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Interview: Michael Phelan

First time writer/director Michael Phelan speaks about his film Into the Fire with admiration for everyone involved, from his distribution, to his cast and crew. With little money, some not so positive feedback, a 19 day shooting schedule and a handful of talented people, Phelan weaved together a story about hope and courage, two themes that seem to be the underlining themes of everything he does.

Justin Ambrosino: Why does a film that takes place in part on the shore of the New York Harbor have the title Into the Fire?

Michael Phelan: We all have something in our past that we carry with us and sooner or later we have to deal with it in order to be free. That something is the “fire”, because it’s sometimes hot, dangerous and scary. Our three characters, who are my own interpretations of three heroes, each have to go into the own fire in order to go on with their lives. And each have to show incredible courage that isn’t the typical kind of movie courage. This isn’t Rambo going into the fire with Bow and Arrows. It’s an older woman, played by JoBeth Williams, on her own, having the courage to entertain the possibility of letting some strange guy into her life and having even greater courage to toss him away. It’s about our lead female character played by Melina Kanakaredes to have the courage to take a chance and take a walk with a stranger through Central Park. And of course, our lead character, Sean Flanery, who shares his entire meltdown in front of us and we actually watch him go into his fire and out the other side.

JA: The main character is apart of the NYC Harbor Patrol Unit, what kind of research went into their work and who they are?

MP: I spent a lot time with the Harbor Charlie Unit, hearing stories, asking questions and just being there. They are great guys. Besides that I’ve always had friends in the FDNY, but I was real sensitive – I didn’t want to make it about them. More importantly for me was the story around them. I wrote this in the wake of 9/11, and I wanted to include the life of the Harbor Unit and have as much integrity as possible, but not use it as the backdrop of the film.

(L) Director: michael Phelan, (R) Actors: Sean Patrick Flannery & Melina Kanakaredes

JA: Tell me about yourself before this film?

MP: I worked at Warner Bros for six years, where you literally read thousand and thousand of scripts and get to watch 15 – 25 films be made per year.. Soon, I realized it was ripping a hole in my soul. There was all this data coming at me about “people over 55 that eat pizza at night really want to see this actress.” It has everything to do with marketing reports, nothing to do with connecting and inspiring an audience. Soon after, I created a company and began writing Into the Fire in 2002.

JA: In what way did money affect some of your choices?

I shot the film in 19 days. Stylistically, it forced me to do it a certain way…that is why you see a lot of wide-angled, one shots. We simply didn’t get a chance to get a lot of coverage. In the original version of the script, the crash scene was much bigger and if we had more money and more time we could have done all that.

JA: Had you had more time and more money do you think the performances could have been improved?

MP: The answer is absolutely not. Everybody, from me, the actors, and down to the last crew member, knew we had a schedule to meet, everybody cared about the story and so we all just got with this flow. It’s a group that knew they had one shot to get it right. My actors never had more than three takes. Everybody was ready. It’s not clean, crystal and shiny; that is what I left back at the studios. When you write a film based in reality and you want that feeling there will be a lot of pregnant pauses and moments of silence. The imperfections that you see today on the screen are what make the film perfect.

JA: Do you think you got the heart of being a New Yorker in the film or is it a film that is just a film set in New York??

MP: You can never pencil down what is a New Yorker. June Sickle’s character might be the closest to a real New Yorker out of all of them in the film, but what we were trying to do is build a larger universal theme. I didn’t want people to say, “Well that is just a New York thing.”

JA: Do you think the film would have come out differently if you would have made this before working so many years in the studio system?

MP: Yes. We would have never had made it. For about two years after the script was finished I tried to get this film made, so the experience was essential in navigating through the business. Everyday, during the production there were new problems and the only way to get over those was if you watched somebody or knew somebody in the same situation and you had the opportunity to pick up the phone and ask somebody what to do.

JA: Do you feel like working within the business affected the film’s artistic ambitions in anyway?

MP: Absolutely. Do you think all that television you watched as kid has affected the way you think now? The answer is yes, you just can’t help it. It’s in your subconscious and whether you choose to accept it or not.

JA: Do you think you’ll try to detox from that way of thinking when you write your next script?

MP: My goal is to mix it up. In Hollywood, there is a tendency to be all or nothing. There are people like Jim Jarmusch, who think completely out side the box, then there is Michael Bay who gets killed by the critics, but it takes just as much talent to do. In regards to me, I am interested right now in doing “Hope” stories, dramas about families, about people. And yes, I want that larger audience, I want that larger distribution, I want to get my work out there but not let it be some hokey story. I want it to be entertaining but also have some truth in it.

JA: In terms of direction can you give me some influences for this particular film?
MP: The Coen Brothers. They taught me that you can generate a lot of energy by using a wide angle lens and moving it. A lot of Into the Fire is a wide angled lens that we get really close with and it builds up the intensity. That is not a credit to me; that is all the Coen Brothers. We just took it a little further and based the entire film on using a wide angled lens. It became big time perspective. The other is Alfonso Cuaron, director of Y Tu Mamá También. He too had done a lot of larger studio films and got disenfranchised too. When he got slated to do the latest Harry Potter movie at that time, he turned it down. Instead, he had his brother write a movie about where he is from and he just raised the money and shot that movie for nothing. I was so inspired. I went to the Q&A’s about the film and listened. That film really got us going.

(L) Phelan, (R) Directory of Photography: Christopher Norr

JA: Did you use a lot of natural lighting?
MP: About 85% of it was natural. I worked with Christopher Norr, an unbelievable cinematographer. He was never afraid to try, when I said , “Hey Chris, I really want this barely visible, I’m talking silhouettes. I want to barely see any definition.” He would say. “Alright, let’s try it.” If you see the film you’ll notice, when the scenes are dark they are really dark, but it’s a dark movie. Chris and I had our own little conspiracy about the lighting. Money was also a factor in the choice of natural lighting. If you can write a script with natural light in mind, you can go cheaper and faster during production.

JA: Did you do any storyboarding for this film?

MP: We storyboarded the water sequences because they were really important. They were going to be really tough to shoot. I storyboarded the first week of production because our schedule was hectic and being a first time director I wanted everyone to know where we were going. So it made that first week that much easier.

JA: Did you ever think of using non-actors?

MP: Absolutely. We were actually looking at some non-actors for the roles and we were almost ready to shoot. Immediately, talent agencies took us more seriously and began to submit their clients.

JA: The editing process, were you there everyday?

MP: We were there every day. The running joke from the editor was, “Where’s the coverage?” I said, “You’re looking at it.” We didn’t have the luxury of running through rolls and rolls of films looking for the right take with the right moment. It was really making the right moment happen when you needed it on set.

JA: Do you consider the editor – technical hands?

MP: No, because with film it is about knowing people who have the talents that you appreciate and knowing people you want to work with. That is the art form of film. Creative people can only add ideas to your project.

JA: Did you have to shop this film around for distribution or did you have distribution in place before production, what about festivals?

MP: No festivals, we just put it right out there because we really believe in it. We didn’t have distribution in place in the beginning. We were going to distribute the film ourselves and just like the casting, once they heard that we were going to do it, Slowhand Cinema Releasing got involved and said “let’s do it together”. Slowhand Cinema is owned by a guy, Mary Zeidman, who really loves movies and he wanted to be a part of our project. People like Marty keep this art evolving, keep this business evolving.

JA: This next project you are writing, what is it about?

MP: It’s an untitled project that is a really powerful drama, thriller set in Washington, D.C. that has a lot to do with politics and family. It’s about the courage it takes to uncover the truth.

Into the Fire gets a New York release @ the Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema on September 23rd.

For more information and the trailer visit the official site.

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Justin Ambrosino received his MFA from the American Film Institute where he was awarded the prestigious Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell Scholarship. His short, ‘The 8th Samurai', a re-imagining of the making of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, won more than 20 jury awards worldwide and qualified for the Academy Awards Short Film category in 2010. Ambrosino began as an assistant on major feature films including 'The Departed', 'Lord of War' and 'The Producers'. He also staged a series of one-act plays throughout New York. He has been a Sapporo Artist-in-Residence, a Kyoto Filmmaker Lab Fellow as well as a shadow director on 'Law & Order: SVU'. Ambrosino is working on his feature film debut "Hungry for Love". Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Bong-Joon Ho (Memories of Murder), Lina Wertmuller (All Screwed Up), Ryan Coggler (Black Panther), Yoji Yamada (Kabei) and Antonio Capuano (Pianese Nunzio...)

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