Revisiting your old hometown and the people who inspired the decisions you have made as an adult can be both life affirming and a hindrance on your perception of self-worth. That theme is prevalent in the new comedy ‘Back in the Day,’ which is being released on VOD today, with an exclusive theatrical engagement to begin on Friday in Indiana, and a national rollout to follow on January 17. Not only does the main character in the independent movie, Jim Owens, reflect on the meaning of his professional success as he travels back to his hometown to reunite with his school friends, so does actor Michael Rosenbaum. The former ‘Smallville’ star, who made his feature film directorial and writing debuts with the comedy, and shot the project in his hometown in Indiana with the support of his old community, genuinely and humbly reflects on how staying connected with his roots has influenced his career.
‘Back in the Day’ follows Jim (Rosenbaum), a somewhat successful Hollywood actor who’s dealing with the grind of everyday life that L.A. offers, and he’s bordering on a midlife crisis. But in an effort to help him move forward with his life, he listens to his friends and returns home to Indiana to attend his 20th high school reunion.
Not only does Jim have to contend with his now-married high school friends, he also must deal with his old rivalries as he relieves his glory days. But he begins to ponder if going back was the right decision, as the over-the-top weekend of beer-fueled barbeques and hitting the strip leads to taking revenge on an old high school principal. Jim also revisits and old romance with Lori (Morena Baccarin), and possibly complicates her approaching wedding, which gets him into trouble with his friends and especially their wives.
Rosenbaum generously took the time recently to talk about writing, directing and starring in ‘Back in the Day.’ Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he was inspired to write the script for the independent comedy from his own experiences of his high school friends reuniting in his hometown in Indiana; how he knew he wanted to shoot the movie in Indiana, despite his colleagues telling him to film in L.A., in order to give the story a more genuine and authentic feeling, and how everyone in his hometown was helpful during the filmmaking process; and how he supports releasing movies through Video On Demand, particularly independent films that only play in a limited number of theaters, as the platform gives national exposure to projects filmmakers work so passionately on without the backing of a major studio.
ShockYa (SY): You penned the script for the new comedy, ‘Back in the Day.’ Where did you come up with the inspiration for the story, and what was the overall writing process like for you?
Michael Rosenbaum (MR): Well, it was the first script I had written years ago. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and that’s where we shot the movie-in Newburgh and Evansville, Indiana. I was inspired by things that had happened to me growing up. I was also inspired by the old gang getting back together and doing things and hitting the mall. I also drew on old relationships and things that had happened to us as friends.
I just wrote from my own experiences. Usually that’s what people tell you to do. So it really came from that, and I thought that would be a good first script to write. I have written many scripts since, and somehow this was the one we were able to get the budget and financing for, and it just took off.
It’s really about me going back in a lot of ways. It’s not to say I’m not happy (laughs), but it’s a guy who’s really not that content with his life. So he goes back home. He thinks he’s going to be happier than his friends in this small town, but he realizes his friends are all content with their lives. So he has to learn from them in a lot of ways.
SY: Besides writing the screenplay for the film, you also served as the director. Was it always your intention to helm the movie as you were writing the script? Did you find being the writer helped you in your directorial duties on the set?
MR: When I wrote the script, I just wanted to write. I started to write in the program Final Draft, and it was years ago. I thought, I want to write a script. I want to start and complete one, and that’s all I really thought about.
As an actor, I thought maybe I’ll just write it and be the actor, if this movie ever gets made. At that time, I never thought of directing it, because I never really considered being a director. It wasn’t until about Season 6 of ‘Smallville’ that I got to direct an episode of the show, and I fell in love with directing.
But when I wrote the script for the film, I never really thought about directing it. It’s amazing how things evolve, and you grow as an artist and branch out.
As far as the writing influencing the directing, I wrote the words and knew the story so well, because in a lot of ways, there’s a lot about me in the story. So it was easy to jump in there and change things that needed to be changed. It’s definitely easier when you write and direct something.
I’ve heard from the writers and directors I’ve worked with that they usually stick to their words, and everything has to be a certain way. I would say I’m the opposite. The films from guys like Darren Aronofsky are great, but they’re dark and completely different.
But for me, it was about being loose and fun and getting the jokes. I want to keep the tone of the story, but allow the actors to really find their characters and things they would do. I really love to improvise. I thought it would be a disservice if I didn’t let some of these great guys who had done comedy their whole lives not explore and do that.
For me as a writer-director, I was like, this is the story, so lets tell the story. We only have X amount of hours in a day, and we don’t have money for overtime. But if someone has a better idea or a funny line or can take us in a different direction, let’s do it. It was definitely an amazing experience to explore.
SY: The comedy features a diverse supporting cast, including Nick Swardson and Isaiah Mustafa. What was the casting process like for the rest of the actors in the movie?
MR: Well, one thing I will say about this process is that it’s incredibly difficult to get an independent movie made. Casting is tough enough just to get people to read the script and commit as you look for the right people for the roles.
But I think the toughest thing for me was that I didn’t realize it, and hindsight is 20/20, but the movie was going to shoot during pilot season. So every actor and their mother are wrapped up in auditions for potential series. Imagine someone say, “Come shoot a movie in Indiana in the winter for not much money; we’re not going to pay you much. Or you can stay in L.A. where it’s warm and beautiful, and have a few auditions a week, and try to get a role on what can become a hit series with a studio.”
It was difficult. I even called my friends, and they said, “I love this and I want to do this, but it’s pilot season, and I can’t afford not to be here.” So that was really difficult, and it took a really long time. I thought, oh, we’re going to cast this in a month. But it really took months and months. I think I cast Emma Caulfield from ‘Buffy’ when we were a week into shooting, and Danielle Bisutti was one of the last cast, as well.
In the beginning, I was having these sessions and lunches and meetings with people for the lead roles. But then when I took off for Indiana, it was impossible to meet with people. So I had to Skype, as my casting director, Anne McCarthy, was in Los Angeles. She had to send the reel or scene in which she auditioned them.
I had known Jay Ferguson, who was on ‘Mad Men,’ as we have been friends for a long time. We did a pilot for The WB years ago, and we remained friends. I asked him to do it, and he was available.
Harland Williams has always been one of my closest friends, as we did ‘Sorority Boys’ together. I have always loved his work. In the beginning, he was going to play Skunk, and then he said, “Well, I’m a little older.” I said, “It doesn’t really matter. We’re making a movie, so you’ll dye your hair and shave, so you’ll be fine. Plus, your character is supposed to have been held back a few years.”
The other actors I met with, like Isaiah Mustafa, who’s the Old Spice guy. We just connected. I said, “The character has to be really nice and humble and a smart-ass,” and it just clicked with him.
With Morena Baccarin, who was the biggest get, an ex-girlfriend was like, “How about Morena?” I was like, “She’s beautiful and great.” We had actually met, but I didn’t realize that until we had lunch. She said, “You know we’ve met.” I was like, “Oh, great. When did we meet?” She said, “We met on ‘Sorority Boys.’ I was dating one of the guys in the movie.” But I didn’t recall.
We hit it off, and I said, “Do you want to do it?” She said, “Yeah.” I said, “Okay, so you’re doing it.” She said, “Wait, are you offering me the part right now at Greenblatt’s Deli in Hollywood?” I said yeah, and she said sure.
Then I was also talking to my agent and asking if they had anyone really funny, and they were pitching. When you’re doing a movie, everyone, even people you’ve never spoken to before, are coming out of the woodwork and are pitching you. I think ultimately we got the best cast.
The biggest catch was Nick Swardson. Nick’s always busy, as he’s doing stand-up across the country. He’s also in every (Adam) Sandler film; he was doing ‘Grown Ups 2’ and all these movies. He has a nice role in it, but I knew it was going to be difficult to get him.
Up until the last minute, he said, “I think I’m too young for this part.” I had written his character of Ron Freeman to be a little older. I said, “Give me until tomorrow,” and I changed the script around to make him younger. So Nick jumped on a plane, and this was able three days before we were going to shoot. But we got Nick out to Indiana, and he turned out to be genius in the movie.
So you really don’t know what the process is going to be like in the beginning, and the amount of time that goes into making a little movie like this. Ultimately, the production value is incredible, and the laughs are huge. I really think people are going to dig it.
SY: Like you mentioned, you shoot the film independently. Did having a smaller budget pose any difficulties on the set?
MR: Yeah, everyone told me to shoot in Los Angeles, because you get a tax credit, and it’s not winter here. I said, “No, I want to shoot in my hometown. I know these locations, and I want it to be authentic.” If it was my first and last movie (as a director), I wanted to shoot in my hometown. I wanted my friends, including my high school and acting buddies, to be in it and work on this movie.
That’s what I thought Hollywood was. If you get a chance to go out and explore and hang out with your friends and the people you like to work with, then you do it. I know a lot of the bigger directors do that. So that was the goal, and I refused to do the shoot in L.A.
When we went out to Indiana, we had no tax credit. I’m not talking five percent tax credit; I’m talking zero. The Indiana Film Commission stopped giving tax credit the January before we shot, so we just missed the boat. I’m going to try to change that, and I would love to get involved with the Indiana Film Commission, and help get movies made out there. I think it helps the community.
But I think the biggest hurdle was finding a crew. We could only bring the Director of Photography, the gaffer and a couple other people out to Indiana to shoot, because we couldn’t afford to fly everyone out. But then the line producer (Nanda Rao) said, “We can get somebody from Cincinnati.”
You really don’t get to meet with these people, and you have to make changes a lot of times. When shooting in a small town, almost all of them had no experience on a film crew and set. So it was very difficult, and it slowed things down.
You only have 12-hour days, and one hour is lunch, so you really only 11 hours to shoot eight pages. But on a studio movie, you shoot one or two pages a day. So you have to move really quickly.
But the great thing I will say is that I think what compensated for the lack of time was that everyone was so passionate about the film. Everyone in my hometown embraced the movie, and gave us whatever we needed to make it.
The local car dealership gave us trucks for the crew and cast, and the motels gave us cheap rooms. We shot at my old high school for three days. That would have been $40,000 in L.A. We also shot at my friends’ house. They also stopped traffic, and we had the strip on Green River Road for about six or seven hours. All the cops in Evansville and Newburgh came and supported us.
It was like, I can’t believe I’m pulling this off. How are we doing this? I was the shortest kid in high school who wasn’t popular, and now I’m directing this movie in my hometown. It was very surreal.
But where there problems? Yeah. The biggest problem was that we were filming in winter. Talk about something that’s going to slow a movie down. If there’s an ice storm, people are going to be late to work.
Or just the opposite happened; it was almost like a Godsend. A week into the movie, we realized it was going to be the warmest winter Indiana had ever had. So the weather completely changed, and we decided to make it almost like a spring movie.
The weather completely changed, but we already had Christmas lights in some scenes. There was a scene with Harland Williams, who plays this character Skunk, who’s based on a friend of mine, and we were walking to his house in the movie. We were like, what are we going to do? We have Christmas lights up, and it’s supposed to be spring, since we changed the movie.
So we added a line in post-production where I say, “You still have your Christmas lights on.” He says, “Yeah, it’s always Christmastime at my house, buddy.” It just worked, and people buy into it.
You try to get as much as you can, and make the movie look as big as possible. I don’t know how we did it, but we pulled it off.
SY: The film will be released on VOD on January 7, 2014, with a national theatrical release to follow later in the month. Are you personally a fan of watching films On Demand, and why do you think the platform is important for smaller movies like ‘Back in the Day?’
MR: I think most people don’t really know what VOD is, unless they’re in the industry. I’ve spoken to so many people in Indiana who said, “What’s VOD?” (Rosenbaum pronounces it as a word, instead of the letters V-O-D for the acronym of Video On Demand.) It’s not VOD, it’s Video On Demand.
I, in fact, didn’t even known what it was. I wasn’t that educated, and I was like, I’m going to the theater and watch movies. Then I got Apple TV and cable TV, and started doing what everyone else in Hollywood was doing. Now it’s obviously grown throughout the country and the world. You’re able to download a movie and watch it in your own house.
The great thing about VOD is, especially for an independent movie, we don’t have the budget, as the P&A (print and advertising) on a studio film is $20 million. We had very little money, but our publicity firm is just kicking ass, but it’s still a small movie.
Now you have the ability, since you’re not going to play on 2,000 screens in a couple hundred cities, to show your movie to people before it comes out, or while it’s playing, in the theater. People can sit in their own homes with their friends and download the movie right there.
I think it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened, because I don’t leave the house. I watch trailers and think, I like this actor and I want to see this, but I don’t have to go to the theater. A lot of times most of these movies aren’t even playing in theaters.
So for a lot of movies, particularly independent films, I think VOD is incredible, especially for movies that are only playing in theaters in 15 cities. Then someone in Milwaukee says, “How do I watch this? I can’t go to the theater and support this movie.” But they can, because they can download the movie and have a great experience at home, watching it with their friends. So they can see the movie now, and I think that’s extraordinary for independent films.
Now these films have a chance, and you’re not saying, “How are we going to make money?” DVDs have become almost obsolete, as they’re not as big as they once were. Now independent filmmakers can say, “With social media and a little following, we can make our money back, and make another movie.” That’s what it’s all about-being able to go out and make another movie with your friends.
This is what I want to do now-I want to make movies. You think, if half a percent of the people who can download movies will download my movie and support independent films, then the movie can make its money back, and I can go out and make another movie. That’s the idea, and I think it’s pretty fascinating.
SY: Like you mentioned, you starred on ‘Smallville,’ and also directed the 2007 episode, ‘Freak.’ How did acting and helming the show compare and contrast to making ‘Back in the Day?’
MR: It was a lot easier to direct an episode of ‘Smallville.’ The budget for the shows was about $3 million per episode, so they were spending that amount of money each week for every show. You had this infrastructure of who was doing what.
For example, these four people would always do the set design, and were in charge of designing all the sets. You see that when you go into what’s called a tone meeting, which would set the tone for each episode. There were always the same production designers, make-up artists and script and prop supervisors, and hundreds of the same people who would always work on each episode.
Everyone’s doing their own job, so you don’t have to interview and hire people. They already know what the show is, as they’ve already been doing it. So you skip a big process. Not to mention that when the show’s complete, all the dailies of all the stuff you shoot was sent back to Warner Brothers, and they started editing them. They have a whole team of editors working on it, and then it goes to the sound and composing departments.
That infrastructure doesn’t exist for independent films. So you’re hiring everybody, and they don’t know what your tone is. You have to explain exactly what you’re doing, since they haven’t done 10 ‘Back in the Day’s before this.
So it’s a process, especially since you don’t have the money, resources and post-production facilities. You have to interview everyone and try to get good deals. You also have to work out ways to make your movie sound and look like a real movie, and compete with the huge films, on a shoestring budget.
The infrastructure is the big difference-on ‘Smallville,’ it was incredible, since it was a huge show; it ran itself. Luckily for me, as a director, it was already cast, except for the guest stars, who I did have to cast. That was a process, as I had to fight for the guys I wanted.
But mostly what I learned from being on set everyday was how to watch the camera, including where it goes, how to move it and what lenses to use. I also learned how to bring out emotion, make the shocks more effective, how to tell a story and how to transition into another scene.
These were things that I learned as an actor-turned-director. I think most actors are oblivious, and don’t really pay attention when they’re on set. But there are some actors who do pay attention, and I finally did. With my ADD, that’s not easy.
I started to be fascinated by it. I started to think, I can do this. I don’t want to do all this explosion and Superman-sci-fi stuff (laughs); I think I can direct comedies. I’d like to make a movie. It was definitely a great stepping stone into directing a film.
From there, I started my company, Rosenbaum Productions. I also shot a really cool short film called ‘Ghild,’ as well as a little horror short, ‘Fade Into You,’ that went to Screamfest. Then I thought, let’s do a movie! It’s experience, and ‘Smallville’ gave me that experience.
But they’re completely different. I didn’t know how fortunate I was to be on that show, to be able to direct. I thought, wow, it’s easy! Then you direct a movie, and you’re on your own. You have to cast and hire all the people, like the line producer and the lighting and sound departments, and then fire this person because they’re not doing their job. You also have to get a caterer who’s good, so the cast and crew aren’t bitching every day about the food. (laughs)
It’s endless, and you’re dealing with problems every day. You make decisions every day. You always have to be in control. But I loved every bit of it.
SY: Now that you have acted in and directed both television and movies, do you have a preference of one medium over the other? Do you have any upcoming projects, whether writing, directing, acting and/or producing, lined up that you can discuss?
MR: I love acting, as that’s what got me here. I feel in love with it when I was in high school and college. I felt like I had something, but I didn’t know what it was. I will continue to act because I love it.
Fortunately for me, I feel like since ‘Smallville,’ I was able to save a little money, and now I’m able to do what I want to do, at least until I need to get another job. But from this point on, I’m going to try to do things that make me happy or that inspire me, or make me think, wow, I’m going to have fun doing that. I don’t want to just work to work; I want to work on things that I’m really excited about. At my age right now, I’m getting to that point.
So I definitely want to continue acting, but I also love writing. But I didn’t know I was going to be so fond of directing. I’m just crazy about it. But I never went to film school; my film school was ‘Back in the Day,’ being on the set of ‘Smallville’ and doing these shorts. But I fell in love with it. I thought, wow, if I can do this with this small budget, think of what I can do with more money! (laughs) It’s not to say you can’t make a decent and funny movie with little money, because you can, but it’s difficult. I really want to do it all.
I don’t think I would be the lead actor in the next film I direct; I actually guarantee I wouldn’t. The next time I direct, I really want to focus on being the director. I was warned by Jason Reitman, who directed ‘Juno,’ and James Gunn, who wrote and is directing ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ who are old friends of mine, to not be the lead actor in ‘Back in the Day.’ They were like, “It’s exhausting just being the director.” I was like, “Oh no, I can do it, I’ve been working out.” (laughs) But two weeks in, you’re physically spent. But I don’t regret it for a second, and I’m glad I did it. But I’ll definitely stick to directing the next one.
As far as upcoming projects, I’ve written quite a few. I’ve got a couple TV projects that I’m trying to work out the deals for. There are also a few films that I’m doing the rewrites on. I’ll probably pick the one I want to do by the end of January, and hopefully start prep in March or April.
In the process, I’ll also audition for things I really like. There’s this awesome (Martin) Scorsese HBO pilot, so I went in on that. If there are projects I find really compelling, I’m game.
Written by: Karen Benardello