A 'Different' Feature Debut: An Interview with Michael Felker

A 'Different' Feature Debut: An Interview with Michael Felker

A two-time Pipeline finalist (Script Pipeline Screenwriting and Film Pipeline Short Film), writer/director/visionary (if we do say so ourselves) Michael Felker's feature debut Things Will be Different premiered at SXSW in 2024.

I have the pleasure and the extreme advantage of knowing what your writing sensibilities are, which I can only describe as “mainstream funk” (just made that up on the fly, but it’s pretty accurate imho). These delightful, ultra-fun, genre blending-and-bending stories. Things Will be Different is, ironically, no different.

How’d you dream up this concept? You mentioned it was “made for my father,” right?

I do like the term "mainstream funk." Seems versatile and broad, but also kinda cool in a specific way? [laughs]. I mean, you know this about me, I'm a very high-concept type of writer. I think the most interesting movies to me are the ones with concepts I've never seen before. Film is a very old medium, and every idea has been done already a dozen different times. So the ultimate advantage you can have when you're in indie film is having cool never-before-seen ideas in your movie. So that all starts with what ideas I've seen already.

My family raised me on movies. I've watched movies my entire life. And my dad specifically brought me up on science fiction movies. So when dreaming up this concept, it actually came to life after my dad and I had gotten out of a screening of Everything Everywhere All At Once two years ago. We went and got coffee and talked about that movie for hours. All the rules, world-building, theories, the characters, etc. And then I pitched him this idea for Things Will Be Different. I told him we could go shoot on our family farm, which no one was using at the time, and make it for basically nothing. He loved the idea, and we started spitballing things we can do with the concepts on the location. And so I dreamed up this concept, and this movie, with and for him, a heady science fiction lover who likes to ponder and wonder about the science fiction stories he was reading or movies he was watching. So that really helped me with my north star: knowing that he was my audience and driving my ship to wherever he'd have the most fun.

This is your first feature. Explain the thrill of wrapping it. Of getting press coverage in the trades, playing at SXSW … No greater adrenaline rush, I’m sure.

It's genuinely wild.

We wrapped in late August 2023 and that was like a boulder had finally rolled off my shoulders after three decades. It was unbelievable. Second best feeling ever outside of my wedding day, and my back posture has never been better [laughs].

And yet, even when you have the support we've had from Rustic Films, XYZ Films, and the talented cast and crew just giving everything they got and putting all their talent on screen, it's still a roll of the dice whether we get into a huge film festival or find a big audience. I mean, we all like the movie a lot, but will anyone else who goes in blind become a fan? So to premiere at SXSW was just our wildest dreams come true. It was the perfect place to unleash our movie out into the world. And then the response we've been getting has been incredible. To see an audience not just enjoy our movie, but engage with it on so many levels had me ecstatic and relieved that many of our narrative risks were paying off in very cool ways. It's definitely changed a lot of our trajectories and has changed my career already in ways I only imagined before.

The film is, to me, a family drama at its core, wrapped in this absurd plot setup. You don’t have to explain what the film means, what its purpose might be or its themes, but also … definitely explain some of that. Ha. I won’t inject my own theories, much as I’d love to litter this with spoilers. What was your intent? What did you most want the audience to take away?

Hahaha .. well, there are a lot of ways I can answer that question. It's a very big question.

Nowadays, I try not to write my movies like an essay, with a starting theme or message. I just start with characters, their emotional crux, and a fresh concept that dramatizes all that. From there, I see what themes naturally come out of a first draft (they're usually pretty dark and cynical). With the characters for Things Will Be Different, the emotional crux came from my relationship with my sister. I don't see my own sister enough. We're both on different tracks in our lives with different needs and wants, making our own nests in our own parts of the world. But we miss each other. So when we do try to find time to meet back up, visit each other, and be more involved with our lives, we always try to make good with the best of intentions. But life pushes us on our own cycles, our own rhythms, and old habits die hard. And before you know it, we haven't seen each other in a year. And we repeat the cycle all over again and hope that ... well, things will be different.

So I used that emotional crux to build these characters and put them in this concept that really blossomed around the ideas of "hope can be poison," "you can't know the unknowable," and "old habits die hard." We are doomed to repeat the same actions no matter how hard we believe we can change. We can try to figure out what it all means, but the world around us doesn't really care about what we do or why. The universe behaves on its own terms. It doesn't stop to explain the rules. Why would it? Even if it did, those terms are unknowable no matter how long we sit down and try to figure it out and parse our own theories by hunting for clues or evidence. We can make our own rituals and look up to the sky in blind faith to make sense of our situation, but at the end of the day, we just have the people that we love and what we do with them day to day.

So with all that said, my intent was to have our audience be in this world, close to our characters, and try to parse through what's around them. The intent is to engage with the movie and fill more theories to make the story partly your own. Come away with some engagement about what's going on in this cosmic universe beyond our character's perspective and find peace and camaraderie in a conversation with another viewer over coffee after the credits roll, much like my father and me. Or if not, they can just enjoy the ride and maybe have a good time with the entertaining elements.

At least, that's my hope.

Riley Dandy and Adam David Thompson in Things Will be Different (2024).

There are some logical points we’ll scratch our heads at, and I love that moment where Sidney questions Joe on a certain sci-fi element, and he’s like “yeah, I dunno,” which signals to the viewer, “try not to think too hard about the sci-fi, suspend your belief for a second.” That’s kind of a recurring theme in all the Michael Felker scripts I’ve read.

Is that intentional? Taking a traditional story or message and throwing one big wrench into the machine for, well, funsies?

I'm glad you called out that moment. It's one of a few parts that always gets a laugh in the theater. Because it's so understandably human. One moment, we think we've puzzled out the impossible, and then the next moment we throw our hands up in the air and go, "yeah, I don't know." And to me, that's so freaking interesting.

It goes back to what my dad said once, when I was writing a script about a decade ago. It was another time travel movie that had me stumped on finding the balance between explaining all the rules while still keeping the story and characters engaging and fun. And when I was expressing my frustrations to him, he told me "Michael, if you could explain time travel in a movie, then you would've invented time travel. You wouldn't be making movies, you'd be out there inventing time travel and changing the world. Just give me enough rules to have fun with, and then don't worry about everything else."

And he was right. A time-travel movie is only theory and ideas at the end of the day. Writers will make up solid rules that'll work in the moment, but sometimes they'll contradict, or even break if you think about them really hard. I mean, it's a non-linear concept laid out onto a linear medium. It will always feel weird or confusing in some way. So take what rules you can and use it to inform the emotional crux of the film and heart of the characters.

And, in my opinion, the coolest thing time-travel movies (or even just heady science fiction movies) can do is leave the audience with more questions than answers. My favorite science fiction stories are always about the reach for answers, not obtaining them. The human struggle to reach or grasp for clarity and closure to life's biggest questions. It keeps me thinking after the movie in the best of ways. So "throwing a wrench" into a traditional story is fun, yeah, but it's also just a very human thing that happens in our lives. And our responses to these moments are very human. We're constantly finding answers and then wrestling with even more questions coming from that answer. If we don't throw wrenches into our movies, they're less likely to stick with an audience in a certain way. Just don't hope they don't bruise anyone for too long [laughs].

We’ll usually ask filmmakers what the challenges are in making an indie, but I know—the answer is “literally everything.” Still: what pieces did you feel absolutely needed to fall in place to end up with a film that made you and your team proud?

I hate to disappoint you, but it's literally everything ...

It's a miracle that an indie movie is made, and for it to be any good, you need at least another dozen miracles to happen on top of that. And this movie almost didn't exist about seven different times. I mentioned before we were going to shoot on our family farm? Well, that location fell through a month before shooting, which is stressful when your cast is already locked, and your crew is mainly sourced from the area you were shooting at. So we raced to find the place we ended up shooting in, which was even better than my family's farm. We also planned to shoot in the snow for the entire winter block of shooting, and then it all melted during pre-production in what ended up being one of the warmest winters on record for the area.

We had COVID hit our set, which at the time still had to go by COVID lockdown protocols. So we had to drastically pivot our shooting schedule and do some minor rewriting on the fly to accommodate for that. We then had a winter storm that cut power to the entire town we were shooting in for three days, which meant we had to hustle even more in the cold freezing winter and find unique pivots in routing power from multiple generators. And we also had the SAG strike. We got interim agreement approval right at the very last second before we had to cancel all of our lodging and flights for the summer block of our shoot (which btw, thank you SAG for allowing us to finish the movie during a tumultuous time for the union!).

All of these things nearly killed the movie. And I mean not just making a "compromised" movie, I mean wiped out the movie completely. But thankfully, all of the cast, producers, crew, you name it, were all in such great spirits and helped make everything fall into place to tell the story we wanted to from day one. So not only am I proud of this movie because it's everything I wanted out of the movie in the first place, I'm proud of this movie for just existing whatsoever [laughs].

In this landscape, everyone is kind of bemoaning the “death,” or at least the impending decline, of indie film. I’m not a filmmaker, but to me, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s always been hard to get financing for an indie, to get it produced, to get distribution. And then actually get people to see it.

So I’m sure it’s just as hard now as it was before, but in some ways it’s also easier, no? What’s your take on that?

I definitely hear the tenor that independent films are on the decline or dying ... But to me, it's reading more like a sea-change, if anything. The rules are shifting. Everything we know about making or distributing movies in the last decade is shifting. We're leaving a big era of entertainment and are currently forging a path to a new one. But indie film is not going away. I know it's scary considering we don't have a clear idea yet on how aspiring writers and filmmakers can break in, but we're figuring that out now as we speak. And that's really exciting.

The cool thing about indie film is that we can take reasonable actions at our scale and use them to find new exciting models, new avenues in getting movies to the audiences we want. Indie film is scrappy, not just in its means of production, but how to get it out into the world. Not only is it more accessible to make movies, it's getting more accessible to find your audience, too. It's been really encouraging to have our movie out there and see first hand what's changing and what's changing for the better. I know that's a vague answer, but everything will get better. I'm learning so much and I'm absorbing as much seafoam during this sea-change as possible and using that to adapt to wherever the film landscape is flowing.

Writer/director Michael Felker.

And on that note, how did this film come about? Broadstrokes are fine, I’m sure you’ve told that story a hundred times already.

Well, after my dad and I broke the idea, I wrote the first draft in about 6-8 weeks. I had a lot of the world building ready to go for years, but cracking the story and characters just brought it all home. After a lot of rewrites (big believer in rewriting a lot), I told my friends over at Rustic Films—Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, and Dave Lawson—that I was going to go and shoot this movie. I had been their editor on almost all of their movies, and they've been basically my indie film family for about 15 years. I sent them the script and said, "give me your blessing, I'm gonna go make this thing." And then they read it, got back to immediately and said, "We want to be a part of this movie." It's very much their jam, and they came aboard as EPs right away, dropping any assets or connections to team players that I didn't have before.

It then moved insanely quickly, we got our incredible cast together, our amazing crew together, shot the movie in February 2023 and August of 2023, with lots of post-production happening in-between shoots. And then we barely got our movie together in time for SXSW submissions, and then we didn't fully finish-finish the movie till about ... February 2024. It came together in less than two years, so for as many close calls as we had for the movie NOT coming together, we were very thankful that the whole process went rather quickly.

You placed in Script Pipeline with another genre hybrid piece, Would You Like to Try Again?, the premise of which I also loved. And I read your insane period / time travel (?) / mindfuck of a script Wayward Dissonance. And of course the script where the woman gradually turns into a cat, duh, obviously, who doesn’t …

Do you ever consider writing something normal people would watch? [laughs, and is of course kidding] How do you know which concept you want to run with, and one that might need to be shelved for a bit?

*and for the record, I look forward to watching all three of those films on the Criterion Channel one day

Well, basically, my wife and I just constantly type our ideas into our respective notes documents (she's also a screenwriter). And if ever I have a lighting bolt film idea while doing chores or running errands, I immediately stop and jot it down, and then let it fester over the coming days or weeks. Maybe even pitch it to my wife to see if it's any good or not. They're usually ideas like Things Will Be Different, or Wayward Dissonance, or Would You Like To Try Again?: high concept ideas with tons of directions, huge potential, and stuff I've never seen before. And after I write them down, if I'm still thinking about them, toiling over them, and getting excited about different character moments and sequences, then those are the ones that I have to see through at least a rough draft of the script.

I firmly believe that if you have a great nugget of an idea, you must keep that nugget as fresh as possible for as long as you can and see if it makes it to the finish line. Because again, fresh ideas for movies are the most valuable commodity you can have as an up-and-coming screenwriter.

What’s on the horizon for you as a writer/director?

At the moment, I honestly don't know. I mean I do have various ideas for which direction to go, but it's all still pretty fresh. I know I'd love to make another movie at some point. I'm still feeling the science fiction realm. Maybe with a slightly bigger budget if I'm lucky, haha. But I'm also curious about other genres. Or really, new types of genre-blending. I don't want to give away the store, but I do have a ton of treatments I'm ready to jump back into as soon as I have a moment to take a breath post-SXSW.

Quick: what’s the craziest plot twist you’ve ever seen in a movie? Or the one that’s stood out to you most?

Ahhhhh, I mean, there are definitely classics, specifically in horror (Psycho, The Sixth Sense).

Yet the craziest ones are the ones that just try to rewrite the fabric of the story while you're still watching them. So while it may not have the craziest plot twists I've ever seen, the coolest one from recent memory is Barbarian. That movie was sold to everyone as one type of movie, and then once you watch it, goes in places you NEVER would've thought possible. It made movies feel fresh again. It made me think movies can still surprise you, and you have to challenge expectations on all fronts if you want to see these surprises take effect across the medium. Barbarian does that. If you haven't seen Barbarian and you like fun horror, please please don't read anything, and go check it out ASAP.

*Feature Photo: still from Things Will be Different (2024)

More posts by Pipeline Artists.
Partner at Pipeline Media Group. Oversees all divisions, including Script, Book, and Film. Conceived of Pipeline Artists to gather creatives "in a single ecosytem" and bring a fresh POV on the arts.
Los Angeles / San Pedro, CA
More posts by Matthew J Misetich.
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