An Interview With Michael DeSanto

Clint LaForest
17 min readJun 21, 2017
Michael DeSanto at Pizza Papalis

The story starts with pizza. As it should with Michael DeSanto of Bad Atom Studios.

I debated starting off this article in the style of a screenplay, just for the opportunity to be provided to describe the restaurant where I met Michael, and blatantly set the scene. There’s something to be said about introducing the dually talented director and writer in the style of his chosen profession. However, it would have been a gimmick and missed the mark on really portraying the filmmaker in question. Instead I decided to go to the core reason we met at Pizza Papalis. That reason, as the restaurant’s namesake implies and my opening sentence explicitly states, is pizza.

Pizza can say a lot about a person. A person’s favorite pizzeria, the toppings, sauce; everything gives a bit of a glimpse into who that person is in life . Maybe I am being a bit obtuse, but pizza also serves as an excellent metaphor for film production. Each ingredient is delicious and has it’s own unique flavor, but combined they can be a masterpiece or a greasy shamble. In film production, each individual brings a set of skills to the table that are each worthy of speaking on at length. However, the combination of skills and teamwork can turn out a slice of heaven or result in a fly pie.

So it was important to me to ask Michael about the choice of restaurants he made when asked where we should meet up with me for the interview. Lucky for me he was ready to go with the story as soon as he showed up. For the sake of my memory and our poor stomachs, we waited until we sat down and had the recorder running. Pizza Papalis was busy that night with the Toledo Walleye in town, but we still managed to get a table in a short period of time, a credit to their staff and management.

For reference, Pizza Papalis is Michael’s second favorite pizza place. The story about his favorite starts with him and his mother heading out to Indianapolis, Indiana.

Clint: We’re at Pizza Papalis for our interview with Toledo filmmaker and photographer Michael DeSanto. Michael, you had a story about what pizza place you consider your first best.
Michael: Okay, I’ll continue the story. So, we took my mom up to Indianapolis and found this place downtown, called Giorgios. It’s just a little hole in the wall, nothing fancy, nothing expensive, and they have this stuffed pizza. It’s basically like a large calzone. They sell it by the slice, and as soon as we had it we were like, “We’re going to have to take some to-go.” Right? And now Charles [Wetzel, Jr] has his acting courses out there from Indy Actors Academy, and it’s once a month. I take him out there, and the whole point… the whole benefit of me going out there is to have more of that pizza. I took Charles there and led with, “You don’t understand. This is literally the best pizza I’ve had my entire life.” And he’s like, “Uhhhhh, okay, okay…” So we went there, he had one piece, and he goes, “This is literally the best pizza I’ve had my entire life.” I’m like, “I told you. Why did you doubt me?”

So we’d drive out to his class, I would drop him off, he would do his thing, and I would go shopping for like 4 or 5 hours. I’d go pick him up, we’d go downtown, and we’d do it again. But what happens now is he went from a Saturday to a Sunday class and the pizza place isn’t open on a Sunday. Now I’m driving 3 ½ hours out of my way for no pizza.

Clint: (laughing) No pizza.
Michael: No pizza. What is the point now?

Clint: (laughing) You’re going to start staying in a hotel just to get the pizza on a Saturday.
Michael: You know, he actually suggested that but I’m not going to drive all the way out there to stay at a hotel just to get this. The last time I took him we tried another pizza place, which was… pretty good too but it was in a really, really scary neighborhood. I told him afterwards, “You would have probably recommended that I leave,” because it was one of those combo pizza place/bar/laundromat. You know? Everything in one. I just kind of stayed in my car, waited for the pizza, kept the doors locked and then someone comes over and they’re beating on the car door, getting ready to beat me up… so it was interesting. I always have fun and interesting trips.

Clint: What other cities are you heading to anymore? You talked about New York, which you sent him [Wetzel] to.
Michael: We’re going to be going back a lot. Here I am talking about Charles. I’m basically his manager at this point. I got him set up with Central Casting and he went out there so he could get registered and they could take his pictures. Now when we go back, he can just call up the hotline and see if there is work available. Being New York; there is always work available. He goes for a weekend and works both days on the weekend, then he’s not only paid for his trip, but he makes a few bucks too. So, it’s pretty good. It’s extra work and like $120 per day that they pay now for a 10-hour day. They pay more if there is makeup involved with some kind of special effect. We were joking, as well, because he told them that he was willing to do nudity [chuckles]… well, it pays more. I’m like, “Okay, if you really want that bonus.”

Clint: What’s your connection with him [Wetzel]? He’s been in everything [DeSanto films].
Michael: We worked at Kroger together. I was a cashier, he was a bagger. That’s when I was just first starting to do all the film stuff. I just had this little webcam and it didn’t even record audio. I had a $10 mic that I would record on. I would sync the video and audio up later. They were stupid little sketch videos.

Charles always wanted to be a part of it because he loves that kind of stuff and he did Broadcast Journalism. He wanted to get in on what I was doing and my reaction was basically, “I don’t even know you. You’re annoying; go away.” Of course, that changes. We’ve been pretty much attached at the hip ever since.

It’s a benefit because he’s on the acting side of the industry, and I’m behind the scenes directing and writing. A lot of people in local film wear a lot of hats. As an actor he gets to meet casting directors and filmmakers who are just starting out. He just did a short film at the end of last year here in Toledo. I’m always looking for gigs for him. He had an audition, got the part.

They’re doing the same thing you’re [One Stoplight Productions] doing, or I’m doing, to start something up here now. This relationship helps us get connected, meet a few new people. Just by helping him, that helps me. In fact, we’re meeting up later at the studio to do some test photos. It benefits both of us to work together.

Clint: Sounds like a beneficial relationship. Why did you get involved with film? What is your backstory?
Michael: The funny thing is that I started in cartoons. I wanted to be a cartoonist, a comic strip artist, get into animation, do all of that and that’s what I started out doing. I would do comic strips in high school instead of doing my homework, and I tried to do a few things with that. I have the rejection letters all framed from the newspaper syndicates and everything. When I lived in California, I was trying to get into animation and I decided to talk to Warner Brothers and Fox and, of course, that went nowhere. I was recently digging through my boxes, getting rid of some old paperwork and all of this stuff and I found some of the letters from Warner Brothers and Fox.

The one person I talked to at Warner Brothers said, “We’ll try to set up a meeting and do all of this stuff…” By the time that got to me and I got back to them, that guy was gone. Same secretary, though, because she said, “He’s not here anymore. We have somebody new that took over.” And I’m like, “Can I talk to him?” “Well, he doesn’t know who you are,” and I didn’t have an agent, so that went nowhere.

Then I was doing flash animations, stuff like that, but it was so time consuming compared to filmmaking and writing. I would spend 4 or 5 months on an animation and not have much to show for it. I would have a two minute bit that took me 4 or 5 months. It’s just me, working by myself, slaving at the computer for 12–14 hours per day.

I’ve always wanted to get into mainstream film, but at the time what I was doing sort of gradually shifted. So I slowly went from drawing and trying to do animation… and then I’d be like, “Oh, I’m going to write a script..” and it just went from one to the other, because I’ve always had an interest to begin with. It wasn’t, like, a specific film or anything… I want to be a filmmaker because I saw this and got inspired. It’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do.

I lived out there for about three years, and all I was really doing out there was working at a grocery store. It was so expensive living out there that I was just struggling to get by. That’s the funny thing about it. You have that, “I’m in California, the film industry… there is so much going on.” There is also so much competition to even get in there. I’ve had, more luck and more success creating something here because you’re creating it from scratch. There is a film industry, but it’s still starting… it’s still growing. I actually like that a lot more than trying to claw your way into Hollywood.

Clint: But, anymore, at least from what I’m seeing, is that independent is really taking off. There are so many more avenues out there for us. And filmmaking itself is getting cheaper…
Michael: It’s the technology. You know, when I was living in California, I didn’t even have a computer. I never had a camera or anything when I got there. Once I came back here and all of the sudden I got my video camera… and I can suddenly do this and that. I can do some basic editing… It’s amazing that ten years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this stuff. When I did Max Anderson (2013), it was a script that i wrote while I lived in California. The last couple of months out there I didn’t have a computer because mine had broke, so I wrote Max Anderson (2013) by hand. 89 pages. I held onto that script and eventually got to the point where I have a camera, I have all the stuff, I know people here now. I think I could pull this off. I think I could make a film. And… it happened.

Clint: Was that the first major one you did here?
Michael: That was the first feature length. We were doing little sketches here and there. Charles [Wetzel, Jr.] got involved, we got a few other people involved, and I was raiding the talent from community theatre. I had them in a lot of my stuff. That was when I said, “Okay, I’m going to make a whole full-fledged movie.” After I did that we pulled back a little and did shorter stuff because that about killed me. The first week, I worked 114 hours on the movie. One day was a 26 hour day. It was rough, because you have all of the stuff you’re trying to coordinate. I didn’t have a crew. It was me and my camera… I was doing the lighting, I was running the camera, I was directing… I was getting all of the stuff together. Now it’s a lot easier because I actually have people who will help me out and have specific jobs. I have someone who can do the lighting and I have someone who is going to run the camera for me when I’m not doing it myself or do that with me. It makes my life so much easier.

It’s like a microbudget kind of thing, I can’t afford to hire a bunch of people. A lot of it is a volunteer operation, but I do try to pay for some things to help people out. Food is the biggest thing. But just the difference between having a few people to help me out, as opposed to 3 or 4 years ago where you would have been watching me do it all by myself, and run around like a chicken with my head cut off. Now it’s so much easier.

We did 10 Minutes to Earth (2016) when we still had the skeleton crew. We just had the confidence that each person has their job and they know what they’re doing. I don’t have to worry about them screwing things up. Just having that confidence is a weight off of your shoulders. I know the lights are going to get set up and everything is fine. I know Larry Williams is going to get the shots I want. I have somebody running the sound. The actors are all professionals. It’s almost relaxing (laughs). I enjoy that. I wouldn’t mind having a bigger crew, just having people that have an idea of what they’re doing and are also dedicated to doing the project, not just because they’re getting a paycheck or they want the credit… they actually care. To find those kind of people, I always say, “If you find people like that, just grab onto them and don’t let them go. Latch onto their ankles,” (laughs).

Clint: What do you have coming up?
Michael: Oh, man… a lot. We’re going to be getting back to Spy College 2. We pretty much had to stop because the weather was getting too cold. The one scene we were going to shoot… I kept waiting for a nice day, because it was like September or October, and in the opening scene we have a sorority girl and she’s going to be in a bikini. So I was like, I’m not going to make her suffer in 30 degree weather. The scene takes place at night, so it’s going to be cold.

It’s really hard to film during the winter, I mean here anyway. So I said that we’re going to postpone all of it. We’re going to wait until March to get back up and running, because we only have five days to shoot left. The only reason we did Ten Minutes to Earth (2016) in January was because it was indoors, and still it was bitter cold. I was out there when we built that in the garage and it was like 12 degrees outside. We had a heater but I only used it from time to time so we wouldn’t waste propane and still it was bad. You try in between takes because the actors are all cold. I was like, “What do you mean you’re cold?” I’ve been out here for 7 weeks working on this set. I’m not cold. I’m used to it. I was taking off my jacket and all this stuff, and they’re all huddled by the heater…

Clint: Giving you the evil eye? (laughs)
Michael: Yeah, ask anybody. They’ll tell you how much they suffered. But it was worth it and you couldn’t see their breath, so we had it warmed up enough.

Clint: Well, it was in space, so you probably could have gotten away with it.
Michael: I was actually worried about that. And I said, if that’s an issue, I know a couple of ways of working around it. Also, we have a fog machine that would have hidden a lot of breath around it. Luckily, it wasn’t that bad. I mean, it was like 30 degrees. Come on — heat wave. But, yeah, we’re getting back to Spy College 2, and I’m really hoping that we can do most of that in March. One part I have to wait until July to shoot because my one friend that’s going to be in it, he was in the first one, but he moved to Omaha, and he’s coming back for a week in July. And I was like, we’ll do that when you come back. It’s going to take like 2 hours to shoot, so we’re working it in. I said that we have to bring him in; we’re not re casting. I brought everyone else in. So, we have that and I have a TV project called I Hate My Job, which we were actually supposed to film this last weekend, but then there’s practical things like, oh, money, so that keeps getting pushed back. But that’s like quick weekend shoot. It’s like a sitcom in the style of The Office and Parks and Recreation, except that it takes like a really dark turn, and… well, I won’t spoil it.

We’re going to have it air on the Buckeye channel, and I’m shooting it as a regular episode of a 22 minute sitcom. We’ll act like it’s been on the air for a while. I gave them details on what they can riff on and we can work that into the script. That way they can show off their talents and we get to have something that will be on TV. Whenever we get to that, because, basically, it’s whenever I have 300 bucks to spare. We have to rent an office to do that.

Clint: Do you have an office in mind?
Michael: Well, there is the building where we filmed Max Anderson (2013). The only issue with that, because I already known how much that would be, because we’ve filmed there before, is that she already has furniture there. It’s like bare walls and all this stuff, and I want something that looks a little more realistic. I was thinking about there, but I was keeping my options open, because it’s going to be a weekend shoot, and if I go somewhere that’s like an actual office that I could make use of it for the weekend, that’s the only major expense. It’s just renting the place for the weekend, and throwing the guys a few bucks. I already have the shooting schedule up, it’s on my board. It’s like a 17 hour day and then a 12 hour day. I need to throw them a few bucks.

Clint: You’ve got those two projects coming up. What else?
Michael: I’m also doing a short film project with Larry Williams. He’s trying to do more with his cinematography and coloring, so he wants to have like a showcase for that. So, we have a couple little short films. I’m doing one and Vanessa Leonard is doing another one later this year. So, the one I’m doing is called Haunted House, and it’s really, really short. It’s like a 2 page script. Charles is in it, of course. It’s not like a big major production and going to be like a half a day and we’re doing that in March. I already have a location for it. The goal is to show off what he Larry can do with his gear, because he’s got some really good gear and he knows how to use it, and I like working with him too. He’s no drama, and I like that. We work together pretty well.

Clint: What all does Bad Atom do?
Michael: It’s photography… actually I was just writing it up today… I have to remember what I wrote, because I have all of the categories of all the stuff that I do, because I’m putting it into ads for now. It’s like wedding, engagements, concerts, senior photos, baby photos, pet photos… I just did somebody’s 50th wedding anniversary and pictures for that… it’s like small little events. I don’t have a ton of gear, so I can only do so much. I don’t have a second shooter to work with.

Clint: What have you liked about Toledo and filming here? And the follow-up, just to lead you into it, so you can talk all you want, is what do you think Toledo needs and where should we be going?
Michael: The people who are into it, the film scene, are enthusiastic about it and they want to do something and it’s not just about the money. They’re passionate about it, that’s nice.

We have the monthly meeting for Glass City Screenwriters. I missed it last week because I was busy, but I’ve otherwise gone to every one, and that was something they talked about. All this enthusiasm and passion in Toledo, but the problem is that no one has the money. That’s what we need to work on.

The other thing that we talked about was that we have a lot of people around here that have a lot of different talents, but not everyone is making the best use of it. You have somebody who is really good at cinematography and somebody who is a really good writer, and you have all of these actors. You have people with different talents and everybody is sort of doing their own thing so we’ve been trying to bring more people together. We pool in the talent and enough with the drama and the egos… if we can bring people together and make good use of their talents we know that they have, we can really make something good around here.

You know the other good thing about Toledo is, because there aren’t a lot of film productions going on here, there isn’t a whole lot of super professional stuff, it’s easier to get people to help you, and easier to get locations and involvement from companies and businesses because it’s not like an everyday thing. You go to California and if you don’t have a permit, forget about it. If you don’t have money to rent a place, forget about it. Here I’ve used so many different places, so many different connections, and sometimes it’s like throwing somebody a few bucks or promoting their company in exchange location, and that’s something that’s really nice.

Clint: It sounds kind of like what you’re saying is that there are a lot of people out there and they all have their different talents and everything, but we really don’t know each other or work together.
Michael: Right, that’s the big problem right there. Which is why right now I have Jack O’Hare… he’s like the production guy. You know, he can build stuff… he helped me build the set for Ten Minutes to Earth. He put in a ton of work. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him. He put together and was designing the consoles, the bones of the set. I mean, and he’s helped us before. He built like this crane for Spy College (2014). That’s his specialty. You know, he’s the nuts and bolts guy, and he’s enthusiastic about it. So it’s like I have somebody for that so I don’t have to worry about that. Like I have Larry [Williams], so I know he’s got the camera side of things. So, I’m doing Haunted House, and I’m directing that and editing it. He’s shooting it and coloring, and in exchange he’s going to shoot I Hate My Job, so it’s like I don’t have to worry about that. So it’s about pulling those resources and knowing people’s strengths and weaknesses, and having that balance, so between the three of us…. It’s a good team. So that’s what we need more of around here.

As at the end of the interview with James Cels Bragg, I asked Michael to point me toward a few individuals whom I should interview in the future in connection with Toledo Film. His suggestions really focused on the varying aspects of filmmaking as he chose local filmmakers with focuses in cinematography, grip, and writing. Michael’s choices were Larry Williams, Jack O’Hare, and Virgina Shine. I have one more name on my own list to interview before I begin working through my guests’ lists but all the choices so far are fantastic.

Sadly, I have to admit that I still have not attended the Toledo Filmmakers meeting. I have a million excuses but they don’t need to be stated. However, I’ve met many of the people involved and I encourage each of you who are interested in film and live in the Toledo or Bowling Green area attend and meet like minded individuals.

Before I end, I wanted to bring up the Bad Atom GoFundMe. A departure from many of the local crowdfunding opportunities that have been seen locally (One Stoplight Productions’ included), the GoFundMe hopes to fund all the projects that his studio is looking to produce over the course of the next year. I’m genuinely excited to see all of his movies but I had the pleasure of hosting Michael and his crew at my home for a part of Haunted House, so whenever that premieres you can be sure that I will be in attendance. I certainly keep you updated on everything Bad Atom related on my Facebook page.

And remember… support #toledofilm!

[Originally published at clintlaforest.com]

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