Austin Film Festival 2020: Interview With ‘Murder Bury Win’ Director Michael Lovan

With an irresistibly brilliant blending of horror and humor, Filmmaker Michael Lovan is beginning to find success on the festival circuit with the flick he lovingly helped bring to fruition, Murder Bury Win. Not only an Official Selection of the Austin Film Festival 2020 but also highlighted as a Staff Pick, Murder Bury Win is easily and rightfully finding fanfare. 

What is equally as engaging is the genuine, energetic, humble, and above all, just so damn happy to be here vibe that Lovan infectiously exudes—not only for the film—but in everyday life. Audiences are responding well to this tale of three friends out to find board game bliss, but instead of nailing a deal to distribute their murder-themed game, the creators encounter a life-altering ordeal that ultimately tests their fortitude and friendship. 

I was honored to sit and chat with director Michael Lovan prior to his Texas premiere at the Austin Film Festival as we discussed his delightful cast, the themes explored in Murder Bury Win and his journey creating the film. 

PopHorror: My friend… You produced, directed, edited, co-wrote, and you even acted a bit in Murder Bury Win. I know this passion project of yours has been in development for a few years, and I am dying to know how this journey has been for you.

Michael Lovan: Wow. Well, what an experience it has been! The fact that the film is getting recognized by the festivals I have dreamed of being a part of… it places me into imposter syndrome mode. But it’s also, I think, a testament to perhaps some of the themes of the film that it’s speaking to some people as they’re watching it. I am so excited that it’s part of the Austin Film Festival. I’m also excited that it’s a film that’s exploring a niche that isn’t frequently explored in cinema. Board gaming culture and competition versus collaboration… it’s exciting that it’s being recognized for those merits as well. So, I’m excited, and I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s been a lot of hard work, and just to culminate here is really the best thing I could have ever hoped for.

PopHorror: You seem very excited, and you shouldn’t be feeling any imposter syndrome. You belong. Your film belongs in these film festivals. I think that your movie is this wonderful mix of a buddy flick, a dark comedy, and a cautionary tale. How were the story and themes conceived?

Michael Lovan: That’s a great question. The screenplay is something that I wrote by myself, but the story I could not have done without my best friend, John [Hart], who I grew up playing board games. And when it was time to make a film, I just knew that now is the time. We sat in a room everyday for hours going through all of the different configurations of things that we want to see and don’t want to see in a film. And we also looked back to our history of playing board games, and what the best board games have in common—at least the ones that are story based—and that’s the element of surprise.

Does your character go left or right? No, actually, they go down this hidden road down the middle, and that was something we really wanted to apply to the beat of the story. A lot of the development of the story was sitting in this room, throwing every last bit of shit at the wall and seeing what would stick. Then writing and rewriting, and we got one draft. It wasn’t there yet, but after 12 rewrites, we got it to where it is now, which is what you say, part buddy comedy, part dark comedy. 

Director Michael Lovan.

PopHorror: Much like the friends in the movie, how they were creating their game. They were just throwing ideas out there and seeing what was working. The casting in your film is fantastic, especially the chemistry with the three friends, played by [Mikelen] Walker, [Erich] Lane, and [Henry Alexander] Kelly. Did it take long to find your guys that would successfully carry your film?

Michael Lovan: It was a nightmare.

PopHorror: Shit, okay!

Michael Lovan: So once upon a time, I was going to shoot this in the woods with an iPhone by myself, for 20 bucks. 

PopHorror: Wow!

Michael Lovan: I was like, I’ll just find some kids out of high school. I went to an improv show with my wife, Amy [Everson], whom you know from Felt [2014 – read the PopHorror interview with her here], and she took me to see a show starring Craig Cackowski, who plays V.V. Stubbs in the film, and he was so good. On a whim, I wrote him and sent him the script. I didn’t expect to hear back, but he said he wanted in. My first reaction was, “Oh shit! I need to actually make this into a real movie.” I decided this would be a SAG film, so I needed to make a company. So I made a company. I need to get a cast of incredible actors that could work alongside Craig, and so that was what I set out to do. Erich Lane, who plays Adam, is one of my best friends from college, and I’ve been dying for an opportunity to work with him.

PopHorror: He’s hilarious!

Michael Lovan: Oh, man. He’s so good. He’s great on Dear White People, too. Seeing his theater in college, I knew he has a lot of untapped potential. Henry Alexander Kelly, who plays Barrett, was a find from Backstage Auditions. Seeing his audition, within 10 seconds I was like, “Oh my, God, I don’t think I could see Barrett any other way.”

PopHorror: He was my favorite character, to be honest. I really fucking loved his character and his performance. He was like this giant teddy bear.

Michael Lovan: Oh, I love that. He will be thrilled to hear that. It’s a thing where I didn’t have a vision of what the character looked or sounded like, but as soon as I saw his audition, I got on Skype with him. We just kind of awkwardly muttered back and forth until I said, “Do you want the role or not?” He was like, “What? Yes, of course.”

Mikelen Walker, who plays Chris, he’s just a powerhouse. He was the hardest piece of the puzzle to fit into the film. We needed him to anchor the film. So I reached out to a friend that’s become a casting agent from college, Coco Kleppinger, and she told me, “This is your guy,” after I gave her the very specific list of requirements. He was amazing, and honestly, we had one get together before we filmed, and their chemistry was immediately on point. 

PopHorror: Didn’t he just win an award, too?

Michael Lovan: Yes, he did. He won the Best Actor Award from New York Movie Awards, which is a great recognition of his hard work. He was the youngest person on set, and he just carried himself much older.

Actors Henry Alexander Kelly, Mikelen Walker and Erich Lane in Murder Bury Win.

PopHorror: Yeah, I didn’t realize that he would be the youngest on set. Really solid casting. I love it. So Michael, I know that you moved to LA from Missouri when you were pretty young, but subsequently, you nailed your film studies at UCLA. Have you always known that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Michael Lovan: I’ve always wanted to make movies, and what I did at UCLA was I studied in the theater program, and that gave me access to a lot of film seminars and a lot of people that just understood films. I think I got a great film education by just being exposed to people that lived and breathed film. It was great. It really expanded my idea of what movies could be, watching all that independent weird cinema with people shitting in jars. Not that I recommend that particular indie film. That was gross. But, yeah. I always wanted to make movies, and it took a while to get something boiling in the kettle. It happened at the right time.

PopHorror: You’ve always had an affinity for theater and for film. It seems like it’s just in your blood. 

Michael Lovan: It is honestly the only thing I ever wanted to do. I’m a huge horror buff which is why your work always resonates with me. I can’t go a week without watching something in the attempt to try and get myself a goosebump or two.

PopHorror: Yes, it’s nice to feel alive.

Michael Lovan: It’s a safe space to explore danger. It’s a safe place where you can elicit feelings of unsafety, but you’re in a perfectly safe position if you’re in a safe theater, of course.

PopHorror: Absolutely. This is kind of a fun question, Michael. If you could work with any actor or direct any actor, living or deceased, who would you choose?

Michael Lovan: Oh, damn. You really had to expand it to “or deceased.” Honestly, I just had this discussion with Amy, and oh dang… Honestly, Jim Varney, who played Ernest P. Worrell. I get the sense that he’s a spirit animal, and that I could make a role for him that would really work. I’ve always loved and admired how ridiculous he was. He would have been a dream catch.

PopHorror: He was such a physical actor, too.

Michael Lovan: I love physical comedy. I think that’s something that was really important to me when making this film, letting actors breed moments of physicality, because that’s as important as any words that come out of their mouths. And what’s great about physical comedy is that’s entirely contingent on the actor. That’s not on me necessarily. 

PopHorror: I don’t want to give too much away, but I can’t express how much I enjoyed this movie. The murder wall that’s behind V.V., was that Amy that made that?

Michael Lovan: Oh, wow! So Amy, while pregnant, found some pieces on Craig’s List that she and I stitched together in our living room. Amy was pregnant with our daughter, and she was just there in the middle of our living room with a buzzsaw, drilling holes in this furniture that didn’t even fit. We couldn’t even stand it up straight in our home but it somehow fit on location. The inspiration for that specific set piece came from a wonderful movie called Deathtrap by Ira Levin. It’s such a good movie, and I showed Amy some stills from the film, and she got to work on the murder wall for this film.

PopHorror: It’s so great! It’s so eye-catching. Every time it’s in a scene, I find my eyes going back to it, because I’m looking at all the weapons. And I’m thinking to myself too, I’m like, “Oh wow! I wonder who made that!” It looks really time consuming, but it’s so beautiful. 

Michael Lovan: Oh, well thank you. Amy will be thrilled. It was a nightmare to make, a nightmare to haul up there, and we’re just so glad that it looks good in the film.

PopHorror: The movie is wonderful, Michael! I can’t thank you enough for not only your kind, kind words, but thank you for your time. I am so excited that you got this out into the world, and I’m excited to help share it. 

Thank you again to the Austin Film Festival 2020 and of course, Michael Lovan. Be sure to keep on the lookout for future festival screenings of Murder Bury Win (next up is Phoenix FearCON).

About Danni Winn

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