With his first feature about to hit the festival circuit, 25 year-old Michael Angelo Zervos is gearing up for a very busy time ahead. After working in Los Angeles for two media companies, the 25 year-old filmmaker, a third generation Greek whose grandparents hail from Sparta, Arcadia and Chios, returned to his home state of Michigan last summer to shoot “Papou” on-location in the Detroit/metro-area. A Michigan digital and video incentive that gave him approximately 30% of his $200,000 budget back (“chump change for Hollywood,” as he calls it) helped Zervos complete the film, and now, with entries out to numerous national and international film festivals, he’s excited to see where “Papou” will have its premiere.
Just off the heels of the trailer’s official release, Greek Reporter spoke with Zervos about his influences, the challenges he faced with being a first-time director, and why it was so important to stick to his Greek roots when making “Papou.”
How did you get into directing?
When I graduated college, I went out to L.A. and worked for a couple of film companies there –Anonymous Content, and another company called Cimarron Group, which is now gone; it was a marketing/advertising group that did DVD/featurettes. They basically filled the whole marketing campaign for “Twilight,” “The Hobbit” [and] “The Lord of the Rings” movies. At Anonymous Content, I was a script pitcher — I read scripts, did coverage, and did the song and dance in front of producers. It got to a point where I felt like I wasn’t moving fast enough in those avenues and I wanted to be able to direct. Of course, in order to direct, you have to have directed something before. Somebody has to have faith in you and at that point in time, the only person that had faith in myself was…myself.
Are there any directors that influence you, or whose work you admire?
Alexander Payne has had a fascinating career…he is a great model for young Greek-American filmmakers. I’ve also appreciated the works of the Coen Bros., Paul Thomas Anderson — he’s probably the natural evolution of [Stanley] Kubrick. Kubrick, living or dead, is my favorite filmmaker.
When did it come about for you to make your first feature, ‘Papou’?
I decided to come back to Michigan where we had some pretty good tax incentives, and I thought that I might be able to put together a film of about a couple of hundred thousand dollars based off one of the scripts I might have written. I had written three or four at that point and none of them were cheap enough to be able to make. All of them were million dollar, two million dollars, five million dollars; I was just writing because I enjoyed writing and I wasn’t writing to direct. So I decided to write something very loosely based off of my own experiences, my experiences growing up in a Greek household, but moreover, my relationship with my grandfather.
What’s the central story of ‘Papou’?
The story is about life and death as told through a child’s eyes. The grandfather has a very beautiful relationship with the grandson, and the grandfather is slowly dying through a very intense form of cancer. The grandson doesn’t understand, and this failure to communicate — this misunderstanding, this ignorance of the situation — turns out to push along the plot [and] it sort of develops the problems as the film progresses.
How autobiographical is the story behind the film?
Most of the experiences are made up. More so, the character of Archie is drawn to life more than anybody else. A lot of people ask me, ‘Is this story true? Is it autobiographical?,’ and I have to say, not really. But emotionally, in particular with this Archie character, the papou, he is the most similar to the real-life character. In fact, I named him after my own grandfather, Argyrios.
Why was it so important for you to stick to the Greek word for ‘Grandfather’ as the film’s title?
That’s a good question. As a Greek, my culture is bound to who I am; the fabric of my being is many things. One of the biggest things is my cultural identity, my Greek heritage and unlike maybe other second or third generation Europeans, I have this strong connection with Greece and the Greek language, and Greek culture, and Greek food. I wanted to be able to demonstrate my love for my heritage through some type of vehicle, but I didn’t want to put it on a pedestal or make it larger than life — I wanted to weave it into a story naturally. The story isn’t about being Greek; it is about a family that happens to be Greek but some of these cultural experiences highlight certain aspects of who we are as people, and our beliefs, and our cultural morals and it gives it sort of a flavor. It gives it a uniqueness I don’t think has been done before. There have been Greek films done before, but I think this gives it its own identity. So ‘Papou’ as a grandfather seemed to be appropriate.
As a first-time director, how hard was it to cast the film?
[Laughs] I would say the biggest rule that I had abided in was ‘faking it until you make it.’ As a first-time feature film director, I had no clout, I had no experience outside of some small shorts I had worked on. Going from [having worked on] almost a shoestring shorts budget to almost two hundred thousand dollars is a pretty big jump. Building trust in people was going to be challenging – I knew that in the outset – but I started to build relationships with some of the casting agencies around [Michigan]. That worked out really well, they gave me a lot of great Michigan talent.
Was it a challenge to cast the lead?
We were looking at John Aniston to play the grandfather and we couldn’t make his schedule line with shooting on ‘Days of Our Lives.’ We brought him out [to Michigan] for a week and a half to two weeks and it just was not going to work out. We ended up looking at a couple of other Greek-Americans, Greek actors…one of my family members had discovered Yorgo [Voyagis], and recognized him online and emailed me. I [thought], ‘My goodness, he’s perfect.’ I immediately called up [his] agent in Paris.
How did you convince Yorgo Voyagis to accept the part?
In George’s own words, he said that night he read it, he was crying because he was affected by the story so much. And he has a grandson roughly the same age as the little boy in the story, and he felt like he connected with him.
And you wanted the lead actor who was playing the papou to be Greek?
I had to have a Greek to play it. I looked at other options…There are so many nuances with being Greek, and the accent – I didn’t want any of that to be fake. I wanted a completely authentic performance, and George gave me that. He was the centerpiece of the film. Funny thing is, I cast almost the entire film before I cast him, which is not usually how it goes.
Now that the film is complete, what’s next?
We’ve already submitted to approximately 14 film festivals, we’ve applied to about eight or nine more all over the world. Every filmmaker has a pie in the sky dream of seeing their film on the medium on which it’s supposed to be projected: on the silver screen. I’d love to see the film on a big screen, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. Our main goal is to make sure people see it — to find some sort of distribution, to find its way into the living rooms or on the computer screens or the theater screens, for viewers all over the world.
What about you — what projects are you working on next through your production company, Mother and Midwife Pictures?
I’ve got a busy year ahead. There are a lot of projects that I’m working on…some are television based. I’m actually working on producing a short film with the working title ‘Monster,’ which we’re shooting in Detroit in-between some of these other projects. My main goal is to get back into feature film directing because that’s what I love to do.
Now that I’ve finished my first film, the first one is a breeze. The second one is the real trick; that’s pulling the rabbit out of the hat. So as I move forward as a filmmaker, as a writer, as a producer, I’m looking forward to being able to continue this, what I call…it’s not even work, it’s an incredible experience. Making a film to me is hardly work. I wake up every single day and I’m telling a story and there’s nothing from preventing me from doing so than just myself. Moving onto this next project is going to be the best thing for me. I’m looking forward to being able to do that, and working perhaps with some other Greeks, some Greek-Americans, and the rest of the film industry.