Besides being nicely shot, well acted and cleverly written, Michael Morrow‘s Mummers is a sneaky film, it has to be said. It sets you up, makes you relax, deceives you into letting your guard down. And then it hits you with a vicios uppercut you never saw coming, and you find yourself on the canvas trying to make sense of what just happened. When we say sneaky, of course, we mean it in the best possible sense of the word. Early on, we’re introduced to two merry citizens of Newfoundland, enjoying themselves with a bottle of whiskey. They are no ordinary men having a drink or twelve on the park bench—they are two extraordinary people giving their best to bring the tradition of Mummering back to life. For all of you who’re not familiar with the term, have no fear—the film takes it into consideration and generously explains the term at the very beginning. This is a Newfoundland Christmas tradition in which people dress up and visit their neighbors in disguise. They drink, they eat, they dance and play, and the host’s job is to try to guess their identities. It’s a somewhat freaky version of Halloween, which by itself has some undeniably creepy elements in it.
Things turn for the worse when the merry duo is joined by a mysterious, silent third Mummer. The three of them then visit a neighbor’s house, just like the tradition expects them to. But not all Mummers are here to have a jolly good time, and sometimes the masks hide far more than drunk, goofy faces.
What we liked about Mummers is how it starts out as a silly but amusing comedy and then manages to turn the situation upside down. Soon, there’s nothing to laugh about. This punch to the viewer’s stomach is well executed, unexpected and makes the most out of the bizarre atmosphere created around this peculiar tradition. What especially delighted us is the animated sequence used to reveal the background of the story and a part of the characters’ histories. This was done by Tara Donovan, obviously a highly talented artist in the field of animation. But Morrow’s writing, the successful blend of humor and horror, as well as perfect timing, nice photography and really impressive performances from the cast, all add up to a marvelous short film. It’s obvious the filmmaker and his crew had a great time doing this project, and that positive atmosphere somehow got transferred onto the screen. Mummers is lovable, haunting and to a degree even disturbing, which is practically all you can ask from a film as short as this one.
How did you come up with the idea for Mummers?
Developing Mummers was the most unique creative process I’ve ever experienced. I was in Newfoundland directing a documentary series for Discovery Channel Canada about Newfoundland fishermen called Cold Water Cowboys and met a few very talented actors in the tiny town of Cowhead. This seemed unlikely in a town with a population less than 500, but Cowhead boasts a vibrant theater company in the summer tourism season and it draws top talent from all over the province. That’s where I met Stuart Simpson, Adam Brake, Amelia Manuel and Craig Haley. I thought they were amazing and wanted to find a way to collaborate with them. So we started kicking around ideas for a possible project.
Stuart, one of the theatres actors, told me he wanted to tell a story about Mummers. Being a main lander from Ontario, I had never heard of a Mummer. But as Stu described it, it sounded incredible. Mummering is a Newfoundland Christmas tradition where people dress up in masks and costumes to visit neighbors’ houses to sing, dance, and play. During the merriment, the host offers them food and drink and tries to guess their identity. It seemed to me like a bizarre variation of Halloween for adults. I did some research and learned Mummering is a very old tradition dating back to the 1600’s. I felt the topic offered a lot of opportunity for humor and at the same time I found many of the disguises seemed pretty creepy, which was good. We had our topic.
We bounced around ideas for situations, scenes and characters. I was away on a boat working a lot and all those guys were performing every day so the collaborative building of this idea took some time. But our collective passion for the potential project was firey and we all fed from each other. So our brief creative sessions were explosive but somewhat unfocused. Everyone was ok with this loose and organic approach. Our approach was, “Lets chuck stuff at the wall and see what sticks.” I didn’t want to do a re-telling of some past event but felt it was important to convey the tradition and mechanics of Mummering. We needed to compress a lot of story into a small amount of screen time and crank it all up a notch or two. I knew our strengths; two incredible actors with a flair for comedy in Adam and Stu, a gifted actor with an astounding singing voice in Amelia, and Craig’s amazing versatility. So we designed the characters around these strengths. After a while we compiled a lot of scenes and scenarios for these characters, too much.
We had a lot of great ideas but needed a clear focus. One day I was on the dock waiting to shoot a scene with one of our Cold Water Cowboys and he ended up being two hours late, so I hammered out a treatment on my phone. This ended up being the script without dialogue; Two lovable arseholes set out to bring Mummering back to its former glory. But when they meet up with a third Mummer with a far darker purpose, to avenge the murder of her father, the situation escalates to mayhem and murder. It would be about the cycle of vengeance.
Everyone liked it so we met a couple times and ran through it and work-shopped the dialogue. With each scene, we already had a setting, character and the character motivations, so in creating the dialogue I asked the actor/writers ad-lib each scene a bunch of times. We kept the best bits with each pass and refined. It was a creative explosion and my job was to corral it to support the narrative. It was a unique writing process with a potent vitality so far removed from typing silently alone behind a desk. It was a boisterous, lively, inspiring process. It was the most enriching creative collaboration of my career. I wrote Amelia’s song over the course of a few days and tidied up the script. During a scheduled two-week break from filming the Discovery TV Show, I stayed in Cowhead for the first week and shot the film over several days around the actor’s schedules.
It’s a rather dark film, even though you kind of trick the viewer into feeling relaxed. The tone of the greater part of the film is joyful, playful, somehow optimistic. Was it your goal to relax the audience before turning on the horror switch?
We wanted to bring the audience into this unique world of Newfoundland Mummering and explore the intricate facets of this tradition. That’s a tall order for a short film so I had to go with what attracted me as a storyteller. I was drawn to the light-hearted spirit of Mummering as well as the inherent creepiness. We wanted a shocking horror ending. So to maximize this we designed the story to begin at the opposite end of the spectrum, comedy. I felt it was important to create audience empathy with our two jackass Mummers. You might not sympathize with their adolescent destructive behavior, but they are likable and you will probably identify with them on some level. So at the end, when these characters witness this horrible act, the audience experiences the visual shock along with an emotional response for these characters. I felt that creating an emotional journey for the audience was just as important as a well-designed plot. That was the intention anyway.
What made you want to be a filmmaker? What was the point in your life when you decided this is what you wanted to do?
I was in my second year at college. I went to art school, the Ontario College of Art and Design. I was a bit of a keener so I was doing a double major in Fine Arts (drawing & painting) and Integrated Media (film, video and animation). I loved both programs and our instructors were very good, but the film program was pretty unique. “Here’s a Bolex, this is how it works, go make some art.” I fell in love with the medium right away. I’ve always loved movies and I’d always done little plays in school when I was a kid and imagined intricate music videos for songs I liked, so temporal media came naturally. I made some pretty kooky stuff but people seemed to like it and I won some awards and I put that into making better stuff the following year. I was hooked. I wanted to make films for the rest of my life. I didn’t really have a career plan, I just loved making these short films and learning how to do it better.
In the summer before my fourth and final year that all changed, in an unlikely place, on the beach. I was a competitive beach volleyball player and was training one day and met a guy, Brad Walsh. After couple hours we were packing up and I noticed he had film reels supporting his net poles. He was a music video director who had started up a production company down the street. We became good friends and I worked with him that summer doing everything from pulling cable to drawing storyboards. I learned a lot that summer and met some very talented people.
Brad and I both aspired to make feature films and a great way to hone your skills and make a living is doing music videos and TV commercials. In order to do that I’d need a reel. So in my final year of college I put my efforts into creating a Commercial Director’s reel. I ended up with four 30 second spots, one of which won a Student Bessie award, the Canadian advertising awards. I pitched my reel to local production companies and I landed my first paid directing gig the day I graduated from college. Two weeks later an art director friend of mine hired me to do a bunch of corporate films for some pretty big clients. They say luck is when opportunity meets preparation, so I guess I was pretty lucky. Since then, I’ve been blessed to produce, direct, shoot, edit and write for a living.
You made quite a lot of TV commercials. Was this something that piqued your interest or did you find it a great way to make money?
My end game is to direct feature films. When in college, I made a director’s reel and thought doing TV commercials would be a good way to get a foot in the door and hone my craft. I haven’t really done a lot of commercial spots, maybe a half dozen or so spread out over a decade. I’ve done a lot of corporate narrative films for brands like Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Dupont, KPMG, Shell and East Side Mario’s. I’ve always looked at these projects as an opportunity to refine my craft. Working with professional actors on scripted scenarios was kind of like a postgraduate course in filmmaking. I was able to hire my friends for crew and I learned a lot about working with actors and visual storytelling. I’d edit the projects myself and I can’t think of a better way for fledgling directors to learn then to see first hand what works and what doesn’t in the edit suite.
Who are your role models among great filmmakers? Whose work influenced you the most? Who would you say is the greatest film director still working?
I’m a huge fan of Steven Spielberg. He is the grand master of visual storytelling. My list of favorite greats would be; David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Wells, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Frank Capra, Georges Méliés, James Cameron, Ridley Scott and Alfred Hitchcock. I’d say my greatest influences have been Hitchcock, Spielberg and Bergman. I think the greatest film director still working would be Spielberg. That said, I love the work of JJ Abrams, Christopher Nolan, Alfonso Cuarón, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Peter Weir, Josh Whedon, Denys Arcand, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and David Fincher. I’m astounded by the diversity of work by Steven Soderbergh and George Miller.
What are your future documentaristic ambitions? What kind of a documentary would you like to make, if you had the time and resources?
I’m pretty busy doing documentary/factual TV and I love it. Much of that work is around themes of exploration and adventure so it’s usually on the social fringe in tough environments. Cold Water Cowboys (about Newfoundland fishermen on the North Atlantic) and Ice Road Truckers (about truckers in northern Manitoba) are some of the toughest jobs I’ve ever done. ‘Blue collar’ shows are generally grueling on the body and I won’t be able to do this stuff forever. So I am always developing TV shows in the documentary realm and I’d love to do something on a tropical beach that involves 3 hours of shooting a day ;). But seriously, I love capturing unique worlds and tell the stories of big personalities over-coming crazy obstacles to achieve success. I love stories of the underdog. So my ideal documentary would be about an underdog on a mission to overcome huge challenges to make a meaningful change in his or her community/world. Start out with the aim of capturing a classic hero’s journey and see where the story takes you. I love documentaries because there is always a point where the story takes on a life of it’s own and it becomes your job as a story teller to focus it, clarify and some times just hang on!
Where do you see yourself in, let’s say, five years’ time?
I love the work I’m doing now and will continue doing that. I’ve met a lot of incredible people and it’s taken me around the world to places I never would have experienced otherwise. I’d like to switch gears and move into doing more scripted filmmaking. I’m writing a feature horror film right now and finishing the third draft of an animated TV series pilot in the vein of Family Guy and Futurama. So in five years I’d like to be doing more scripted film and television projects I’ve developed or working in scripted television as a director for hire.
A lot of people say short films is what aspiring filmmakers should definitely start with. What’s your opinion on that? What are the advantages of this form for filmmakers on the very beginning of their professional journeys?
Short films are a great way for young filmmakers to get started, build a body of work and refine their storytelling chops. Music videos are great too. The tools are so accessible today and it’s remarkable what can be done with a DSLR, audio recorder, a laptop and talent. With minimal investment, young filmmakers have the tools at hand to tell their stories. With Youtube and Vimeo filmmakers can distribute their work for the world to see and receive direct feedback from their audience. It’s an amazing time. Making short films offers young filmmakers the opportunity to build their skills and find their unique voice.
Director Michael T Morrow is an award winning television director specializing in themes of exploration and adventure. Morrow has sixteen years experience in documentaries and series television, music videos and commercials. After graduating OCAD’s Integrated Media Program, Morrow spent his first few years directing television commercials, music videos and corporate films before self-financing his first long form documentary. Morrow produced, directed, wrote and edited the feature documentary Hot Rod, The Movie about small town demolition derby drivers. The film played in festivals world wide, before airing on OLN and IFC. Morrow worked with Summerhill Entertainment to extend the concept into a half hour series redubbed Crash Addicts for OLN. Over the next two years, Morrow directed and/or story produced each of the 26 episodes.
Morrow’s recent directing activity include the Gemini award winning Fire Jammers (Yap Films/Discovery Canada), Nerve Center—Atlanta Airport (EPI/ Discovery Canada), Alien Invaders (Peter Rowe Productions/OLN), Canadian Made—Impervious (Primitive Entertainment/History Television) and License to Drill (Multiple Episodes Season 3) (Pixcom/Discovery Canada), Cold Water Cowboys Season 1 (Multiple Episodes) (Paperny Entertainment/Discovery Canada), Cold Water Cowboys Season 2 (Multiple Episodes) (Paperny Entertainment/Discovery Canada), Mighty Planes 03—T-38 (EPI/ Discovery Canada), Mighty Planes 03—Nolinor (SegmentDirector)(EPI/ Discovery Canada), a TV commercial for Bay of Quinte Region Isn’t it Time?, and Ice Road Truckers (Original Productions/History). Morrow aspires to make a meaningful contribution to Canadian culture by continuing to work with top production houses and networks on programs that educate, inspire and entertain a broad audience.
Raindance FF 2014
Director: Michael T Morrow
Producer: Michael T Morrow
Actors: Amelia Manuel, Stuart Simpson, Adam Brake
Cinematographer: Michael T Morrow
Composer: Michael Hanson
Sound Designer: Mike Palozzi
Writer: Michael T Morrow, Adam Brake, Amelia Manuel, Stuart Simpson
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in[newsletter]