Rising Stars Interview Series: Matthew Manyak

Rising Stars is The Stargazer’s interview series where we sit down with young creatives to discuss their projects, inspirations, and goals. We recently had the opportunity to speak with writer, director, and CEO Matthew Manyak about his TV series, upcoming films, and work in the Tallahassee area. Note: The following are excerpts.

Trigger Warning: mentions of depression, suicidal ideation

The Stargazer: So I chose this icebreaker for you because I'm pretty certain we're going to talk about some things like this. What is your favorite movie monster and why?

Matthew Manyak: So, I probably have to say Godzilla. The reason that I say that is my dad and I would always watch those movies when I was a kid, so we bonded over that. And so I'm super excited for, of course, the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong. Godzilla was probably one of the movie monsters that really got me started. I was like, "Oh, that's super cool to see Godzilla throwing a tree into Kong’s mouth or something." So that was pretty cool as a kid and that's impacted me now a little more than I probably thought it would, back in the day.

That's a good choice. So, again, I asked that because this is related to some of your work. Let's start with After the Fall, which was your short film. It’s really interesting because it has monster and horror elements - zombies are a big part of it - but it's also very human and dramatic. Why did you decide to take that short in a dramatic direction, despite the zombie genre?

It's actually a very interesting question. So when I was putting together the story, originally, for After the Fall, it was actually just going to be the main character, Alexa, going about her day to day in this post-apocalyptic world. But there wasn't much of a narrative, it was more meant to be this experimental thing. And during my time in high school, when the film got made, one of my executive producers, who was faculty at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts here in Jacksonville, came in and was like, "I liked the idea, but we’ve got to do a little bit more of a narrative here." And so he and I had a couple discussions and conversations going about what that could look like. One of the motifs that we stuck with was ultimately this idea of talking more about the psychology of it, and really delving into the minds of someone that's going through that kind of environment, living that life. We wanted to use that zombie apocalypse environment as a backdrop to tell a much more intimate and much more human story about Alexa, and how that environment shaped her psychologically, and then, of course, when she encounters people for the first time in a very long time, what that dynamic would look like. We built the story around that core aspect of character psychology.

I agree that there's a lot of interesting things that can be done with the psychological aspects of what it would be like to live in that world, and I know right now you're in production on a feature film adaptation of After the Fall. What is that project going to be like? Is it going to be different from the short? Is it going to expand on it?

The feature for After the Fall is currently in post-production. We wrapped earlier last year and have been in post-production since about June. So I've been working with my editor and my post-production team, going through that. The story for that, actually, is going to harken back a lot to the short film. So if you haven't seen the short film, and you want to see the feature, go watch the short film. Basically, what we do is, we take the character of Alexa and we expand her story a lot, and really delve more into that character psychology that was the core of the short film. And we look at that, how that impacts other characters, how that same environment can shape each individual person differently, and to what capacity they differ, for better or for worse. So we look at Alexa and we see more of the results of the events of the short film. Some of the actions that she has to take, some of the decisions that she makes in the short film play a heavy hand in the narrative of the feature film. But the one thing that I, as the director, wanted to stay true to was that psychological core. And again, using that kind of an environment more as a backdrop to focus on the human condition rather than as the core narrative element.

I'm going to take this opportunity to transition to one of your more recent works, Deathless, which is a TV show about vampires in the human world. How would you briefly describe that series?

So Deathless basically follows a newly turned vampire as he tries to find his place in the world, which is a very different world, when you think about the vampire lore. Normally you're used to a very dark, very Gothic underworld kind of stereotype there, or this very highly romanticized, Twilight kind of segment. But what we wanted to do with Deathless was something that was different than the norm. So we look at this character, Malcolm, as he's trying to find his way and learn more about his past, uncover some of the secrets that he’s forgotten. And all the while, there's a vampire genocide that is looming just over the horizon. What the series speaks to, and some of the things that as we were developing, we noticed starting to take more of an effect, was this commentary on race, warfare, racial violence, and class violence, that interestingly enough, is coming more to the forefront of our society today. The series itself had been in development for eight years, almost nine years, actually, by the time of release. It would have been about nine years since it was first written. It went through three different development teams and three different directors, me being the third one. The timing of it, when it was developed to the overarching societal context that it got released into, I definitely found very interesting.

Something interesting about classic movie monsters in general is that they do tend to reflect what's going on. Is that what is appealing to you about those characters? At this point, you've used them in multiple projects.

The monster aspect has honestly never been the driving, determinant factor for the stories that I like to tell and the films and projects that I work on. It's just kind of happened that way. For Deathless, for example, I went to a Tallahassee filmmakers networking event, back when I first got to FSU, and it was at that meeting that I met Thomas Curry, who is the creator and co-writer of the show. He gave me a very long-winded pitch of the show during that meeting. I was like, "Okay, yeah. I’ve got nothing else to do, show me the scripts." And when I read them, I was like, "Okay, this is really, really good. What's your plan for this? How can I get involved?" And he's like, "Oh, yeah, we got a small team looking to put it on YouTube." I stopped him at "YouTube" and I was like, "No." So we had a more lengthy discussion, and I told him, "I can come on and direct this, produce this, and do whatever. But we’ve got to target this for something bigger than YouTube. Because otherwise, what are you doing? You've got something great, and it deserves to be put on a great platform." And so we went into development on that. The majority of my time in college was actually spent working on that show. That was a unique piece of the journey: going to classes and being on calls with my other producers as I was walking between classes and all that. That was a very fun time. And then as far as After the Fall is concerned with the zombies, it was sort of similar. I always loved watching World War Z, and I love playing The Last of Us, the video game. So there's definitely a little piece of a fan in me that is like, "Yeah, that'd be cool to do." As far as zombie apocalypse stuff goes, though, it's also part of budgeting. I find that it's very easy to shoot something in the woods, where you're not really being bothered by people walking back and forth, and there's not a lot of planes and not a lot of cars. You're able to do a lot within the expanse of the wilderness. And so it was partially a budgeting decision that influenced that.

One other thing that I think your work has in common, as you touched on briefly, is that there is a lot of lore and the worlds are very complete, particularly with Deathless. Are you drawn to telling stories in worlds that have a lot of history, or is that another incidental thing?

So with Deathless, when I came on board, the scripts were actually already completely written. When I came in, I just was like, "Okay, we gotta tweak this a little bit, do this, do this other thing," but they were pretty well fleshed out scripts already, compared to scripts that I've been sent in the past. So I was like, "Okay, they've got this going for them already." That reinforced my confidence in the project. But as far what drives me to different worlds, characters are what the audience loves to see and what the audience connects with when you go and watch a film. I mean, it's very rare that you go and say, "Yeah, I connected with that battle sequence." No, I connected with Jon Snow (from Game of Thrones). People connect to people. And so whenever I'm reading scripts, I always look for strong and well developed characters. Can I connect with the story? Yes, but is the character that we're following a good person to be part of the story, and to share their perspective of that world with the audience? Then I also look at: What is the theme? What is the message? What is the underlying factor of the project? So with Deathless, I saw this motif of that class violence, that race violence, that social commentary that was a very unique twist on the vampire genre. It was like, "Okay, this is something cool that I can get on board with." And it’s something that I think is pertinent in the world today. As we developed that further, and we got casting going, and all that kind of came together, this larger picture began to form, that for all intents and purposes, I don't think was fully intentional at its inception. But as we developed, it took on a new meaning. And then with After the Fall, it was again, that aspect of diving into character psychology that really drove me to it. I was really asking myself, "How would this environment shape me? And how would it shape these characters?" Being able to go into that mental space was really, really cool to do. For some other scripts that I work on, I always like to find ways to challenge myself creatively, whether that be with scope and scale or some sort of production logistic. I always look at that as well. So when someone hands me a script and is like, "Hey, I want you to direct this" or, "Hey, I want you to shoot this," I'm always like, "Okay, this is cool, but how is this gonna challenge me? And how is this going to position me for the next project and the next project and the overall long-term game?"

While we're talking logistics, people who live in Tallahassee, or go to school at Florida State will probably recognize a lot of places in the show. You are the CEO of alignment entertainment, which has a growing presence in North Florida and is becoming a big part of the local art scene in Tallahassee. How would you describe what your company does and the role it's playing locally?

Put very simply, we make movies. Deathless was our first debut major project. We've had a couple of shorts that got released between 2018, 2019, and 2020. And now we're shifting gears, moving more into the episodic content, moving into the feature film world. So Deathless, which released in December and was our first major project, developed over the course of about three years. And since its release, we've actually got some contacts in Japan and some other countries that are looking at it to try to bolster its market share and market presence in those local geographies. It's been really cool to talk with foreign representatives and be like, "Okay, what can we do here? How can we work together to make this a thing and make it available in those other countries?" So that in itself has been very interesting, and a really, really great experience to have. As far as Alignment goes in the Tallahassee world and in Florida in general, right now we have two feature films that are in development. Alignment is attached to After the Fall as a production company, and we have a second feature film that's currently in post-production called Somebody to Love, which was also filmed on location in Tallahassee and directed by Christopher Frentzel. He's a student at Florida State right now, about to graduate. I believe he's in the Digital Media Production major. So he directed that and has developed that with a lot of local Tallahassee filmmakers, Tallahassee talent. It's been really great to see a lot of FSU students get involved on these projects. And I’m very excited to see how things continue to progress and where these projects will go.

And so what do you hope to accomplish with the company? Is there an overarching goal?

One of the main reasons why we founded Alignment Entertainment - Thomas, myself, Dwight, and Jordan, back in 2018 - was we wanted to see Florida become more well-known for its film capacity. Right now, of course, it's very difficult for those larger budget productions to come here because we don't have tax incentives for them. So they're going to go to other states, like Georgia and Oklahoma, that have these larger tax incentives, where it's more financially feasible to make a larger budget film than it is here in Florida, unless you're in Miami. And even then, we just get the ‘B’ movies and things like that. Nothing too crazy. I think the largest film that we've seen filmed here in recent memory was Bad Boys three, with Will Smith. So when we founded the company, we wanted to try to put Florida on the map in a bigger way. And so we've been looking at partnerships with other companies elsewhere in the country, trying to drive the exposure that Florida has in the national film community. And [trying] to show that there is good talent here, that there is a lot of up-and-coming talent that is hungry to be a part of something, and people that are willing to learn. So I think that's a great, great thing that we have, and it's certainly something that we at Alignment Entertainment want to showcase.

This last question is going to be kind of similar to the last one, but on a more personal level. As a writer/director/producer, what is your ultimate mission?

So I think to really comment on my long-term goals as a director and a filmmaker, I have to harken back to my mission and my purpose as a person. And so when I started this journey years ago, the entire purpose that I had was to show people what is possible when you fully and completely and relentlessly commit yourself to the pursuit of your vision, your goal, your dream, whatever that may be. I know a lot of people have this stigma that filmmaking is this crucible of like, "Oh my god, only 1% of people make it." But at the same time, I feel like part of that is, most people give up at a certain point. And so when I started this, I made a promise to myself and made a commitment. I was like, "When I go down this path, I'm going to keep going wherever that leads me, and I'm not going to stop until I reach that upper echelon of where I want to be." And it's been tough. It's been challenging. There's been lots of sleepless nights, lots of missed meals. Anyone that was on the set of Deathless can vouch for me on that. There was one weekend I was up for 72 hours straight: I drove up from Jacksonville/St. Augustine on Friday night, shot basically all through the weekend, and then drove back Monday morning, because we wrapped Sunday night, late. And I think I had like two granola bars, a Gatorade, and a bottle of water that entire weekend. The whole reason that I've been able to do that, and to do this, is because of why I started. Not to go too deep into that story, because it's a rabbit hole, but when I was in fifth grade, I went through a very severe depression with thoughts of suicide. And it got very bad, to the point where I was ready to commit and go through with that. Right as I was about to, this thought came into my head, and it said, "If you do this, now, there's no hope for what could be." So I stopped myself and thought for a second, "Okay. I'm gonna give myself a week to find something that's going to help me get out of this hole that I'm in. And if I find that thing, I'm going to stick with it the rest of my life. And if I don't, I'm going to come back here and finish what I started." And so during that week that I gave myself, I found writing. And writing lead to film, and film has led to more business opportunities, and now I just keep on keeping on. Not slowing down, never stopping.

Matthew Manyak is an award-winning writer, director, and producer who is based in North Florida. He graduated from Florida State University in 2019, the same year he co-founded Alignment Entertainment, where he is the CEO. Alignment Entertainment’s flagship TV series, Deathless, is now available to stream on Prime Video. Matthew is also in post-production on a feature film, After the Fall, based on his popular short film of the same name. In addition to his film projects, he serves as the COO of Kaizen Trading, Inc., which was founded in 2021. You can find more about his work and upcoming projects at matthewmanyak.com.