January's Filmmaker of the Month is Michael Berry who screened Stuck at BFF's 2017 fall festival. Prior to Stuck, Berry made his feature film debut with the border drama Frontera which he directed and co-wrote. The film stars Ed Harris, Michael Pena, Eva Longoria, Amy Madigan and Aden Young. Previously Berry directed and co- produced two award winning short films, Mira and Day of the Grackle. As an actor Berry appeared on Broadway in the Tony Award, Pulitzer Prize winning, Next To Normal. Other Broadway and national tourcredits include: Les Miserables. Sunset Boulevard, The Who's,Tommy, Mamma Mia. Off Broadway Berry appeared in a critically acclaimed production of Moby Dick and was nominated for a Drama Desk award for Best featured actor. Berry received a scholarship to the United States International University, School Of Performing And Visual Arts, and In New York studied with such luminaries as Austin Pendleton, Wynn Handman and Uta Hagen.
“I have lived and worked in New York for a long time. I have ridden the subway, way more times than I care to recount. During those rides, I met or perhaps stated more accurately, encountered and experienced, many extraordinary humans and events. The story, the characters, events and the music in Stuck are meant to celebrate the tremendous heart, grit, generosity and diversity that I have witnessed and experienced in the people of New York City. My hope is that Stuck also illuminates the irony of the tremendous isolation one can feel, even while living in a city surrounded by over 8 million others. Stuck is my love letter to New York.”
Tell us your backstory. How and why did you get into the filmmaking?
I didn’t actually realize it until a short time ago, but the fact is, I come from a family of story tellers. My Dad was an outdoorsman and he and my Uncle were both larger than life characters to me and my sisters and cousins. They were always taking us hunting, fishing or camping as well as telling campfire stories about crazy hunting trips, fights and adventures they had, had when they were kids. So my cousins, sisters and I made it our goal to seek out adventures and experiences to rival those told by my father and Uncle to greater and lesser degrees of success and or injury. But no matter the experience, whether it be fun, pain, failure, triumph or disaster, it always became the stuff of story and legend to my family. My mother’s influence on my storytelling and desire to be an artist can’t really be over-stated, as she was a professional artist and had a love for music and could sing and play the piano. My Mom saw the world with an artists visual eye and would point out colors and details in sunsets, landscapes, animals and people to my two sisters and especially to me as she and I shared a natural ability to draw and paint. I lost my Mom to cancer at 16 and after that I started getting in to trouble, got kicked out of high school, etc. After floating for a while, I finally found my way in to theater. Theater turned out to be good fit for me because it’s filled with a mixed bag of interesting semi-crazy people who all want to be story tellers. I was surprised to discover how much theater was like a team sport, in that everyone had to be prepared to do their part of the story no matter how big or small, because everyone was depending on everyone else to make the show work. Theater gave me a kind of a forced discipline, which was something that I needed to learn as discipline was something I had managed to avoid up to that point. I discovered that there are no real excuses in theater. You are responsible to know your own lines, your own staging, your own choreography, your part of the story. So if you are not prepared, there is no need for discussion about who’s fault it is. This made the penny drop for me. So after doing a slew of theater shows, I decided I really needed to get some meaningful training, but I was basically broke and had no way of taking classes much less paying for any kind of college, but I had made a good friend in one of the theater shows I had done (who later became my writing partner on my first feature film), he helped prep me for an audition to get a scholarship to a private university, impressively titled: “United States International University School of Performing and Visual Arts,” the school generously accepted me and I was incredibly fortunate to fall in with a really good group of talented friends, colleagues and teachers who held themselves and me to a very high standard of striving toward the truth in any scene or story. Shortly after leaving college where I had studied Shakespeare and classic theater penned by brilliant playwrights, I moved to Los Angeles to work at Universal Studios in the Western Stunt Show, where I did 4 to 5 shows a day and was taught to jump off buildings, fall off horses, shoot guns loaded with blanks, throw and take punches without really fighting and tell fart jokes. Crazy thing is, it turned out to be one of the most personally rewarding, best jobs I ever had. Made amazing friends, learned to take myself less seriously, which made my work better and more honest and worked with some of the most capable most generous people I have ever met. (Had really great insurance too….).
While I was working at the Stunt show to make ends meet, I was also pursuing acting jobs in film and stage and had managed to secure some occasional work in live musicals via an arguable talent for singing paired with an athletic, gymnastic ability that I was able to sometimes pass for actual dancing. My girlfriend at the time Sarah Uriarte (now my wife) who is a brilliant singer, actress had recently booked the National Tour of Les Miserables and she had heard that they were looking for a guy who could sing this ridiculously high note to replace someone leaving, in the Broadway company….. (The note was way too high for me). But a friend that I was doing a show with, took me over to a piano and told me to imitate the voice of the cartoon character Dudley DoRight (google it kids). I did and then he said, “Now sing the Les Miserable note like that.” I did, and I auditioned and booked the part and moved to New York City a week later. Sarah, my girlfriend (still my wife) was brought in from the tour to the Broadway company. 3 months later. ….I’ll cut to the chase, I spent nearly 20 years in New York acting and directing in theater. While I was traveling on a National Tour of a show, a friend who was interested in being a DP knew I was a director as well as an actor and suggested we make a short film between city stops. We worked and developed a twisted, dark comedy story that another actor in the show, who was also a writer, had been working on. We shot the film at my house in New York between shows, chopped at it during a 3 week stop in Chicago and then submitted it to a bunch of film festivals. Much to our surprise, the film started getting accepted in to festivals and then started winning awards. It was titled “The Day Of The Grackle.”
So, since that one went okay. We wanted to make another short. I wanted to tell a very different kind of story so we shot a kind of feel good drama that I penned the screenplay for called, “Mira.” Mira, also was screened at many film festivals and won it’s share of awards and even got a bit of distribution. But more importantly Mira was shown and caught the attention of a Producer who really liked it and decided that he trusted me enough to make a feature film. I showed him a border drama story that I had co-written with my best friend, titled Frontera.
After doing my shorts, Frontera, was kind of like being shot out of a cannon. Both my shorts had a total budget soup to nuts of around two grand. I went from begging for free locations, holding lights, fetching the gaffers tape, setting up, breaking down, begging actors to work for food, taking out the trash and what ever else was needed, to watching huge trucks and trailers pull up along with actors and a 125 person crew who were all there to help me tell a story…
Frontera starred one of my all time favorite film and stage actors, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan (who is also in my current film Stuck and will hopefully be in any film I ever make), Michael Pena, Aden Young and a slew of others. Frontera kind of cemented the theory that I often held as an actor, ”My god, they’ll put ANYONE in charge of actors.”
What are the specific qualities that, in your opinion, make a film great?
In my opinion, a great film, is one that inspires some kind of a significant emotional response from an audience. …It should make you feel something.
What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
The “most inspiring?” Hmn… some inspirations that come to mind at this moment are: Schindlers List, Jaws, Crash, Forrest Gump, Raiders Of The Lost Arc, The Princess Bride, Birdman, Robin Hood, The Godfather.
The “why?” is probably harder to express. Truth is, I could think of many other titles to add to this list. But I am certainly inspired by the film makers who made the above films and many, many other older and newer films. In my opinion, all the films I mentioned, the brilliant filmmakers were able to create a world and take the audience on a journey with vivid characters that I really felt I knew and felt something for. That to me is the most important part of the task in filmmaking and what gets me invested in a story.
What’s harder? Getting started or being able to keep going?
I guess getting started is harder… Seems there are always a lot of hoops to jump through.“Keeping going.” Once I’ve started, keeping going, is not really a problem for me.
And what drives you to continue making films?
I like collaborating with a bunch of really talented, smart, resourceful people and telling stories. My first DP Rod Weber, who shot both my short films once said to me, “It’s always a miracle whenever a movie gets made.”
How do you know when your story’s finished, when to walk away?
I guess when you see it starting it get worse. You don’t want to pick at something so much that you hurt it.
How many films have you completed?
Four, 2 shorts and 2 features
What is your favorite project you have worked on and why?
Not to sound cliche, but I have been really, truly grateful for the opportunity to tell all my stories. If I was pressed, I guess my first feature, Frontera, seemed the most amazing to me at the time of shooting as I wrote it with my closest friend, I was working with one of my acting heroes (Ed Harris) there were horses around and we were shooting outside in New Mexico for 90 percent of the shoot, so that was pretty exhilarating.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
My kids, my family, other film makers and performance artist, real life heroes, humans…