The right place at the right time

"We just wanted to spoof Hollywood for their big special-effect films – and we wanted to meet George Lucas… which we did."

michael wiese 521 (photo credit: Michael Wiese Productions)
michael wiese 521
(photo credit: Michael Wiese Productions)
It’s not easy to find a “through line” in his life, admits Michael Wiese, as he sat comfortably in the lobby of the Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem last month. Comfortable is a relative word for the 66-year-old American writer, filmmaker and publisher, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease seven years ago.
His limbs on one side are in constant motion, like he’s keeping time to a particularly torrid Ramones song. But as much as his physical self is struggling to stay in control, Wiese’s intellect and spiritual self are flourishing, as evidenced by his new autobiography Onward & Upward.“I found a ‘through line’ though writing the book. I didn’t know at the beginning that it would be the theme, but I only wrote about the things in my life that have been joyous.
“That’s why I called the subtitle ‘Reflections of a Joyful Life,’” he explained, adding that it didn’t prevent him from writing about his disease. “You can focus on the suffering, or you can try to stay joyous.”
If satisfying work is the prescription for a healthy, happy life, then Wiese, who moved from Los Angeles to Cornwall, England, with his wife, Geraldine, 15 years ago, should be Superman. A child of the 1960s San Francisco counterculture scene, Wiese has spent the last 35 years mastering almost every form of media. He produced independent films in the 1970s, including a cult parody of Star Wars, the classic Hardware Wars.
In the early 1980s, he was appointed vice president of home video company Vestron Video, where he developed or produced over 200 programs and launched video lines for National Geographic, The Smithsonian, NOVA, Audubon and PBS Home Video, as well as comedy specials for HBO featuring Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. Later, he launched Michael Wiese Productions (MWP), the premier publisher of how-to books on screenwriting and filmmaking like Film and Video Budgets and The Independent Film and Video Editor’s Guide, which are used in over 600 film courses around the world.
Concurrent with that thriving endeavor, Wiese shifted focus from the “how to” to the “why,” inaugurating Divine Art Media, which is devoted to a spiritual book line – arts, culture, spirit and feature- length documentaries of personal “sacred journeys” with titles like The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas, The Shaman and Ayahuasca, and Talking With Spirits.
It’s not that far – in a psychic manner – from the spiritual quest he embarked on in Haight-Ashbury in 1967.
“I was there in the summer of love, baby. Of course I don’t remember any of it,” joked Wiese, who was on his first visit to Israel, to see old friends and investigate some alternative Parkinson’s treatments.
By the time he was 21, the budding filmmaker had made a documentary called Messages, Messages, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Wiese once called it a “journey of the psyche into the world of the unconscious, influenced by Dali, Buñuel and the German expressionists,” but he now stripped the description of some of its mystique.
“At the time if you asked me what it meant, I would have said, ‘What did it mean to you?’ That’s the ultimate ‘60s cop-out answer to the ultimate cop-out question,” he laughed. “But making it gave me the feeling that, wow, this filmmaking thing is pretty easy.”
His run of documentary features and shorts peaked with producing the 1978 cult short film parody Hardware Wars, a film festival award winner that went on to earn over $1 million. Calling it an “irreverent send-up” and “the first fan film,” which spawned thousands of other “tribute” films, Wiese said that he and director Ernie Fosselius were not actually big Star Wars geeks.
“We just wanted to spoof Hollywood for their big special-effect films – and we wanted to meet [director] George Lucas… which we did,” he said.
After making a few more films, Wiese had picked up enough expertise to start holding seminars for independent filmmakers, many of them his friends who were experiencing trouble with distribution and finance. The seminar material ended up in Wiese’s first book, The Independent Film and Video Editor’s Guide, still a popular textbook for film courses. However, in a harbinger of his destiny, he self-published the book, a term seldom heard in the 1980s.
“It was rejected 145 times, I couldn’t find anybody to publish it, so I did it myself as one of the first desktop-published books,” said Wiese. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I stumbled onto some ladies who knew how to do the technical aspects.”
Getting worn down by the process of making independent films, Wiese joined the corporate world in the 1980s as head of Vestron, an independent video production company. The move was perfectly timed to the explosion of cable networks like HBO, which were desperate for original programming. Vestron quickly became the go-to company for live comedy and rock concert specials, as well as children’s and exercise videos.
“In a way, I’ve been like Forrest Gump, being in the right place at the right time,” said Wiese. “Cable and home video were just starting, and I remember going to a conference and hearing Ted Turner talk for the first time.”
“Vestron was the largest independent video company for a fiveyear period, before the big studios moved into the field. We had over half a billion dollars in revenue after a couple years, with 500 employees and 17 international offices.”
Although he was proud of bringing educational outlets like National Geographic into the video production world, Wiese thought that most of the programming he was doing wasn’t meaningful.
“I was just feeding the beast,” he said. “And when the studios came in and started their own video production departments and everything crashed for us, I decided not to stay in the corporate world.”
Wiese was still writing how-to film books throughout that period, and decided to expand the effort and establish his own publishing company, which has developed into the biggest film and screenwriting company in the world. The secret of its success is in Wiese’s selection process of book subjects.
“I look for something that I don’t know about, and I figure that other filmmakers don’t know it either. Then I find somebody that knows about [that subject] to teach me, and then I write a book about it, or get them to write it, “ he said. “We rule in that genre – that’s what I learned from the video days, you need to own a genre and establish your brand. If you veer to the side, you get killed.
“When I started, I thought that there were already enough screenwriting books out – why should there be any more? Now I’ve done almost 40. Just when I think there will never be another film book, another one comes along.”
Despite the film book publishing successes, Wiese, who has traveled to the Far East extensively on an ongoing spiritual quest, was looking to branch out into new fields. The onset of Parkinson’s led him on a journey to explore every form of healing, beyond the how-to kind of book to the “why” guide.
“It was always ‘follow these instructions and you can…’ but nobody in Hollywood ever asks ‘Why are we doing this?’ And if they do, there’s usually a superficial answer – to make a million dollars or to win an Academy Award,” he said.
“In the process I started going through with Parkinson’s, it was revealed to me that we should start another line of spiritually oriented books.”
The result was the book line Divine Arts Media, which has published a half-dozen books, including Onward & Upward, a poignant and uplifting memoir described by one reviewer as “the inspiring story of a courageous individual born at a time of huge cultural change, who has followed his heart and made a genuine contribution to consciousness. From small-town America to Haight-Ashbury at its peak, to the world of New York and Hollywood media, to deep spiritual exploration in the jungles of Peru and beyond, Michael has trusted his inner being and taken risks that would have daunted a lesser person. His book is an emotionally honest, entirely unpredictable adventure.”
The latest adventure for Wiese is fighting the effects of Parkinson’s, which has taken him around the world for various treatments.
“You name it, I’ve done it and I’m still doing it,” he said. “I’ve done brain cell replacement in Germany, which felt like an alien abduction. And I’ve gone to South America and tried plant medicine, which was a very powerful and phenomenal experience emotionally and spiritually, but not physically.”
During his stay in Israel, he was meeting with an alternative therapist in Herzliya and holding some meetings about the benefits of medical marijuana, and Israel’s highly developed system for prescribing and dispensing the drug.
“A couple of people told me it’s effective for tremors, but it just masks the system. And anyway, it’s illegal in England, and one thing I don’t need right now is more stress.”
Reducing stress has been an ongoing mind-set for Wiese in his professional life as well, from book publishing to producing films. Working on a threadbare budget, he explained that he didn’t need a high return to cover his costs. A big extravagance was bringing a cameraman with him last year to Bali to film scenes for Talking With Spirits, his documentary on the unseen spiritual practices and sacred dimension portals of the Balinese that he had researched through 40 years of visits.
“I had just bought a new camera, which was a shame, because my hands were shaky and I couldn’t hold it still. So I had to take someone with me for the shots,” he said, adding that he’s more concerned about making films of quality than mass appeal.
“They’re for a specialized audience who get it. For those who don’t – too bad,” he said. “I can make the math work because it doesn’t need to be commercial. The film books would make up for the loss if they failed. But they didn’t fail. How sweet is that!”
Researching and making Talking With Spirits has made a lasting impression on Wiese, one that he said has also impacted on his ever-changing relationship with his disease.
“When I went to make this film, the other world opened up to me, as I was taken in by mediums, healers, magicians. I was filming things that can’t be filmed and dealing with these invisible worlds that are all around us all the time.
“I learned that the nature of reality is quite different than what you think it is. And because of that, I don’t see things the same way anymore, including Parkinson’s. As my physical abilities decrease, my consciousness seems to be expanding.”
As Wiese moves onward and upward in his quest to cope with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s, that once-hazy “through line” of his life is becoming clearer and more defined.