'Your Job as Director is to Download Your Brain': Michael Gallagher on Slamdance Comedy ‘Funny Story’
From Youtuber to feature director, Michael Gallagher's love of making movies catapulted him into a rags-to-riches film career.
Back in 2009, Michael Gallagher became one of the OG YouTube partners in the early era of monetization, eventually co-founding Maker Studios, which sold to Disney to the tune of over half a million dollars. “You didn't have to have a desk job, you didn't have to be a PA. You didn't have to work your way up the ladder. I thought [Youtube] was an incredible platform, where you can create your own destiny,” said Gallagher to No Film School.
And that’s exactly what Gallagher did. He quit college and his job in San Diego, moved to Los Angeles, and started stockpiling videos. He sent out casting notices, recruited sketch comedians, and one-man-banded himself into the Youtube channel Totally Sketch, which brought in millions of views right out of the gate. Now, his latest feature film, Funny Story, a tragicomedy about a has-been TV actor heading up the California coast to see his estranged daughter, premiered at Slamdance last week.
Gallagher sat down with No Film School to talk about transitioning from Youtube skits to features, finding collaborators, and the inherent comedy of wide angles.
No Film School: It seems like collaborators you met when creating Totally Sketch continued to work with you on to Funny Story and new production company Cinemand. When you moved to Los Angeles with the idea to start something but didn't know anyone, how did you find people you could collaborate with?
Michael Gallagher: I spent a little time trying to reach for crew and cast who were just sort of out of my bracket. I feel like everyone finds themselves in a bracket. I was doing $100 a video, as my budget. We had an HD camera, we had a Letus lens adapter and we were just trying to be crafty and make it look as good as possible, but with limited resources. I was always editing. I would just edit my own stuff. I knew that I could not afford to find someone and try and give them hours of footage to make sense of. I knew the only thing I had in spades was time. So I knew that I could just dedicate all the hours to editing and grafting all the stuff together. All of that put me in a certain bracket.
"I think when you aim too high when you're in a certain bracket, you find yourself frustrated."
I think when you aim too high when you're in a certain bracket, you find yourself frustrated. Or you find yourself opening up your savings account to hire people. And they don't necessarily want to be there. They don't necessarily love what they're doing. I think the better route is to look at the people around you, rather than aspire to work with all these people that don't want to work with you. That’s what I did. I reached out to my immediate circle of friends and family. And people I went to school with. Or I'd put out a casting notice and I'd have an actor show up. One of my favorite actors and now best friends, this guy Richard Ryan, came in off an Actor's Access notice. He didn't even know what it was. And then we did this one sketch together and he didn't want to just act, he wanted to be involved in how you make this stuff.
Then I just started looking at it like, "I can't just ask things of people, I have to also provide things for them." So if anyone I worked with needed something, I would DP for them. I would direct for them. I would write for them. Edit. Whatever I had to do. I just found people that were like-minded. We created this fun environment where we're all just sort of figuring it out together.
NFS: I believe I had that Letus lens adaptor you speak of.
Gallagher: You know what I'm talking about.
NFS: Oh, yeah. It was like, look at this, you can put a film lens on a camera! The pre-DSLR days and everyone was like, "Wow, this looks like film."
Gallagher: No denying, that was like affordable, HD, classy filmmaking.
NFS: Where were the skills that translated from Totally Sketch and short form Youtube video that informed Funny Story? Or did you find the need to take a completely different approach for features?
Gallagher: When I did the sketches on Youtube, it was no budget, figuring it out on the day of, and more run-and-gun initially. The biggest change in features is the amount of preparation that needs to go in, and needs to go in across every department. Every person working on the movie just needs to be on the same page, because it's going to save you money, and save you time, and save your sanity. Because when you're shooting that many days in a row, and so many scenes per day, you really need to have an organized plan going in. Otherwise, you're going to drop the ball eventually. Maybe you can wing it for so long, but eventually, it's going to catch up to you and you're going to be in the editing room and say, "Oh, I didn't get these six shots that are super essential. And that actor lives in Guam now, and I'm just never going to get them back." Or whatever. So I think the difference is that it's really crucial to just plan ahead.
"The biggest change in features is the amount of preparation that needs to go in, and needs to go in across every department."
I think the job of the director is to sort of download your brain to everyone who works on a movie so they can see your vision. I feel like I can explain certain aspects, but the differences in a visual aesthetic, or a certain prop that you might need, things that are in your head that nobody else knows, and then when you show up and you're like, "Hey, where is that really specific thing that I was imagining and it's not here?" And if you haven't communicated that in some way to your department heads, you're just not going to have that thing. And everyone working on a movie wants to help you. They want to make the best movie possible. They want to fulfill the vision. That's literally why everyone's there.
NFS: Funny Story really hinges on the nuanced comedic timing. What was your approach with the cast?
Gallagher: It was a tricky tone, because coming from sketch comedy my funny bone sort of gets going with sometimes more broad performances, and more extreme reactions and things. It's important to realize that in a film environment, the subtlest flicker of a reaction from an actor can speak volumes. An actor doing a bug-eyed mouth drop, or some kind of cartoon thing, doesn't really translate in a feature. It's not real, it's too heightened. For short sketches, you kind of want heightened, bizarro-world reactions, to kind of create a certain comedic tone and rhythm that you have to establish within a minute, or two minutes, or three minutes. With a film, you have more time with the audience. I really wanted all the characters to feel real, even if we're kind of poking fun at certain generational differences.
The biggest thing was managing the tone, and making sure that we were getting honest and humorous reactions without being over-the-top. And that credit goes all to the actors. This cast, I was so blessed to have them. And they were really good. Because sometimes I'd ask them to do something a little bigger, and they would look at me and say, "You don't really want that." They would help remind me of the mission to be real, and to be truthful.
NFS: One thing I noticed about the way the film is shot is everything is very wide. This somehow speaks to the tone and humor, and I was wondering if you could speak to why that is, and how you came up with the visual strategy?
Gallagher: Part of it is I really wanted to capture the look of a '70s road trip comedy, but sort of a darker one. I really wanted to showcase the beauty of California, because there are so many parts of California that you see in the story, Big Sur, Bixby Bridge, San Diego, and Los Angeles, and I wanted it to come through in the visuals. And so we made a conscious effort to shoot anamorphic to get a sense of this journey that the characters are going on.
And from my experience, comedy plays best in a wider frame. Seeing body language, and seeing how two people react to each other in a frame, these little quirks that come out. If you're too tight you can miss that stuff. And it can sometimes get a little stilted for me. Sometimes it's just fun to let them breathe and experience the awkwardness of being stuck in this shot together. There's just something kind of inherently funny about that.
Gallagher: So, I don't know, maybe I'm crazy, but I like watching two people uncomfortably try to interact. I think that comes from me, because when I'm at a party or function or something, I'm talking to someone, and there's just so many times I just feel so awkward. I'm like, "What is supposed to be happening here? I didn't read a handbook of How to be a Human. I'm just giving my best, but you're not giving me anything back, so I'm not sure if I talk now, or if I leave." I think a lot of my own awkwardness, and I just try to insert into the movie. I constantly feel like I'm not sure how to react or interact with someone.
"From my experience, comedy plays best in a wider frame."
NFS: I know the feeling. We really need that How to be a Human handbook! Based on everything you've learned in your journey so far, what advice do you have for someone who wants to make a living making films and be a good filmmaker? Although, those are two different things.
Gallagher: Two very different things, yeah. Because there's a whole path if you want to make money, and there's a whole path if you want to just get your art out there.
NFS: What do you think is more important?
Gallagher: There's a way to do both. But I'm still trying to figure that out. That's the tricky road! Since I was 15 years old I've been making films, short films and then gradually into web series and feature films. I've just been going. When I'm editing one project, I'm writing the next. When I'm in production on something, I'm casting something else. I really live and breathe it, because I love it. So I found this thing I love and I just kind of give it all that I’ve got to keep moving forward. So I think the best thing is to keep making things. You evolve as a filmmaker, your tastes change, and you learn things with each project. Each project leads to the next thing. I believe in the long game.