What is your name and where are you from?
My name is Michael Louis Chernus. I’m from Rocky River, OH originally, which is a west-side suburb of Cleveland. I moved to New York City when I was 18 years old and I have lived there ever since. So, now I’m from Brooklyn, NY.
Tell me about the project you brought up to SPACE this weekend.
This week, I am helping to curate and facilitate a brainstorming think-tank weekend with participants from the independent film community. Emily had approached me earlier in the year asking if I wanted to facilitate some kind of “film initiative”. Originally, we had envisioned some kind of screenwriter’s lab, and were starting to think about how to invite people to that, but we realized we were kind of skipping a step. We didn’t really know what filmmakers needed in terms of support. The residencies here at SPACE obviously are very popular, effective, and fruitful for people, but we didn’t know if a filmmaker would necessarily need the same type of support system that a playwright or a painter or a dancer would. So we decided to take a step back and invite some different people from the film community (screenwriters, producers, people in the production and design side) up to the farm for a weekend to just have round table discussions about what a film residency would look like at SPACE. My role was to curate the weekend and facilitate those discussions.
What did the process look like? What did the days look like? This clearly a very different experience from a normal SPACE residency.
It was very different, and one thing we discovered really quickly was that people who live in the film world have schedules that change very often and frequently at the last minute, so we had people who were coming in and out throughout the weekend. Normally in a SPACE residency, people arrive at about the same time and leave at the same time. We had a number of different guests coming in and out, which actually helped to facilitate a number of different conversations happening at different times depending on who was present.
One of the first days of the weekend, we went to the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY, which is an amazing facility. We had a pretty comprehensive tour of their theaters, screening rooms, and their media lab. We had a great conversation with some of their staff, including their Executive Director, Edie Demas, about ways that we could potentially partner with them. One of the questions we’ve been coming back to is that obviously SPACE is a great place to come and write and work on a project in its early stages, but how could we support a filmmaker throughout their process? When technical needs come up, we don’t really have that kind of equipment here, but Pleasantville is only 20-30 minutes away, and they have a state-of-the-art media lab, editing bays, and one of the things that everyone was really excited about was that they have a couple screening rooms. So, let’s say you have finished a cut of your film and you want to do a test screening. Jacob Burns could potentially help facilitate that and set up a test audience. We could do somewhat safe and protected screenings of works in progress. In the film world, that’s a very risky thing. There’s a big thing about security and not letting your work “leak” before it’s officially released, but in this safe and protective way, we could help filmmakers get feedback from audiences at different stages in their editing process.
That was a really great part of Friday’s day. Emily and I have also been doing individual interviews with every participant where we basically asked them, “pie-in-the-sky, open up your imagination, what would an ideal residency look like for you?” Lots of amazing ideas came up, lots of things that were out of the box that we hadn’t necessarily thought of. I think we went into this weekend sort of assuming that next year we’d probably invite a group of screenwriters up here to write their movies, and now there’s all kinds of much more multi-dimensional, comprehensive ideas that are being thrown around. We then had a big group discussion in Kay Hall Saturday night where everybody talked about their experiences here and riffed on potential ideas for the future. Mostly it’s just been a lot of talking and it’s been really, really great.
Are there any specific ideas that stood out to you?
Craig Zobel had a really interesting idea that I’m not sure if we can follow through with immediately, but something like a “Post-lab” which would be potentially 4 screenwriters who have an edit, a rough cut, of their film ready, and they need notes on it, but they’re not necessarily ready to be showing it to a wide audience. If we brought 4 of these writers up and every night was a screening, there could be public screenings for a small test audience at Jacob Burns, or there could be private screenings here at SPACE where basically the 4-6 filmmakers are watching each other’s films and giving notes to each other. If I showed my film on Monday night, then you and the other writers would be giving feedback after we watched the film, and then tomorrow would be your turn to share your film. So that’s just a very simple way that we could serve a number of artists who are at a certain point in their process.
Another idea that got kicked around a lot, that everybody got very excited about by being here, is shooting here, because the location is so gorgeous and there are so many different types of structures and different types of landscapes. It’s a tricky proposition because the farm is a very special, sacred, magical place to so many of us and it’s a very fragile place, and film crews are often very high-impact and leave a large footprint. We couldn’t really have a big studio picture here with a bunch of trailers, but if there was a way to make a movie or a series of shorts sort of within the family, here on the farm. Say, 4 filmmakers each come here to make a 10-20 minute short film, you could even divide it up by season, and everyone had to be shot on the farm, potentially everyone would have to use the same company of actors, small number of actors and crew, and we could put the 4 films together to make a stranger feature-length evening of shorts or even companion pieces. This is just one idea of how to simply generate content that is farm-based and farm-made.
What was also just really interesting about this weekend that was also just a happy accident was having not just screenwriters at the table, we had 2 producers, a production designer, a sound designer, a casting director, so we were getting feedback and information and having conversations with people from all kinds of different angles of the filmmaking process. That was really great because there’s the fear that when you get a room full of 8 writers, there’s a chance for some jealousy and competition, and this felt very warm and friendly, and like a safe space in a business that is sort of traditionally not very safe and very competitive and cutthroat. It was really cool, and made sense knowing the farm and knowing SPACE and the staff here, but I think everyone was really disarmed by how friendly and protected they felt here. One idea, aside from some of these other potential film programs, was to even just have a weekend retreat every year with a hodge-podge of different people from different parts of the film industry, who maybe don’t know each other, just simply living together and having group discussions. Just that alone has been really fruitful.
One of the other big themes that came up had to do with pre-production. In the theatre world, there’s a traditional system of development for plays. Often plays have multiple readings and workshops before they ever get to production. In the film world, there’s hardly any development. Funding usually comes together really quickly and then you’re shooting. Crewmembers or actors are meeting the director on the day you start working. There was an idea addressing how we could give needed rehearsal and prep time to production teams before they go into production. If a filmmaker had a film that was going to start shooting in a couple months, they could come up here and bring their director of photography, production designer, sound designer, an actor, and a producer and just have that needed time to just watch films for reference. “These are the kinds of films that inspire me, could we do something like this?” They could make shot lists, story board things, and talk about the look of things and the feel of the film before you get into the crazy rat race of making it. I don’t know how that would look, but almost offering residencies to filmmakers that are more project-driven.
There is a precedent in the theatre for this development process, which sometimes isn’t that great because plays can sort of live and die in the development process. They have hundreds of readings and workshops and never get to production. One thing that Emily, SPACE, and I are very interested in is how can we serve artists in ways that they’re not being served elsewhere? There are residency programs elsewhere, but what can we provide as a service that isn’t happening elsewhere. That was the cool thing about this weekend: hearing from filmmakers and film people themselves, where they need support, what is lacking, and how nobody else is providing these things. Something like being able to house a filmmaker and their director of photography for a couple of days, allowing them to block out a couple of shots before they go into pre-production is something isn’t really happening elsewhere, and it’s a service that we could provide that isn’t available elsewhere. Looking for those radical, out-of-the-box ideas, that isn’t such a straightforward, cookie-cutter residency idea, but ways that we could provide support in ways that maybe not every filmmaker is even aware that they needed that support.
It sounds like this weekend has created multiple intertwining avenues of growth for SPACE within the film community between pre-production, post-production, and simply community-building. One of the great aspects of SPACE is that any team who comes to stay will leave here being just that much closer to being on the same page, looking at the same project, if not by the work that is being done in rehearsal, then by virtue of living together and eating together and simply being together every minute of the day.
Exactly, that strips down so much. And to give notes to someone that you’re then going to be eating dinner with, that forces you to be a little more thoughtful. This word community kept coming up a lot this weekend. I mean, obviously, in all things there is commerce, but especially in the film world. It’s a lot about who’s buying whose film, and we all want everyone’s films to get bought and distributed and seen by large audiences, but I feel like we often miss this step of starting with process and supporting each other’s work in a communal, community-driven way. Something people were saying around the bonfire last night was “community before commodity”, and not feeling like we’re all in competition with each other. People think of filmmakers as artists, but in such a commercial way sometimes. Or even the filmmakers who are artists are unfairly wrapped up in the same conversation as people who are making big blockbuster films, so how do we support filmmakers who are artists and maybe doing weird, unconventional things, and provide a sense of community in a commerce-driven world?
If you were reincarnated as a farm animal, which farm animal would you be and why?
I would be Sammy the farm cat. We were just all hanging out, and he came over and was getting pet by everybody and just hanging out in the sun. I have a lot of sympathy for Sammy. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sammy, he is our local, semi-homeless cat who lives on the farm. There’s a split here at SPACE between people who like Sammy and people who don’t, he’s a controversial animal. I fall on the side of supporting Sammy and thinking that we need to help him out, feed him, take care of him. So, I’d come back as him.
Interview by Matt McAlister.