Interview with Mandy Looney and Mike Madigan, Filmmakers and Co-Founders of the Detroit SheTown Film Festival
Your collaboration is multifaceted as filmmakers and as film festival co-founders and organizers. How did you meet, and when did you begin collaborating artistically?
Mike: We’ve personally known each other since 2011 and worked together with M-1 Studios in video production creating content for businesses and organizations, but we started our personal short film collaboration together with 48-hour film festival competitions. Essentially, you have to write, shoot, and edit a 7-minute short in 48 hours. There are 3 elements you must include, and the genre is picked out of hat to kick it off. We made a crazy sci-fi short film CatZilla! for the Detroit 48 Hour Film Project, bringing in cute kitties from the Michigan Humane Society to wreak fake havoc on a model city. We quickly realized that our creative ideas and imagination line up in many ways, and we wanted to explore that further outside of the realm of just doing competition-only film projects.
Mandy: We met at a bar…ha! I was livestreaming Detroit House DJ’s to an online channel (pre-Facebook Live) when a mutual friend introduced us. I interned at M-1 Studios, and as they grew, I grew with them. Seven years later I’m still there. So now you have a bunch of creatives encouraging each other and a studio full of resources. Really cool collaborations are bound to happen.
Although you have worked on your own film careers separately, you have co-directed and co-written two short films: Watch Night and Emergency Alert. Tell us about the films and what inspired you to make them together.
Mike: Watch Night came from the idea of our shared disappointment of what letdowns New Year’s Eve events always turn out to be, combined with the idea of… well, what if it lined up with the real end of the world? And instead of making this a dark firm with distressed environments, we coined the term “prettypocalypse” to better describe the characters and their environment, wanting to see them interact with each other in this alternate world.
Emergency Alert came from the idea of a cult leader addressing her people, but we didn’t want to go down that dark of a route in terms of what the character would be saying/doing, so we wrote it more around trying to speak up against current events. Our other source of inspiration is that we really wanted to experiment with filming with the PXL-2000 camera from 1987 and this seemed like a good story and opportunity to try it out. Amazingly, it worked! A majority of filmgoers who have seen it believe that the characters are all supposed to be robots, which was not what we were initially going for, but it’s a cool interpretation of the film.
Mandy: Both of these films (and many other ideas) materialized during long road trips for work. Watch Night cropped up on a 5-hour drive to Pittsburgh and Emergency Alert manifested on a 12-hour drive from Atlanta. Our festival Detroit SheTown was actually due to a road trip, too. I have to say, Mike is one of the best road trip warriors I’ve ever known!
What advice do you have for others who want to collaborate behind the camera?
Mandy: I love bouncing ideas around a room. I thrive on my environment, my experiences, my relationships, and I enjoy collaborating in and around all of that. Some people don’t. My advice would be to find out by trying multiple times. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work out at first. Find people whose strengths are your weakness. My process might drive a perfectly wonderful person crazy, but some people find a lot of value in what I offer. On a completely different note, whenever I find myself frustrated with a scene to edit, it is almost always because there was tension on set and I felt rushed. Since then, when faced with the same scenario, I’ve learned to trust my instincts in the moment, take a breath, and communicate what feels off. It’s been a long road for me to find my voice, and it’s only because I keep trying that my voice is getting clearer. The more clear I can be, the easier it is to collaborate.
Mike: Always be open to listen to not just each other, but everyone involved in the process—your talent, your crew. It’s really not a made up saying that filming is collaborative work. So when you’re working well together, and bringing a whole team that understands and works toward making a vision happen and is excited by that possibility, it will be reflected in what you create. And, hopefully, that will resonate with audiences who see your work.
Mandy, you also work as an actor. How does the experience of being in front of the camera influence your approach to developing films and directing fellow actors?
Mandy: Being in front of the camera is a very new endeavor for me, and it was Mike who talked me into doing it. I’m grateful for the experience, as I believe it has helped me gain a better perspective as a director. But, at first, acting was terrifying for me. I felt extremely vulnerable knowing that my performance would be scrutinized. Getting out of my own head and focusing on the character was only possible by trusting my supportive crew, some of whom I’ve known for years. I quickly realized how important it is for actors to trust the process. I would absolutely do it again. The more I step out of my comfort zone, the more I learn, and THAT is what keeps me going.
Mike, you have written, produced, and directed over 20 short films. What have you learned about the genre, and what attracts you to it as a mode of cinematic expression?
Mike: Although I grew up watching and loving horror-based films, I find myself drawn more to creating stories and films that have more of a dramatic element. I’ve learned that the stories don’t come to you quickly, but when they do, it’s best to latch onto that in whatever way you can and fight until you can get that vision to come alive on the screen. And nothing really matters if you can’t get an audience to see and talk about your work, whether they respond to it or even dislike it—at least they’re talking about it!
Short films as an overall genre allow you to drop audiences directly into a world—you don’t have the time to set up the characters and the environment like you have for a feature film, so it’s about how you establish this right away and hopefully leave an audience wanting to see more as a result.
This September, you co-inaugurated the Detroit SheTown Film Festival, which featured a weekend of films by and about women. How did the idea for the festival come about?
Mike: Up to this point, Detroit as a major metropolitan area had not had a female-centric film festival within its borders. The continued development of female-focused film festivals in other cities fueled our inspiration to try and bring that spirit of community and networking here, where so many other artistic endeavors have enjoyed their development and growth.
Mandy: On a road trip, Mike suggested we start our own film festival. I loved the idea and added that it should be a woman’s film festival. Being a filmmaker and festival programmer, I’ve been to many festivals, but I would always dread the Q&A’s until I went to a female film festival. Only then did I feel a true connection with my peers sharing the stage. It felt less like a competition and more like a support group. I wanted nothing more than to celebrate women in film but to also set the foundation for camaraderie among us.
I really enjoyed how lovingly organized and well attended the festival was. You were sold out the whole weekend and there was a great feeling of enjoyment and solidarity among audience members and filmmakers. What was your approach to spreading the word about this new festival and getting people excited to attend?
Mandy: The strength of the festival was rooted in the ability to get amazing films and talented filmmakers to take a chance and submit their work to what was, until now, an unestablished film festival. From there, we wanted to ensure that we could get audiences to come to the screenings and experience all that the festival had to offer.
Mike: A combination of Facebook advertisements; sharing previews of the films on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; and attending local events such as Arts Beats & Eats and Dally In The Alley to promote the festival weekend were very successful in our outreach efforts.
What are your future plans both as filmmakers and festival organizers? Any exciting new projects on the horizon?
Mandy: We are looking forward to bringing the second year of DSFF to Detroit and Cinema Detroit in September 2019, with festival submissions opening up in December. Our website will have all the submission details by December 2018 on how to submit your film.
We’ll also be submitting our new short film THE LOSS to film festivals in 2019. It’s a short film about two characters who have experienced a horrible tragedy, both together and separately, and how they cope with that experience.
Mike: We’re also looking forward to attending the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019. As filmmakers, it’s really the creative kickoff to every new year for us, to experience these amazing films and a filmmaker environment that really gets you excited to bring on the new year and see what you can do with it!