Interview with ‘Tenure’ Writer-Director Mike Million

Monday, February 22, 2010
By Kevin Crossman

Mike Million made his directorial feature debut with Tenure starring Luke Wilson. The film was released last week at Blockbuster locations for rental with a national DVD release to follow in April.

Synopsis of Tenure:
After three years as a professor at Grey College, Charlie Thurber (Luke Wilson) is hoping for tenure. In competition with his colleague, an attractive and seemingly more qualified professor from Yale (Gretchen Mol), he tries a number of tactics that include the founding of an erotic poetry club, showing more school spirit, and the endless pursuit of getting published. Through it all, he finds that his real passion is teaching and that learning is something you’re never too old to do. He also may help his friend (David Koechner) catch Bigfoot, they are really, really close this time.

The film’s protagonist played by Luke Wilson is pulled in several directions during the course of the film before ultimately making  several decisions about his life. Did the storylines about career and family come from personal experience? What made you want to cover this material in the film?

Mike Million

Mike Million

I like to tell people that TENURE is a mid-life coming of age movie.  Luke’s character is a guy who just takes a little bit longer than most to figure out what he really wants to do.  The family and career storylines are definitely semi-autobiographical.  I feel like I was the last of my friends to sort my life out!  While everyone else was going to law school or earning actual paychecks, I was writing screenplays in coffee shops and trying to break into Hollywood.  And it took a while.  As for the family stuff… my mother starts almost ever phone call with “you’re never going to put me in one of those homes!”.

That said, I’m not a college professor or a teacher.  I vetted the script with some tenured professors (who gave it their stamp of approval).  But it’s a comedy.  It’s an absurd take on that world.

Did you write the movie with specific actors in mind? If so, what was it about Luke Wilson that made him your favorite choice?

I almost never do this, because it usually leads to heart break… BUT… I did write this one with Luke Wilson in mind.  The fact that we landed him still kind of blows my mind.  Years before the movie was made I created a “pitch book” as a way to try to help get the movie made.  I had a storyboard artist do some artwork and I told him to “make it look like Luke Wilson”.  So it’s really fun to look at those old sketches knowing that Luke ended up playing the role.

How much leeway were the actors afforded for improvisation? There’s an outtake on the DVD where David Koechner complains about the scene being called cut before he was finished.

I’m pretty sure Koechner was joking in the DVD outtakes!  If not, I’m sorry David.

My process was usually to get the lines as written, then do one or two “fun takes” where I let the actors do whatever they wanted.  And a lot of it did end up in the film.  This cast was so talented and fun to work with.  They all loved (and respected) the script, but also brought so much more to it.  I still laugh when I hear Luke say “I gotta bake a motherfuckin’ double batch of brownies for the faculty meeting!”  The original line was not as funny.

What one film, if there is just one, made you want to be a filmmaker?

There are three films that made me want to be a filmmaker.  “My Life as a Dog” by Lasse Hallstrom, “Local Hero” by Bill Forsyth, and “Rushmore” by Wes Anderson.  I had the exact same feeling leaving the theater after all those movies — “I want to do that.”  The first two were in the 80’s when I was just a kid.  My mom would take me to these art house movies because my dad wasn’t into them.  So I attribute a lot of my love of movies to her.  Rushmore happened when I had already written two or three (terrible) scripts and it inspired me to keep trying.

What’s next for you? Does you think the film’s distribution problems have made it harder for you to set up follow-up projects, or has the film’s positive buzz provided you with that all-important “calling card” in the business? Is there anyone that’s important to you personally that’s seen it and liked it, the way Ben Stiller and Martin Scorsese saw and liked Bottle Rocket or Ben Stiller and Will  Ferrell saw and liked The Foot Fist Way?

Luke Wilson and Gretchen Mol in Tenure

Luke Wilson and Gretchen Mol in Tenure

I have a script called ANALOG that I hope will be my next project.  I wrote it before TENURE and it’s been floating around Hollywood for a few years now.  It’s a darker comedy than TENURE, with a really strange and lovable main character.

Ahhh man… well.. the distribution problems definitely didn’t help, but I think most people recognize that TENURE (like many other movies completed in 2009) was very much a victim of the economy.  Our distribution company went out of business at a time when independent film was collapsing all around us.  The reality is that these small movies are having a tough time right now.  And it’s getting harder and harder to get them into theaters.  I’m very happy that we finished the film and it’s definitely a calling card for me.  Sure, it didn’t get the glamorous exposure that I once dreamed about, but it’s going to have a life on DVD and that’s very important.

It’s finally getting “out there” now, so, alas, I have not yet received that phone call from Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell yet.  But you can give them my number.  Marty too.

The truth is, there’s no way to tell how people are going to react to your film.  I think it’s funny, absurd and a little different than most comedies.  Is it perfect? No way, but for a first feature film I’m incredibly proud of it. I sure hope it gets some recognition, but there’s really nothing I can do to control that.  People either like it or they don’t.

Last question. Explain your fascination with Sasquatch. Do you believe Bigfoot is real?

My fascination with Bigfoot… hmmm…

I think the world is a much more interesting place with the “true believers” in it.  I grew up watching “In Search Of” (narrated by Leonard Nimoy!), so I think that’s where my *healthy* fascination with UFO’s, Bigfoot, etc. probably started.  A lot of TENURE is about these misguided guys chasing their dreams.  Not to get all metaphory on you, but I guess Bigfoot represents that chase.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Best of luck with future projects!

David Koechner and Luke Wilson in Tenure

David Koechner and Luke Wilson in Tenure

Thanks for Mario Bernengo for assistance with interview questions.

10 Responses to “Interview with ‘Tenure’ Writer-Director Mike Million”

  1. T

    Excellent interview. Look forward to seeing the film.

    #1393
  2. Bonnie

    That was a really great interview! How cool that he wrote it for Luke. He’s right about the state of independent films. I look forward to this movie. Unfortunately I can’t pick it up until the end of March so I have to wait.

    #1395
  3. Kevin Crossman

    Yes, the comments about independent film were very similar to what Kevin Smith spoke about at MacWorld a couple weeks ago. I hadn’t realized it was that bad.

    #1421
  4. Ray Goodhart

    I can relate to Mike’s Mom telling him that he’d better not put her into a nursing home, because my Dad always told me the same thing. And he stayed sharp until the day he passed. He is in several of the nursing home scenes in Tenure. My Father is the guy in the motorized wheel chair who charges out of the bingo hall after Luke announces that jars of “Herb Erect” were being given away. He is then seen speeding off with an entire box on board (also depicted on the DVD jacket cover).

    #1454
  5. Mike Million

    Ray — Your father was a joy to work with. You and your family should know that he’s responsible for one of the bigger laughs in the movie (when he charges out of the bingo hall on his scooter). I’m very glad to have met and worked with him.

    #1538
  6. Ray Goodhart

    Thanks Mike. That would have meant a lot to him. Dad called after shooting the scene and Luke got on and told me the same thing. You both have made it a very meaningful memory for me as well!

    #1574
  7. [...] drama to make them unwatchable, just bucketfuls of wry punchlines and idyllic comic timing. In Mike Million’s Tenure , he plays Charlie Thurber, an English professor competing for tenure with his new colleague. His [...]

    #1660
  8. [...] films or in some of his recent indie projects will feel right at home here. Writer-director Million wrote the film especially for Wilson, and he’s every bit as effective as you’d hope he be. Funny. Poignant. Over his head. [...]

    #1725
  9. Seems to me you left out Bigfoot’s cousin Sasquatch - maybe he can appear in ANALOG.

    #4622
  10. I really enjoyed the film-it made me laugh out loud several times which is pretty unusual. Keep it up! (That could be Herb-Erect’s slogan, no?)

    #6951

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