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Michael W. Dean, Author and Filmmaker

Michael W. Dean, Author & Independent Filmmaker


Q & A with Michael W. Dean

Film Addiction: What inspired you to write your most recent book- $30 Film School?

Basically, when I was finishing up my movie, "D.I.Y. or Die: How to Survive as an Independent Artist", a stranger came across my Web site and wrote me an e-mail asking me "How can I make a movie?". I'm a nice guy, so I spent two hours writing him a very long e-mail telling him much of what I know. Six months later, while I was promoting the completed film, a woman wrote me and asked me, "How can I promote my independent movie?". I spent about two hours writing her an e-mail telling her how to do it. I saved both of these e-mails, and eventually put them on a Website I started called I let people download the whole thing free, but encouraged them to click a PayPal icon and tip me 99 cents. Over one thousand people downloaded the 20-page document, but NOT ONE gave me the optional 99 cents. I had forgotten the first rule of selling art. It's like Keith Knight says in "D.I.Y. or Die", "People don't value what they get for free."


Micheal W. Dean:I think the best business model is to make stuff that's better than the mainstream stuff, and sell it a little bit cheaper. So I got the idea to develop the whole thing into a book that would come with a CD-ROM full of really useful stuff. I wanted to call it "$20 Film School" and sell it for 20 bucks. When I finally got a publisher, they did some bean counting and decided that it would have to be 30 bucks unless I ditched the CD. I wasn't willing to do that, as the CD is an integral part of the whole project's functionality. I conceded to the pricing because its still a great deal, and they have great distribution. They got the book in every Borders and B. Dalton in the country.


I only get a buck for each copy sold. But they did give me an advance, and it is selling well. Better in fact, than any project I've ever been involved in. And people LOVE it. It hasn't gotten a single bad review, and has gotten a lot of praise from users and reviewers. I'm pretty honored that it's struck a chord with so many people.


I got an agent and then a publisher very quickly. Basically if you have a good idea, and work extremely hard at perfecting it, I believe you can sell it. The reason that most people get frustrated is they want to be stars, don't have star-quality output, and expect an "American Idol" level of return. They think, "If I just had a chance, the world would recognize my genius." But the problem is that most of them have no genius. They just suffer from the common American misconception of "follow your dreams and you will succeed". This is bullshit. Dreams are bullshit. And following them doesn't do much either if you don't work your ass off and also have some degree of drive, integrity, direction, ability to edit (know your crap from your gold, and act accordingly, without someone doing it for you or even telling you that it should be done), ability to multitask and a lot of unstoppable work ethic.

Most people who move to Los Angeles to "make it" move back home within a year. And they're pissed off when they leavelike they were owed something and got shortchanged somehow. I am happy living here and have lived here for three years because I didn't move here to make it: I moved here to live. It's cheap compared to other cities, and the weather is nice. Where I get my mail doesn't matter much, because I spend most of my time in any given home town looking at a computer screen trying to make art, promote art, and book something with my art to do far away.

I work incessantly. For instance: I am sitting on the last day of a two-month tour of Europe, in the Houston airport, typing this. I could be napping or reading a magazine. I got up early today to do an NBC television interview, and still made it on time to my plane. I'm wearing earplugs to dull out the chattering of the blank food tubes milling about me. Im on my laptop doing two interviews and also working on my second novel. I work non-stop. I love it. I find time for a social life, but even that is usually with people I can work with, or at least talk about art and work with.

I like doing things that I like to do that also make money. I would have written this book for free, but I made a good wage writing it. That's how I do everything these days. It's a combination of planning, luck, the Universe liking what I do and also just working my ass off.

I work about 12 to 14 hours a day, every day of the year. I work on labor day, my birthday, Christmas and New Years. I'm editing this and sending it off on Thanksgiving. Actually, holidays piss me off because the post office and banks are closed. I love what I do so much that when it's hard to do I get frustrated.

And isn't that the goal? Really? To have a job that you adore so much that you would rather be doing it than anything else? I love my life and jump out of bed and hit the ground running these days, with whatever my project is. Sometimes it's making a film. Sometimes it's promoting a film. Sometimes it's writing a book--I have developed the Film School book into a series: I am currently in author review with my publisher (Muska & Lipman) over my next completed book, "$30 Music School". And while I was on tour in Europe I spent between two and eight hours a day on trains. So I brought a laptop and started writing "$30 Writing School".



FA: Did you develop all the techniques and tricks in the book or did

other filmmakers contribute?

MWD:Other filmmakers certainly contributed. I have interviews at the end of the book with some very cool indie filmmakers who I admire a lot, and they each say some amazing things. I like ending the book with interviews and am doing the same thing with the "$30 Music School" and "$30 Writing School". It works, because the books are very informative on their own. The part I wrote is over 450 pages, covering everything: how to choose a camera, how to shoot, light, do sound, direct, pick a computer, edit, make DVDs, get them into stores, get paid, and book a world tour. And there's a bit on why you shouldn't sell out, and how to keep focused and how to deal with criticism, poverty and any other adversity. Add 50 pages of hip interviews after that, and a CD-ROM full of examples, contracts, music, images and software, and you've got a pretty amazing book that's worth a lot more than $30 bucks. And I'm pretty psyched that we've developed it into a series.

Most of the filmmaking "tricks" in the book have been used somewhere before. I am actually pretty new to filmmaking, I just learn quickly, learn from the best and possess an uncanny ability to quickly transmit this information to others in a compelling manner. Most of the "tricks" in the book that I invented are production stuff, not shooting stuff. The place I excel is with things like, "how to get cash from your credit card when you have no cash balance left", how to get good people to work for free, "how to get a fast computer donated to your project free" and "how to tour with your film on the European indie DV tour circuit when there is no European indie DV tour circuit yet."


FA: I read on your Website were you did a pretty extensive tour with your independent film. Did you play mainly festivals?

MWD:I didn't show in Europe in any festivals. I usually avoid festivals, because they cost money to enter, and that doesn't even guarantee you'll get in. And while some are cool and exist to promote art and/or help filmmakers hook up with distributors, others are just a scam to make money.

I have been in some good festivals in America, but they all contacted me and waived the fee because they had heard of or seen my film and thought it would be a good addition to their lineup.

In Europe, I booked a tour myself showing mainly in bars, squats and youth centers. I contacted everyone by e-mail and took the train from one showing to the next. The average turnout was 40 or 50 people, and I actually made a profit on the tour, because Europeans treat artists very well. I'd also noticed that in 1990 when I toured with my band, Bomb. In America, you show up to play a club and they give you a percentage of the door, forget to hang up flyers, give the entire band a six-pack to split, and a bag of beer nuts if you're lucky. And you probably sleep in your van, or on someone's floor.


In Europe, they appreciate art and artists. They feed the bands dinner and breakfast and give you a nice place to sleep. The bands drink free, as much as they like, and it's really good beer. They pay you a guarantee regardless of whether or not people show up, but usually people show up, because they promote the shows well. I call all this minimum wage for art. Its the minimum that a band should get. They give the same, at least, to indie filmmakers. Its how they honor art. Europe treats artist with dignity. America doesn't always.

Not many people have toured Europe with no-budget films shot on DV. I am the second person to do it. Within a year, I predict there will be dozens of people doing it. I think that in three years it will be as common, if not more common, than taking a band on tour.


FA: Did you promote the book along the way?

MWD:Yeah, and I also played music. It was a combination film/music/book tour. The film was the main thing, but at about half the shows Id borrow someone's guitar and play three or four songs. That was a lot of fun, and went over really well, especially in Ireland. Those folks love good music.

As for promoting the book, it usually consisted of handing a copy around and telling people about it, just to make sure people knew it existed. Also, the URL for the book's Website was on all of the flyers. I made my own flyer for the tour, and e-mailed a template ahead to the promoters. In some cases, they took my basic information and did their own design. Some of them are quite compelling and beautiful. I took photos of all of them and they are all archived on my Website ( ).


FA: Tell me briefly about the tour and your experiences along the way.

MWD:I showed the film in England, Ireland, France, Germany, Holland and Belgium. I relied on the kindness of strangers, and there was a lot of kindness. People really got behind this film. I met a lot of incredible folks, a few of whom are probably going to be my friends for life.

I didn't bring a video camera. I didn't want to be "on" and "at work" at every moment on the tour. I wanted to sort of be a tourist in my off moments. I did bring a good digital still camera though, and took a lot of pix. They are all here:

I didn't hit on any girls, and feel really good about it. I was not interested in being an ugly American. This was different from when I was in Europe playing music in 1990. This time, with the film, I was there to do a job and kept focused and did it really well. This took all my energy, because of the grueling schedule. I did 32 shows in 32 cities in 43 days. Near the end of that I had one stretch with 16 nights in 16 cities in a row with no nights off. It was a struggle to keep sane, give about an interview a day, deal with the language differences, travel a LOT without getting sick, get at least 5 hours sleep a night, maintain the logistics to keep the tour going and on track, and be consistently interesting in the Q&A after each showing.

I also ended up defending a lot of what I'm doing, because different segments of the punk and D.I.Y. communities, particularly in Europe, has varying and narrow viewpoints of what is punk, and what is D.I.Y. At almost every showing, there was at least one person who I would characterize as a "scene cop", i.e. a person who asked accusatory questions to me during the Q&A about "How dare you call yourself D.I.Y. when you put so and so in your movie". Also, some people were contentious at the fact that, even though I put no copy protection on my DVD and allow people to make personal copies, I do have a copyright notice at the end. Anyone who questions that has little or no comprehension of what a copyright is. I want to give away my work to an extent, but also want to have some smattering of control over how it is used. I'm all for the free exchange of information, but I'll be damned if I believe that the scene owns my work. I own my work. I am very generous with my art and my time, but the art is mine. And the copyright notice allows me to more easily go after anyone who would do large-scale commercial bootlegging of my film, which is very different from folks making personal copies for friends. And a copyright notice also allows me to keep some corporation from adding their logo to my film without my permission, or claiming that they created it, or chopping chunks into a commercial for something I hate. I am more concerned, in fact, with preserving the artistic integrity of my work than making money on it. And a copyright helps me keep that integrity intact.

(The irony is I ended up making more money on this film--from extra sales from extra attention--by inviting people to make copies.)

I also encountered some anti-American sentiment on this tour. Europe is rife with it right now. A few people there tried to blame me for the war on Iraq, and for George Bush. But I don't care, I just tell them, "I didn't vote for that motherfucker". And being an American is more an accident of birth than anything. Of course, I like the freedoms here, but I dont really have the frothing, foaming blind patriotism that I am supposed to have. It's like religion: People claim their own manner of worship or place of birth is the one true way/place/whatever because they are told to. and they all believe it. They can't all be right. Its like football fans. It's just ethnocentric myopia.

I am reminded of that saying, "What religion is God?"

While I'm busy sounding hippie-dippie, I'll add that I'm not an American so much as I am a citizen of the planet Earth.

Also, with regards to the tour, and I wrote part of my new book all during this very busy trip. So you see, it was a lot of daily work. And fun. But it was work. I couldn't have done this a year ago. But all the skills I am gaining as I do more and more complicated things are adding to my previous pool of knowledge and making me more and more capable of inventing my own paths, and doing very well on those paths.

Art keeps me young. I am going to be 40 in six months, and I feel more alive than ever. No one who meets me can believe I'm that old. Most people think I'm 29 or 30.

When I was 29, I planned to be famous and dead by age 40. Since I am going to be neither, I needed to find a new way of doing things.

I think I've found it.


A Closer Look: D.I.Y or DIE
Click picture for ordering information

This documentary features interviews with Ian MacKaye (Fugazi), J Mascis (Dinosaur jr.), John John Jesse (Demonic Erotic painter), Jim Rose (Jim Rose Sideshow), Jim Thirwell (Foetus), Lydia Lunch, Mike Watt (Minutemen), Richard Kern (Filmmaker), Ron Asheton (Stooges), Madagin Shive (Bonfire Madagin), Dave Brockie (Gwar) and many others. The 60-minute film explores the methods and motivations of independent American artists working in different genres and mediums. "DIY or Die" profiles a fascinating group of icons and unknowns working in various media including print, film, graphic art, performance art and music.