Micah Van Hove is a director, producer, and cinematographer with a very keen drive to make his mark in the industry. Even from his first feature film Menthol (with the producer of Boyz N The Hood), he’s carved out his own exploration into how films can be told. Micah’s latest directorial effort Shadow of a Gun refuses to shy away from any hard truths, bending interactions into cold, contemplative looks at ourselves, the way we react, and the ways we’re conditioned. His work is bold and forward-looking. Even in the film’s most despairing moments, there’s a meditation on empathy. We had the chance to ask him a few questions about his experience and creative vision.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background in film, your ventures into new ideas and opportunities, and really where this passion began for you?
I started making movies out of a desire to escape the 9-5 lifestyle that I fell into after high school. I got an opportunity to act in a short film by ex-Hollywood veteran producer Steve Nicolaides who was producing a short in my hometown of Ojai, California. Being a part of that team made me fall in love with the process, but I knew I wanted to be behind the camera. Steve gave me my first camera, a DVX100, and I just started shooting.
I quit my job and made my first short film that was based on a dream I had. I didn’t realize I could make movies until my friend Nate Kamiya blew my mind with a simple concept: setting a shoot date. Projecting my first finished short film on an abandoned train car surrounded by friends, I really fell in love with filmmaking that night in 2010.
I’ve always seen filmmaking as an opportunity to learn about life and push the boundaries of what people are comfortable with in the hope of triggering growth and empowering the human spirit. I didn’t go to film school (and even have been a long time writer for the site NoFilmSchool.com) but instead just started making my first feature length movie, Menthol, which premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2014. That project was my film school.
In your film Shadow of a Gun, Jacob King’s character, Jason, has such a swift admiration for firearms, but not exactly in the same way as Tom. We see a friendship form and unravel. We see a toxic playing field for malicious intent and yet, in the same foreground we have the counterpart of responsible attitude. It’s surely a divisive topic, but one that’s truly relevant and poignant for the now. Did you feel an urgency to tell this story given the climate of events?
The only urgency I felt to tell this story was the fact that guns had entered my life in an elemental way. Suddenly I was surrounded by them. Suddenly I started to realize that even in Southern California, they were everywhere. I couldn’t avoid learning about them anymore.
What’s an aspect of your process, whether pre-production, writing, or filming, do you find to be the perfect challenge?
The perfect challenge for me is maintaining a balance between realism and expression. In my approach to movies, there’s a delicate balance between structural coherence, raw performance and the lyricism of images, and I’m always striving to connect these elements so the sum is greater than its parts.
Something that’s wildly intriguing about your film is its use of reality and the contrast that makes some more alarming. How did you come to cast Dominic Pino as one of the leads, and was there a specific version of his life you were pulling from?
Dominic Pino has been a best friend of mine since we were kids, but it was only once we started living together that I realized he was a gun owner. I walked into the garage one day and saw him cleaning his AR-15. I decided to sit with him and observe his process and I started to understand him in a new way. This character was born out of his very real and very coherent love for firearms.
Do you feel there’s a creative liberty unearthed in lived-in performances?
Yes, and that’s a great way to put it. The actors and I worked on the characters for around a year before we started shooting and so much came from where we were all at in our lives at the time. I go so far as to use the term non-actors because I feel most free working with non-trained professionals but simply with people who are willing to trust and open their lives to a camera.
Was there a philosophy of human nature at play when you were writing the script with your team? How did you find that comfortable medium of gun hobbyism and dire, overt obsession?
The dichotomy that the film explores was very close to the surface within myself and seemed to find an outlet through these two actors. I’ve never been interested in guns, but as I began to see them through Dominic’s eyes I started to ask myself some big questions — none with easy answers. The relationship that humans have to guns is complex, and especially the American relationship. I found it easy to empathize with both sides of that complexity: those who see them as a beautiful tool — even a creative outlet — and those who are attracted to the power they can give to the otherwise powerless.
The film’s polarizing subject is one that begs discussion, recognizing the different reactions people may have about firearms. How important was it for you to tell this story set in a friendship?
Shadow of a Gun for me was always about friendship more than gun ownership, it just happens that gun ownership is the catalyst that accelerates and intensifies their trajectory. I was especially interested in young men with problems of identity, not fully understanding where they fit in the world, and using external stimuli (guns, the internet, violent media) to help learn about themselves.
What kind of audiences are you engaging with? What kind of stories do you want to tell? Do you make it a point to create contemplation through art and how our realities can collide?
I’ve always seen cinema as a reflective medium and at its best, it can cause meaningful contemplation and growth. I want to tell stories that challenge our ideas of behavioral or moral norms and allow us to push past the near-useless dichotomy of right and wrong and embrace the ambiguity that life is made of.
You were one of ten fellows who attended Jim Cummings’ inaugural Short to Feature Lab. How was the whole experience for you? How has the support and that mentorship guided your process moving forward?
Jim Cummings’ Short to Feature lab was a beautiful week spent with other passionate and creative individuals from a very diverse set of backgrounds and tastes who all wanted to share and help each other. The value of being surrounded by good creative energy cannot be understated. Jim’s big heart and big energy paved the way for creative and pragmatic learning for everyone involved. Jim blew all of our minds with what he did with Thunder Road and he showed us everything he did to make it happen. It was demystifying, it was simply inspiring.
Your profession is your canvas. What’s been the most gratifying part about what you create and put out to the world? What keeps you going?
Cinema is more than just entertainment. Film is still a young medium, yet it’s becoming more and more ubiquitous, and I feel it is part of my mission in life to find new cinematic language.
From your experience, do you have any advice for other emerging filmmakers?
Do not ask permission from anybody to make your films, we don’t have to anymore. Do not get caught in the idea that your film will be perfect. Keep finding ways to continue to create and learn what you have to offer.
Let us know how we can keep up with you! What projects are you working on?
I am developing a feature film based in the cities and jungles of Peru, loosely based on a short film I made during a workshop with Werner Herzog in May.
You can watch the trailer for Shadow of a Gun below!