Michael Matsui is a writer, director and editor from Northern California who has been making movies since the age of 11. Michael’s early passion for film blossomed into script writing and short film production throughout his early education, with him accepting paid work as early as 16 years old. Michael ultimately joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2011 for which he served 5 years honorably, exiting the Marine Corps as a Sergeant. After departing the military, Michael returned to his love of filmmaking and ultimately established Blue Canyon to offer a variety of filmmaking services to commercial consumers while simultaneously pursuing narrative filmmaking. His latest film, You’re On Your Own, Kid, is a horror short that explores the concept of who we see as monsters through the eyes of a young girl being pursued by creatures in her own home.
You mention an interest in film from as early as age 11. What were some movies that made you realize you loved this medium of storytelling?
The earliest films I remember watching as early as 4 years old were Back to the Future, Jaws, and Jurassic Park. They are honestly my top three movies for many reasons. I believe when you’re a toddler or pre-teen these movies are the perfect amount of dread and horror a kid can be exposed to but still be inspired. I think this is the perfect medium.
Michael and Bryce Filming
In your director’s statement, you highlight how personal You’re On Your Own, Kid is to you. What made you realize you needed to share this story, and what gave you the courage to be so open about the influences of your own home life on the narrative?
It is extremely difficult to discuss because as we mentioned, it is very personal, but at the same time I am extremely proud of the adversity I faced as a child. Growing up we are told what is bad and what is good. However, what I soon realized by the age of 11 is that line is extremely blurry. By that age I realized that I had no traditional heroes in my life and as I grew into my teen years I slowly but surely realized I was on my own to figure life out. I just want other young people to know they ironically aren’t alone.
You took on many roles during the production of this film — in addition to directing, writing and producing, you also stepped in as the editor, production and sound designer! Are there discoveries you made about the story through acting as the head of all of these different design elements?
This film was my film school. Let’s be real, budgetary constraints also provoke creativity and ingenuity. I have been editing since I was just 11 years old (now 31), starting with Windows Movie Maker and moving onto Adobe Premiere when I was only 13. I had all the time in the world and just played with it profusely until I had it working. I learned that the editing phase is much like directing the film again. There were immense changes in the final cut that I didn’t discover until after I examined my hundreds of video and audio files and started to put the puzzle together. Except what is cool about this puzzle is that I engineered the puzzle as I went. I had no one breathing over my neck to get this done quickly so I very much took my time with it, which is rare in this industry it seems. I had zero experience in sound design for this film which was the most daunting task in this production. I did a lot of research and carefully studied the balancing act major film studios demonstrate between dialogue, sound effects, and their scores.
Directing on Set
You’ve done work outside of filmmaking, and mention your time in the Marine Corps. Do you find that there’s an overlap in the environments in terms of process and production/organization?
Immensely. Except now ill-advised planning won’t get me killed. What is so great about veterans transitioning to the civilian sector is that we are so intense and goal oriented, which is what I feel most industries lack. In the Marine Corps we’re taught very early on to follow the rule of BAMCIS. This is an acronym for Begin planning, Arrange for recon or in our case “Research”, Make recon, Complete planning, Issue orders, and lastly Supervise, which we had to comically scream three times loud at the end of this chant. This background I was exposed to day in and day out primed me for taking lead on a film set.
How do you feel your time serving in the military influenced you as a filmmaker (if at all)?
I didn’t do a lick of filmmaking while serving which gave me extreme FOMO. My time serving exposed me to loneliness, desolation, and fear of the unknown. But it also taught me virtue and introduced me to real life heroes all around me. Not many people can say they subjected themselves to an environment where everyone around you gave up their mere existence to serve a higher cause, that could cost them their life. It is truly inspiring. To me in filmmaking this translates to the characters I write and what is really going on inside their heads. My heroes are struggling with suicidal tendencies, with their body image, with destructive childhoods and abusive parents. How can you write a hero without even knowing one?
You’re On Your Own, Kid knows the genre it fits into well. What were some horror films that inspired you as you developed this short?
This film was intensely inspired by films such as Jaws, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Conjuring, Jurassic Park, and The Sixth Sense. The elements that inspired the film were everything from their looks, to their psychological horror elements, the music that made them terrifying, and the young characters forced to face terror.
What compels you the most about storytelling through film that you can’t get with other artistic mediums?
I love the art of subtext. While pursuing my bachelor’s degree I was really intrigued by Ernest Hemingway’s Ice Berg Theory where we are only told a portion of the story and are left to interpret the rest. Watching movies is like watching a painting move where paintings have a lot of subtext. When we look at The Scream painting by Edvard Munch, I think to myself first of all this is scary as hell. But why is this person scared? They are in a seemingly beautiful area which contrasts horror. I wish I could see this painting move.
There are a lot of intense themes you touch on in You’re On Your Own, Kid, such as the vulnerability of children in sensitive domestic situations that they are unable to decipher. What did you do to stay motivated while taking care of yourself, physically and mentally?
I distracted myself with filmmaking. It was something to do and something to look forward to. It also led me to making relationships with kids in a new school and town of Roseville, CA I had moved to when I was 13 years old. All my friends were in my movies and helped me with my cheesy low budget productions, we had an absolute blast. But behind the scenes per se, there was a lot of dark things going on in my life. Filmmaking saved me.
Directing on Set
Your creative and production team for You’re On Your Own, Kid is small outside of yourself. How did you find your crew members, and why did you choose them?
I wanted people on set that I could trust their opinions, that weren’t selfish but were for the betterment of the production. Who else would be better to have on set than one of my best friends Bryce Volarvich who I met in Roseville, CA when I was 13. Bryce was in most of my movies as a kid and was always extremely supportive of my films. On this production he worked as my 1st AC, sound department, overall assisting in everything, played a police officer at the end, and even stood in as the monster in the nightmare hallway sequence. The rest of the creative team really started with looking at myself and my limitations. I did not know how to compose scores and I suck at coloring. With the power of internet networking, I found our colorist Chris Dietrich of LA and composer Dale Sumner. Chris is an assistant colorist with Company 3 who has colored recent films like Scream VI, Barbie, and Five Nights at Freddy’s. Chris is amazingly talented, easy to work with, and has a big career ahead of him. Dale Sumner of South Hampton, England operates under the pseudonym Opus Melodi. He is extremely gifted with a trained ear for that John Williams sound and able to tell a story through just a score, which is what really drew me to his work.
What was the most technically difficult part of creating You’re On Your Own, Kid?
Sound, sound, and sound. It’s so important but so often overlooked. Not only getting the right sound design, but how to record voices versus movement in the environment. I had a ton of fun doing foley work and finding the rest of my sound design on Epidemic Sound which is my favorite online audio library. I’m not sponsored by them either!
Sophia Andrews is a young member of your acting team! What was it like working with such a young performer, and what stood out about her performance to you when you were casting?
Sophia was incredible. Sometimes on set I felt like she wouldn’t be paying attention at all as I was giving her direction. I would comically wave my hands and say “Hello! Sophia, you there?” and she would say “Yup!” As soon as we called action, she was just on it. The biggest challenge was evoking fear from her. You would think that if you put a kid in the dark with a terrifying 6.5 foot monster she would be creeped out. Nope. Sophia didn’t care. I had to have some conversations with her between shots explaining to her the character’s feelings and the overall ramifications from her mom being dragged away, to uncertainty, to pending doom. I even had Sophia doing jumping jacks between takes to truly be out of breath as faking hyperventilation is pretty obvious. I was extremely privileged to have Sophia in my production. She killed it.
With Cast on Set
When it comes to filmmaking, what’s the dream for you? What are you hoping to do in the years to come?
The dream for me is Universal Studios, my childhood favorite movie studio comes knocking wanting to turn You’re on Your Own, Kid into a full length feature and let me direct! But for more realistic dreams, its to keep making short films, sharpen my skills, and really hone in my style. I want each project to have a bigger world each time.
What’s next for you and You’re On Your Own, Kid?
The film is doing considerably well in festivals right now. This is my first festival experience and so far we have been awarded Best Indie Short by the Cannes World Film Festival, Honorable Mention for Best Horror Short from Indie Short Fest and IndieX, and has several other awards from many other up and coming festivals. I plan to use this film to testify to what I am capable of doing with much less than other productions and use it to attract more talent, more crew, and hopefully funding for my next short film I am planning.