Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Michael Duff
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
Michael Duff has worked for years as a respiratory therapist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and freelance photographer, but recently decided to pursue his lifelong love of film by enrolling in online film school through Arizona State University and pursuing a TV writing certificate from UCLA online. Made in collaboration with filmmaking meetup group Rough Cuts, Elevator Man is a fast-paced comedy about a man trying desperately to get to his boss’s office in time for an important meeting, but facing many obstacles and eccentric characters along the way.
PFS: So how long has it actually been since you started getting into writing and making films?
MD: It’s been about three years. Three years that have been exciting, invigorating, and challenging. To me it’s just fun pursuing this wonderful craft, and unfortunately 20-30 years ago the average person couldn’t really afford a great camera and equipment. But now, you can make a super high-quality film with a DSLR and Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut. Times have changed, so it’s exciting.
PFS: Did you always know that you wanted to make films? Were you a big film buff?
MD: Yes, absolutely. I’m a little older than your average film student, but I’m in love with film. I just didn’t do it when I got out of high school. I love film as an art form because there’s so much collaboration. There’s a meetup group for filmmakers in Philly called Rough Cuts, and I cannot applaud them enough. They meet on the first Wednesday of each month. They had a competition, and I submitted the script for Elevator Man and won.
PFS: Did Rough Cuts source all the different crew and cast that you needed for that project?
MD: The producer and I auditioned some people, and pulled in people for certain roles. The producer found the main actor, Aaron Abramowitz, at a comedy club. I met with the director of photography and it all came together in this great collaborative effort. I really love the outcome of it.
PFS: Yeah, that’s amazing that they give you the opportunity to do something so polished and complete on your first go.
MD: Yes, it actually is amazing.
PFS: So, how did the idea for Elevator Man come to you?
MD: Well, I was taking screenwriting classes and I wanted to write a short that had a continuing ascension of conflict but in a very easy-to-shoot setting. So, I kind of came up with the thought of an elevator where each floor would bring subsequent drama or tension. And then, of course, we could basically shoot it in one area. We had to cut some of the scenes out for the sake of time because we wanted to shoot it in one day.
PFS: What was the experience of directing like?
MD: It was the most fun day of my life, besides my marriage and my kids being born. I was in heaven. Just the concept coming alive was truly, truly amazing and very professional. The crew was amazing. It was just a fun day.
PFS: Everything you expected it to be?
MD: Actually more. It’s such a collaborative process and it was just so much fun. The filmmaking process is so amazing.
PFS: So did you enjoy working with actors in particular?
MD: Yeah, and that is definitely a learning curve that I’m going to have to continue to work on. I enjoyed seeing how each actor crafted their character.
PFS: This is a very specific question, but how did you make the fake vomit when the boy throws up on the model house?
MD: That’s a great question. We mixed cinnamon applesauce and leftover nuts. I was in the elevator with the little boy, who is my godson. He mimicked throwing up and I was actually behind him and threw the vomit onto the model house. I might as well add that the models I bought at a discount store for a $1 apiece. So, that’s how we made that come to realization. And with editing, it looks like he’s actually throwing up.
PFS: Yeah, it’s pretty realistic. I was going to ask about the models, too. Part of what’s funny is that they really aren’t anything special.
MD: No, they’re not special at all. The producer and another writer came up with the concept of the phallic symbols up top, and he actually got somebody to 3D print the phallic chimney on top. But the models were just part of the idea process.
PFS: So tell me about the project that you’re working on now.
MD: The project I’m working on now is called Black Coffee with Cream. The basic premise is that racism has gotten a lot better between 1958 and 2018, but essentially there are always going to be a few idiots that are ignorant and racist. It takes place in a Texas café in 2018. An interracial couple walks in, and a couple of young guys make a racial comment, and the crowd has a bunch of different reactions. The sheriff walks in and says, ”What’s going on?” All of a sudden you hear a scratch, like on an album, and all of a sudden the café goes back to 1958. I want to show the difference between people’s reactions then and now, and how there are always going to be a couple ignorant people.
PFS: That sounds really interesting. Definitely a change of pace from Elevator Man.
MD: I’m actually working on a one-hour drama and a half-hour pilot, which I’ve submitted to about ten film festivals. That one-hour drama I wrote through UCLA’s television program. I’m taking a class so I have the benefit of writing but also getting notes. So somebody’s kind of behind me sculpting while I’m writing.
PFS: Do you find it valuable—whether it’s taking a class or working with Rough Cuts—to be getting other people’s feedback at different stages of the process?
MD: It’s extremely valuable getting notes. It’s good to take a step back and take a look at your own work, but sometimes you miss certain things.
PFS: So do you see yourself continuing to work on writing and directing films as much as possible going forward?
MD: Absolutely. I cannot wait to try to get this Black Coffee with Cream off the ground.
PFS: It sounds like you’re very motivated, which is half the battle.
MD: Oh, I’m very motivated.
Elevator Man will screen on Thursday, June 14 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.