Writer and director Michael Merino seems to have followed the path of most people who dream of making a living in the creative arts. As it states on his IMDB bio, “Mr. Merino held many jobs which included jobs as a contractor, bartender, waiter, short order cook, ladies shoe salesmen, door to door sales and jewelry rep, a landscaper, art dealer, carpenter, brickmason, house painter, truck driver, dock worker, and his most interesting jobs as a pornographic pizza-maker in Sydney’s ‘red-light’ district.” And yes, we will get to that pornographic pizza job in the interview. In all seriousness, Merino has grit. Persevering through those jobs and with the support of his father, Michael was able to pursue his passion which is writing and directing witty, intelligent, independent, horror films. I have seen 502 and The Haunting of Pearson Place and I can say that a Merino film involves more than a high-priced special effects team and crafty CG. He recruits folks that know how to act and he writes interesting stories that are frightening, but retain a subtext of humor which keeps the viewer hooked.
Also from his IMDB bio, “Michael directed his first feature, the award-winning (Two Rivers Film Fest) action film ‘The Deal.’ in 2003. In 2006, Michael released the horror film ‘The Milkman’ to critical acclaim. In 2008 he released the thriller/horror feature ‘502’ which won the coveted ‘Shakes’ award in the Dead-time film festival. And in 2012, Michael was awarded Best Director for the feature film ‘The Haunting of Pearson Place’ at the WMIFF and HORRORFIND film festivals.”
Merino took time to speak with me from his home near Washington, D.C. Michael is an engaging, gregarious, fellow and I am pleased to share our conversation with you.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in Washington D.C. and raised in Potomac, Maryland, which is just outside of Washington D.C. It’s an upper middle class neighborhood. My mom and dad–their background is anything but. My parents were both raised working class poor and they both moved to the D.C. area in their early twenties and worked their butts off so that their kids didn’t have to. But my dad was very big on work ethic. We all had jobs since we were ten years old, cutting grass or delivering newspapers; typical stuff.
Were you the first in your family to go to college?
No. My older brother went to college. I also have a younger sister and she went to college as well. My mom and dad didn’t go to college, they didn’t have the money. My dad’s from Mexico and he migrated here when he was nineteen or twenty. He’s actually Spanish-Basque, if you know anything about the Basque…
We’re Spanish-Basque on my dad’s side and on my mom’s side we are German, Jewish, and
Irish. So we’ve got a little bit of everything in us.
Family gatherings must be interesting.
Oh, yeah. What’s really funny about it is on my dad’s side, they’re all fairly small people and on my mom’s side they’re all big Germans. Every time I watch Lord of the Rings I keep thinking, “Hey, it’s like my family reunion. The Hobbits are my dad’s side and everybody else is on my mom’s side.” So it’s a kind of interesting dynamic. They’re all these men who are six-four, six- five, and all these other men who are five-four. They’re all so small compared to my mom’s family. The funny part is that the Hobbits (my dad’s side) scare the hell out of my mom’s family. My dad’s side has this sort of Mafia thing going on…and that’s the best part of it.
Eduardo Sánchez told me about his upbringing in Maryland and I think that he has a sort of similar background. What were the types of stories that captivated you as a kid?
I really loved comic books and I was a huge Captain America fan. I also loved The Flash and, you know, just the idea of the fantasy. Honestly, the stories that really got me going came from my family. Like I said, my father’s side is Latin so they’re big storytellers. You could not sit down at our dinner table without having somebody in the family tell a story and they were usually lies, which we all loved. And that was really the whole point, you know? For example, my dad would ask, “Who cut the grass today?” None of us would say anything and my dad would say something like, “I’m pretty sure it was that ‘man’ that lives in the woods.” He would terrify us with these stories because he didn’t want us going out into the woods because we just moved into the house. My mom’s father, my grandfather, was an even bigger storyteller. He would tell me when I was 3 or 4 years old that the jets flying overhead were giant gray geese. And of course I bought into it. My mom was raised in North Carolina. So I had a southern-Latin upbringing. Figure that one out. There were five of us and we always had a cousin or somebody living with us as well. Everybody had to fight to get their story out. It was almost like a Godfather movie. Who’s going to tell the biggest tale tonight? That’s where my storytelling background started.
I recently watched 502 and The Haunting of Pearson Place which I thoroughly enjoyed. There seems be common themes that run through those films. The one that really jumped out at me was the concept of an internal struggle. Is it real, is it not real? We all have demons inside that we have to either fight or deal with in some way. Would you say that’s a common element in your film making?
Yes, absolutely. Everybody has something that they fight with. Whether it is an addiction or an emotion, or some sort of relationship issue, we internalize them and a lot of people have a very difficult time dealing with their core “issue”. I don’t really like to call them issues because you are who you are and I think the hardest part is that we don’t allow ourselves sometimes to accept who we are. So we bury things. Those things fester and they become the demons that come back to haunt us. To be a little dramatic about it, I had a little problem with the alcohol for a couple of years and I had to sort of say, “Hey, you know what man? I gotta step away from this.” So, I basically sequestered myself and I moved out of the country and I stayed away from almost everyone for about a year. All I did was write and work as a bartender four nights a week…not the best way to get away from the drink, but you have to focus and work at things. And in that year I wrote five scripts and I finally realized what I was really dealing with was my father’s death. I hadn’t accepted it, accepted it as fully as I could have or should have. So the internal struggles that you see in those films, that’s where a lot of that comes from. You have to juice it up a little bit because you are trying to make a movie and entertain people, but it’s there. And obviously there are no hermaphrodites running around trying to attack you, or she-devils, or those kinds of things. At least I hope not…but you’ve got to give your demon a face in order to kill it.
In the movie 502, how much of you is in Paul?
I don’t know, 40% maybe? The only thing that really comes out in Paul that’s me is he’s a bit of a workaholic. Everybody has an addiction to something. For me, it’s chocolate. I was an actor once and part of the reason I stopped acting was because everybody around me was always concerned about what they were eating. I’d be happy to carry an extra five to fifteen pounds if I could have that brownie, if I could have that chocolate milkshake, because life is too short and you should enjoy it. So I feel for actors. I have a lot of respect for what they put themselves through, both mentally and physically. When I hear actors say, “Oh, I can’t eat lunch today while we’re filming.” I’ll ask, “Why not?” They’ll say something like, “I’ll gain three pounds and it’ll show up afterwards in the close-ups.” And that’s why I’m not an actor. I understand some of their pain, not all of it, but some of it.
You have a nice symbiotic relationship with Regen Wilson. How did you meet?
Regen auditioned for 502 and that’s how we met. He came in and read at a public library. We had taken over a theater there. He came in the middle of the afternoon after I’d seen probably fifteen people for the same part. He walked out after his read and I chased him down the hall and I said, “I just want you to know, this part is yours to lose.” And he said, “Okay. I don’t know what that means.” And I said, “Well, let’s just go from there.” We became friends after that film and we’ve been friends ever since. He’ll be in every film I ever make even if it’s just a cameo. He’s going be in our next film, Widow Creek. I write with him in mind, he has this Jack Nicholson thing going on and his acting skills are something you don’t really see nowadays. He’s a bit of a throwback to the 70s. We don’t see a lot of that right now and I wish we did. Now, it’s all vampires and glitter. It’s not really something you see very often. And Regen’s a fairly interesting guy. He graduated from the Air Force Academy and he’s a former officer in the Air Force. He’s since left the Air Force and he’s acting full time now and working non-stop.
He appears to have a theatrical background. He puts emotion into his performances and I find that really engaging as a viewer.
He’s very big, no doubt about it and he definitely has a theatrical background. He ran a theater at the Air Force Academy and his roots are in theater. I like to work with theater actors because they have a great work ethic. They’re the best actors you can ever work with. They’re not worried about the plan; they’re worried about the craft. And people say, “Oh, horror films.” [said in a cynical tone] Let me tell you, a good horror film is maybe the hardest film to make because you’re dealing with every genre possible; comedy, drama, action, thriller. Combine all those things in one and if you can get that right, you might be a pretty good director in drama or comedy. So if you can get an actor that can do that, like Regen or another local D.C. actor named Ken Arnold, well, you’re very lucky to have them and it makes my job that much easier.
That’s a good point. I’ve never thought of horror films in that way. You really do have to be pretty well rounded to pull it off.
If you make a straight horror film, it’s one thing. But most horror films have to have elements or layers of comedy because you’ve got to let the audience breath. If there’s no levity then it’s–I’m not disparaging any films, like Eli Roth’s Hostel films, which he makes brilliantly, but those are not for me because there’s already so much violence in the world. I like creating a boogie man that’s sort of a safety net and within that context, or that world, it’s good to have a little comedy. After all, the point of movies is to be entertained. I don’t want to watch people torture each other because that unfortunately happens in the real world and I don’t want to add to that karma, if you will. I’m not opposed to it. I just think having all those elements involved makes the film more engaging and interesting for the audience.
I couldn’t agree more. When I’m writing a straight-up horror novel I try to make sure the violence serves the story. It can’t be there just for the shock value; it has to add to the plot or help develop the character. I think that’s what you’re saying.
Yes. If you make a film that has a person in a room and they’re just being tortured for an hour and twenty minutes, after a while it’s kind of like porn. You get it after about five minutes. “Yeah, we get what’s going on here,” you know? Now you’re just watching because you have nothing else to do for another eighty minutes. If you want to spend your time doing that, that’s your choice and I’m not judging anybody for doing it or making it. But from a personal point of view, when you ask me what’s the linear thing that goes through my movies, it’s a combination of all those elements along with the internal struggle.
What does a pornographic pizza maker do? [laughing]
When I finished college I basically worked for about a year at a corporation. I won’t say the name because it’s still around. I was miserable at that job and one night I went out to dinner with my dad and we were talking and he said to me, “I’m surprised you’ve lasted this long in this job. I always thought you could never have a ‘regular’ job.” And I said, “I can’t do it anymore, dad. It’s driving me crazy.” And he said to me, “Then why are you doing it?” I responded, “Well, you paid for college…” And he said, “Look. I’ll make you a deal. If you save up some money, I’ll match you dollar for dollar, and you can take off for as long as the money lasts…travel, see the world before you settle down.” So I quit that job and began tending bar at night and working construction during the day. I managed to save about three grand over the summer. And good to his word, my father always said what he meant and meant what he said, he matched it dollar for dollar and as a bonus he paid for a plane ticket to Australia. I couldn’t have gotten any further away if I tried except for maybe New Zealand. When I got to Australia I did some backpacking around and I needed to make some money. If you’re in Australia, you’re just spending all of your money on girls and beer. So I started working, picking fruit and painting houses, and I worked for about two weeks at a pizza place that was an all-night joint in King’s Cross, in Sydney. King’s Cross was, and still maybe, their red light district. The room I rented with four other guys was across the street from a strip joint. It was open all night and they had a caller; a guy that stands out in front of the joint all night screaming, “Have a look. We got tall ones, small ones, round ones, and bald ones. Have a look.” So I’d fall asleep to that every night. It stays with you and makes me smile every time I think about it. Anyway, I needed some extra cash; you never work when you’re broke, only when you get low on funds…less stress that way. So, down the street, the corner pizza shop was hiring “dough rollers” and that’s what I did. I made pizzas that were, let’s just say, phallic pizzas. [laughing]
That sounds like a very niche clientele, isn’t it?
Let me put it to you this way; the sausage pizza was pretty popular and it brings a whole new meaning to the term “pie”.
The readers can make up their own joke for that one. [laughing] What projects are you working on now and in the near future?
We just finished up a super-natural thriller with horror elements called The Haunting of Pearson Place, and it should be on iTunes this fall. It’ll be the Director’s cut which is an hour and forty seven minutes. And we’re also in the process of re-cutting a second version of The Haunting of Pearson Place to ninety three minutes for more popular consumption. Some people don’t want to spend almost two hours watching a movie. I understand that. But, I’m a film guy, and I can watch a four hour movie without thinking twice. My girlfriend, who has read every book every written, is not so much a film person. She likes movies but would prefer to watch an hour and twenty minutes and say, “That was great.” And besides, people are busy so we’re going to have two versions out there so people can have the option. So those are the two films coming out in the next three to six months on different platforms. Our next project, titled Widow Creek, is a film that we’re currently in the final stages of locking down financing on. Widow Creek will star Kane Hodder as the “killer” and most people will know him as the guy who played Jason in Friday the 13th versions 7-10 and he also played Victor Crowley in Adam Green’s Hatchet films. We also have Scream Queens Debbie Rochon and Suzi Lorraine as well Regen Wilson, who we talked about earlier and one of my favorite people in the world, Joe Estevez of the Sheen-Estevez acting family. Martin Sheen is his older brother and Charlie Sheen, aka Carlos Estevez, is his nephew. We’re currently trying to find an actor to play the hero/sheriff role. We’d like to get someone like Casper Van-Dien or even Sean Bean. There’s always a sheriff in these movies. We’re looking to film that in October, in North Carolina or perhaps Michigan. That’s still being worked out. And I’ve also got two other films; the first is MALUM which is a poltergeist-type film that we may shoot in late winter or early 2014. The second is called The Goatman which is a Blair Witch meets Predator styled film that we have planned for this fall, or next spring as well. It’s all about the financing and timing with these things.
Every day, brother. You gotta work. People say, “Oh, you’re a film producer, lucky you.” And I reply “Yeah, I am lucky, but I have a job just like everybody else. I have to get up and go to work every day just like you. I get up out of my bed and walk over to my office in my pj’s.” Not bad.
For aficionados of horror that have just discovered you, what film would you recommend?
502. That one has a special place in my heart because we made that for almost nothing and in an old apartment building that I lived in. I basically took a really nice apartment and trashed it. I painted the walls this sickly blue. We went out, got dirt, and ground it into the wooden floor and dirtied up the place as much as possible. I put holes in the walls to make the place look more run down and the crew kept asking, “Aren’t you worried about your security deposit?” I would reply with, “Hey man, this is the price of making a movie.” I chopped up the doors and I did all kinds of stuff. We made that film in about twelve days in a two bedroom apartment. It never really leaves that apartment building. Everything in that film is in that apartment building with the exception of one scene that takes place in the local diner and that’s five minutes of the movie.
Watching that film, you had me convinced that you found some old abandoned apartment building in the shitty part of town and set your cameras up in there. The fact that you created that world is really impressive.
Well, I appreciate that. That apartment building is in Northwest, Washington D.C., on Connecticut Avenue, which is a pretty posh area on a major street. They’re condos now that sell for mid to high six figures. So that’s the kind of building it was, not that I could afford it at the time because it was rent controlled, thank God. I took a really nice apartment and just trashed it and I had to live there for another a year and a half before I moved out. There’s one scene in the film where Regen Wilson’s character is standing before a wall that’s covered in female undergarments that the character has pinned up to the wall as trophies. Things like bras and panties, and they’re all splattered with blood; very romantic stuff of course. And at the time I was single and I met a nice lady who was willing to come home and have a drink with me. As I was showing her the apartment, well, as soon she walked into the bedroom and saw that wall she was out the door so fast that I don’t even think the lock had a chance to engage. I just stood there in the hallway laughing. I’d gotten so used to those things that I forgot they were up there. She had been walking in front of me as I showed her around and suddenly she does a 180 in the doorway and walked right back out and gives me a look like, “You’re a freak.” I never saw that girl again. I took everything down the next day and painted the entire apartment a nice egg shell white with a light blue trim. The colors reminded me of when I tended bar for a summer in the Greek islands. Those colors were much more relaxing.
Before the cops showed up?
[laughing] Oh they came by from time to time as the noise from filming would garner a few complaints. But the hardest part of making a movie is when you finish making a movie you come down so hard. You’re tired and the excitement of making a film drops way off. You’re done. The last thing you want to do is repaint the apartment. You say, “I’ll get to it next week.” Then you realize six months later you forgot about it.
So the stairwell that you shot is part of the apartment building as well?
That stairwell is absolutely in the apartment building. I love stairwells shots. I have no idea why, but anytime I can put a stairwell in a film I will and anytime I can get a dog in there I’ll get a dog in there. You might not see a dog, but you’ll hear a dog. In The Haunting of Pearson Place, when you hear a dog bark it means something bad is going to happen. So the dog barks a lot (wink). There’s a story behind that but it’s personal so let’s skip that one.
We’ll use our imagination on that…Anything else you want people to know about you?
I want to say thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. I’m glad you’re willing to do this. I would say to people, if you really get upset with Hollywood and all the films they put out there now, just remember there are a lot of people out there making films and you should give them a chance. Recognize that someone’s making a film for ten thousand, twenty thousand, forty thousand, one hundred thousand dollars. They can’t compete with Hollywood and you have to recognize it for what it is. I mean when you want a steak, you don’t go to a food court, you go to a steak house right? But if you go to a food court, you get the sort of things going on in a food court, which generally is pretty bland and predictable. And I’d argue that is what Hollywood has become; a food court. But if you go to an ethnic place, it’s quirky, different, interesting and probably fresher as well. So watch independent films, don’t criticize them; give them a chance. It’s easy to just bypass something because you don’t understand what it is but give it a chance. Every filmmaker wants to make a Hollywood film, myself included and mainly because it pays well. But most of us do it for the love of it and everybody that I know who’s a filmmaker does it for the love of the game, not the glory, although that would be nice as well. You don’t do it for the money. You do it because you love it and really, bottom line, that’s the greatest gift you can ever get.
I couldn’t agree more. I think whether you’re making movies or laying brick, you better be loving it because otherwise you’re wasting your time.
Yes. Be the best damn brick layer you can be because there are ten guys out there who would love to have that job. And if you don’t love it, get out of the way and let them have it.
Absolutely. The world needs brick layers the same way they need movie makers, and writers, and plumbers…
I think we need brick layers and plumbers more, but that’s just me.