Earlier this year we highlighted Pink Grapefruit as part of our Sundance coverage, and its run continued by taking home the Jury Prize for best short at SXSW. After such an unexpectedly strong run with a short, what is the next step?
We talk to director Michael Mohan (Save the Date, One Too Many Mornings) about the power of creating something solely for yourself, engaging in a long festival run and how to qualify for the Oscars.
Watch the full film here (via The New Yorker):
The way we measure the success of our own relationships is by comparing them to those around us.
NFS: This film seems to be popping up everywhere! How has the run been, is it exhausting? Is it exciting to you still?
Michael: After playing Sundance we got a lot of invitations to screen places, then after SXSW that went up exponentially. I'm really glad that it's online now because you make something a year ago and you're still talking about it... But yeah, it's strange because we made it without any expectations.
NFS: What was on your mind while writing?
Michael: When I was getting married it was a super emotional ceremony. It wasn't religious, but we took it very seriously. After the wedding we found out that 3 of the couples that had come to the wedding had broken up on the way home. Another couple had pulled over the side of the road and he had proposed. Two other couples traced back the night they conceived their children to after our wedding. The way we measure the success of our own relationships is by comparing them to those around us. I've been trying to do several films about this. With Pink Grapefruit, I boiled it down to the simplest possible version of that. If there's a couple on the rocks, there's nothing more dangerous than to contrast that with a couple that's just starting.
NFS: You've worked in both long form and short form. What do you find attractive about short form over the long form?
Michael: The advantage of short film is no one can tell you not to make it. The two films I've had the most success with are my short films. The goal is to have a career. You can say, "I just want to tell stories," but it's also, "I want to make a living at this," and that's where the commercials come in.
Pink Grapefruit is not a horror movie but it's absolutely shot like one, and it makes the audience a little more active. Seeing it with a crowd, it's a lot more electric than if I had just shot it with standard handheld coverage.
NFS: It seems harder to make a short film in a lot of ways. Less time to explore an idea.
Michael: Nobody grows up watching short films -- we all grew up watching feature films. The benefits of a short film is you get to leave a ton of stuff out, and every little detail you put in the movie is magnified.
If an audience doesn't laugh at a joke, it's not them — your joke isn't funny.
NFS: What was your biggest lesson on this film?
Michael: There's never a sense of urgency behind getting people to go see a grounded relationship in movies or drama. Looking at the marketplace, the only grounded dramas that have endured are the ones that have some genre elements injected into it. Pink Grapefruit is not a horror movie but it's absolutely shot like one, and it makes the audience a little more active. Seeing it with a crowd, it's a lot more electric than if I had just shot it with standard handheld coverage. That's what I'd like to evolve with my next project, really trying to play with the audience and track what the audience is thinking. Think about it like a suspense movie: what are the building blocks that I can play with that necessitates seeing it in a theater?
People need a reason to open their wallets. If there's 700,000 short films for free online, what is going to motivate them to pay for mine?
NFS: What role have film festivals played in your life and career?
Michael: More humans have seen my films at film festivals than anywhere else. For me it's valuable to see my work with audiences to know what works and what doesn't, because they're never wrong. If an audience doesn't laugh at a joke, it's not them — your joke isn't funny. Also, it's that community thing — yesterday when Pink Grapefruit was released I emailed a bunch of friends who I met at festivals and they promoted the film on their Twitter feeds and whatnot. We read each other's scripts. It's like film school -- it's beyond film school, we help each other creativity and practically.
NFS: Are you apprehensive about releasing a film online since you're used to the community based film festival?
Michael: The last time I had something out in the wild was Save The Date, and it was on VOD and in theaters. I'd rather have people to see it in theaters, but I don't want people to not see it, so it's very confusing on how to promote it. My very first feature we made for $23,000. It was black and white, and even though we premiered at Sundance we did our own self release plan, and ultimately I just don't think [it works].
People need a reason to open their wallets. If there's 700,000 short films for free online, what is going to motivate them to pay for mine? For Pink Grapefruit, I'm ready for it to be online and as many people to see it as possible. I hit the jackpot with Sundance and SXSW and to have a place like The New Yorker premiere it was just icing on the cake.
We didn't make it because we thought it would further our career; we just wanted to make something cool.
NFS: And you've submitted for the Oscars? How does that work?
Michael: The way the Oscars works is there's a certain number of festivals where if you win an award you become "accredited." And that means you can submit. There's another loophole method of applying where you pay Laemmle theaters to four wall it for a few days and then you get a certificate that you can bring to the academy. I think it's a very small pool, but there's probably still 100 films they have to narrow down to like 5, and that process is fairly mysterious.
NFS: Has your experience with Pink Grapefruit changed how you approach the next project?
Michael: We just made it for ourselves and it's really just a boost of confidence that people are responding to it so well, but all of that is secondary to process and growing, especially with a short you're paying for yourself. We didn't make it because we thought it would further our career; we just wanted to make something cool. It's just awesome that that is the thing that's furthering our career and now I just need to block out the voices that say I'm doing the wrong thing and just lean into that.
NFS: What's next for you?
Michael: After Sundance I started kicking around this pitch for a very ambitious and bold idea for what I'm hoping will be my next film. We lucked out and a few people wanted it and we ended up going with Big Beach. So literally this entire summer I've been indoors with my co-writer Chris Levitus just writing. Nothing else. Very little socializing. We literally turned in the script yesterday. I'm hoping we can go into production next year, but we'll see.
NFS: How do you know when a screenplay is finished?
Michael: It's never finished. In our case, we shared it with a handful of trusted friends who gave us encouraging feedback. All of the things that I wanted fixed have been fixed. That's when I know it's ready. Now we will learn if our intention is clear — that's really the important part.