A Talk With Kevin Miller
On the Road to Somewhere
Several years ago, as I was honing my craft as a Lord of the Rings commentator at HollywoodJesus.com, I first encountered fellow critic Kevin Miller. A freelance writer living in
Long a ghostwriter for several high-profile names, Miller’s serendipitous encounter with filmmaker David L. Cunningham at a hotel in
Miller’s latest project, starring Ben Stein, is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a documentary that looks at the turf wars in the science community over Darwinian evolution and the field of “Intelligent Design.”
As part of our lead-in to coverage of Expelled, I took the opportunity to spend half an hour on the phone with Miller, chatting about his experience in the business. The first half of that interview follows, and focuses on After… Next week, we’ll publish the second half of the interview, which focuses on Expelled.
One of my pet peeves about film critics is the utter disdain with which they treat both artists and their work. Critics presume that in, say, two and a half hours of viewing and a quick first impression, they’re going to think as deeply about a project as the people who have spent twenty-four to thirty-six months immersed in it.
Kevin Miller: I think that’s definitely a valid point. We’re working on a section of Expelled, for instance; we passed off the footage and the notes to the editors, and [when] they come back we’re like, “Why did you do this?” Meanwhile, they’ve been sweating away over it for hours, and we’re suggesting all of these options and they’re like, “Tried it. Tried it. Tried it.” And you realize they didn’t just go with the first thing that felt good.
And that’s typical of reviewers. If something didn’t work, the reason it didn’t work is that the people who did it are idiots.
KM: Yes, that’s sort of the assumption. Yeah. Anytime you get a peek into how the process actually works— I know, for instance, a bit about what happened behind the scenes with David Cunningham’s latest movie [The Seeker: The Dark is Rising], and a lot of people could look at [the movie] and say, “Cunningham’s horrible,” or “The writer is horrible”; but that’s not true. There are always forces working against a project that are beyond any individual’s control.
So with your first screenwriting experience, After…, I’d like to get at some of the things there that perhaps reviewers didn’t understand.
I had a chance to talk with Cunningham [who also directed After…] during the press tour for The Seeker, and I totally spaced about the fact that I could have talked to him about After…, which had just come out on DVD. But in talking to David, it sounded like he just feels like he’s been through the wringer with his last two projects.
KM: Well, I don’t want to speak for David, but The Seeker did get pretty unfavorable reviews, and the boxoffice was not what everyone had hoped. And that’s never a fun thing to go through. And in terms of After…, we released on DVD. Our hope initially was for a theatrical release, but we were thankful to at least get distribution; and as to the reviews, After… is the kind of movie that challenges you, for sure. And I think a lot of people just weren’t up for the challenge.
One site in particular, Plume Noir, had some fairly nasty things to say:
The film takes elements such as guilt, kidnapping, pedophilia, pregnancy, extreme sports, Stalin, torture chambers, atomic radiation, ghosts, and techno, mixes them and throws them in your face like some cheap drink. I really don’t know what went through the screenwriter’s mind, but I suspect he may have taken some acid while exploring some dark underground in Lichtenstein.
KM: Yeah. It’s interesting. You know, it’s funny, because I’ve written some pretty harsh reviews in my life. I’ll tell you something; I really laid into a writer at DC Comics for some issues of Green Lantern, and I ended up getting an email from him because his uncle had seen my review. And that didn’t feel very good. I should have known better at the time, but I think that I was sort of so frustrated at the state of the comic book industry as a whole that I unloaded on him, where I was really unloading on, to me, a bigger issue. I apologized. So when a guy like that writes something like [the review at Plume Noir], I hear somebody just trying to sound clever. I’m pretty easy to access on the Internet, and he could have very easily contacted me and asked if I had done acid before writing the film and I would have very gladly given him the answer (which is “no”). The other point is that After… is a good case in point of how a good idea at the beginning—a good high concept—sometimes, by the time it reaches the screen, isn’t quite how you thought it would be. When David and I initially got together on After…, it had nothing to do with suicide. My pitch to David was, “Let’s do Point Break in the world of urban exploration.” That’s where we started. So when you see what we ended up with, you may be surprised. But that’s because you can’t see the dozens of drafts we wrote along the way. I could write a book on how we got there. I’m proud of what we achieved with After…, but the final product is definitely a lot different from what I originally envisioned. Not in terms of quality, just the overall tone of the film. It’s a lot darker.
From my own experience with filmmaking, it’s almost like in the Coens’ Barton Fink, where, at the end of the film, he ends up with something in a box—he just has no idea what it is. So for me, that’s the grand metaphor for the filmmaking experience. You may start out trying to do a certain thing, but what you wind up with is something in a box. You’re just not sure what it is.
KM: Well, yes and no. For us, we knew what we wanted to do going in. And you have to know that the script we had going into shooting is quite different from the film itself. There’s development, and then there’s production—and there are certain limitations imposed on you in production. And also the style of shooting. David chose to do something experimental with the film, and once the footage came to the editors, they had quite a challenge to cut the footage together, just because of the way it was filmed. But they did a terrific job. And again, David was looking to— Before this film he had just shot Little House on the Prairie, which was a pretty traditional studio project. So this was an opportunity for him to flex some creative muscles, just try some things that he hadn’t tried. So just challenging all around. But I don’t think we wrote the script and didn’t know what to do with it, or made a movie and didn’t know what we had. There were just all kinds of things— After… was my first film, and I wrote the script at least four years ago when I was still trying to figure out what the heck I was doing. And it just came out in the fall. So number one, it’s a long journey from the initial impulse to the finished film; and number two, protecting your original vision is nearly impossible, as a beginning filmmaker or a beginning screenwriter. That’s something George Lucas is so famous for, becoming the world’s most successful independent filmmaker because he really felt that, with his initial efforts, he really got burned. So he made sure that would never happen again. I’m not saying that I’m in that position—I don’t feel that I got burned by anybody. But I feel that, as soon as I can, I want to become a writer-producer and have a lot more control over every stage of the process.
So the style of shooting, and how that might have affected things: what people might not realize, I guess, is that a decision was made to go with shoulder-mounted cameras on the actors themselves for a lot of the underground shooting. Intuitively, that sounds like a great idea; but when it comes to the cutting room, if you don’t have something that’s storyboarded and has the right “language” built into it, cutting it into a conventional narrative form is where the problem comes into it. Right?
KM: Yes. And just to clarify, it wasn’t shot solely with those shoulder-mounted cameras. So what we did was do as many takes as was necessary to capture the performance, and that was with all the crew standing around and everything. And then what you’ll do is clear the set; and then the actors did the scene again, filming each other without any crew around. So those takes were just one of many takes for each scene. But definitely, it adds an extra challenge there. And yeah—there wasn’t a heck of a lot of storyboarding on this movie. I’m not sure how much he normally does as a rule. And again, that presents a challenge for the editors when it comes to trying to cut the footage together. But we had a great team who were able to turn that challenge to their advantage.
It’s incredibly difficult to make even a mediocre film.
KM: I think it’s incredibly difficult to make a movie, period, because you have so many different opinions in the mix. Getting money is probably the most difficult part. So I always go back to that line from Young Guns, Billy the Kid saying, “There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.” To me, that describes the whole process. So any time you get a good movie, you know, it’s just short of a miracle.
Yes, it’s a real triumph.
KM: It is. And then, like you say, I think people are pretty vicious toward people who end up making a bad movie. But it’s often just a combination of small errors or things going wrong, as opposed to just one person.
And even when you’re not happy with what you ended up with, the principles involved in backing the film financially dictate that you have to get some kind of return on investment. So you’ve got pressure there to get distribution for a film that its makers might not even be all that proud of.
KM: Oh, definitely. Because that’s what it comes down to, right? This is a business, after all. It’s for making money. And that said, you know, it’s funny. After…, for me, is a movie that gets better and better. I’ve seen the final cut now five times, and I think it’s a movie that gets better with repeated viewings, to tell you the truth; and I’m not sure why that is. And I’m not sure if that’s just true for me, the screenwriter, or what. As I said earlier, After… is the kind of film that challenges the viewer in many ways—visually and structurally. Some people enjoy that kind of challenge, but most people just want to watch something that affirms what they already believe. So when you make a film like After…, you’re already playing to a limited audience. But that’s fine with me, because even though After… may give some people headaches and drive other people crazy, there are other people who simply love the film and respect the chances David took with the material. All you can do as a writer and filmmaker is be true to your vision. How people respond to it is out of your control.