Meet the (Film)Makers
Local creatives are making their mark on northern Michigan
By Joseph Beyer | July 23, 2022
While there may not be eight million stories in little ol’ Traverse City, there is a small but growing number of story-tellers living and working right here in our laid-back neck of the woods. Here are just a few of the fascinating folks of film who share their thoughts on how they view their own work and what they’ve learned about doing it along the way.
JohnPaul Morris, The Local
Lives in: Traverse City
Golden Nugget: “I think the biggest and hardest lesson I learned was from actually working the wrong way, when I thought everything had to be bent to my vision instead of seeing the endeavor of making a film as bigger than one person.”
JohnPaul Morris is a happy-go-lucky local who describes himself as a hyphenate creative (writer-director-producer) of indie films and commercial work. We spoke with him on the eve of Morris finding out his latest project Quicksand will play as part of Traverse City Film Festival for one screening only. Morris shot his “bromantic” comedy here in his hometown using local cast and crew, and it marks the culmination of years of hard work.
As a young kid, Morris’ love of stories and movies was fed by VHS rentals from Meijer. This lifelong learning-by-watching became his film school, at least until he was able to study production as an apprentice to Rich Brauer, another TC filmmaker whom Morris credits with giving him many great lessons. “Rich runs great sets and really taught me to care about the people required to actually make films and [to pay] as much attention to the crew as you do to the script.”
Now, as the owner of his own production company called Practical, Morris is the conduit for putting the pieces of projects together. “It comes down to aligning the right people to a vision or pursuit that everyone is sharing and then keeping them all on the same page.” Most of Practical’s collaborators have now become friends he taps into for his own work, and Morris wants to do that work right here in NoMi.
“Michigan activates my imagination now the same way it did when I was a kid,” he explains. “Every wood can be a jungle, and the dunes are a foreign planet. This is where I always imagined stories when I was young, so this place is a diverse palette of locations and feelings for me.”
Morris sees a unique and emerging creative community at work in Traverse City and a place that creates optimism for the very difficult, long, and expensive journey of making films. “There’s not enough production here for people to be cynical,” he says. “You say ‘I’m making a movie,’ and no one imagines it won’t be awesome! Sometimes the community showed more faith than we had by providing locations, meals, help of all kinds. As the key person, I’m quietly thinking we’re riding the lines of disaster, but then there’s all this excitement for us.”
Quicksand will have its world premiere on Thursday, July 28, at 6:20pm at the AMC Cherry Blossom 14. The film was shot partly in downtown Traverse City and was produced by local brothers Chris and Nick Loud.
Katie Jones, The Transplant
Lives in: Frankfort
Golden Nugget: “If you want to be a part of the film business, go out and do it. There’s no downside; you’ll get a lot of ‘no’ and you’ll be surrounded by ambitious people, but you’ll develop a work ethic that will follow you no matter what you do.”
It’s hard for Katie Jones to believe, but she’s now the steward with keys to the popcorn of the same arthouse cinema where her daughter saw her first movie when she was two years old (It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, for the record). As the inaugural executive director of the nonprofit organization that runs the Garden Theater in downtown Frankfort, Jones is now the head of year-round programming, a multi-million dollar renovation project, and exciting plans for the future.
Her love of films began with an early fascination with horror classics like Psycho, Poltergeist, and Halloween. “When I would watch these films, I just wanted to be a part of it in any way, so I started by studying as an actor and then later creating my own work as a writer and producer. It fulfilled me,” she says.
Jones lived and worked in Los Angeles and then Chicago before landing in Nashville with her musician husband, Tim, where she worked as a producer for the Corrado Mooncoin agency. When the pandemic shut down the work pipelines two years ago, they felt it was the right time to head north, where they have family ties. Jones was quickly recruited to run the single-screen cinema and annual Frankfort Film Festival, and she’s now overseeing the theater’s expansion into performing arts events and nearing completion of an ongoing restoration.
As the lead curator for the film selections, Jones brings her sense of time and place and seasons to her work, programming the quiet, intimate films for the winters and the big studio fanfare for the summers. “This job is bigger and deeper in so many ways from my production life before. Films are still my passion, but I’ve just shifted that into this community,” she says. “It’s really cool to be doing something that the audiences are hungry for, and they want to be challenged.”
Tanner Presswood, The New Kid
Lives in: Traverse City
Golden Nugget: “Never stop making, because sometimes you have gigs and sometimes there’s big gaps in your work. That’s when it’s time to try something new and keep at it. There were plenty of times I could have walked away, but I’m glad I didn’t.”
It makes Tanner Presswood uneasy to think about someone sitting down next to him on a plane and asking him what he does for a living, “It’s never a simple question to answer because I always have my hands in multiple things, so I just say I’m a videographer or something like that because it’s so hard to explain.” When we spoke, Presswood had just wrapped a starring role as an actor in the comedy Quicksand (see above), and he was finishing editorial and post-production on a documentary project with a longtime collaborator.
He has an obvious and boundless energy for stories that launched when he was six years old experiencing Star Wars for the first time and continues in his love of high-concept, big tent-pole cinematic worlds and science-fiction. When his parents bought him a camcorder at age 11, Presswood’s directing career began and grew to include a posse of friends he still works with today.
“I owe my entire career to my friends,” he explains. “I’ve been fortunate enough to get to do work I love, but I would never have gotten those opportunities if I didn’t have friends who snuck me onto film sets I had no business being on or threw me work I probably wasn’t qualified for just because they knew I was up for the challenge.”
Presswood was born in Texas, spent much of his life in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and then finally landed at Columbia College in Chicago studying film production. He later transferred to Grand Valley State in Michigan and started focusing his attention on projects he loved. It was Presswood’s wife and her local connections that landed him in Traverse City.
“I was always a very urban filmmaker, inspired by the city and that environment,” he said. “After being here in Michigan, I’ve really started thinking about this sense of place. When I see the natural beauty here, I now realize how fast it changes and how much there is to capture. The light, the moments, will never look like that again—ever.”
Ana Lazarevic, The Mentor
Lives in: Interlochen temporarily / Los Angeles full-time
Golden Nugget: “I saw a lot of this industry, and it’s really tough. Sometimes it feels like a game where whoever is left standing at the end wins. That’s why it’s so important to focus on projects that really mean something to you personally. Those are the ones that call on you to be loyal to the ideas and see how they turn out.”
Ana Lazarevic fell in love, first, with world cinema by creators like Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel and Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai. As an undergraduate at DePaul University in Chicago, she discovered the complexity of global storytelling and quickly became curious about her own desire to write and direct. There was no film degree there; she would have to earn that later from Columbia University in New York.
Lazarevic is here in NoMi teaching a summer intensive in film studies at Interlochen Center for the Arts. “My students are exceptional!” she proudly shares, adding, “They’ve totally exceeded my expectations. There’s such an open mindedness and curiosity here—they soak it all up.”
Now living and working from a base in Los Angeles, Lazarevic has a great wealth of experiences to share with her students, including the hard-earned lessons from an eight-year journey to finance and produce her own independent feature film (shot entirely in Serbia, where she was born). That project, titled The Game, went on to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, while her recent short film played at others across the world including festivals in Israel, Portugal, and Mexico.
While enjoying the Michigan summer and the natural beauty around her, Lazarevic’s real joy is the camaraderie of her colleagues and students. “People more than places have really inspired my work.”
Michael Mittelstaedt, The Right Hand
Lives in: Traverse City
Golden Nugget: “My philosophy is that our guests will be generous to the students, not just sharing war stories from show business but sharing experiences that can really affect the way these kids view their storytelling and to shorten the bridge between where they are now and their dreams.”
As the Founding Director of Film and New Media for Interlochen Center for the Arts, Michael Mittelstaedt is facing a turning point in his rewarding career supporting the next generation of storytellers. “Kids” he taught “way back when” are starting to come back now as special alumni guests, hitting their career strides in their 30s and creating the feedback loop of giving back to their alma mater for the first time since the program began. It’s a big deal.
Not only do film students at Interlochen get exposure to a top-notch staff and faculty (like Ana Lazarevic), but because of Mittelstaedt’s moxie and passion, they’ve also had a chance to chat with the likes of legendary storyteller and artist David Lynch (beaming in from France during the pandemic). Writer and director Robert Eggers of The Witch and The Northman has been on campus. Janet Leahy, who was an executive producer of Mad Men, spent a week with students seasoning their understanding of script development.
Godfather of television Norman Lear joined twice, still inspiring students at age 99 and using Zoom. There have been visits from Nathan Johnson, the composer for Knives Out; Benh Zeitlin, who wrote and directed Beasts of the Southern Wild; and New York-based documentarian Heidi Ewing, who made the deeply moving documentary Detropia about the economic collapse of Detroit.
“He’s collaborating with you guys!” Mittelstaedt remembers saying in awe one night last year on the student shoot set. He was referring to Interlochen alum Mike Gioulakis (Jordan Peele’s director of photography on the modern-horror classic Us), who had come back to Michigan to teach a master class on indie-film lighting. Giolakis even headed to Home Depot for supplies in a pinch.
It’s clear that these magic encounters don’t happen without someone pulling the strings, working the emails, cold-calling, and reaching out to interesting people working in the business. That hand belongs to Mittelstaedt, but when asked about his role behind the scenes, he won’t take the credit, saying, “Interlochen of course opens these doors, but more than that, education does. Because I’m not reaching out to them to ask for something for myself. I’m asking them to give back and be generous about what they’ve learned to help create the next wave of storytellers—and that’s exciting.”
(Photos courtsey of Interlochen Center for the Arts, JohnPaul Morris, The Garden Theater, and Varina Presswood)