An interview with filmmaker Mikhael Bassilli: Director of ‘Baby Money’
Mikhael Bassilli is a filmmaker and creator. He runs a script development platform and the Screenplay Awards Network, as well as creating his own feature films. His latest project, Baby Money is about a botched burglary. The ragtag criminals end up invading the home of a single mother as their very pregnant getaway driver tries to help them escape.
Bassilli is a hard worker in the film industry who has created success for himself and the people around him. We had the wonderful opportunity to ask him some questions about his companies, Baby Money, and his career in general. Here’s what he had to say.
Can you tell us a little bit about Baby Money?
As a movie, Baby Money is a heart-pounding suspense/thriller genre piece that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s edgy, fun, diverse, and has style. It’s my modern spin on our favorite 90s studio hostage movies. It’s entertainment value for 92 minutes straight.
As a production, Baby Money is the culmination of a group of rising stars at the right place at the right time. We all had something to prove and we went all-in to prove it.
Where did you come up with the concept for Baby Money?
I came up with the concept in March 2017 at a moment’s notice. My last project had fallen through in financing and I was extremely frustrated with my career. To top it all off, I had just had a baby girl so I felt like I was at my wits end. I remember sitting on my kitchen counter with tears in my eyes contemplating whether I could continue with the rejection. After a couple days of depression, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and I decided Baby Money was my next project.
I literally created Baby Money out of thin air because I had no other choice. To get financing, I figured I needed to craft a minimal location, minimal character genre piece that could sell internationally. A home invasion movie was literally the first thought that came to mind.
You managed to shoot Baby Money, a feature length film, in just 20 days. How did you manage it? What was the hardest part of that?
The hardest part of the production is two-fold:
One: Being a small production, we were always on the edge of collapse. Every day I had to carry the production to the finish line. Every day came down to the final shot and barely making our days. For the first 2 weeks, we were doing night shoots which was physically brutal.
For the final 2 weeks, we were shooting inside my house, which you’d figure would be much easier, right? Nope! My next-door neighbor (who happens to be a miserable person) tried to shut me down every day of the week, and they succeeded on one day which almost collapsed the entire production. Stressful.
Two: Being the financier, producer, director, and writer was very hard. I had to keep a tight hold on the finances where every decision had ramifications. I had to check “finance Mike” (who was very stressed out) at the door every day, so I can be [sic] “director Mike” and get the best performances and picture, and also step in as “writer Mike” to rewrite scenes on the fly. Not to mention “producer Mike” really wanted to make sure his staff felt appreciated and motivated to work, so coming in with a positive attitude every day and greeting each staff member was part of my M.O.
It wasn’t hard to manage all of it because it was a matter of survival. If I would’ve let up at any point, the production would’ve died and I couldn’t let that happen. It was exhausting though!
Is there anything you want viewers to know before they see Baby Money?
Not really. I just want people to be entertained and enjoy the ride. I reverse engineered this entire movie to entertain an audience.
You also own a script development platform – for those who may not be familiar with what that means, can you describe what this company does?
I take existing movie concepts or existing screenplays and I help craft them into full-fledged screenplays ready for production. My job is to develop screenplays for the marketplace and give them the best shot at getting financing.
Today, with the emergence of data driven investing, my platform relies on metrics to help screenwriters, producers, and filmmakers craft financially viable screenplays (or improve their current screenplays) and prepare them to attract financing.
On top of script development and your filmmaking career, you’ve also developed the Screenplay Awards Network. Can you tell us a little bit about this platform?
Screenplay Awards Network is my script development online platform which hosts screenplay contests, producers, agents, and other industry professionals. In effect, we read all scripts that enter our platform and we analyze them in a writer’s room setting. Day in and day out, we are analyzing material and providing rewrite notes to bring all screenplays and writers closer to financial viability and potential for investment.
Every screenwriter who submits a script to any host on our platform gets analysis and rewrite plans from myself and my development staff. Additionally, we curate metrics on all our screenwriters and hire screenwriters regularly for jobs based on their strength profile.
It’s a cutting-edge platform that I think is going to grow rapidly in the coming years, especially with the success of Baby Money, which was developed exclusively through the Screenplay Awards Network.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
Though I started in the film industry as an actor, I attribute my experience as a musician as the baseline of my career. I grew up playing piano, saxophone, and guitar, and played in a rock band in high school. My first dream was to be a rockstar.
In my early 20s I decided to become an actor (parents were thrilled!), but quickly found my knack for writing. I got a high while watching actors read my work. I was hooked.
From writing and directing stage plays, I went into production so I could make money and continue my ongoing education in screenwriting. I worked on a lot of digital media, including a stint as a wedding videographer. I wore many hats (DP, script supervisor, electrician . . . list goes on) and they all made for good education. But ultimately, I was simply just saving money and dedicating all my free time to developing my own scripts.
I started really improving when I got out of film school and was being sought as a script doctor and ghost writer. It’s when I really started to gain confidence because I noticed how people paid attention when I spoke about [my] story.
From there, I simply went where my heart took me. I never took a project I didn’t feel I could get made or potentially learn from. I did, however, improve drastically when working collaboratively with a couple prominent producers who gave me specific instructions for rewrites. It allowed me to ingest valuable information through application and I attribute that experience as one of the biggest reasons for my progress.
Who or what are your current filmmaking influences?
Disney Pixar. They have the best storytelling team on the planet. I would love nothing more than to work with them. I have a baby girl so Disney+ is a staple in my home (have you ever seen Moana? Amazing. Seen it 79 times). Their movies are entertaining and meaningful . . . the perfect combination.
I’m also a big fan of Quentin Tarantino (especially his earlier work which I grew up with) because he sacrifices nothing for entertainment value. When buying a ticket to a Tarantino movie, you can expect to be thoroughly entertained. I strive for the same. As a classic genre filmmaker, he brings a unique style which I admire. Style matters.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
I’d say it’s exhausting, not hard. My parents immigrated to America and I grew up poor so I’m used to working twice as hard as the next person to get ahead. That being said, I definitely look forward to a future where I can wear one hat and focus on 1 aspect of the filmmaking process, instead of juggling multiple balls in the air.
Whether directing or producing, I figure I can be even more effective if I can put all my energy into one field instead of stretching myself thin into many.
Can you talk us through your creative process?
Absolutely. Before I ever start writing the script, I make sure to take enough time with my concept and characters. I’ll find a score or a song that gives me the feel or tone that reflects the movie I see in my mind. I’ll play that song on repeat. I’ll do whatever research I need to do to formulate the concept (all while listening to the song) and I’ll have a notepad nearby because ideas in the concept stage are plentiful. Once I feel like I’m starting to feel the essence of my characters, I’ll start writing scenes encapsulating the essence of my characters.
I’ll find pictures of my characters online (usually in the form of a great actor in a different movie with a comparable character). Often I’ll take that picture into photoshop and modify the character to fit my vision.
I call this stage “tuning” because it’s like tuning an instrument. I look at characters like different notes, and the dynamics between characters are what makes a movie sing. Tuning is done mostly in my head, and I do as much of that as possible before I start outlining.
My outlining process is usually very spontaneous. I’ve restricted myself from outlining purposely, mainly because I don’t like to get married to structural ideas (those can cause a bunch of problems). So, I “tune” my characters as long as I can without going crazy, and by the time I get to outlining, my characters dictate my structure pretty fluently. I definitely won’t fixate on the finer details of structure because I like to allow room to explore when writing the script. I like to go into my first draft with a clear understanding of what each character wants in each scene and allow the rest to be sorted in the draft.
I’ll usually outline over the course of a couple days. Then I’ll get to writing my first draft, which will usually take me about 96 hours.
During this time, I lock myself away and just work. I’ll be up all night with no regard for hours and days. When I finally exit my office after days of creative vomiting, I’m like Moses emerging with the 10 commandments; full beard, enlightened, and sick of that song that has been on repeat for weeks.
I immediately step away. I like to forget what I wrote and come back with fresh eyes. That takes about a week.
From that point forward, I shift gear into collaborative mode. I value collaboration more than anything else in my creative profession. I scout the best emerging writers to bring into my writers’ room on a regular basis, along with my trusted colleagues and friends. I always gravitate towards the best ideas and check my ego at the door. Collaboration, by far, is my greatest skill.
Do you have any advice for people who may be looking to enter the filmmaking industry?
Yes. I have tons of advice. Here’s one: Commit to story excellence and become a script developer.
A film originates from a screenplay, but every film truly begins and ends with money. In the age of data driven investing, investors finally have a way of understanding the chances of getting return on their investment. To date, only 2-5% of films make their money back. It’s awful. But the industry is changing and I believe that’s going to place power in the hands of those story developers that have a real knack for financially viable material.
To that end, classical storytelling will always win. Classical story structure is embedded in our DNA. They are a reflection of our realities. They have the power to change people. Alternative and experimental may be cool, but classical stands the test of time.
If you dedicate yourself to understanding story at the deepest levels, and you can apply those concepts instinctually, you will be a long-term winner in the film industry because someone out there will find a way to leverage your skills for monetary gain.
Are you able to tell us about any upcoming project(s) you may have? What are they?
I have numerous projects in development right now. With the success of Baby Money, I’ve been bringing on investment partners and presales for future projects inside the same genre space as Baby Money.
It’s important to note that I’m fully dedicated to helping our emerging screenwriters through the Screenplay Awards Network and creating opportunities for them. I fully plan on recruiting the best screenwriters through my mentorship program at the Screenplay Awards Network and promoting emerging screenwriters in the development of my upcoming slate of developments.
What’s your five-year plan?
I plan on progressively making bigger and better movies while growing the Screenplay Awards Network brand. I see SAN as being the gold standard of script development and analysis for all screenplay contests, producers, agents, and distributors worldwide.
Ultimately, my goal is to be a head of a studio. Like I mentioned prior, I’d love to work with Disney Pixar, but I also see opportunities at some of the major tech streaming companies. I hope at some point they notice me and they find value in my skills, which frankly is ideal for heading development. I have a knack for improving material and maximizing potential for projects and I want to work with the most talented artist[s] in the world to further my objective of producing hits over and again.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
I want to keep my finger on the pulse of culture and always give the people what they want. Every Mikhael Bassilli film should be a visual and audible experience and make good on the promise to provide entertainment value. Period.
My mission is to be the best that I can possibly be. I want to be the best storyteller, best director, best producer, best filmmaker, best leader, best person. I want people to not only enjoy my movies, but enjoy working for me and with me. I’ve dedicated my life to this craft so my mission is to give my all to it. When it gives back to me, I’ll share the love just as I do right now but on a bigger scale. Sharing is caring.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
Catch Me If You Can. This movie inspired me to be a filmmaker. It’s Spielberg, DiCaprio, and Hanks at their best. It’s supremely entertaining, but also an amazing subject of study.
It resonated with me on many fronts. Being that my parents divorced at a young age, I found Frank Jr.’s experience to be very relatable. But what this movie does better than any other movie I’ve ever seen is that it uses such a profound and personal character motivation (to mend a broken family) within the scope of an action-packed narrative.
The science of a masterfully crafted story like this creates a nexus of meaning, presenting itself in a multitude of ways, depending on the person and their perspective. Catch Me If You Can is a tragedy that teaches us some profound truths regarding love, misery, and the meaning of family.
Would you ever have an interest in working on episodic television in the future?
Yes, I love TV. It would be a dream to run a show.
If someone were to create a soundtrack for your life who would you want to have compose it?
When you’re looking for inspiration what do you do?
Isolate and meditate.
What part of filmmaking do you get the most excited about?
Speaking about character with actors and discussing story with composers is a religious experience for me.
But overall, there’s nothing that gets me more excited than the prospect of working with amazing artistic talent.
And finally, an easy one, cats or dogs?