Films in Focus: Buffalo • Director Michael McCallum’s Award-Winning Portrait of a Man Making Amends on His Final Road Trip

Riverside Saginaw Film Festival

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, ,   From Issue 835   By: Robert E Martin

03rd November, 2016     0

In writer/director Michael McCallum’s 4th feature film Buffalo, which he initially developed out of a symbiotic urge to create a road trip movie that could also serve as a vehicle to showcase the talents of his father, actor William McCallum, he has created both a critical sensation that to date has won 18 major awards and received 27 nominations at major film festivals, while also delivering a telling portrait about a man representative of a ‘dying breed’.

Thematically, Buffalo tells the tale of Roger, a lonely cab driver, who is diagnosed with a terminal disease. Shaken by the sudden death of his ex-wife, Roger steals a cab from his job and sets out to find the son he has not seen in more than 30 years.

Discussing the genesis of the project, McCallum says that he had just released his third feature film entitled Lucky, when he started discussing his next project with his father and bouncing ideas around between friends.  “Basically, I took a bit of my father’s real life and mixed it up with a ton of fiction, so that’s how the story came about. My father and I wrote Buffalo together and I feel it honestly showcases his talent as an actor and performer. My father has held a lot of supporting roles and also worked with different directors on short films and commercials, but I wanted to showcase his emotional range and also tell a story that needed to be told.  As people from his generation are getting older, there’s not a lot of stories out there that feature them.”

In terms of the thematic objectives he was striving to achieve, McCallum said in the larger sense it was to explore the nature of time and how we occupy the space that it opens. “If you watch the movie, we only hint at what type of disease he is fighting, because for me the disease is the ‘monster’ in the Monster Movie. The less you know, the scarier it is; plus more people are able to relate to it.”

“Once that Hour Glass is turned over and one realizes we don’t have all the time in the world to do everything that we wanted to do, the question then becomes what are you going to do with the time that you have left in the world?  For my father’s character, Roger, it comes down to making amends – the time that he has left represents put up or shut up time; so thematically, the goal was to set an emotional tone of wanting to balance that heaviness with my father’s natural character, which is one that’s very strong but also has lots of humility and a great sense of humor. I didn’t want it to feel like a Lifetime movie, but I did want to delicately balance the serious and the natural moments that bring levity to the situation.”

From a directorial perspective, did Michael’s thoughts evolve or change along the way while he was shooting Buffalo, or was it carefully structured from beginning to end?  “We definitely had it structured out tightly,” he explains, “but for me the most important thing as a filmmaker is setting and achieving the proper tone of the piece.  The tone for me is always my North Star, my lighthouse if you will. If I start questioning things I run into trouble, so you have to follow the Muse.  Tone keeps me going, but with that said, although the movie is structured I’m still a big believer in spontaneity. Once I get on location sometimes I will throw things out the window and go with what feels right, so it’s a mix of approach. I try to shoot my films as much in sequence as possible and as we’re moving ahead sometimes that tone will grow from what I had preconceived earlier.”

McCallum says that Buffalo was officially released in January, 2015 at a public local showing in Lansing at the end of 2014. He had one showing and the film was released in 2015 to film festivals and picked up for distribution through Emphasis in Chicago and then went onto Amazon Prime and online streaming since that time it was first released.  Thus far Michael has created a total of 20 films, four feature films and sixteen shorts, and is in pre-production for newer projects.

When asked how his earlier work informed his approach to Buffalo, McCallum said that his journey with film initially began with acting. “I originally wanted to pursue an acting career at a very young age,” he reflects. “My parents struggled money-wise and both worked at daily jobs, but even though I had a good core clump of friends my own age, I always seemed to spend lots of time with adults and my parents’ friends.  They didn’t have a lot of money to do stuff, so held lots of ‘game nights’ where I would land up on many different Trivial Pursuit teams,” he laughs. “They didn’t sugarcoat things and didn’t treat me as a child or talk down to me, and they enjoyed my company because I was fairly precocious and would do lots of impersonations of them and different actors in film at that time.”

“Originally, I wanted to pursue acting only had a difficult high school experience and didn’t pursue anything at that time because I wasn’t willing or able,” he continues. “But once I finished high school I attended a local community college in Lansing and enrolled in an introductory class to acting and theatre that was an intensive 2-year program.  I auditioned for some of the worst films made in Michigan and also starred in some incredibly bad films.  It wasn’t just that the movies were bad, but the experience was worse and left a bad taste in my mouth.  I thought if this is what acting is all about, I don’t know if I want to do this because it was like playing emotional Russian Roulette.”

“I took a film class but had no access to equipment anymore, only was able to borrow a camera from the parents of my girlfriend at that time,” notes Michael. “It was an old beat up tape unit that sounded horrible, but I did create a short film and through that process, inadvertently became the director I always wanted to work with, which got me making films on my own, even though I continued to act.”

“The difference between my earlier experiences acting and later when I started making my own films is that I learned to trust my gut and instincts,” he states. “I open scenes to interpretations and suggestions from cast and crew and also take the time to assemble a proper team that you don’t have to push and pull through a project. It’s a bit like a magician’s job involving sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors,” he laughs.

“Buffalo was shot in nine days and scheduling is always the biggest hurdle,” he concludes. “Like with any film you try to pick the right actors and people under the circumstances and always deal with temperaments and tight deadlines; but the window to this film was in treating it like a poke game that each hand is all in, which replicates itself and bleeds positively into your work.  You watch Buffalo and there is something different about it than a lot of other films that you see; so in large part it was a balancing act.”

“In terms of influences, I’m an open addict of Turner Classic Movies and am strongly impacted by the work of directors like Elia Kazan and Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese and Hal Ashby, who are all good storytellers and mavericks in their own right.”

The screening for Buffalo at the Riverside Saginaw Film Festival will take place on Saturday, November 12th at Pit & Balcony Theatre at 5:00 PM.



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