“You got me on a good day,” he laughs. “I'm kind of verbose.”
I'm sitting in my home office in Toronto, while Michael is somewhere on the road outside of Nashville, headed toward Baltimore. Baltimore?
“As far as I know they're doing a thirty year celebration for some of the people on the air base where we shot Top Gun,” he explains. “One of the [then] lieutenant commanders who is now, I think, a two star general, is retiring, so they're having a little party. And he asked for Jester. He asked for me. That's kind of cool.”
I can almost hear him thinking about it as he barrels along the interstate.
“I was four pants sizes smaller,” he smiles through the phone. “And I had the last remnants of hair. I must look like that guy's father now. That was thirty years ago!”
Tempted though I am to reminisce with Michael about Top Gun, Scanners, Total Recall, and my personal favourite, Starship Troopers, my phone call to him is about something more current.
“California Winter is a film I'd pay money to see. It's earnest and it's trying its best to tell a true story, an honest story.”
California Winter is an independent, low budget movie about the housing crisis that hit America hard in the latter half of the '00s. Helmed by first time writer-director Odin Ozdil, the film tells the story of an ambitious young real estate agent whose family is in danger of losing their home after she encourages them to take out a risky loan on their house. Ozdil met a lot of the mortgage fraud victims fact-to-face when was filming a documentary about the crisis in 2009. Inspired by their plight, he made California Winter to tell their story.
“The Big Short was the money side,” says Michael. “This film tells the other side of The Big Short. Who's getting chewed up at the other end.”
“How did you get involved? Judging from your list of genre credits, this seems like a digression for you,” I say, displaying an embarrassing amount of ignorance regarding Michael's non-genre film career.
“If you look at everything I've done over the years, there's probably about a good fifty-fifty split,” he says of his roles. “I get to kill people and do horror and stuff like that, and because of that I get to go off and do films where there's a certain amount of moral and ethical responsibility going on. I try to do one large budget film or one big studio distribution film every twelve to eighteen months, and that allows me to go off and work with a lot of young directors and new people.”
“Some friends of mine had fallen into the mortgage trap. [California Winter] I thought needed to be done. It was a really honest attempt by [Odin] to try to bring that mortgage trap to attention. They were using cinema as a social instrument, and I applaud that. I enjoyed doing it. The director was wonderful. It was one of those films where I remember everything feeling familial. Everyone was there for the right reason, not for the money. Nobody made any money.”
He pauses for a moment, then laughs at a memory.
“There was one supporting actor... We were rushing through a shot. My character had to serve a warrant. We were losing time, and we had one police officer holding traffic. We had one take to get it done and get out of there. As we were walking, I said to this guy, 'Try to stand off to the right side of my shoulder.' And I remember he said, 'Fuck you.' And I said, 'I beg your pardon?' And he said, 'Fuck you. Don't tell me what I'm doing. I know what I'm doing.' Because we were on radial mics, the director [heard this], and he walked up and said to him, 'No, fuck you. He knows what he's talking about. If you don't stand anywhere but on the right, you won't get on camera.'
“I guess the young man was trying to manipulate the camera. But that was the only moment on the film where I thought it was kind of humorously off-color. Everything else had a certain amount of quiet passion about it for everyone that was there.”
It's a service, Michael tells me. He's committed to being of service or doing service to a story, to a young director. “I take jobs that will enrich me spiritually, emotionally, ethically. [A long time ago] I'd done a couple of jobs for money, and the little boy inside me just felt like a total whore. No amount of money can help you when you're supporting a story that's appalling. Or when the personalities you're involved with are so avaricious they'll walk all over anybody. It made me feel so thin, so invisible. I thought, I'm ain't doing this anymore; I'm only going to do things that have some kind of service involved in them.
And California Winter fit the bill. It came to him as an unsolicited script.
“I gotta tell ya, I drive my managers crazy,” he says, talking about his willingness to take unsolicited scripts. “If you send me a script, I will read it. But you gotta know that you're gonna get my unvarnished opinion.”
Not everyone's always ready for that. Michael tells me a story about a certain well-known director. When he was just starting out, his first film was sent to Michael via a producer. “This guy wanted to keep autonomy on his film, but it needed to have twenty pages cut out of it. He came [to see me] and I said, 'We're going to get rid of these three characters, roll them into this one woman. We're going to get rid of all the speeches, we're going to put them in the schoolyard, and we're going to take this whole thing over here and put it there. We're going to cut twenty-seven pages.'
“He turned green in front of me. I thought, is this guy going to pop? Is he going to go crazy on me? He got kind of grey in the neck and he said, 'Excuse me.' He went into the washroom and started throwing up, and he kept throwing up for about five minutes. I sat and waited. When he came out he was still grey, but he said, 'Okay, how do we start?'
“He was smart. He saw the reality that he didn't have enough money [to do what he wanted] because he was a first time writer-director. He was so frightened. We've talked about it since, how fear is a control issue in our business. A lot of young people, young writer-directors are afraid to work with somebody who's got experience because they're afraid of being shown up, or taken advantage of, or they're just intimidated.”
In order to combat or allay some of those fears, Michael has made himself as “user friendly as possible.” His reputation for being easy to work with has even garnered him some extra responsibilities: he's sometimes asked to keep an eye on a young director, or step into the role when necessary.
A pause in the conversation allows me to finally ask the question that was at the top of my list. “How does a kid from Toronto end up where you are now?” I might mean driving to Baltimore to celebrate Top Gun's thirtieth anniversary with actual top gunners, or I might be speaking of Michael's place in the film world in general.
“It's kind of a well-worn path, that one,” he sighs. But he indulges me nonetheless. He tells me about being from the east end of Toronto, living in a crowded row house at Pape and Queen. He, like his parents, was a voracious reader, and although he doesn't say it out loud, I make the connection between his reading and his writing.
“Precocious prick that I was, I was writing an autobiography at twelve years-old.”
I have to laugh because I attempted the same thing in grade four.
“A young student teacher named Judy Millen at Riverdale Collegiate, where I went to school, asked me, 'What are you writing all the time?' I showed it to her. She never laughed or put me down. She said, 'Your dialogue and characters are quite good, but your descriptive narrative is horrible. It's really unstructured. You're very visual. Have you ever thought of writing plays?'”
Michael only knew Shakespeare. Judy gave him Ibsen and Chekhov to read. “They'd write one line of dialogue and about a page and a half of stage direction, and I just lit up when I read those guys. Holy shit! I didn't know you could do that.
“She suggested I take a chapter out of my book that had to do with me running away from home—which I did when I was about eleven and a half. There was a huge fight and I ran away and stayed at a Salvation Army shelter downtown for two nights. Saw some horrific things. [So] I just lifted all the dialogue and added some stage directions, and [Judy] steered me in different directions. When it was done, I didn't pay any attention to it, but what she did without asking me, being the rebel that she was, she entered my play in a Canada-wide university contest for playwrights. I ended up winning first prize.”
He didn't learn about it right away. When he came home from school to find a group of men in the kitchen speaking with his mother he mistook the small clutch of reporters for cops. “I thought they were the heat, you know? And I thought, what the fuck have I done? I could hear her talking to them. She said, 'Well, we can't send our children anywhere physically, but we can send them anywhere with books.' I thought, this is weird police stuff. I booked it out of there and went to work.”
It was only later that night, around midnight that Michael learned the truth. His dad was waiting up to speak with him. Judy's intent was to draw more attention, and more funding, to kids in high school. Michael winning the grand prize caused a bit of a dilemma for the contest organizers. Michael had won $5000 and the opportunity to see his play produced. But, as his father explained, he couldn't keep the whole prize because it was too much of an embarrassment, that some high school kid should beat out a bunch of university students.
“My dad said to me, 'You know, you can always make money, but when are you going to get a chance to see this thing you wrote on a stage?' The play was done by the Factory Lab, a very small theatre at that time, up on Dupont, above an auto repair shop. It didn't occur to me until about ten or twelve years ago that when my dad said 'you can always make money,' he'd never seen five thousand dollars in one place. This was a man who was making, I think, just barely over that per year. What a bold and wonderful thing for him to do.”
After high school Michael was advised to get some life experience. No one could teach him how to write—he already knew how to do that. On Judy's suggestion, he enrolled at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). Meanwhile, his writing stalled, “and it was recommended I take acting lessons to help with my writing. So I ended up at a workshop.”
The fruits of that labour, a ninety-minute film shot on super-8, caught the attention of the National Film Board. There, Michael joined a workshop for writers, directors, and actors. “I joined that as a writer-slash-director and came out an actor five years later.”
And some forty-odd years after that, with over two hundred credits to his name, he's jawing on the phone to a girl in his hometown. Artfully, I steer the conversation back round to California Winter, skipping over the time between with passing references to all the roles that came before.
“So. Sheriff Hillman. What's his deal?”
“He's pretty straightforward, just trying to survive to his retirement. But he's forced to [compromise] his own emotional, moral, and ethical base. By the end of the film, he knows what's going on is wrong and he has to make a decision. For himself, not just for the law.” After a moment he adds, “And that's what I like about this film. It deals with what's the law and what's right.”
Hillman's a man who's caught in the middle. And although “he has a short arc,” as Michael points out, his moral and ethical dilemma is provocative. I wonder about other characters, other men who might have similar depth. And Michael, being dedicated to his roles, has tried to imbue some of his heavier, meaner characters with a semblance of humanity.
“Every killer I've ever played, I've tried to play them as mentally ill. Nobody's born twisted and broken. Fear, and any kind of act of fear, is supposed to be a defense mechanism and an attempt to get back to a state of safety and love. And most violence is an attempt to get back to a place of stability. When fear and violence get out of hand, you get a damaged personality. I've always tried to show that violence doesn't work in all [my] characters. And when I make money [playing killers] and get distribution, I can do things like California Winter.
“It's a film I highly endorse,” he says, encouragingly. “But it is totally an arthouse film. If you're expecting blood and bodies, you're not going to get it.”
Normally I do expect some blood and maybe a few bodies, but that's where my tastes run. Michael's expectations differ from my own, being on the other side of things, as it were. While we both want a good story well told, he likes his films to be of service somehow. And while I want to totally engage with what's taking place on screen, he prefers instead to hold onto the memories of what happened off camera. “The conversations, the relationships with the people behind the camera. Some of my best friends are technicians. Those are the real memories.”
I wonder if he ever imagined he'd arrive at this point on the road, waxing nostalgic about his film career. He offers up some more sage advice, handed down from his dad.
“'Don't pick a destination. Pick a direction,'” he quotes. “I remember my mum saying, 'How can he make money in the arts?' And my dad said—I'll never forget—my dad said, 'How do you tell a northbound river to go south? Just tell it to be the best northbound river it can be.'”