Who the Folk?! Mike Forstein

Mike Forstein never wanted to be bored — so he took up filmmaking. Now, the Twin Cities almost-native is an award-winning artist and the 2016 recipient of a McKnight Media Artist Fellowship. Listen to him talk about the intersection of Judaism and film April 30, and read about what brought him here on this week’s Who The Folk?!

How did you become involved in the world of film?

My first encounters with film were Christmas movies: one was seeing “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a kid and the first movie I went to was with my mom about a reindeer. We live in a culture where Christmas is celebrated on film frequently, but I do remember being enchanted by “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The storytelling of it. I went to college to become a journalist, but I quickly realized that the process of getting a journalism degree involved conforming to a strict set of rules and guidelines, which is the exact opposite of what I wanted. So I dropped a bunch of classes and picked up a camera instead.

I loved movies from a young age, and I remember in college, one day, it was winter break sophomore year, I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have much of anything that I needed to do, and my roommate was learning guitar and playing Old McDonald on guitar over and over again, and I remember sitting in my room, hearing him across the apartment playing that, and I remember having this terrible feeling overcome me. It was a feeling I realized I never wanted to feel again in my life: boredom. It was shortly after that I picked up a camera, and I have not been bored since.

Tell me about your short film, Meat.

A very good friend of mine named Colin Thomsen told me a few years ago about a job interview he had where, when he got there, they threw him in a truck and asked him to start selling meat with a veteran. He aborted the mission pretty quickly, but years later, he told me about this bizarre, not-job interview, and I thought it was funny and weird and an interesting story. A few years later, we were talking about making a short film together. We threw around some ideas and that idea resonated still a few years later. We started working on that project in 2009 and, at that point, we were in the middle of the economic recession. Our approach on the project was from the perspective of what people have to do or are willing to do for work in tough economic times. A few years later when we came back to it and worked on it again, the situation wasn’t quite the same, so the focus wasn’t so much on the topical aspect of it, but more so on what individuals — in that film specifically, men — are willing to for the things that drive them, whether it’s money or a relationship.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of filmmaking?

The very first part. It’s like scaling down a mountain from there in terms of rewarding aspects to it. In the case of working with Colin on the script, for me, it’s talking about big picture ideas with friends and collaborators. Turning the big levers that ultimately have all kinds of ramifications and lead to choices down the line, like who are we going to cast and how are we going to shoot something. But in the beginning, in developing the story, you’re making choices that affect the meaning of the thing, so it’s in having those conversations that I get the most reward, because that’s where I’m engaging with big ideas and challenging myself and my collaborators, and learning about the way we view the world.

How do you connect your Judaism to your filmmaking?

It hasn’t always been connected for me, but I’ve always had it in mind that I’d like to do something that engages with Judaism. It’s not something I’ve ever wanted to force, but when the right story comes along, that’s when I know it’s something worth doing. Right now, I’m in the middle stages of developing a project with Jewish subject matter. The film is called Days of Awe and it’s about a troubled teen who’s forced to go on an extreme wilderness therapy program.

You’ll be at Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota on April 30 as part of a Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council event. What can we expect?

I’ll be talking about what makes a compelling story for film, the relationship between film and script, and the nature and challenges of culturally specific storytelling. That’s going to be an opportunity for me to dive deep into that question of being Jewish, being a filmmaker and how those things can be combined.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Sukkot. Any holiday that involves building something is a fun holiday by me.

Favorite Jewish food?

You’ve now hit on my favorite subject. Can I give you a bunch? A proper bagel and lox sandwich is a truly great culinary invention. A chocolate egg cream. The pickled herring that terrified me as a kid at oneg shabbat. Blueberry blintzes at Second Avenue Deli. And while in New York, street knish, the kind that’s a little cold in the middle, preferably with an uneven distribution of mustard.

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