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“If there were more stories about or from disabled people, it would be a giant step towards removing the stigma behind chronic illness”

With filmmaker and activist Michael Carnick



Hollywood has had a long history of paying lip service to the disabilities community. Films about chronic illness and disability are colloquially referred to as Oscar bait. They exist to make big statements about life and inspire people. But how many of these roles are played by people that have disabilities? How many disabled people are behind the camera to help tell these deeply authentic stories?

Disabled characters can do more than just die off in a dramatic fashion in order to teach the “normal” characters a life lesson. Most of these stories focus on the sheer medical brutality of having a chronic condition. I like to call it disability porn. People with chronic conditions are more than their physical hardships. What about the social aspects? Where are the stories about disabled people finding love, exploring sexuality, trying drugs, going to concerts, and dealing with betrayal? These are seminal life moments that have been explored to death in cinema, but rarely from the point of view of a person with a disability. And we can do more than just talk about illness itself. Being disabled provides a unique perspective on life that can add color and perspective to any story.

We desperately need more representation in front and behind the camera. If there were more stories about or from disabled people, it would be a giant step towards removing the stigma behind chronic illness. People with disabilities are shouting out to be a less marginalized minority, and film can be a great place to start. As Solzhenitsyn said, “The sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature.”


I had the pleasure to interview Michael Carnick. Michael is a screenwriter and playwright from San Diego, California. In 2005, while studying Theatre and Dance at UCSD, Michael was unanimously voted for first place at the 50th anniversary of the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards. He was the first undergrad to ever receive this prestigious award. After graduating from UCSD, Michael continued to write screenplays and stage plays, many of which have been turned into live performances. While attending UCR for his MFA in Creative Writing for the Performing Arts, Michael was selected as a Finalist for the Kennedy Center ACTF Region VIII New Play Festival two years in a row. In 2012, his play Marlon and Momma was performed at UCR’s New Play Festival. Michael graduated from UCR’s MFA program in 2012. At the end of the year, Michael wrote the short film Rolling Romance. In 2013, it was independently produced and shot on location in LA. David Conley was brought on board to direct the film. Rolling Romance was a passion project produced by enthusiastic young filmmakers on a modest budget. Rolling Romance was featured in several film festivals both locally and internationally, and won many awards, including Best Screenplay from the Malibu Film Festival and Indie Fest’s Best in Show. In 2014 Michael began production on a feature film based on his Goldwyn award winning script Who’s Driving Doug. He enlisted David Katz and Nicole Carbonetta to produce. The film was directed by David Conley and starred RJ Mitte as the titular Doug. Who’s Driving Doug is semi-autobiographical and centered on personal events from Michael’s life. Focusing on his struggle with Muscular Dystrophy, this drama / dark comedy takes an unflinching look at the social implications that come from being disabled as Doug tries to find love and understand his place in the world. Who’s Driving Doug premiered on Netflix and other major online streaming platforms in 2016. It made its theatrical worldwide premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.In 2018, Michael directed and wrote the independent TV pilot Manny Fantasma. It will premier at the Santa Monica Film Festival on December 8th.

Michael was born with a rare physical disability which confines him to an electric wheelchair. His work is often centered around the themes of disability awareness and the human experience of being a minority.


Thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell us a bit about the projects that you are working on now?

I just wrote and directed a TV pilot called Manny Fantasma. It’s a half hour comedy about a paranormal psychiatrist who treats a variety of otherworldly patients while battling his own inner demons.

Monsters are out there. Vampires, ghosts, zombies, and werewolves — they’re all real, but not all of them are bad. Some of them just need to talk. Fortunately, Manny Fantasma, paranormal psychiatrist is always on call. When creepy crawlies need a shoulder to cry on, Manny is one of just a handful of doctors qualified to treat otherworldly beings.

It’s not always easy being supernatural. What happens when a deceased couple requires marriage counseling? It’s hard for ghosts to have a fulfilling sex life. How does a vampire cope with the urge to feast on human blood? An unchecked addiction like that could cost someone their life. These are just a few of the cases that Manny has to deal with on a daily basis. To him, the Day of the Dead isn’t just a cultural touchstone, it’s a way of life… and beyond.

I’ve always had a fascination with the subject of talk therapy as depicted in film and television. It really distills drama down to its core elements. It’s just two people in a room talking about their lives. There’s something very pure and universal about that simple interaction. Then I added supernatural beings like vampires, ghosts, and zombies into the mix. Because why not? There are tons of movies and television shows about paranormal creatures, but not many that deal with the psychological side of things. What if those creatures actually existed? I think they wouldn’t be too different from you or me. They would have plenty of issues that they need to talk to a therapist about. Being different gives you a lot of baggage. I know from experience. In a way, I’m exploring the themes of being a minority through the metaphor of creatures from another wold, with a slant toward the comedic and absurd.

Can you tell me a bit about the process of creating a film, with your disability? I’m really inspired by your grit.

Mobility is always an issue. We had to make sure that the sets were wheelchair accessible, and if not, I needed field monitors to act remotely. I also don’t have a powerful voice, so I need a good AD to help keep the noise levels down while I’m trying to communicate. Thankfully, I had an amazing crew that helped make it all possible. Film making is all about adapting to challenges.

Can you tell us more about how the process of writing a film. How does it start, how does it end?

First you have a really weird idea. Maybe it comes to you in a dream or just a stray thought while eating dinner. Then you think about it some more, and give that idea a world. The next step is to populate that world with characters. Interesting people that you think you could relate to. You give them obstacles and challenges. It’s good if some of the characters hate each other. It’s even better if they hate each other but don’t know it yet.

Then you barf out a first draft. You wake up the next day, and hate what you wrote. You re-write it a few times. Maybe a dozen times, until you feel like it’s just barely good enough for other people to look at it. Then you get a bunch of conflicting notes, toss most of them aside, and start again.

That’s the easy part. The difficult step is in the actual production and logistics. Coming up with a schedule and budget, pitching the idea, selling the concept, raising the money, and assembling the cast and crew. Then you go back to your latest draft re-write it again to get it ready for filming. You make compromises. I don’t fully know what I’m doing, and I probably never truly will. I just go about it as carefully as possible, trying to respect the value of that original idea. I work with people I trust. I collaborate. Then I pray nothing terrible goes wrong during filming.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

One of the fondest memories of my career has to still be the first. The night I won the 50th Anniversary of the Samuel Goldwyn Awards was a truly mind bending experience. I was still an undergrad in college at the time, competing against seasoned grad students. It was my first screenplay that won the grand prize, and I had no idea I had a talent for this craft. When my name was announced, it changed the course of my life forever. From that day on, I was a filmmaker.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For my first short film Rolling Romance, we were supposed to shoot a scene in an elevator. The day of filming, we lost that location. With no time to spare, my producers ran to the hardware store and built a prop elevator out of plywood, nails, and gaffer tape. We had a little eight-year-old actress scheduled to film on the elevator that day, and when she set foot on the prop version she bluntly remarked on how disappointed she was. It was a hilarious end to a stressful situation. My producers handled it amazingly, and in the finished film it looks just like a real elevator.

Do you have any exciting projects coming up in the future?

I’m going to meet with online streaming providers regarding distribution of Manny Fantasma.

I’m also currently developing a feature film centered around an Ethiopian rabbi that was airlifted to Israel during Operation Solomon.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

For my feature film Who’s Driving Doug, I was very honored and fortunate to work closely with RJ Mitte. He was playing a character with a similar disability as myself, and he spent a lot of time studying my condition. He is a truly talented actor and a pleasure to have on set. I am so grateful to have had such a true advocate for the disabilities community working on my film.

I also had the pleasure of working with Daphne Zuniga, who starred in Spaceballs, one of my favorite films growing up. It’s amazing and surreal to have the opportunity to spend time with people that you feel were iconic of your childhood.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I’m constantly in the process of burning out, so I might be the wrong person to ask. The best advice I can give is to work with people you like and trust. They will be your support system, along with your family and friends. Have lots of outside hobbies to help divert your attention when things aren’t going as planned.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Hollywood has had a long history of paying lip service to the disabilities community. Films about chronic illness and disability are colloquially referred to as Oscar bait. They exist to make big statements about life and inspire people. But how many of these roles are played by people that have disabilities? How many disabled people are behind the camera to help tell these deeply authentic stories?

Disabled characters can do more than just die off in a dramatic fashion in order to teach the “normal” characters a life lesson. Most of these stories focus on the sheer medical brutality of having a chronic condition. I like to call it disability porn. People with chronic conditions are more than their physical hardships. What about the social aspects? Where are the stories about disabled people finding love, exploring sexuality, trying drugs, going to concerts, and dealing with betrayal? These are seminal life moments that have been explored to death in cinema, but rarely from the point of view of a person with a disability. And we can do more than just talk about illness itself. Being disabled provides a unique perspective on life that can add color and perspective to any story.

We desperately need more representation in front and behind the camera. If there were more stories about or from disabled people, it would be a giant step towards removing the stigma behind chronic illness. People with disabilities are shouting out to be a less marginalized minority, and film can be a great place to start. As Solzhenitsyn said, “The sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature.”

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Develop a thick skin. Get used to rejection. It’s part of the business. Keep going, even when people say you can’t. “If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” — Howard H. Aiken.

2. Work with people you like and trust. Film making is full of narcissism and clamoring for the spotlight, almost by definition. There will be people that try to step over you to get a bit of the limelight. Ignore those people. They aren’t worth your time. You want to tell good stories. If you just wanted fifteen minutes of fame, you could go do something lewd in public. This should be about art.

3. Don’t listen to “you can’t.” Film is changing, and technology is constantly adapting. People at the top will tell you every reason why you can’t do something. Who says you need a big budget or celebrity actors? Films are made on phones these days. Go out and do it. If it’s a good story, people will listen.

4. You’re not that interesting. Your life isn’t the center of the universe. You have your own story to tell, but there are billions of people with their own stories. Meet new and different people. Travel and expand your horizons. Get out of your comfort zone. The best stories come from new experiences. You’ll add your own unique spin.

5. Develop a thick skin. Seriously.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” The more concise a story is, the better. When writing, saying too much is worse than saying too little.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My first screenwriting teacher at UCSD, Allan Havis, who encouraged me to enter the Samuel Goldwyn competition. We still communicate and he is always supportive and encouraging, no matter where my career takes me. A true mentor, in every sense of the word.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

My dream would be to meet with writer and director Alan Ball. His films inspired me to begin writing in the first place.

Oh, and if anyone in new content acquisition from a TV network is reading this, I have a great show to pitch to you called Manny Fantasma. You should totally check out the pilot.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Website

http://www.michaelcarnick.com/

Facebook

Twitter

Instagram

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