Meet Philipp Wolter and Michelle Glick, the husband and wife team behind the Brooklyn-born FilmGym Productions. Wanting to merge their love of acting with their dreams of creating introspective films for the masses, the pair decided to create independent production company FilmGym in 2004, and have proven to be a force to reckon with ever since. A jack-of-all-trades couple, Wolter edits, directs, acts, and writes FilmGym’s shorts while Glick produces and acts. Their first solid effort The Bridge (2010), an inspiring short about the importance of stopping to look at the world around us, qualified for an Oscar nomination, and was named Best Short Film at the Athens International Film Festival. They also co-produced The Sea is All I Know (2011) starring Melissa Leo, which was also in consideration for an academy award nomination.
At Film Gym, they host monthly screenings of shorts films, and bi-weekly readings where directors, playwrights and screenwriters get a chance to receive artistic feedback. Currently FilmGym has wrapped up their script readings from the DOGMA series, which allowed artists to introduce a handful of scripts about Occupy Wall Street. I sat down with both Michelle Glick and Philipp Wolter to discuss what drives their creative energy, their films, and their desire to work in a homey comfort zone.
The Rumpus: Was it your idea to accomplish this much in the last two years?
Michelle Glick: Not really. When we got married it changed things, and we thought let’s make this a company. Let’s get this thing going and really back up our films. The Bridge was the first film we really got behind. We just planned to have fun and be around people we like to work around and put our best foot forward.
Rumpus: What are your hopes for FilmGym in harvesting a creative environment?
Michelle: I feel like things are in a pretty good place right now. We’ve got the screenings, which is Philipp’s baby, and I help him with it when he needs help. The readings and the DOGMA thing is my mine, and then we have the company where we make films. We want to move from shorts into feature films; that’s a big thing. With the DOGMA reading group, I selected 6 scripts including myself, actor/writers, actor/producers, and actor/directors to form an ensemble in the world of film. We have some plans that are very much in the embryonic state right now. What excites me is collaborating and pulling ideas together. I love being able to pull in actors and directors that I know and want to work with. It’s one thing to be out there auditioning and that’s a whole other beast too.
Rumpus: Speaking of the beast, and being knowledgeable with short film, you have two films that have both been considered for Oscar nominations. The Sea Is All I Know and The Bridge. Why do you think people are so receptive to those two films?
Michelle: Philipp wrote and directed and I produced The Bridge. There were no known actors in it. It was not an English speaking film. There’s something about the story that people really connected to or really didn’t connect to. It’s a little abstract. It’s more of a European film. With The Sea Is All I know, that was through the director that we knew.
Rumpus: How did Melissa Leo get involved in The Sea is All I Know?
Philipp Wolter: I shot a trailer for a pilot and the director said she had a script and Melissa Leo was already attached. Melissa loved the script, so that’s how she got attached, and then they went to me with the script.
Michelle: We came into that as co-producers with FilmGym. It wasn’t our material but it was material that we believed in, and we wanted to work with Melissa Leo. From a producing standpoint it’s much easier to get help, and have people work for free when you have someone like that involved.
Philipp: This was before she received the Oscar for The Fighter. She received it after we finished filming, but it’s also an example of FilmGym because on that film we brought in all the people we worked with before, the same DP, the same gaffers, same composer as The Bridge. It was cool to see them all on set again, and working with Melissa was cool, watching a professional actor like her on set.
Rumpus: With all of the hats you guys wear how do you guys find time to act?
Michelle: With FilmGym, I produce but I’m producing work that I can be in. I started producing out of necessity. It’s not that I want to become a full time producer, but it gives me control over my creative life. I can be out auditioning but a lot of times it’s word of mouth more than anything — having worked on other projects with people who might see you and recommend for other projects and vice versa.
Philipp: Acting is a passionate thing. I always try to do it on the side. We’re picky, which is good because I don’t want to waste time working on something that I don’t need anymore.
Michelle: It’s a bigger picture thing for me, it’s like what do you want to do that’s going to make you feel like your life has meaning? Like the whole DOGMA thing, screenings, bringing people together. I love when I hear that people I’ve brought together are working on projects.
Rumpus: With DOGMA, was it just Occupy Wall Street that started that whole thing in your head?
Michelle: Definitely the need and want to have a group as a home base that I could come back to in between being hired out for projects. So that was probably the beginning of it, and then there’s a director I really like, Lukas Moodysson, he directed Mammoth with Michelle Williams. Mammoth was his first English speaking film, but I realized why I liked his work so much – because he’s always exploring social dynamics. He’s noticing what’s happening in our society and making a film that poses questions. It made me realize when I think about the plays or films I like, that’s what I’m naturally drawn to. Work that raises a question, and at the same time I was going to Occupy Wall Street myself and I wanted to raise questions about that.
Rumpus: Was it about breaking misconceptions or preconceived notions about what it was?
Michelle: Yes and also because I have friends from different parts of the country and everyone has very strong opinions. I wanted to say: ‘well this is what you believe, but what about this?’; I wanted to break down that wall. I’m just like anyone else. I have ideals that I grasp onto but I try not to grasp on too tightly and to be open to other people’s thoughts and opinions even if they’re completely different than mine.
Rumpus: As an actor, Michelle you’ve worked with directors Michael Goodin and Christina Voros (the latter James Franco’s main cinematographer) on Egress and Philipp you’ve worked with directing/writing team Pete Hobbs and Elizabeth Foley on Bridge of Names. How do you take away those experiences and put them into your productions?
Philipp: Elizabeth [Foley] is wonderful. She’s great because their team really manages to get a lot of help. You learn all the time whether you’re an actor or a producer. Because I direct too, when I’m acting I don’t want to get into my director’s head because it fucks me up, because I really just want to focus on one thing. Sometimes when I’m working on film, I start to get into the director’s head and I think ‘oh they need this shot’ and I don’t even want to go there as an actor, unless you direct your own film and you’re in it too.
Michelle: I agree. The thing I loved about Christina [Voros] is that she was so calm on set.
Rumpus: The thing that struck me as unique about FilmGym is the sense of community, and I don’t feel like you find that a lot in independent film. With the feature films do you feel that is a medium that you can also create that environment with?
Michelle: Absolutely. I don’t think we would have it any other way. I remember watching a featurette on Red White and Blue by polish director Kieślowski and he talked about choosing people in his circle of filmmakers and how they had to feel like family, and if it didn’t work then he wanted nothing to do with it. When I heard him say that I realized that I always felt that way; I was relieved because I thought ‘wow, it’s possible. You can have that.’ And that’s why FilmGym is doing the screenings. It’s home. We’ve known these people for seven or eight years. Over time you just trust them and know what they’re going to do, what each other’s quirks are. You see these actor/director relationships in the celebrity world and you understand why. The director knows which buttons to push and it makes it so much more familiarized.
Philipp: We use the same DP for everything.
Rumpus: I feel like the film festivals are a creative community. How do you think that pushes independent film forward?
Philipp: It’s great exposure. For independent film there’s really no other way. The Internet right now is another way to get exposure. You depend on that because they give you press, and if it’s successful it gets into a lot of festivals. The festivals are cool because you make a lot of connections at the festivals. A lot of the people that come to the screenings are from films that I saw at other festivals. They’re all very open and ready to show their films. These are all short films but we do want to screen feature films.
Michelle: Festivals become a family because you start seeing the same people. We have another film out called Chance of Rain which we shot during the hurricane and we’re both acting in it; Philipp directed it. It was originally a one-act play that we saw randomly a few years ago, and we contacted the writer, and she met up with Philipp to write the script. It’s fun because every film’s so different.
Rumpus: Tell me more about the screenings that FilmGym hosts.
Philipp: We have once a month FilmGym short film screenings. We’ve been doing it for a year now. It’s always three short films that I’ve seen at festivals. It’s just to support short films; it’s very intimate. Last time we had the Oscar winner of 2010 from New Tenants and we had the producers there.
Rumpus: We were saying how you really couldn’t plan too far in advance in the future. How do you see your production company going in the next five years?
Philipp: We thought about having free seminars. We know a lot of great editors who have worked on big budget films and to come in and talk. That’s another idea, and maybe combine it with the screenings that we do. There’s also a feature film now that we’re working on that I’m very excited about. It’s a taboo subject matter, which is great. Even though I like the intimate spaces that we have, maybe we’ll get a bigger venue for the screenings, because I really want to support these people.
Rumpus: What has been your greatest accomplishment as a production company?
Michelle: I don’t know if I can single anything out. I guess that we’ve been able to keep it alive and we seem to make films that people respond to, and people keep coming back to the readings. It’s just having the community. It’s something that I’ve always wanted. We’re just so grateful that people want to collaborate with us.