Interview with Michael Williams – Writer and Director of THE ATONING
Arthur Glover: So you your film career and overall life is based in West Point, Mississippi. Tell me about what the film scene is like out there?
Michael Williams: Mississippi is a great place to make movies. My hometown is small, but the people there are eagerly supportive of the arts. It’s a place where you’re supported and encouraged to make film and the overall atmosphere inspires you. Mississippi is the birthplace of countless great storytellers through literature, art, music, and, more recently, film. With filmmaking becoming more and more accessible, many storytellers in Mississippi are finding their voice through film. The film scene here is quite spread throughout the state, however, we have a lot of film festivals that routinely bring us together. Like most scenes, it evolves throughout the years. It grows and changes as the industry changes, however, film in Mississippi always seems to be driven by the desire to do tell compelling stories and not be held back by limitations. There is a “make it happen” attitude and a passion for artistic expression that I love. I’ve worked on so many films in Mississippi that succeeded thanks to the cast and crew’s passion and dedication to overcome the odds and make a great film. I hope that the film scene continues to grow in Mississippi and that it can become more of a self-sustaining destination within the industry.
AG: Since you started making short films, and up until your most recent work, such as your latest, The Atoning, have you noticed a common theme throughout your work?
MW: I wouldn’t say there is a common theme that spans most of my work, however, there is a common approach to storytelling. I love to tell stories that are multi-layered. The film’s I appreciate most and ultimately want to make for myself are films where there is an intriguing story on the surface. That story is the overall catalyst for what the film is really about. I love to bury meaning and subtext behind my stories. This allows me to be inspired through the story and its characters. It allows me to find themes and messages that I want to explore under the story we see unfolding in front of us. With The Atoning for example, the film, at face value, is about a family trying to navigate this supernatural ordeal. However, the script didn’t click for me or inspire me to realize it until I found what the film and each character meant to me. I have to find my connection to the the story and its characters to discover what thematic elements I feel need to be explored. Once that happens, I am able to create those layers of storytelling that fuel my passion for filmmaking and ultimately make films that I hope stick with people long after the initial viewing.
AG: Other than making movies, what was the main reason and inspiration for you pursuing film?
MW: I was obsessed with the Indiana Jones series when I was growing up. I was also obsessed with Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg movies. My first film that I remember seeing and what I consider to be my first favorite film was Beetlejuice. I loved imaginative stories that took the audience past the edge of reality, but I also loved history. For the longest time, I was going to be an archeologist. I’m sure my obsession with Indiana Jones influenced that idea, however, I loved the mystery and discover of history. When Titanic came out, I was in 5th grade and became obsessed with the history of the Titanic and the production of the movie. The movie really affected me as a kid. I was able to experience and feel like I knew what it was like to experience the tragedy first hand. Plus, the film was such an epic piece of filmmaking down to every detail. I really admired the work that went into the film to make the experience of watching it so moving. Between, Titanic, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, I decided I wanted to get into special effects. That idea didn’t last long, but it did lead me to filmmaking. I soon discovered that I love storytelling and experiencing a story through film. I realized that film could allow you to experience a story that you would never be able to experience in real life. I always had a big imagination growing up, so film became my passion once I realized that I could realize my imagination through telling stories on film and ultimately make a career out of it.
AG: You have a West Point based production company called Shendopen. Opening that, has it helped bring more of a industry in that area for film?
MW: Just like any aspiring filmmaker, I needed a production company to be associated with my films. I created Shendopen in 2004 for my first short films and quickly fell into doing wedding videos and other gigs of that nature. After I graduated college in 2009, the film industry in MS was slowly growing but not robust enough to sustain me full time. I used Shendopen to not only make my own films, but I decided to turn it into a legitimate business in 2010 to facilitate filmmaking in the area while also providing video and photography services in the area. Slowly but surely, film in MS grew, and I was able to bring more film opportunities to my neck of the woods through my own productions and some films by fellow filmmakers. I closed my storefront for Shendopen in 2015 as the first step into transitioning the company from video and photography services to a full-time film production company. While the industry in and around North Mississippi hasn’t grown as fast and as big as I have hoped and Shendopen is still transitioning to full-time film production, I hope that the success of The Atoning and my previous feature OzLand will be a catalysts to doing bigger and better films in the future to create a real economic and industry boosting impact on the area.
AG: Let’s talk about The Atoning. What is the backstory for why you made this? What kind of story were you wanting to tell?
MW: My first feature film, OzLand, was a passion project with a lot of heart and soul poured into it by our entire team. The film has seen its share of success, and I am beyond blessed to have been able to see it find distribution. However, the independent film market is tough. I knew that for my second feature I wanted to make a film that was more widely marketable and could see greater success while also being something I could be passionate about. I learned a lot from OzLand and was anxious to apply that to a new film. Horror films are an obvious choice for independent filmmakers, however, I didn’t want to make a horror film just for the sake of doing it. I wanted to find a premise and a story that would allow me to explore the genre in a new way. I wanted the story to dictate the genre and not the genre dictate the story. I wanted to tell a compelling story with profound themes and complex characters within the horror/thriller genre. The Atoning became the opportunity to explore the genre in a unique way and be the catalyst for themes that I think are important to explore.
AG: Would you say there is something missing in most modern horror movies? In your mind, how does The Atoning differ?
MW: In the past, I would’ve agreed that most modern horror films are missing heart and soul. For a while, horror films were merely horror films. They didn’t explore the stories and characters deep enough to really make the films as profound and moving as they could’ve been. In recent years, there has been a refreshing influx of unique horror films that really take the genre to a new level. With The Atoning, we wanted to do something different and not feel compelled or held back by the genre. Instead, we wanted to embrace the genre and try to bring something more to it. It is easy to create a straight-up, marketable horror film. However, I liked the challenge of making a marketable horror film that will give you more to enjoy as you dig deeper into the story.
AG: Would you say you are the type of creator who wants to do something completely different everytime, such as genre types?
MW: Definitely. I don’t want always make the same types of films. I do want to make films that feel like they have my voice, but I want to be able to explore that voice in new settings, aesthetics, and genres. I love films that are genre-bending and don’t fit specific molds.
AG: Do you have any other films in the works? What do you want to do next?
Michael Williams: I have a couple of scripts completed and a few more in the works. I’m anxious to start another film, however, I haven’t decided what direction I want to go. As an indie filmmaker, you have to weigh your options and opportunities. There are stories that I’m dying to tell, but I know that they’re better suited for later in my career when more resources are available. In the meantime, I have some films that I am excited to realize and hope the success of The Atoning can help me and other storytellers in Mississippi to continue to bring a unique voice to the film industry in the coming years.
Michael Williams’ IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2916813/