Brown University, located in Providence, Rhode Island, has produced a wealth of filmmaking talent—John Krasinski and Laura Linney are just two famous alumni—and it’s possible we’ve found some more to join the ranks. Henry Chaisson, a rising senior at the university, teamed up with fellow alumni, including Mike Makowsky and his production company Slater Hall Productions, to make “Open 24 Hours,” a dark comedy screening at this year’s festival. In the film, a man shows up at a gas station and attempts to buy some questionable items from an exasperating cashier.
RIIFF got the chance to conduct an e-mail interview with Makowsky, who wrote and produced the film.
RIIFF: You graduated from Brown in 2013, and already run your own production company—how were you able to get such a quick start to your career? Any suggestions for current undergrads who want to follow a similar career path?
Mike Makowsky: I knew that my best chance of breaking into the film industry would be to move to Los Angeles after graduation. I was lucky enough to get a job as a production assistant for Marvel Studios, which was an incredibly educational experience for me. But I had graduated from school with the equivalent of a screenwriting degree, and I was very eager to start writing. So I left and decided to pursue writing full-time, but nobody was excited to read my work because I’d never really done anything before. So I got a team of filmmakers together, found some private funding—and was lucky enough to have parents that really believed in me—and started making short films under the Slater Hall banner.
Things started moving much more quickly after that, because production wasn’t just a hobby or a side thing but our full-time commitment. Within a year we’d completed five short films. We made our share of mistakes along the way, but we learned from them. Nobody’s perfect, but I really think it’s all about setting aside the right amount of time to hone your craft, to take it seriously and not get bogged down with other distractions.
RIIFF: Your Brown education was clearly important to you—you named your production company, Slater Hall Productions, after one of the school’s dorms, and you have worked extensively with fellow Brown alumni. How has your time at Brown affected your filmmaking style, taste, and career?
MM: I loved my time at Brown, but I wouldn’t say it directly prepared me for the rigors of film production. I took a lot of classes in the Modern Culture & Media department, which was pretty much the closest thing to getting a film degree, but it was far more theory-based than production-intensive. There were other outlets, extracurricular groups like Brown Television that focused on scrounging the resources to make student films. I started a webseries with my friend Travis Bogosian, who I’d later work with at Slater Hall. The film community at Brown wasn’t big, so we all kind of banded together out of necessity to produce the best material we could. After school ended I really missed that kind of collaboration, so I reached out to my old friends at Brown when I decided to start the company in Los Angeles.
RIIFF: You live and work in Los Angeles—do you miss anything about the Northeast? What do you feel is the difference between East and West Coast filmmaking?
MM: I grew up in New York, on Long Island, so the west coast was really uncharted territory. I love the Northeast—we returned to my hometown to shoot “Theodora” [also playing at this year’s RIFF]. The script was set in New England and we’d been looking all over Los Angeles for the right locations. At the end of the day it made more sense to just shoot the film on the East Coast, where we could get our locations for free and also service the story the right way—and I think the film is all the much better for that. I’d love to shoot a feature there one day. We talk about it constantly.
But I love Los Angeles for different reasons. It really seems like everyone out there has this passion for film, wants to be involved in great projects, and that’s great for a producer. It’s great to be able to pool all those creative people together and assemble a team. And it’s exciting when they’ve been a part of bigger productions, your favorite films or television shows—that happens too, and you can learn so much. You’re right in the heart of it. There’s really nothing better.
RIIFF: You wrote “Open 24 Hours.” Where did you get the idea for this story? Any personal connection to the material?
MM: “Open 24 Hours” stemmed from a silly idea I had a few years ago at a CVS. The woman at the cash register seemed particularly stoic, almost bored, so I thought it’d be fun to pick out the most disconcerting items in the store and bring them up to the register. That ended up being a roll of duct tape and coil of rope, along with this pair of toy handcuffs from the kids’ aisle. She didn’t bat an eyelash, just rang the items through with the same blank stare. I was pleasantly appalled, and I kept it in the back of my mind for later.
RIIFF: What has been the audience reaction to the film?
MM: I think I speak on behalf of the entire team—especially Henry Chaisson, the film’s director and editor, who is actually an incoming senior at Brown—to say that the audience reaction has been more exciting than anything we could have ever imagined. The stuff Henry and I find funny isn’t necessarily what everyone else laughs at, so it’s always interesting to see which moments elicit the most response. I’d say the film has definitely been embraced more as a comedy by festival programmers and audiences, but it’s also got some classic suspense elements. We’re thrilled the film has been so well-received, and we’re extremely proud of the way it turned out.
RIIFF: What are you working on next?
MM: I recently finished writing a feature-length script, a low-budget thriller with some dark comedic elements à la “Open 24 Hours.” And I’ve spent some time on an hour-long pilot concept, a small-town mystery that’s actually set in the Northeast. Slater Hall also has another short film in the pipeline, a documentary about the synchronous firefly phenomenon in the Great Smoky Mountains. We’re editing that one now.