…I think a lot about this, actually, since becoming a father in 2020. We are fast approaching the point of no return, if we haven’t already reached it in certain terms, in regards to climate change. That’s extremely clear. Do we have a lot of other issues to address, both in the U.S. and globally? Of course. Are those issues and climate change interrelated? Absolutely. But when I think about the world I want to leave behind for my daughter, I think the most about how to preserve as much of the natural beauty and abundance of this planet as possible. My contribution, for now, is to leverage storytelling to bring more awareness to simply readying ourselves for probably the greatest fight of human history. That’s inherently dramatic, and I am both hopeful and anxious about how the next decades are going to go in this respect, but I really think people my age and below understand it more than previous generations. I’m excited to collaborate with others doing their own thing in this regard, from whatever angle.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael DiBiasio-Ornelas, an award-winning author and filmmaker of hopeful stories for complex people. In 2021, he founded Last Site Media, a media company and independent press that serves thoughtful, commiserating films and books to underserved audiences. Michael’s films and writing take a comprehensive look at the many facets of mental health, through a lens of peer support, compassion and optimism.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I’ve been turning to writing to process complex emotions for most of my life. It started, as it often will, with an obsession with books, and later, movies. Growing up, my family on both sides owned their own small businesses (autobody and snack food distributorship), so life was pretty busy, and sometimes, to be honest, overwhelming for a sensitive kid. Stories always calmed me, at the same time that they safely allowed exploration into so many other different aspects of life, both within and outside the mind. My first real publication was in Quarto, the literary magazine at Columbia University, where I got my degree. A few people told me that story would make a good movie, and I took their word for it and gave it a shot. When I got started with that adaptation some friends said they’d be interested in helping me make the film and every person who made that mistake, ended up on the crew! I had no formal training but it felt like something I could figure out and we did. About halfway through that shoot, when things were going relatively well, and everyone was working hard and having fun, I caught the bug for good.
Filmmaking is an impossible undertaking. You’re trying to capture space and time and re-present it as reality, which it can never be. Partly, that’s the definition of art, but I think the scale of filmmaking takes that beautiful contradiction to its extreme. Over the years, I’ve just kept at it, with a focus on becoming a more skillful and more empathetic filmmaker and storyteller, and I think my latest film (The Sleepless) is the best example of that to date. I’m hoping that my coming novel, and other releases from my new independent press, can pursue similar goals of serving grounded stories to audiences who might see the world like I do but aren’t used to seeing their perspective catered to as often as some others.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
For my first film, we built a prop wall to help make a location smaller and more manageable for our tiny production. Basically, we decided to turn a pizza place with a large dining area, into a cozy intimate diner. My uncle and father and the rest of the crew helped us build and paint the wall, and it worked fine on camera. About halfway through the first day of the two-day shoot, there was a moment on set where things were getting a little out of control. We were between setups, the crew was scrambling to figure things out and constantly coming to me for answers while I was working with the actors, and we had a lot of extras seated at the “diner,” who were all friends and family members and really excited to be in a movie. It got loud and kind of chaotic. One of the producers was trying to quiet things down but it wasn’t working. I was behind the prop wall while most of the commotion was happening on the other side, and almost reflexively I finally yelled out “quiet on set!” and everyone froze. I wasn’t mean about it but I’m also not someone who yells. So a tense moment passed and then, very quietly, one of the people that had been talking said “I’m sorry, Michael.” It was one of the extras — my very sweet grandmother.
Another interesting story would be the time I landed my first equity investment in one of my films, which came in the form of finishing funds for my first feature. I shot that movie guerilla-style, with 20K dollars in crowdfunded dollars. That is not a lot for an 82 minute film. Basically, I had the edit finished but the production was completely out of money, and I was personally tapped out on sweat equity. I had a plan for getting the film finished and out there, but no idea about how we were going to pay for it. At one point my wife convinced me to take a break, and go on a weekend trip to Detroit with some of my friends from college. I’d been invited and wanted to go but funds were tight. Once there, I eventually ended up sitting next to a friend and former roommate at a Tigers-Sox game, and we got to talking about my work and the film industry at large. We had a long conversation and lost track of the game. At one point, he left to get a pen and came back with a check to invest in the film. That was a big turning point for me as a filmmaker.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
The most interesting people I’ve interacted with as a filmmaker are the audience members at screenings, and to a lesser extent people who have watched something I made and reached out on social or email. Making films that take an unsparing look at the complexities of mental health is a delicate undertaking. It’s something you really want to get right from the perspective of representing, as best you can, what it actually looks like to struggle with something like anxiety, depression, addiction, and the like. When people watch my films and say afterwards that they felt seen by the story, and then they share details about the adversity they’ve faced (or are facing), to me that’s rewarding. I’d include also the audience members who watched something and then challenged me to do better. Specifically, after my first feature film (an all-female cast), a few people expressed a desire, since I was a man speaking out against the stigma associated with mental health, that it would be helpful to see a man on screen doing the same thing. That’s definitely something our society needs and I felt like, with our new film (The Sleepless) I needed to step up to that challenge. I think we did.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Right now I’m releasing my second feature film, The Sleepless, which is about two chronic insomniacs who meet for the first time at the only place open for coffee at 3AM, and then end up going on an impromptu first date. I came up with the idea during one of my own more difficult stretches with severe insomnia, and it seemed like a good opportunity to show what I could do, in terms of telling my brand of hopeful stories for complex people, within the romance drama. We have another, larger romantic comedy ready to go that we’ll be working to get off the ground in late 2021. That’s also about a couple of people who feel like outsiders due to what’s going on in their heads, who find some common ground with one another. In addition to that, I’m working hard on a daily basis to do something new and different with Last Site Press, my new independent publishing arm. That’s really new but I want that to be a place people can go to regularly for relatable stories outside the mainstream.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
The first person who comes to mind is John Cassevettes, as an historical figure in modern filmmaking who inspired so many of my current heroes among the craft. He was a true independent, and he showed that unyielding passion and a willingness to rough it could really result in magic, no matter what your budget or how difficult the journey to the end of a production might prove. As an author, the historical figure who changed my life the most was D.H. Lawrence. He was also a rule-breaker and a sort of mad genius who took incredibly deep dives into the human psyche. I think they both have a sort of working-class ethos that I can relate to and deeply respect, because that’s my background.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
I think we desperately need to normalize compassionate conversation on mental health in our societies. What I try to do with my films is present a compelling, interesting story, that’s unique on its own but also features characters who show a willingness to be vulnerable and open up about how matters big and small are affecting their everyday lives, their ability to be happy or to heal, or to just cope with the sort of trauma or fear that so many of us experience but maybe don’t talk about enough as we could. This can take a lot of angles, and there’s a societal aspect as well as a personal one. For instance, I have a couple of higher-level mandates now when I produce something: I want particularly younger audiences to see themselves, and their larger environments, in terms of what life actually looks like for most of them. That means the economics you see on screen are going to be realistic, and even discussed. It also means that the demographic breakdown of the cast of one of my films — and our crew behind the camera — is going to more closely align with what the American population actually looks like. The story and team for The Sleepless represents multiple races, backgrounds, orientations and identities.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
In 2005, when I was 21, I caught a unidentified virus that landed me in the cardiac ICU. There were a couple days when it wasn’t certain to me whether I was going to survive. I obviously did, but having to face the very real possibility of death at a young age really changed my perspective on life. It also left me with PTSD that took years of therapy to process, but despite those difficulties the experience sort of instilled a “no regrets” philosophy in me. I don’t think I would have made that first film if I didn’t feel the need to prove, for better or worse, that I had things I needed to do before my time was up.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I am grateful to say that we’ve received more stories of gratitude, on the side of helping people who are managing mental illnesses feel seen, than I can count. What comes directly to mind, though, is when someone stumbled upon a short film I made several years ago, Multiverse, which is about social anxiety and agoraphobia. One day, someone I didn’t know retweeted that film and simply said: “This is how I feel.” And that’s a high compliment. That’s what I want our films to provide. When it comes to The Sleepless, my hope is that people who — for whatever reason — are suffering from severe insomnia — not only see themselves but maybe also get a sampling of at least one path to better days ahead.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Honestly, I’m always working with a small team of independent producers. It’s a really tough job, as much as we love it. The biggest thing individuals could do would be to help spread the word, if not directly about The Sleepless or one of our other efforts, at least in terms of the shared messaging of speaking more openly and more often about difficult subjects like mental health, and how inequality manifests in the mind and body. Working through that stuff with people we feel safe with is how we heal. On the society and governmental front, I think we need a lot of the same thing, especially for and among working people. There’s an unhealthiness to our culture that I think needs to be examined, from a compassionate but also an activist mindset. I want to lead by example and be part of the conversation, but it’s a wider responsibility for sure.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I wish someone would have told me not to be so hard on myself, and to let the process be the process. That’s something that I think it’s hard to understand when you’re younger, or if you’re dealing with a lot of stuff that you aren’t ready to face yet, like I was before I got to this more stable place in my life and career. Independent film is a very hard job. When I speak to younger or newer filmmakers, I do try to get that point across. Like so many other things, it’s a long game, especially if you don’t start it from a position where you have a lot of economic security to fall back on, or if you’re even less privileged than I was, getting started as a cis white male.
Recently, I was talking with a mentor who happens to be very close friends with one of my filmmaking heroes. He listened to me vent for a while about some existential struggles I was experiencing in terms of creative sustainability. Then when I was done talking he laughed, and shared that he had just had the same conversation with that other filmmaker who I’ve always just assumed had an easier time of it. But his is just a bigger version of the same problem, which is at probably normal. There’s a real vulnerability to storytelling that can be hard to grapple with when you’re also trying to make a budget work and think long-term about paying your bills.
On the much more tactile side, I wish someone had taken me aside earlier in my career and made me understand how crucial production design is to the success of even a low-budget film. My first several efforts were genre pieces, and I think they suffered a bit from a lack of execution from that perspective. Everyone tells young filmmakers to pay close attention to sound quality, and that’s absolutely a must, but I’ve found that even if your budget is limited you need to have accurate and robust production design. It may not be fair, but audiences are going to treat a film that cost 10,000 dollars or 100,000 dollars to make with the same expectations that they do one that cost 1M dollars. If you don’t find a way to approximately measure up, it’s going to narrow the impact you can make in distribution.
Finally, as a rough measure, I sometimes wish I hadn’t learned the hard way to triple the amount of time and money you think any one aspect of a production is going to cost. It’s a hard pill to swallow but, generally, I’ve found that to be true.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I think a lot about this, actually, since becoming a father in 2020. We are fast approaching the point of no return, if we haven’t already reached it in certain terms, in regards to climate change. That’s extremely clear. Do we have a lot of other issues to address, both in the U.S. and globally? Of course. Are those issues and climate change interrelated? Absolutely. But when I think about the world I want to leave behind for my daughter, I think the most about how to preserve as much of the natural beauty and abundance of this planet as possible. My contribution, for now, is to leverage storytelling to bring more awareness to simply readying ourselves for probably the greatest fight of human history. That’s inherently dramatic, and I am both hopeful and anxious about how the next decades are going to go in this respect, but I really think people my age and below understand it more than previous generations. I’m excited to collaborate with others doing their own thing in this regard, from whatever angle.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
The novels of Kim Stanley Robinson have had an outsized impact on my thinking in recent years, especially on the side of economics, technology, and climate. He’s really inspired me to embrace the potential for science fiction to get a broader dialogue going on the larger issues surrounding these topics. It’d be a dream to work with him on big-budget adaptations of certain of his works. There’s a particular book that may have already been optioned that I think is a bolder choice for a film adaptation. I’d love to do something like that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” Apparently, it’s usually attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, who was actually quoting someone else in his autobiography (Squire Bill Widener). For me, the only reason I’ve ever been able to do anything as a filmmaker was because of this sort of philosophy. You start there, do the thing, hopefully grow in all terms, then you do it again. I’m trying to embrace this even more fully right now with Last Site Media.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!