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Don’t let newly minted multi-hyphenate Michelle Morgan’s resume fool you — she always wanted to be a writer. Although Morgan’s first official forays into the industry included small parts on shows like “CSI: Miami” and, yes, even “Saved By the Bell: The New Class” and an arc on “American Dreams,” she originally went to school for screenwriting and simply fell into acting.
And it wasn’t necessarily something that fueled her creatively, which is why Morgan eventually returned to writing, penning the scripts for John Stockwell’s “Middle of Nowhere” and Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s “Girl Most Likely.” In 2013, she turned to directing, with her amusing short “K.I.T,” which screened at Sundance. This time around at the festival, Morgan has combined all of her skills, and she not only wrote and directed her “L.A. Times,” she starred in it, too.
With her feature directorial debut, Morgan explores the strange, funny and often oddly insular world of Los Angeles through the intertwining stories of various Angelenos — including the filmmaker herself, “Lonely Island” member Jorma Taccone and indie mainstays Dree Hemingway, James Ransone and Kentucker Audley. Most of the action spins around Morgan as Annette, a generally happy thirtysomething who can’t help but compare her boyfriend Elliott (Taccone) to seemingly everyone else in Hollywood. That doesn’t go too well.
Laden with sharp observations about LA and the industry that fuels it, the film is funny and loose, a snappy blend of Wes Anderson, Whit Stillman, and Woody Allen, all filtered through Morgan’s own worldview. It’s the kind of film that could only be made by someone who has slogged through the wilds of Hollywood and come out the other side with a distinct voice.
Ahead, Morgan talks about her complicated path to filmmaking, the pressure of good casting, and why “L.A. Times” is the movie she always wanted to make, but couldn’t — until now.
I think the people in Los Angeles are the funniest thing. It’s weird to live in a town that’s so one-note, where everywhere you go, people are looking around to see if there’s someone better to talk to, or who just walked in. It’s hard on you. And it’s funny because every single person admits at some point that it’s hard on them.
When I found out I got into Sundance, I was in a parking lot, and I got an email from my favorite programmer, and she said, “Call me.” And there was an exclamation at the end of it. So, I thought, an exclamation means something good. When she told me, I cried. For an indie movie, you can’t ask for a better platform. And the amount of support that this community gives you, I’ve never experienced anything like it as a writer.
I think that the people that I know in this business that have found the most fulfillment are people that aren’t tied to any specific outcome. I have a really good friend who produced my short film, and she left producing to go work for Facebook. She’s like, “The worst thing that you can be if you’re creative, is closed off.” I think that that’s really good advice to anybody, because you don’t know where your opportunities are going to lead or where they’re going to lead you back to.
I always loved performing and telling stories, and I feel like everybody who likes to tell stories probably has it in them to perform. I went to school to be a screenwriter. I felt like that really connected with me. I think it just depends on whether you like attention or not. And if I’m being totally honest, I like a little bit of attention. And so, you know, I went to school to be a screenwriter and I really loved that.
I ended up being a working actress for a couple of years. I was interning my senior year of college in an agency, and I met a manager there, and he was like, “Have you ever thought about acting?” Writing was kind of on the back burner.
I was going to auditions and rewriting the dialogue, because it was really flowing. And then, casting directors were like, “Okay, you’re not right for the part, but can you leave your sides behind with these notes? Because it hasn’t really been working.”
I decided to just focus on writing for a while. I didn’t really miss acting, because I felt like the opportunities I was getting as an actress, I wouldn’t really call acting. I mean, having five or six lines on a TV show is…I guess there’s something exciting about it, but creatively it doesn’t do much for you. So, my focus shifted to writing.
I worked on a project with an actress that I really, really loved and really inspired me. And after that project was finished, I wanted to be a director. I was like, “I’m not handing my scripts off anymore for other people to direct on an independent level.” I kind of wrote it for her, but it didn’t work out with her. My manager was like, “Why don’t you just play yourself? Like, you kind of just have your own shtick,” and I thought, I’ll do it as an experiment.
Casting is so difficult, especially when you’re a first-time filmmaker. Casting is so integral to whether or not the project will work, and it is often rushed. I’ve worked on projects where we’ve had to do that. I was like, “If I’m going to make this movie, I’m going to do it exactly the way I want, and I’m going to pick the people that I want, whether someone thinks that they’re worth money or not. We will figure it out.”
Getting money is always the hardest part. It’s funny, sometimes you go to Q&As, and you want to slap the people up there. They’re like, “I don’t know, I just had a benefactor, and it all just came together. I knew so and so, and he just was like, ‘Yeah, I’d love to be in your movie. I haven’t even read the script.'” That was not my experience.
If you like to be present and focused, and you like to tell people what to do, then directing could be a good fit for you. You know when people have been telling you to do something for a long time and you’re like, “I can’t, I won’t like it, I don’t do this,” and then you do it, and you’re like, why didn’t I do this years ago? And so that was kind of my reaction to it.
None of the things that I wrote were ever directed in the way that I would have directed them. I think at the beginning of your career, if you have an amazing marriage with a director, and it works out, you’re probably not as inclined to want to direct. I’m so grateful for the experience, I’m grateful that they got a chance to have a life, but this is the first thing I’ve worked on that I feel like, “This is mine.”
“L.A. Times” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.