Besides having a hairstyle which I dubbed, the Wide-hawk and a goatee I call chin-mullet; Michael Dunaway has a fun distinctive laugh which carries throughout our conversation. He holds many titles father, husband, filmmaker and after this week he can add juror for the Sarasota Film Festival’s Independent Visions section to that list.
Are you just as curious about the man behind the spectacles? Question by question layers were peeled to expose Michael Dunaway down to the core.
In the filmmakers lounge during the SFF after our interview.
“Its one thing to make the choice in your head and in your heart and it’s another thing when the consequences of that choice are right before you” –M. Dunaway
Paste Magazine; Film Editor (over 2 million monthly readers)
Gasoline Films; Creative Director
Sarasota Film Festival Independent Visions; Juror
Have you ever been to the SFF?
I’ve been to Sarasota before, but never for the festival. I have always heard from literally every filmmaker that has been to SFF rave about how well the filmmakers get treated and what a good time the festival is.
When I met Tom Hall at Sundance I was really happy to have made a contact here because I knew I wanted to come here eventually. It has surpassed all my expectations.
When did you meet Tom Hall?
About four months ago in January.
Wow, that soon and you’re a Juror! You must have really impressed him. Do you think it was your mad karaoke skills?
Yeah so he would have a foil for his rap duos. No, really we had walked out together from a really amazing documentary directed by Amy Burke called West of Memphis which turned out to be my favorite documentary of the whole Sundance Festival.
It’s almost a three hour documentary it’s really intense. It’s one of those documentaries you kind of walk out of and everyone is standing out in the parking lot going, what the hell! Fortunately, Tom and I had been standing next to each other and I said, “Can I ask you a question?” and he said, “Yes.” and we were off to the races!
What does it take to be a juror at a film festival?
That’s a very good question. This is my first time being a juror. We have nine films in our section and I was sent five of them on DVD. I had already seen one at a previous festival by a Sarasota native Amy Seimetz called Sun Don’t Shine.
Basically my duties during the festival consist of making damn sure I get to these other three. The other two jurors and I will have to meet and figure out who were going to award the prize to. Then at least one of us has to be there on Saturday to award the prize.
Because I heard so much about the festival and I thought it was a pretty unique position to be in, I decided I wanted to come for the entirety of the festival. I’m definitely not regretting that choice.
You can answer this question or not, what are some of the perks of being a juror?
Obviously the pass, I can get into anything which is great, especially at this festival with some of the great parties that this festival throws. The other thing which is even more important when it comes down to it, I think when I talk to filmmakers and they see that I am a juror, it sort of establishes me as someone who at least a little bit knows what I’m talking about, maybe a tad tiny bit. I don’t presume that it means any more than that. Anything like that, that can help you establish your credibility always is good when you’re starting those conversations. Then from that point it’s up to you to sound intelligent.
Do you consider yourself an intellectual?
Oh my goodness, what a question. Depends what the ask er means about intellectual. Yes, but only in a certain way. I think the word intellectual gets tossed around a lot in a negative way in contemporary society in a way that it doesn’t deserve to be.
If what you are asking am I interested in the world of ideas and think about things analytically and if that’s one my primary modes of dealing with the world, then I would say yes.
If what the questioner is asking do you love a great steak so much that you can’t appreciate a good Big Mac every now and then, then that’s absolutely not me, as anyone who has read my film writing in Paste Magazine would understand.
Why did you get into films?
From a pretty young age I wanted to be involved in acting and directing. I went through most of an adult life not being involved at least not until after the first couple of years after college. Only recently in the last three years have I come back to it. In a very short time I tell people I feel like I have my two dream jobs, I have no idea how I stumbled into both of them but, for a long time I wanted to write about films and make films. I am the film editor for what was always my favorite magazine in the entire world; Paste Magazine. I get to make whatever films I want; I don’t have anyone telling me what my next film needs to be. I feel incredibly blessed.
What do you feel your prized film is?
With Gasoline Films we’ve done some shorts, including one that won the Rome, Georgia International Film Festival last year. We just started on our second cut of our first documentary feature called The Man Who Ate New Orleans. That’s about a guy who became the first person in history to eat a meal at every single restaurant in New Orleans.
Was he in shape?
That’s the first question everyone asks. Ray moved to New Orleans right after hurricane Katrina to help rebuild, he is a pastor. By the way, his little tiny church has helped to rebuild over five hundred homes since Katrina. He gained forty pounds the first year he was in New Orleans and then in the last couple years he has taken it off. He only did two things he sold his car and walked everywhere and he leaves something on his plate every meal.
When will you complete your film?
We’ll have a third cut by mid-summer.
Do you plan on submitting it to the SFF?
Absolutely, you’ll be getting a copy for next year for sure.
Do you have another project lined up after that?
I do, I do… we are already in production on one film and technically in production on the second, although were really only in pre-production. I did a short last year for the New Orleans film festival about Richard Linklater and we are turning that into a feature. We’ve interviewed people like Ethan Hawke, Keanu Reeves, Parker Posey, Kevin Smith and all sorts of fun people.
It started off as a short and you got the funding to make it into a feature? It must have stirred enough interest to make it into a feature.
Our other project, its a civil rights documentary about a leader by universal acclaim, after Martin Luther King he was the second most important leader of the whole civil rights movement and virtually today no one even knows his name. He was a friend of mine who just passed away last year. His name was Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth he led the battle against segregation in Birmingham, AL and we are going to tell his story.
There are a lot of films right now relative to people’s stories and history. Do you feel people are making more documentaries and biographies?
“Not to get all Marxist but the democratization of the means of production in our industry has had a ground earth-shaking effect over the last several years. Especially the development and refinement of final cut pro and the emerging of the 5D Camera over the last few years, it’s a brave new world. The saying goes “Anyone can make a movie, but the bad news is anyone can make a movie.” But, I think it’s good because you have things like festivals and magazines that are sort of your intermediaries to say you should take a look at this or that. But everybody wins when there is more content out there.
I think one of the things that drive people to make a film now that making a film is possible, is being inspired by someone’s story. It’s like that’s a really fascinating story, that’s a really fascinating character and instead of twenty years ago saying, “It’s a shame, somebody should make a film about that,” now some people can say, “No I’m going to make a film about that!”
Do you feel the theme of this festival leans towards very independent women who changed and made a difference in the world or perhaps I’m basing that off the films I’ve chosen to see so far?
Sure, I was just speaking with another writer about this yesterday. She has seen three films, Ethel, Altina and Dancing on the Volcano. It’s a wonderful aspect of the festival.
Is there a film topic you won’t make, that really bores you?
I want all my films to have some sort of life affirming spark to them. It doesn’t mean they can’t be dark, they can be very dark. Some of the darkest films I’ve ever seen were very life affirming.
It takes some one who actually has been through that to get it, some people might not get it but the ones who are supposed to, do. Did you get that..?
Even if it’s one candle in a mountain full of darkness there’s still that one candle. Sometimes that’s the crucial part of the story.
I’m not criticizing filmmakers who don’t have that spark in films, far be it from me to say that. What I want to bring ultimately is affirming each others humanity, understanding each other, being kind and gentle and sensitive to one another. Even if the characters don’t do that, I want us as an audience to do that for the characters we find in film, because I think that its school. It’s a way that film can be school for real life.
Because you’re making films, I know you have your magazine as an outlet, but with the change in technology today, how do you plan on distributing your films?
That is one of the most interesting open questions for filmmakers out there today. I think that for some filmmakers the answer is; much like a band, I’m going to build up an audience that loves what I do and film by film I’ll build it up and eventually I’m going to have this huge number of people that want to see everything that I do.
I have a very dear friend of mine in Atlanta named Brandon McCormickwhose company is Whitestone Motion Pictures (www.whitestonemotionpictures.com) and that’s what he has built up. It doesn’t matter what film he comes out with; he has all shorts so far, he has a built in audience for all of them because they know the quality. That’s more difficult for me because my films have much less in common with each other than Brandon’s films do. His films are instantly recognizable as a Brandon McCormick film. My films are not that way but I design them that way.
For me it’s a big part of what I’m doing. I’m building relationships with alliances with names. When I first started making the Man Who Ate New Orleans, I had another dear friend of mine, Karin Hayes; a filmmaker; with a film at Sundance this year called We’re Not Broke, make a suggestion to me. I said to her, “I’m a first time filmmaker, how am going to get access to the money to make a film?” She said, “You have access to other filmmakers, you need to put together an advisory board and that will give you credibility,” I’m sure this is a longer answer than you wanted I’m sure.
I started putting together a list of people that I knew or have met that would be willing to do this. The biggest name was Morgan Spurlock. I emailed Morgan; I had met him three times and we talked for a total of about fifteen minutes but had a good camaraderie and connection. I said, “I know you probably get asked this kind of thing all the time but here’s the concept for my film. It kind of sounds like something you would get a kick out of. Would you be willing to serve on a little advisory board and give me some guidance?” That day not even two hours later Morgan emails me back and says, “Of course, absolutely! Sounds like a great project.”
Now as I am meeting people I am saying, “This is the film I am doing with the advice of Morgan Spurlock and these other people.” Then I got these two James Beard award winning chefs as part of the film and the greatest band in New Orleans who just won a Grammy to jump on board.
So, leveraging those relationships with names to get other names in there and then all of a sudden when someone asks me to tell them about the film, they know I’m not just a guy with a camera.
The names build value and credibility.
Same thing with the Linkletter project, Ethan Hawke responded very quickly and said, “Yes, anything for Rick,” and then every person I asked after that I would say, “Ethan Hawke said he would do this, would do this to?” and they would say yes. Before long I have a list of ten names and when I go to sell the film I say, “This is the cast.”
All those names have followings which should in turn make the sale of your film easier.
A piece of advice I was given that was valuable to me is, always ask for what you want the most anyone can do is say no. With that said, because people think someone is unattainable, they are more available and willing than one might think, as you found out.
You have to approach it in the right way and it’s important to have a project that you totally 100% are sold on and believe in. If you are doing something just to get your name out there, it’s going to show.
How do you deal with the naysayer?
I listen to a lot of hip-hop. It gives me the inner monologue to deal with the haters (he says this with his distinct laugh). There is a great song by the B.o.B called Haters. I’m incredibly blessed to have an incredible wife who believes in anything I do and I also have largely through Pastedeveloped a network of filmmakers that I know, some have become sort of buddies of mine and then there are some filmmakers that have become dear, dear friends of mine. I have people who I can call on that I can bounce things off of that A, I can get their real true feedback on and B, get confidence from them liking it.
Ethan was the second interview we did for the Linklater piece and he was so over the top supportive and encouraging about the project saying what a great thing it was and boy after I had that conversation pardon my language; who cares if someone else thinks it’s a bad idea. In my mind if not to them I can say oh, that’s interesting that you think it’s a bad idea because Ethan Hawke thinks it’s a great idea.Ethan Hawke is a name and it doesn’t have to be a name. It just has to be someone you are in awe of as an artist. Brandon McCormick, who no one at this festival knows but me, I am in awe of his talent. He is one of my ideals as a filmmaker and is young enough to be my son. The stuff he makes is gorgeous and I bounce stuff off him all the time. If he says dude that is a great idea, then I don’t care what other people say about it.
What if you’re passionate about this one project or idea and Brandon says I don’t like it. Are you done with it or are you going to get a second opinion?
That’s a good question. First of all, someone like him would never say that’s a bad idea. He would say, “I see where you’re going with that but here’s some problems I see with it,” or “I don’t get this, tell me more about it.” So I would listen really carefully about the no, but the why behind the no. I always look for diversity of opinion. Again I’m blessed with having this group of people I can call on. If two or three of my friends emphatically say that’s not going to work, then maybe I will give it up or at least back burner it.
Or perhaps it’s not the right time.
Exactly and I think that’s something artists in general don’t keep in mind enough, that taking an idea and putting it back in your subconscious and letting it marinate a little and pulling it out of the oven and seeing how it changed in the six months since you last talked about it can be a crucial part of the process.
It just might now be the right time for some. You still may have to go through these steps, experience these things and, if you push it and push, it may not be developed the way it should or could be. In the filmmaking world you need patience.
That’s right, you have to explore what it is that is drawing you to this project. What is it about this project as I conceived it that is not going to work? Maybe there is another way to explore some of these issues I’m trying to explore through this project. Or maybe the project is good but needs to take another form. There are high commitments and low commitments and high cost or low cost ways of doing things. If there is something that I think would be an incredible feature length documentary and nobody else thinks it will, then why not go out and get a little bit of money and make a short documentary or get no money and go out on the fly and do a short documentary or a trailer and see if I can convince someone that it’s a good idea.
If you’re stuck on the idea, look at it from another perspective and see how it might fit some other way, if you’re really that passionate about it.
Or maybe a film isn’t what it should be. Maybe it should be a feature article in a magazine or a novel or maybe it should be a freaking symphony. If it means something to you then there is some nut you’re trying to get at. Even if the nut is not going to be…oh wait – I’m not going to be able to extend that analogy. Even if that thing you’re trying to get at maybe there is another way to get at it.
Just get up on the other side of the bed or something.
That’s right, that’s right. I was quoting this the other day, one of my favorite old proverbs; you can’t step into the same river twice. Right, because the river changes, it’s a different river you’re stepping into. Well, in the same way in six months or a year or God for bid two or three years, you’re a different person, you’re a different artist, you’re a different filmmaker and maybe the person I was six months or a year ago was not the person to make this project, but maybe it is now.
What do you feel your biggest challenge is for you right now?
Absolutely my biggest challenge is that there are too many projects that I want to do. Some of them are time specific and they have to be done this year or next year. I’m a beginning filmmaker, I can’t snap my fingers and raise money any filmmaker will tell you that. I’m also married and we have two small children. My wife works and I’m trying to get that life balance in there as well. Certainly the challenge is focus and sort of not biting off more than you can chew.
Also helping with that challenge, I am starting to take those steps to building a team and that’s a whole different challenge! I’ll have two interns this summer and I’m integrating a couple more people part time into working with me
on the film company and so I’m trying to figure out how to take this from a one man shop; just a guy with a dream to an actual organization.
Are you good at delegating?
In some ways yes and some ways no. I love collaboration. Collaboration is at the heart of what I love to do. I believe in finding partners that do what they do really well and then trusting them to do what it is that they do.
From everyone I talk to forming a team is really important, but if you’re not passionate about what it is that you do, it will show and those people are out of the running.
How does your wife cope with the long hours, travel and at times craziness of your business?
Well it helps that my wife is by far the most incredible woman I’ve ever met and also the most unselfish woman I’ve ever met. She also loves me more than anyone I’ve ever met. The only person near the burning desire to build a film career that I have is my wife. She’s eager to make the sacrifices necessary to try to get me to where I need to be in doing this kind of thing.
Having said that, we all know its one thing to make the choice in your head and in your heart and it’s another thing when the consequences of that choice are right before you. When I’ve been gone for a week and a half and she’s dealing with her job and the kids at the same time, of course there are moments that are very difficult and there are some tensions that are there between us. Fortunately, the relationship we built is mature enough that we try our best to handle those things in a mature way.
How long have you been together?
We met eight years ago and have been married for seven.
You have two children?
Yes, one is almost six and the other almost five.
You may not be into this but some people might appreciate this question, what are your zodiac signs?
I’m a Scorpio and she is a Leo. My wife and I are more into the Myers-Briggs tests. We have sort of more compared contrast on Myers-Briggs.
Let’s get back to the festival. Do you feel like people are sucking up to you as a judge?
That’s difficult to say. I’ve already met one of the directors here at SXSW. I don’t think I’ve met any of the other directors that are in my section. So, I can’t really answer that question, but ask me again in another few days and we’ll see.
Do you as a juror have an idea of the movies you prefer in the category you are judging; Independent Visions?
You know it’s interesting; as we spoke about earlier, there are nine films in my category. I was sent five on DVD and seen each of those and again one I’ve seen at a previous festival. So, six of the nine I’ve already seen. It’s a cliché to say this category is really strong this year but, I really feel that. I haven’t met either of my fellow jurors. I can’t wait to meet them. I have a favorite of the six I have seen so far but, honestly it wouldn’t surprise me for any of the other five to be someone’s favorite. I can totally see someone saying that’s my favorite.
How do you wind up making that decision? Are there rules you have to abide by?
They give us brass knuckles at the begging and they lock us in a room. No, it will be very interesting. I’ve never done this before. I’ve exchanged emails with two of the guys and they seem amiable enough. I think we’ll be able to talk through it.
I used to work in sales and committees were part of the target audience I was selling to. So I think it’s important to avoid the committee approach to this kind of thing. That is sort of choosing the film that everyone hates, that everyone finds the least offensive or polarizing film. I think it’s the worst case scenario if we can’t agree on anything. I think it’s important to give an award that thrilled at least one person, at least one of the three. It should be like, “I frigging loved this film,” that’s what I’m going to push for; it doesn’t even have to be my favorite.
Does being a judge make you nervous or put pressure on you?
No, it doesn’t feel that way to me. One of the incredible gifts I’ve been given by my editor in chief at Paste, who was a dear friend of mine before I even started working for him is, I took over Paste as the interim film editor, after about three months he sent me an email saying, “It’s time take interim off your title, we just love what you are doing”. He has been incredibly supportive since. He’s put a lot of faith in me and he is within popular cultural circles;
I have to keep reminding myself what a bad ass he is. I have friends that I introduce him to as Josh Jackson and they are like, “Wow I can’t believe you know Josh Jackson,” and I’m like, “you mean my buddy Josh, that’s who you’re talking about?”
If someone looks at the film that we give the award to and says, “How could you give the award to such and such? You must not have any kind of judgment in film,” I’ll say, “Well I know Josh Jackson, he trusts me enough to run the whole film section.”
In this business it’s all about the people you know and the relationships you form.
It’s a real gift some people have to inspire that confidence you hold within yourself.
You probably inspire so many people it’s hard to find people who inspire you and when you do; you respect them and hold them in high regard.
Again not to keep coming back to the names because it’s not necessarily that there a name, it’s the esteem I hold in them. I met David Edelstein at a festival; he’s mine and Josh’s favorite film critic. I went up and talked to him, I was actually very nervous and I don’t usually get nervous talking to people, but I got really nervous going up to David Edelstein and the first thing he said was, “Oh my gosh Paste, I love your magazine. It’s a great magazine.” The first time I met Mark Garofalowho has now become a good friend of mine, he says, “Did you sayPaste Magazine? That’s my favorite Magazine.” To have these people that inspire you so much say to you, “I like what you do,” that is such a gift.
I like to go back and look at the comment sections from articles that we put out like top movies of the year. It’s hilarious to see how dismissive some people are its like, “You guys obviously know nothing about film.” Three years ago I couldn’t have looked at that because it would’ve made me questions myself in my own head, “Maybe I really don’t know anything about film.” Now I just say, “To each his own, sorry the list didn’t appeal to you, but I know that I know film.”
What is your guilty pleasure?
A photo I snapped of Michael Dunaway and Tom Hall shaking up the crowd singing karaoke at Shakespeare’s Pub during the week of the SFF.
Can you tell me something that might surprise someone who doesn’t know you?
Some people know this but, Mariah Carey, I love Mariah Carey. I’m like Mr. Hip-hop and punk, but I love me some crazy Mariah. I also like Indie Rock as well as Hip-Hop and punk.
How would your kids describe you?
Actually I have a story about that. I was teaching Sunday school and the son of our publisher at Paste; Nick Purdy who also is a good friend of mine was part of the Sunday school class. I made some joke about stealing his snack and the other teacher says, “Was Mr. Michael going to steal your snack?” he says, “No, he’s just a silly daddy.” He says, “I know because I got one too,” so I think my kids would describe me as a silly daddy.
Do you always wear your hair in a Mohawk style or is it just for the festival?
No, just about always, my wife likes it better down and every now and then I’ll wear it down to make her happy.
You called your hair a Mohawk and I had stated that it was more like a Wide-hawk.
Yes, and I’m cool with that, I actually think that sounds better.
And the chin-mullet statement I made, did that offend you?
No, I think it’s funny.
So, I have your permission to use both of those adjectives to describe you?
Yes, of course!
Any shameless plugs you want to throw out there before we end our conversation?
Well, I should actually plug our digital edition at Paste. It’s pretty amazing. It’s called, mplayer. It comes out every Tuesday and if you go to pastemagazine.com you’ll see the latest issue. Every issue has at least a couple articles you can read for free. If you click on the link it kind of looks like an app. The Sampler which we were famous for in print we have now continued into the downloading and streaming environment. You get eight songs a week, a bunch of reviews and a bunch of feature length interviews and its ninety nine cents a day, three bucks a week. I think it’s very creative and very different than anyone else in the entertainment space is doing. It would be something to check out for sure.
Do you work at home or go to an office everyday? I picture your office space like Google’s or Yahoo’s office, whimsical or playful.
There is a Paste office but, I work from home mostly and go in occasionally for meetings. We have a stage in the middle of the office. We have a series called; Live from Paste, bands will come in and do three or four songs. The stage being there sets the tone for the whole office.
Do you guys do karaoke nights there?
You know, I’ve haven’t ever been to karaoke with the Paste guys, I need to get that hooked up. Were getting a new crop of interns for the summer, maybe that’s they way to introduce them to the Paste culture.