Interview | June 2016
With artfully crafted shots of overgrown fields and crumbling buildings, OzLand, Michael Williams’ first feature-length film, puts The Wonderful Wizard of Oz story in one of the least expected of settings — post-apocalyptic West Point, Mississippi. And while there is no yellow brick road, there’s a dusty one lined with yellow flowers that seems to be leading the characters straight to Oz.
Released in 2015, the film took home top accolades from the Tupelo Film Festival and FestivalSouth Film Expo (among others), and is an impressive add-on to the 20 short films that West Point-native Williams has already written and directed since 2004. Now, the 28-year-old runs Shendopen Productions (shendopen.com), and is dedicated to furthering his creative work in the state that continues to bring him so much inspiration.
Click Magazine: What are some influences for your cinematography (directors, styles, etc.)?
Michael Williams: I am a very visual person. I always have been. I am mostly drawn to cinematographers and directors who tell very visual stories. Sometimes this means they use flashier imagery and sometimes they just use very simple yet deliberate visuals. I am moved by how a movie makes me feel and the experience it gives me. A lot of this comes from the visuals. Directors and cinematographers like Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Roger Deakins, Janusz Kaminski, and Darron Arronosfky are some of my biggest influences. I love their visual style and really appreciate their approach to visual storytelling.
CM: OzLand is full of artistically shot decaying/crumbling landscapes and buildings, how did you find these locations and where did you find them?
MW: The locations in Mississippi either came from places I already knew existed and wanted to utilize during the writing phase, or from lots of driving and scouting the areas for the locations the story needed. For some of the most iconic locations, we traveled to Minneola, KS. Zack Ratkovich, Glenn Payne, and I went on a scouting trip to Oklahoma and Kansas to find the locations we needed to sell the Kansas landscape. After a couple of days of not finding what we wanted, we happened upon Minneola, on our last day of scouting. We found all of the locations within a 5-mile radius of each other. It was like a pot of gold waiting for us at the end of a long rainbow.
CM: You wrote the script for OzLand, in addition to directing and filming it — what influenced the story and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz theme in your writing?
MW: From the beginning, I knew the story was going to be about a man's interpretation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and I had an overall idea of how this interpretation would be different and where the story would lead. However, when I was actually writing the script, I would read the book as I wrote the story. I would pretend I was Leif and that I was reading this particular passage from the book as the story progressed. This was how I made sure the film developed in correlation with Leif's reading and discovery of the book, and the story that unfolds within it. I also didn't read the entire book. I only read up to the point in the story that Leif read. I didn't want to be influenced by material that wouldn't be something Leif wouldn't be exposed to.
CM: You use many of the same actors across your body of work in film, are they local and how did you connect with them?
MW: Just about everyone I use is local, from Mississippi, or has strong ties to Mississippi. Mississippi is full of some amazing talent, and I want to take advantage of that and showcase what Mississippi has to offer. I work with people who I enjoy working with, know are talented and hard-working, and people that I consider family. I think this is vital to working on independent film and creating something that really lives up to your vision. Each film I do has some familiar faces, but they also have a lot of new faces. I'm always collecting people to add to my film family and find the gems within our community that can deliver what I need for each project.
CM: You discuss on YouTube the creation process of the miniature that was crafted for the final tornado scene in OzLand — how long did that take, who helped, and what was that process like?
MW: The miniature work on OzLand was a dream come true. It was one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of behind the scenes of OzLand. Throughout the making of the film, we did a lot of amazing things that we were never completely sure would work. Luckily, everything worked! One of these elements was the miniature of the crooked/Dorothy House. Our motto for OzLand was that if they did it in the 70s-80s, we could do it today with our limited resources and budget. For the miniature specifically, I made a two-sided model of the original house we used in Kansas. Making a cardboard frame was the first step. I then dyed Popsicle sticks and attached them to the frame to create the wood siding and shingles. After that point, my special effects partner Laura Cavett came in to help put the finishing touches on the model and do the photography of it. We then put the model in a makeshift vortex in my back yard and filmed it against a backdrop with a leaf blower creating wind and debris. Overall, it took us about two days to make the model and one full day to film the handful of shots we used in the film. It was so rewarding to see our no-budget model and effects work so well on screen and give us images we could've never afforded to do digitally. Plus, I was able to live out my childhood (and adulthood) dream of making special effects practically like the early pioneers of Industrial Light and Magic.
CM: What is it about Mississippi —its cultural and physical landscape — that inspires you as a writer, cinematographer, and photographer?
MW: I'm inspired by the creative aura that surrounds the state. There are so many amazingly creative artists and supporters of creativity in Mississippi. I'm inspired by the overall spirit of people in Mississippi and in the South. People here know how to get things done and do not let obstacles stop them. We don't need a lot of money and resources to do amazing things. We just need a little time, creativity, elbow grease, and a lot of spirit. I love making movies in Mississippi, not just because it is my home. I love making movies here because I know the people here that I work with are in it for the right reasons. We make movies because we have that desire to tell stories and create something special.
No Place Like Home
Mississippi writer, director and cinematographer
Michael Williams on the wonderful journey of OzLand
Interview by Tonya Thompson
Photos courtesy of Michael Williams