Michael E. Pitts: Actor-Writer from Maryland Produces First Short
Godless was filmed in October 2013. It was an intense two-and-a-half weeks, which Pitts said will always have a special place in his heart. As an up-and-coming actor, constantly going out on auditions, he said there’s no substitute for working. He was so pumped from the experience that he wanted to keep working, to keep flexing those acting muscles and not just in a class environment but on an actual, working set.
Pitts described a feeling sometimes called “post-show blues.” He wanted to move on to another project right away but didn’t have anything lined up. He decided instead of waiting for the phone to ring, as is the case for auditioning actors, he would come up with something for himself. Doing Godless pushed or motivated him to do so.
He was waiting in the airport about to fly home to Maryland for the Christmas holiday when he began typing what would become his next starring vehicle. It was a script for a short film, now called Death and Sammie. Pitts plays the titular character who has a fateful encounter with a young man on the edge. The 8-minute short was just made available on YouTube.
Pitts decided to produce the short himself, his first-time taking on that responsibility. The short has only three characters. One is only briefly on screen. Pitts wanted to be one of the other two, and for the third, he pulled in a friend and fellow thespian whom he met in acting school named Chad Perkins.
Pitts said as a producer the one thing he learned is that you have finite resources like money and time. He said it’s important to make good use of those things and the key to doing that is by hiring or involving people who are dependable, reliable and prepared. Perkins (pictured below) represented that to him.
What’s also important is to have people who can step up and help or even save the day in a pinch. One such person was Pitts’ director who wasn’t actually his first choice. Wey Wang directed Death and Sammie. Wang worked on Godless as cinematographer. Pitts tapped Wang to be the cinematographer for this but had someone else as director. That first choice dropped out, but Wang stepped up and took the reins.
Wang had good ideas about how to trim the screenplay and shoot in shorter time, as well as stay in budget. The script was originally 13 pages, and included flashbacks. Wang advised to cut them. He also advised to change some abstract speeches and put more concrete or real details. Pitts shot the film in his own apartment and Wang advised on set dressing, specifically coloring the background, requiring Pitts to have to paint his apartment walls himself.
A Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise money, so Pitts could pay everyone involved and rent professional equipment to achieve a high quality look. He was able to pull a lot of favors and move into production rather quickly. He started filming in February 2014 in two days on a Saturday and Sunday.
Looking back, Pitts said he learned something about himself as an actor. Death and Sammie involves a supernatural element and specifically a mythical, ethereal character, a well-dressed, GQ version of the Grim Reaper. Being who he is and knowing what he brings to the table, Pitts said he probably wasn’t best suited to embody such a mythical or ethereal character. He ultimately does, but Pitts feels perhaps best playing more grounded characters or characters rooted in reality and more of the Earth.
Interestingly, or even ironically, that’s almost exactly how he does play this ethereal character. Most depictions of the Grim Reaper is tantamount to the one in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), or as Pitts described a cold, almost unfeeling entity. Pitts wanted his depiction of the Grim Reaper to be opposite. He wanted it to be warmer, empathetic and more human in fact. His Grim Reaper doesn’t have magical powers and isn’t doing obvious and overt, supernatural things. Yes, he’s omniscient to some degree, but he’s more just a guy who smokes, drinks bourbon and who you’d probably find lounging at the end of a bar in a high-end hotel.
One criticism is that the movie involves a character who is about to commit suicide, but we never learn what his reason is or ultimately why. The look and the mood are supposed to be enough to convey the sentiment, but Pitts said that the character’s lack of a reason for suicide is in many ways the point. Arguably, there is never a reason to kill one’s self, but Pitts said it’s supposed to contrast with the opening scene, which has an elderly black man suffering from an incurable illness, still begging for life, as opposed to a well-off, young, healthy white kid who simply is myopic in his thinking and is possibly letting a little sadness go too far.
What’s weird is that Pitts put this project together as a way of furthering his acting. Yet, the acting aspect is probably the aspect which he’s most critical. Because he was the producer and had many responsibilities, Pitts said acting in it was tough. He was distracted and stressed over logistics. He said he had people flake and not show up. He had to try to stay on budget, so concentrating on acting wasn’t something he was able to do full-on as he did in Godless.
It’s obvious that acting is something that Pitts truly loves. Yet, sometimes it’s a waiting game and there are also a lot of barriers to building a career, but, listening to him, he sounds more like a writer. Yes, it’s easier to be a writer. Pitts finds it easier to put pen to paper, so he does, but it’s not just that. It’s obvious that writing is something that he truly loves too, equally, if not more than acting. He said he wakes up every morning and does what amounts to journaling or free-writing. He said, if he’s not tired at night from his regular job of being a bartender, then he’ll do some writing before going to sleep.
This might sound silly, but it reminds me of a movie quote that has always stuck with me. Oscar-winner Whoopi Goldberg tells future, Grammy-winner Lauryn Hill in the film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993) that if you wake up in the morning and the first thing you think about is singing and if the last thing you think about before falling asleep is singing, then you’re supposed to be a singer. Goldberg’s character was actually paraphrasing a line from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, but something that consumes that much of your brain and your activities must be what you are.
Pitts said he’s working on the 3rd draft of a feature called The Long Winter, which he’s been writing for the better part of 2015. It’s a sci-fi tale about the fall of civilization and a woman’s revenge. This was after working on a feature about gangsters and a funeral home. He also said that he just started a new script, which he’s 30 pages into. It’s clear to me that he’s a writer!
This doesn’t mean that he can’t be more or multiple things. There are plenty of hyphenates, particularly writer-actors or actor-writers. Ben Affleck and George Clooney come to mind. Affleck was in fact nominated for his first Academy Award for being a writer on Good Will Hunting (1997). Clooney’s first Oscar nomination also came from him being a writer on Good Night, And Good Luck (2005).
Like Clooney and Affleck, Pitts said he has aspirations also to be a director, but presently writing and acting are his two top pursuits. When asked which would he prefer to have at the top of his tombstone, “Writer” or “Actor,” or the profession that’s perhaps in the lead sentence of his obituary, Pitts wasn’t ready to decide.
It’s a fair question given that his short film is literally about death, but his response about not being able to decide was equally fair. He’s still young and who knows where he’ll be in a year or two from now, particularly in regard to his acting. He simply said, “Ask me that question in a couple of years,” and trust me, I will do just that.
*NOTE: Pitts’ film reminded me of an episode of Supernatural, a fantasy-action series currently on the CW. If you’re interested, check out Season 6, Episode 11, titled “Appointment in Samarra,” which aired on December 10, 2010. That episode echoes the scenario and some of the themes in Pitts’ short. Pitts’ film also reminded me of an episode of The Twilight Zone, the classic, mystery and suspense anthology, formerly on CBS. Even though the theme is completely opposite, again the scenario is the same, so check out Season 1, Episode 2, titled “One for the Angels,” which aired on October 9, 1959.