Michelle Mower is a filmmaker from Houston Texas. Her new film “The Preacher’s Daughter” starring Andrea Bowen (“Desperate Housewives”), has just completed post production.
The interview below is with Michelle Mower and Barry Coffing, CEO & Founder of MusicSupervisor.com (who was not only the music supervisor, but the writer and producer of original songs for the film too). Get ready for some fascinating insights into indie filmmaking and the process of finding the right music for an indie film.
MM = Michelle Mower
BC = Barry Coffing
JR: = Julius Robinson
JR: So Michelle, can you tell us how ‘Preacher’s Daughter’ was conceived and written?
MM: It was conceived from life. I am a preacher’s daughter so I have a lot of stories that can be told from that charac- ter’s perspective. Although the story itself is fictional, despite what Barry will tell you (laughing).
BC: I keep accusing her of it being autobiographical.
MM: The plot is actually fictional, because trust me, my life growing up was not nearly that interesting! But at the same time I think there are a lot of elements in the story that I have pulled from my own experiences as a preacher’s daugh- ter. Everyone who’s seen it, or read the script, say they feel like the story is very realistic. I started writing the screen- play ten years ago. I wrote a short version of the script and took it to a local producer who read it and said, “This needs to be a feature film, it’s too big of a story to tell in a short film format.” So I went back and basically wrote the feature length version. It was such a personal story that it took me a long time just to let anyone read it. Writers are often self-conscious about what we write. Finally I did start getting it out there and getting feedback. We did a script reading and everyone who read it really had a lot of great things to say. We entered it into a couple of competitions, and placed in them. I finally ran out of excuses not to make the film, and I’m glad I did. I think the timing was right when we actually did make it. I think if I had tried to make this film 10 years ago, it would not have been nearly as good. Things happen as they are supposed to and I think we produced a film that we can all be really proud of.
JR: Great, before we get to the music part, what was the biggest challenge in making this film?
MM: Oh by far it was the budget. We had relatively no money. It was extremely low budget, and I went into this production thinking I was going to shoot something very guerrilla style – getting my film community together, shooting on weekends with all local cast and crew. As things evolved, we ended up taking the production to a much more mainstream level, got some named talent attached… Hey, we got Barry Coffing on board, I mean right there that’s great!
BC: Thanks! I remember when I first read the script, I was one of the people cheering and saying you can’t do this “no name,” because you’ve got a great story going. If there is no name talent attached, it really makes it rough. So I was on the other side saying “no, no” — go get some name actors, the script deserves it. Michelle, tell them about the name talent you have in the film.
MM: My lead actress is Andrea Bowen who’s best known for her role as “Julie Mayer” on Desperate Housewives –Teri Hatcher’s daughter on the show. My lead actor is Adam Mayfield who played “Scott Chandler” on All My Children. We also have Lew Temple who is one of those guys where you’ve seen him in a thousand things, he is kind of a character actor. He’s done a lot of Hollywood studio stuff and indie stuff, like Unstoppable, Rango, Domino, and Waitress. He’s a great actor and I loved working with him so much. Watching him was amazing, I mean all of my actors were. Andrea is phenomenal; I was so fortunate to get her on my film. So we have a bunch of talented local actors, too, like Ron Jackson, a very seasoned actor, Cyndi Williams and Jamie Teer.
JR: Now that I have you talking Barry, what was the concept for the music, if there was any, after you read the script and then when you saw the cut?
BC: When I read the script, you kind of break down the film. I thought, “We’ll need music for the party here, a transition here, church music there, the girl is a singer what will she sing?” First, I was dealing with pre-records. That’s music performances shot on-camera during a scene. You have to record those with the actors in advance in the studio, or have the actors sing to pre-cleared pre-existing music. In the story, it’s in the church and there is a music minister. There were a lot we had to deal with before we could even shoot. Michelle grew up on this genre, so when it came time to pick a “church song,” she would think for like a millisecond and just name one. The songs she picked would work perfectly, so I just shut up and listened. Then there’s a song I wrote with you Julius, “You’re of the Glory” which was the secular “Christian” song she sang in the church.
We had a music minister Adams’s character who had dreams of being a rock star, more than a music minister, so we needed to have another song that kind with a more secular feel, which I wrote. In his head he’s performing in front of ten thousand people like Billy Joel and Andrea’s character walks in, sees him in that light which sort of begins the process of her not seeing him as an old music minister. It’s her seeing someone with a musical passion, he suddenly seems younger, and sexier. So I ended up writing that custom, specifically for the scene. Then when it came time to post, Michelle had a very clear vision of what she wanted musically. She wanted a rootsy, down-home raw country, Austin kind of vibe, with acoustic instruments. A lot of it was utilizing the technology and tools in Musicsupervsior.com – we pretty much used every bell and whistle it has. For example, while she was editing the film she found the big opening party music. Can you jump in on that Michelle?
MM: Yeah, I had gone in and was looking for songs because the opening party music in- volves a drug trip where the music itself is a part of the trip. The drug trip sequence had to be cut to the music because it was a part of the actual experience itself, so I went onto Musicsupervisor.com and found this one song I really liked. I was actually thinking of it for a different scene. But once I was sitting with my editor I thought to just try it there and see how it plays, and once he laid it down it was just like, “That’s it, that’s the song, that’s the one I have to have!” You can ask Barry, I was dogging him, I was like — this is my song, it’s it!
BC: (laughing) Yeah, she goes “There’s two songs that I found that are in the movie, okay? You get them, I don’t give a shit about anything else, these two songs are in the movie!”
JR: What was the title of the opening song?
BC: It’s called “Dinosaurs in the Garden” by Neptune Crush.
JR: Oh great!
BC: Michelle and I have really crazy schedules, so we weren’t at the same location a lot. We used MusicSupervisor.com as our virtual home base. I put a bunch of songs in project fold- ers. One of the songs ended up being used for our end title. She wrote me back in the notes section and said “I love! Love! Love! this song, where can we use it?” So I wrote back, “How about the end title?’ So Sally Semrad’s “Grace of Angels” ended up being the end title song. By using the site, we got to spend our time being creative rather than trying to be forensic lawyers spending all our time hunting down labels and publishers. But we don’t feel like we compromised anything. Like, Michelle really liked a Sarah McLachlan tune for a love scene, and it was a great song, but what we ended up with from the site is better, sexier and more disturbing in context: “Giver of Mercy” by Brenda Harp.
MM: Something that Barry touched on because the film is so rooted in spirituality, the back- drop of it is the church and this is an environment that many people are familiar with already, but maybe not as fully as the character. So it was a challenge trying to find music that played into that spirituality without being specifically Christian music, if that makes any sense. It’s hard to find music that can play both ways, secular and religious, and I think we did a really good job of finding music that has a spiritual element to it, but at the same time could be used in an edgy way.
BC: Whether the bands were Christian or secular, one of the things we secretly did was have religious phrases or images in the lyrics whenever possible.
JR: Any other stories about posting this film?
BC: On the last day of dub stage we had to make three emergency music searches on MusicSupervisor.com. First we had a scene we edited perfectly for the picture, and then Michelle found some really great footage of a skyline at night, a 24-hour high speed passing of time, and cut it into the film. Then music no longer worked for that scene. So opened up my laptop added the new picture and re-edited it, showed it to her. We tried two or three different ways, finally got it right, walked into the studio with a thumb drive, gave the guys it to the guys mixing the film and we were done. Then in another scene they said “We got all of your music cues Barry except for the this one for a jukebox.” We all missed it, but mostly me. So I’m going “Oh crap!” so Michelle and I go into the next room with our two laptops and log into Musicsupervisor.com. We finally find one, she goes “yeah that works,” so I do the music edit and make it sound like it’s coming out of a jukebox, walk in and hand it to them. They plug it in and it’s perfect. Finally, we knew we were going to need a second end title song for the credits, so I found some other stuff, and played it for Michelle. She loved one and boom — there’s our second end title song. So three things were placed on the very last day using the technology that we built. Yea us!
JR: Right, because you had it right at your fingertips and could search through a very large catalog (over 125,000 tracks), find something – know it was pre-cleared and ready to li- cense… What an amazing tool!
BC: Yeah, we also found this guy named Gary Hill in a search, and he sounds like the second coming of Johnny Cash. He’s killer and we plugged him into one of the restaurant scenes. From Tracy Lawrence, who’s a country star who has his own production company and label, we have a former American Idol artist he’s developing in our system Lacey Brown. She got the second end title slot I was talking about.
JR: Barry, who scored the film?
BC: A composer named Scott Szabo, and actually, funny enough he and I both went to the high school of performing visual arts. He and I were always bantering stuff back and forth. It was really a nice collaboration. Michelle has assembled a lot of really great people for this project. Kelley Baker who did the sound design and dialogue editing also did a great job. World class talent!
MM: Typically, one of the biggest problems that plague indie films is sound. So we certainly had our fair share of issues come up once we started posting the film. We had scenes that literally had no dialogue recorded. We were having some major issues like popping and background noise. I wasn’t really sure how bad it was, I knew there were some challenges but I honestly couldn’t guess how much it would cost me to fix. So Kelley Baker, who is a long time friend, is a professional sound designer in Hollywood. He did a number of Gus Van Sant’s films and Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven. I sent him the Quicktime of the film and said okay, how bad is it? His reply was, “Don’t worry, whatever problems you have can be fixed.” He’s a real pro, but he is also a true guerilla independent filmmaker. He goes around the country teaching classes on how to make microbudget films — so he gets it. Kelley brought together a team up in Portland, Oregon that, I mean, there’s no way I could assemble a team like this on my own. Like, my dialogue editors worked on films like Gladia- tor and The Talented Mr Ripley. They are highly experienced people who agreed to help this little indie out. I did pay them — but certainly not as much as Hollywood! So it was nice to be able to have that level of experience to contribute to the film. What they did with the sound is absolutely mind blowing.
JR: Yeah, that’s so important! As we know, more than 50% of the impact of a film is the sound and music.
MM: I would even say 60%. I put it up there with importance with having a good script for the story, having good actors. Sound and music play such a huge part in the telling of the story. I have been editing and watching the movie over the last year. When the music and final sound mix were added, it was like watching a whole new movie. It was such a beauti- ful experience as a filmmaker to finally see your vision, your words on paper realized into something that you can be proud of, and say “I did that” along with all of these other brilliant people.
BC: I know you are trying to be modest about this, but literally — you did that. Yeah, you ral- lied people to your cause, but you were the evangelist, you were the creator. You don’t write those words, nobody does anything. Making a movie is such an epic journey; don’t even feel bad about taking a little credit.
JR: Both Barry and I have been down the road as producer and writer on some long-term, difficult film projects!
MM: Oh yeah I’m taking credit! You see my name twice in the opening credits (laughs) so I’m taking my due credit, don’t get me wrong. But with that said, there is absolutely no way that I could have done this without the help of everyone involved. All the way from my script supervisor to my first AD to my sound guys, to craft services, everyone involved were such an instrumental part in getting this film realized and where it is now. I’m so proud of the film we created and no matter what happens, or where it goes distribution wise, to me, we have succeeded with this film. Despite all of the challenges we had to face and obstacles to over- come, tensions, craziness that happens on ultralow budget sets — at the end of the day all that matters is that we told a good story and we told it well.
BC: Making a good movie — nobody really wants to say it, but it is pretty close to a miracle! When you consider that they make 5,000 feature movies a year, and less than 450 of them even get commercially sold, your odds are already not good!
JR: Michelle, what is your background before this film?
MM: Well, I’ve written, produced and directed a number of short films. I’ve produced TV episodes, shot music videos, just a hodgepodge of things. Here in Houston there just is not a lot of feature film work, so you kind of have to make your own work, and build your own resume. So that’s the path that I took. I was really fortunate that I worked for a non-profit media organization that is one of the oldest in the country called Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP). It’s been around for 34 years, and I was a program coordinator for them for eight years. SWAMP enabled me to make many valuable connections within the industry and in the independent world as well, and many of those contacts ended up working on this film, like Barry and Kelley. They knew me, they knew my work in the community, they knew my work as a filmmaker and wanted to support me and my project; supporting a Houston film maker! So that’s my background. I’m also a preacher’s daughter so I feel like this is a story I really wanted to tell and not in the traditional 7th Heaven way so I think that hopefully people will see the film and at the very least say it is a well made film that tells a story that is honest, and real and ultimately has a positive message.
JR: Wonderful. When are you going to screen it?
MM: We’re not sure yet. The next stage of this process is to start submitting to film festivals. Hopefully, we will get a nice festival premiere in the early part of next year. We’ll see where we go from there, hopefully we get a distributor on board who will take it out into the world so more people can see it.
JR: That’s great. So is there a growing Houston film making community? Other filmmakers that you know of that are working on movies there?
MM: Absolutely, in fact I just came from a meeting with a producer who is making a feature film here called Patriot Act – definitely one to watch. They are doing it right. There are a lot of people in Houston who are trying to make films – some better than others, just like in any community. I’ve been able to meet a lot of super- talented people who I believe are going to be the important filmmakers of the future.
JR: Tell us about the next project you are going to do and where do you think filmmaking is going in the future?
MM: One of the areas I’ve become interested in, looking at my own career and where I’d like to go, is “transmedia.” This is multi-platform storytelling where you use a variety of media — anything from film, TV, internet, mobile to live performances –different options you can incorporate into your storytelling. It engages the audience in a very direct way, so the audience actually becomes a part of the storytelling process. To me that is such a revolutionary concept; the story will evolve with the audience actually participating. I went to a conference in New York back in April to learn more about some of the people leading the transmedia revolution as I like to call it, and they just had another meeting in San Francisco. To me the beauty of all the technology we have now is that storytelling can evolve into something a lot more interactive and interpersonal. Ultimately, it will change the way that we consume media in the future.
JR: Can you talk about how music underlines your drama? I think it tells your audience when it’s okay to laugh and cry and really prompts them to feel things. Audiences don’t know how to feel sometimes.
MM: Even as a writer, music is important. I actually listen to music that sort of puts me in that mental mode of the script. So for instance with Preacher’s Daughter I listened to a lot of home grown, folk, country, some rock like Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow — a lot of different music that I felt like was female centered and had the female perspective, and had a lot of storytelling in the music itself. That helped me to keep the tone of the story where I wanted it. So I use music more than just in the final product.
JR: Barry, do you think down the line there could be a soundtrack compilation?
BC: Oh yes there’s a bunch of great artists and songs in the film and even though there are a lot of diverse styles there’s the spiritual through lines that I think will hold it all together. We’ve got Barefoot Servants in the 7-11 scene, the song is called “Box of Miracles.” There are two cool indie songs about angels and we even have a hip-hop track. The majority of the music has a real Texas flavor because there are quite a few artists from Houston & Austin.
JR: That’s great.
MM: That was something that was really important to me because it is shot in Texas. I don’t consider myself a Hollywood filmmaker, I’m a Texas filmmaker. I sort of like to try to keep things down home, and make it feel like we’re telling a story from this region – not Hollywood.
JR: That’s great, congratulations!
MM: Well thank you so much.