Mike Nell: “Be vocally gracious”

When I first started filmmaking, I wish I had learned to focus on running my own race and not compare myself to the success of others. Everyone gets their break in a different way. I could never tell someone to follow my path and start working at a film company and hope that four years […]

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When I first started filmmaking, I wish I had learned to focus on running my own race and not compare myself to the success of others. Everyone gets their break in a different way. I could never tell someone to follow my path and start working at a film company and hope that four years into your career they start a film fund for first time directors. All you can do is be prepared with your story and be open minded to collaborate where opportunity shows itself.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Nell, Creative Director at Kandoo Films.

Born in Bloomington, Illinois, Mike Nell graduated from the Illinois Institute of Art in 2008 and moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of filmmaking. Mike began his career in production on the sets of feature films and commercials until forming a small business of his own in 2010. The company gave Mike the experience of producing a variety of projects from visual effects to live action for indie films and commercial clients such as Portillo’s and Carolla Drinks.

In 2012, Mike began working at Kandoo Films. Hired as the Assistant to the Creative Director, Mike worked on many promo campaigns for the Power Rangers and CW Network and was the Assistant Editor on the ESPN Documentary Venus VS. In the continuing years Mike transitioned into a producing role at the company traveling the country for the Academy Award nominated documentary 13th as well as Co-Producing Kandoo Films’ three most recent pictures, Broken Star, Skin in the Game, and Hospitality.

In 2019 Mike wrote and directed his first feature film titled BLINDFIRE that will be premiering in 2020

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 grew up an only child in Bloomington, Illinois and I would not be where I am today if I didn’t have parents that supported all of my hobbies and let me really find myself. From baseball, to punk-rock blue hair, to failing to learn guitar, they were behind me for everything and allowed me to build a confidence in my creativity. I took classical art classes and graphic design classes at Bloomington High School and knew from an early age that I wanted to be involved in the arts. It wasn’t until a college creative writing for directing class that I knew I wanted to be a storyteller.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

Everyone’s paychecks on my upcoming film, Blindfire, and the company LLC has the title of a film I never made on them. While trying to find a way to break into directing a lot of people go the route of writing a low-budget horror film because of advantages like budgets, casting and genre audiences, and I had done just that until I saw a festival with a films logline that read just like mine that stopped me in my tracks weeks before our start date. The title of my film was FareShare and was going to be a ridesharing serial killer film much like “The Stranger” series from Quibi that likely would have come out before my film as well. So, everything happens for a reason.

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

As a storyteller sometimes you are fortunate enough to have interesting people bring you their own stories to help share. When I met Kevin Koch, the first mascot of the Pittsburgh Pirates, I ran in to a lifetime of stories covering all the pillars of sex, drugs, and rock n roll, and ending with him sitting in front of congress giving sworn testimony.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am currently working on a few small indie scripts of my own but most notable I am working with producer Joe Majestic, yes real name, and writer David Brant to create a series about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ mascot. The story is such an epic ride from a fan winning a tryout in a parrot suit, to a world series championship and the cocaine driven after party that lasted for years until the US Congress intervened after an FBI investigation.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I wish I were a better student and could paint myself as an intellect and list historical names for you, but if I’m talking about personal inspiration, I would have to say I am inspired by emerging artists. Watching original voices find their audience and navigate the art with limited support and no guarantee of success is absolutely empowering. Seeing directors like Damien Chazelle launch into the stratosphere from his first indie film Whiplash was inspiring. When I began working at Kandoo Films, Howard Barish had just produced Ava DuVernay’s second film, Middle of Nowhere, and with that experience he launched a fund to make indie films for new voices. My upcoming film, Blindfire (in theaters and virtual cinema on 11/13 and Digital/VOD on 11/20), is the fourth film from the slate, and with each new film and director I’ve been inspired by their determination, creativity, and fearlessness to tell a story and be an artist.

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?

While making Blindfire, it put me back in connection with a friend from high school named James Wade who contributed music to the film including our credit roll song, “Oscar Grant.” James started a private group on Facebook of friends from high school to speak about how they were feeling after the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and how it was affecting our relationships and hometown. This group soon took on the name of The Equality Pact and moved out of just conversations and forward with the goals of education and mentorship, community engagement, and law enforcement accountability and relationships. We have had conversations with local officials, school principals, teachers, and police officers about how we can best service the community of Bloomington, IL.

Education is one of the pillars of The Equality Pact and I began working with a local middle school literary teacher, Jen Brooks, who founded a book club to encourage students to read stories from black authors. The “Black is Lit” book club soon took form and will launch in January 2021 featuring a guest host each month sharing a book by a black or indigenous author that has touched their life. We will have original conversations and Q&As at the end of every book as well as giveaways all in the spirit of youth reading. You can join the club at @black.islit on Instagram and the website for the club will be launching with our first book in January at www.blackislit.org.

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?

I had a real epiphany the moment I saw a film at a festival similar to Blindfire, which was in pre-production. If I only made one film, would it share a message I could believe in for the rest of my life or would it blend into a model to attempt to please an audience? Could I do both? It’s the pinnacle of the art the way Jordan Peele made Get Out both terrifying and a social statement, or Disney’s Inside Out, to both joke as well as educate audiences on how to deal with internal emotions. That ability to “walk and chew gum” is something every film should strive for, but many forget about one or the other. This was the moment I knew I must move on to a different project I had been writing.

The inspiration for Blindfire came from a string of national headlines that left me in a state of self-examination on racial bias in this country. At that time, I was working on the documentary 13th as an associate producer and it truly opened my eyes to the racial bias and disparities between white people and Black people that I hadn’t recognized most of my life.

In the end, Blindfire does little to hide its messaging of conditioned racism and accountability, but it’s a message that I have not seen other crime films attempt and I am forever grateful to Brian Geraghty for taking on the part of this cop at rock bottom and Howard Barish for producing a film like this.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I hope that this film serves as a statement to audiences that the pain communities of color feel has been heard, and accountability must be the next step. I also hope that this film sparks further conversations about what justice should look like for everyone and about conditioned racism in Americans and the work we can do to free ourselves from it.

At the time of writing this Blindfire has not been released so I can only hope that it has an impact on audiences. For now, I know the ways it has had an impact on myself. If I am going to make a film that holds law enforcement to such a high level of accountability and transparency, it’s my duty to hold myself to the same standards. When I make a mistake or hurt someone in my personal or professional life, I do everything I can to move past those initial defensive emotions of anger and blame and embrace responsibility and view it as a painful opportunity for growth. Like the gym. I also make it a personal responsibility to inject diversity into my life, so I recognize the false representation that media and history puts on people. Growing up in central Illinois pre-Facebook means most of my friends have identical backgrounds to my own and the rewards of diversity have literally been the gift of a whole new world. Cue the Disney track.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Everyone can stream Blindfire beginning November 20 and then engage in the difficult conversations about law enforcement, racism, accountability and what justice should look like that I promise the film will provoke.

Readers can get involved in their local community by researching if their towns have community review boards for law enforcement and joining them. I believe real change in people happens within arms distance and with eye contact so always be thinking local and how to service those closest to you where you can make the largest impact first.

The Government could help the process of accountability by ending Qualified Immunity that protects officers from liability, even when they violate people’s constitutional rights.

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

When I first started filmmaking, I wish I had learned to focus on running my own race and not compare myself to the success of others. Everyone gets their break in a different way. I could never tell someone to follow my path and start working at a film company and hope that four years into your career they start a film fund for first time directors. All you can do is be prepared with your story and be open minded to collaborate where opportunity shows itself.

You can lead from the middle and most successfully projects value leadership qualities at every level. Leadership isn’t about being the loudest voice or having your name at the top. It’s about empowering the people around you to all perform their best, and to do that properly it takes an evolving approach. Sometimes it’s being decisive and leading by example and other times it’s stepping aside, being quiet and creating the best environment for someone else to take the spotlight.

Be vocally gracious. Let people know with sincerity the service they have done for you. A well written thank you letter can be the foundation of a long relationship. I’ve thanked an actor for his time, consideration, and feedback after passing on my project, only to receive a follow up to ask about working out a different opportunity.

Don’t get lost in the comment sections of the internet, none of it compares to the feedback from a person in real life. After working on 13th I had a stranger bring up the documentary in line at the pet store and I mentioned that I was there for every day of filming and how impactful the experience was. He begged me to pass along his praise to the filmmakers and how he shares it with everyone he knows to help him articulate the problems we currently have with the prison industrial complex and prison for profit.

You must be selfish with your time because you will never get more of it. I’ve decided to choose my top causes and projects and remember that anything else I decide to add to my plate will detract from the results of these passions in some way.

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?

The cliché of “getting out what you put in” holds true in so many parts of life and the reward system for social and environmental work begins almost immediately. Doing positive work attracts positive likeminded people to your life, it raises your self-esteem, and it creates a better environment around you. It’s taken age and maybe having a few interns to understand what it is to take pride in other people’s accomplishments but the sooner I learned that lesson the more I wanted to give my skills to all sorts of people and causes I believe in.

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. 🙂

I’ve been inspired by Boyan Slat’s story for many years. He saw an obvious problem with plastic in the ocean and came up with a plan to solve it and did not let anyone deter his vision. The Ocean Cleanup now has systems in place cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage patch as well as river interceptors stopping plastic from every making it to sea. The confidence he possessed at such a young age to not let anyone hold him back with doubt has been truly admirable. He seems to view our world’s problems as solvable equations without the interference of politics or much outside distraction and I am grateful that he has chosen to use his gift of intellect to service the world. Where his engineering can physically change the world, maybe my filmmaking could help change the mentality of it.

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

“Heroes get remembered but legends never die, follow your heart kid and you’ll never go wrong” was a message from Babe Ruth to a sleeping Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez the night before he played pickle with the Beast. The Sandlot remains my favorite film of all time and that quote always reminds me that your character and actions have the power to outlive you and travel unknown distances and even create change long after we are gone.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram — by_mike_nell

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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