Insights & Expertise
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Insights & Expertise
Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, Michael Wellenreiter, M.F.A., didn’t realize film was something you could major in. Today, it’s how he makes his living. The assistant professor of theatre and film and independent film director and founder of Severine Pictures has a new feature film out, Mirrors, that’s gaining national attention.
Mirrors is an early 1980s-style sci-fi thriller following Dezmon, an elite Special Forces agent serving in World War III, and Xuefang, a pacifist rebel, on their quest to take down Dr. Lee, a WWIII defector planning global annihilation with the help of his dangerous clones.
The film won Best Sci-Fi Feature Film at the Chicago International Genre Film Festival, Most Believable Sci-Fi Fantasy Feature at Something Wicked Film Festival and Best Visual FX at the Roswell Sci-Fi Film Festival.
What might seem like a far-fetched, fantastic tale actually has roots in Wellenreiter’s childhood and upbringing. “As a filmmaker, I always think of visual images first. It’s more of a visual art than a written art,” he explains. “I grew up in a rural farming community, so I kept seeing images of a farm set in the future.” This image stayed with him, helping to shape both the urban and rural environments within the film.
The film explores themes and philosophical questions that Wellenreiter finds interesting. “It questions how to live life as individuals, how to construct our society, whether it’s morally correct to fight violence with violence,” he says, adding how sci-fi provides the perfect avenue to exploring those ideas.
Wellenreiter’s love for gaming and the anti-war themes from popular 1980s media also contribute to the film’s plot and style. Pulling from classic games he grew up with, Wellenreiter uses the confluence of technology and fantasy throughout his film narratives.
“I believe that the genre films that feel most alive tend to incorporate the maker’s personal experiences,” Wellenreiter says. Using personal experiences and stories, especially in creative ways, is a lesson he tries to bring into the classroom as well.
“Everyone is creative. There is no special secret,” he says. “Each person has a unique set of experiences — people they’ve known, things they’ve done — that no one else would know about. It’s not cheating to take stories directly from your life and put them in film. In fact, it often creates the best work.”
Wellenreiter also stresses that creative work involves a rigorous research process — something even he still experiences after 20 years of filmmaking. “One of the requirements for some of the film festivals is that the film needs to have a 5.1 surround sound mix. As I’m researching that, Theatre & Film majors in my Sound Design course will work on their own 5.1 sound mix.”
The learning process goes both ways, with students introducing new film concepts as well. “My students take the lead on things like drone photography. It’s inspirational to see how students grow on their unique path, wrestling with their own questions. Students have to think about their own creative challenges and how to solve them. We’re all lifelong learners, and there is plenty for me to learn about.”