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Film-Flam Man

He aims to turn Cleveland into a movie and TV hub. Others say Alex P. Michaels can't shoot straight.


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At audition day for the television show Out of Darkness, dozens of actors and actresses wander into a Maple Heights casting studio, sporting egos so large they require their own check-in room. As they await their heralded director, they lounge about on folding chairs, lazily perusing scripts and enthusiastically bitching about their idling careers.

"Did I tell you about the casting call I got for the show One Life to Live?!" a woman with shiny brown hair says to another.

"No, but I'm so happy for you," replies the other woman, with an expression that says exactly the opposite.

Standing by the window, a blonde from Columbus, wearing tight black pants and spike heels, says in a frosty voice that she's "sick of being cast as the bitch."

An Italian guy with a lumberjack's physique, deeply tanned face, and husky voice knows the feeling. "For some reason," he says with a genial sigh, "I'm always being cast as a mobster."

Out of Darkness could be their ticket out of cookie-cutter roles. It's a television pilot created/ produced/directed/written by and starring Alex P. Michaels, who proudly describes it as Hill Street Blues meets X-Files meets Law & Order. If he has his way, Michaels boasts, it will be the first dramatic television series totally filmed, produced, and shot in Cleveland.

At 1 p.m., Michaels ambles into the center of the room. For most, it's their first glimpse of the man behind the production. Standing five foot six, with the high-pitched voice of a baby doll, he jolts his audience to attention with resounding blasts from his résumé.

"Thank you all for coming out here. I'm an Emmy Award-winning writer, hoping to bring a television community to Cleveland," he announces to light applause. When he is done speaking, his charges file, one by one, off to their tryouts in a small room tucked in the back of the studio -- which is actually a martial-arts school borrowed for the afternoon.

The actors, most of whom learned of the audition from online listings, begin reading from scripts, but before long Michaels stops them. He has little interest in theatrics.

"I hate when people overact," he says, very dramatically.

During the audition, Michaels asks each actor about his experience.

"I acted in some, um, high school plays," offers Tammy, a thirtysomething woman with glossy purple lipstick.

"I once worked with Samuel Jackson," adds Lloyd Booker, who traveled here from Philly.

"I was once the mascot at Ohio State," chimes in Tiffany Douglas.

Michaels is unaffected. "We'll definitely use you," he says to, well, everyone.

Later, Michaels confides that he didn't expect such a big turnout, but he claps his hands three times, excited by the numbers. The interest in Out of Darkness, he says, is very encouraging. It all plays so wonderfully into his plan.

"When my show gets picked up, I hope to cast all the Cleveland actors in it!" he says. "Not even Drew Carey can say that!" he adds proudly.

"Is that possible?" he is asked.

"Of course!"

In Alex P. Michaels' world, everything is possible.

Alex P. Michaels is a creative genius. His dark, atmospheric digital movies have been compared to those of George Lucas. His studio headquarters recall those of Steven Spielberg's early days. And though he could be putting his stamp on Hollywood, he has chosen to stay here, in Cleveland -- his altruistic attempt to save the city's talent from leaving in droves.

That's how Michaels tells the story, anyway.

At introductions, he is quick to emphasize the P between his names. He's vague about the reasons for this, though a Google search of "Alex Michaels" and "filmography" yields the website of a well-endowed gay porn star. ("One of those bad coincidences," Alex P. says with a sigh.)

Appearing much younger than his 38 years, Michaels is a bubbly sort who is fond of speaking in gushing tones. He tends toward what he calls an "old Hollywood look," dressing in collarless black shirts buttoned to the neck, creaseless black slacks, black belts, and shiny black loafers. An unfortunate consequence of this, however, is that sometimes it looks as if a priest were running the set.

The Internet Movie Data Base, widely considered the online Bible of filmmaking, lists Michaels as a writer, actor, filmographer, director, and cinematographer for such films as The Blood Kiss and The It Girl. (He is also listed as an electrician for the "Adventures of Mary Kate and Ashley" video series, but Michaels claims that is a misprint -- perhaps a role played by the porn star.) His bio says that he is currently "working on re-creating the Hollywood studio system in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio."

At 38, Michaels is an icon in the Cleveland film community, but not for the most enviable of reasons. The most common reaction to the name "Alex P. Michaels" is an upward rolling of the eyes, then a long, exhausted sigh. "He's prolific," people will finally offer, if pressed. "He's passionate."

Others are more forthright: "The guy's got no talent."

"It's such a shame that people are so jealous of other people's talent," Michaels counters. "Unlike these other people, I've actually got multiple films to my credit. Plus, I have an Emmy," he says, then proceeds to produce the trophy, which is nestled in a Styrofoam box that juts from the top of his black shoulder bag. (Michaels treats the golden figurine as a mother would a small child, dutifully lugging his swaddled bundle of joy with him to interviews and photo shoots and coffee shops.)

But all of Michaels' other projects, Emmy-winning and otherwise, pale in comparison to his newest passion. Out of Darkness was inspired by his 1999 television movie What Angels Fear, which in turn was inspired by Cleveland's infamous "torso murders" of the 1930s, in which the bodies of 13 victims were beheaded and their corpses left strewn about Kingsbury Run, not far from downtown. Michaels' crime drama follows the lives of "Angie," a Cleveland cop possessed by the shade of a 10-year-old child, and "George Bailey Raft," a sleazy Cuyahoga County prosecutor and Angie's adversary (played by Michaels). It employs story lines torn from the pages of Cleveland newspapers and throws in dark moments from X-Files.

Last season, Michaels shot a version of the pilot. Although the show has not yet been picked up, he says his production company, Prelude2Cinema, is soliciting sponsors. He's sent out pitches and tapes to several networks and local businesses, both of which, he says, have shown interest. "Once the series has gained a solid audience, Prelude2Cinema will gain an income from networks across the globe who purchase the licensing rights to the series." That's the plan, anyway.

In the next few months, he hopes to reshoot the pilot episode and begin production on the next few (12 have been written so far). He hopes to secure a "big-name actress" for a recurring role, but for privacy's sake, he cannot mention her by name. The actress's agent, unfortunately, "is asking for a ton of money." Michaels sighs dramatically. Oh, those Hollywood types.

His greater goal is to make a star out of the city itself. "I want to do for Cleveland what Miami Vice did for Miami and what Dick Wolf [producer of Miami Vice and Law & Order] did for New York," he says. "I want the city to become a main character in the plot."

He's got his work cut out for him.

"Think of it this way," says director Joe Russo, a Cleveland native who won an Emmy for his critically acclaimed Fox series Arrested Development: "Last year, ABC bought 91 scripts. Of those scripts, the station shot nine. Of those nine, three made it in on the air."

Former producer Jim Friedman paints with broader strokes: "It's pretty much impossible."

On a Wednesday afternoon in late October, Michaels begins to shoot the second episode of Out of Darkness at the headquarters of Prelude2Cinema. Technically, it's a garage in the backyard of his parents' Slavic Village home -- the one with the faded, mimeographed copy of the Prelude2Cinema logo Scotch-taped to the door.

Dressed in a short-sleeved gray shirt (this one with a collar) and a pair of ill-fitting black pants that balloon around his thighs and make him look obese, Michaels buzzes around the set, calling out directions and gesticulating wildly. His cast springs into action.

On the makeshift stage, George Fiderio, a middle-aged man stuffed into a tight-fitting gray suit, sits on a wooden stool, reading lines with Elisabeth Anne Wenzel, a recent transplant from Austin, Texas, who sports a Hillary Clinton-style coiffure and an equally voluminous personality. Fiderio, who met Michaels while both appeared in a commercial for a singing-telegram company, is playing the part of a rich businessman whose granddaughter has recently disappeared. Wenzel, just back from an actors' training program in New York, plays a newscaster. Enthusiasm for the roles spews forth from them.

"Alex is very professional," says Fiderio. "I've seen his digital scripts; they're some of the best around. I know this looks easy, but it's really not. He's very good at this. That's why he won an Emmy."

Wenzel nods in agreement.

Inside the studio/garage, a blue sheet hangs loosely from a rod, a set mimicking the plain background of a TV newsroom. In the corner is a faded, flowery sofa shrouded in plastic, which crackles like a potato-chip bag whenever someone sits down. On the makeshift desk in the back corner, next to the computer and printer, is a framed picture of Michaels, having a moment with his Emmy.

Between takes, Michaels lectures Wenzel about product placement. He explains that in later episodes, she might be drinking a cup of Phoenix coffee or munching on Snackwell's crackers.

"I'm talking to some private sponsors," he explains. "When we get business sponsors, we'll be putting their products on our show."

Wenzel nods.

In the corner of the studio, Kristen Kaleal, a makeup artist from Beachwood, who once studied with Designing Women's head wardrobe consultant, mixes plum-colored blushes and golden eye shadows on a paper plate, using a tool that looks very dental in nature. Manning the camera is Prelude2Cinema intern Jeremy Prokop, a 21-year-old retail worker who took a few media classes in high school. "Alex," he says, "will be creating a role just for me in later episodes."

In the center of the studio, Michaels hushes his cast and crew; his sound system is so sensitive, he warns, that it once picked up the hum of his neighbor's refrigerator.

Then he heads to the camera, which is fastened precariously to a wobbly tripod. He closes one eye and squints into the lens.

The scene begins with an interview between newscaster Wenzel and Fiderio. Fiderio is distraught; his granddaughter, it seems, has just been kidnapped. Wenzel's character is very excited to be getting this scoop, but trying hard not to look as if she is very excited about getting the scoop. Both are bit parts, but, as Michaels tells them, "They are very important thematically!"

Looking up from the camera, he signals his players to begin.

Looking straight at the lens, Wenzel smiles and slowly recites Michaels' prose in her best Denise Dufala voice:

"At Cleveland Breaking News, our hearts go out to Philip Magnos, whose granddaughter was snatched on her way to school yesterday morning. The Magnos family is worth untold millions and prefers to be a silent partner in a lot of the companies in the city. Which is why Mr. Magnos's granddaughter went to public school."

She pauses, then turns to Fiderio, who's seated in front of the blue screen. Her eyes widen.

"Mr. Magnos, do you feel responsible for letting her go to a public school?"

Fiderio looks disgustedly at the blonde: "My adviser was right," he sneers. "You are quite a bitch."

Wenzel looks wounded by the slur.

Michaels cuts in. "No, no!" he says, waving his arms around. "This is public television, and he just called you a bitch. Look at him like 'Oh no, now I'm going to get fined $255,000 by the FCC because you just called me a bitch!'"

The actress is not sure how someone who is going to be fined $255,000 by the FCC is supposed to look. So instead she goes for demure, managing to look like a fifth-grader who is pissed about possibly being given a detention. Michaels lets it pass for the moment. Instead, he looks to Prokop.

"I think we'll go wide here with the angle," he tells him.

For the next 30 minutes, Fiderio and Wenzel run over the same few lines. Michaels, however, is still not quite happy with the dynamic between the two characters. He turns to Wenzel and says, "Think of it this way: You're sympathetic to the guy, but meanwhile you're thinking 'Ka-ching!' Remember, you'd like to be a real newscaster, and you're thinking this story could be the one that takes you out of here, the one that makes you big!"

The actress nods carefully. If someone else were filming this scene, the camera would now be focused not on Wenzel but on Michaels, whose own eyes have taken on a dreamy, faraway look.

Later on, he proclaims, "I think the shoot went smoothly."

A 1984 graduate of Shaw High School, Michaels chased his celluloid dreams to California in 1995. He took film classes by night at Stanford (hence the "Stanford education" that he sometimes lists on résumés) and worked by day as an administrative assistant for the U.S. Department of Energy. He sent scripts to Harrison Ford's agent -- who personally rejected one of them "in a very positive way!"

By 1998, encouraging rejection letters proved an insufficient foundation for his career. With no studio backers and a quickly depleting supply of money, he reluctantly moved back to Cleveland -- not to give up, he informed everyone, but to regroup.

Back home, he learned of a contest sponsored by Procter & Gamble for aspiring African American playwrights. The winner would get a $1,000 award and have his script professionally produced, cast, directed, and broadcast on network television.

Michaels submitted a script called What Angels Fear, about a pair of cops -- one black, one white -- who act like Robin Hood-style angels. Out of more than 60 entries, his was the winner.

Jim Friedman, who produced the film, says the judges liked the script's "originality and the strange relationship between the two main characters."

What Angels Fear aired on 11 stations in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Michigan in 1999. It starred Adam Lazarre-White, of The Young and the Restless semi-fame, and Greg Lauren, known for appearing in A Time to Kill, but mostly for being married to Elizabeth "Showgirls" Berkley. The shooting was done in Cincinnati, and after the show aired, the two actors, producer, and writer were all nominated for Emmys -- regional Emmys, which recognize talent in 20 markets around the country. Michaels learned that he won via an internet search.

Invigorated by his victory, he founded Prelude2Cinema and bought a digital camera with his award money. Digital movies, he knew, were much cheaper to make, though the images are often grainier than those on film stock. Around that same time, Sundance, the most famous independent-film festival in the country, started accepting digital-film submissions.

"If it was good enough for Sundance, it was good enough for me," Michaels says with a grin.

His first experiment in digital film was a dark love story entitled Hot Rain, inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Vertigo. He wrote, directed, and starred in it, and was quite proud of the finished product.

Jason Santo, a reviewer of independent films and president of Mindscape Pictures, offered a slightly different take, writing: "Every technical first-timer mistake is on display here -- bad sound, hand-held, almost unwatchable shaky picture, poor framing, random camera placement and atrocious editing resulting in jump cuts, repeated action, and really flawed pacing. The video, as seen on the VCD, makes the movie look like it was shot on a security surveillance camera or one of those kitschy Fisher-Price Pixel Vision gizmos. It's a very difficult movie to watch, with abysmal music editing and on-location sound recording that's so bad that you can actually hear the plastic casing on the camera creaking when the shot pans."

Aside from that, Santo loved it.

Michaels' next movie, Blood Kiss, a film noir about a vampire disguised as a cop, was shown at a small festival in London to lukewarm reviews. The critics, Michaels recalls, "just didn't get it." (Indeed, this is the problem with most reviewers of Michaels' work. That's the reason, he says, that his studio's slogan is "Films that make you think.")

After one more foray into digital movies, Michaels decided to chart a new course: television.

"I had to think of my investors," he says. Who could blame him? His backers, to this point, have been Mom and Dad and a few of their friends.

Television, he says, is the "cheapest, easiest way to make money."

By both default and necessity, the Cleveland film and television community is small and relatively close-knit. Although it is much cheaper to shoot here than it is in New York or California, getting your stuff noticed requires a lot more effort. The Ohio Film Commission, which attempts to lure television and film companies to the state, tries to work around this, presenting would-be producers with binders full of reasons why shooting in the Buckeye state is beneficial. They boast of the diverse architecture and landscapes, the cheap cost of rental locations, and the plethora of local talent.

But Chris Carmody, president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, acknowledges that "in order to hit the big time, most young people leave Cleveland for Los Angeles." He adds, though, that "once they hit a certain point, they start to come back here. Most Midwesterners do not want to raise children in places like L.A."

Robert Banks is one of Cleveland's most successful directors. His artsy, experimental films have screened at Sundance, and his documentary X: The Baby Cinema garnered nationwide attention.

Banks, who has seen most of Michaels' films and has observed the filmmaker in action, is very opinionated on the subject of Alex P. Michaels -- if also very opinionated in general.

"If Alex had a decent budget and two people over his shoulder, he could do a Quentin Tarantino thing," says Banks. "He has a lot of creative ideas that are a little over the top and are borderline very risqué. His strength is definitely his writing."

Banks pauses for a moment, though, as he changes directions.

"Alex's biggest problem is his technical logistics. He needs to work on lighting and sound. And he shoots using autofocus," Banks says, sounding appalled. "That's one of the biggest no-nos. Plus, he insists on doing everything himself." Indeed, if movies were football games, Michaels would have to play quarterback, cheerleader, coach, and post-game analyst.

Even Michaels' role models have their doubts. Jim Friedman, director of his Emmy-winning movie, chooses his words carefully:

"The [Procter & Gamble] competition was created for writers who never had anything published or printed anything -- by definition, the young writers were all unproven people," he says. "Alex is very proud of the Emmy he won for writing, but you have to remember that the judges only watched the movie. They didn't read the script."

When asked about the success of other winners, Friedman gushes about Howard Simon, the first winner of the award, who was hired by NBC to bring diverse story lines to daytime programming, and Craig Harris, last year's winner, who, he says proudly, is garnering a lot of attention in Hollywood. Of Michaels, he says, "I wish him well."

The third-floor viewing room at the Velvet Dog nightclub is the setting for the debut screening of Alex P. Michaels' Out of Darkness television pilot. Around the room, men and women, fashionably dressed in suits and skirts, sit sipping expensive drinks.

Michaels plays well the part of the gregarious host. He prances about the space in his requisite collarless black shirt, black pants, and bright red suspenders, bouncing from couple to couple like a caffeinated kangaroo.

In a cushiony high-backed seat, Kelly Higginbotham sits sipping a martini. She attended a July audition, and she's thrilled about tonight's premiere. "Hopefully, this thing really takes off," she says.

Though Higginbotham isn't officially part of the series yet, Michaels has assured her that he "had a specific role in mind" for her.

"Have you had any acting experience?" someone asks her.

"No, but my cousin was Big Bird, so I feel it's in my blood," she says.

One hundred people were invited to the premiere, including a couple dozen potential sponsors. But most of the 40 or so bodies populating the room are either friends, actors, or associates Michaels met at various networking events. "Angie," his leading lady, unfortunately could not attend -- she has another engagement in Dayton.

At 7 p.m., Michaels walks to the front of the room and welcomes his guests. "Remember," he says, "this is just a rough version of the pilot. There are no credits or music. I hope you like it," he adds, then goes out into the hallway. ("I can't watch myself on-screen," he explains.)

A minute or two later, the guests sit back in their seats, the lights go down, and Out of Darkness lights up the screen.

The story, as far as anyone can tell, is about a prosecutor (Michaels) who has a strange, possibly pedophilic relationship with his "daughter." His foil is a Hispanic female cop, who might have been shot and killed, and whose body might have been possessed by a demonic 10-year-old. Along the way, there is a strange, unerotic dance scene involving an unstripperlike stripper.

At the end of the half-hour, confusion swarms over the room. The audience claps politely, like parents at a kindergarten play.

On the way out, Laura Samson, a Shaker Heights doctor and acquaintance of Michaels, turns to a friend. "To tell you the truth, I'm a little baffled by the whole thing," she admits. "While I was watching it, I just kept thinking, this is bad . . . A lot of the writing just seemed clichéd."

"Well, it's a work in progress," her friend allows.

Michaels considers the premiere a resounding success. A triumph, in fact. He's already talked to programming managers at local networks, who are interested in seeing the pilot. "I've crossed off NBC, since it already has similar shows," he concedes. "But Fox has a local affiliate that does lots of local programming."

And that's not even accounting for the overseas markets. "There's probably a couple thousand stations across the world," he figures. But before he contacts them, he must learn what type of shows they're currently playing -- the better to avoid another NBC situation. "My mom watches cable TV a lot, and there's a network called Colors that's a multicultural network. I think we have a real good chance of getting on there."

In the meantime, he hopes to finish shooting the entire first season. Construction workers are also remodeling his studio space. "Soon, there will be a new set for the television show," he beams.

By late October, Alex P. Michaels has crossed another network off his list: The PAX network sent a "very positive" rejection e-mail. "No matter," Michaels shrugs. "Pax wasn't the right audience for us anyway."

Dismissing the subject with a wave, he smiles, tucks his Emmy into his shoulder bag, and bounds out the door to take his next meeting.


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