Spotlight on Michael Oblowitz - Director of "Confidential Informant"

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Michael: Well, I'm a filmmaker. I was born in Cape Town, South Africa. I came to the United States in the late 1970s when I was very young to study. I ended up doing a master's degree in film at Columbia University in New York. I made a number of independent, some of the first independent movies made in America. Back then, there wasn't an independent film scene the way there is now. Me and a couple of friends of mine, a guy called Jim Jarmusch and Amos Poe, we made these black and white 16-millimeter films in the early late 70s and early 80s that became very trendy and were part of the new wave punk rock scene. They ended up in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Many famous artists were our friends, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Harry and all those famous people were part of that scene. I went on to become a music video director. I did the first rap video on MTV for Kurtis Blow, Basketball, the song was called. It was in the early 80s. I had a career doing music videos all through the 1980s for Eric Clapton and David Bowie and Carole King, and Diana Ross, all those illustrious names from that period. I did all their videos.

Then I did another independent feature film around the 1990s, mid-1990s, that was in the Sundance Film Festival. That film was also in the official entry at the Cannes Film Festival, you know, the competition for the camera door and all that stuff. So that was pretty cool. Then I started making action movies. I was also doing a lot of commercials, TV commercials, and stuff. I've really been shooting a lot in my life. I did commercials for all sorts of companies like Adidas and motor cars and all that kind of stuff.

I went all over the world doing commercials and music videos, and I started making action movies. I started working with Steven Seagal. I did movies with him in Germany and Poland, and Eastern Europe when that scene was starting. I was in there. Then I kept going, starting vampire action movies in Budapest. I was working in Eastern Europe when they just transitioned from communism, and it was an exciting time. It wasn't the way it is now where we're having all these wars and things. Everybody was excited and open. It was a cool time to be in Eastern Europe, and I just kept making movies, commercials, and documentaries.

I've always been an avid surfer because I came from South Africa, so there was always surfing in my life. I made a couple of surfing documentaries, one of which was for Red Bull called Heavy Water which became a big hit on Amazon Prime and paved the way for all these hundred-foot wave specials that are happening now. I did the first one of that type of documentary. Then I found myself in New Mexico filming with Mel Gibson, and here we are.

So, a very diverse and global experience in film. That's fantastic. What made you want to get into film in the first place?

Michael: I always wanted to make films. I was a little boy in South Africa. I was fascinated with film, from the earliest films that I saw. I was watching Davey Crockett films and westerns. My dad was a huge fan of Westerns. We watched all these John Ford movies and cowboy movies when I was young. So, I liked the action. I liked film.

I remember nagging my father to buy me a film camera, a little movie camera, a home movie camera when I was really young. It was just something I was obsessed with. So, I got one, he eventually bought me one. I studied photography and stuff like that. So, I was always fascinated by it.

It was an ingrained passion for you then.

Michael: Yeah, it was something I just was born to do. My son is a filmmaker too. He's produced and directed; he's doing his fourth feature film that he's produced and directed, and he's produced another eight or nine films. So, we're like a filmmaking family, which is our business. In the olden days, you'd become like a shoemaker or a tailor or whatever. Well, we're filmmakers. It's what we do. It's very simple.

Now it's in your DNA.

Michael: Yeah, it's like our passion, you know? Hopefully, his son will also become a filmmaker. Who knows?

What is your favorite part about directing?

Michael: Getting it finished.

Everything else is leading up to that point. To me, it's the finished film. My favorite part is seeing what I've made.

What in the process do you find the most fulfilling?

Michael: I love it all. I can't believe when I'm doing it that this is actually a job. Even though you work extremely long hours and especially you're flying all over the world, you never get enough sleep, and you've got to be up very early in the morning until very late at night and hundreds of people badgering you all the time. But I enjoy all that.

I like feeling important. There's some meaning to my life. I enjoy all the parts of it. But it's very stressful because it's a time-bound enterprise. You've really got to watch the clock all the time because you've got to stay on budget or else you don't get to make any more films. It's really simple. There's a protocol you've always got to observe.

I'm a union filmmaker. I’m in the director's guild, so there are behaviors you have to accord to. So, it's not a massive free-for-all out there. It's discipline. I like that. It responds to that aspect of mine that likes that kind of militaristic approach. When I was very young, I was in the army for a bit in South Africa before I left the country. Not that I necessarily enjoyed all the aspects of the army, but the organizational thing, the logistical thing, was interesting to me. How you could logistically move large amounts of people or things around in a way that was strategic. That’s what filmmaking is—the large part.

It's also literature. It's engaged with literature. I like to read. But it's art at the service of logistics, and that's also partially economic, right? You've got to figure out how to finance films. So that's all part of the logistical strategy of getting a film.

As somebody who really enjoys the final product, what did it mean for you to have your work in a place like the MoMA?

Michael: That was pretty cool, I must admit, because when I was a young art student, obviously, and firstly in South Africa and then in New York City, being in the Museum of Modern Art is the highest pinnacle of approval you could reach. Some people would like to have a movie like Avatar, which I would like to have a movie as successful as Avatar. That would certainly be a pinnacle I'd like to access. But, all of those really great movies, sooner or later, end up in, if they're considered really great, end up in some pantheon, academic pantheon, whether it's the American Film Institute or the American Cinematheque or the Academy of Motion Arts or the Museum of Modern Art or somewhere like that. If one of those museums takes your stuff and preserves it for posterity, that's a cool thing. It means, wow, I'm going to live on. I've done what I set out to do. Some student somewhere is going to find this like 50 years from now and going to write about it because they inevitably write about everything. That was probably the coolest thing.

It was cool being in Sundance because that was such a big festival at the time when I was there, some of the great critics, like when Roger Ebert was still alive. He was very into my films, and he had a panel with all these great filmmakers that I was on. Similarly, when I went to the Cannes Film Festival, it was like the 75th year of the Cannes Film Festival or something, they invited all these great filmmakers who'd been there from Spielberg to Jean-Luc Godard, everybody was there, and they compiled a big, beautiful French leather-bound book, the way the French do with the photographs of everybody. So, I was in there. That felt cool.

In the end, it feels the same as getting a good review on your movie. It's just different levels of that. Everybody wants approval. I don't know anybody who does this and wants to get disapproval. It's part of the creative battle because much of the economic side of filmmaking it's transactional. It's a business, and really the people who are paying for the movies; don't really care that much. If you get economic, if you get critical approval, they want economic approval, which means making money. So, if they make whatever their profit is that they set out to make, they're done. They want to get out of there as quickly as possible and move on to the next one. Whereas, as an artist, you might need to stay in that mode a little longer because you know that the actual creative side of the film isn't quite right. It needs more work. So, there's that kind of reciprocity you have to deal with all the time and make sure that you're not angering your financiers, but at the same time, you're making something that people are going to critically acclaim. That's a hard tightrope to walk.

At the same time, meet your standards as well, which makes you feel fulfilled creatively, no matter what the public or critic may say, something that you yourself approve of.

Michael: Yeah, I think I'm insecure enough that I'm happy enough in public improvement on that. That's my standard, but I'm not selfishly making these things for myself. I like it if people like my movie. I'm happy. I'm not sitting in a dark garrot somewhere in Budapest making some weird avant-garde film for my two Russian philosopher friends and me.

I could do that kind of filmmaking, believe me. But that feels like an easy way. It's a hard way to get financed, but it's an easy way out. I'm hoping people love this new film. We worked really hard on it. We made a fantastic music score. I got some of the best musicians on this planet who are friends of mine to do the score.

The film is set in the 1990s. It's a period film. It's a street film. It's about a couple of cops during the crack cocaine epidemic that they had in the 1990s. That's where the story is located. I was given the original story that was written by a New York undercover and Al-Qaeda cop, Detective Michael K. Cech. I read this and thought, this has tremendous potential. It needs to be made commercial because, obviously, he's a cop. It's very personal. It's obviously satisfying him, but it needs to be rewritten to be commercial. It could be a movie.

There's a difference between a personal story and a movie. When I started working on it, I kept hearing music from that era. Like the great French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said, he always hears the soundtrack before he writes the film. I kept hearing the music from my friend’s band Cypress Hill.

DJ Muggs is a friend of mine, and I like to play music too. I play a few instruments, and we'd often have jams at my house. I was telling him about the script, and he said, I've got a great song for you. It's an old Cypress Hill song called Till Death Comes. It'd be perfect to start the movie. Of course, I didn't think what it was going to take to get a Cypress Hill song in a movie because they're a huge band. But he gave me the track, and I listened to that track all through the writing of the script.

I didn't know it was going to be about six years later before I got to make the movie. It takes years to get a movie. And that track opens the movie. In the end, I managed to make a deal where DJ Muggs scores the film with another friend of mine, Roy Hay, from a band called The Culture Club. That was another huge band in the 80s and 90s. They did that song Karma Chameleon. So, I really wanted real music that felt from that period. They gave me the original score that they did. Mugs had scored the new Stephen Soderbergh-produced film that was in Sundance this year. Roy and I had done a couple of movies together. So, it was a good team. We got an amazing score. It's just incredible. It starts with the Cypress Hill song, and it ends with an unreleased Culture Club song that was written at the same period when they did that song, The Crying Game, that Boy George did.

We touched a lot of bases in between with incredible musicians. So, I think that's going to make the film very appealing to people, especially if you support those bands. It really rocks. It gives it a super musical action, tense vibe. Those hip hop beats of Mugs, those Cypress Hill beats, they're all over the moon. So, if you're into Cypress Hill, you're going to like this movie.

Besides the music and restructuring of the story, what made you want to direct this film?

Michael: It’s a unique story. It was one of those stories where you could tell that Detective K. Check, who wrote it, had based it on real events. They weren't necessarily the actual events that take place in the film, but the action that takes place in the film; you can't make this stuff up. It's a very heart rendering, emotional story about the situation. I won't get much of it away, but it's got a strong emotional-based drama at its roots that is the machine that drives the action. It's a very sad but heartwarming story.

I like stories that have emotional authenticity. You know, I see nothing wrong with men crying. I think that it’s important that people are in touch with their emotions and that they don't have this facade of disassociation. 

I try to see the emotional heart that beats underneath all of that. We're still human beings underneath all of that. We're not what we appear to be. Everybody feels something. I remember there was a great film where Susan Sarandon plays the woman who’s a nun, and Sean Penn is condemned to death, and she goes into the human side of this murderer who's condemned to death, and you see he has a family,

It’s fascinating to include the emotional element. That’s what brings that human connection to film and allows the audience to connect with the story is that emotional element.

Michael: Ultimately, all great art is about emotion. Obviously, the intellectual dimension is extremely important, and it's inspiring to see the wheels and cogs of great minds whirring and moving. If it's just purely intellectual, it's just an exercise. When it touches an emotional core, that's when it becomes art.

What was your favorite part about filming this story in New Mexico?

Michael: The sun. I grew up in Africa, right? So, I am very partial to hot weather and spicy food. I love spicy food because that's the food we have. Everybody freaks out at the heat. I've got my little khaki pants on, and my T-shirt and I'm okay. And I'll eat the spiciest food I can get.

And the landscape, I like the landscape a lot. I'd love to do a western in New Mexico. I really would. I kept thinking that all the time when I was there, I've got to find a western or a biker movie, something like that. Something I can really get into the landscape. It's on the agenda. I've got a lot of projects that I'm thinking about working on right now, so that's one of them.

You’re bringing it back full circle since it was the Westerns that motivated you when you were young. Now you get to create one of your own.

Michael: I'm thinking of that.

Hours can be long on set. What were things that you did to occupy your time in New Mexico when you weren't working?

Michael: I didn't have any time when I wasn't working. When I wasn't on set, I was having detailed script meetings with Mel Gibson. He's just an extraordinary collaborator. He's one of the great gems of contemporary cinema. I learned so much from him. Besides being one of the great modern actors, he's also one of the greatest modern directors. He won a number of Academy Awards for Braveheart, and he's just an inspiration to me. I really, really enjoyed working with him.

When we weren't on the set, we were sitting in the restaurant at that gorgeous hotel where we were staying at. I can't remember where it was in Las Cruces, that beautiful Mexican style, big old hotel, and we were sitting in the restaurant there, dissecting the script, and he was coming up with new dialogue ideas. And he was just a fountain of inspiration.

You did get to indulge in our food, it sounds like.

Michael: Plenty of that. Yeah. I indulge in food. It's my great indulgence. I'm not big on indulging in alcohol, but I really like indulging in food. It's my thing.

Food takes precedence over alcohol, that's for sure.

Michael: I was going to make them find me the most out-of-the-way, hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints. I'm a big fan of that. There was that great CNN food show with Anthony Bourdain, who unfortunately left us a few years back, but he was a terrific foodie chef. He was one of the guys from my crew in New York when we were all young. He was hanging out with all of us when we were young and partying, and we were all a new wave of punk rockers. He epitomized that.

I think I was very fortunate to be with a group of extremely creative people in New York in my youth. Patti Smith and William Bars, all the hips. It was just an extraordinary crowd of people. I remember a New Year's Eve when Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen did a song they'd written together Because the Night Belongs to Lovers. They’d just written it, and they did a small indie concert on New Year's Eve where everybody who knew everybody was invited to this concert. I'll never forget it. I'd come from South Africa, and I'm here. Nobody knows who any of these people are or me, but they're going to be huge stars because I can't believe how good this is.

Anthony Bourdain was one of those people. I love his approach to food. So, I'm always looking for the most hole-in-the-wall little family-run Mexican joint somewhere in the desert somewhere. I would always have the caterers find me some exotic tortillas and things like that that I would eat. I'm not afraid to try new food.

Because you love your spice, we must ask, red or green chili?

Michael: I love them both.

Christmas, then!

Michael: Yeah, if it's chili, I got it. It's a different flavor. Why limit yourself?

Michael, for taking the time. This has been an absolute pleasure to hear about your experience and your background, and your stories. We hope that we can bring you back to New Mexico to tell another one.

Michael: I'm looking for that Western story. I like to hang out in New Mexico and do that. It’s a plan. It’s a definite plan.

You're just a wonderful film office in New Mexico. You make it very fun to shoot there and easy to shoot there. I guess because of my very military-style filmmaking, right? Once we're rolling, it's all super organized, and it just went very smoothly for me in New Mexico. I really enjoyed filming there. I look forward to coming back.

Well, we very much look forward to having you and thank you again so much for taking the time to sit with me today. It was an absolute pleasure.