The Twitter profile of recent UWM graduate and emerging local filmmaker Michael Viers proudly states: “Filmmaker, horror fan, wrestling addict, Virgo, and a guy who loves a good book.”
It’s an apt, though tongue-in-cheek description of a young filmmaker who experienced quite the watershed year in 2013. So game changing in fact, that if it were the plot for a work of fiction, some would question its likelihood.
For starters, he completed production on two well-received short films that both debuted on the festival circuit in 2013: his senior film project From the Darkness Theatre, which he both wrote and directed, and the last Collaborative Cinema-produced effort, Love You Still, written by Franklin High School student Katie Theel. Both films played at a number of film festivals both local and abroad (more about that later on).
He directed his first music video (“Never What It Seems”) for the local band The Directionals.
Viers, who counts directors Sam Raimi and John Carpenter among his filmmaking influences, landed a coveted internship with Troma Entertainment, an independent film production and distribution company founded in the mid-1970s that specializes in low-budget independent horror films that are farcical in nature.
And, if that all wasn’t impressive enough, he capped off 2013 by earning his bachelor’s degree when he graduated from UWM’s Peck School of the Arts in December.
Viers’ first film of 2013, the shrewdly executed From the Darkness Theatre, is centered around a small-time Public Access horror host named Uncle Seymour Cadavers (played by Michael Denk) who receives a letter from a young, abused fan asking for help.
“From the Darkness Theatre, or FTDT [for short], was a long process,” Viers says. “I knew I wanted to go all out for my senior project. The film I made beforehand didn't really do the job I was hoping it would, and the biggest reason for that being I was the majority of the crew. It's not an easy way to make a film! So, I set out to write my senior project well in advance. Luckily, I kept track of the title page when I wrote my first draft which was back in September of 2011 when the film was known as ‘From the Depths of Darkness.’ It went through two heavy rewrites, and we began filming in October of 2012 and wrapped post-production last spring.”
The 11-minute short film with a solid lead performance by Denk, was originally conceived as Viers’ senior project while still a film student at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts. Viers had an idea what he wanted but there was an essential component missing. “I knew from early on in film school I wanted to make a film that centered around a Sammy Terry, Zacherely-esque horror host,” he says, “but had no story to back it up with, so I sat on the idea.”
That is, until he watched a program on television about child abuse, then the idea for the film’s plot began to play out in his head. The child abuse angle coupled with his old horror host idea was just the hook he needed to tell the story he was looking to tell.
“I had fun writing the film because it was a chance to play around with the horror genre a bit,” Viers says. “Anyone who knows me can attest that I'll go on record and say Vincent Price is my idol in more ways than one, so I wanted to keep the Gothic theatricality his films typically had but mix in an early ’80s exploitation vibe to it. Effectively, I wanted to mix The Abominable Dr. Phibes with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.”
His past experience working with kids in an after-school program over a five-year period helped to inform the film’s narrative.
It took Viers the better part of two years to make From the Darkness Theatre. He had the story he wanted to tell, and thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign, he was able to raise the funds needed to make the film a reality.
Little could he have known how the film would resonate with audiences, not to mention with festival programmers and judges as well. The film played the Short Film Corner at the 66th Annual Cannes International Film Festival last May. Cannes is arguably the world’s premier film festival, so having a film play the festival – in or out of competition – is a pretty huge deal, most certainly for an emerging filmmaker still in school at that time.
Additionally, From the Darkness Theatre screened at the 64th Annual UWM Student Film & Video Festival, where it won both the Audience Award and the Second Place Prize from the festival’s judges; the Housecore Horror Film Festival in Austin, Texas; the 15th Annual Milwaukee Short Film Festival, where it won three prizes for Best Actor (Denk), Audience Favorite, and Best Director for Viers; and it screened for one-night only on a Madison-based horror host's Halloween show entitled “Bordello of Horror Halloween Spectacular.”
Viers’ second film of 2013, Love You Still, which Moviegoers previously described as a “surprisingly mature and heartfelt rumination on love and loss with Hollywood-caliber production values,” was produced by Milwaukee Film’s Collaborative Cinema program. The film is about a lonely older fisherman named John (Rick Richter) who’s haunted by memories of his former love, Alice.
“He misses her immensely and looks for any sign that she may be trying to contact him,” Viers says about the nearly dialogue-free film written by Franklin High School student Katie Theel. Theel’s script was chosen from a group of scripts that were written last winter during a screenwriting workshop for teens thrown by Collaborative Cinema.
Weeks before the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival got underway, it was announced that the program (which afforded local area teens interested in film production the amazing opportunity to work alongside professional filmmakers on locally made short films with Hollywood-caliber production values) was coming to an end.
Viers was as surprised by the end of the program as everyone else. “I had no idea it was going to be the last,” he says. “However, I'm thankful I didn't know as that extra pressure wouldn't have helped my nerves much!”
Those nerves came about because in order to land the Love You Still directing gig, he had to formally pitch his vision for the film to the people at Collaborative Cinema.
“I had a lot of help to get prepared from my good friend [and second AD on the film], Kyle Arpke,” he says. “He's the one who urged me to actually practice my pitch when I was being foolish and proclaiming I could just wing it. I can't thank him enough. I really just obsessed over the material. I made sure I could visualize it all. I needed to be genuine and true about what I could bring to the film which is part of the reason I was chosen, I think. And thankfully it all worked out.”
The film’s producer, Susan Kerns, formerly of Collaborative Cinema and Milwaukee Film, was honored last fall at the 15th Annual Milwaukee Short Film Festival with the Pacesetter Award for her body of work to date. The festival showed Love You Still out of competition as part of its tribute to her.
Of their working collaboration: “I've only known Susan for a few months, but in that time we've gotten pretty close and I can see so many great qualities in her. She's insanely dedicated, willing to take risks and has done a lot for young filmmakers through Collaborative Cinema. She took that platform and gave young filmmakers like myself a chance to prove ourselves on a bigger scale. I feel like she's helped put a lot of filmmakers and high school students with dreams of filmmaking on the right path by showing it can be done right here at home.”
Up next for Viers is a feature-length horror film he hopes to get into production tentatively titled Swine (“It’s my love for the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, slasher films and small town mythology all rolled into one.”), and he just wrapped principal photography on his latest short film, Do You Love Me, which he categorizes as a psychological thriller. The short was written by Valerie Lighthart, a teen and Germantown native who’s also a published author. Her debut novel, He’s Got Problems, is available at Amazon.com.
While most filmmakers are lucky to get one film into a festival, it’s becoming old hat for Viers to routinely have two films playing at a given festival, especially festivals here within the state. “It's kind of amusing having both films play festivals,” he says. “They're so different in every way that I kind of love knowing I'll be associated with both, and those who don't know me already might have to do a double take to make sure they read the credits correctly. Like ‘Wait, the guy who made the love story with the fisherman also made that horror film with the kid and the TV host?’”
Upcoming festival screenings for From the Darkness Theatre and Love You Still include this weekend’s Beloit International Film Festival, which starts today and runs through Sunday, Feb. 23; and next weekend’s Green Bay Film Festival, which starts on Friday, Feb. 21 and runs through Sunday, Feb. 23. Check each festival’s website out for times and ticket prices.