An interview with Mike Morelli, director of ‘Sh*thead the Movie’
Mike Morelli is a filmmaker from New Jersey. In order to make Sh*thead the Movie a reality he wrote, directed, produced, edited, and worked on the visual effects & color grading for the movie. The visual effects team was a small group of three people and by the end of the project had over 900 VFX shots. Since then Sh*thead the Movie has won multiple VFX awards for their hard work.
On top of these efforts Morelli invented 16-bit-hyper-color allowing more information to be extracted from raw photographic images.
We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask Mike Morelli some questions about his film as well as his filmmaking career in general. Here’s what he had to say.
Can you tell us a little bit about Sh*thead the Movie?
The character who eponymously lends his name to the title is Jordan Cantwell, he’s that little rodent who would robo-trip and snort air duster cans in the back of class and constantly steal money from his dad so he could buy pills. That guy.
Now imagine he somehow convinced a girl to be his girlfriend and his little rodent sperm got her pregnant. They have a kid and now they’re living in his Dad’s crib while he gets high all day and his baby momma tries to figure out how to take care of their tiny baby boy.
Where did the concept for Sh*thead the Movie come from?
I came up with the idea in film school and tried to shoot a short with actual street kids basically playing themselves. It didn’t really work out like I hoped, mostly because I couldn’t ever rely on them to show up.
Things really went to a whole new stratosphere when I began collaborating with Johnny Smith, who is a real life hard-core face-paint-wearing juggalo, in addition to being an amazingly talented Shakespeare trained actor, improviser and genuinely great guy.
The kernel for going nuts with all the really surrealistic elements like scorpion-laced-Chenko, 12-foot-tall basketball stars, and space queens that live on the moon really resides with something Johnny said to me in the middle of rehearsal: “If you call it Sh*thead, that holds a lot of weight; the audience is gonna expect something truly crazy that lives up to the title.”
You went through quite a bit in order to make Sh*thead the Movie a reality. Can you tell us the story of how it came to be?
Any filmmaker that independently finances their film probably has an incredible story. Every possible force imaginable is working against you. Time, money, energy, the cops willingness to not arrest you. It’s really, really tough. Our path was no different. The first phase of production was over crunched and grueling, one of the producers absolutely broke down under the stress and became toxic on set.
We had to remove him from the production and things went a lot smoother, but I ended up taking on his responsibilities myself and by the end of shooting I lost a ton of weight, and was absolutely gassed from directing the film during the day and doing the books at night.
What I was left with was a movie where about half of it was great and the other half not so much. So, like most films do today, we decided to do a fair amount of reshoots. But, after setting up post [production] I was almost out of money because I had the standard indie film financial plan of “Everything goes perfectly + Underpants = Profit.”
We raised a little bit more money and our angel Tom Valentino stepped into DP the reshoots, which took a long time due to scheduling and funding. Thanks to Tom and the whole cast just being so amazing and supportive of the project, we were able to go through every scene and fine tune practically everything. The most radical changes we made were to shine a spotlight on some of the super talented actresses in the film like Anna Zaida-Szapiro, Erica Everett, Ebony Pullum and Carly J. Bauer, and flesh out their characters so that the ladies had their own equally bonkers adventure as our nominative Sh*thead.
Eventually after about a year of on and off production, we finished the reshoots and I was able to get a proper assembled cut of the movie. But, it was right around that time my Mom needed major surgery after she had basically broken her neck in a car accident. I put everything on hold for a whole another year [sic] to help take care of her while she recovered. When she got back on her feet, I moved out to LA and finished the movie there.
Is there anything you’d like people to know before watching Sh*thead the Movie?
Don’t sit in the splash zone. You may get wet.
As far as producing a movie goes, what is one of the most important things you learned while making Sh*thead the Movie?
Producing sucks. It really does. When you watch a film, you never go “wow that guy produced the sh*t out of that movie.” You notice the cinematography or editing or music or acting, but you don’t see the countless phone calls and hours of meticulous preparation taken to bring all that together. Good producing is invisible, producing get[s] everyone what they need and get[s] out of the way.
Tell us about your career before you found filmmaking.
Going back to when I was really young I did coding and web design work, which later led into marketing as the entire internet became poisoned by Facebook and monopolized by Google.
How did you start your journey into filmmaking?
Just messing around with cameras and trying to make goofy films for me and my friends’ own amusement. We never expected anyone to see what we made. It was only for the pure fun of getting together and trying to create something that would make us all laugh.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
You kind of have to be as an independent filmmaker. I have worked professionally as an editor, colorist, and visual effect artist, so I naturally want to take on that responsibility for all my own work. It can be pretty overwhelming to keep track of all the technical facets of making a film to the point where it all just meshes together and you stare at the screen like “what the hell do all these knobs do again???”
You have to compartmentalize, focus completely on one aspect of whatever it is you’re working on and give yourself fully to that specific component. My philosophy has always been: make lists, break down what you need to do and then start doing it.
Can you talk us through your creative process?
I like to carve out time to let my mind wander, to sit and really ponder on something before I even jot down a single note. Once you develop an idea, you still have a lot of work to do creatively to flesh it out into something that’s tangible and real; something that you can watch with your friends and enjoy in the form of a moving image.
You have to really sit down, draw from your influences and do the work exploring all the tough questions. Once you find the answers, everything else is just figuring out which Lego pieces go together.
What part of filmmaking excites you the most?
Writing and working with actors. It’s something special to see an actor take your material and elevate it to a place that is totally unexpected and new. I have a hard time controlling my joy on set when I see this happen.
Can you tell us about your other film The Vanishing American Dream? How did it come about?
After I finished Sh*thead, our visual effects supervisor, Will Driscoll, hired me for a directing gig at a studio that shot 4D volumetric content. It’s some seriously cool new tech, we would shoot people on a 6-sided-green-screen cube and essentially turn them into 3D holograms that would give us the freedom to move the camera wherever you want in post-production. It’s like bullet-time from The Matrix on steroids, mixed with tiger blood, but it’s all still very much mostly in the “R&D” phase.
While most of the content we shot was intended for VR headsets, I really wanted to explore utilizing the tech for a narrative film. I had the concept for Vanishing American Dream kicking around for ages, but hadn’t really been able to solve the technical hurdles to make it work, and using holograms actually was the perfect solution to do what I wanted to do.
I shot the film independently and collaborated again with Will and Colin Yarck for the score. It may be one of the first films ever to be shot primarily with 4D holograms, it’s like a trippy outer space/underwater fantasy adventure.
I made the bonkers decision to print the film in stereoscopic 3D and took a bit of extra time during quarantine to figure that out so all the sea creatures and jellyfish now pop out [of] the screen nice and properly, but it should be done real soon. Putting on a pair of 3D glasses and watching this is probably the closest you’re going to get to experiencing something like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room anytime in the near future. Sorry, no selfies, though.
Can you tell us about any future project(s) you have planned?
I just finished another feature script I’m pretty excited about. We’ll see. I can’t really think about what’s next until I finish up Vanishing American Dream, it’s so friggin’ complicated it needs my full focus. But, yeah, if the pandemic allows I’m going to dive headfirst into preparing another feature next.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
I want viewers to experience a totally non-sexual warm fuzzy feeling below their waist.
What’s the one movie that made you want to get into filmmaking?
Without a doubt it would be Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite. I have no clue why the video store let a couple of kids rent this crazy 70s blaxploitation film about a pimp who does Kung Fu, but we somehow got a copy. The production values are legendarily bad, yet the film manages to be a fantastic unique gem nonetheless. Watching that got the wheels turning in my little 9-year-old head, if those guys could make a movie I definitely could too.
So, that’s exactly what we did. My brother and our friends would put on 70s clothes and reenact scenes from the Dolemite on an old VHS camera. My mom would frequently come startled into the yard with us covered in fake blood, calling each other “backtalkin’ bitches” and starting large fires for our little Dolemite movies.
If you could have someone create a soundtrack for your life, who would it be?
Why Colin Yarck of course. He’s basically already doing that.
What are your current influences as a filmmaker?
I’ve been watching a lot of Luis Buñuel lately, revisiting The Exterminating Angel now was cool, it’s an apt metaphor for our current predicament. I adore Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubistch, Pedro Almodóvar, Aki Kaurismäki, Kenji Mizoguchi, Max Ophüls, Jean Pierre-Jeunet to name a few.
But I also am very much a student of really innovative popular filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and James Cameron. Right now, though, I built a little 3D movie theater and am obsessed with anything in Stereoscopic 3D that I can get my hands on. Nature, IMAX, space stuff. If it pops out the screen and melts my eyeballs off I wanna see it.
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
Rungano Nyoni is a Zambian filmmaker who’s recent film I Am Not a Witch, I thought was pretty much perfect. People should also look outside the narrative space too, there are filmmakers who straddle the line of the art world like Weirdcore and Derrick Beckles, that are doing some really innovative, cool stuff that pushes the boundaries of conventional filmmaking.
What’s the best movie you’ve watched this year, so far? What did you learn from it?
That’s such a tough call, but if I had to pick I’d say Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion.
Samurai Rebellion is one of the Toho masterpieces I hadn’t yet caught, like all the great Chanbara pictures you get a mesmerizing dose of Shakespearian drama and stunning cinematography. There’s so much to soak in for a filmmaker about building and managing dramatic tension, it’s simply pure cinema in it’s finest form from start to finish.
Have you worked with mentors before? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
Mentor? I am not familiar with this word. You mean like a person to help me and offer advice and stuff? Damn, I didn’t know that was an option.
Do you have any advice for people who are looking to get started in filmmaking?
Be afraid. And then confront your fears.
And finally, an easy one, cats or dogs?
Considering that I, myself, am basically a golden retriever staring at you with a ball on the nose, wagging my tail trying to get a pat on the head for all my fancy tricks, that is easy; dogs. Oh, and sorry about the carpet. I’m still being house trained.