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Michael Glover Smith Explores His Darker Side With “The Catastrophe”

November 16, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Terrence Flamm

Still from "The Catastrophe"

Michael Glover Smith might surprise people when his new film, The Catastrophe plays at this year’s Illinois International Film Festival at the Viaduct Theatre on November 19th –especially those familiar with his last effort, At Last, Okemah! a humorous satire on folk music that snagged the Audience Choice Award at the 2009 Chicago International Reel Shorts Fest. While the 15-minute The Catastrophe has touches of humor, it’s a darker, more complex work influenced by 19th century author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Dylan, and Iranian filmmaker/poet Forough Farrokhzad. Not to mention The Catastrophe’s political overtones.

“Well, honestly, I kept hearing words like ‘charming’ being applied to Okemah! and it started to rub me the wrong way,” Smith confessed in a recent email. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of that film but . . . it got to the point where I thought that if I was going to be putting a lot of blood, sweat and tears (not to mention my own hard-earned money) into the making of an independent film, I didn’t want the end result to be compared to Waiting for Guffman, if you know what I mean.”

Smith attended a performing arts high school in North Carolina but moved to Chicago where he received a BA from Columbia College in Film Production in 2000. He spent a few years in California getting his MA in Film Production from Humboldt State University before returning to Chicago to make films. He acknowledges that the success of At Last, Okemah!, which was screened at several independent film festivals across America, has opened some doors for him.

“There’s a weird kind of domino effect on the festival circuit,” he said. “As soon as you get into one festival, it seems like it becomes easier to get into others. And if you win an award, that makes it easier still.”

It’s no coincidence that The Catastrophe finds Smith reunited with several of the cast members and crew of At Last, Okemah! They’re accustomed to the fast-paced rhythm and routine of working with him on the set. For actors Peyton Myrick and Marla Seidel, who play the lead roles of Dominicus and Carlie respectively, The Catastrophe was their first time working on a Michael Glover Smith film.

“Marla was the best,” Smith said of the auditions that brought Seidel on board. “She was just very convincing at hitting all of those notes that the script required: angry, sad, playful and flirty, drunk, lustful, etc.”

Smith has known Myrick since the days when they were classmates at that performing arts high school in North Carolina. But the actor was chosen because he was well-suited to the role, not on the basis of friendship.

“I’ve always marveled at his talent,” Smith said. “I think his acting in the film is beyond phenomenal. Dominicus is the ‘quintessential modern man’ and Peyton has the Everyman quality, in both his look and demeanor, required to pull that off.”

The Dominicus character also drives the political allegory aspect of The Catastrophe. Smith tries not to say too much about specific meanings of his film, preferring to let audiences draw their own conclusions. He’s even fine if people don’t see any political message in the film at all.

Still from "The Catastrophe"

“Personally, if I leave a movie feeling like I know all the answers, then I find the experience is too easily digested and forgotten,” Smith related. “But if I see a film that has a sense of mystery that lingers after it’s over, it can light a spark in my imagination that will stay there for a very long time.”

Smith created an imaginative visual style for The Catastrophe that involved opening with a black & white film noir ambience and gradually bleeding in colors. Designed to symbolize the Dominicus character’s realization of what’s going around him, it proved to be a challenging process.

“We had to make very specific choices about our color palette in terms of costuming and production design” he explained. “For instance, for the very first scene, we needed a restroom with brilliantly white-tiled walls and we also needed our actors to be costumed completely in black and white. After that, we decided on a cool, blue/green color scheme with the occasional splash of red.”

The film’s soundtrack also played an essential role in establishing tension. Composer Shane Kliebenstein came up with the original score as well as the techno song that can be heard playing during a scene set in night club. Smith also scored the unlikely coup of getting Bob Dylan’s permission to use one of his songs in The Catastrophe.

“The Dylan song, ‘Ain’t Talkin’,’ which plays at the end of the film, had the right dark, brooding quality that I was looking for and I actually sought permission to use it long before we shot the film,” Smith said. “We played the song on the set and had the actors time their movements to the song.”

Given that Dylan is notoriously reluctant to license his music, the question arises as to whether the singer was familiar with Smith’s earlier film, At Last, Okemah!

Still from "The Catastrophe"

“I have no way of knowing if he saw it or not,” Smith noted. “I’d like to think he saw it and that it influenced his decision to license ‘Ain’t Talkin” to us because Okemah!, as you know, is essentially a thinly veiled, affectionate parody of his early career.”

Smith has high hopes for The Catastrophe beyond its screening at the Illinois International Film Festival. It’s his third effort, following At Last, Okemah! and Minx, and he feels it reflects how much he’s evolved in his career.

“Our goal from the beginning of making The Catastrophe was to get into bigger festivals,” he explained. “We’ve already submitted it to a bunch of them but the IIFF is the only one we’ve heard back from so far. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

The Illinois International Film Festival runs from November 18th through 20th at the Viaduct Theatre, located at 3111 N. Western Avenue in Chicago. 773-296-6024. Tickets are $10 at the door and are good for all screenings throughout the weekend.

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