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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Chalk” Director Mike Akel

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Chalk" Director Mike Akel

Director Mike Akel‘s “Chalk” is a spirited portrait of life in the trenches of that most honorable and frustrating profession…teaching. The self-conscious Mr. Stroope is convinced that his time has come–this year he will be furnished with the golden title of “Teacher of the Year,” if only his smarter students would stop using words that he can’t understand. Peek into Mr. Lowrey’s History class, meanwhile, and you’ll see that he’s struggling to even call himself a teacher. Woefully inept due to a complete lack of experience and social skills, he earnestly stutters his way through class. The only interaction his students offer him is when they steal his chalk. Men aren’t much interested in the spunky and officious Coach Webb, but “not all P.E. teachers are gay” and she pines for some romantic company…

“Chalk” has won several festival nods, including both the Audience Award and best narrative feature prize at the Austin Film Festival as well as acting ensemble kudos from LAFF and the Florida Film Festival. It also took the Stargazer Award at the Gen Art Film Festival in March. Virgil Films/Warrior PoetsMorgan Spurlocks Presents series opens the film in limited release beginning Friday, June 8 at the Sunshine in New York.

Please introduce yourself…

Bueno, me llamo Mike Akel and I have been teaching, acting and making films in the great town of Austin [Texas] for the past 11 years. I grew up in Arkansas and then studied TV/Film at Missouri State in Springfield, Missouri. The first film I wrote, directed, and acted in was a spoof of the then popular TV show ‘90210‘. My film was entitled “65807“…my college zip code. It was pretty funny but the sound was HORRIBLE and it was way too long.

What lead you to become a filmmaker?

I remember the beginning of my sophomore year I was taking calculus and had not only failed my last two tests but made a 13 and then a 9–that’s right… out of 100. Quickly after that, I decided to change my major from math to film.

When I say I studied TV/Film I’m really saying I took a few production classes and a few film history classes. The program wasn’t very intensive. So most of my experience has come from having my own camera and just teaming up with some of my friends—namely my long time co-creator Chris Mass. I was a point guard for three years on my high school basketball team and that’s how I see myself in the film industry. I can’t dunk a basketball, but I can throw it up nice and soft so my power forward can. I love helping people come alive to be who they are gifted to be.

I’m a team guy / A band guy. Everyone that has ever worked with me knows full well that I’m not that technical or amazingly skilled at any particular area in the filmmaking process. One of my philosophies is to not be afraid to surround myself with people that are smarter than me. Back to my sports illustrations. I would rather win the Super Bowl once than be the MVP every year. Not to say that I don’t battle my insecurities and ego from time to time, but I hope that I would always be more concerned with making a good film with a team than advancing my ego… It’s big enough as is.

How did the idea for “Chalk” come about/evolve?

Chris Mass (co-writer/actor) and I were teaching at rival high schools in Austin and we both were getting the itch to make another film. We tossed around a couple of ideas but the reality of our current job situation was too good to pass up. We often heard from our veteran teachers that the first three years are crucial for new teachers. In jest… “Hope you make it!” That was when we both heard that 50% of teachers quit within the first three years. That statistic quickly become our premise/thesis question from which our faux documentary crew would attempt to uncover as they journeyed with three Novice teachers and one first year assistant principal.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?

Some of the biggest challenges in making “Chalk” were getting enough kids to show up during the summer so we could have full classrooms. If you’ve ever been in a public school you know that classes are 30 strong. The beginning of the shoot had plenty of kids but by the end, the classes were a little thin.

A scene from Mike Akel’s “Chalk,” which opens in limited release beginning Friday. Image courtesy of Virgil Films/Warrior Poets

Another challenge for me as a director is getting people to work for free (with deferred payments). It doesn’t sound very “Indie” of me but money talks. If you can pay someone you can have expectations of them and it gives order to the process. I’m thankful that we had amazing cast and crew and when “Chalk” begins to make money, our deal structure is set up to pay our investors first and then all deferred payments second followed by me and the rest of the producing team.

One of the most frustrating challenges in securing distribution was hearing that “Chalk” is “great,” but we didn’t have stars in our film so it would be hard to market… sorry Chris, Janelle [Schremmer], Troy [Schremmer], and Shannon [Haragan], you’re not stars yet. We won I think four ensemble acting awards at festivals including LAFF and most of the suits still insisted on a “name” before they would consider picking up our film. This is a sad reality in the industry that I still have a hard time with. Enter Joe Amodei and Morgan Spurlock, who had the juevos/intellect to see that a comedy about teachers shot in the style of “The Office” might be something that audiences would want to see. These guys are geniuses as far as I’m concerned. In case you didn’t catch it, Arts Alliance America (Joe Amodei) is our distributor under the “Morgan Spurlock Presents” banner.

How did you finance the film?

The first “Chalk” producers (Chris Mass, Mike McAlister, Dave Gonzales and myself) put in $2500 a piece to get us through production, pay a DP, buy a camera, fly down our NYC actors, etc. After we saw the footage and believed we had something we slowly (in a Charles Schwab kind of way) picked up “One investor at a time” on an as need basis. We now have an amazing investor team that consists of 24 people who have helped us travel to festivals, pay for sound mix, close out our soundtack rights, etc.

What are your biggest creative influences?

My biggest creative influences are:

1. David Wilcox, singer/songwriter, we named our production company after one of his songs entitled “SomeDaySoon”.

2. Ray Carney, professor/prophet. I call him “the fibulator” of the soul. His writings have shaped and challenged me for the past eight years.

3. “The Great Creator,” I believe God is the greatest artist of all time. I saw a rainbow just two days ago and almost had a wreck trying to take it all in. That inspires me to create truth and beauty that not only causes people to wreck on highway 360, but to awaken the spiritual parts of their beings.

What is your definition of “independent film”?

For me, it’s making/creating something from the inside-out and then carrying that through production, post-production, and then distribution. This is very hard for me to remember and live out. I’m just as prone to wander into the temptations of the almighty dollar as the next guy.

What are some of your all-time favorite and recent favorite films?

All time favorite films: “Fletch,” “Beautiful Girls,” “Alien,” “The Toy,” “Braveheart,” “Opening Night,” “Life is Sweet.”

Recent Films: “The Queen,” “In America,” “God Grew Tired of Us,” “Hustle and Flow,” “Lord of the Rings.”

What are your interests outside of film?

Mountain biking, breakfast with friends. I love early morning coffee and conversation with close friends and family

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

I try to measure my success “backwards…” “Hey, look at how far I’ve come compared to my last project.” Also, if I’ve helped encourage others on my film team to be better than they were before we worked together, then that’s very rewarding. If I wasn’t a director, I would be a college football coach or orchestra conductor. I want to not only entertain audiences, but also cause audiences to think and feel new things that inspire them to seek and hunger for truth in all areas of their life.

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