Spotlight is ComingSoon’s interview series with below-the-line and/or up-and-coming talent in the world of television and film. Our aim is to shine a spotlight on the varied positions that make the entertainment you love possible rather than focusing purely on actors and directors.
ComingSoon’s Jeff Ames recently spoke with director John-Michael Powell about his debut film as a writer and director, The Send-Off.
“When Emmy Award winning actor, Dan Richards, throws an impromptu soirée at his Hollywood home with only his closest friends in attendance, a fun evening devolves into something much darker after Dan makes an unexpected announcement to the group,” reads the synopsis.”
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Powell is an award-winning filmmaker of feature films, television, commercials, and music videos, many of which have played networks, festivals and theaters worldwide. His more notable narrative editorial works include season three of the hit Netflix Series, Dear White People, created by Justin Simien, Women is Losers, starring Lorenza Izzo and Simu Liu, Young Hearts, produced by The Duplass Brothers, It Happened in L.A., starring Jorma Taccone, Obselidia, winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance 2010 and nominee of two Independent Spirit Awards, All the Wilderness, starring Kodi-Smit McPhee, Isabelle Fuhrman, Danny Devito and Virginia Madsen, Bleeding Heart, starring Jessica Biel and Zosla Mamet, and The Brass Teapot, starring Michael Angarano and Juno Temple.
Jeff Ames: What led you to become a director?
John-Michael Powell: I’d say a series of events during my childhood led me to become the type of person who would be fulfilled by cinema and want to pursue directing. None of them really have anything to do with movies, per se. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas and my dad died suddenly when I was seven years old. I was an only child and my mom had to work her butt off — so a lot of responsibility kind of fell on me at home. I kind of became the man of the house really young. I think that led me to be a little bit more emotionally mature than your average kid that age and obviously, I had to make decisions most kids don’t. Both are characteristics of a good director, but most importantly — I was alone a lot. So, I learned to entertain myself and I lived in my imagination a ton. That led to writing which was a great outlet for me and probably my first true artistic love. I certainly started watching movies as much as I could at a young age, but my grandfather exposed me to oil painting and music. By twelve I was playing guitar, painting, and writing a lot. Wrap all those things into a ball of wax and you’ve got the start of a passion to create and ideas for how that creation should look and be presented.
By my teenage years, I’m playing in bands. I would always be the “leader” of the band. I’m not talking about the lead singer. There’s always a leader in the band. They’re the one person who drags everyone’s butt to practice, schedules gigs, argues with lighting technicians about how the lights on stage should look — it’s not always the lead singer, but it was always me in the bands I was in. When I got to college, I ended up in a film history class and I just absolutely fell in love with all things cinema. That led me to a directing class and as we were all directing for the first time, it was just easy for me.
I had been learning to be a director my whole life and this was what I was meant to do. I remember someone in the class saying to me that I was good at this and I could see the stress in his eyes as he tried to manage everything a director has to manage. And here I was just having fun. For the first time, I kind of knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. And now I’m doing it. As well as a lot of cocaine and mescaline. I’m kidding. Don’t do drugs kids.
What was it about The Send-Off that made you want to work on it?
A number of current trends in Hollywood compelled me to write the film. There’s an abundance of toxic masculinity in the trades every day, so the frustration of seeing the same story repeated over and over was the genesis, but that was just percolating beneath the surface.
The real thing that propelled me was much simpler and I remember the moment it happened well in February 2021. I had started a podcast called Pick Ups with a couple of my friends, Zachary Ray Sherman and Sean Harrison Jones. Every week or so we’d go back and watch a film from the all-time greats lists, whether it was AFI or BFI or Sight and Sound. We had no real ambition to grow the podcast – I think it was the height of the pandemic and we were just itching to talk about cinema. So we’d come together to argue about whether Jodorowsky’s El Topo made any sense or if What Ever Happened to Baby Jane was technically a horror film or not, stuff like that.
On the week of February 7th, I believe, we recorded a podcast for Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. The movie just hit me like a ton of bricks and really resonated with me. I was a fan of Down by Law to a degree and really dug Stranger than Paradise. But there was just something deeply personal about Mystery Train that resonated with me. Maybe it’s because it was about Memphis, a city I grew up near and visited often, or maybe it was that I grew up a musician and in a lot of ways that’s a movie about Rock & Roll… but I was certainly drawn to the notion of a cast of disparate characters roving through one lonely night like a chaotic bunch of whirling dervishes.
Where the actual idea for The Send-Off came from, I can’t tell you, but after seeing Mystery Train I said to Sean and Zach — “I want to make a movie like that; one night in a city with drama, humor, darkness, and chaos under a bed of good music”. A day later, I texted them that I had an idea for a script. I pitched them the idea of an actor throwing a party where he informs his friends that he has cancer and the night becomes this weird, awkward, and drunken mess of emotions, wrapped in a blanket of zeitgeist about Hollywood and toxic masculinity. They both said, “Yeah, there’s something here. You should write it.” And something must have struck a nerve with me because seven days later I had the first draft. That has never happened to me before, but I shared it with Sean and Zach and we all kind of agreed… we should go make this. And the idea was always to not overthink this film. I’m kind of famous amongst my group of friends for having projects build up and develop through the agencies and mini-majors only to die right before getting made for reasons out of my control. The Send-Off was built to be the opposite of that. It was built for the pandemic, going fast and with a bit of a punk rock/DIY attitude. Once my producer Undine Buka came on it was all systems go. We ended up shooting the film three months later.
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What was the most challenging aspect of directing The Send-Off and how did you overcome that?
Here’s a tip: If you write a scene where there’s an extravagant Hollywood party and you’ve got roughly 15 actors in a single scene who all talk — raise enough money to run two cameras. We only had one camera and I so wish we had two. Much of this film is a bunch of characters co-mingling at a party. Luckily, a good portion of the script is pods of people mingling. Truthfully, that’s really what house parties become. It’s rare where you attend a party and everyone at the party is engaged in one big group. So a lot of the film was doable. However, the finale of our film wraps up with an event that sucks everyone at the party together. On top of that — it’s a twelve-minute scene that caps off with a dance sequence. We were running around like chickens with our heads cut off trying to make our day and praying to Godard we didn’t miss covering someone’s dialogue, but thankfully Elijah Guess, our cinematographer, was cool under pressure and made magic with our Gaffer Anders Asbjørnsen. Somehow we were able to light the majority of four separate rooms so we were able to just go as fast as we could. And actually — it sounds crazy to end a challenging scene with a dance sequence, but our choreographers Jillian Meyers and Damian Gomez actually saved me. Damian was acting in the scene prior, but Jillian came at the end of the day and because she hadn’t been there all day — she just brought a much-needed energy to set that reinvigorated us. Even though it was pushing three in the morning, Jillian and Damian got everybody amped and moving their bodies. But that’s really what half of good directing is: Bringing people on the film who you can lean on to do what they do best. I really just tried to get out of the way. If it wasn’t for them, I would have died on day two of production.
Do you have any fun, behind-the-scenes stories about the making of The Send-Off?
Well, I’ll give you two.
One is fun and the other is more mind-blowing than fun. A fun memory is that we didn’t have enough money to put our lead actor, Zachary Ray Sherman, up in a hotel so he graciously agreed to stay at my place. The only problem is that we were shooting in most of the house, so he was forced to sleep in my three-year-old son’s bed. It’s a yellow bulldozer with a really cozy outer space-themed comforter. I remember at one point I was carrying some piece of equipment or prop to that room late at night and the door is open — so I just walk in and there’s Zach in a pitch-black room with his cell phone light on and he’s got his lines for the next day taped on the roof of the bulldozer so he can look up at them while he lays there. So here’s a grown man, laying in my three-year-old son’s bed running lines with himself for a character that says some of the most despicable things you can imagine. I love you, Zach.
The mind-blowing story is that — as I mentioned before one of the core aspects of the film is that it’s about a man who tells his friends that he has cancer. Now, I wrote the film in February 2021. We shot the film in May 2021. In September of 2021, while we’re finishing the edit — can you believe that I was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer? Yeah. Crazy, I know. That’s some real-life imitating art thing going on. Rory Uphold, who plays Tanya, made a joke to me that I should write my next film about someone winning a billion dollars and see what happens. I think I might try it. Oh, and if you’re curious, I went through chemo and as of January 2022 am totally cancer-free. Shout out to Dr. Gross and all the people at the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine. I owe them my life.
What were some of the things you learned from The Send-Off that you’re excited to apply to future endeavors?
Man, this is a great question. And if I’m not careful I could write a tome here. There are so many. I have a lengthy background as an editor and have cut many movies and tv series in the past. Editing is a huge weapon to have in your tool belt as a director. I recommend it to every director. Going into this film, I kind of felt I knew how to make a movie for less. Not a cheap movie, right? I mean — I know how to get the most out of every dollar because I know how to move quickly and not overshoot a scene and truly, I learned that I was absolutely correct. I think now that I know that, that no matter the budget I can make something look high production, it frees me up to focus on visual language and sculpting something very precise. I kept saying to Elijah and Undine that I can’t wait to shoot the next one because I see opportunities to build bigger worlds.
That’s something that I think we were very successful on in a very micro-scale here with The Send-Off. We built a little world that is full of life and different characters with different tones. Sometimes this film is dramatic, sometimes it’s funny — sometimes it’s horrific — yet it all comes together into one unique tapestry. It’s just that with The Send-Off, the world happens mostly within the confines of a single house. I want to move out of the house and into a broader cinematic world, but apply the same lessons of being nimble and efficient — so that we can paint an even more vibrant tapestry, so to speak.
A big thing that I want to do on our next film is really give production design the weight it needs to swing hard. Our production designer Megan Brasfield did a wonderful job with a design budget that, truthfully, should have been quadruple what it was. She worked wonders and in a film where things are very confined – you can get away with a lot by moving around things in different corners of rooms. And we did get away with it on The Send-Off, but just barely. In the next film, the design of the film is going to be given a heavier hand. I can see myself making something very meticulously crafted but with the dark irreverence that is very much me.
Do you have any other projects coming up that you can share with us?
I’ve got a few things I’ve written on the horizon. One takes place in the world of outlaw country music and follows a degenerate A&R man who’s fallen into the bottle and is kicking around cheap motels and strip clubs looking for a diamond in the rough musician to sign. That one is called True Folk and before the pandemic hit was set up at Sony Worldwide, but I’ve got it back and we’ll see what happens with it next.
Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a producer on The Send-Off and I’d love to work with him on something. We almost did years ago on a script I wrote called The Killing Kind. I think he’s a phenomenal actor with loads of depth.
And on the producing side, Undine Buka and I produced Brad Barnes’s latest film, Hiding Places. Brad directed the Sundance Audience Award winner The Locksmith. This one’s a contained family thriller with a kind of reverse Funny Games bent. That film’s under our banner Cinaptic and stars Chris Marquette. We’re currently in post and will be sending it to festivals in the fall.