We had the good fortune of connecting with Mike Olafson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mike, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
I think my upbringing and background have a tremendous impact on who I am and even more so why I focus on producing “vintage” styled films. As a child of the 70s, I absorbed WAY too much pop culture- movies, music, TV, skateboards, moto cross, custom vans (yes, they used to be really cool once!) It was just a fun time to be a kid. The odd thing is that my Dad and I were actually going through a very rough time then as my mother was dying from cancer. From about 1975 until she passed in 1978, it was a tough time. But my Dad really held things together for us and through all of that I was still able to “be a kid”. I was about 9-12 during that time and I had some great friends then. I think maybe because my Mom was dying, I tended to really appreciate the good times we had then even more- I didn’t take them for granted. So the fun of the 70s means a lot to me. And somehow that aesthetic crept into my creative persona as an adult. But besides all of that, (and maybe I am biased) the 60s and the 70s were some incredibly exciting times for kids and adults alike. In the late 60s movies seemed to get more ‘gritty’- westerns, cop/detective films, monster flicks. Of course when “Easy Rider” hit the screens in 1969, this trend kicked into high gear. I think some really amazing films happened then- both low budget indies and studio “blockbusters”(starting with “Jaws”) So being there then, absorbing all of this really determined my cultural DNA.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I am a Denver based independent filmmaker, and like I mentioned earlier, I absorbed way too much pop culture as a kid in the 1970s. As a result, I would say my style and aesthetic is similar to the films from the 1960s and 70s. I typically have used actual film for my projects- either Super 8mm or 16mm- which can be very challenging and expensive, but produces the look I prefer for my projects. I started my company, American Vintage Pictures, in 2011, to embrace my devotion to those earlier decades and create a brand which would produce fresh films and new stories, but with a fun “vintage” style and look. It wasn’t always that way however. After I graduated college I went into jobs in financial services and insurance. I thought all that “kid stuff” from my childhood was better left behind me. So I focused on getting a job in financial services, telling myself “this is what grown ups do.” and I did it- until the creative monster emerged again about 5 years later. I decided to write a novel- and so I embarked on a long trail of research and writing for almost 7 years to create “The Amulet of Atlantis”. An adventure novel set in Africa in 1938, which I published. That started the creative fires again and so after all that historical research I was even more curious about archaeology, lost cities, etc. and so in 2003 I started with a video documentary project I was producing and directing called “Vintage Adventure”. It was about visiting actual places where early 20th century explorers or archaeologists went- kind of like following Indiana Jones. From 2003-2005 I travelled all over the world exploring lost cities in South America, flying in old WWI era planes, diving for sunken treasure with a team of professionals, exploring forgotten castles in the Wadi Rum desert and exploring mysterious Etruscan tombs in Italy- all the time interviewing some really interesting people. But it never got picked up by a network- so I continued my documentary work in 2007 by producing a film about Denver’s hot rod and rock and roll history- “Gears, Grease and Guitars”. That met with a nice reception here and to some degree has been an ‘underground’ favorite around the country. I started working with Super 8mm and 16mm film during “Gears, Grease and Guitars” and next I decided to make a short film using 16mm black and white film. I shot “Motor Vixens” in 2010 with a great bunch of folks. It was kind of a tribute to 60s maverick filmmaker Russ Meyer. But that was a short- a good practice for a feature. In 2011 I started work on a feature film called “Hot Lead Hard Fury” an action/comedy. We shot it all in Super 8mm film. That was a labor of love- and I probably learned more on that project than any others. It took almost 7 years to complete- yeah, seven years. It was fun and I worked with some great people, but honestly Ill never take 7 years to make a film again. That is a big chunk of a person’s life to devote to one project. But I realized I had to make the film- no matter what it took I was going to follow through- and I did, my whole team did. To save money on one of the roles, I acted in it myself and really enjoyed that part of it. I had taken acting classes back in college and of course to be a director you have to understand acting (to some degree) and so it was a smooth transition. (or so I think anyway). We premiered it in 2018 to modest success and all through that year it toured in film festivals across the country- New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and South Dakota. It even won a few awards along the way. Its available online now. I am currently working on two projects: The first is a western film called “Bullets from Beyond”- but covid has really slowed things down. I’m at a point where I had to rewrite a lot of it- however we did film a small segment this past summer in my backyard set using a 16mm Eclair NPR camera, from the 1960s. On this project I act as well, and actually that is what allowed us to film some segments over this past summer during covid. This project is really meant to recreate the “spaghetti westerns” from the 60s- however, it will also have some “Indiana Jones” elements to it- lost Aztec treasure, mystical sorcerers, black magic- and even some vintage hand drawn animation blended with live action. Once production resumes, Ill look to film it over the course of a month- maybe two at the most. So right now I’m just taking the opportunity to review things, locations, budget, props, etc. It might even require me to go to New Mexico to produce portions of it. So there are still things taking shape on it. The second project is another 70s style action flick- but this is more of a serious one- called “Fist of Frankenstein”. It is a mashup of various genres such as martial arts and horror with some noir elements thrown into it, set in 1975. Again, with covid happening, it has been setback, but after we emerge from this I can better reevaluate how to proceed on that project as well. There are always challenges of course- and currently with covid that has multiplied the costs and complexity of production and of course has impacted the landscape of distribution as well. Indie producers and studio execs alike are trying to navigate these new waters at the same time. I dont know how it will all shake out but Im staying optimistic and hoping that there will be demand for content- which there already is currently. Outside of the normal hurdles a filmmaker encounters- plus the covid situation- it is an extra challenge to try and recreate that style of the 60s/70s movies, using real film, and still bring a fresh and compelling story to the screen, but that is really the mission of my brand, American Vintage Pictures. Some might say being creative is a blessing- others might call it a curse- an obsession. I think all of that applies to me- and I think to all creatives. We all have our creative monsters inside that may never be satisfied- for better or for worse.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Well for a week there are a lot of cool places to show someone- I would start with the area around Morrison, Colorado- just outside the Denver metro area, its a little mountain town all by itself literally up a canyon about 3 minutes west of our radial highway 470. It has an old mountain town feel, some great restaurants- including the Morrison Inn, which has great Mexican food and margaritas ( I recommend the peach margarita, on the rocks). Its got some fun antique shops too , plus Bandimere drag racing speedway is close by and also the Dinosaur ridge park, where you can see actual dinosaur footprints. Next I would go to Manitou Springs- just west of Colorado Springs. They have great shops, restaurants, and an old style boardwalk arcade. Also there is the Manitou Cliff Dwellings and museum. Next I would take my old Triumph Spitfire for a trip up Deer Creek Canyon drive- a small road that eventually climbs some steep mountains and ends up being the back road to Bailey, Colorado. Fun, off the beaten path road trip through scenic Rocky Mountains. Then there is Cherry Creek State Park and Resevoir- I literally grew up close by and spent some summers biking all over that park. They have horseback riding stables, a shooting range, campgrounds, bike paths, boating, fishing- and even a model plane airpark. Lastly, no visit to Denver would be complete without a trip to Casa Bonita!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
So many people have influenced and/or helped me from my parents to my friends to teachers and of course to those who made the films I watched growing up. However, I would thank Denver artist and musician Jesse Frazier for helping make the 2018 film “Hot Lead Hard Fury” a reality with his talent, commitment, and connections in Denver. I am also thankful for my co-producers on that project such as Jeremy Swinehart, Torry and Shannon Kersenbrock, Nikki Alexander, James Till, James Wimmer, Patrick Joel de Leon, and Denver based filmmaker, stunt choreographer, writer, and martial arts expert Mark Grove. Mark was a tremendous help on that project and I continue to work with Mark on new projects and learn from his decades of experience in production and directing. I am also thankful to additional co-producers Tamara Norton and Catherine Ager who have been very helpful on my current western film project.
Facebook: Mike Olafson