Up close & Personal With Michael Afendakis

Photo Credit:Buffy Afendakis
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Photo Credit: Atta Squirrel Films

Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?  

Sure, in the 30s and 40s, my father loved going to the outdoor cinema in Alexandria, Egypt (he was Greek but lived in Egypt) and would watch the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, and Greta Garbo do their magic on the big screen. When he came to the US in the 50s, he loved to shoot his own family films and took photographs all the time. Cameras were always around us, and my friends and I would borrow that equipment and make our own films – monster movies, stop-motion animation, pirate adventures, and goofy comedies.

When I was about 10, my parents asked me what I wanted to do in life, and I immediately blurted out, “I want to be a comedian.” I can’t say that went over very well with them, as I think they were hoping for a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or something like that. My heroes were the Smothers Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Cheech and Chong, Red Skeleton, George Carlin, Steve Martin, and all the folks on Saturday Night Live. I was the class clown in grammar school. I could make people laugh, and I liked it when they did. Did I become a comedian? No. I became an Engineer , but that little performative bug in me never quite went away. 

Photo Credit: Atta Squirrel Films

Even though the dream of doing comedy faded somewhat, I always kept writing stories, and when I got that job at Apple, the technology existed where I could bring some of those tales I wrote to life. They weren’t great, but they weren’t awful either. Eventually, I made my first short film, a reunion story called The Connie Letters, and I submitted it around to festivals, and to my surprise, it got into a few of them. So that motivated me to do the next film, and that led to the next film, which led to where I am now.

Congratulations on all of your recent film work. Can you tell us more about “We Rise” and what it means to you?

Thank you. When Jim Scharf, the coach of my local high school’s mock trial team, approached me to make this film, I was initially skeptical. I didn’t know much about Mock Trial, and it didn’t sound as compelling as the subject matter for another in a series of high school competition films. However, after some additional prodding by Jim, I finally accepted his invite and went to one of the auditions he held for the current year’s team.

I arrived at the room where the auditions were being held, still skeptical but was just floored by the students who participated that day – I knew then that I needed to take a deeper exploration into making a film about them, with Mock Trial being the World where these delightful humans interacted. That’s the main reason I took on “We Rise” – all the young adults in the film were so inspiring to me. I’ve watched the film some 30 times and I’m still blown away at how earnest, passionate, driven, and filled with hope the six main subjects of the film are. I wasn’t anything like that at 17; it was very eye-opening and made me feel like we’re all going to be okay if this next generation is anything like these six lovely humans.

Photo Credit: Atta Squirrel Films

Can you share the most interesting story that has happened to you since you started working in the entertainment industry?  

I was working on a documentary about the Delta Blues titled “Delta Rising.” The main location for the film was Clarksdale, Mississippi, a jewel of a town in the Mississippi Delta. It is the home of “The Crossroads,” and so many of the legends in blues hail or have spent a fair amount of time in Clarksdale. There’s a blues club in Clarksdale called Ground Zero, which is partly owned by Morgan Freeman. So, I had this wild idea of seeing if he might be interested in being interviewed for the film, mind you at this point, I had never done a documentary and only had a small number of short films to my credit.

I found out who Morgan’s business manager was, and I reached out via email and made a few calls. She was very nice, but I wasn’t making much progress in snagging that interview. But I persisted. Month after month – another phone call, another polite email….and then BOOM – Morgan was going to be in LA. If I was willing to go down there, he could give me an hour. So, we high-tailed it to the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills – set up our cameras in a nice room and waited nervously. What if he didn’t actually come, I thought. Then the knock on the door; I opened it, and there he was. 

The interview went very well. Morgan had roots in Mississippi and a love for the region, and that comes shining through in the doc. Morgan is an amazing man, so passionate, smart, and present. I feel fortunate to have gotten the chance to work with him, and that led to a whole host of opportunities; if you are ever headed to Mississippi, please check out Clarksdale and go see Roger Stolle at the Cat Head Blues and Folk Store and he’ll give you the lay of the land and go take in some of the blues music that fills that town up.

What is next for you, what are you working on?

Our production company is called Atta Squirrel Films, and my partner and co-founder is the ever-amazing Jonathan Leveck. The first film we worked on together for Atta Squirrel was a short titled “Monster,” and we had a lot of success with that, playing at some prominent film festivals and winning a few awards along the way. We followed that up with “The Grandpa Diaries,” a web series that also won a few awards. So now we’re working on Season 2 of “The Grandpa Diaries” and a dramedy series tentatively titled “Hotel” that is set in the late 70s. We’re also doing a podcast that focuses on some of our film adventures and folks we have worked with and admire. More to come on that.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?  

You know, there are quite a few, and it’s hard to pick one, so let me say it this way: I am so indebted to my wife, Buffy, who enables me to pursue most anything I’m passionate about and supports me along the way, as well as my son Cooper, who is the most sincere, kind, lovely son a person could have.  

Along the way, I’ve gotten to work with some amazing people: Barbara Cannon, an amazing theater director, and friend who gave me a lot of chances, opportunities, and helped me build some of the confidence you need to pursue working in this World. I’ll be forever grateful to her for that. Michael Seitzman (Code Black, North Country), a great writer, producer, and director, gave me my first shot at something big. Margie Haber, a great acting and audition and coach, life coach, author (check out her fantastic book F*ck your Comfort Zone). She’s just the greatest and enabled me to get much more confident in the work I do, she’s a great friend. Also, a call out to Samuel Thomas and Louis Hunter, who founded the Waco Independent Film Festival (previously Deep in the Heart FF). We met Samuel and Louis at the Woods Hole Film Festival some years back when they were just getting started with the festival and have grown it into this amazing, welcoming yearly festival that embraces both established and new voices alike, along with deep ties to their community, they are both inspiring to me.

But I do want to mention someone else who really inspired me to keep going in this business. That is Bill Luckett, who was essential to our completing that first Documentary, Delta Rising. Bill recently passed away but taught me so much. Bill co-owned The Ground Zero Blues Club along with Morgan Freeman and a few others, in fact, Morgan led me to Bill.  

We interviewed Bill at a restaurant in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and after the interview, he offered to drive us out to a cabin he had right on the Mississippi River. We had other interviews still to do, and I almost said no, but something inside me just said not to miss this opportunity. So, I said “sure, let’s go.”

We hopped in Bill’s car and began driving, we were about 10 minutes into the drive when, all of a sudden, Bill quickly pulled off to the side of the road and headed over to a big tree in the field next to the car. He gets out of the car, runs over to the tree, grabs this big white flower, brings it back to me, and asks, “Do you know what this is?” I said no, and he said, “Give it a sniff,” and handed me the big white flower. I sniffed it, and it smelled a bit like jasmine but softer and more pleasing. He said, “It’s a Magnolia Tepal, isn’t it nice?” And that’s who Bill was, he knew everything about Mississippi, was an enthusiastic supporter of artists throughout the region, and was just the ultimate Renaissance Man. Bill and his lovely wife, Francine, were super ambassadors to all that came through Clarksdale, including me, and there aren’t many people I know who are like him. He changed my life.  

From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to others who want to work in the entertainment industry?

I think about that a lot and have a few thoughts.

1. Get out on the field and out of the stands. It can be uncomfortable, but the days pass by pretty fast, and taking action keeps moving the ball forward.

2. Be pleasant and be persistent. Had I given up on those calls to Morgan’s business manager, I would have missed out on one of the things that has given me so many opportunities.

3. Do the work and move. It’s not like I’m the greatest example of this cause I procrastinate just like everyone else, but eventually, I put that first foot in front of the other and take a step. It’s easier to keep something in motion that’s already moving than to get something stationary to move.

Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This is a new one for me. I like finding new ones, and this comes from Margie Haber’s book “F*ck your comfort zone” – the quote is attributed to Albert Einstein.

A ship is always safe at the shore, but that is not what it is built for.

When I’m stuck, I’ll pull up that quote, and it will get the fire lit under me again. I love its simplicity.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can learn more about our film “WE RISE” at http://attasquirrel.com/werise

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