Michael E. Pitts Talks Directing For First Time and Passion for Writing
Michael E. Pitts is a young actor-turned-filmmaker who recently had his short film Death, Sammie Baker & A Loaded .38 (2017) play at the Ocean City Film Festival (OCFF). He also submitted the film to the Maryland Film Festival (MDFF) in Baltimore, which kicks off this week for its 20th year. I spoke with Pitts back in March during OCFF. His short film was interesting for several reasons. For starters, it was his start as the man in charge behind the camera. Secondly, it was a remake of a short film that he wrote and starred in 2013 released in 2014, simply called Death & Sammie, but he didn’t direct it. He was simply the guy in front of the camera. He had starred in a feature around the same time called Godless whose cinematographer, Wey Wang, instead directed Death & Sammie.
Despite writing the short, Pitts said he didn’t have much creative control. Most of that went to Wang, but he always wanted to take a swing at it. He mainly works as a writer now. He started out as an actor, but writing is more his passion. Often, the best way to see one’s writing perfectly adapted to the screen is to have the writer direct his or her own work. A couple of years ago, he had three ideas that he could have made for his first directorial effort. He decided that remaking Death & Sammie would be the easiest to do logistically.
His budget was $500. He used a Canon DSLR. His one location was his own apartment. He got the lighting from Home Depot and he was his own gaffer. It only required two actors and he could get it shot in two days, which he accomplished in October 2016. He asked for submissions from actors online. He cast Philip Rodriguez (not to be confused with Philip Anthony-Rodriguez) who is a relatively new actor and NYU graduate, but Pitts liked how Rodriguez was very flexible and took notes very well in his audition. Pitts wanted Rodriguez’s character of Charlie to be portrayed as stuck-in-a-rut but not depressed and to act childish in the face of a logical argument about shifting his perspective. Rodriguez was able to pull that off.
The other actor is James Giordano whom Pitts said he was surprised that Giordano agreed to be in this film. Giordano is a veteran actor who has been steadily working for the past 20 to 30 years, racking up small roles in big shows like Mad Men and Twin Peaks. Giordano plays the titular character of “Death” and Pitts envisioned an actor who was more severe, more pale and creepy, in other words the cliché of death’s embodiment. Yet, Giordano brought a lightness and humor that Pitts liked. There weren’t laugh-out-loud moments but there were moments of levity and Giordano was able to bring out good things in Rodriguez that Pitts appreciated.
With this being his first time as director, Pitts said he wasn’t too worried about his first day of shooting. He and his Director of Photography, Barney Crow, had worked together leading up to that first day. He had storyboards, a shot list and was very organized. He said because he was an amateur, it forced him to keep things simple and not include a lot of complicated moves. Whatever butterflies he had dissipated as he relied on his actors who both gave performances that didn’t require him to give any line readings. Pitts said he would never give line readings any way.
For a breakdown of Pitts’ film, what happens and the differences between his remake and the original, you can read about it here. Basically, the first short film plays its scenario more straight-forward. For the remake, he wanted it to be grounded but he also wanted it to have more questions for the audience. As director, Pitts believes it’s his job to provide more questions than answers.
Pitts did the editing for the film. His rough cut was about 16 minutes, which he cut down to 12. However, what he included, which wasn’t included in his lead role in Godless was a musical score. For this, Pitts hired Amanda Glover to be his composer. What she crafted was essentially sound effects as music. Pitts talked about wanting more of a feeling at the end. He said Glover’s music cues signal the entrance and departure of Death and part of that was conveying the feeling of wondering if what we just saw was even real or perhaps a dream. Glover’s score certainly accomplishes that.
Pitts wants to direct again. To that end, he is writing and developing his own projects. He has several ideas, ideas that he’s grouped into three tiers. The first tier is for features that he’s sending out as writing samples. The second tier is for short films like Death, Sammie Baker & A Loaded .38 that he can produce and pitch to festivals and the third tier is for sketches to be done with friends to throw online.
He didn’t tell me about any third tier projects on the horizon, but he did tell me about a first tier project on American Reconstruction that’s untitled because it’s still in research phase as Pitts is still reading about that time period, but he hopes to make it into a historical, Gothic horror. Pitts said he’s on a horror kick in his writing right now. A more solid project is his second tier screenplay tentatively titled, “The Devil Will Drive You Mad,” a psychological horror about a single mother and her two children trapped on an isolated farm and under siege by unknown forces.
He used to focus on action-adventure material in his earlier writing. Now, he wants to focus on more nuanced work. He also keeps in mind budget restraints for the time being. He submits his work to a writer’s group, most likely a series of friends who give him serious and honest feedback on his scripts. He remarked that it’s important to get feedback because writers see stories in their head but not everyone else can see what they see. He also thinks it’s a good litmus test to be able to defend one’s work to someone else or at least be able to answer questions others might have and provide reasons for certain choices.
After directing his first film, it’s still difficult to tell what kind of filmmaker Pitts will be. He has an affinity for horror or thrillers. He told me that Stanley Kubrick is a personal favorite of his. He said The Shining (1980) was the first movie he saw that gave him nightmares. This, I believe, is meant to be a compliment. He graduated from St. John’s College High School in Washington, DC in 2006. He remembered taking a film studies class as an elective there and having to watch Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). He attended Saint Mary’s College of California. He later had a year-long extension at UCLA where he took night classes studying screenwriting.
With all that, it’s a wonder why he tried his hand at acting, but he said he’s put being an actor on hold for now. He hasn’t been on an audition in a year. He doesn’t have acting representation and he’s not bothered by it. He said he likes acting but it’s never gotten him out of bed in the morning. He’s also currently working two jobs, one as a personal trainer at Crossfit 323 Atwater and the other as staff at Morton’s Steakhouse. Those, along with his writing didn’t leave much time for pursuing acting, so he mostly let it go. He’s still very young and early in his career, so he doesn’t rule out that he might go back to acting. Having read his second tier project, I’m curious to see him more as a future writer-director.
You can also follow his photography on Instagram @its_thepitts.
Related article, Michael E. Pitts: Actor-Writer from Maryland Produces First Short.