Mittelstaedt (right) on set with DeRoy Testamentary Foundation Filmmaker in Residence Lydia Hicks in the fall of 2016.
Mittelstaedt (center left) works with a student at Arts Camp 2017.
Mittelstaedt speaks at the 2015 Future of Cinema Film Festival.
Mittelstaedt (left) on set with Arts Academy filmmakers in 2014.
Michael Mittelstaedt is the founding director of the Film and New Media Division at Interlochen Arts Camp and Arts Academy and an instructor in both programs.
Mittelstaedt worked as a producer and director for Broadview Media of Chicago from 2001-05. While with Broadview, Mittelstaedt was a producer for the HGTV series New Spaces and produced, directed and edited the documentary series America in the 20th Century.
From 2003 to 2005 he was lead producer and technology chair of For Global Progress NFP, directing their annual fundraising event in conjunction with UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine/AIDS Institute.
Mittelstaedt has also worked internationally in the Czech Republic and Peru. His films have been shown at The New York Festivals, Seattle Underground Film Festival, Rooftop Films N.Y., Michigan's Own and Visions D.C. Mittelstaedt received his master’s degree in film from Ohio University.
We caught up with Mittelstaedt to learn more about his career, experiences and preferences.
What was the first camera you owned?
My first camera was a little 110 instamatic. It was a little viewfinder camera. But you never really knew exactly what you were shooting, looking through that plastic lens, because the printed image seemed totally different. You’d forget you shot something. I’d pop it open and there was a cartridge that I shot years ago. I would send it in and think “What am I about to develop?” It was exciting waiting for film to be developed, far enough from the holidays or a birthday that it was always a surprise what you were going to get back.
Tell us about your first film.
I came into film later in life, after my undergraduate studies. My first film was a chase film shot on a 100-foot spool of 16mm Kodak film in a Bolex camera, a windup camera with no battery. Like a crazy accurate clock with a lens. The film was about a character who was being chased by a little man or a troll, which got on his back and he couldn’t get it off of him, no matter what he tried. A first film, ridiculous stuff. I was just happy to be making a movie no matter if it was only an exercise. The challenge of the assignment was that it wasn’t actually cut; it was edited in-camera, which means that what you shot first was what you saw first when projected and so on. It was my first step into making films and telling visual stories. With film, it was precious: if there was an accident with the shot, it was gone. That film still exists somewhere, maybe in a moving box in my basement. I don’t even remember the name of it. It screened maybe twice.
What film or films inspired you to pursue a career in the motion picture arts?
Many people will say Star Wars was the film that inspired them. It was the first film I saw in the theatre, but what was more important was that I was with my father. The combination of sharing that moment with him and the epic story underneath was really important. I shared a love for movies with my father, and spent a lot of time watching and talking about entertainment with him. I fell in love with that experience of being in a theatre; it was special. At the time, before VHS and DVD were invented, when you saw a film, you weren’t sure if you would ever see it again, so all you had was the memory of an event. In that way, it was more like theatre, brilliant and fleeting.
From there, I lived a series of epic films in the late 70s and 80s that I saw one after another. From superhero stories like Superman, and adventure movies like Indiana Jones, I grew a taste for films that have heroes that have faults or flaws.
What’s your favorite part of the production process?
I like day one, first shot. It’s like when you spark a light. That’s the collision of having written the script, prepping incredibly hard up to that point, wondering what may go right and wrong. Then it all seems to work in some way or another like machine that swings between finely tuned and clumsy. There’s a point where you lose yourself in it and forget that it’s being performed, and you’re just watching the story unfold. I think I like the energy of being on set. I enjoy the rest of it, too. But there’s something about the first day.
Do you prefer shooting digitally or on film?
I do, and I don’t have a preference. The medium has become so able in a digital place. What I appreciate about film is what I appreciated about my first car: I could open it up and see the mechanisms and understand it, like the sprockets and gears in a film camera. I could see the frame go past the gate, where the light goes in and the iris stops down; conceptually, it was easy to understand and easy to troubleshoot. I have a less intimate relationship with digital; I don’t fully know how it works inside. I can’t fix it when it breaks as easily. There’s sort of a disconnect. You send the camera away if there’s something wrong with it.
Projection on film is also magical. Because of scratches and dust on the print, mood of the crowd, every screening is different that the last. The film might be pristine, or it might have a couple frames gapped because it burned or tore, so everyone’s experience is different. A few years ago, the Traverse City Film Festival screened 2001: Space Odyssey from a print that was in cold storage, maybe screened once, and it was phenomenal. I had a similar experience when I saw the remastered version of Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen at Chicago’s Music Box. Until then, I’d only seen Lawrence on a small screen; I fell in love with that film. A masterful collision of epic story, performance and piercing cinematography.
Which filmmakers have inspired or influenced your work?
Recently, I’ve been less looking to filmmakers and more inspired writers. I’ve been reading the work of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry and really appreciating their sort of spare storytelling: their cowboys say little, but what they say means a lot. As I looked at writing my own film about a desperate, old cowboy, I buried myself under McCarthy, McMurtry and Louis L’amour novels, trying to get a sense of the world and their styles. They’ve been super influential. But some movies I love: Shane, High Noon, Winchester ‘73. I’ll watch anything with Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart.
As far as recent films go, Hell or High Water was an incredible film. I loved the relationship of two brothers and their desperate attempt to reclaim their family land. It had plain spoken dialogue, few words and allowed audience to access the relationship of the characters, getting to know and care about them. Open Range, the Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall film, was also great. Their characters could go five minutes without speaking.
Tell us a little bit about your upcoming film.
My father had been very ill with cancer. And one afternoon when I went home to visit, he started to make phone calls to family and old friends and say goodbye. One of those calls was to a friend he hadn’t spoken to in 30 years. It wasn’t how he thought they would have their last conversation. Wasn’t how he wanted it. Watching that made me think about the end of life and how we treat one another and either reconcile or hold onto betrayal. In my film, Chasing Daylight, an old cowboy who has been in prison for 50 years because he’d been betrayed by his partner. He gets out and goes in search of his partner, looking for an apology and willing risk what’s left of his life to get it.
Who’s your (current) favorite musical artist?
Gregory Alan Isakov. Current.
What’s your favorite season?
I like fall. You have the most options of clothes. You don’t have to worry if your shirt under your sweater is wrinkled. My relationship with an iron has changed as the father of a five-year-old and a toddler.
Would you rather go see a musical/play or a movie?
That’s a loaded question, based on my wife’s work, but she knows. I would rather see a movie. I like theatre, it just takes me longer to suspend my disbelief. Film has ability to get me more quickly. There’s some changing gears in my brain that has to happen between sitting in the audience of play. There are many plays that have taken me to that place like movies do. My wife, Laura was in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac in which she was Cyrano, and I think what I saw in her in that production was lovely and tragic, seeing her respond to unrequited love in that character.
So movies, of course. If I said theatre, you’d wonder about my choice of professions.