Q&A with Skills Like This director Monty Miranda

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They said it couldn't be done. No way could a feature-length movie filmed and produced in Colorado make it big-time. Local commercial filmmaker Monty Miranda thought differently and, with Academy Award-winning Colorado filmmaker Donna Dewey signed on as producer, he came up with Skills Like This. The indie caper comedy became the darling of festivals worldwide, including winning the audience award at last year's South by Southwest Festival, and has since scored flattering reviews from the likes of the New York Times and Variety. Now it's become the first-ever Colorado feature -- one packed with Denver landmarks and songs from Denver bands -- to score a national theatrical release. Talk about a great Hollywood ending.

Miranda, Dewey and crew are back in town tonight for a triumphant Skills Like This premier at Starz FilmCenter. The $25 party ($20 for Denver Film Society members) includes cast and crew appearances, live bands and all-around merrymaking -- not to mention a screening of the film itself, which will be playing at Starz for several weeks. To get psyched up for the shindig, we chatted up Miranda on the phone a few weeks back to talk about Senor Burritos, getting Jux County played in Warsaw and what it's going to take to get more filmmaking skills like his here in Colorado.

Westword (Joel Warner): Tell me a bit about yourself and the film.

Monty Miranda: I went into film school at CU-Boulder. And I studied advertising and got into commercials. I really liked that the best commercials could be these pure little stories. I got to do a lot of really cool stuff. I saw that as my training. It was a really good lifestyle, but then right around 35, I made it my personal goal to make a movie before I was forty. And I did. I finished my film just under the wire.

I had known Donna Dewey for many years. She was the first producer I contacted when I got out of film school. She had a really good reputation and had done some documentaries to considerable acclaim. Then she won an Oscar for her short documentary. We found we both shared a passion for wanting to make a feature film.

A few years back the manager for a writer named Spencer Berger sent the first draft of Skills Like This to Donna and she sent it to me. I flipped out over it. I'd had a thirteen-hour day that day, but I read the whole thing.

Within a week we'd flown out to Los Angeles to meet Spencer and Gabriel Tigerman, who also had a story credit on the screenplay, and we saw them perfom at After School Special, a sketch comedy show in Hollywood. After the show, we all went out for drinks and Spencer and I and Donna really hit it off.

Later that week, we had our first table read, and we realized it was really funny, but it needed a stronger story. We realized we needed to do some development on it. That's when Spencer and I went to work. We talked on phone for two to three hours a day for a year to get it done.

We had to work through lots of interesting hurdles. Max, the lead character, for example, robs the bank by putting a gun to his own head. That was one of the things we came up with by developing the screenplay. One of the things that I like was this crazy bank robbery occurs in the first ten pages. But it's really hard to open a character-driven movie with that. The character can become very unlikable -- it's a lot to ask of the audience to go with that character if he's endangering people. So decided to have him sticking the gun to his own head has a dark, comic angle to it, and I think if someone put a gun to their own head and told me to do something, I would do it. For many reasons.

You know, ultimately this is exactly the move we collectively wanted to make. We've all seen the movie where the guys starts out as horrible writer and he works really hard, and in the third act he has somehow becomes a great writer and everyone goes home happy. We didn't want to make that movie. Max, the main character, finds out really early he is not going to have a career as writer. That is more the norm. At the end of the day, Max realized there are more things to live for even though he doesn't achieve his grand dreams. What happens when you don't achieve your dream -- what do you do then?

WW: So did you purposely shoot in Denver?

MM: I lived in Denver for, like, eighteen years. It's a great place to live, it's a great city. When I read the screenplay, I didn't see the film anywhere but here. Possibly because it reminded me of the time when I was just out of college here. And I thought it would be a little more interesting to make a movie that takes place in Denver rather than L.A. or New York or Chicago, where you see movies made all the time. I thought Denver could be a character in the film that could add something without being a distraction.

When we first got going, there were some producers who kept pushing us to try to shoot it in Los Angeles or New Mexico, and we probably could have shot it cheaper there, but Donna and I were determined to film it in Colorado. And I think it was a good decision. I have never been a huge fan of films in Anywhere, USA.

WW: What are some of Denver landmarks people can spot?

MM: The Mexican restaurant at the beginning of the film was inspired by the local restaurant Senor Burritos. We had planned to shoot at Senor Burritos on Broadway next to Key Bank, because we needed to have a bank for a few days so we could rob it. And I always envisioned the main character literally getting up from lunch, walking across the street and robbing the bank. The local Key Bank reps were very receptive to us robbing their bank, but at the last minute, corporate Key Bank was not.

So instead we found a very cool, old bank in Arvada called Bank of Choice, and across the street was an old upholstery shop. And our production designer scrambled to build a Mexican restaurant in there in a week and a half. We were struggling to come up with a new name for it, but we kept coming back to the idea that Senor Burritos was an appropriately stupid name for a Mexican restaurant.

WW: There are lots of local musicians featured in the film as well, right?

MM: I thought about contacting DeVotchKa because I love them, but when Little Miss Sunshine came out, DeVotchKa was pretty huge and I didn't want to use the same music. There would be too many comparisons. So I used... man, there are so many great ones. I used Andy Monley, who used to do the band Jux County. He scored the pop song in the film as well as did a few of his own songs. Nate Rateliff of the Wheel has a couple songs as well. And Halden Wofford and the H*Beams. There are a lot of Denver bands that are unsigned that I think are super talented. I wanted the audience to hear the music of the lives of these characters, and I didn't want to have a traditional score. I wanted the audience to hear what they would hear daily.

WW: Can we talk about what it's been like getting distribution for the film?

MM: That was the part I knew the least about. As an independent filmmaker, you are sort of thankful for your naiveté. If you realized all the stops you have to make beforehand, your head would just explode. I started with getting a good screenplay. Then we shot a movie in seventeen days, which is basically impossible. Then we edited the film. Then we had to get it into top-tier film festivals, where it won a major award. Then we traveled around the world with it. Then we finally got distribution. If you try to tackle it all at once, you'd freak out.

After we won at South by Southwest, I got twenty e-mails from distributors from around the world. We had to just sit back and hope the sales reps went with the right distributors -- and they did. Because of the economy, a few of the distributors we talked to went out of business. It's fortunate we went with the company we did, because if we'd gone with one of the other ones, we could be sitting on a shelf right now.

Then, at the end of the summer, I started working on the movie all over again. Polishing things I thought needed to be added technically. And we decided we wanted worldwide rights in perpetuity for the music. A lot of indie films have different music in the Turkey version and the UK version than in the US version. I really wanted the same music here as you'd hear in Warsaw. We did a combination of replacing and rescoring four songs. But the four big ones were kept in the film. And in the process I think I found a few new classics.

WW: Are you nervous about the film's upcoming reception?

MM: As a filmmaker, I went in to make a movie I would like to see. That's the very best way to protect yourself. If you try to make something to please a certain type of person, you will fail.

We have probably done seventeen festivals, and we have few more right before it opens in particular markets and, you know, the audience has really responded. I just hope we connect with the audience and so far I think we have done pretty well with that.

WW: Over the past year you moved to L.A. Why leave Denver?

MM: I want to keep making movies and want a new challenge. I still make a lot of commercials and I really enjoy it. At the same time, making movies is a new part of my career that I really want to pursue. The opportunities seem to be greater out here for no other reason than there are a lot of movies made out here. Though on the other hand, what I do miss about Denver is that in the movie business, you're essentially the only person who does what you do.

WW: What needs to be done with Colorado film scene to bring in more folks like yourself?

MM: Hopefully Skills will help more films to be made here. The incentives, obviously, need to get better. Donna was instrumental in getting the original 10-percent cash rebate incentive for films produced and filmed in Colorado. The tag line is you've got everything but the ocean there. And the crews are there. There is an indie film scene in Denver. The talent is there. More films, more filmmakers and incentives are key to bringing the filmmaking marketplace to Denver.

Making a film in Colorado is something I would love to do again. I don't know when I will do it again, but it is the right decision

WW: So what are your plans for the future?

MM: I am still making commercials with a new company in Santa Monica called BeachHouse Films. Spencer and I are working on a new screenplay we are really exited about. And I've got some television-pilot stuff in the works that may happen before that. I think the ultimate goal is for all of us to be working together again on a movie.

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