Wilmington loves film, and so does Michael Ferrell. A local Wilmingtonian who moved to the Big Apple in pursuit of his filmmaking dreams, the 1996 Hoggard High School graduate worked as a stunt double in the locally filmed “Little Monsters,” in 1989. He was 11.
Fast forward to 2016: Ferrell’s feature film, “Twenty Million People,” was released on April 7 by Factory Film Studios. A major feat for anyone in the business, for Ferrell—who wrote, directed and starred in the film—it truly is a triumph. But like all artists, he keeps undertaking the laborious task of honing his craft.
It began in acting, on the stage as part of Tapestry Theatre Company in Wilmington, as well as in film and TV. Though they were not necessarily large roles, Ferrell was an extra on “Lolita” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
“These experiences were valuable,” Ferrell tells, “and showed me what it really looks like—how making a film actually works, not the image most people have of being some kind of movie star.”
Acting became his passion. He graduated from UNC Greensboro with a BFA in acting and then took his talents to work on several off-Broadway shows (“The Blue Martini,” “Jersey Shore House”), East Village productions and even participated in the NY Fringe Festival. “As an adult actor, it’s tempting to get distracted by the ‘career’ aspect of acting,” he continues, “getting your next job, trying to quit your day job, trying to get the right agent. That’s all fine and important, but then it’s time to work/play/act. The best actors I’ve seen and worked with remember that.”
Ferrell moved to LA after college, with the hope for a future in film and TV. It didn’t pan out. So he returned to NY. “I realized I didn’t want a job as someone’s assistant,” he says. “I really wanted to make my own work.”
He attempted to write his first screenplay seven years ago. The story followed a guy who was dumped by his girlfriend and turned his anguish into the upstart of a garage band—“even though by society’s standards, he was too old for that kind of thing,” Ferrell says. He sent it to a bunch of LA agents and got a few responses.
“One agent in particular was super generous and gave me paragraphs of notes that basically said, ‘You’re obviously a good writer but you don’t know how to write a screenplay … yet,’” Ferrell tells.
In 2012 Ferrell began writing “Twenty Million People” mainly as a response to not knowing what else to do with his time. He decided to just go for it and brought on two producers, Devin Sanchez and Chris Prine, to star in it alongside Ferrell.
“Twenty Million People” follows Brian (Ferrell), who doesn’t believe in soul mates, yet falls for Ashley (Devin Sanchez). Suddenly, Ashley pulls a Casper and ghosts him—disappearing without so much as a goodbye or a text. Brian, in love, goes in pursuit of Ashley with his broken-hearted best friend (Chris Prine).
Ferrell’s work regularly deals with relationships. Unsatisfied with the way romantic comedies are made, he wanted to put out a realistic take on one. “The smartest thing for a filmmaker, especially when they’re starting out, is to make the films they like to watch,” he says.
Having a bit of background in comedy has helped Ferrell create witty, quick and real dialog. He sharpened his quips at the Barrow Group in NY under Seth Barrish and Lee Brock—as well as by doing improv comedy at I.O. in Chicago.
“Twenty Million People” won Best Feature Film at the Maryland International Film Festival, Cape Fear Independent Film Festival, Garden State Film Festival, and Williamsburg Independent Film Festival. It has received other accolades, like Best Director, at VisionFest in NY.
Financed completely by Ferrell and his other two producers, it gave them free-range to do a project they wanted and believed in. The real work came when the camera was rolling—“getting the story in front of the camera and keeping it simple,” according to Ferrell. Directing wasn’t as easy a task for the veteran actor either.
“I had the vision, and I’d written it after all, so I thought I should direct it,” he says. Everything he learned was in real-time, on the job. With another feature-length film in development, “Laura Gets a Cat,” Ferrell once again will take on the three mantles: writer, director and actor. A struggling novelist in her 30s, NYC resident Laura is not satisfied by her current string of relationships. Her daydreams whisk her away into an extraordinary life, which includes a bit of time travel from famed poet Lord Byron. The film will be partially shot in Carolina Beach. Feller will be shooting the film with a RED camera.
“We have an opportunity, living in the age we’re in, to be able to make films with very cheap cameras, with our phones, and be able to edit them on laptops, so its all about trying and failing, until finally succeeding—or moving to Hollywood and meet the right person,” he says.
As of now, he has no plans to pack it up to the West Coast.
“Twenty Million People” can be downloaded now on iTunes, Amazon Instant, Google Play, and other online streaming services. Visit www.twentymillionpeople.com for more information.