Michael Shlain is an agent turned writer-director working in Los Angeles. Shlain is a co-founder of Butcher Bird Studios, a premiere creative production studio. The filmmaker has directed a wide range of narrative, branded and commercial content for clients including Twitch, Nat Geo Wild, and BBC America.
We had the chance to speak to him about his recent filmmaking successes.
First up, how did you first get into the film industry?
I’d been making films since I was very young and all through University, but when I came out to Los Angeles after graduation, I felt it was important to get an education in the business side of the film business.
My first job was at a talent agency where I worked as an assistant in several departments including feature film, TV, and below-the-line. After a year, and a bit to my surprise, I was offered a promotion to become a junior agent. While this had not at all been part of my “plan,” I sensed this would be a tremendous learning opportunity. So I took the job and went on to spend a number of years representing screenwriters, directors, comic creators and authors — which is how I met Thomas Ligotti.
Over time, and after much soul searching, it became clear to me that I needed to return to my roots as a filmmaker and that the only way to get that opportunity was to create it. In 2011, my partners and I started Butcher Bird Studios in order to put ourselves to work as directors, and we’ve been going ever since.
In a Foreign Town is largely adapted from other stories, what was your approach to adapting it?
In a Foreign Town, which has just launched on ALTER, was designed as a proof-of-concept for a television anthology series. The series adaptation came first.
Along the way, I’d learned a useful litmus test for choosing a medium: If your story has a compelling protagonist who goes on a compelling journey — then it’s probably best as a feature film. However, if what you have first is a compelling world, then it probably wants to be a TV show.
So many of Ligotti’s stories take place in these surreal desolate towns and crumbling maze-like cities. The tales of In Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land are explicitly set in the same nameless town “near the northern border” and I started seeing other stories outside that cycle that seemed like they could belong in the same world.
The interconnected and cross-referenced anthology formats of Frank Miller’s Sin City, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology were also inspiring as touchstones for structure.
I believe that at their best, horror short stories are like well-told jokes which gradually build tension toward a punchline. While the source stories were sometimes combined, re-mixed and embellished the goal was to preserve that short-story experience and payoff in each episode.
Mr. Ligotti was involved all along the way and gave me invaluable feedback which helped shape the adaptation.
For the short film, I wanted to create something that would both stand on its own, but also introduce the world to the series. It needed to be a fractal of the whole — like a single cell that contains the DNA of the entire organism.
The first key decision was to write it as a prequel to the events of the series, connecting it to the protagonist of the pilot episode. The second key choice was incorporating the character of The Showman from a story called Gas Station Carnivals. I felt that this character was an embodiment of the Town itself and that could in a short time prepare the audience for the kind of disturbing experience they could expect from the series.
What’s your favourite set memory from In a Foreign Town?
Every day of that production was a joy, but I must say the pinnacle was our last day of shooting on the Universal Studios Backlot. As a lifelong lover of movies, it was like stepping onto hallowed ground. We shot on a section of the backlot called “Courthouse Square” which famously contains the clock-tower from Back to the Future and has also been featured in Gremlins and the pilot of the original Twilight Zone.
As a kid, my parents had taken me on the Universal Studios Tram Tour, and we had waved at the productions filming on the lot as we drove by. Now, the trams were driving by and waving at us.
When I called “cut” on the Martini Shot and it sunk in that we had finished the show, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I got a bit emotional.
Times are uncertain for the film industry at the moment, but that hasn’t stopped you, how have you adapted to ‘the new normal’?
Rodin once said to Rilke, “Travailler, toujours travailler” (That is, “Always be working”). To me, that means that there is always something that can be done to move a project forward. Whether it’s writing, research, preparation, pre-production or finding new collaborators, there’s always something to be done if shooting isn’t an immediate option. 2020 was a big year for R&D.
For some projects, moving forward meant pivoting to a wholly post-production approach — repurposing existing video assets and doing more heavy lifting with graphics and animation.
At Butcher Bird, we’ve also invested in building out new technological capabilities like live-streaming, remote production, and most recently virtual production which has helped us continue to tell stories.
The very nature of production is dancing with uncertainty, making something out of nothing and innovating through limitation. There is always something looming that makes creation seem daunting and impossible. While the current challenges are certainly on a higher magnitude of novelty and scale, I believe the approach to them remains the same: Know your story. Keep moving. Find a way. With great change also comes great opportunity.
What’s your top advice for filmmakers trying to create during the pandemic?
I find slime moulds to be quite inspiring. They have a very healthy response to obstacles. When a slime mould encounters an impediment, it is not daunted, but simply grows around it. This has led to several studies in which a slime mould would successfully navigate a maze in pursuit of its food. The pandemic is the latest in a new set of obstacles that must be navigated in order to bring a story to life. Finding a way forward now requires an extra degree of plasticity.