Using Place As A Character In Your Film

Field Notes Interview #40: Mike Collins, Director

Philadelphia-based filmmaker and director, Mike Collins knows a lot about place and setting in his work. Each of his films transports you deep into the location where he’s filming. Often using Brooklyn as his canvas, his settings serves as a dynamic character that plays a major role the story is being told. Whether it’s a gritty motorcycle shop or a quiet kitchen embedded within the city, his films let you not only be a fly on the wall, but an engaged participant in the places he takes you.

We love the work of Mike Collins and his filmmaking collective Cinema Mercantile and got the chance to pick his brain about his filmmaking process. Collins also shed some light on how he pairs the right soundtrack with the vivid settings in his films.

M: When did you know when you wanted to be a filmmaker?

MC: I can still remember as a little kid going to see the original Star Wars at a drive in the weekend it came out with my childhood best friend. As soon as I saw the Star Destroyer eclipsing the frame in pursuit of Princess Leia I just knew without any hesitation or uncertainty that I wanted to tell stories through images. Now certainly I couldn’t have told you that as a little boy with stars in his eyes but I know for a fact that my genesis as a filmmaker began in that moment.

M: What’s your favorite moment in the filmmaking process?

MC: My favorite moment is when the first frames are captured. Everything up until that moment is a theoretical. It’s all conceptual. Long hours of talking and dreaming and designing. But the second those first frames are captured it’s tangible and it’s real. That’s a potent moment for me.

M: What do you think defines a filmmakers’ voice?

MC: Every filmmaker has a voice. I think in the talented ones you can see the narrative unfold. For me it’s a love of men and women who do things the old way. They work with their hands. They build, they create, they form. I think the things you love influence how you tell stories and how you move the camera. All of those million little things create your voice. You just have to listen for it. It’s always there.

M: Tell us more about your projects

MC: Currently we are working on a sequel for our great friends at JANE Motorcycles in Brooklyn. They recently moved into a massive new location and we have been documenting their journey. We’ve been with them pretty much from the beginning so it’s incredibly rewarding to have been some small part in their success and in helping them tell their story. We are also working with an amazing farm to table/whole animal butcher restaurant in the Brooklyn of Philadelphia called Kensington Quarters. It’s become really important to me to eat better and to learn about where food actually comes from. So to be able to start to tell their story is really exciting.  We are also working with a retro barbershop in Jersey City called Virile that has authentic barbershop chairs and tools. Finally we are working with an amazing tattoo shop that also does high end branding and logo design. It’s an amazing little world.

M: Are there ever any happy accidents when filming?

MC: I think the best shots are happy accidents. Someone steps through the frame unexpectedly. The light comes in from a certain angle. Someone says something completely unexpected…

M: What role do you feel music has in film?

MC: I think music can make or break a film. At worst it should be a non intrusive background score. At best it should elevate the visuals and help create the tone of what you want the film to say to it’s audience.  For our Hazan Motorworks film when it played in my head I heard Moby. And had we not been able to use that Moby track I would have been crushed. I subscribe to the “when you hear it you’ll know it” school of thinking. I can listen to a hundred different tracks but within a few seconds of the right track I just feel it. Likewise the wrong music can completely derail a film. When the music is wrong it can become a distraction or even worse just take you out of the story.

M: How do you feel music is misused in film?

MC: It depends on the track but I either feel like the person who picked it was in a rush or confused about what they wanted the music to convey. I realize it’s a deeply personal thing and that it’s kind of unfair to judge from afar but audiences are so intelligent now that they know when the music doesn’t fit.

M: When do you know you have something ready to show the world?

MC: This is going to sound a little silly but the film tells me it’s ready if that makes sense. I am also far and away my own worst enemy. It’s very rare that I feel great about my work at first pass. I always feel like I could change this or that. Or that I want to go back and get one more shot. Or I want to tweak the color. I think it’s really difficult to let these things out into the wild. For Cinema Mercantile all the pieces we’ve undertaken have been things I care about and I want them to be a perfect version. So all of that is to say it usually takes me a little time to feel like we are ready to go. And luckily I have a lot of people around me smarter and more talented than I am who also help me figure it all out.

M: What’s coming up?

MC: Things keep moving ahead at 100 mph for us. We have three projects either underway or in preproduction and we’ve just started dreaming about a new concept with our friends from Whiskey Grade. Ultimately though it’s about figuring out how to be able to only undertake the work that we want to do. When you work with and for people doing things you care about and people that you genuinely like it doesn’t feel like work. As I get older I have learned to become more patient with the process. I want to go from initial conversation to filming in a few days and it rarely works like that. I’m incredibly thankful to have a full plate of things to work on though. When I sit back and look at how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time it almost feels surreal. 

Share your story with us at We’ll choose our favorites to feature on the journal and the featured filmmakers will get a Marmoset shirt and Field Notes Notebook.

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