bunch of generic jumps and fluff and that really pisses me off. I like to film with a writer’s point of view, and just really make everything I do feel authentic. Many don’t see “Night of the Seamonkey” for what it truly is. The subtext is about the disconnection of the kid and his parents that don’t actually care about each other. It’s a dysfunctional childhood based on my own story. Now it also has the comic relief and over-the-top horror moments.

When I wrote “Lamb Feed” I had these ultra-religious, judgmental family members that inspired this film and I was completely outraged. In it the family justifies killing self-righteously because the people are “worse” than them. But are they really? The family’s moral compass is way off. Basically they’re incestuous cannibals. It’s like “I’m fucking my sister for the Lord!”

Body Count Rising:
Woah. That’s a really strong social commentary…

Michael S. Rodriguez: Oh yeah if the story calls for me to push your buttons, then I’m going to push your buttons. But yeah, with each film the realism does seem to be escalating.

Body Count Rising:
You mentioned Kubrick. I know you use a lot of symbolism in your films. Is there a common thread to all of them? Or is each of the messages unique to the film being shown?

Michael S. Rodriguez: I do put a lot of symbolism in my movies… especially “Lamb Feed”. If you watch that movie in slow motion you’ll see I put a lot of words in there, vintage porn, full frontal nudity… I always start very cinematically traditional but as we reach the climax of the film shots become rough until it gets to an apex of being disturbingly raw and real. I always like to include a peek of reality in between what is happening cinematically as well, just to throw in the real ugliness of the world with the fiction. I put a variety of serial killers in the images of “Lamb Feed” as well, almost subliminally.

Body Count Rising: Your unique angles and aggressive shots give your films a jarring, in-your-face quality. Has your filming style evolved over time?

Michael S. Rodriguez:
It has. I always wanted to try different angles. For the first 10 minutes you’re going to get traditional shots but as the film progresses you will see more erratic angles. During “Homewrecked” I wanted to give it almost a surveillance camera type of feel, but at the same time I wanted it real tight. To achieve this I filmed the same take up to 12 times. By the last go around the actors became super aggressive so it really worked for the scene as well. I do have experimental ideas that I’d like to further explore.

Body Count Rising: You co-wrote “Rhonda Rides to Hell” with Meghan Chadeayne and co-wrote “6Days66Years” with Alex Madia Levi.

Michael S. Rodriguez: I am no longer involved with that project. My formula is always to have someone with name recognition and then intermingle them with up-and-coming actors. They didn’t see it that way, so I just bowed out.

Body Count Rising: What are the benefits of co-writing as opposed to writing on your own? Which do you prefer?

Michael S. Rodriguez: I prefer to write on my own. It flows better. I love character development and I don’t like things to get trimmed. When you co-write you don’t get the chance to do a full story arc either, so that also presents a challenge. Any of the films I’ve done I’ve written on my own. 

Body Count Rising: What do you film on?

Michael S. Rodriguez: I film on a digital Sony a6000 camera, and for “Homewrecked” and “Night of the Seamonkey” I used digital vintage glass lenses to achieve the desired look. Eventually my goal is to shoot on 16mm or 35mm. The problem is that you don’t have instant access to what you just shot like you would with digital. You just have to shoot and hope for the best. I don’t know if I would consider myself a filmmaker since I haven’t shot on film yet…

Body Count Rising: I have always considered a “filmmaker” synonymous with an auteur, and since you do write your own stuff as well as cast and direct, and you do have complete control, I would totally consider you a filmmaker. Most independent film is digital now just out of necessity.

Michael S. Rodriguez: Well thank you. I do have goals for the future. I started late. I’m a late bloomer in my 40’s already amidst all these up-and-coming 20-year-olds. I could have done it back then if I believed in myself more. So that’s the take-away. Believe in yourself. Fuck what anyone else says.

Keep up with Michael's projects by checking out his IMDb or follow him on Facebook.

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