Michael Keeney of ‘Worthless’ talks effortless production and his fear of the “animal film”

(Photo credit: Michelle Warner Martin)

There’s little room for argument over Key Media Entertainment taking home the award for Best Costume at this year’s 48 Hour Film Festival. Their silent short “Worthless” turns a tricky genre into a staged robbery at the hands of a monocled huckster and his two feisty accomplices. Featuring trains, horses, and a delightfully homespun soundtrack, the 19th-century setting in “Worthless” oozes with production value.

When I spoke with Key Media’s Michael Keeney, who served as the project’s producer, he discussed everything from the importance of pre-production in the 48 Hour to his preternatural fear of drawing the animal film genre.

For a production company based out of Wisconsin, Key Media Entertainment occupies a unique role in the film industry.

Michael: Our job is to figure out what transportation is needed on set. What kinds of cars, trucks or boats. Anything that’s got wheels or moves. Or [the studio] will already have those decisions made and it’s my job to go out and find those vehicles. I have a filing cabinet of about 500 cars that are all privately owned that I can go to. I can say “This is a 1960s project. Who can I go to that’s got 1960s stuff?”

And then basically I become babysitter on set. I make sure the director doesn’t do anything stupid to this guy’s baby, and I make sure that same guy doesn’t do anything stupid on the director’s set. I have a couple of projects coming out this summer. Mila Kunis’ “hero car” in Jupiter Ascending is a Buick Roadmaster station wagon. Ryan Gosling’s [Lost River], which screened at Cannes, has a car of mine. There’s also Dhoom 3, which is a Bollywood production that shot in Chicago. That’s what I do for the big leagues.

How do your responsibilities change in smaller productions?

M: In smaller films, either student films or instructor films, I do all sorts of line production. Instead of finding a mustang, my job is to find the ranch. Pretty much everything that everyone has to do on a small production I do, and as I’m sure you know, on smaller productions, nobody gets to wear just one hat. The only thing I don’t do is point the camera at stuff.

So you’ve directed films?

M: I’ve done some small personal productions to understand storytelling. Quite frankly, storytelling is in my roots. I come from a family of storytellers.

You come from a family of storytellers?

M: My mother is a minister and very good at crafting together words to move people. The storytelling tradition is very strong in my family, and when you grow up on a dairy farm and only have two and a half television stations to choose from, there’s a lot more talking to one another.

The obvious highlight in “Worthless” is the authentic production value, but you also play fast and loose with the silent film genre you drew. You have a small score on fiddle and even include a sound effect or two. Were there any concerns throughout the production about not having characters who could talk?

M: We knew it would be daunting. We were really concerned that a five-second conversation would take ten seconds to tell because now we’ve got to put that title card up. There was some discussion when we drew silent film out of the hat, but I knew we would be just fine because our actors were theatrically trained and our location was flexible enough that we could go far back in time and still work with it. To be honest, our real fear was drawing “animal film” instead because oh my God, what if we drew “animal film?”

Your location was already scouted?

M: Yes and no. We spoke with the Mid-Continent Railway Museum beforehand and told them we wanted to come there and work. We didn’t really scout locations, because we didn’t have the time. The museum is just west of Baraboo, and we had crew from Milwaukee, Chicago, and Homewood [Illinois] which is just this side of Indiana, so there was no way to scout. In talking with the museum staff, I could just tell they weren’t getting the project. They would say things like “Well I don’t get why you don’t just wait until we’re open to actually shoot this.” They didn’t really grasp that Saturday was the day we had to shoot this.

Obviously there’s tons of planning involved, and in such a condensed fashion with the 48 Hour, but you guys make it look effortless.

M: The reason it looks effortless is because when I put together this crew, I went after the best people I could get. This is my dream team. The reason it looks effortless is because they are all so very good. Yes, the production value is good but if it wasn’t shot beautifully it would suck. If it wasn’t scored well, it wouldn’t sell. If it wasn’t acted strongly, it wouldn’t work.

Nor if it were written poorly. It operates as a silent film, but it also works quite well as a heist. You have a trio of characters who behave like they’re in a heist prequel. This is Ocean’s Three.

M: I knew my lead actor William [Dezoma] had played villains in the past, and he has this wonderful look to him. Really his best work that day wasn’t on screen but in playing with people between takes. And to be completely candid, my two best friends are the female leads. One’s my wife and the other’s my business partner. And so I knew what they could do and I knew that they could make a great team. So if I could put tension between them with an amazing male actor and two amazing female actors set in a time period that was male-dominated, that would be really interesting.

In a silent film, nobody would have gotten shot at the end. It would have been campy. “Hey, we’re having a good ole time here!” The idea of a heist was borne out of an under-the-surface element. I wanted to bend what you would expect from a silent film.

You elevate beyond the base criteria and expectations, which is usually a recipe for success. You don’t allow your male lead to get away with being a dick the entire movie. There’s a retribution there.

M: And this is so much a paring down of the original story. There’s a deeper relationship between the two girls than you see in “Worthless.” And William can be a much badder guy onscreen. We did this in two days. Just imagine what we can do in two weeks.

You can talk about costumes and the interiors of a train until you’re blue in the face, but the score has a homey, rustic quality that really adds to the period setting. It’s so easy to phone in music as a last-minute consideration.

M: [Composer] Steven Olaf actually lives in Kansas City. I told him about the project and that it would roughly be in this time period. And so he tweaked some concepts we talked about prior. But he literally phoned the piece in. Steve was somebody who was asking by the time we were through, “When can we do this again?” I was so incredibly proud of our sound. His score and his effects are just amazing.

When can you do this again?

M: The core group of us, which is really about five or six of our good friends, are starting to put together plans for a documentary series for some of the things we learned from this production. We came across some amazing people doing some amazing things in the state of Wisconsin. We’re putting that together as an episodic thing to do throughout the summer.

We’re also trying to figure out fundraising to reshoot “Worthless” and tell the story we want to tell, sometime in the fall of 2015. We know that we’re going to need to have everything locked down as much as possible, and we’re going to need to be prepared for anything that comes out of left field.

So you definitely got some inspiration out of this whole thing.

M: At 3:41 am on Saturday morning, there was no way I was ever doing this again. In fact if you asked me, I would tell you “No way” with a whole bunch of blue language around that “No way.” Never, ever again. And by 10:30 in the morning, it was one of the five best days of my life. It was an amazing experience and even if I hadn’t fallen in love with the film — which I have — I fell so in love with my dream team crew, I would be asking “Will you do this with me again?” anyway. And we absolutely will.

Other 2014 interviews with Madison 48 Hour filmmakers: