Interview with Director Erik Cieslewicz

ED- We are very excited to present to the readers of The Eerie Digest director Erik Cieslewicz. Erik, how did you get your start in directing film projects?

EC- In 2000 I was largely directionless; I was a college dropout who pursued story telling with a punk rock band that had just broken up.  I was living in my parent’s basement and working at the local Wal-Mart.  While I had re-enrolled at UW-Marathon County, the small two-year school didn’t require me to declare a major and I was coasting.  That entirely changed when I saw the film Fight Club.  Fincher’s hyper-kinetic visual story showed me that film could be more than just a book you watched, it was a living medium that brought an experience, not just a narrative.  I was hooked on film from that point on and started looking for deeper cuts in film before making it my goal in life; I started watching everything from Wes Anderson to Stanley Kubrick.  Shortly afterward I transferred from that small two-year school out to UW-Oshkosh to study in their film department, which produced alumni like Kristofor Brown.  They put a camera in my hand my first semester in 2003 and I’ve been doing some sort of production ever since.

ED- What was your earliest project?

EC- While I did quite a few student projects in the early 00s, I did my first independent production in 2005 right before my last year as a film student.  It was a niche comedy called The Problem with Playing a Game (Whose Name Sounds Like Walo 2).  It was a mockumentary about six kids whose life revolved around the popular video game series Halo. It was a huge learning experience for me; my first indie project was a project that I was directing rather than holding boom or PAing.

My inexperience really came through!  The project gave me a lot of great memories, but doesn’t really stand up and never played in any festivals.  But by that time next year I had already directed my first festival screened indie short in Holy Chip! It was comedy, written by Kimberly Kopplin, about a young slacker with no direction who finds a potato chip shaped like the Virgin Mary.  At first he tries to profit off of “suckers” by selling the chip on eBay, but his life starts turning around at the same time, so he begins to believe in the divine power of the chip!

ED- Recently we interviewed actress Stephanie Rigizadeh, a cast member of the TV pilot, ‘Hard to Be Me’. Tell us all about this project.

EC- Hard to Be Me is a perfect show for its time.  The creator, Edward Bach, came up with a great family show that fills a niche I feel the television industry has forgotten about these days.  It stands out as vastly different from everything on the air right now and could really help a station tap an audience that probably finds itself on Facebook more than watching television; a demographic a lot of stations are trying to get back.

The show follows a second year art student named Kevin (played by Edward), who is an expert communicator, but with his art, not his words.  He gets an assignment from his hard nose teacher (Kelli Biggs) to communicate with his words… to the whole world, via a vLog!  Kevin turns to his support system in his crazy friends and quirky, but functional family to make it through, and they reveal themselves to be the perfect subject for his vLog.  We use Kevin’s vLog as a narrative framing device for the whole show, giving it a strong point of view rather than the more ensemble type feel a lot of shows have taken on lately.

It’s a great throwback show to stuff like All in the Family and The Cosby Show, but it leaves behind a bit of the 80s cheese and becomes contemporary by embracing the story telling power of web 2.0.

Stephanie played one of the people who finds out about Kevin’s vLog, and, like the audience, is getting a glimpse into his life via this brand new technology.  So it’s a show with a lot of levels, a lot to say and that makes it a unique lens on our contemporary world that Edward created.  It was a real honor to have him trust me with his baby and find a way to visually convey everything that’s happening both thematically and in the narrative.

ED- Tell us about the cast members of this production and the characters they played.

EC- The cast was brilliant from top to bottom, it’s rare an entire ensemble comes together so well as this one did.  A lot of that goes back to Edward and Virginia (Ryker) holding a proper open casting call, staffing it with great assistants and getting the word out about the project.  Being able to just concentrate on evaluating performance, instinct and intangibles made all the difference for this production.

Thanks to that hard work we were able to look at hundreds of the most talented actors in the District metro area (and even beyond!) and put together a near perfect cast.  Edward, as Kevin, sat at the nucleolus of the whole cast, and having him at all the casting sessions allowed us to cast off of his performance.  He continued to be able to switch from producer to Kevin like a light throughout the production.

While I could talk for days about the whole cast, I’ll try to stay focused!  We found a perfect foil for Edward’s boy-next-door type of portrayal in the spastic, over the top performance of Kevin’s best friend Dan in Doug Henderson, who gets a lion’s share of the laughs.  Ali Walton as Kevin’s friend Olivia is charming and understated, her deft performance brought life to what is a very difficult character.  Katie Jones as Kevin’s deadpan, super smart sister Shannon was a treat.  One of the crown jewels of the production was Kendra North as Kevin’s sassy, but sweet mother Patricia.

ED- What inspired you to work on this project, and what did you enjoy the most about it?

EC- The biggest draw for me was the web 2.0 story telling aspect.  Kevin, along with his friends, produce a weekly vLog and fans of the show will get a chance to interact with them like they’re real vLoggers.  There’s other cool web 2.0 type stuff we have planned as well to really embrace and show the narrative story power of this new medium, something I think hasn’t been nearly as explored as it should be.  The idea that in this new age we’re all story tellers with our YouTube accounts and Twitter streams makes Hard to Be Me a story about story tellers, for story tellers.  That’s so exciting for me to be on the cutting edge of that movement.

But I also like the family friendly theme.  My parents are the best people I know and personal heroes of mine.  My siblings are my best friends and are still a huge part of my life.  I feel like too many shows try so hard to get away from what they see as cheesy “family friendly” themes that they forget that there is a lot of great drama, narrative and themes to explore with a very real, organic feel that comes from the family unit.

ED- What are your hopes for this production and have you received any recognitions for it?

EC- I mean the dream for this project is to see it picked up by a television studio for a full season run. If this show has a chance to gain an audience, it will get an audience.

We’ve already been recognized by a few festivals: we took home a Certificate of Excellence from SkyFest, got Best Editing and Honorable Mention from The Los Angeles Movie Awards in their television category, a Bronze Director’s Medal from The Park City Film Music Festival, the top tier Award of Excellence from Accolade for their TV Pilot category, plus Awards of Merit from them for both Edward and Kendra’s performances…  Really this project is on its way to do what its cast and crew wanted to do: rip things up and show that there’s some real talent outside of LA and New York.

ED- We also found out that you have other projects that you have worked on. Can you tell us about them?

EC- My most recently completed project was an activist documentary called The Common Good.  It follows two young Catholic women from Washington, DC that travel through the sleepy Midwest state of Wisconsin to spread their controversial message that use of contraception and the Catholic belief system are not opposed.  It was a fun project and as someone who got his start in non-fiction, it was fun to go back to that.  I acted as director, writer and editor on the project.  The end result ended up being a Waiting for Godot type of story; I wanted to try to bring a little light heartedness to what is a very serious subject that rarely gets anything but a melodramatic treatment.   It’ll be hitting the festival circuit soon.

My most successful fictional film work so far has been my Microcosm, which was a love letter to the area I grew up in.  Central Wisconsin is an interesting place, boredom is the primary motivation in teenager’s lives, suburbs exist, but they don’t surround urban areas and parents are almost too supportive.  I wanted to offer a window into that world and so Microcosm follows four high school graduates their last night in the area before they all go off to college.  It’s an examination of death, in the form of the end of an era, from a teenage perspective, but there’s also a lot of observational and dada humor tossed in for good measure.

Aside from that, there’s my work in television news, where I got my start.  I worked as a shooter and cutter on a lot of pieces.  Shooting and editing footage daily really helps one get used to cinematic variables and how to use them.  Probably my biggest project during that time with the Investigative series Secrets in Shawano that looks into a sect operating in sleepy Central Wisconsin right under everyone’s noses.  While the neighborhood knew all about it, I went to high school only twenty miles from their base of operations and never knew about it!  I worked with the extremely talented reporter (now anchor) Mikel Lauber on the series; it went on to get an Emmy Nomination and an Edward R. Murrow Award and largely helped me find open doors in narrative and fiction work.

ED- Are there any particular film or Television genres that you would like to work with?

EC- As you can probably tell, I love a good comedy, especially realist and observational type stuff.  I would love to direct episodes of shows like How I Met Your Mother or Parks and Recreation, which find the extraordinary in the ordinary and show us how our own lives are just as dramatic and interesting as something like The Matrix or CSI.

I’m also a huge gamer, I believe video games are an amazing medium and can do things that film and television just cannot do because of their very nature.  I’d love to some work in games directing or even direct a video game adaption in film or television.   But I don’t know if I have the right set of skills for it, there’s not a lot realist stuff happening in video games.  They’re so fantastic and otherworldly.  Still, I’d jump at the chance to challenge myself that way.

ED- What other projects are you working on in the near future?

EC- On my plate is another, yet unnamed, activist documentary with more women’s rights issues, which I’m very passionate about.

My big project that I want to get done is my first feature length.  I’ve got some locations scouted and music picked out in addition to a full treatment, character bios and about thirty pages of sample script done.  I don’t want to give much away right now, but the titular character is Sidd, a young bluegrass musician striking it out on his own across the plains states.  It’s a little road movie, a little Nashville and a lot of things I don’t think anyone has seen before.  It’s more of a straight drama than a comedy and there’s some spirituality in there rather than straight realism.  I’ve had it in the back of mind for over five years and finally have found myself in a place where I think I can do it justice.

On the back burner right now is a web-series I’ve been working on and off again on for about three years and is finally looking to be produced.  It’ll be very much a Friends meets the college campus type show made for web-savvy college students much like the main characters.

ED- Erik, it has been exciting to find out all about you and the latest production that you are directing. We wish you the best of luck and ask that you inform us of the progress of ‘Hard To Be Me’.

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