A year ago, Monty Miranda’s “Skills Like This” was one of the favorites at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival, winning the audience award for best narrative feature. Since, it has gone on to screen at dozens of fests, including Edinburgh, Starz Denver, Atlanta, and Jacksonville. In the film, three friends have their lives turned upside down when one of them realizes that larceny might be his best skill. indieWIRE spoke with Miranda about “Skills,” which opens at the Angelika Theater in New York on March 20, 2009.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Monty Miranda. “Skills Like This” is my first feature film and it is about time. Since graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder I have made my living directing television commercials, viral films and a TV series, making movies was always the goal.
My wife and I recently relocated from Denver, Colorado to Los Angeles, California.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I discovered my parent’s Super 8 movie camera at an early age and I started to make these little movies with my neighborhood crew. My friends usually became bored or injured (due to poorly crafted squibs) and went home before we got to page two in the script. This continued through high school.
It was my father who suggested I pursue this at the University. I had an epiphany that someone could actually make a living at filmmaking. Some people do. Why not me?
I never lost interest in the camera as a way to tell stories and I somehow turned it into a career. I started with commercials and music videos. Filmmaking has always challenged me and I feel I never stop learning from the process. I am compelled to make films I cannot do anything else. Are there other aspects of filmmaking (either on the creative side or industry side etc.) that you would still like to explore? I suppose I am interested in anything you can do with a motion picture. There are certain types of stories that appeal to me both traditional narrative feature length as well as longer arcing stories. I am fascinated by the many ways to tell a story. My work is mostly known as comedy but this is hardly my only interest.
Please discuss how the idea for this “Skills Like This” came about.
Donna Dewey, producer of “Skills Like This”, and I had known each other for a while. We both owned commercial production companies. I followed her career and she mine. I had always admired her work; Donna won an Oscar for her documentary “A Story of Healing”. My commercial work had been honored by the Clios and Cannes. We both had life long aspirations of making a feature film and wanted to do this together. Paul Aaron sent Donna the first draft of “Skills Like This” written by one of his clients, Spencer Berger. I read this and I laughed out loud. I had never laughed out loud while reading a screenplay before. I knew these characters, I connected with them. I was one.
Donna and I flew to LA to meet with Spencer, Gabe, Brian and Paul and to discuss the script. We pretty much decided on that night that we wanted to make this movie together. Spencer and I hit it off right away and after an initial table read we realized that we needed to develop the story more. Spencer and I began this collaboration immediately. It was during this development stage that we became obsessed with the idea that the Max character has this dream he will never achieve because he sucks at it. This is real life. It’s a bit of existential dilemma to not make a living doing what you most want to do, even if you are proficient or good at this chosen path. Just because you want or have passion for something doesn’t mean you can make a living at this choice or fulfill a dream. No one is entitled to anything regardless of how hard they work or even how good they are. We didn’t want to make a movie where Max sucks; he works hard and then achieves his success as a writer in the end. We have seen this movie before and this is the rare case in life. “Skills Like This” is a bit of a fantasy but in these ways the film is actually very much grounded in reality and is one of the themes that most compelled me.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences.
I am really a movie fanatic I see and study as many films as possible. I suppose my influences are a bit across the board and range from Muybridge and Brakhage to Hitchcock all the way to the more modern filmmakers like Danny Boyle and Werner Herzog. I get incredibly inspired by a great film just as I did as a child.
As we began to develop and rewrite the script Spencer and I focused on what we thought would make a good movie. Basically it came down to what would we like to see in a movie. We focused on writing a movie that we would love to discover. I’m not sure exactly what other people like but I do know what I like. You make a movie with this goal to satisfy yourself. If you try and make it for someone else or try to predict what others like I believe you fail. We thought that if we were true and honest to ourselves and to this story we would make the best movie possible. Every step of the way we checked in on our process. Also we had Donna pushing us further to explore that which was both true to us and to the story.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The first challenge was with the script, in the beginning of the first act. How can Max rob this bank without pointing a gun at anyone? It is not in Max’s character to point a gun in someone’s face, but it is in his character, at this point in his life, to rob a bank. How can he commit this robbery so early in the film and still be an empathetic character. This was solved by having Max put the gun to his own head and saying, “Everybody do as I say and nobody gets hurt.”
Breaking it down beyond the script every step of making a film is this near impossible challenge. If you initially and only look at the big picture you will get brain damage, the process wont compute. You need to take baby steps. First you must have a good story, a good script, then you need money, then great actors, then you need to figure out how to shoot this movie in 17 days, then you edit the movie you shot in 17 days, then you need really great music that supports the film, then you have to get accepted into a top film festival, then you hope the audience likes the movie and then you hope a distributor comes calling. Once you have a distributor you kind of start all over again getting the movie ready to release. Someone once said you are only half way done once the movie is finished – this is true.
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
While Spencer and I were working on the script someone suggested that we shoot a screen test for our three lead actors, (Spencer Berger, Brian Phelan and Gabe Tigerman). I realized that this was probably also a screen test for me, as I had never made a feature before. So I said let’s do it but lets make this test look like it was lifted straight from the movie. This idea steamrolled into me thinking if we are going through the effort we might as we’ll just shoot a trailer for the movie before the movie exists, kind of a “lets show what we can do.” I thought we could use the trailer to help raise money to make the movie. I learned shooting a trailer is a lot harder than shooting a screen test but we managed. That original trailer, along with the script, is what Donna Dewey and Brian Phelan shopped around and I believe they raised the money in about a month and we now had a sales agent too, Cinetic Media. We were on our way. This was crazy to me as I always thought that raising the money was the most impossible task. Donna and Brian are amazing.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I think every genre deserves exploring and I hope to explore as many as possible.
What is your next project?
I am shooting a TV commercial this week and Spencer and I are working on a “Spooky Comedy” screenplay that we hope to make with the same gang. We are really excited to get back into it; “Skills Like This” has been an amazing ride.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
I guess “independent film” is having the power to live and die by your own decisions as you take each step in the process.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Surround yourself with people smarter than yourself and take baby steps. You will know. You either have to be a filmmaker or you don’t. If you have to be a filmmaker you will find the ways to make your movie or you will give up. It’s that thing that you can’t not make this movie, once you are at that point there is no stopping. But focus on the small steps in the beginning it is a marathon.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Back when I was in film school working as a grip on the weekends to earn money to help pay for school, directing a feature film that is released in theaters and around the world seemed pretty out of reach. “Skills Like This” is that achievement.