While some students might view class projects as hurdles to getting their degrees, Dan Casey used his senior thesis to make a name for himself in the film industry. His project, “The Death of Michael Smith,” took top awards at the Slamdance Film Festival, played at dozens of national and international film festivals and got him meetings with several major studios in Los Angeles.
“’The Death of Michael Smith’ was life changing for me,” said Casey. “I made the film while attending CCS, shooting mostly between classes and on weekends with a cast of Detroit-based actors.
“Like most kids attending art school, I was really broke. This made things difficult in certain ways, but also kept the process extremely pure. I don't think anyone got involved with the film for the wrong reasons. We all just wanted to make a good, earnest movie. And I think that honesty, especially on the part of the cast who all worked for free, translated to the screen at the end of the day.
“CCS had great equipment, especially lights and sound gear that I was able to check out whenever it was needed. We leaned heavily on that because I wouldn't have been able to afford real rental fees."
"CCS also provided a source of constant feedback, which is essential for young filmmakers just getting their legs.”
Professor Steve Stanchfield and former digital animation chair and Detroit Film Center founder Bob Andersen oversaw Casey’s studio project.
“I think that Steve saw how badly I wanted to make the film and used that as a way to motivate me across the board,” said Casey. “I always thought Bob was really hard on me, and, looking back on my experience, I see why he was. His approach was very tough-love, and it was done out of the deepest respect for the position he held. Bob paid specific attention to the development of each student in the program, and no matter where you were in your development as an artist, he made it a point to always push you to the next step. It was invaluable.
“In general, the school's approach to filmmaking was very hands on, which was exactly what I needed. I attended two state universities before switching to CCS and found that most traditional undergrad film departments don't even let students touch a film camera until they've been attending for two to three years. This seemed backwards to me. I don't understand how someone can be 'taught' how to make films if they're not actually making films, screwing up, and learning from their mistakes. CCS understands this and puts students to work creatively right away.
"CCS also provided a source of constant feedback, which is essential for young filmmakers just getting their legs.
Since the success of “The Death of Michael Smith,” Casey was hired by Rob Tapert, who has been producing films with director Sam Raimi since working together on “Evil Dead,” to write a draft of the script for “Graphic City.”
“The opportunity to write for Rob was a really great experience,” said Casey. “He's an incredible producer, and I'm sure that he'll do something with the property. The script could wind up being made into a stand-alone film, TV series or a Web series. Rob works in all three mediums and is a master across the board.”
Casey also recently finished the script for his next project, “Poletown,” a crime-drama set in Hamtramck. He began writing it in early 2007 while finishing his thesis work at the American Film Institute.
“I'd been in Los Angeles for nearly two years at that point, and was eager to get back home and work where I was comfortable, so I wrote 'Poletown' as a personal film which would give me the opportunity to do that,” explained Casey.
“Poletown” was selected by the Sundance Institute to participate in the 2008 Sundance screenwriting and directing labs. Robert Redford and Michelle Satter have been conducting the renowned mentoring workshops since 1981. They've helped to launch the careers of Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Gordon Green and Darren Aronofsky among others.
“It was such an honor to be selected, and I wound up committing most of the year to attending the labs and rewriting the script,” Casey said. “It was an incredible experience. From there, with agency help in Los Angeles, the script was shopped around and taken on by a production company called Eleven Eleven Films.
“We're about to begin the casting process, so I'll be spending all of this next month working on that. Right now, the plan is to be shooting in the fall, but that's all I'm really supposed to say. You never know how it's going to go, but I'm excited to have gotten this far, and I feel really great about the team that's assembled around the project. Soon we'll have cast attached, and we'll be able to lock down that start date. A lot revolves around the availability of talent.”
After earning two degrees, writing a script for Starz and directing a successful film with another on the way, Casey still finds ways to make himself a better filmmaker.
“The most important thing that I've learned in my professional experience thus far would have to be the ability to improvise,” said Casey. “Unlike animation, live action work has it easy in the sense that the rigorous work of animating frame-after-frame isn't required for the job. However, what's often challenging with live action filmmaking is that the reality of things on the ground when you show up to shoot doesn't always match what you had planned out in your head.
“Sometimes the location doesn't work. Noise from traffic mangles your audio. Props malfunction. Actors show up late. And large set pieces (bank robberies, alien invasions, flying monkeys) are usually next to impossible to shoot on a low budget. Learning how adapt to real-world limitations is probably the most important thing I've picked up along the way.”