An interview with Award-Winning Filmmaker Michael Weinstein.
Michael Weinstein is an internationally award-winning independent filmmaker who has won over thirty awards. He graduated from Adelphi University in 2006 as a Communications Production major where he received departmental honors and an award for Best Creativity in Film & Video. While attending high school, Weinstein made his first film, entitled Runaway Wallet. Out of thousands of applicants, it won Grand Prize at the 2002 Showtime Youth Video Festival and was featured at the Museum of Television & Radio. He also received the Hudson Guild Award for this short film as well. Shortly thereafter, Michael told the story of a WWII veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in his narrative dramatic 16mm short, Heart At War. This won Second Best Film at the 2004 Adelphi Film & Video Festival and screened at the New York International Film & Video Festival. His thesis film, Erie Road, premiered at the Big Apple Film Festival and the Hoboken International Film Festival.
Weinstein’s slapstick short White Knuckle has won numerous awards and nominations. The movie premiered at the 2010 NY Indie Short Film Festival. It won Best Short Film at Indie Fest USA and the Royal Reel Award at the Canada International Film Festival. It also won the Diamond Award at the California Film Awards and Best Screenplay at the Mexico International Film Festival. It earned a Merit Award at the 2010 Los Angeles Reel Independent Film Festival and at the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood. The film won Best Romantic Film at the Aphrodite Cinefest in Texas. The short also screened at The Independents’ Film Festival, New York Hell’s Kitchen Film Festival, Love Unlimited Film Festival, Atlanta Shortfest, Long Island Film Festival, The Independent Film Quarterly, New Media Film Festival, and The New York City International Film Festival. The film is now available on Amazon, Roku, indieflix, HolaTV and XBOX. His ‘supernatural’ Holocaust film, If The Trees Could Talk, was accepted to the Cannes Film Short Corner, Short Film Awards (Best Long Short), California Film Award (Special Jury Award), International Independent Film Awards (Platinum Award for Directing & Narrative Short), International Filmmakers Festival of World Cinema (Jury Award), Best Shorts Competition (Award of Excellence), Accolade Film Awards (Award of Excellence), IndieFest (Award of Excellence) Widescreen Film & Music Video Festival (Best Director & Best Narrative Short), North Carolina Film Awards (Founders Award) and Cinema at The Edge Film Festival (Jury Award-Best Short). Now on a roll, the film garnered even more praise and plenty of awards from the likes of The Average Superstar Short Films (Best Director, Best Film, Best Acted), WorldFest Houston (Gold Remi Award), and The Festival of Cinematics (Best Short Film), The Honolulu Film Awards (Jury Award), The Indie Gathering (Best Drama Short), The Austin Revolution Film Festival (Best Dramatic Short) The Yosemite International Film Festival (Best Short), and The Oregon International Film Festival (Special Jury Award). If The Trees Could Talk was also at The Los Angeles Film Review and Madrid International Film Festival, played in the Laemmle Noho 7 Theater and was considered by The Academy. The Runaway Train Films production was also enthusiastically screened at The Big Island Film Festival, The Eastern North Carolina Film Festival, and The Festival of the Cinematics, as well as The Philadelphia Independent Film Festival, and Hollyshorts Film Festival where it played in the TCL Chinese Theater. His mini-doc, Journey Through Darkness, was donated to The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. Currently, Michael is in the development stage of his first feature film. When he’s not filmmaking, he’s a television director for a major news network and People Entertainment Network.
The name of your production company sums up filmmaking brilliantly. Can you go into how you came up with the name?
Runaway Train Films was partially named after my first film Runaway Wallet. The short won Grand Prize, aired on Showtime, and was featured in the Museum of Television & Radio. I wanted to dedicate the company in some way to my very first picture. The animation logo of the production company shows an old-fashioned locomotive coming through the lens of a Bolex camera. It represents our vision as filmmakers coming to life and capturing motion. There is also another metaphor for cinema. I thought of the train tracks as the frames on celluloid, the wheels always looked like the film reels, the conductor was the projectionist, and the train represents motion. I wanted to have a company name I knew I’d never ever change.
How did If Trees Could Talk open doors early on?
If the Trees Could Talk is one of the only films I’ve made that I’m actually proud of. The film came out exactly the way I envisioned, which is rare. It was in film festivals across the world, including the Cannes Short Corner and won thirty awards. It was a “supernatural” Holocaust film telling the arduous journey of a young Jewish girl escaping the ghetto with her family. A spiritual force helps her survive the horrors. The film was very different than other Holocaust films because it added a fictional theme to the historical aspect. I was able to raise ten thousand dollars but invested twenty-five thousand of my own money. It was a dent in my bank account but definitely worth it. Aside from its acclaim and winning awards, it caught the attention of investors for my first feature film. A good short film can be a great calling card but it’s also very important to have the next idea/script ready to go. People who are willing to invest in you want to know what’s coming next!
What’s it like being a TV director at places like Fox News and People?
Although my passion is directing film, I have been very fortunate to work as a television director, specifically cable news. Plenty of folks usually have to work a 9-5 job and follow their passion as a hobby. I’m very lucky I get to actually direct for a living. Although I have very little interest in news or journalism, directing live television really gives you a rush. You have to be “on” all the time and make quick decisions. There’s only one take. Ha. I get to block, cut shots/cameras, deal with lighting, audio, graphics, and set design. It’s a wonderful collaboration that ‘s synonymous with other television formats. I really enjoyed directing taped programming for People Entertainment as well. The themes were surrounded around movies, television shows, awards shows, and culture of the arts. A nice break from politics and elections. Ha. Ha.
Is Gutfeld! challenging to work on?
I was the director for the Greg Gutfeld Show for four years first. We taped the show with an audience on Fridays and it aired Saturday night. The show’s ratings did so well that Fox decided to make Gutfeld! a nightly show. I wouldn’t say that it was challenging since we were sticking with the same themes as the Greg Gutfeld Show. However, we had to build a set and design graphics for the new show. As a freelance director for the other news shows, I’m just filling and directing the show as any other director would. With the comedy show, there is a lot more creativity in designing the show look, dressing the set, blocking the cameras, and color themes. That’s what I love the most: being able to collaborate with producers, lighting, set designers, and audio to make the show come to life. We also have a cartoon character incorporated in the show and other advanced graphics we didn’t have before. It was also nice that producers would seek input from me about some of the segments and shtick. The producers really made me feel like an intricate part of the team. To answer your question, I would say the most challenging part was to capture enough sound of live laughter and applause from the limited studio audience due to Covid-19. We had to make sure all audience members were tested in creating a safe environment for the talent and crew. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of fun to work on this type of show. The most rewarding part is putting elements on the screen just at the right time to get that laugh and when it happens, it’s fantastic. Never a dull moment.
As a writer, how do you let the material write itself without forcing anything?
I honestly don’t think there’s a wrong way to write as long as it works for you. Most writers have an outline, write a treatment, and then the script. I will write an outline, knowing where I want to start and knowing how I want the story to end. The middle is always the hardest for me. Sometimes, it will take me a whole year to come up with a concrete idea for a film. I am also a very lazy writer. I take my time; sometimes way too much time. I do not write every day. It can be draining (I know, bad form). I was used to writing only short films so I could tell a very concise story. After I write the opening scene, making sure it sucks in the viewers, I continue to write the screenplay as if I’m watching the film. I say to myself, “what would naturally come next to move the story along? What would the characters do and why?” This way the story has a natural flow to it. Several investors interested in the idea wanted a treatment. I wrote the treatment after the screenplay just to be able to pitch the idea in a detailed, shorter form. I feel writing the treatment and then the screenplay takes away the excitement and journey of writing the actual script. I would just be converting the treatment to script format and that’s not fun for me. If I could offer one piece of advice for screenwriting, it would be to take your time. You can have the biggest budget, best actors and cameras…that means nothing to the viewer if the story is lacking or if there’s plot holes and bad dialogue. If you are finally happy with what you’ve written, everything else will naturally fall into place. I also learned that table reads with the actors are very helpful in making sure the dialogue rings true and natural. When you read it in your head, it might read like Shakespeare, but table reads make all the difference in the world. Also, it saves time on the set, when your actors aren’t questioning if they would really say this or not. There are so many books on screenwriting but honestly, I think you should do whatever works for you as unconventional as it may be.
Tell us about Stolen Minds and the vision you see for that film.
As a sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder, I really wanted to tell a story about mental illness. There are so many wonderful documentaries and television programs on mental illness, but I wanted to do something completely different and out of the box. I decided to write the psychological, horror film Stolen Minds using creatures as a metaphor for all kinds of mental disorders. This is very different than most films of this genre. There are no haunted houses, possessions, good versus evil, something extraordinarily different. After a horrific incident at the psychiatric clinic, a new psychologist gives private treatment to two disturbed children only to bring back the horror of her own damaged childhood to terrifying results. Might she discover the truth of mental illness when she questions the perception of her own reality? The story covers many psychological disorders, common and uncommon. This issue is very important to me because mental illness can be just as paralyzing as physical afflictions, if not worse. However, I do show that there is hope out there to live a normal life. As a first feature film, I wanted to do something on the low budget side but tell a really powerful story. I spent a year writing the screenplay. I usually write for a couple days, take a couple days off, and revisit what I wrote to see if it works, specifically the dialogue. I recommend it because it’s very easy to become numb to the story. Write, take a day or two off, and then you can review the script with fresh eyes and a clear mind. I hired a script doctor to read the script. Of course, I was nervous about hiscritique. It was a year of my life and my baby. I didn’t want him to tell me “my child was ugly.”
To my relief and excitement, he loved the screenplay and gave only a few critiques. What a relief! I put the script down for five months. I planned to shoot the film in the summer of 2021 but Covid put a stop to that. The good thing is that I’ve changed and rewrote some scenes which I think made the script 100% percent improved. Writing is unforgiving but sometimes the most subtle changes make all the difference in the world. I’m glad I took my time to make sure the screenplay is exactly where I need it to be. I plan to go into production the summer of 2022, giving myself a full year for development and preproduction.
What other projects does Runaway Train Films have on the docket?
If all goes well and I get to make my first feature Stolen Minds next year, I will write another psychological thriller (which I can’t disclose at the moment). A story on Facebook actually inspired me (randomly). I’d like to make a film about PTSD of a war hero with a fictional/fantasy theme, and then eventually turn If The Trees Could Talk into a feature film since it did so well as a short and has a powerful message. It used to take me years to come up with ideas but during the pandemic, I came up with five different stories that I think would make wonderful films. The hardest part is raising the funds and having someone believe in your passion as much as you do. My fiancé and I are also writing a children’s book in the meantime. I used to get so frustrated because most successful filmmakers have made their first feature in their twenties. I’m thirty-seven years old so I really want to get the ball rolling and make my dream come true. It’s easy to be your own biggest critic but I realize everyone’s journey is different which is why we all have our own stories to tell.
What’s your advice to aspiring screenwriters or filmmakers?
Whether you want to be a screenwriter or filmmaker, it is so important to write, write, write. If you’re a director and don’t consider yourself to be a writer, still write. Directors are storytellers and the only way to learn how to tell a story is to write one. Storytelling is not only in the images and sound, but in the dialogue, relationships of characters, and pacing. Writing is also the safest, creative way to be a storyteller during a pandemic and to exercise your creative muscles. When writing, never think about budget or other restraints. Let those creative juices flow and pour your heart out.