Local Filmmaker Finds Inspiration in CBUS
“I’m inspired by Columbus,” says Mike Olenick.
A native of Red Bank, New Jersey, Olenick came to CBUS 13 years ago, after receiving his Master’s degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. The draw at that time was a job as studio editor for the Wexner Center for the Arts, but Ohio life has agreed with the Garden Stater.
“I think of myself as being from here. I’m very Midwestern now,” he says. “Being here is much more inspirational than being on the East coast. I’ve never wanted to live in New York City – I think growing up about an hour away from there kind of got it out of my system.”
On his website, Olenick describes his work as, “perverse films focused on photography, forbidden desire, reproduction, transformation, memories and outer space.” He agrees that his films tend toward the surreal, though he doesn’t believe that’s intentional, and says he has an interest in telling stories visually.
“You can make something intriguing without resorting to dialog,” he says. “Or you can drop that dialog out and be just as interesting.”
He’s fascinated by films that use dialog in support of the story rather than as the vehicle for understanding a film, and the look of a movie is of tremendous importance to him. He’s particularly fascinated with color as a tool for storytelling.
“I went to art school, I took color theory classes, I think about color,” he says. “I agonize over the color of everything. Some people will be like, ‘Oh this room will work. We can film in it.’ But for me it would be, this room needs to be pink, and then we have to paint it gray later.”
While his education has had an obvious impact, Olenick also credits his work at the Wex as having helped to shape him as a director.
“It’s a job that kind of stretches my brain in a lot of different directions,” he says. “And being a filmmaker, it’s great to have an open mind about what you want to do. You never know where inspiration’s going to strike or when an accident is going to happen and you have to change your plan.”
His work at the center has afforded him the opportunity to work closely with many experimental filmmakers, and Olenick allows this experience to continue his cinematic education.
“Helping other filmmakers through problems has helped me out quite a bit,” he says. “I learn a lot when someone makes a mistake. You kind of put that in the back of your head. I apply a lot of that when I’m making a movie.”
While the work he’s done as an editor on other filmmakers’ material has helped Olenick with his own films, other artists have also directly influenced him.
“Jennifer Reeder is kind of an unofficial mentor for me because I’ve worked so closely with her,” he says. “When I met her, she was making these really experimental pieces, more like video art than theatrical screening pieces. And it’s been really great to watch her transform into this narrative filmmaker showing a lot in festivals – watching her process and thinking, oh, I could evolve, not on the same trajectory as her, but in this more narrative realm.”
Like Reeder, Olenick is a film festival veteran. His work has screened at many festivals, and he pulled in prizes in both the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Slamdance.
“Film festivals are funny,” he says. “Sometimes you think, oh yeah, this is the film that’s going to get me in, and then you don’t get in. And sometimes you make something and think that won’t play and then it takes off. As a filmmaker, you just have to keep sending stuff out.”
Olenick’s work has been accepted in to the Hamburg Film Festival, Chicago Underground, and others, but he finds value in the festivals whether or not they play his films.
“I think, even if you don’t get into a festival, it’s really good to go to them. You meet people, you see the films that are getting in. It’s just a really good process.”
The prolific filmmaker and visual artist acknowledges some obstacles to creating his art locally, but ultimately believes the opportunity outweighs the challenge.
“Columbus doesn’t have a really huge film scene,” he admits. “That makes it hard to make films here. But in other ways, it’s really easy to make films here. I don’t worry about permits so much, but it’s also just cheap to live here. I know people who live in New York that pay rent and rent a studio and work two jobs, and I don’t have to do that. I have a house and a basement; I can go to a thrift store and collect stuff and keep it. It’s also really easy to shoot in Columbus, and a lot of people are eager to help.”
He also just loves Columbus itself.
“Red Luck (Olenick’s 2014 short, a prize winner at Slamdance) takes place in the neighborhood I live in, and I love the neighborhood because it doesn’t feel like the neighborhoods I see on TV and in the movies. It feels really unique and special. I don’t know if I would get that somewhere else.”
For more on Olenick’s work, visit mikeolenick.com.
Look for more stories on local filmmakers in the coming weeks.