Filmmaking | Interviews | Rhode Island

Interview with Filmmaker Andrew Migliori about Donner Party: The Musical

17 Sep , 2014  

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Not many people would think of making a film about a group of pioneers who became snowbound in the mountains for weeks without food, never mind a musical comedy. But filmmaker Andrew Migliori did and the result is The Donner Party: The Musical, now available to watch online through October 15 as part of the 2014 Online New England Film Festival.

Comedy about tragedy can be risky — but it’s unlikely that anyone will criticize filmmaker Andrew Migliori’s film ‘The Donner Party’ for being ‘too soon.’ The Donner Party were a group of pioneers in the 1800s en route to California who became snowbound in the mountains for weeks without food — some starved, and among the survivors, there were rumors of cannibalism. All perfect fodder for comedy and even more, a musical, right? Here, filmmaker Andrew Migliori talks about the inspiration for his film, his future work and advice for fellow filmmakers. The Donner Party: The Musical, now available to watch online through October 15 as part of the 2014 Online New England Film Festival.

When did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker? And how did you learn — did you just start doing it, did you go to film school?

As kids, my parents would treat us on the weekends with a rental from Blockbuster, and I remember always being super excited to read what was on the spine in the morning. The major breakthrough, though, was when I saw Toy Story in theaters as a very young kid. Seeing such original and heartwarming 3D animation made me realize that I wanted to be an animator—at least, I think that’s what was going through my head when I was five years old. Jump ahead to sophomore year at RISD and I found myself in the Film/Animation/Video department. My focus was still on animation but I had been playing around with live action filmmaking in the years prior. Once I took my first 16mm film class, however, it all changed. I truly began to appreciate live action filmmaking after having such a tactile experience and I decided that I would switch concentrations from animation to film. I graduated in 2013 and I look forward to continuing my filmic pursuits.

What inspired you to make your film?

I was inspired to make this film when I saw it as a stage musical directed by my sister, Michelle. It was performed at Brown University and after seeing it on stage, I immediately recognized the potential to see it fully realized on film. I approached the writers, Jonah Kagan and Isaac Goldberg, to see if I could adapt it as my senior thesis at RISD and they were incredibly generous and supportive along the way. From there, I made some script tweaks to make it more filmic and all parties involved were ecstatic about the final result!

How did you find your cast and crew for this film?

My crew was very easy to come by—-they were, for the most part, classmates from the senior thesis program at RISD. I called in a few favors from friends and family as well, but all of the seniors in the thesis class really stuck together and helped each other out during the year. The cast was found through a number of sources: a casting call on, a couple of local talent agencies, and the theater department at Brown University. I am eternally grateful to everyone who helped make the film possible by joining me in single-degree temperatures during the production. Thanks everyone!

Where has the film been shown (festivals, other screenings, etc.)? Talk about a memorable experience with an audience?

The film has screened as part of the Rhode Island International Film Festival, the LA Comedy Festival, and the Southeast New England (SENE) Festival. It’s just been great to see the range of reactions from various audiences, from the older crowd at SENE to the rowdy twenty-something crowd at the LA Comedy Festival. Judging by the laughter, they’ve all seemed to greatly enjoy the film, and I’m happy to open it up to the world.

What film(s) are you working on now?

I’ve taken a step away from narrative filmmaking to start a small production company with my colleague and friend, Andreas Nicholas, called AnderImage ( We focus on telling emotional and under-represented stories about companies and organizations that we believe people should know about. Both of us plan to get into feature work down the line, but for now, this is our domain.

Any advice on making films you want to share – about fundraising, working with actors, distributing, sending to festivals, etc?

My film was funded through Kickstarter and I want to stress to other filmmakers that intend to use crowdfunding that they should always post a lower funding goal than their actual budget. It can be heartbreaking to lose the funding you have earned, so it’s better to take a lower amount and work with that than lose it all. For example, my film called for a budget of about $20,000 but I set my goal to $16,500 and I was still able to make the film.