Interview: Local Filmmaker Christopher R. Mihm

Christopher R. Mihm's filmmaking career began in 2005 with his first film "The Monster of Phantom Lake." Fellow producer and actor Josh Craig and Mihm have been friends for many years. Seeing old movies again and enjoying their often poorly written dialogue, barely passable camera work and marginal special effects, Mihm started to wonder: "What would happen if Josh and I stopped talking about it and actually made a movie? And not just ANY movie but THIS kind of movie, one that a ten year old version of my dad would approve of?"

That thought soon took over and his obsession began. He parked himself in front of his laptop and "The Monster of Phantom Lake" was born. Soon they were holding auditions and then amazingly, shooting! The film was finally released in March 2006 to highly receptive crowds and has since played at numerous film festivals. An award-winning sequel, "It Came From Another World!," followed in May 2007 and a third, "Cave Women on Mars" in April 2008. A fourth film, "Terror from Beneath the Earth" was released on May 20th, 2009. For 2010, Mr. Mihm again teamed up with "co-conspirator" Josh Craig to produce "Destination: Outer Space," a rip-roaring space adventure featuring Captain Mike Jackson (again played by Mr. Craig) from "Cave Women on Mars." Exact release date is to-be-announced.

I spoke with Christopher recently about his films, being an Minnesotan independent filmmaker, the importance of his father to his work and his fundraising efforts for his new film.

EM: What kind of films do you make?

CM: I exclusively specialize in black and white, as-authentic-as-possible 1950s-drive-in-style horror and sci-fi features. To date I have finished and released four including the multi-award winning "The Monster of Phantom Lake," "It Came From Another World!," and "Cave Women on Mars." The fourth film, "Terror from Beneath the Earth," was just released this past May. I am currently working on a new one (still in the same style) entitled "Destination: Outer Space."

EM: Why are you a filmmaker?

CM: I tend to think of myself as a creative person who really NEEDS some sort of outlet to stay sane. From my early teens I thought of myself as some sort of musician, first teaching myself how to play the drums and eventually picking up bass, guitar, piano and attempting to sing. This led to different stints in a handful of failed rock bands and the occasional solo project but, no matter how hard I tried, I just didn't feel like I had it in me to be a GREAT musician. In high school I dabbled a little in theater but never really had the drive to do much beyond write a few bad plays. Secretly through it all, I always wanted to make movies. I have so many great childhood memories that revolve around going to or experiencing the movies that I think I just fell in love with the simple joys of visual storytelling. In college I volunteered at a public access station and got to play around with some nice outdated video equipment but that was as far as I got for a while. Finally, when the technology became cheap enough to allow me to make a film at home, one that actually LOOKED like a REAL movie, I jumped right in head-first.

When I was a kid, I was always very close to my dad and he LOVED the movies. We used to go out to the drive-ins and theaters or just hit the local video store. I was always more of a sedentary kid so being able to sit and watch movies with my dad, no matter what they were, was often preferable to playing sports. My dad was a huge sci-fi and horror fan and I know a lot of my love of those genres comes directly from my father's love of them.

EM: Do you have to balance a day job with your filmmaking?

CM: I own and operate my own one-man web/database design and programming business that allows for a good amount of flexibility when it comes to making the movies. As a result, I keep rather odd hours, which makes it far easier to get stuff done without distraction. I tend to do the majority of the behind-the-scenes work on my films as I tend to be the only one with enough spare time to get things done! Since I (and most of the friends that help out) are in our early to mid thirties, we all have young children and wives and jobs so it can sometimes be hard to get away… which is why I enlist the help of my wife and kids! I try to make it so the act of making these films is also family time. On each film, they've helped with sets, costumes, even acted in the films. As long as they're having fun, I am too.

EM: What do you love about movies?

CM: I love the way movies can tell so many different kinds of stories and engage you on so many different levels. I also enjoy the fact that movies, by and large, are a group event, which is one of the reasons I always strive to recreate the classic movie-going experiences of the 1950s when I hold premieres and screenings of my films. Heck, I love the sheer act of GOING to the movies whether it be at a midnight show of a new movie when the atmosphere is charged and excited or going to one of the endangered drive-ins and just soaking up that beautiful little slice of Americana. When we were dating, my wife and I really bonded over our love of the movies to the point that almost every date we had involved going to the movies in some way. We even got to the point where we had no more movies left to see because we had seen them all!

EM: What kind of movies do you love/hate?

CM: Aside from those old 50s B-movies, I'm a very big sci-fi fan. If there's a movie involving space or spaceships or aliens, chances are, I'll make a point to see it. Other than that, I tend to not be very picky — although, to be honest, I am not much for art house films. I'm a big blockbuster/big Hollywood type, which is strange being a small-time independent filmmaker. I just tend to be bored by a lot of art house style cinema, from the fake quirkiness or the constant need to push buttons or envelopes. Not that some of it isn't great, it just doesn't appeal to ME. Which is part of the reason I do what I do. My films seek to emulate those old classics partially because I just don't have the budget or technical know-how to make something like "Star Trek" or "The Terminator." So I do what I can with what I can!

EM: How do you find funding for your films? You seem to be great at the whole DIY thing.

CM: Generally, I end up paying for most things out of pocket. I occasionally will get co-producers to help out in whatever way they can, from helping with premiere costs or paying for set materials, etc. No film I have ever made has ever cost more than $4000 in actual cash to complete. Many actors will work for very little (often no) money and most things are created using dollar or thrift store finds. I edit using my own computer and software and film using my own camera. Usually the price of DVD replication eats up the biggest chunk but I tend to make that back rather quickly, sometimes at the premiere itself!

EM: Talk about your fans – you seem to have a devoted following.

CM: The Mihmiverse fans ("Mihmiverse" being a term that has recently come to describe the series of my films) are the coolest fans in the world. Not only have they opened themselves (and surprisingly, their wallets) to me and my films but I've gotten to know quite a few of them enough to consider them friends. It seems that this style of films has really resonated with a lot of people and to be honest, it's surprised me a little. Not that I thought my love of the classic '50s genre was unique but it's been really cool learning more about others who enjoy this style of film. I made a decision early on to make these kinds of films exclusively, partly because I love the genre but also because I wanted to do something few other indie filmmakers do and that's build a "universe." Every one of my films exists in the same little "universe" and are all connected in some way. I almost think of each film as a sequel of the previous, even if it seems totally unrelated. I use a lot of reoccurring characters (and children of characters) and locations to add to that sense of connectedness. Basically I want to reward people who stick through each one with little nods and "easter eggs."

I'm a huge Star Trek fan and have been a part of Trek fandom for years. One of the things I always liked about the universe of Trek is that it's so huge and so expansive that it becomes more "real." That's something I strive for in my films and I think the fans have picked up on that.

Also, since spending A LOT of money trying to get into film festivals with my first film ("The Monster of Phantom Lake"), I decided to try something different and "make my own reality," by hosting as many screenings of the films as possible. It seems most festivals are more than happy to take your "entry fees" but don't actually care about the films themselves. So, by hosting and attending screenings of my films, I've been able to make a more personal connection to the fans and I think that shows in their dedication. (And to any fans out there reading this: "YOU ARE AWESOME!")

Now I'm just waiting for some fan fiction — then I'll know I've "made it!"

EM: What do you love about genre cinema?

CM: I love the fantastic element of it. One of the greatest things about sci-fi or horror or fantasy cinema is that it can show extraordinary situations that will never happen in the real world. It can give form to your wildest imaginations or take you on journeys to places you will never go. You can get that visceral thrill of exploring the unknown or seeing the impossible become possible. When you're a kid, you imagine all these crazy things that you're too young and naïve not to realize can't happen. And it's during those times when your mind is the most free — like anything's possible. That's what genre cinema is like to me. It's that vivid childhood imagination made "real."

EM: I read in your bio in the year 2000 your father died of stomach cancer and how you’ve revisited old movies because of that. Did you and your father connect over movies? Is your filmmaking an attempt to reconnect somehow with your dad?

CM: When my dad was growing up in southwestern Minnesota, he'd frequently sneak away from the family farm and go into town to catch double features of schlock cinema (for a nickel, he'd always say). He was born in 1948 so he was probably a bit young to be seeing some of the things he would see but he loved them, even (or probably especially) when they scared the pants off him! When I was growing up in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, my dad would rent these old movies and tell me the stories of going to see them. I'd sit and watch them with him, never quite understanding what he saw in them. But it was always fun and a great bonding experience. They were scary enough for me to get a small thrill but not so scary that I didn't enjoy them. Giant ants, flying saucers, blobs of goo, giant leeches… didn't matter, they were always fun to watch.

After my father died, I re-watched a bunch of those old films and for the first time, saw them as something else. Not only as a window into my dad's life and experiences, but a window into my own. I was flooded with these wonderful, long forgotten memories of those lazy Saturdays watching "This Island Earth" or "Village of the Damned." Seeing them again, some for the first time in decades, I really fell in love with the genre as a whole. There was something almost tangible about them (as compared to today's CGI-heavy fare) from their cheesy monsters and poorly constructed sets and bad science. I felt close to my dad again and strangely, they helped me come to terms with his death. So when I decided that the time was right to finally make a film of my own, there was no question: I was going to make a movie that a 10 year old version of my dad would have loved — and "The Monster of Phantom Lake" was born. I named my production company after my dad (All for George Productions) and the rest is history.

Since the release of that first film, I haven't wanted to make anything else. I've had offers to make other, more modern films but I'm just not interested. This is all I ever want to do. When I lose my taste for it, I'm just going to stop making movies.

Lastly, I want to say that I've never truly gotten over my dad's death. In fact, I don't think I ever will. Which, honestly, is perfectly ok with me. I still miss him everyday but I frequently see that mischievous glint he had in my son's eyes so I know that he'll never truly be gone!

EM: Talk about this fundraiser you're doing at the moment. How are you promoting this amongst your fans? Did you lose funding for the movie you're working on?

CM: Because it's my fifth, this next film is a bit more ambitious than previous efforts. Unfortunately, one of my co-producers had to pull out due to personal circumstances so I've been selling an "associate producer's" package on my Web site. Anyone who donates $50 gets an "associate producer" credit in the end credits of the film, a framed certificate, free tickets to the premiere and five copies of the finished DVD. To date, it's been far more popular than I could have expected and has really helped the production immensely! We're even ahead of schedule!

At first I was nervous to open this up to the fans. I've always prided myself on not really needing much outside money. Also, I didn't want to seem greedy in some way figuring no one out there would really WANT to. It wasn't until I did that I realized how dedicated some of the fans really are and for that I am truly touched. I never really saw what these films meant to people until now and I can't honestly believe it sometimes. I just hope I don't disappoint anyone!

EM: What's it like being an independent filmmaker in Minnesota?

CM: Well, it's interesting. It seems the Minnesota film community is very disorganized. There are so many people coming and going that it never seems to have enough time to establish something concrete. A lot of good (and bad) film actors get crazy and move to L.A. where they languish in obscurity. A lot of directors or writers will make a few shorts, maybe a feature and then disappear (or graduate from film school). There don't seem to be that many people that can really claim to be "established" here.

On the flipside, it does seem there is a general sense of wanting to make the scene more "coherent." Many have made the effort, Minnewood being the best example, but few have truly succeeded. The problem is, like any scene in any town, people tend to break off into cliques. A lot of people have very distinct "what-can-you-do-for-me" or "I-would-love-to-help-but-it-doesn't-benefit-me" attitudes that don't really lend themselves to organization. I even admit to occasionally being part of the same problem!

As a result, I feel a bit isolated being an indie filmmaker here. I seem to be one of the few that never wants to leave and thinks I can do everything I want here. Perhaps I simply define success differently but I feel like what I've accomplished and what I'm doing has made me successful. Sure, I'm not a millionaire or featured on the cover of Entertainment Weekly but I actually don't care. Being able to entertain people and affect people the way my movies have has been all I've ever wanted (or continue to want). I just hope I have the drive and energy to keep going!

Written by Erik McClanahan for mnfilmtv.org