Michael Vass: Filmmaker
Photo by June Pak
Michael Vass is a filmmaker and writer based in Toronto. His award-winning short films have screened at numerous film festivals and have been broadcast internationally. His critical writings have appeared in the film journal Cineaction and the Philadelphia-based publication MACHETE. Michael received his BFA from Simon Fraser University and his MFA from York University. He is also an alumnus of the Canadian Film Centre.
RUSTY TALK WITH MICHAEL VASS
Kathryn Mockler: How did you first get into filmmaking?
Michael Vass: I’m not completely sure. As a child I think I was drawn to performing—for instance, I loved stand up comedy at what now seems a weirdly young age (I couldn’t possibly have understood most of the jokes)—but I don’t think I was ever completely comfortable performing myself, at least not after a certain age. So I started writing stories then making videos, probably initially as a way of performing out of sight. When I was 11 or so, I started making little home movies with my friends and my sister. We’d make parody sequels for movies that were popular at the time. I think we made Home Alone 2 and Die Hard 3 (which we called Die the Hardest) before either sequel really existed. Since then I’ve just kept making things. As a teenager my interest in film intensified, then I went to film school where I was exposed to all kinds of films that fascinated and excited me.
KM: Was there a writer or filmmaker that had a big impact on you?
MV: There are too many too name, and it tends to shift somewhat depending on what I’m working on. For my most recent project, Vancouver #1-13 (Notes for a report…), I was influenced mostly by filmmakers working in the somewhat amorphous genre that’s sometimes called the essay film, which has long fascinated me. The term itself isn’t that important, it’s just a way of grouping together a kind of film that’s always been around, which combines elements of fiction and documentary, and which tends to have a significant writing component—usually in the form of a first person voice-over. It’s generally a more self-reflexive and personal way of using various cinematic techniques, and it often addresses somewhat political themes, directly or indirectly. Film/video-makers like Chris Marker, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean-Luc Godard, Harun Farocki, and John Smith had a particularly strong impact on me as I was working on the film, as did the writers Robert Musil, W.G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard, and Roberto Bolano.
KM: Can you describe your current film project that's screening in Philadelphia?
MV: It’s called Vancouver #1-13 (Notes for a report…) and, as I mentioned, it’s a kind of essay film, which mixes documentary and fiction to examine security and protest in the society of the spectacle. It uses documentary footage from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the G20 debacle in Toronto, and adds a voice-over by a fictional intelligence agent analyzing the footage. It is currently screening as an installation in the group exhibition “First Among Equals” at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia (April 11-22). My participation in show came about because of my involvement with the Philadelphia-based gallery Marginal Utility and the Machete Group which jointly puts out the publication MACHETE, for which I’ve been writing about film for the past couple years.
KM: What is the best thing about being a filmmaker and the worst thing?
MV: The best thing about being an artist of any kind is that it lets you structure your life around engaging with the world and your experiences and interests on your own terms, or at least on terms of your choosing—creatively, critically, reflectively…however you want. The worst thing is that this kind of activity rarely pays the bills, so usually you have to find some other way of making a living. Sometimes this can be something tangentially related to your activities as an artist (like teaching), or sometimes it is something completely unrelated, but either way it tends to eat up a lot of time and energy you’d rather be spending working on your own projects. This financial downside is exponentially worse as a filmmaker because filmmaking is so expense, logistically complicated, and time consuming, so if you want to make your own films, it can obviously be quite difficult. But artists shouldn’t whine too much about jobs and money – almost everyone hates there job and would rather not be doing it, at least we have something we want to be doing.
KM: Your funniest filmmaking moment.
MV: I directed a film at the Canadian Film Centre in 2006 called Skinheads. The film is a dark comedy and isn’t exactly about actual skinheads in any real way, it just appropriates some of the iconography of skinhead culture for other purposes. We put a trailer on YouTube to promote the film at festivals, etc. However, we didn’t anticipate that there are a lot of actual skinheads all over the world searching online for skinhead related stuff. The trailer has received a ton of views in the past year, along with some affronted comments by Neo-Nazi types. Somehow the trailer must have gone viral in some minor way recently on skinhead sites or something and has generated some negative attention. Maybe that’s not ha-ha funny, but I find it kind of amusing—as long is there is an ocean between the offended skinheads and me.
Vancouver #1-13 (Notes for a Report...) currently screening as an installation in the group exhibition “First Among Equals” at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia (April 11-22).
Richard Melo: Novelist
Richard Melo is a novelist in Portland, Oregon and the author of Happy Talk (Red Lemonade) and Jokerman 8 (Soft Skull Press). A graduate of San Francisco State University, he is also a book critic with reviews appearing in The Believer, Publishers Weekly, and the Oregonian.
RUSTY TALK WITH RICHARD MELO
Kathryn Mockler: When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?
Richard Melo: Part of my inspiration to become a writer comes from a false memory. I have a vivid recollection of my parents taking me to a poetry festival in in Oregon during the early 1970s when I was maybe five, and introducing me to Ken Kesey who was an acquaintance of theirs. When I asked my parents about it long after that encounter helped inspire me to become a writer, they could neither remember the festival nor ever knowing Kesey.
In second grade, I wrote stories about dog astronauts and the Keystone Cops for our grade school lit mag called The Doggy Bag. I was astonished to rediscover them a while back and see that my writing style and sense of humor haven’t changed that much in the years since. Maybe I knew all along this was what I wanted to do.
I made up my mind once and for all to become a writer my sophomore year in college at San Francisco State University. I was a film major who couldn’t get my act together. I made a stark self-realization and decided that my personality didn’t fit the film major mold. So I switched to creative writing. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
KM: What keeps you going as a writer or why do you write?
RM: I believe there are two approaches to becoming a writer of fiction. Some writers do it because they want to think of themselves as writers, want others to think of them as writers, and perhaps even (gasp!) want to make money as a writer. There’s a second camp who write because they have stories they are dying to tell and, of course, writing is the way to tell them. It’s good to question what your motivation is in becoming a writer.
If you belong to the second camp, it’s easy to love what you do and tough to burn out. In the second camp, the only thing more painful than repeated rejection is the thought of not writing anymore. When you’re young, you don’t always feel like you’ve experienced enough life to have stories of your own. That’s how I felt when I was 19 and starting my first novel. The book I finished several years later is filled with stories I heard people tell that I remembered, wrote down, mixed with other stories, and revised so much that they became my own creation. These days, I am never at a loss for story ideas, as I have more than 20 years of notebooks filled with story ideas waiting for me to find the time to take them out for a spin.
I have a tic, which I think developed when I first became immersed in novel writing. Whenever I feel a powerful emotion, whether it’s from life or a movie or song or piece of someone else’s writing, a signal goes off in my head and asks, ‘How can I use this in a novel?’ It’s not as much about copying the source of the emotion as it is trying to reproduce the emotion’s effect through a narrative of my own. To me, it doesn’t matter if I write every day or finish pieces on a regular schedule. Writing is something that happens in my head all the time, and when I find time to sit down with a pen and notebook, it’s more like transcription, a mechanical process, that will then need heavy revision before I have a piece that’s ready to show.
KM: How would you describe your writing process and how does revision fit into that process?
RM: I break down my novel writing process into three steps. The first involves coming up with ideas in a haphazard way and writing them down on any available scrap of paper (most often, though, in notebooks). At this point, the book seems perfect to me, though I have nothing to show for it. The second step is the mechanical typing of ideas into the form of something that looks like a novel. For me, this is a painful and boring process, and the end result is anything but perfect. The last step is to revise what I’ve typed. I print out a copy and make handwritten changes on it. Then I read it again and make more changes. I keep working over the printed manuscript until the paper starts falling apart. Then I go back, retype, reprint, and start the process over.
I work hard to be an indifferent and ruthless self-editor as I want to answer the major editorial questions before an editor ever sees the manuscript. Revision is less about creating a perfect manuscript than it is continuously perfecting it until you are satisfied even with its flaws.
We live in a fast-paced world, with texts of all kinds produced at speeds that can make the head spin. Long-form fiction has a hard time fitting in. Literature likes to move slow. I am reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 right now, and it will take me more than a month to finish. Writing a novel takes considerably more time, often years and sometimes decades. Fiction is an area where hurrying rarely helps. I’m a proponent of giving projects time, growing with them, letting the writing season. For me, this is a key to writers producing their best possible work.
KM: Rejection or criticism can often stop writers before they start. How did you deal with rejection when you first started out?
RM: I didn’t do well with criticism when I was younger but do better now. It’s important to think of yourself not just as an artist but as a professional who can separate emotional attachment to the work during the review process. Plus, it’s rare someone else will give criticism more harsh than the criticism I have already given myself.
Sometimes, a reader might nail a significant issue in your writing and give you insight into revision. Other times, feedback might come from someone who didn’t read your piece closely and is providing feedback just for the sake of providing feedback. It’s important to develop your writer instincts, to know what criticism is valid, and to look at your own work with brutal honesty.
There are so many people involved in the publishing industry (and other fields) who started out with the intention of becoming a writer, and even though they still love writing and books, they never became writers. Those who do become writers were the ones who learned not only to handle criticism and rejection but also to use it to become more dedicated to their writing.
KM: Are there any writers that had a significant impact on your literary life? What authors or books would you recommend to someone aspiring to be a writer?
RM: When I was writing my first novel, I had no idea what I was doing. It wasn’t until I was several years into the process when I read Tristram Shandy, which is often regarded as the first post-modern novel even though it was written in the eighteenth century. Tristram Shandy bore no resemblance the book I was writing, but I was able to see how to use it as a shell to structure my book. TS begins with the narrator starting at the beginning, his birth, but then realizing the story actually begins well before his birth. I thought this was an excellent way to begin a book, so I transplanted the idea to my own novel and filled in the structure with my own characters and stories. TS has jokes that unfold over several chapters, and the reader doesn’t realize that it’s even a joke until the punch line. That was another idea that helped me organize the shapeless story notes I had been keeping. I’m not suggesting that all writers go and read Tristram Shandy, but I am a proponent of finding a book to use as an blueprint for using your own random story and character ideas to build a novel.
KM: Do you have a piece of literary advice for new or aspiring writers?
RM: I’ve had a long, strange journey when it comes to writing advice. When I was younger, I took an anti-authoritarian stance, and thought, “Whenever you hear writing advice, do the opposite.” After realizing that didn’t work as well as I thought, I modified it to, “Write how you like, just make it work.”
Writing advice is valuable, as it’s a way for writer’s to talk to each other and share what they’ve learned through experience.
It’s also worth being wary of writers dispensing advice. Something I learned from my experience as a parent is that there are well meaning people out there giving quite a bit of parenting advice, but it doesn’t mean what worked for them will work with you. There is also a subset of parenting advice givers who want (and this seems really odd to me) to control how other people go about their parenting. The same can be true of advice on writing. The more dogmatic writing advice sounds, the more scrutiny you should give it.
That said, I do have one piece of writing to share: Put the reader first. When you put a piece of writing out there, it’s no longer about you or about the writing itself. It’s about the reader’s experience. Fiction writing is about creating an experience, while writing a narrative, personal essay is about sharing an experience. In both cases, it’s the experience that counts. Reading is almost always a voluntary act (except in the case of students), and the things you do to heighten a reader’s engagement with your writing can make a huge difference. I’m not suggesting pandering to an audience, but I do think that thoughtful revision and an underlying attitude of appreciation to those willing to take the time to read your work can help a writer build an audience.
KM: What is the best thing about being a writer and the worst thing?
RM: One of the reasons I wanted to become a writer is that it’s one of the rare art forms where you can flourish as an introvert. (Visual arts like painting and sculpture are others.) It doesn’t take highly developed social skills and performance talent in order to be able to write well. However, once you get work out there and need to market it, you need to flip that extrovert switch and become a self-confident attention grabber. Writing is often marketed around the writer’s personality, which seems like a cruel fate to a writer’s who’s shy. As much as I love writing, book marketing wears me out.
KM: What are you working on now?
RM: I’m working in a third novel that mixes up stories of dissenters (from New Left radicals through the Occupy movement), hypnotists (cult leaders), and rock ‘n’ roll (and its many reinventions). From that description, it might not be easy to imagine what that novel might look like, but I like how it’s coming together, am enjoying the research and source material, and am looking forward to completing a first draft maybe by the end of the year.
RICHARD MELOS'S MOST RECENT BOOK
Happy Talk, Red Lemonade, 2012
Description from Red Lemonade:
Happy Talk imagines a star-crossed love affair in the Haiti of 1955 under the auspices of a U.S. Government plot to re-create Haiti as the next Hawaii. Gun-slinging American student nurses and boozy-NYC-playwrights-turned-educational-filmmakers can't wait to get off the Magic Island, while their directive to create a film short promoting tourism turns into a fiasco. All the while, voodoo is in the air, manifested as ghostly drumming in the distance. Front and center
are Culprit Clutch, hero of anti-heroes, who appears mostly through rumor and innuendo, and whose intrepid adventures lead him to strange encounters with people not acting like themselves and Josie, his ghostly paramour with a morphine habit and who may or may not have voodoo spirits flowing through her. The cast of characters includes a Scandinavian zombie, an ancient Egyptian phantom, a power-mad doctor channeling Baron Samedi and bent on Culprit's destruction, and Culprit's black sidekick who sees through it all (including his role as sidekick). The novel’s cascading epilogues include a legendary car race down the length of Mexico; street theatre in Golden Gate park, circa 1968; a Skylab mutiny; origins of the musical comedy Godspell; and cameos by the Nation of Islam and early followers of Jim Jones. Written in the style of a 60s-era post-modern novel and driven by its Catch-22 style dialogue and Rice Krispies atmosphere, Happy Talk is a novel as picaresque as it is picturesque, knotty as it is naughty, scathing in its satire while loving at its core, lyrical, hallucinatory, and hilarious.
READ AN EXCERPT OF HAPPY TALK
In this brief excerpt from Happy Talk, the untrained students nurses stationed in Haiti during the mid 1950s suddenly find themselves caring for a patient (the survivor of a skywriting accident):
With scissors, the Nightingales snip away at the last of his trousers, his undershirt, careful not to cut him, fat chance he would feel it anyway. They photograph him without clothes, hands propping his broken body in various positions to get the shots they need. They poke their fingers in his gizzard, feeling for cancer, not that they know what cancer feels like any more than what a kidney feels like, but figuring that as long as they have him here, they should check him for cancer.
All the while, one student nurse holds his hand. They are wearing masks and hats and look the same to him. He can neither tell whose hands are whose nor whose hand is holding his. He thinks it is that
one there, but then again, it couldn’t be, because she walks away and the hand is still holding his.
They find a blotch and cut off a piece of mottled skin. (—We ought to have that checked.) They snip a fragment of muscle. (—Let’s get that checked, too; we can send it out with the other samples and film.)
There is one last bodily sample they need. They roll him over, and a Nightingale sticks a long needle into the base of his spine and draws the milky fluid out. (—If there is anything wrong with you, anything, we’ll find out what it is.)
—You’ve come all the way to Haiti, and you still get the best medical care in the world, the same exact care you’d get back home in the U.S.A. We’ve run a battery of tests on you, and we’ll send your samples back to Washington, and when they write back and tell us what’s wrong with you, we’ll know how to treat you.
—In the meantime, we’ll set your bones in a plaster cast. It looks like you broke a few.
He's unable to reply, nod, or even open his eyes. They can't be sure he's listening.
—Samantha Sound says you have 400 bones when 206 are all you need.
—Which bones does Samantha say are broken?
—I think it’s fair to say they all are, or pretty close.
—Let’s set even the unbroken ones for good measure.
Rusty Talk Editor: