I have to confess, this interview with Michael Nickles was a true honor! It’s also one of the more serendipitous connections I’ve experienced. After shortly learning from a friend about a film Swing Away being shot in Rhodes, a friend here in LA shared his good news of being cast in a new comedy Half Magic. He was going to be filming in just a few short weeks. I was super excited for him, and to learn more about both projects. At the time, I had no idea they even had a connection. I about fell out of my chair after doing a little research. What are the chances, the director of Swing Away is the executive producer of Half Magic? To sweeten it up even more, he’s a huge supporter of the industry featuring more female filmmakers. I just had to introduce myself and kindly ask Michael for an interview.
Michael has done it all…acting in films such as Hamburger Hill and Wayne’s World 2 (as Jim Morrison), writing screenplays like the currently filming Bunyan and Babe, directing films like This Is Not A Film and Swing Away, and of course producing Half Magic along with so many other past film and television projects. Even with his crazy schedule, Michael was kind enough to interview with me – and not just interview with me, but really share authentically his connection to both films, and what he enjoys so much about the process of film making.
How did you get involved as the director of Swing Away? And, can you share with me what filming was like, the cast, a little about the film from a director’s perspective, and filming in Rhodes?
I met one of the producers of Swing Away – George Stephanopoulos – when we were both teenagers visiting Greece as part of the Ionian Village (a summer camp for Greek-Americans.) We became good friends and stayed in touch over the years. When George was developing the script for Swing Away he would often send it to me for notes and suggestions. Years later, he asked me to step in as the director.
It was literally a dream come true. I have always wanted to direct a film in Greece, as I have roots there (both sets of my grandparents are from there) and am proud of my heritage. When I first visited the country as a kid, I had the strange sensation that I had come “home.” All of my trips to Greece since then have had a tremendous impact on me and I wanted to one day honor that in a film. Swing Away gave me that opportunity and I will always be grateful to George and his producing partner, Tom Hiotis, for inviting me to join the team.
I can not say enough about the talented crew that was assembled for us by producer Costas Lambropoulos. Each and every department was filled with dedicated, artistic crafts-people. They worked tirelessly and with a great sense of pride in their work. I had a terrific filmmaking experience in Greece, easily the best I’ve ever had.
You seemingly went from directing Swing Away to producing Half Magic. What’s it like transitioning so quickly from one major film to another? Tell me more about Half Magic. What was it like working with Heather (Graham) as a director? My understanding is that she was wearing both the director’s hat and acting in it as well. Does this require anything different for you as a producer? What a hilarious cast too…what was that like on set every day?
It wasn’t too difficult to transition from directing Swing Away to producing Heather Graham’s directorial debut Half Magic. Except for maybe the sleep-deprivation part -I flew back from Greece and started shooting Heather’s film the very next day. That was difficult, I was tired. But I also had a lot of adrenaline pumping because I was excited for her to finally make her film.
She had a lot on her plate – writing, directing and starring – but she is very collaborative, which helped. Producer Bill Sheinberg put the film together and surrounded her with a stellar crew. She had a lot of great support from Bill through the prep process, so by the time I arrived things were pretty much dialed in. I slide into my producing position and helped guide Heather through the process and kind of became her “eyes” when she was in front of the camera. She did an amazing job and it was a lot of fun. As an aside, I think we need to see more female directors and believe we should do all we can to support them.
Heather’s cast was made up of some truly amazing comedians – Angela Kinsey, Thomas Lennon, Chris D’Elia, Molly Shannon, Stephanie Beatriz, to name just a few. It was like watching pro tennis players hit a ball back and forth across a net – they are fast, precise, powerful, relentless. As a writer, Heather was generous, allowing her actors to explore each scene further with improvisation (within the framework of her script.) It was incredible to watch these actors enjoy that freedom and go mining for more comedic moments. Take after take they would uncover new things. And it was always, always funny. I don’t know how they do it.
When did you know you wanted to be in film and television? Who has inspired you?
I knew I wanted to be involved in film from a young age, maybe 8 or 9 years old. I made films with the kids in my neighborhood. I didn’t like to improvise, so I wrote scripts, made the costumes, the props, etc. They were mostly terrible. But looking back now, I notice that I intuitively knew how to edit in camera, which is telling, I guess. Luckily, my parents were supportive of my ambitions. They were booksellers and they had a lot of creative people in their lives. So entering the film business as a vocation didn’t seem that unusual to me.
Inspiration comes from a lot of different sources. As I mentioned, my parents were booksellers, so books were and are a huge part of my life. I love to read and am inspired by novelists. Filmmakers I admire include Milos Foreman, Bob Fosse, Steven Soderbergh, Peter Weir, Werner Herzog, Sydney Pollack.
What have been some of your favorite moments on set? You’ve worked in a variety of genres, which is so fantastic. Is there certain material or themes that resonate with you most?
My favorite moments on a project always seem to come during pre-production. That’s when the film is full of possibilities. I love all of prep – the casting, the location scouting, the production meetings. I particularly like rewriting the script for the locations and the actors. My wife – Julia Nickles – did the rewriting on Swing Away, so that was fun and particularly satisfying. She’s an enormously talented writer.
Once production hits it’s always a race against time and heartbreak. You have to find a way to make peace with compromise. Daily. But then editing starts and you find new hope and new moments, moments that you never anticipated. The film becomes what it always wanted to be.
I have worked in a variety of genres, it’s true. It wasn’t by design, it’s just sort of happened that way. I’ve done a few comedies, a drama, a dance film, a few horror films, a sports film, and a coming-of-age piece. I learned from all of them. And whatever I learned I tried to bring into the next film. If I was to analyze my films, I guess the underlying theme might be a search for connection? I don’t know. The one thing I do know is that I try to bring a sense of honesty to each picture. I trained as an actor. I studied with Sanford Meisner for three years. He was tough. He taught me a lot. Mostly never to force anything you don’t feel. Don’t lie on stage or in front of the camera. Always be honest. He used to say “Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” When I work – whether as a writer, director or producer – I try to keep that in mind as a guiding principle.
Thank you so much Michael for your time! Everyone stay tuned for more information on the releases of Swing Away and Half Magic, both currently in post-production! Please follow Michael Nickles and Swing Away via twitter @michaelnickles and @swingawaymovie!