Online correspondence with producer/director/writer/cinematographer Michael Williams of Mississippi-based Shendopen Films since reviewing his "Others" like 2017 suspense horror film "The Atoning" provided a strong sense that this 30 year-old talent represented the best qualities of independent filmmakers and that he was living a well-deserved happy life. It was equally clear that Mrs. Williams raised the boy right.
Williams subsequently sharing his (also reviewed) 2014 post-apocalyptic dust bowl drama "Ozland" further cemented our friendship. The central "Of Mice and Men" relationship and the themes of looking for a better place in a dystopian society and of ascension prompted good relatively deep dialogue. Lighter correspondence revealed that his talented "nephew" Mick played Toto in the film.
A terrific telephone conversation with Williams earlier this week confirmed that he is one of the good ones. His offering exclusive photos for this article was the icing on the cake.
A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
The quality in both senses of that term of "Atoning" and "Ozland" makes it clear that the filmmaking skill of Williams comes from within; his cinematography on "Ozland" alone creates intense excitement regarding a possible Blu-ray release of that film.
Williams shared that his parents and his teachers at Oak Hill Academy facilitated (rather than encouraged) his interest in film. He provided the general example of receiving permission to prepare video projects, rather than assigned written reports. A specific example was his group making a film instead of writing about "The Red Badge of Courage."
Williams added that Oak Hill excused him from fulfilling graduation duties that conflicted with a film festival. This festival subsequently benefiting his career reinforced that value of that accommodation.
Parental support came in the form of being happy so long as Williams got a college degree in "something;" his earning the Top Film Student Award for 2009 from the University of Southern Mississippi is one of many indications that letting him do his own thing paid off.
Flattery Through Awesome Imitation
The aforementioned similarities between "Atoning" and "The Others" and the common elements between "Ozland" and both its stated source material and the Steinbeck story "Of Mice and Men" opened the door to discussing whether Williams watched "Oz" and "Others" with thoughts of how he would have made those films.
Williams responded that he had forgotten about "Others" until he was 1/2 through filming "Atoning." He added that he "was more inspired by 'Beetlejuice;' I have loved it since I was five years-old." He also stated that he has always loved "Oz." The appeal of "Beetlejuice" related to depicting the life of the haunter, rather than that of the haunted.
On a more general note, Williams stated that he based the well-filmed highly atmospheric style of "Atoning" on "Insidious." The exclusive images below from the filming of "Atoning" nicely illustrate that style.
The "scoop" of the interview came when Williams stated that an episode of the television series "Ancient Aliens" inspired "Ozland." The theme of that offering was that aliens coming to earth may assume that any novel that they discover is a true story. Williams stated as well that "in the creation of 'Ozland,' I tried to stay away from the movie." He did state that the flying monkeys from the Disney film "Oz the Great and Powerful" inspired (successfully) making an even scarier monkey for his movie.
Being an Out Religious Southern Man
An enviable relationship with freshly graduated commercial interior design student Cody Moore, an equally strong bond with his family, and being an active church goer all contribute to Williams being the good guy that comes across in his films. It seemed just as clear that the relationship with Moore provided the incentive to risk his closeness with his relatives and his church by coming out.
Williams shared that a prior relationship prompted coming out to a few close friends, one of whom subsequently rejected him. He added that he and Moore had dated for 10 months before Williams came out to his family (who already had a good sense of the importance of Moore) and his community-at-large.
The strong support of the community for "Ozland" and "Atoning" compounded the fear of Williams that these people who meant so much to him would reject him for being gay. His positive simple statement regarding all the people in his life was that "I realized that no one really cares, with a few exceptions."
Further hearing that Williams "can be out in public as a filmmaker [in Mississippi] and as a church member" was very nice. The fact that Williams scheduled our interview to not conflict with attending church and having lunch with his family during the week perfectly illustrated this.
An amusing aspect of this related to discussing that Garry Marshall determined that his marriage benefited from his staying at a hotel whenever he made a film, even if he was shooting in Los Angeles. Williams lightheartedly responded that Moore did not like the manifestations of the stress that "Movie Mike" experiences during a shoot. Not probing any further seemed best.
"Ozland" As Gay Allegory
Although emphasizing that he purposefully makes films with general themes and does not center them around gay characters. Williams shared that "Ozland" reflected some of his personal thoughts at the time of making that film. He noted that the big-brother/protector character Emri discussed whether he ever would find someone to love.
This led to Williams politely stating that he was "very adamant that these are not homosexual characters" and then stating that "I hate society not allowing love without a perception of sexuality." In this case, the love between Emri and his naive fellow drifter Leif was of the brotherly variety.
Williams added that another "Ozland" theme was that there always was common ground.
Although not discussed, the perception that Emri and Leif were gay extended beyond naughty thoughts regarding two good-looking young guys essentially isolated on a desert island. Many gay men fantasize about a handsome Mr. Right who either does not ridicule us for fearing witches and flying monkeys and cares enough to get furious when we are life-threatening stupid or who still is so innocent that thoughts of these creatures create terror. This particularly comes through in a scene in which Emri does a hilarious imitation of the tin man out of love for Leif.
Working With 'Innocents'
The performance of child actor Cannon Bosarge being a highlight of "Atoning" and 20-something Zack Ratkovich doing a superb job as Leif in "Ozland" prompted asking Williams about his secret for getting good performances out of "innocents." It turns out that it comes down to a talent for casting.
Williams quickly replied that he could not take credit for Bosarge; he noted that he first cast that tween thespian in a short film in 2012 or 2013 and had him in mind when writing the role of Sam in "Atoning." Williams emphasized that he still required that Bosarge audition for the role of Sam.
Specific praise included statements such as that Williams "can talk to Cannon like an adult" and noting that Bosarge is "on point more than some adult actors." Cuteness entered the picture when Williams commented that he would see Bosarge be focused while acting but revert to being a kid by doing things such as playing a bottle flipping game in the corner during a break.
The behind-the-scenes photo below relates to an adorable scene in which a gleeful Sam makes pancakes, oblivious to his trashing the kitchen and ending up with inedible results.
Regarding Ratkovich, Williams shared that that actor won him over by reading a monologue about the Wicked Witch in a manner that convinced Williams that Ratkovich believed in the witch. Williams also stated that the preparation of Ratkovich included studying YouTube videos of the reactions of 8-to-12 year-old kids at birthday parties.
One can only hope that Williams gets inspired to make a "Freaky Friday" body-switching film that casts Ratkovich and Bosarge as the (young) father-and-son.
Well-earned admiration for Williams prompted asking about plans for releasing a collection of his short films; he responded that he considered releasing those movies as DVD extras on apt feature films. The provided example was including his 25-minute 2013 super-hero "Kane" with a full-length film from that genre if he ever made one.
Williams reported that a few scripts that he had written were not ready to produce. The better news was that a film titled "Antler" that Williams described as an "E.T." style thriller was progressing.
Williams further expressed interest in making more music videos. The following YouTube video of his very recent work (featuring Bosarge as a Popcorn Kid) in this area provides proof of the good instincts of Williams regarding this genre
A more immediate project makes excellent use of the cinematography skills of Williams; he is fresh off working under BombCyclone conditions as a crew member of "Driven" by Emri portrayor Glenn Payne. This dark psychological drama hopefully will see the light of day this summer.
Good News and Bad News
The good news regarding the prolific-by-30 career of Williams is that we can look forward to several more decades of him making quality films in a kind-and-gentle manner. The bad news is that well-deserved success MAY result in commerce playing a larger role than art in his film. One can only hope that taking the boy out of Mississippi does not take the Mississippi out of the boy.