Mark Allen Michaels takes us deep into the tortured soul of a stand-up comic in Prior. When the titular character, played by Dallas Valdez, steps on stage, the first thing you’ll notice is his severe burns. The wounds serve as personal penance for his life of success and addiction. I had a chance to chat with writer-direcpr Michaels about his comedy and his mantra, “The human condition is a m**********r!” Prior will be available on VOD this Christmas.
What is the origin of Prior and his evening of stand-up?
I have always been fascinated with people who have great talent and great flaws. Prior is such a person. He is a successful comic but still carries with him his past demons. My father tried his hand at stand-up, and it was a humiliation; for him and for me as a young boy. He had no tools to fight with, and the hecklers were vicious. I experienced firsthand what a stand-up comic must contend with. My father was a proud, stoic man who was humiliated again and again until he abandoned the venture. When he would get drunk, he would re-live those moments with a subdued chuckle and tears in his eyes. Part of Prior is my response as to how I would have liked him to react. But overall Prior is a successful comic who brings his remembrances to his devoted audience.
What is your history with comedy and filmmaking, and how did that bring you to Prior?
My first foray into filmmaking was a black-and-white dark comedy called Desperately. All of my movies have humor. VampyrZ on a Boat is streaming now, and I would say it is a romantic comedy with horror elements. But Prior is a horse of another breed altogether. And I like this horse. In fact, Prior is the first of a trilogy. I will be releasing The Big T in mid-2023. Big T is another great talent with great flaws.
That said, Prior was born from my desire to see a comic say what he truly believes throughout the course of an evening…audience be damned. And I love his give-and-take with his fans. He is sharing his most intimate thoughts and feelings. He is not holding back. He is engaged and thus alive. He is one of those people who is more alive on stage than off. I sometimes envy him.
How did you develop the character of Prior? I’m also interested in why you chose to give him an incredibly devastating burn condition.
Prior started with the idea of a stand-up comic with addictions, be it drugs, sex, alcohol, or violence. Then I added his successes; comedy clubs, films, and money. Then I added the love-hate interactions he would have with his audience, the film studios, and his family. Finally, I added his one true friend and partner through thick and thin; Sy. Then I shake until blended. Voila; Prior.
The burn condition is the price he must pay for his sins; his drug and alcohol addictions, his treatment of his wives and mistresses, the treatment of his grandmother, and even his treatment of his audience. A price must be paid, and he has paid it.
“A price must be paid, and he has paid it.”
One of Prior’s catchphrases in his stand-up is, “The human condition is an M-Fer!” What were the themes you wanted to explore?
The human condition is, for me, the characteristics and key events of human life, including birth, learning, emotion, aspiration, morality, and conflict. It is also the experiences and limitations of life shared by all humans. Do we make detrimental decisions based on the lack of love we received as a child, or can we make positive decisions regardless of that love? When Prior exclaims, “The human condition is an M-Fer!” he is actually questioning that human condition; Why don’t we have concrete answers regarding nature versus nurture? He is also using the phrase as an excuse for his behavior; The effects of the human condition are a mystery, and you cannot blame ‘me’ for my actions.
I also found Sy to be an interesting character. He is a calming contrasting character compared to Prior. How did you see Sy in relationship to Prior?
I love the Sy character. He is what we all want in a true friend; Someone who will support us even when we are at our worst. Sy is loyal, dependable, and empathetic. He attempts to keep Prior from exercising his self-destructive tendencies. He is also the trusty stage manager and occasionally needed performer on stage. Sy is the ‘family’ Prior wanted and needed.
Prior seems simple to shoot and produce as it’s mostly Prior on stage. What were some of the challenges you faced making the film?
Looks can be deceiving. The rehearsal period was brutal. Dallas Valdez (Prior) and Curt Lambert (Sy) needed to find a cohesive relationship before filming. Once we had that, the lighting needed to be fine-tuned for every ‘beat.’ And then the music. And then the camera work. But by far, the biggest challenge was getting the actors to give the performances we needed. And they did that.
What is it that you hope audiences walk away with after seeing Prior?
That even flawed individuals can have a positive influence on us. That even flawed individuals can illuminate the human condition. It is not important how many times we fall but how many times we rise. Prior shows that.