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SXSW '07 Interview: "Skills Like This" Director Monty Miranda

by Jason Whyte

The "Skills Like This" Pitch: Three friends have their lives turned upside down as soon as one of them realizes that larceny might be his best skill.

Describe your movie using in a paragraph or less.
Max Solomon has faced the awful truth that he will never be a writer. But that doesn't mean all his creative energy has to go to waste. In this inventive comedy, three friends have their lives turned upside-down when one of them realizes that larceny might be his best skill.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favourite and least-favourite parts of the festival experience.
This is my first feature film and my first film at SXSW. I shot and produced a short documentary that played at the Denver International Film Festival years ago.

Festivals offer films that you might not have an opportunity to see otherwise and you are surrounded by people that are film lovers. Not getting into the film you want to see can be a drag.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?
I was pretty consumed with watching movies as a kid and I was fascinated by the movie camera I found at the house. It started very early at about 8 when I picked up this Super 8 movie camera and started playing with it. My first movie was about killer kittens. I was always gathering the neighbourhood kids together to act and be my crew. Most got bored and would go home and I would have to do everything myself.

I thought I would be a Journalism student in school until I found out that CU – Boulder had a film program. It tripped me out that I could actually study film production at a University. Filmmaking was the only thing that passionately held my interest.

I started a commercial production company Incite Films with a childhood friend straight out of college. We didn’t know exactly what we were doing but we rented an office and started trying to get people to hire us and watched a lot of movies.

My commercial work has been recognized by the Cannes Film Festival, the Clios, BBC’s Most Outrageous Commercials and FOX’s World’s Funniest Commercials. Some of my award winning political spots have been featured in the national press and seen on CNN and reviewed in the LA TIMES and the Washington Post.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please.
An astronaut, then a pilot, then a soldier, then a fireman, and finally an actor so that I could be everything.

While you were making the movie, were you thinking about the future release of the film, be it film festivals, paying customers, critical response, and so forth?
No, I was focused on making a film I would love to see, you have to do this.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.
I was given a first draft screenplay of Skills Like This by Donna Dewey (Skills producer), Through Paul Aaron who was Spencer Berger, Gabe Tigerman and Brian Phelan’s manager. Donna and I have known each other for a long time and had admired each other’s work. We really wanted to work together. I read the script late that night and immediately fell in love with it and thought that it was very funny. It had a true earnestness about it. There was something that I completely related to in that the Max character wanted something and was not able to get it, although he worked hard and had the passion no-one saw any talent and he doesn’t get any better. It is about being young and knowing what you want but not being able to achieve it. That is something you never see or hear. The Tommy and Dave characters also felt so familiar to me, from this time of my life and my friends were like them. But the script needed a more focused and driving story. The challenge was to keep the earnest elements.

First I started developing the script with Spencer Berger, We started re-writing immediately in spring of 05, and by the end of the summer we had a good solid draft with a really good story. I thought cool, we are ready. But we didn’t have any money. We had talked about shooting some test scenes on video to see how they worked. I was nervous about that because there is this huge potential to look at those tests, shot with a five-dollar camera in your kitchen, and go “well this sucks” So I figured that we shoot a scene as if it was lifted straight out of the movie to show people what we could do. From there it steam rolled into, well maybe I should shoot parts of additional scenes and make it a movie trailer for this film we wanted to make.

That was a bitch, because we had no money and it had to look like it was from an actual movie. I kept adding to the number of scenes, making it really hard on everyone. We shot it in three days, flew in the actors. Faked a bank with a piece of Plexiglas in front of a closed bank. Donna bank rolled it and people volunteered their time. It was an amazing test, we actually re-wrote part of the movie because of an accident we had on the set of the trailer.

We finished in November and I put it up on the web and Donna put together an investor packet with the trailer attached. The response was pretty amazing. Everyone wanted to see this film. Donna in Denver and Brian Phelan in LA shopped it around and by January I think, we had raised all of the money to shoot. We started putting together breakdowns and after our pre-production we started actual pre-production on May 8, 2006.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?
Every step seemed like the biggest challenge of my life. Developing the script, shooting the trailer, raising the financing, shooting the film on a very short schedule and finally editing the film. Editing was the biggest emotional drain because you start to live in that world of the movie. Rock Obenchain, my editor and I cut for 70 days straight usually, 12 hours a day, before we took a day off. Crazy. It was actually a very amazing experience but maybe we should have taken a day off here and there. Editing a movie is like watching a tree grow.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.
We shot the film with HD, 35 mm film and Super 16 film. I shot film for key story elements. I had never really shot HD before the teaser that we made. That footage sold me. I think that film and the HD blended together quite well and the HD represented the look I wanted for the movie, but I think there are some things you can’t beat on film.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?
Alfred Hitchcock and Eadweard Muybridge

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself directing larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?
Making Skills Like This was a dream and a wonderful way to make a movie but as long as I feel I could tell a really good story I can’t think of a reason not to make a movie under another type of system.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?
A Bank Security Guard.

Please tell me some filmmakers or actors that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.
I would love to work with the cast and producers of Skills Like This again. I love to work with people that share my passion for the movie. I don’t need big names just big talent but I will say I really like the work of the following:

Cillian Murphy, Clive Owen, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, Sacha Baron Cohen, Grace Kelly, Michael Keaton, Daniel Criag, Harry Dean Stanton, Natalie Portman, Annette Bening

Do you think that you have “made it” in this profession yet? If you don’t believe so, what do you think would happen for that moment to occur?
I am trying to make it happen every day, whatever that means. But I planned on making a feature film since I was 8 years old and I have finally done it, I guess I am on the right track.

You have been given the go-ahead to make your next movie, but you must include one piece of product placement. Luckily, you get to choose said product placement. What would you choose?

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
I really think it is changing. There is probably a bit of critic over-load, we are drowning in media. I think you find your critic and stick with them and you grow to trust them. Some films are more susceptible to the critical response. This past weekend the number one box office film in the country had the worst reviews, like F, D-, etc. The reviews came out well before the film and the film grossed record numbers for the weekend. It may be that it is one of these critic proof films but some films just have an audience and if you find that audience you are in business.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose and why?
How about The Alamo Theater in downtown Austin? This is where Skills Like This premieres. Google it and it comes up as the best movie theatre in the United States. I am happy about this.

Do you have an opinion on the issue of “A Film by (Insert Director Here)” ? Is this something you use? Many people collaborate to make a film yet simultaneously, the director is the final word on the production.
Yes I have an opinion.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local twenty-screen megaplex?
This one’s good and you haven’t seen it before.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?
Plan to work hard and work harder than you planned. You must have a passion for the film and surround yourself with people smarter than yourself. You have to want to make the film more than anything in the world.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?
I can’t even get it down to five…


Monty Miranda's Skills Like This will have its world premiere at the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for the official movie site. And check out for even more info!

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originally posted: 02/25/07 19:19:23
last updated: 03/07/07 09:13:31
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