In a lonely desert town a suicidal priest makes a decision that kicks into motion a series of strange and comedic events leading him to an unexpected discovery.
Hi Mike thank you for talking to TNC, how are you holding up during these very strange times?
Thanks for having me. Well, most of my pants no longer fit, but otherwise I’m doing okay. Fortunately, my friends and family are healthy.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve processed these past months through any creative lens yet. It’s been a time when anxiety and fear is constantly in the background and that’s made it hard to feel creative. The collective experience of seeing a good play or movie is really important and I miss that greatly. If anything, it’s been a time of re-evaluating what’s really important in life and simplifying things, which I think long term will be extremely beneficial creatively. I do think down the road this is all going to lead to some really incredible art because it has upended our daily lives and how we interact with people so fundamentally. What art will be created in response to a year of being afraid to get close to other people?
Your festival run with The Priest has been amazing already picking up multiple nominations and a win at Santorini Film Festival, what do you think it is about your film that has connected with audiences so much?
Thank you! I think for one thing Patton Oswalt gives a really amazing performance in a type of role you’re not used to seeing him play before. He makes you feel so much with just a look and it’s easy to feel connected to him. I think people are also connecting with the redemption side of the story. A series of pretty horrible, funny and strange things happen to the priest, but they all serve to lead him back to the church. Whether you see it as coincidence or god, he finds what he’s looking for in the end and there’s hopefully something that feels satisfying about that journey.
The Priest will next be seen at the Barcelona Short Film Festival, what does it mean to you to be part of such an amazing lineup of short films?
It means a huge deal to our whole team to be part of such a respected festival with so many talented filmmakers. When you make a short film there’s usually very little money and so you end up asking a lot of favours of a lot of people. “The Priest” was no different. So many talented people worked hours on the film because they love what they do and the process of making something. And so to be recognized in any way is hugely rewarding. And for me as a writer, to have anyone connect with the strange little thing I wrote alone in my room is always an incredible feeling.
Can you tell me a little bit about The Priest, how did this film come about? What inspired your screenplay?
It really started with a question. I live in Los Angeles and when you drive outside the city you quickly come upon all these small desert towns that line the west. They seem to collect such an eclectic group of people that you wouldn’t expect to live together: drifters, military workers, UFO seekers, survivalists, isolationists, hippies, and so on. They are people often either hiding from something or searching for something. And in almost all of them all is a church. And so the question I began with was who are the priests and pastors of these forgotten churches and how do they find the faith to go on? How can they feel useful so far away from the rest of the world? And in response to that question came the screenplay, which tells the story of a grieving priest who desires to have a real experience.
"You make changes as a director to preserve the integrity of the writing."
You have an amazing cast, did you have an idea when writing The Priest who you wanted to be in your short film?
I had no idea, but after I wrote it I thought it would be interesting to cast a comedian for the role of the priest. He’s a mostly silent character and I wanted someone who can communicate and emote a great deal with a look. It needed to be someone who could both be funny and tragic without saying anything. So I had all this in mind when one day I was with my friend waiting for his car at a parking lot and I looked over to see Patton Oswalt waiting next to us. It was like a crazy sign. And I thought, he’d be perfect! He’ll never ever do it, but man he’d be good. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and I could just see him in the role. He’s so incredibly funny but also has a certain melancholy and thoughtfulness about him. I didn’t say anything to him that day but I thought what the hell and sent the script to his manager with the huge offer of like a hundred bucks… and a couple weeks later they called and said he was in, but that he wanted his payment to be given to charity. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy and at the same time, like oh shit, I better figure out how to direct now!
But once we had Patton attached it gave us some credibility and we were able to get some really amazing actors who wanted to work with him. I had worked with both Ginger Gonzaga and Mary Faber on Kidding and I could just see them in their respective roles. And Jason Genao, Noelle Renee Bercy, and Malcom Madera I was very lucky to find through their agents. They’re all so good!
What were the biggest challenges you faced making The Priest?
All the things you’d expect with not having enough time or money, but one thing early on that was surprisingly difficult was finding a church that would let us shoot there. I had a pretty specific idea in mind for what it needed to be – somewhat isolated, near a road, in the desert but close enough to Los Angeles – and every time we found one that worked, the pastor would either read the script and object to the content or watch Patton’s stand up and think it was too dirty to ever give us permission. So that ended up being a thing, but after looking at dozens of churches, we finally found the perfect place with a sympathetic pastor who used to work in film.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently on this film?
Yes so many things, I just don’t know what.
As a writer/director how flexible were you with your script, did you prefer to stick to what was written or were you open to changes?
I think there’s a balance to that. On one hand you of course need to be open to changes because sometimes a good performance can get across a paragraph of dialogue with a look and it’s better, or your DP has a great idea that might change a scene, or the realities of production make something impossible and you need to change accordingly. You don’t want to miss out on the better idea because you’re stubborn. On the other hand, you need to keep your eye on the story and tone and make sure you’re not getting away from what you set out to do. You make changes as a director to preserve the integrity of the writing.
Where did this passion for filmmaking come from?
From growing up watching so many great movies, an older brother who made films as a kid, and a really inspiring college professor. I just love the process of it. With the writing there’s no better feeling than figuring out a scene, coming up with a good line, or finishing something that works. It can be so, so rewarding, if solitary. But then, when you’re lucky, you get to take what you wrote and make it with a group of very specifically skilled people in what becomes a big collaboration that still feels somewhat old timey despite all the technology. I love it.
How much has your background as a playwright influenced your screenwriting?
Hugely. The writers who have inspired me most are all playwrights and I did my MFA in playwriting, which was so valuable for me. I think when you learn to write for theatre there’s a lack of being taught to think commercially that you maybe get in screenwriting courses, because no one goes into the theatre to make money. And so you have more freedom to experiment and find your voice and be weird. All of which is important. And of course, there’s no better way to learn to write dialogue than by having actors read it to a room full of people, because when it’s bad it makes you cringe and you just have to make it better.
Poster designed Alex Evans
"...find what’s unique about your voice as a writer and let that be your guide."
Would you ever consider turning one of your plays into a short film?
I have thought about it and never done it. I think in the end I always feel like if I wrote it as a play then it’s meant to be a play. Or I’m just lazy.
What would you say was the most valuable lesson you've taken from making The Priest?
Work with talented people you trust and listen to them. Forget your ego. And feed people well.
Should filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer a fellow screenwriter or a playwright?
The piece of advice that has served me the most is to find what’s unique about your voice as a writer and let that be your guide. That’s your biggest asset as a writer and honing in on the specificity of your point of view will allow you to connect with more people.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from The Priest?
It’s simple, I just want people to have an emotional response to it.