Michael Matteo Rossi Filmmaker, Chase & Shadows

Independent filmmaker Michael Matteo Rossi: from film school to award-winning crime thrillers

Michael Matteo Rossi is an accomplished independent film director, screenwriter and producer who is best known for his crime thriller Chase (2019), starring Damien Puckler and Aries Spears.

In the following interview Rossi takes us through his early experiences with film, his Covid-19 quarantine experience in filmmaking, and what it took to not only write, but also direct and produce several features, as well as numerous shorts.

We discuss the casting process, film festivals, the mental battles involved as well as the physical, and much more besides…

Michael’s feature Shadows (2021) starring Krista Allen (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000 – 2015), Baywatch (1989 – 2001), Spin City (1996 – 2002)), Francis Capra (A Bronx Tale (1993)) and Vernon Wells (Commando (1985), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)) is in post-production at the time of publication.

FF: Could you introduce yourself?

MMR: Sure, I’m Michael Matteo Rossi, and I’m a filmmaker, and I’m happy to be here!

College to career filmmaker

FF: Could you tell us a little bit about how you got into film in the first place?

MMR: I kind of knew all my life that I wanted to do something film related – something creative. I started just writing short stories, doing creative writing in high school, then I wanted to transfer that over to directing and actually making something. When I was 19, in college, I got a small group together and made a short film, and then kind of built from there and never looked back. Here I am 13 and a half years later and I’m still doing it, thankfully.

FF: So did you go to film school, specifically?

MMR: I went to San Diego State, but I majored in film, television and new media. I was in the film school at San Diego State, and I loved it. It was great, but as most people know, you actually have to get out there and do work. It can’t just be you taking classes, you need to be on set, you need to put your work out there. That’s equally as important.

FF: Should film students be shooting all the way through or just immediately after graduating?

MMR: It really depends on them. Everybody has either an iPhone or a phone that has a great camera. It’s something very easy: you get a couple of your buddies together, you get some actors, you choose something and you create content. That’s why you see so many people who have their YouTube channel where they’re just doing stuff. It’s so easy now that I feel like there’s no real excuse not to at least just try to get yourself out there. Do a podcast. Doing anything as a creative outlet, I think, is good.

Movie poster Shadows (2021), Michael Matteo Rossi.
Movie poster of Shadows (2021) from filmmaker Michael Matteo Rossi.

Support for the creative community

FF: I noticed that you’re always encouraging people along those lines on social media, and I think that’s great because, obviously, someone with your level of success making films, for you to still be willing to reach out and talk to anyone and everyone on social media is really lovely. It was one thing that drew me to you because you replied to something I sent and I was like, ‘Oh, okay, cool. He’s talking to me’. So thank you.

MMR: That’s really sweet. Like I said, I try to respond to everybody that comes, genuinely, and fellow creatives, fellow artists, because I know how it is. I’m still an independent filmmaker, yes I have films under my belt, but I’m still climbing that ladder as well. I think we’ve talked about it, especially on social media – even Twitter, and I love using Twitter – sadly there’s a lot of negativity, there’s a lot of people fighting with each other. In this divisiveness, I just try to use it as an outlet to just create, to promote my artistic work, but also just to give a little advice on things.

How to deal with rejection in the film industry

FF: Being in the creative industries comes with a lot of no’s and a lot of rejections. I think those little moments of encouragement – of watching someone else who has struggled to get there, but IS getting there… definitely encourages young or new creatives to keep going.

MMR: Thank you, yeah, especially in times like this where we as artists are craving some sort of outlet. We love to be on set, we love even the promising emails and things like that. With so many things either being slower or cancelled or postponed… it’s like we do need those words of encouragement that things are going to get better, even if it seems like ‘Oh no, it’s dark days ahead. It’s going to be horrible. It’s always going to be horrible’. I can’t think that way. That’s not my style.

Filmmaking during a pandemic

FF: I also think the COVID situation that’s going on right now has stifled a lot of creativity. It’s made people say, ‘Okay, well, what do I do now? I don’t have my outlet. I don’t have that release’. So some people have been extra creative and found other ways to still make a movie sitting at home, or they’ve written a script for the first time or something.

MMR: Yes, it has, but I told myself – you probably saw, I actually shot a feature film a couple months ago, as a one location contained feature. I just told myself, ‘I can’t wait a year and a half or whenever this dies down, to then be open to doing it. You need to do it. And so we did. We were responsible, everybody was cool, it was good. You’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to find a way. You’re right. You got to be creative and just not give up or not say, ‘Alright, I’m throwing in the towel, because now we literally can’t do anything’. I can’t be like that.

FF: I’ve been totally isolated I think for six months, but I’ve still been doing work from home all the time. The UK has been in quite strict lockdown.

MMR: I just hope I mean, I’m an optimist, I am hoping that by next year things do get back to some sense of normalcy. Because what isn’t talked about as much to be honest with you real quick, is the mental health aspect.

FF: I agree. I think mental health issues have been particularly on the rise, even people who normally don’t suffer with anxiety or OCD or things like that. Those things are coming right up to the surface now. I actually wrote a script during lockdown, my first ever script and it’s about a woman fighting with her OCD and anxiety. It can be applied to during the pandemic, but it could also just be someone who deals with that in their daily life. It was an issue that I really wanted to talk about, because I’ve seen so much of it, especially during this period. It’s been hard. But I think that that’s where you can see those little beautiful moments, when people are being creative and something good can come of it.

MMR: I think that’s awesome that you wrote that script and that story, and it does seem very relevant, especially to the stuff going on.

Chase, Shadows, and Crime!

FF: So let’s talk about Chase (2019). Obviously I really enjoyed it, but tell us about how you came up with the concept for that.

MMR: I grew up loving the 80s, 90s action crime thriller and stuff, whether it’s Martin Scorsese films, whether it’s Scarface (1983), Carlitos Way (1993), all of these. I just told myself, without giving too much away about the film, that I wanted to tell a character piece about a hitman who is tied between his best friend – the loyalty for his best friend and mentor – and his girlfriend, who kind of wants him out of the business, or to at least distance himself from his best friend and mentor. Then you see this struggle that he has and the dynamics there. I wrote it pretty quickly, and I knew that the cast was so important. Damien Puckler who plays Chase, I had worked with him on a short film about six months before that and he was awesome to work with – he was great.

I thought he was perfect, he had the right look for the role and I thought the right acting style, and then I got Aries Spears, who has a comedy background, and he killed it. I think that a lot of these comedians you hear about are amazing at drama – they bring that. Then the rest kind of came together. Jessica Morris, who played Blair, the girlfriend of Chase was awesome. Really, really good experience overall. It’s technically my most successful film, so far. If people have seen one film of mine, it’s usually that one. Then Shadows (2021), that should be coming out in a few months. I’m really excited about it because I think that film might even be better than Chase.

FF: Do you know how you’re going to be distributing the more recent one?

MMR: It’s already gotten into a bunch of film festivals, and then I won Best Director at this multicultural Film Festival about a month ago, so that was pretty cool for Shadows (2021). It was this cool kind of international film festival called the Multicultural Film Festival. They have films from like 50 different countries. I won Best Director on a feature film for it. So that was really exciting.

FF: That’s really exciting that you won an award already for this film.

MMR: Thank you. I was very happy about that.

Casting strong female characters

FF: I love the women as well. The female roles in your film are really strong and multifaceted, which I really love. None of them are damsels in distress, not one.

MMR: You saw the film, so I don’t want to spoil it for anybody who hasn’t, but as you know, trust me that the women are saving some of the men as well, so we definitely have that. If you like Chase (2019) then Shadows (2021) is even more action packed.

FF: I think that your casting is very diverse as well in Chase (2019) anyway. I’m sure it’s the same probably in the others as well. I cold also see that you were really casting on talent – and the look wasn’t necessarily relevant at all to the role which was really cool to see.

Changing cinema because representation matters

MMR: My thing is, sometimes I’ll write a role, and I might have an idea of the look or how they physically should look, but then there’ll be somebody that looks completely different, but they crush it with the performance. And, with The Handler (2021), it’s kind of cool, because we’ve got somebody speaking Samoan in it, we’ve got somebody speaking Russian in it. We’ve got English, of course, but it’s all over the place. I mean, that’s kind of how it is, so I’m all about it. I think it’s cool, personally.

FF: I agree, I think it adds flavour. Nowhere is one thing anymore, everywhere is quite diverse. You’ll hear lots of different languages no matter where you go and I think that it’s important that a film represents what society is, you know?

MMR: I agree.

FF: Well, I think your film definitely has very good representation and it’s exciting to hear about the next one as well.

MMR: I want to just keep making those action, character driven thrillers. That’s just how it is. I mean we got to bring it back to those 80s and 90s action films, but with a contemporary flavour, totally. That’s what excites me, I try to make edgy films like that. I mean, that’s how it is, I think we as artists – there should almost be no limitations. I’m sure that you know, you’ve seen films or you’ve worked with people where they feel like they’re walking on eggshells with, ‘Okay, can’t be too violent. Can’t be too this, too that’. I personally say, make the films that you want to make, that’s what I think.

Actor Krista Allen in Shadows (2021)
Actor Krista Allen in Shadows (2021).

What stories can I tell?

FF: I totally agree. I think that film is meant to be entertaining. So let’s do that.

MMR: Someone is going to love it, it’s not going to be something for everybody, and you know, there’s some people that just like rom-coms, or some people that like action, but you know, there will be something out there for everybody. In my films, if they like action, if they like some good character driven action, then they’ll probably like my films.

FF: And I think there’s a huge market for that.

In times when you’re feeling discouraged and times where you feel like things aren’t going your way or anything, just take a little step back and realise why you started in the first place.

How to navigate the film market

Talking about the film market, if we could maybe go into a little bit of that, because I know there are a lot of indie filmmakers that watch this, or student filmmakers. It can be quite daunting for them trying to figure out how to approach finance in film, and how to get the resources together to make the film that we want to make. Do you have any advice on that?

MMR: One thing, it’s about getting the money, the budget, everything. I would say networking is a huge part of it. I would say you begin building that up even by starting with short films, say you can get people together guerrilla style and start building up your resume. Then if you meet somebody that you know, does have some money, or you encounter somebody, you at least have, first of all, have a crop of work that you can show them or can say at least ‘Hey, this is an example’.

Actor Chris Levine
Actor Chris Levine in Shadows (2021). Directed by Michael Matteo Rossi.

Crowdfunding or traditional film investors?

MMR: I would also say there are crowdfunding sites: Kickstarter, Indiegogo, all that. I think that can work for some people, I’ve personally never done that. Just networking. Here’s the thing, I have pinned at the top of my Twitter my demo reel, which I need to update but still for anybody who doesn’t know me first thing they see is that. Boom. They can see this is the type of films that I’ve done, and that I’ve gotten jobs, I’ve gotten gigs, I’ve networked with a lot of people via Twitter views, social media, you never know who you can encounter and meet… and the way I’ve sometimes gotten financing has been that I didn’t even know they were investors before, but they liked my work and they said, ‘What do you have going on next?’ I told them, and they asked ‘Okay, what’s holding you back?’, I said, ‘You know, still seeing about money’. And then we talk about it. It’s building personal relationships, it’s networking, it’s not being scared to reach out to somebody.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

The worst thing that can happen is they say no, or they ignore you. That’s it. But if you come correct, and kind of genuine and professional, you never know what can happen. Honestly, real quick, and I know it doesn’t have to do with the financing that much. I had somebody reach out to me on Twitter, who lived in LA before I made the handler. She was very sweet and awesome, and attached her stuff and said, ‘Look, if there’s anything that I can do, any part’, and I got her on board, and she acted in the film. So you know, you’ve got to take those steps, because if you don’t take any steps, then it’s 100% not going to happen. You never know, you’ve got to use social media to your advantage and just network. Try to meet people and build relationships. That’s what I think.

Actor Vernon Wells in Shadows (2021)
Actor Vernon Wells in Shadows (2021).

How beneficial are film festivals for indie filmmakers?

FF: You need to get to know people and get out there. So would you say like attending film festivals would be a good way to do that?

MMR: Film festivals can be a really good resource. I have met some investors that way, it has been awesome. But don’t square away being on social media, because you have to build your brand, you got to build what what you’re all about. Even with some actors. I know, personally, some actors that don’t mind getting typecast, because look, it’s work, they’re getting paid. Then I know some that don’t, either ones fine, but you need to know what you’re good at, what your niche is, what you want to do. Then you’ll be able to put yourself out there more, market yourself, and get some money hopefully!

Marketing advice for budding filmmakers

FF: So how did you approach your marketing strategy for some of your earlier films. Did you have people on board that helped you with that? Or did you take care of that yourself?

MMR: I think a mixture of both. I have financed some of my films in the past together, and I’ve put some stuff in savings, because you have to invest in yourself too. But then hopefully, the goal is that it soon starts to pay back in some way. After I started to even make some short film, got it to some festivals, won a few awards, nominations, all of that, I was able to reach out to a few of those people and say, ‘Hey, do you have interest in some kind of coming on board, we have x, y, and z, this type of stuff that we’re doing’, when I started, I did more of those big cattle call casting things where a lot of people came in everything.

Networking vs. open casting calls

MMR: When you start to really work with a lot of the same people, at least with me, that I know are good and I know can play the roles. So, now I have a big enough network that if I really want to work with somebody, I’ll either reach out to them, or I’ll reach out to the reps. I do have people reaching out to me sending me their stuff and everything, and I love that as well. So either way, I just try to be pretty approachable. It’s as simple as that. So for me, I usually have a sense of who I’d want to cast. But again, the people who reach out, call it high risk or high reward, they’re the ones that get my attention, they really are. So that’s the thing, don’t be afraid to do it. Just give me a little bit of time, and I’ll usually get back to you.

FF: It’s good to hear really, that we don’t have to wait for the Breakdowns or the Spotlight, necessarily. We can connect and network which may lead to work.

MMR: Yeah. Absolutely, we’re all human beings. I’ve gotten the rejections before, I’ve got the no’s before. Yeah, you can reach out. For people who follow me and all of that – they usually can tell what’s going on. I usually do say whether I’m starting the casting process or the pre production, and all it is is just tweeting your showreel or what you got going on and I’ll look at it. I will look at it and if you fit or if it works or something like that, then good things are gonna happen. I really do try to break down the stigma of not being one of the people that say you can’t send it at all. Nope, nope, you can’t approach the director at all. I try to be pretty friendly with it. You know?

Actor Rachel Alig in Shadows (2021)
Actor Rachel Alig in Shadows (2021).

Do I need a casting director for my indie film?

FF: Yeah, that’s really good. Do you have casting directors that you work with? Or do you primarily just take care of it yourself?

MMR: I take care of it myself, which I know is a little bit unorthodox but I’m the writer, director, producer of it, and I think that 50% of directing is the casting of it. So if I’m going to be directing it, I want to have a lot of creative control over whom I choose. It’s also about who you get along with on set because you’re going to be on set together for a while with these people and you’ve got to make sure that you’re not pulling your hair out by the end of it. So I do do most of the casting myself, yes.

FF: Okay, that’s amazing. It is quite rare, especially when you’re making such large scale movies with a budget.

MMR: I know, it’s surprised some people, but I like it. It’s not way too much work for me and because I direct most of the scripts that I wrote, nobody knows the characters better than I do. So that’s what it’s about.

FF: To know what you want to see on screen, and also how it’s gonna look as well.

MMR: Exactly. Definitely.

Actor David Labrava in Shadows (2021)
Actor David Labrava in Shadows (2021)

Final advice for aspiring filmmakers…

FF: Do you have any final pieces of advice or anything like that for filmmakers?

MMR: I would just say, in times when you’re feeling discouraged and times where you feel like things aren’t going your way or anything, just take a little step back and realise why you started in the first place.

You knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. I mean, if it was easy, anybody would be doing it. That’s the thing. So just believe in yourself. Believe in your capabilities. Know – your – worth! Know your worth as an artist and as a human being, and just keep going with it, have thick skin and understand that it’s probably not going to happen overnight.

If anybody’s really feeling down in the dumps, try to approach me, reach out to me, say ‘Mike, I’m having a tough time’. I really do try to be approachable because if I can instil any advice that I learned with going through stuff it would be that, whether it’s getting screwed out of money, getting screwed over, all of which has happened in my career… If I can help somebody veer off and not do that or not go down that bad path, I would love to, so don’t give up. If you love it, yes it could be hard, but just don’t give up.

FF: Thank you so much. Thank you for agreeing to come on to speak to me and for Film Forums as well. Thank you for your advice and your time.

MMR: No, it was amazing. Thank you, you asked some great questions as well and I’m sure we’ll definitely be talking. This was fantastic, though. Thank you.

Credits

Transcription: Ben Kelly
Second Editor: Aiysha Jebali
Introductory words: Aiysha Jebali & Richard Williams
Artwork: Richard Williams