Michael Cross

As part of our DIFF coverage, Bob Perfect chats to local director, Michael Cross. Michael’s film, Rockstardom, is about a small town singer/songwriter Brendon Shields and is one that most DIY readers will probably want to check out at this year’s festival.


DIY: First off how did you come across Brendon Shields?

Michael: I had a meeting with his publisher, we’d been friends years before but I hadn’t seen him for nearly 15 years and we came back into contact. We met up and he played me Going Like A Boeing and Rockstardom on an iPhone. The opening line to Going Like A Boeing gripped me, “This is who I am, and this is where I’m going, I’m going like a Boeing”, there was a quirkiness to it, but there was this assurance about the writing.


DIY: Why did you decide to make a documentary on a guy like Brendon who really isn’t well known at all?

Michael: I think he’s a massive talent and I don’t think there’s anything contrived with what he does. There’s an honesty there and I hope it comes through in the film, that this isn’t a guy performing. He’s even kind of new to even having to perform the songs in a live context which is interesting. With Brendon, he’s free from the record companies and labels and he even talks about it his recording process in the film, where he shunned making the record with a big name producer to go down the coast and record the record himself. I have huge respect for that because it means that everything that’s there is his.



DIY: You seem to pride yourself on your ability to work without a budget and between your commercial work, you pick up projects like Rockstardom. How do you manage to get the films done on such a small budget and why do you do it? 

Michael: I remember that there were always a couple big name directors who talked about it, “You do one for the studios, you do one for yourself.” People like Scorsese will make films that are personal to him which don’t necessarily have big financial backing. And you’ll often hear these guys talk about pet projects that took twenty years to reach the screen and it’s because it’s a personal project that doesn’t necessarily immediately attract funding. I think you have to balance it out. For me it’s worked reasonably well, balancing work that I’m paid to do, which is often documentary by nature, which is what I love. But if you don’t have a project of your own going immediately after you come off that one, you stand to miss an opportunity to tell a story that you can’t necessarily expect someone else to pay you to want to tell. So I’ve kinda gotten quite smart and working on very low budgets and got quite smart at giving favours and claiming them back unashamedly later. So I’m like the most open to helping people out but I’ve got a memory like an elephant.


DIY:Yeah, I know I owe a lot of people…

Michael: But again, I think it’s an intelligent way to work. It’s a 21st century way to work. People have to find a way of trading their services and not always making it about the money because if you wait to raise the funds to do something on the scale you wanna do it, there’s a good chance you might never get to.


DIY: Do you think that’s a universal thing or more of a Durban/South African custom?

Michael: It probably is universal although it definitely applies here and in a sense maybe because we have a small, if not a very small film industry and music industry, we’re not where the money is so we’ve always had to be kind of smart and I think that if you go back 20 or 30 years and the time I’ve been around musicians, the tendency was always that you went to Joburg or to Cape Town to record and increasingly you’re getting people who are now empowered to record where they are. Where it’s not so much about the studio and getting a great producer, it’s about getting it down and getting it down honestly. And I also think technolgy has played a huge roll in getting this done by everybody. When I started editing video tape for broadcast, it literally was like having two tape decks. You took a piece from this tape, and put it on to that tape. You didn’t have the benefit of non-linear where you could go back and try a new opening, if you went back, you worked from that point forward. And those two machines, each of them cost a quarter of a million Rand. So you were looking at machines that cost two hundred and fifty thousand Rand a piece before you could start working and editing for broadcast. That immediately shuts a whole lot of people out of the game. The situation now though, you can get a laptop, buy some software and you can create. You still run into curveballs like when you deal with broadcasters who might require things at a certain spec, but even then, almost anything now can shot HD. Even some of our film was shot on iPhones. That is nuts to think about. It’s really liberating. I do think it’s an international thing though in that anything you do now, you’ve got to work smart


DIY: Speaking of the growth of technology,  with more people having access to it, do you find that it’s more competitive now? There’re so many youtube videos and the like out there and you can get lost in the noise of it all…

Michael: I think if you’re not savvy on how to get it out, and I don’t claim to be, that can work against you. There was a time that if you created something, there were set channels for distribution. Lets stick to music, if you recorded a song 15 or 20 years ago, you had a very limited number of places you could get it pressed to make a record. You then had a handful of record companies who were able to distribute it so being an independent then was very difficult. What it’s come down to now is that there all these channels and there are all these outlets but you also have to be, or know someone who is smart enough to help you tap into that.The most creative people aren’t always the best at marketing themselves. First prize is still to have someone who is taking care of business and getting you out there and freeing you up to just work because one of the frustrations I find and I think it’s true with a lot of artists of whatever sort is that you spend a lot of time not creating because you’re handling the admin of trying to get it out there. That being said, there’s probably never been a better time to be doing what I do, what you guys do, to be a photographer, musician or an artist because we have that shop window on the internet.


DIY: Still on the subject of technology, how does piracy affect you? Is it a concern or do you see piracy and file sharing as a whole as a way to get your film seen?

Michael: I went to a lecture at Encounters which was hosted by Tiffany Schlain, who used to run the Webby Awards, and in her lecture she spoke about windows. The theory is that you have a window for broadcasters and a window for theatres and so on. With any film, the theory would be that it would show in cinemas first and then go to TV and then it would go to “sell through” as they would call it, which is basically DVDs and back in the day, VHS. And now obviously, all these things have become kinda clouded. The trick is still to do the festivals first, so right now I’m paranoid as hell about giving out screeners. The moment it’s flighted on television, I don’t really give a shit because I’ve never anticipated with any of these films, there being a huge per DVD sale type reward coming back, it’s not that kind of stuff. If you want DVD sales, you need to give people an incentive to buy like a DVD/CD combo deal because it will get out, it will be pirated and it will stop you from selling a number of disks you might have otherwise sold. The reality though is that there is value in it getting out, people that might not have come across the film get to see it and hear Brendon’s music. I’m not in a situation where I have investors breathing down my neck so if I lose a couple of sales it’s not the end of the world. I think it’s better to try and work a model that takes that into account rather than trying to change it, because you can’t change it. It’s key to try hold it back to a point, where it inflicts the least damage, for the want of a better word, and that’s why I try be a bit careful but I’m not going to watermark things and nail the fucker who posted it.


DIY: How do you balance working on commercial projects and passion projects. Do they ever interfere or does one help the other?

Michael: Well I try to find a balance by finding a project that pays me enough to carry me through the couple of months that I know there’s no guarantee of anything coming through. It’s very hard to have those two working in tandem, doing everything you want and somebody paying you for it.


DIY: Well the complaint that I find that everyone always has is that clients have a certain expectation and they don’t always let you get creative with the projects they do give out, do you find that same problem?

Michael: Well the thing that I think is interesting is that the work that you do for yourself which ultimately becomes show-reel material, that funnily enough, gets clients to appreciate what you’re capable of giving them that they might not ask for initially. So suddenly someone is coming up to you and says “You know what, we’re looking for this slightly abstract angle” which is not what they do if all you’ve ever done is produce corporate product and promotional videos.


DIY: So because of your side projects, they let you put more your personality into the projects?

Michael: Well ya, maybe more than they would have otherwise. It really is a balance.


DIY: Lets talk about DIFF for a bit. One thing I’ve wondered is, do film festivals help sell films for distribution or is it more just about getting the film seen by an audience?

Michael: Well there’s two things. I just had the film at Encounters and it was an absolute treat on one level. It was well received and people were kind about the film, so on one level, that’s the benefit that you get immediately, the response from an audience and you get to see what you’ve got. In terms of sales though, every festival is different. I went to Cannes for two years with the company I used to work for and what you realise is that it’s absolutely about business. There’s a huge art element to it, but the market at Canne is so huge and people are there to buy and sell, as simple as that. I think at the Durban International Film Mestival, the Film Mart that is associated to it is a great thing for directors because you do have people coming here looking to buy content and not just people who want to watch some films. You want a balance, you want people who are there to watch the film and give you that response and you also want people who are there looking for product. Durban as a film festival is probably the most that way inclined film festival in South Africa. It’s a great festival and I would have been absolutely gutted if I hadn’t got the film in.


DIY: Last question, and it’s a generic bullshit question, but why should people go watch Rockstardom at this year’s festival?

Michael: The first part of this may sound rehearsed and I don’t mean it to, but I do think there is something universal about the story. I do think Brendon’s predicament, coming from a small town, having these songs and desperately wanting to get them out is true of writers, painters, poets, graffiti artists, sculptors… You name the art form and there are people who are in that position. What I think is the film’s strongest point is that this guy represents a whole lot more than just himself. One or two people have come up to me and said that they found the story inspiring because you sense that he has dealt with rejection, you sense he has dealt with disappointment and yet there’s this commitment to continuing to do it. My hope is that people will come and see it because it is an intimate and honest look at an artist in a difficult place trying to do something that every artist does; having their work appreciated and having their work affect people whilst trying to live.


You can catch Rockstardom at the Sneddon on the 24th at 20:00 and at the Blue Waters Hotel at 17:00 on the 27th of July


5 Responses to “Michael Cross”
  1. Daisy says:

    Yay! awesome! so happy to see Michael being interview for DIY!!!! Thanks guys for putting this together! I have heard a lot of buzz about Brendon and his story. Interested to hear what people think about it. 🙂

  2. Sarah Brown says:

    I won’t …. say … a word. Sticky tape is on my mouth.

  3. Marisa says:

    What a lovely interview with Michael Cross – brilliant film about a very interesting and remarkable artist – Brendon Shields. Well done to both Michael and Brendon as well as the whole team involved in creating this masterpiece.

  4. Bobby says:

    Bali doing Durban proud!

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