Writer // Filmmaker
"You just have to keep trying, and keep working with people. Edit the crap out of your stuff... Make as much content as you can. Listen to your audience."
July 30, 2018 - by Andre Bourbeau
Michael Horrigan is a produced, critically acclaimed writer, filmmaker and Digi60 alumni. The bulk of his written work dances like a performer on a tightrope between thriller and horror genres. His first optioned screenplay, Awakening the Zodiac, went into production in May of 2016 after being picked up by Sony Pictures Worldwide. It received a limited theatrical release in June 2017.
A respected director in his own right, Michael’s most recent short films have garnered more than ten million views on Eli Roth's CryptTV in 2016 alone, with Roth himself praising Horrigan’s work. His short Welcome to the Doll House has been mentioned in the latest Variety and Wall Street Journal articles regarding CryptTV. He has won numerous international and regional festival awards for his written and directorial efforts, including multiple Best Short Film, Best Writer, and Best Director awards at Digi60 and beyond.
Recently, his thriller-horror spec script RETROGRADE has received bids from multiple studios and is currently in negotiations. This also led to Michael securing an agent and garnering full representation with United Talent Agency in Los Angeles.
We sat down with Michael over the phone to talk Digi60, his influences and origins, CryptTV, Ottawa, his exciting upcoming projects and much more.
Andre Bourbeau: First off, let’s start big: why film? Why is filmmaking your passion?
Mike Horrigan: Well, I started watching films when I was a child at the old Elmdale Theatre in Ottawa, which isn’t there anymore. I used film as a form of escapism, and it became a fascination. But mostly I used it to get away.
AB: Is that how you approach films, to get away?
MH: Well, it’s changed. Now, I mostly watch films for their technical side and to break down their stories. On the first viewing, I like to get lost in the story. On subsequent viewings, I like to look at, “how did they do this?”, and ask how I can apply things to my own films.
AB: What is your favourite aspect of the production process? What is your least favourite?
MH: My favourite is writing because that’s where your imagination has free reign. There are no restrictions. Producing is my least favourite.
AB: It seems many filmmakers feel that way.
MH: Yeah. If I had to pick a second favourite, it would be editing. I like the fact that you can make changes to your project [in editing] that you can’t do on set.
AB: So you’ve edited and shot all of your own films?
MH: Yes. I’ve edited all of them. I did most of the cinematography on Relapse, and I shot all of my CryptTV stuff myself. I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades and a master-of-none.
AB: On that note, you’ve seemed to move almost exclusively into horror recently. Why horror? What is it about horror that you love?
MH: I grew up watching horror films. My mom was a massive Hammer horror fan, and I spent my childhood watching those pictures. Later, I graduated to The Exorcist and Halloween. And horror is just where I decided to go. Of course, when I worked with CryptTV, I couldn’t make anything else.
AB: Let’s talk about CryptTV, then. How did you get involved with them in the first place?
MH: I won a contest. Two contests, actually. The first was a 15-second horror film challenge that took place in Canada and internationally, run by Andrew JD Robinson. CryptTV came out with a similar challenge around the same time.
AB: And you won?
MH: CryptTV put my [winning] submission on their website, but they had to take it down. It was too disturbing. But my films for CryptTV have done really well. Some of them have millions of views on Facebook and YouTube.
AB: It was taken down?
MH: There’s no violence at all. It’s the one about this guy in a house who hears a baby crying [Lullaby]. He walks onto the porch and hears the hollowness of the cries, and looks over and sees a mound of dirt and a shovel. And that’s it. I know it’s messed up. I have a daughter myself. The point of the films was to shock the audience without showing anything graphic. All the scares come from the sound of that baby.
AB: On that note, what did you learn from making content for CryptTV?
MH: It was fun. It forced me to learn how to tell a story in a very small time frame. A couple of the films were 15 seconds, some others were 30 seconds. The stories seem very simple in those shorts, but it’s hard to tell a story that quickly.
AB: I can imagine.
MH: That process really showed me what I shouldn’t include in a story. It taught me how to cut things from a story that didn’t fit and were repeating themselves.
AB: Finally, who are your favourite horror artists? And it can be anyone: a composer, director, actor, et cetera.
MH: I really like Hitchcock. I also love William Friedkin. One of the new guys I like, and I know he isn’t a “horror” director, is Denis Villeneuve. He is just amazing.
AB: Let’s move on to your personal film trajectory. When did you start making films?
MH: I started toying around with film around 15 years ago. I was spending time with my nephews and I decided to shoot and direct them for fun. We had an old camera that allowed you to edit the footage in-camera. I’m sure that if I watched that video today, I’d hate it. But it was a good time, and I decided to take filmmaking more seriously. Then I graduated to short films.
AB: How did that happen?
MH: I used to browse this Internet forum called DVXuser.com, a site dedicated to people who were starting to use digital video. I made the finals in one of their short film contests, competing against people from Los Angeles with RED cameras and budgets.
AB: And how long ago was this contest?
MH: Around 10 years ago. That was when I got involved in short films. I placed in the top three a few years in a row at DVXuser, and I won all kinds of gear, including lighting equipment, which I used to improve my filmmaking as time went on.
AB: Speaking of festivals, you’re a multi-year Digi60 alumni. How many times did you compete at Digi60?
MH: I competed at Digi60 three or four times. The first big success that I had there was with Moments in 2011. It was the first film that I pitched to the festival. It’s about a kiss and a woman falling in love.
AB: She’s dying, and writing a letter to her unborn child, correct?
MH: Exactly. Moments is a straight up drama, there’s no horror or anything like that in it. We had a great team. I remember Jeremy Kennedy was the director, and Karim Ayari shot it. It was really moving and did really well at Digi60. We got lucky that year, though.
AB: Before that you did At Last.
MH: That one’s about a man who’s hunting another man who was a Nazi at a Holocaust death camp. The former’s brother died at the camp and he wants revenge.
AB: And after Moments you did Relapse, right?
MH: Relapse was more of my own baby, which I liked. And it felt good because I pitched the idea to the other Digi60 filmmakers, and no one wanted it. So I directed it myself, and it swept the festival that year.
AB: How did your time at Digi60 influence and develop your career in the film industry?
MH: As I said, [like CryptTV] Digi60 showed me how to tell a story. Showing my films to an audience and critics at the festival, I picked up on what worked and what didn’t work in my films. What’s great about Digi60 is that they don’t tie you down. They give your minor restrictions, but they let you feed off of their creativity.
AB: That’s what I’ve heard from many filmmakers who’ve participated in the festival. The restrictions seem to put you down the right path.
MH: Right. At the time I did Digi60, I did filmmaking as a hobby. But seeing real professionals like Jeremy Kennedy and Derek Price working in their field, and learning from them, taught me a lot.
AB: What is your strongest memory of the festival?
MH: It was a selfish moment, but my favourite festival memory was the premiere of Relapse [in 2012]. I shot and edited it. There’s barely a word said in it, but my lead [Corry Burke] won best actor, even though he only says one or two lines. Not to be arrogant, but that was when I accomplished a milestone.
AB: Did the experience of winning awards at Digi60 make you more confident in your craft?
MH: Absolutely. I’ve seen people make many films and not win anything. It doesn’t mean they’re bad at it. But my attitude at Digi60 was to learn from my mistakes, and analyze what worked and what didn’t. I tried to make sure that I made my films not for myself, but for the audience. It goes both ways.
AB: Let’s move onto to a wider topic: Ottawa itself. You’re from Ottawa, correct?
AB: Can you speak to what it’s like to be a filmmaker here?
MH: The great thing about Ottawa is its filmmaking community. Everyone is very kind and very helpful. I’ve never been anywhere else, so I can’t compare it. I find Ottawa great because I can always get the locations I want.
AB: That really is what is unique about Ottawa. You can drive 10 minutes out of the downtown and find so many different locations.
MH: I like how, in Ottawa, finding locations is often just a matter of talking to people. I did a film where I needed to shoot Ottawa’s city hall with a black SUV in front of it. There was no problem. I talked to the guard and he let me shoot it all. It’s relaxed here.
AB: You’re proof that Ottawa’s indie scene is healthy. But what do you think could be done to make it more attractive to larger productions?
MH: They need a real studio here. They need a place where people can go and have access to a lot of gear and create what they need. In Vancouver, they have places where you can go and build. If they want to attract the bigger studios, and even bigger independent productions, that would really help.
AB: Do you think there’s a gear shortage in Ottawa?
MH: No. We need a space where people can come, have all their gear ready, and build whatever set they want.
AB: You recently wrote the screenplay for the horror film Awakening the Zodiac, which was filmed in Ottawa. Can you tell us what that was like?
MH: That was a ton of fun. I got to visit the set almost every day, and I made a few day-trips there. The movie was shot around Ottawa and in Carleton place. It was a great experience. While the final script wasn’t exactly mine, it was awesome seeing my plot and characters come to life. A couple of writers did come and rewrite it, but they kept the important elements of my script.
AB: Do you know why they decided to shoot Awakening the Zodiac in Ottawa?
MH: The producer is from Ottawa. I think that was the biggest reason. Ottawa had all the locations we needed, too.
AB: Looking forward, I read that you’re first directed feature, Malignant, is entering production soon. Can you give us an update on that project?
MH: I don’t know exactly where that project is. I know they’re still trying to do casting for it. I actually just spoke to the film’s producer, John J. Kelly. He’s helping me with the project. He’s executive produced a lot of big movies like Deadpool, but he wants to make it a smaller film.
AB: That’s awesome.
MH: I just signed with Zero Gravity Management in Los Angeles, too. They’re my reps. My latest script with them, RETROGRADE, is about a man who gets let out of a hospital, and finds this woman held captive in his house, and he has no idea who she is and how she got there. That’s essentially the tagline. We actually pitched it to two studios, and it looks like we’re going with one of them. I can’t exactly say who yet. That script is interesting because it might get made this summer . And getting those offers from the studio got me an agent.
AB: Who is that?
MH: They’re called United Talent Agency. I just learned that I’m signed to the same agent as James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy).
AB: And are you directing this new script?
MH: No, I’m definitely not directing it. Right now I’m getting paid to polish the script by the studio that’s buying it, and when that’s done, it’ll be in production soon.
AB: Is there anything aside from RETROGRADE and Malignant that you’re working on?
MH: No, I’m just focusing on those two features now. Most of my time is being spent on RETROGRADE. I also work full time at the as an epidemiologist at a hospital in Ottawa.
AB: Interesting. Did you know that George Miller also worked in a hospital before he became a filmmaker? Maybe you’ll be like him.
MH: I did not, but I hope so. We’ll see.
AB: Lastly, what advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers and for people entering Digi60?
MH: You just have to keep trying, and keep working with people. Edit the crap out of your stuff. If you can tell a complex sequence in a minute or 5 seconds, tell it in 5 seconds. Make as much content as you can. Listen to your audience. If they’re laughing at a sequence that they shouldn’t be laughing at, listen to them. And remember, you aren’t making these films for yourself. If you did, you might as well keep them to yourself. You’re making them for an audience.