Info 101: at the movies 78: Christopher R. Mihm, center of his Mihm-iverse
By Darrell Moen, Minneapolis Movies Examiner
Local writer/actor/producer/director Christopher R. Mihm is making his own mark by shooting retro creature films such as those of the '50's, those good ol' days before CGI, 3D and all that high-tech stuff. His world-affectionately known as his Mihm-iverse-is a place where the past never really went away and the future never really trespassed. Each film is a stand-alone project but is also linked to each other project, part of his own special touch. Talking to him reveals a deep affection for Roger Corman, arguably the king of the B-movie, and Alfred Hitchcock. Like Hitchcock, Mihm has some onscreen involvement. In "Terror From Beneath the Earth", for example, he was the voice on the transistor radio the deputy was listening to in the sheriff's office. Each film contains a "Ghostbusters" and a "Star Wars" reference. Mihm is doing this with an uncanny feel for old creature feature films built on his own past.
While growing up, his father loved this type of film, renting them and watching them repeatedly. Chris didn't fully appreciate the genre until, sadly, his father passed away and he felt the emptiness of watching them without his dad. That tragedy was turned into a desire to make his own films as a tribute to his father's memory. He learned what he had to learn, met the people he had to meet and did what it took to get behind a camera. Now, with the impending premiere of "Attack of the Moon Zombies", his sixth film, his ever-growing fanbase includes not only the public but the actors he works with. The recently profiled Sid Korpi is one example, "Attack" being her second film. Other local actors such as Shannon McDonough, Rachel Grubb and Mike Cook have each done at least two films with Mihm. His premiere parties at the Heights Theater have become highly-anticipated annual events-a sincere tribute to hard work and perseverence.
Christopher does all the tech-work and helps build the sets in his own basement. His efforts are supported by his wife, Stephanie, who also acts for him, assisting with several aspects of filmmaking. His oldest of four children had a key role in "Terror", although that's a rare inclusion. "There are no kids in my films except my own," he laughed. "I wouldn't want to subject anyone else's kids to this in case they get scared or antsy."
Christopher places the most importance on the audio aspect of his projects, having attended school for audio engineering. "With films of this genre, if the video is a bit flawed the audience will stick with it. If they can't hear it, they'll leave." His solution to this is to film live with sound but also record the audio portion while the actors are still in the moment. "That works because their enunciation, their memory is fresh...and they're usually still in costume." He then can dub the lines in editing if there's any part that fails to meet his standards.
Keeping those standards in perspective, he "tends to be a bit dictatorish about my scripts." His actors are allowed a little input but the dialogue is "stylized to the time period with specific wording and slang" Some actors tend to want to modernize the dialogue but that's forbidden. "Most of those films in the '50's were done with little money, using theatrical actors who were used to being 'staged', having to memorize every word every movement", Chris said. That technique is a big part of the authenticity of all six films and it's necessary for synching the audio in editing.
Chris's use of lighting and shadows are the result of trial and error. "I make it up as I go," he said. "This type of film is usually better with floor lighting. I can use the shadows to cover any defects in the sets or the costumes." He uses "mental storyboards", envisioning the project in his mind, then putting it on film. Any special effects needed are done as economically as possible with dry ice, smoke pots, etc. Since there's no onscreen violence, the makeup doesn't have to be overly done.
As with '50's films, sets are constructed individually and all the scenes that take place there are filmed. If a set can be re-used by moving a few objects, that is done before the next sequence of scenes are shot. If not, the set is torn down, the next set built and filming continues. Chris's technique is to have a list of shots he wants, starting wide then moving in closer, getting individual close-ups, then panning back. All of this can be put together in editing and "I can emulate the style of those films authentically."
Chris likes to work with actors he knows and conducts no auditions. "I cast people who actually want to be in this kind of movie," he said. He works best with brief run-throughts rather than extensive rehearsals. "Some filmmakers labor over certain shots, shooting them over and over. I prefer to work fast while in the moment. I've done as many as 13 pages at a time. As long as it's working, it's better to just go with it."
These films keep him busy for most of the year, affording little if any time to get involved with outside projects. "I feel like I work on the fringe of the local film community," he admits. "I respect the organizations that work to bring films to MN but they want big budget money-makers." That said, he likes working in MN. "I was born here, I'm raising kids here and I can think of nothing that would make me want to leave here." Very good news to that ever-growing fanbase.
Chris, with very few exceptions, does not allow his cast to see the final cut until the premiere. "I like it to be special, a big party for everyone." That party will happen at the Heights Theater on Wed., May 25. Doors open at 7 p.m., the program starts around 7:30 and admission is only $5. The cast will be in attendance to view "Attack of the Moon Zombies" with the fans. The program includes classic newreels and trailers. A raffle will follow and a "monster" will also attend for photos. In addition to the Heights' array of concessions, there will be free cake. It's wise to get there early to participate in the festivities.
As always, seeya at the movies...