Film Courage: Where did you grow up?
Mike Brune: I grew up in the northern suburbs of Atlanta in the towns of Roswell and Alpharetta. Roswell is a former mill town that feels historic, cozy, and is full of character. Alpharetta is shopping mall/strip mall country.
My childhood was very normal, pleasant, and fun. I have three brothers and two awesome parents, so life was filled with everything you’d expect: GI Joes, Legos, beach vacations, sports, movies, family dinners, etc.
Film Courage: As a child, were you silly or shy?
Mike: A little of both, but I would say mostly silly. My nickname amongst my school friends was Looney Brune. I had a crazy imaginary friend in 7th grade (Yes, 7th grade.) who would sometimes hang out with me in English class. His name was Charlie and during class, I used to pretend he would chase me around the room. We’d talk to each other and I’d tell my friends about him. Today, I would probably be institutionalized or expelled for this kind of behavior, but at the time, people just thought I was weird.
Film Courage: Did your parents encourage acting and filmmaking?
Mike: Definitely. They gave me the freedom to pursue whatever I wanted.
Film Courage: Did you go to film school?
Mike: I did. I studied film at Georgia State University. It was wonderful. Being exposed to world cinema and art changed my life. We made movies on 16mm film and did some actual cutting and splicing on film as well. I also met my best friends there. We started a film collective, Fake Wood Wallpaper, during our final year there and we still make movies together to this day.
Film Courage: What is your favorite comedy film?
Mike: I’d have to say The Naked Gun or Airplane!
Film Courage: Most absurd thing that has happened to you in life?
Mike: In 1999, I placed 4th in the National Grocery Bagging Competition in San Francisco. It was a pretty great ride.
Film Courage: What inspired the story for CONGRATULATIONS!?
Mike: I think it was two things. One, I wanted to make a film in the house where I grew up. Two, the story of Etan Patz fascinated me to no end. His disappearance was very high profile when it happened in NY in 1979. What fascinated me most about the story was that there was such a short window of time between when he was last seen and when he disappeared. In addition, I love obsessive detectives and I read that a detective on the Patz case used to drive by the scene of the disappearance every day at the exact time of the disappearance to see if it would reveal a clue.
Film Courage: How long was the idea floating around in your head before you started writing CONGRATULATIONS!?
Mike: I don’t remember. I’d guess for a few months.
Film Courage: How long did it take you to write the first draft? What about rewrites?
Mike: The first draft took about five to six months to write. The rewrites took about the same amount of time. Overall, I’d say the writing process lasted about 1.5 years. I even did a major rewrite of the last act about two months before we started shooting.
Film Courage: How many people did you share the script with during the writing process?
Mike: I usually share it with the guys in Fake Wood Wallpaper after a first draft or so. That’s 3-4 people. In addition, I usually share it with another 3-4 people at various stages of writing.
Film Courage: Where does the title of the film CONGRATULATIONS! come from?
Mike: Well, throughout the film, there are these milestones – a graduation, a birthday, etc. It’s a word you say to a person when they have achieved a milestone in their life. It refers to these big life moments in the film, even Paul disappearing. It marks time, but it also means you are evolving and leaving some other part of your life behind and moving on to something bigger and better, or maybe worse and worse. Something about the word ‘Congratulations!’ on a balloon or a cake or a card just fits the movie in my head.
We actually toyed with calling the movie ‘Detective’ for a moment. It’s not a bad title, but I felt Congratulations! was the better one.
Film Courage: How long have you been planning the film? What went into the pre-planning?
Mike: Gosh, it was two to three years of writing, researching, planning, thinking, etc. I shot some test footage very early on to see how the yellow posters would look. There was a good deal of writing and rewriting. It wasn’t constant work. Little things fell in to place week by week – an actor cast, a crew member secured, etc. Pre-Production through shooting lasted about three months.
Film Courage: For your new movie CONGRATULATIONS!, did you come up with a film budget first (based on your resources available) before coming up with idea?
Mike: No, I did not.
Film Courage: How did you calculate what the budget was going to be?
Mike: My producer Alex Orr did the lion’s share of those calculations. I think we aimed for around 30K at first, but that quickly grew.
Film Courage: When did you decide to crowdfund for CONGRATULATIONS!? How much pre-planning went into the campaign?
Mike: We decided early on to crowd fund. We’d seen many successful campaigns and, having never done it before, thought we had an edge there. However, we were also nervous about what would happen if we failed. The planning wasn’t as extensive and elaborate as you see for some campaigns these days. We had a number in mind and a date and we wanted to make sure our donations were tax write-offs. That involved partnering with Fractured Atlas, which took a little time to set up. I knew I wanted to create a short video for almost every day we were raising money, almost like a news broadcast. I thought the idea of having something new and fun to watch each day would get more eyeballs on the campaign.
Was the 17k you raised via Indiegogo enough to cover the production? No, it wasn’t, but we were thrilled to have raised that much. Our goal was only 15K. We had a few investors and then we invested some money ourselves to supplement.
Film Courage: If you were to crowdfund again, would you do anything differently/what would you keep the same?
Mike: I think the perks have to be better now, which requires more planning. I’d also want to raise more money next time, so that takes a different type of campaign and better strategy. I think an important part of a good campaign is just to keep it in people’s feeds and faces.
Film Courage: Best and worst Crowdfunding advice you received pre-campaign?
Mike: We kept our dollar target modest, though maybe too modest. I think having a sense of how much you can realistically raise is important and making sure that dollar amount fits the project. I’ve seen short films try to raise 50K and that seems high for a short film and I think people recognize that.
Film Courage: How did the fundraising webathon work out?
Mike: Well, it was really fun. And we had a number of people who had already donated donate again because of that webathon. That was nice. I’m not sure if it created more awareness, but it definitely didn’t hurt. I would definitely do that again.
Film Courage: Your pitch video for congratulation movie was fun and unique. Where did you develop the idea to do a new reporting style pitch video?
Mike: Thank you! Well, I used to volunteer at an indie movie house in Atlanta called the Plaza Theatre, which is still alive and well. They had a fundraiser for their 70th Anniversary and to raise awareness for that, I made some videos with that character in the same style.
So, when our crowd funding campaign came around, I thought this would be a simple and easy way to make a video each day to raise awareness. Local news reporters are very funny to me and I love doing parodies of them.
Film Courage: Where did most of your 180 backers come from?
Mike: Many are friends, family members, family members of friends, and colleagues. And there are some strangers in there as well.
Film Courage: Since your crowdfunding campaign in…..do you see any changes in the way films are crowdfunded?
Mike: The pool of creators and artists using crowd funding is much bigger. Whether you have an app or album or comic or coffee maker or cause, you can crowd fund for it. Established filmmakers use it now. I worry it’s over saturated. But I hope there are still enough kind philanthropists out there for another of my films.
Film Courage: Can you define comedy versus absurdist comedy?
Mike: This is a good question and probably hard to explain with words. I think ‘comedy’ is more intentional and clear, i.e. this scene is going to make you laugh because Andy Samberg is a wacky daredevil driving a motorcycle off a ramp and crashing into a swimming pool. Absurdist comedy is more indirect or oblique. The modus operandi with absurd comedy, as I see it, is to create an absurd or improbable situation and play that out as if it were a real, or normal, situation. That’s what I did with Congratulations! The juxtaposition of reality and absurdity can, but may not always, create comedy. In the theater, I think they call absurdist comedy farce.
This is probably a reductive and generalized explanation. I think there are many nuances to these types of comedies and they can easily bleed together.
Film Courage: Do you still live in Georgia? How do you navigate film/acting while living there?
Mike: I do live in Georgia. I lived in Chicago for a few years, but am now back in Atlanta. Aside from a few films, I’ve taken a break from acting to focus on directing and writing. However, I do step into an acting role occasionally.
Film Courage: Do you have a day job?
Mike: Yes, I work in the film/tv biz as an Assistant Director or Production Coordinator.
Film Courage: From the initial idea to post-production, how long did it take to finish CONGRATULATIONS!?
Mike: I think it took about 4.5 years.
Film Courage: Is CONGRATULATIONS! the first feature film that you’ve made? How many shorts had you made previously and how did you know you were ready?
Mike: Yes, it’s my first feature film. I had made a number of short films prior to this, but only two are really worth seeing and watching. Here they are:
Film Courage: What’s something you learned from making CONGRATULATIONS!?
Mike: I learned a lot about how to shoot a scene by making and editing Congratulations! What coverage to get is an essential question directors ask themselves. In post, I would notice I had four of five takes of a shot that was great the first two times. Part of that is due to my love for watching great actors work, but I also don’t think I had the confidence to say, “I’ve got this. Let’s move on.”
Film Courage: How did lead actor John Curran CONGRATULATIONS! hear about the role?
Mike: I wrote the script for John. We worked together on my short film, The Adventure. I loved working with him and wanted to again. So, when I had the idea, I approached him very early on and we talked about the missing person story and him being a detective. The film was a little different in the early stages, so I interviewed him about his past and life in England, etc., thinking I would incorporate some of his past as well. The film evolved out of those conversations.
Film Courage: In addition to John, you have an excellent cast. How did you pitch the script to your actors?
Mike: Yes, they are amazing. We got everyone we wanted for the film. I let the script and my short film, The Adventure, do most of the talking. And to get the right performances for this comedy, I often find myself telling the actors, “We’re not making a comedy.” It’s funny because even though I’m making a comedy, I’m not really looking for comedic actors.
Film Courage: Did you use a casting director?
Mike: We cast a few people, John Curran and Robert Longstreet, because we knew them or knew people who knew them. For the Mrs. Gray role and Childers role, we used an LA casting director. For all the other parts, we used a local casting director. Our LA CD actually found us Rhoda, so that was incredible. She was amazing and it’s hard to imagine the movie without her. I think it’s incredibly valuable to have a good casting director. We were thinking of people like Lea Thompson for the mom, established actresses who were probably a bit out of our reach for such a small film, but when Rhoda came our way, she was perfect. A CD who knows those incredible actresses who are mostly just doing supporting roles, but have the skills and gifts for lead roles, is so valuable.
Film Courage: Since you also act, are you in CONGRATULATIONS!? Why/why not?
Mike: I am not in Congratulations! I don’t think I’ll ever be in one of my own films. I like to be completely taken away by a movie, and if I saw myself in my film, it would break the illusion of cinema.
Film Courage: Where did you shoot the film/secure the locations?
Mike: We shot the film at a house in Johns Creek, GA. It’s my parents’ house. We filmed while they were on vacation. They were not very pleased with what we did to the house.
Film Courage: How was it filming in your home town or nearby? Would you do it again? Why/why not?
Mike: It was good for the most part. We were filming in a neighborhood, so most of the residents were very accommodating to a movie crew. We had a few angry neighbors, but you do your best to be courteous to them.
Film Courage: Most challenging scene of CONGRATULATIONS! and how did you work through it?
Mike: It was probably the reenactment scene, where Mrs. Gray reenacts the disappearance of her child. It carries us through the entire house and from night to morning. We didn’t have much time to rehearse it at all. We wanted to shoot in the pre-dawn light, which changes quickly. We succeeded by just moving as quickly as possible and knowing when to move on. I trusted the script and the actors and our DP to do their work and it turned out great.
Film Courage: You’ve mentioned that the house inCONGRATULATIONS! is your family home. What room was your favorite as a kid and why?
Mike: Yes, I grew up there. It’s not a room you see in the film. Since we had four boys in the house, two of us always had to share a room. So, when I was in high school, my dad built me a room in the basement. He’s very handy and an awesome dad. I loved that room.
Film Courage: What camera(s) did you use?
Mike: We shot on the Arri Alexa.
Film Courage: How many days did you shoot?
Mike: We shot for 21 days, with about two additional days for pickups/reshoots.
Film Courage: Did you hire an editor?
Mike: We had three editors, including myself. Nearly everyone on the film worked for free, including the editors. Well, I learned some scenes just fit together like peanut butter and jelly and others do not. I was initially hesitant about having other people edit the film instead of editing it myself. But both editors did an excellent job. Some of the scenes they cut I never even touched. They were perfect. I’m not quite sold on editing while shooting, but I understand that it can protect you from some reshoots.
Film Courage: Where do you find material? How do you see potential stories in a comedic way?
Mike: I find material everywhere. Some ideas have come from books, some from other films, some from articles, some from photos, some from daydreaming. I guess that’s the good thing about your brain – you never know what thought will enter your head at a specific moment and light a fire. My main goal as a filmmaker is to make movies that I feel I haven’t seen before. I often joke that I want to make movies like Antonioni, only comedies. It’s a joke, but there is truth to that. If I have an idea for a story, I don’t necessarily look for a comedic way to tell that story as I look for an original way to tell that story. More often, it starts with a feeling or emotion I have and then I look for a way to investigate that feeling with a story.
For example, with Congratulations!, I was searching for a way to explore my relationship with my childhood and growing older. Then I began reading about missing persons stories. And then the idea grew from that. It’s a bit more organic and complex than it sounds on paper, but that’s an example of the progression. I start with an idea or emotion I want to explore and then hopefully it grows into a full-fledged story.
I think the comedy just comes from my sense of humor, which acts as a filter for the ideas.
Film Courage: The film is a dark, absurdist comedy at the same time having a messages about belonging, purpose and identity. Why interweave this into the story and why is it important to your main character?
Mike: I feel comedies do not get enough credit or serious consideration as movies. They usually don’t win Oscars or make lots of Top Ten lists. With a comedy, they’re sometimes judged on whether they’re funny or not funny and it ends there. While that is valid, I don’t want to make a movie that is subject to these prejudices. As I alluded to earlier, I’d like to make serious movies, but only have them be comedies.
I try to use cinema as a way to explore ideas and emotions. It’s what I love about movies.
For the main character, the issues of identity, purpose, and belonging are important because he’s spent his entire life searching for people, for various identities, for the missing pieces of broken families. A detective, to me, investigates identity. It’s an essential part of his/her job – deciphering people, their actions, their personalities. Skok, as a missing persons detective, is charged with putting a family back together. It’s his purpose, but he settles in too much and becomes too attached and then is ejected from the house. He was ready to settle down, but he no longer can. He has to keep searching. Life is one big search. Identities change and shift. They’re not as concrete as they seem. As a detective, Skok embodies all these ideas. He’s the perfect vehicle for exploring these themes.
Film Courage: The film has an 80’s John Hughes sensibility which anyone having grown up during this time may miss in the current movie landscape. Was this your intention and why? Despite being younger than most 80’s film fans, how does this era factor into your filmmaking?
Mike: I’ve never heard that comment before, but thank you! I am a huge John Hughes fan and a huge fan of 1980s cinema. It was not my intention to emulate anything John Hughes related. I was definitely using some Zucker Brothers 80’s comedies as inspiration at times. The music was partially inspired by 1980’s scores and music, like John Carpenter’s work.
I grew up watching mostly 1980s movies, like John Carpenter’s work and John Hughes and whatever HBO was showing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These remain some of my most beloved movies. I’m not sure how they factor into my filmmaking, but I’m sure they seep into my sensibility somewhere. I hope they do.
Film Courage: Where is CONGRATULATIONS! available to watch?
Film Courage: Do you feel film festivals are helpful for a filmmaker? Why/why not? How about the costs involved for film festivals and the desire to travel with the film?
Mike: Yes, they are. A film festival is, for many filmmakers, your only theatrical run. This is a lovely thing to experience, watching a movie in a theater with an audience. The networking at film festivals, the interaction with fans, the parties – it’s all wonderful and fruitful for filmmakers. The only downside about festivals is the cost and time involved, but if you budget properly, you can have as big or small of a festival presence as you want, provided your film is good and hits the right chord that year.
Film Courage: Who are your heroes and why?
Mike: Michelangelo Antonioni is my all-time hero. He taught me that cinema is an art form. I adore his work. His films changed my life. I also really admire the Michael Haneke, the Coen Brothers, David Simon, and Frederick Wiseman. Those guys inspire me every day.
Film Courage: What are your failings?
Mike: I’ll save this one for my therapist, if I ever get one.
Film Courage: (Aside from filmmaking), what are your strengths?
Mike: I am an excellent grocery bagger.
Film Courage: What’s next for you creatively?
Mike: I’m writing a film about an atheist filmmaker making a movie about the life of Jesus. I hope to direct it in 2016. I also acted in a great indie film called The Arbalest, which I hope you’ll see in 2016.
I also had a small part in Joe Swanberg’s new film Win It All.
Mike Brune is an independent filmmaker, writer and actor from Atlanta, GA. He studied film at Georgia State University. His short film, The Adventure, premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2008, played at film festivals in the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Spain, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Portugal, Brazil, Australia, Canada and screened at festivals, universities and cine-clubs all over the USA. It won ‘Best Short Film’ awards at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, the Little Rock Film Festival, the Atlanta Underground Film Festival, the Curtas Vilo do Conde Int’l Film Festival in Portugal and the Special Jury Prize at the Rio de Janeiro Int’l Shorts Festival. He’s an active movie-going advocate and served on the board of directors for Atlanta’s Historic Plaza Movie Theater. He has also written for online film magazines Hammer to Nail and Short End Magazine and his first novel, The Lonely Eyes of Leland McPhale, will be published in 2012. As an actor, Mike has appeared in Van Wilder Freshman Year, Blood Car and commercials for CNN and TBS. Mike is also a ten-year veteran of improv comedy and part of the award-winning touring team Einstein Meets Elvis. He’s studied improvisation with some of the most famous names in the game including Dave Razowsky, Debra Messing, Miles Stroth and Rafe Chase. He’s performed at the Chicago Improv Festival, the Del Close Marathon in NYC, the Charleston Comedy Festival, the Hawaii Improvaganza, and the Toronto Improv Festival.
The most crucial hours of any missing persons case are the first seventy-two. But it is the next 87,660 hours and beyond when the real challenges present themselves. When an investigator must keep searching despite decaying evidence, aging children or deteriorating acuity – herein lies the specialty of veteran Detective Dan Skok of the Missing Persons Bureau.
Eight year-old Paul Ryan Gray goes missing in his own house throwing the Gray family into chaos. Det. Skok and his team of investigators recognize the unusual nature of such a case. In an equally unusual response, Skok and his team move into the house and become residents of the crime scene in order to solve this oddball mystery.
As one family disintegrates, another is built.
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