Coming to terms with your own personal failures is a universal theme that defines the inner workings of many works of art, but it’s not something that defines Michael Doneger.
Doneger is the 32 year old filmmaker behind Brampton’s Own, an upcoming film starring Alex Russell (Chronicle, Only the Brave) as Dustin, a minor league baseball player struggling to make it in the major league, only to retire and return with his tail between his legs to his hometown.
It’s here that he realizes that everyone he knows and loves has moved on to better things, including his high school sweetheart played by Rose McIver (iZombie). But time and distance haven’t completely snuffed the spark that existed between them, and now Dustin has to grapple with his past and future when he realizes that, although he might be done with baseball, baseball might not be done with him.
The cast is rounded out by Scott Porter (Friday Night Lights), Jean Smart (Garden State), and Spencer Grammer (Rick & Morty), with the film asking audiences the universal question of how one begins to cope with their lives when their dreams never quite become reality.
Cougar News reporter Jed Bookout had a chance to watch the film early and catch a few words with Doneger before the film sees release on October 19.
Let me get a couple words from you about the movie’s themes; what I got out of this film is it’s pretty much a story of coming to terms with one’s own failings. Did you have a different take? Expand a bit.
The strongest theme of the movie is definitely realizing how much you’ve sacrificed to go chase a dream, and when your dream doesn’t fit your situation, how do you respond to that? You’re definitely right in that it’s a response to failure and shows the sort of psychology of why someone might not succeed at something. And as you can tell from the end of the movie when the mom gives Dustin that speech, she basically tells him that his approach to everything was wrong. He was so result-oriented and didn’t appreciate the process or journey of it that he lost his way.
So I know that you directed, wrote, and produced this as well as starred in this, too, which I’m gonna get to a little later, but-
Well yeah, I didn’t star in it, Alex Russell starred in it. I just had a small little cameo.
Wrong choice of words, then; you played Robby… I guess I’ll just ask my question about this right now, actually. I’ll cut to the chase: do you still have the Keepin’ It Real Estate card? *laughs*
*laughs* Perhaps? It’s funny… I was trying to think of something funny to put on that card. I did a Google search of ridiculous sayings and that one came up with ten or so other ridiculous ones, but I liked that one the best. I don’t know where that card is anymore. *laughs*
It was definitely a funny bit of prop humor! One of the things I wanted to asked you about that, though, is did you always intend to play Robby or was that something that sort of came up naturally through production?
I actually wrote the movie originally intending to star as Dustin. I act as well and I’ve acted in my previous movies, but for this movie, I just didn’t want to have any regrets with the overall film.
In my opinion, the hardest thing to do in this business is to direct and act at the same time because it requires you to use two different parts of your brain as director. You have to look at the whole scope of things, the whole story. You have to be able to be outside of yourself and understand what’s going on from an actor’s perspective, from production design, everything.
But as an actor, all you’re supposed to do is worry about your individual role… it’s not so much that I wasn’t up for the challenge with this one. It’s that I was concerned with the technical aspects of the filmmaking and I had some unique ideas in how I wanted to film. When you boil it down on a 15 day shoot, I just wouldn’t have been able to have the time to direct the way I wanted to AND act.
So I hired the excellent actor Alex Russell and Alex did such an amazing job. It sort of reinvigorated my passion for directing; not that it needed reinvigorating, but it certainly made me realize that directing and storytelling are the most important things to me.
What was it about this particular story that drew you in?
I originally started writing this as I was going through my own personal and professional struggles. I’ve been out here [in Los Angeles] for about seven years and I was thinking of the sacrifices I’ve made.
When you go back home, you see everyone has moved on and they’re living their lives. They’re married, or they’re engaged… they’re taking these big steps in the journey of life and you just feel like you haven’t taken as big of steps. You’re so worried about the next job.
So I just boiled those thoughts and fears into this story and I decided minor league baseball was a good metaphor because it was applicable to “making it” in the Hollywood realm.
There’s a very solid cast here from Alex Russell to Jean Smart to Scott Porter. How did casting come about for this one?
We were lucky! No crazy stories where I was stalking Alex or anything. *laughs*.
The material spoke for itself. We hired a great casting director, who reached out to them, and they all said yes.
With Jean Smart in particular, I remember our guys brought up her name. I was thinking, “okay, this will be a pass.” Then they called me and said Jean was absolutely for it! She’s been around for such a long time and she’s done such amazing work and she’s so good at what she does. I knew through having her that she would be the anchor of our film and that her presence would really ground it. She did not disappoint.
It’s funny because I put some notes down before Jean or Scott even popped up in the film that said, “Vibe generally less like other baseball films. More like Friday Night Lights meets Garden State.” The reason I got to that has to do with some of the choices you made as a filmmaker in terms of it starting with a darker palette when he’s still in the minor league. Then, when he goes home, the screen looks much warmer, more brighter and vibrant, reminiscent of West Texas in Friday Night Lights. The general story was similar to Garden State.
So I get this is a long road to a short thought… what were your main influences coming into this particular project?
Man, I’ll tell you what… I’m SO glad you said everything that you just said. The darker palette? You even boiled it down to the aesthetic.
In the very beginning, our talks were to go darker in tone in the way we were gonna shoot it. We really wanted to sell the intensity of this guy when he goes about his baseball routine and how important it is to him. When we get back, you’re absolutely right: it opens up tonally, it gets more relaxed, and there’s a certain comedic element to it as well.
The way I describe this movie… I actually say Bull Durham meets Garden State, but hey, I’ll take Friday Night Lights *laughs*.
In terms of influence, I looked at Whiplash for the beginning portion to show the kind of intensity Miles Teller showed. We went for a Damien Chazelle, neo noir thing, lots of close ups.
There’s actually a little bit of Just Friends in there, which is NOT the tone I was going for! *laughs* But there are unintended plotting similarities, and people kept coming up to me after and saying “Hey, that reminds of me Just Friends.”
Aside from that… this is a long way around to this: starts off Whiplash. ¾ Garden State.
CN: I’m going to shift gears here for a second though… so. I’ll admit, before this interview, I googled you a little bit because I was curious if I could find any random questions to throw out there. And I found an old interview you did with… I want to say Inside Lacrosse?
*sighs* Oh boy.
You mention something about your first film…
This Thing With Sarah.
Yeah! You mentioned offhand you won some money from Doritos… and don’t elaborate further. I was wondering if you could elaborate more on that right now.
Yeah, that interview’s from seven years ago. My career sort of jump started after I was a finalist for the Super Bowl Doritos commercials. I think they stopped the competition, but they used to open it up.
Any person on the street could shoot their own thing, and they were selecting submissions then [they selected] five to ten finalists. I was a finalist one year and I won a bunch of money. I used that money to make my first film, This Thing With Sarah. So that’s how I jump started everything.
It’s not every day that you get to talk to somebody whose career was jump started by Doritos!
*laughs* Well, you know, to be fair… is jump started too strong of a word? It’s certainly given me the confidence that I was competent enough to make a film.
A strength of an early filmmaker is a certain kind of naivete; if you’re too intellectual, if you’re too practical about the odds of everything, you’re never going to succeed. The numbers are not in your favor. Believe in yourself and the stories you’re trying to tell.
With my first film, I won this money and I’m so glad I didn’t understand the challenges ahead for me because I may never have spent that money and just saved it.
But I put it in, the movie did well, I got my first agent, my first manager, and it led me to make a second movie. So although I don’t necessarily CREDIT Doritos, I APPRECIATE them certainly allowing me to be a finalist.
Also: it didn’t air. So maybe if it aired, I’d talk about Doritos more frequently. *laughs*
Was there anything else you wanted to say about Brampton’s Own before we part ways here?
The movie comes out October 19 in LA!
It was a fantastic project to work on. Working with people that are good people that don’t just care about the role but care about the project, we were beyond lucky to have this experience. The actors were fantastic and the crew behind the scenes could not have done a better job.
We’re really proud of the final product, considering our limited resources.
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Just shoot. Shoot as much as you can. It’s not hard; you can literally make a movie with your iPhone.
Don’t wait for your people to give you the license or agency to make your work. Do it yourself. Nobody will hand you a job; you have to go out and create that job. Just shoot, and find your voice!
Brampton’s Own will be released October 19 in select theaters across America and on VOD. Doneger’s other films are available now on VOD.