UNCG graduate makes good by making movies
Navigating the waters of modern romance can be a risky, rocky business. Just ask Brian (Michael Ferrell), the main character in the award-winning independent comedy Twenty Million People. Just when he thinks he might have found Miss Right in sassy stand-up comedienne Ashley (Devin Sanchez), she suddenly disappears from his life. She doesn’t return calls or answer texts, and no one seems to know what happened to her.
Thus begins Brian’s search for Ashley and, maybe, true love (or maybe not) â€“ a search that will take Brian all the way from Jersey City to that far-off distant land known as Brooklyn.
Brian’s best bud Edward (Chris Prine) would be a better source of support were he not nursing his own broken heart, and Brian also receives advice (not unlike Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam and Purple Rose of Cairo) from the picture-perfect characters in the romantic comedies he so despises, who tend to materialize at just the worst moment.
Twenty Million People, released by Factory Film Studios and now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, Google Play and other on-line platforms (including Cable Video-On- Demand) in the United States and Canada, marks the feature debut of Ferrell, also the film’s writer/producer/director. Co-stars Sanchez and Prine also produced, and Prine edited the film and contributed songs to the soundtrack. When you talk about DIY (“Do-It-Yourself”) filmmaking, this is a quintessential example.
“I wanted to make something that I’d like to see,” explains Ferrell, who graduated with a BFA in acting from UNCG (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) in 2000, “and I generally like films that look the most like real life â€“ realistic story and acting. Even though we have a couple of imaginary characters pop in and out, we try to balance some of the absurdity by playing it straight, acting- and writing-wise.”
The impetus for the project came, perhaps appropriately, from another film. In 2010, Ferrell was working in the projection booth at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City when filmmaker Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen, She’s the One) premiered his film Nice Guy Johnny.
During Burns’ post-screening Q&A: “I peered through the tiny square in the projection booth and was shocked to find out that he made that film on a budget of $25,000,” says Ferrell. “As honest and simple as I’d seen a filmmaker be, he answered question after question about how was able to pull it off.
“Inspired by that moment, I wrote Twenty Million People, and had a reading with the other producers — Devin and Chris â€“ and some New York actors we knew. We agreed the script would be worth our time and energy, so we made it!” That they were all friends of like minds made the process easier.
“Devin and I did a web series years ago called Stoop Sale, which took us to a television festival in LA,” Ferrell recalls.
“It was there we met Chris Prine, who had his own web series at the festival that won Best Comedy, Best Web Series, Best-Whatever-Else â€“ so we got smart and teamed up with him back in New York.”
In addition, “a lot of the other actors are friends and colleagues we’ve worked with here in New York, mostly in theater, some in improv comedy. So since we knew most of the actors and generally spoke the same artistic language, it was smooth.”
Although many cast members are practiced, “there wasn’t much improvisation,” Ferrell reveals. “We tried to feel relaxed throughout the filming, so that the finished product had a realistic conversational tone. It was difficult wearing different hats while being in almost every scene, but it’s how I wanted to tell this particular story. I wrote the screenplay thinking I would play Brian. Plus, with Chris and Devin and I playing the main parts, we didn’t have to worry about not paying the lead actors!” The film, which was completed in 2013, made its rounds on the festival circuit, including its world premiere at Cinequest Film Festival (San Jose, Cal.), Raindance Film Festival (London), Festival du Nouveau (Montreal), the New Hampshire Film Festival, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, Waterfront Film Festival (Michigan) and Oaxaca Film Festival (Mexico). Twenty Million People won the Best Feature awards at the Maryland International Film Festival and Cape Fear Independent Film Festival, the “Home Grown” award for Best Feature at the Garden State Film Festival, Outstanding Achievement awards for Best Directing and Best Editing at New York VisionFest.
“I think we exceeded expectations with our festival run,” Ferrell says. “We were just hoping to get into some festivals, not really knowing the landscape of the festival world. We screened at over 20 festivals worldwide and some are extremely good ones. Then we landed a distribution deal, which is the goal of every indie filmmaker, I guess.
“It’s a long-term thing, though, not an overnight success story,” he points out. “The checks aren’t rolling in or anything. The (new) film we’re doing now is roughly the same budget, but we’ve learned a ton and we’re applying what we’ve learned now. The idea is to keep making good films, honestly — telling good stories. Everything else is pretty impossible to control.”
Twenty Million People also had the desired effect of allowing the Ferrell/Sanchez/Prine trio to again collaborate.
Ferrell is writing, producing, directing and appearing (not the lead) in Laura Gets a Cat, with Sanchez and Prine again producing and co-starring. The film is currently shooting in New York and, actually, four days were recently spent shooting in North Carolina, albeit “under the radar.”
The lack of financial incentives for independent films troubles Ferrell. “I don’t know enough about it to speak on it with any authority,” he admits, “but it seems like the state government is driving the film business out of North Carolina right now. I hope that changes, I hope it will eventually swing back in the right direction, because North Carolina has so many skilled film professionals living and working there â€“ along with beautiful and diverse scenery.”
Nevertheless, he has great memories of his time in the Tarheel State, both as a student and now as a filmmaker.
“UNCG has the best acting training in North Carolina, in my opinion,” he says. “The teachers are top-notch and genuinely care about giving talented actors a solid foundation before they attempt a career in entertainment. When I was there, back in the â€“ ahem â€“ late ’90s, we were given the opportunity to make our own work and put up our own plays, in addition to the mainstage productions. It was through that process that I laid a lot of the groundwork for my own path, which has always been about making my own stuff.”
When time permits, Ferrell has happily returned to his old stomping grounds. “Just a few months ago I taught workshops in Greensboro for high-school thespians, which meant a lot because when I was in high school I competed in the same festival. Back then, we didn’t have ‘filmmaking’ as an option, but I did scenes and monologues. UNCG has also done a couple of plays I’ve written, like Jersey Shore Past and The Blue Martini.” !
MARK BURGER can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92.
For more information about Twenty Million People, visit the official website: www.twentymillionpeople.com. For more information about Factory Film Studio, check out www.factoryfilmstudio.com/films/twenty-million-people/.