Long time readers might remember Michael Mohan from back when his first film, One Too Many Mornings, was being self-released. He claims that more people saw the film from the mention on this blog than a front page ad on YouTube.
His second film, Save the Date, comes out on VOD today. It features Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Geoffrey Arend and Mark Webber. Here’s the red-band trailer:
Michael offered to write-up some backstory of how the film came to be. For any writer/directors trying to escape the micro-budget world, this might be of particular interest to you.
Way back in 2007, a friend of mine sent me the script to Save the Date. I was a rabid fan of one of the writers, Jeffrey Brown. Jeffrey is actually a graphic novelist. His early books depicting his failed relationships are some of my favorite books of all time. (You may actually be familiar with his latest book Darth Vader and Son).
I fell in love with the script. Like his other work, the characters actually felt like people I knew. The film had a director attached and was on its way to production. I set it on my shelf, eagerly awaiting when I could see it in theatres.
In 2009, I reached out to Jeffrey for a very different reason. I was about to get married, and hoped I could hire him to draw a comic of my wife and me. A wedding gift. To be clear: I didn’t know Jeffrey, I just wrote to the email address on the back cover of one of his books. He graciously wrote back agreeing to do it.
The night before our wedding, at the rehearsal dinner, I noticed that my wife’s gift to me was about the same size. And when we simultaneously opened our presents, I discovered that my wife had the exact same idea. We both wrote to an artist we did not know to commission a work for us. Hers was of our first date. Mine was when we moved in together. We then commissioned a third work, a meta-piece documenting the moment we opened these gifts.
Fast forward to 2010. One Too Many Mornings was about to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and I was figuring out what to write next. A friend who was working with Jeffrey’s publisher told me that the director of Save the Date had dropped out, and the project was sitting idle.
Immediately, I wrote a cold email to the producer, Jordan Horowitz, sending him the drawings above and expressing my passion for the script. Jordan was also headed to Sundance with a then-unknown film called The Kids Are All Right. We met in Park City and hit it off.
Jordan, Jeffrey, co-writer Egan Reich and I all agreed the script still needed work. While it was a passion project for everyone, there was no money. Everyone graciously allowed me to run with the script.
At this moment I was so ready to dive into the re-write, when suddenly my day job became more busy than ever. I was working for a boutique record label at the time, and quickly found myself bouncing all over the country filming bands, making content, and eventually directing music videos. While Save the Date was always on my mind, I constantly kept having to step away from the world of the story. My focus was split.
Little did I know that this complete career tangent ended up being a crucial moment in my artistic development. It’s one thing to direct a feature film on nights and weekends with your friends, having infinite time to edit. It’s another thing to listen to a song on Monday, shoot a video for it on Friday, and have only two weeks to edit it (with managers and label heads looking over your shoulder). The lack of time and abundance of pressure forced me to operate on a much more instinctual level than I was ever able to do.
For instance, the conception and execution for this video for Fitz and the Tantrums was so fast, it happened almost simultaneously:
From a directing point of view, it was really fun. But ultimately, these were merely exercises in style. They weren’t personal.
A blessing in disguise: that August I was laid off (apparently people download music illegally off the internet?), so I grabbed my team and made a short film. Yes, I had already made a feature film that had played festivals, but I really wanted to take this new process and apply it to narrative. We shot it for next to nothing, and worked in the spirit of the music videos: quickly and intuitively. We filmed it over the course of a weekend, by that Friday it was done. It was the most creatively fulfilling experience of my life.
I still had the feature script to finish, but no job to clock in to. I had earned a free flight, so I went to my parents’ house in rural Massachusetts. They don’t have wi-fi, and therefore it was one of the most productive periods of my entire life. Finally I was able to focus, energized from the experience of making the short. Jeffrey and Egan were on speed dial, should I need them. And the instant I had a decent enough draft of Save the Date, I booked my return ticket back to Los Angeles.
Here’s where timing really came into play, none of which was engineered. Ex-Sex was accepted into Sundance. The Kids Are All Right was nominated for Oscars. Save the Date was ready to be sent out. When people asked if I was a first time director, the answer was no.
The dominos fell from there. In the months that followed, I got my dream cast, producer Michael Roiff (Waitress) came on board, and financing showed up. When I look back, there’s nothing I can think of that I would have done differently.
There are a few takeaways here, but they’re very simple.
When you discover something you truly love, hold on to it. Don’t forget about it. I hadn’t directed anything of note back when I first read the script for Save the Date and literally right now you can turn on your tv and watch it.
Focus on the work. Your instincts are what set you apart from every other filmmaker, so create any opportunity to sharpen them. This is what instills the confidence and trust in your collaborators to create the groundswell of energy needed to get your film off the ground. It can be tempting to get distracted by what I like to call “warp zone stories:” filmmakers who may make one short film and find themselves directing a feature for a studio. It does not make you a better filmmaker to waste your time lamenting over the fact that this hasn’t happened to you yet. That hasn’t been my path, and most likely it’s not going to be yours.
Make sure it’s personal. Even though I didn’t come up with the idea for Save the Date, it hit me on a very deep level. No matter what scale you find yourself working on, if you simply have to tell your story, you’ll find a way to get it done. Personal stories are also trend-proof: truth never goes out of style.
Save the Date is available on pretty much every VOD platform TODAY. Watching it via iTunes between now and Sunday will make the biggest impact. The film will be hitting theatres on December 14th.
A big thanks to John for letting me share my story with you.