Many of our instructors are working professionals outside of the classroom. New York Film Academy instructor Mike Civille’s feature film thriller “The Rachels,” which he directed in the summer of 2016, just sold to Lifetime and will air on the Lifetime Movie Network on Jan. 15, 2017.
Civille was also recently published in the Fall 2016 issue of “Cinema Journal” (one of the top peer reviewed academic journals in the field) with his article “Ain’t Got No Chance”: The case of the Breaking Point (1950).”
His upcoming film, “The Rachels,” is about the teen queens of Hills High School. When one of them suddenly dies, the other basks in the glow of the social media attention, until a former friend begins to unwind the tangled threads of the mysterious death.
We had a chance to talk to Civille before his movie airs on Jan. 15th.
How did you become involved with this project?
They say there’s always a bit of luck involved — in my case I’m happily married to a very successful development and production executive: my wife Hannah Pillemer is Senior VP at MarVista Entertainment. She and I had been speaking for some time about collaborating on a film, but we had not been able to coordinate our schedules over the last couple of years. Finally, this project came up, the timing was right, I loved the script, and Hannah hired me to direct it for MarVista. We met with the writer, Ellen Huggins, to hash out some ideas in the spring, and then in the summer I took two months off from NYFA as we went into preproduction and filming.
Was there any particular element of the story / premise that made you want to direct?
I had taken time away from directing to earn my PhD, but I eagerly dove back into it with this project. I loved that it was a commentary on celebrity culture, and how far people are willing to go to become recognized and remain well known. This is something I actually studied for my PhD, so I loved being able to weave some of my previous research into the story. I also valued the ability to use the camera and production design to show the difference between a person’s filtered social presentation and the real (sometimes fiendish) selves that they try to keep hidden. This idea of perception versus reality really fascinated me, and how we all craft our own version of ourselves and the events in our lives. The movie suggests that truth can be slippery, and things are not always what they appear to be.
It’s hard to not notice a similarity in the logline to the film “Heathers.” Was there any inspiration from that film?
Any high school movie featuring characters with the same name who are fixated on their own popularity has to pay some debt to “Heathers.” I love the tone of “Heathers,” and we tried to instill some of the same feeling into this film, with a little of the same bite. At the same time, it was also important for me to understand and even like these characters to avoid making them one dimensional and shallow. So I worked with the actors to bring some humanity to their performances — they all hurt, they all feel, they all desire validation. So while they might sometimes stray down the wrong path or lash out, there’s something tragic about the ways they are trying to keep up with each other and the world around then. I think it was important to add that layer to our film, which wasn’t a straight satirical comedy like “Heathers.” Instead, we called it a “mischievous thriller” — a self-conscious film about a celebrity that has fun while also providing traditional elements of drama and excitement along the way. Other films that inspired us thematically were “To Die Fo”r (1995), “Sunset Blvd.” (1950), “Virgin Suicides” (1999), and “Mulholland Drive” (2001), with a little dash of “The Conversation” (1974) and “Rashomon” (1950) thrown in.
How did Lifetime come about? Was this a project you sold to Lifetime prior to production or rather did you sell the finished film to the network?
The project was produced without a distribution deal, so I was excited to hear that MarVista recently sold it to Lifetime. They have sold other projects to Lifetime, so there’s a relationship there, but there was no guarantee from the beginning. I was proud that the film sold, because it told me that others see value there, it confirmed MarVista’s faith in me, and it validated my wife’s decision to hire her husband!
Did you learn anything while directing this film that you would like to share with your students?
This was my first time as a “director for hire,” so this was the first time I had to passionately push for certain creative decisions. I had produced previous projects, so I always only had to convince myself. But this was the first time I had to present my ideas to producers and argue for why it should be that way (and not the less expensive way!). Of course, you have to pick your battles, but there were a handful of things I really wanted for the movie, so I had to prepare notes and sketches and descriptions and film clips to show how and why it could work. It reminded me that you have to be energetic and determined in your vision — you don’t yell at people to get your way, but rather you thoroughly present your case to convince them. And at the end of the day, we were able to accomplish a lot, including the most elaborate and dangerous stunt in MarVista history. There’s no such thing as too much preparation, and if you don’t have a vision for how you see it, people are not going to buy it.
I also was reminded that motivating a cast and crew comes from the top. Early on, DP Michael Pessah, AD Karim Nabil, and I decided that we were going to have fun and keep people motivated by making every day, every shot a fun experience — no matter the hot temperatures, an intense shooting schedule, and several complicated setups. Of course we had stressful moments, but mostly we had fun and the crew appreciated that we were enjoying the process so much. I respected the cast and crew so much, and I decided not to be a director working in a bubble and only talking to actors and the DP. Instead I got to know everyone, and thanked them by shaking everyone’s hand at the end of every shooting day. I wanted to let everyone from the DP to each PA know that I appreciated their effort and what we accomplished. At the end of the shoot, many of the cast and crew remarked that they would do another project with us at any time because they had so much fun and appreciated our gratitude. I’m really proud of that.
Can you tell us about the stunt that you were able to pull off?
We filmed a dangerous stunt in which we dangled an actress off the roof of a building seven stories up. Our incredible stunt coordinator Tim Mikulecky helped design and achieve this stunt with steel cables — he was such a pro and always looking for how to do the stunt effectively and safely. I’ll never forget standing on the roof during the location scout, and looking over the side with Tim, and he says, “You know, we could actually hang her off of here pretty easily…as long as she’ll go for it.” So when I asked the actress, she said, “Sure, sounds like fun! It will help my performance!” It was by far the most stressful night of the shoot because if anything went wrong, it could be disastrous. But it all went great — thanks to a lot of detailed prep and Tim’s expertise.
Were there any of crew members from NYFA?
One of the background performers was former NYFA BFA Acting student Giullianna Martinez. She was a student in my American Cultural History class and it was great to see her on set! Because I knew her, I was able to get her more prominent placements onscreen.
The DP Michael Pessah used to be the Chair of the Cinematography department at NYFA’s LA campus. I’ve known Michael for 15 years, and he introduced me to the folks at NYFA LA when I moved out to LA. He’s an incredibly talented cinematographer and a joy to work with. His crew respects him so much that they would run through a brick wall for him. Bringing that kind of loyalty with him on set was vital for us to achieve a stylish film in a short production window.
Finally, I could not have done this film without the support of NYFA administrators Jean Sherlock, Dan Mackler, Sonny Calderon, and Mary Samuelson, plus the valuable input I got from our instructors, who always made themselves available for tips and advice.
I’m hoping to have Michael, lead actress Caitlin Carver, and producer Rebecca Stone join me for a screening and Q&A at NYFA on February 13!