When you are working with over 200 people to create a feature film, it’s abundantly clear that there are no small parts. Or as Mary McDonald Kerr, an actresses I’ve had the honor of working with, explains:

Even the actor who hands Brutus his sword is critical to the success of Julius Caesar.

When I began producing feature films in Michigan a decade ago, I quickly drew on our state’s deep bench, along with a few expats living in California and working at famous studios. One of them was Bob Cicchini (Godfather III, The Morning Show) recommended to me by cinematographer Bruce Schermer, who I met while working on the Michael Moore biography Citizen Moore.

At the time I had recently published Steve Faulkner’s memoir Waterwalk, which I thought would make a great film. His story about a 1,000-mile canoe journey with his son Justin on the discovery route of the Mississippi was directed by Cicchini who co-starred with actor Chase Yi of Portage, Michigan. The project, with Schermer behind the camera, was a reunion of sorts for him and Cicchini who began their film careers as students at Wayne State University.

That collaboration has continued on two more films including Pilot Error and Coming Up For Air, which just won best feature award at the Vero Beach Film Festival — its seventh festival win. It plays September 30 as part of the Cinetopia Selects Festival series at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. At a time when cinema — as an industry and a shared experience — is recovering post-Covid, it is worth noting that Michigan remains one of the best places to shoot and present feature films.

As we all know, Michigan is blessed with remarkable actors, great locations and production veterans like Schermer, who reached a national audience with Michael Moore’s Roger and Me and Sundance winner Chameleon Street.

A letter I received from the director of the Vero Beach Film Festival noted that Coming Up For Air was chosen from thousands of entries and that only a handful of those films win at this kind of event. Unquestionably, the industrious Michigan team behind this mental health drama gets the credit for this success.

Making a film that audiences can relate to — one that helps them address central concerns in their own lives — is something artists in our state know how to do. It’s one thing to listen to a talk about mental health statistics. It’s something far more relatable to see how these important issues play out in the lives of people we can understand and empathize with.

Anna Russell — a mother struggling to help her son fight the demons undercutting his success as a star student and college athlete — is a protagonist who navigates the challenges facing so many parents.

The success of a independent, dramatic film requies sophisticated viewers who are willing to invest in artists they may never have heard of. This support creates the word of mouth that has opened doors for us at prime venues and festivals around the country like Cinetopia. In our case, the Michigan Community Mental Health Association has helped us screen the film at community centers, schools, colleges and churches. Among them are a suicide prevention conference in Detroit and a screening in Ironwood (population 4,925) where 450 people came to see our film.

None of this could have happened without the support of venues like the Michigan Theater, a landmark nonprofit that shows why so many local artists are able to get their foothold here and go on to careers in film. Behind every Kristen Bell or Keegan Michael Key is a Michigan school and theater community, teachers, professors and a local ecosystem central to their success beyond our boundaries.

In one of Coming Up For Air’s recent reviews, Tony Moore, writing for Indy Film Library, had this to say about the geography of the movie:

The camerawork certainly hits on a sense of place — we get a feel for the northern United States. Aside from the excellent diving footage, throughout the movie the editing and cinematography are first rate. One interior scene stood out for me — when Anna took food around to the aged mother of a friend — beautifully lit but there was something about the colors and the composition that was remarkable and resonated.

This scene, written entirely by Deborah Staples, who collaborated with me on the screenplay, is one that showcased one of my favorite actresses, Judy Johnson who exemplifies the kind of Michigan stage to film talent that delights audiences elsewhere. Like many scenes in the film, we shot at the home of one of our producers, Jean Pataky, an English professor who had a dream home for our film. Another big plus was the help of the University of Michigan dive team that let us shoot cinema’s first ever high dive at the Don Canham natatorium.

Our actor Chase Maser noted that there was a bible at the top of the 35 foot high diving platform, one that came in handy as we worked our way through a long series of diving shots. We wouldn’t have made it without the help of dive coach Mike Hilde and the legendary Dick Kimball who appears poolside in one scene.

I hope you will be able to join me at the Michigan Theater Friday Night September 30 at 6:45 to meet the stars of the film along with cinematographer Bruce Schermer and other cast members. We’ll be joined by local mental health experts who will offer their insights on the key role caregivers play in helping those in need quickly access the mental health resources they need.

For more information on Coming Up For Air at the Michigan Theater September 30 please visit https://michtheater.org/cinetopia-presents-coming-up-for-air.