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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Population 436' Director Michelle MacLaren

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Population 436' Pitch: Census worker Steve Kady is sent to Rockwell Falls to uncover the error that has caused the town's population to be recorded as 436 for over one hundred years. He discovers an idealic community with deep-rooted traditions and a very precious secret. No one leaves Rockwell Falls.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
A census worker is sent to investigate an idyllic town's population that hasn't changed in over 100 years and soon discovers their most guarded secret; no one ever leaves.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
This is my first festival as a filmmaker and I am looking forward to the experience.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
When my grandmother died several years ago my mother found a letter in her belongings that I had written when I was thirteen. It said, “Dear Granny, I just saw Kramer vs Kramer and I hope that someday I can direct a film as great as that one”. I always wanted to be in the movie business and have wanted to direct for some time, but did not remember, until I received this letter, that it was my desire since a young girl.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
I was fresh out of college looking for work. I was getting on an elevator with my waitress resume in a thin brown envelope on my way to drop it off at a production company. When the elevator doors opened there was a man standing there with a walkie-talkie on his hip. He saw my thin brown envelope and said, “If you want to get into the film business, we're shooting a commercial around the corner and we're short handed. Drop your resume off, then come and volunteer." It was the only day in two years I worked for that company for free. I started as a PA and over many years worked my way up through locations, AD'ing, PM'ing, Line Producing, Executive Producing and then Directing. I was very fortunate to get my directing break on The X-Files, on which I was a Co-Executive Producer. I love Directing.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
No - I'll still cringe at the same moments I wish we had more time and money for.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
No. Not really. I just tried to focus on making the best movie with what we had available. One of the greatest things about directing is that you really have to be present - 'in the moment' - and that in itself is a wonderful thing.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
I heard about the project through a friend. I read the script and liked the concept, especially the final twist. The religious undertones were very interesting, and I liked the quirkiness of it. I got an interview first with an executive and then the producer, Gavin Palone. I really enjoyed my meetings but I knew it was a long shot as I was not the most experienced director they were meeting. I was thrilled when my agent called and said I got the film. It is my first feature. It was about four months after the first meeting and I was producing a pilot at the time. The movie was green lit so I was finishing the pilot and casting the movie at the same time. It was crazy but I was thrilled for the opportunity, so who needed sleep? Thankfully I had a good producer, Gavin Palone, and two good executive producers, Jessika Borsiczky and Kathy Landsberg.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Fight for what you believe in - trust your instincts - listen to those around you - involve all the players - choose your battles - HAVE FUN - oh and when shooting in 130 degree temperatures on the prairies know that it comes with tornadoes, flash floods, hurricane winds that destroy your set, mosquito infestations and ticks (I actually learned how to remove ticks from my body).

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
I have many films and filmmakers who inspire me. The ones I identified with most for Population 436 were The Village and The Wicker Man.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
My brother-in-law, but don't tell him.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
I have two:

Jeremy Sisto , who is already a huge success and is destined for more because he is extremely talented, passionate about his craft, and one of the most wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

Fred Durst, because Fred is a natural. Fred has a presence, and an ability that sticks with you. Given the right role Fred will someday blow everyone away. He is also fantastic to work with.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
OOOh there are so many - It would depend on the project. But I do have a project I would love to work with Jake Gyllenhaal on.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
Not even close. I hope to make many films that allow audiences to escape from their lives or become more in touch with them, that take them on a great ride.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
Jet Set ski wear, so we would hopefully get freebies.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
The big directors get “a film by” and there is nothing tacky about them. I bet if you ask any one of them about filmmaking they would tell you it's a collaborative effort. A credit doesn't change that; it just acknowledges the creative leader who puts everyone's hard work together.


Population 436, Jeremy Sisto, Fred Durst, Charlotte Sullivan, and Peter Outerbridge, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for film & festival information.

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originally posted: 03/03/06 09:23:15
last updated: 03/03/06 09:24:05
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