Today, I talk with Mac Cushing, Film-maker behind the new short thriller, Last Man on Earth. We talk about how the film came to
be, Mac's influences in the world of film, and his thoughts on
what truly makes a good movie.
Ryan Sprague (RS)
Mac Cushing (MC)
RS: When did you start your film-making career?
MC: I’ve been working in TV and Film since about 2007 in various capacities, mostly as a lighting technician. It was only last year that I decided to finance and produce my own projects.
RS: What has been your best and worst experience in film-making so far?
MC: My best experience in film making was definitely the production of Last Man on Earth. Making my own movie, working with people who are professionals in their respective fields and seeing everyone’s efforts come together into a final product was something amazing the behold. On the other side of the scale, I’ve never really liked working on big budget television. In those instances everything is so pre-planned, and so by the books that it takes away any kind creativity your job might have in lower budget projects.
RS: Do you prefer certain genres or do you like to experiment and cross-pollinate?
MC: As a writer I like to let the story decide where it wants to go rather than the genre. If there’s a horror story that wants part of it to be funny, or romantic, or fantastical I don’t think you should be afraid to embrace those elements. It’s when you start mashing together the more blunt tropes of different genres where you run into trouble. Cowboys with laser guns or jet fighters fighting dragons can theoretically make for an interesting movie, but more often than not it’s like communism: working better in theory than in practice.
RS: Where did the idea for your latest film come from?
MC: Last Man on Earth is the amalgamation of two short films I made back in 2007. I was looking for an idea to make a movie with, and I revisited those two shorts and thought that they both never got fleshed out as completely as I would have liked them to be, so I sat down and reworked both scripts into one another and came out with this.
(Mac Cushing on set)
RS: Who do you have involved with the film?
MC: I had a lot of friends help me out on this, which made production a lot of fun. A few guys really stood out though. Jason Goldston, who’s a former teacher of mine, not only helped me produce this but also edited it and did all of After Effects work. He really became the linchpin of the production with how much he contributed. John McGee did the original score the to movie, and I’m really impressed with what he did because I basically gave him the soundtrack to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and said “I want this” and what he came up with was amazing in it’s faithfulness to the era. Finally, Derrick Vargo, who plays Cowboy, was really fun to work with. He was referred to me by one of my AC friends, and it became a running joke on set about where I knew him from because my only response was “well Mac Cushing went on a stud hunt and came home with some beefcake.”
RS: How was it using special effects for this film?
MC: This was my first time using special effects for a movie, and it was a big trust exercise. When post-production started I had to leave to work on a movie in Maryland, and because of the sudden circumstances of getting that job I didn’t bring my laptop with me. So for two months my oversight on the edit and sound design was reduced to a weekly phone call with Goldston and McGhee. It became a game of how well I could communicate verbally to these two what I wanted, and me having to let go a little and say to myself “we have to make our December deadline, so you have to compromise on some things. As long as they get it in the ballpark don’t be a dick.”
RS: Is there a specific message you are trying to tell with the film?
MC: There isn’t a specific message per se, but I am trying to showcase a concept. In the world that this short inhabits, I have no doubt that some epic hero exists. A Luke Skywalker who probably looks like Will Smith or Bruce Willis who is in the right place at the right time to be the hero earth needs. I’m really super bored with that premise, because that’s the ONLY kind of adventure movie we see. I’m more interested in telling the story of the guys who fall through the cracks in these over-arching epic stories. The guys who accidently stumble upon the big climactic fight between good and evil and turn around and run because they know they wont survive, because they understand they’re not the protagonist. These stories, I feel, usually end on a bleak or morbid note. Regular guys rarely save the princess, they rarely win the day, and they fall victim to the cruelest of realities: that sometimes bad things happen to good people just because. With that in mind I think short films are the perfect medium to show these small slices of life in order to provide a larger, fuller picture of the world that your basic Star Wars type of saga wouldn’t be able to achieve.
RS: What was the most rewarding experience you had while making the film?
MC: We made this movie for a ridiculously cheap. Everyone involved donated their time on set and I think our budget clocked in at something close to $1500, and $600 of that was because in one of the scenes Vargo and I are supposed to run up to a car and hide behind it, and during one take I kinda hit it a little hard and dented it. But to pay everyone back for their work I rented out a theatre last Christmas and invited the cast and crew and their families to see the movie on the big screen, just in case they never got to make it to any of the fests we submitted to. And after working on the movie for almost a full year, I was close to being burnt out on watching it. Every time I watched it for approvals on sound and video I was finding new things to nitpick and was driving myself crazy with it. So when the screening rolled around I was a nervous wreck. I stood in the back of the theatre and couldn’t watch the opening credits and then the dialogue starts and the audience started laughing at the right parts and I loosened up and I got to see an audience react to the movie, and that was seven different kinds of magical.
(Mac Cushing & Derrick Vargo)
RS: What do you believe makes for a good movie? What's most important? Character, plot, direction?
MC: I’ve heard opinions about everything. That a good director can carry mediocre plots and actors, actors can shine through directors and plots, and a good script is hard to mess up. I’ve also seen examples where these have been proven right and wrong. But mostly I’ve seen, and really believe in, that you need to invest in everything to get a good result. You need to invest in your lighting and your camera department the same way you invest in your actors and your sound. A good video is something that is greater than the sum of it’s parts, and if you put too much stock into a single aspect of it you’re going to come out with an inferior product.
RS: Do you prefer to write your own scripts or are you strictly a director?
MC: I like directing things that I’ve written myself because by the time production rolls around I’ve played with that idea in my head for so long its like I’ve already seen the movie and I’m just trying to describe to everyone else how it’s supposed to be. With that being said directing things I havnt written is fun because to me it’s a lot like covering another band’s song. You’re taking the core concept and putting your personal mark on it and the final product may be something entirely different from what the writer’s intention was, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you feel about the writer/director relationship.
RS: Who are you biggest inspirations in the film world?
MC: John Carpenter. The movies he made with Kurt Russell in the early 80’s; The Thing, Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China are some of the most fun I’ve ever encountered. And I understand these aren’t the vanguard of great cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re fun. Carpenter’s style is so devoid of pretention as well that I find it incredibly accessible; he never tried to make Oscar bait because he was too busy making the fun movies he wanted to see, and that’s an attitude I can really get behind.
RS: What are the pros and cons to producing an independent film as opposed to a major motion picture?
MC: Creative control. Like I said earlier, when there’s no money on set everyone has to be as creative as possible to get the job done. I understand there is a group of people who don’t like having to MacGuyver everything in order to make the show work because they have a certain ideal about what constitutes professionalism, but I find a certain charm in making things work out of nothing. In that situation everyone on set knows each other and works together because there’s a better sense of shared accomplishment. On big budget movies though everyone is specialized and there’s this cold emphasis on separation of departments and that whole thing, but you get health insurance and that’s pretty important.
(Derrick Vargo on set)
RS: What advice would you give a young film-maker working on their first film?
MC: If you’ve never shot a movie before, start small and get bigger. Take a one room, five page script as your first gig. If you can make two people in one room interesting for five full minutes of dialogue without adding a gun or some other plot device, then move on from there. But for right now your job is to create a particular mood using only lights, your actors, and the position of your camera. If you can make a scene flow and carry gravity and engage an audience with only those three things at your disposal, everything else will be a walk in the park.
RS: If you could reboot one specific franchise or film, what would it be?
MC: In the mid 70’s to late 80’s there was this sub genre of sci-fi/post apocalyptic/fantasy movies that I would love to see revisited. They were always kind of like Conan the Barbarian but set after nuclear war, like She, A Boy and His Dog, Hell Comes to Frog Town and to a lesser extent The Ice Pirates. I love the combination of medieval adventure amongst the ruins of modern civilization, and with these film’s dark humor coupled with the “gritty” realism that is the cinema du jour in modern movies right now I think these remakes would be a lot of fun.
RS: What is next for your latest film?
MC: Right now we've got submissions into over a dozen film fests all over the country, and hopefully when the season starts up again in August I'll be following the movie around and doing that whole thing. Hopefully I'll be in New York in November for the New York City Horror Film Fest.
RS: Where Can we find out more about what you do?
MC: I'm actually really not that great at self promotion. Nashville has kind of spoiled me by allowing me to work a lot based on word of mouth alone, but if you're interested in following the progress of Last Man on Earth the facebook page is HERE. If you want to know more about me, I'm incredibly easy to contact (firstname.lastname@example.org)
RS: What's next for you as a film-maker?
MC: I’m in the process of putting together pre-production for a short film I would like to see turn into a feature length eventually. We’re going to be using a lot of practical effects and miniatures like in the original Star Wars. I can’t get too specific right now about the project, except for this: Space Truckers.