Interview: Actor Turned Director Erik MacArthur Talks ‘Salute Your Shorts’ Past

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Most may know Erik MacArthur as an actor, but for years he’s been sitting in the producer and director’s chair. We all know him from esteemed works like PleasantvilleWe Were Soldiers and the cult following Salute Your Shorts, but now it’s time to see the other side. I caught up with MacArthur to discuss his impressive background in film and television and to see what projects he’s currently working on.

Like catching up with an old friend, Erik talked about his newest film Pono that will begin filming in Hawaii in the upcoming months. He also explains the transition he made to behind the camera, with previous projects like the short Life Makes Sense When You’re Famous and his first feature film Bottoms Up.

It’s so nice to talk to you today. What projects are you currently working on?

Erik MacArthur: I have a movie right now. We’re in the pre-production and we’re also casting right now. We’re looking to shoot in March in Hawaii.

You were born there right?

Yeah. It’s a story that takes place in my hometown that I wrote. I was living in L.A. for years and then I went home and made the central base while I worked out of there and traveled back and forth between L.A. and Hawaii. I got an idea for a story out there and then it took two years to write it to get it where I wanted it to be. It all takes place in a small town on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Could you go into more detail about the plot?

It’s kind of an actors driven piece. It’s not a fight movie but it’s in the world of mixed martial arts. It’s about some guys that I grew up with–some of the rough neck guys I grew up with out there–and it’s the world of martial arts in Hawaii. It’s like the flip side of paradise…It’s the authenticity of the people, kind of the grit. I really liked what Crazy Heart was, the authenticity of the country music world. Tone wise that inspired me to dig in to a story…it’s just so popular out there. My family has been in Hawaii since the 1920’s so we have a lot of history out there. I really wanted to dig in and do a story loosely around that and a central character. There’s a love story.

Do you spend a lot of time going back and forth?

I was but now I’m in L.A. so much because I’ve been working to put this thing together. It’s just taking all my time. I have a couple of other projects that we’re putting together that I’m hoping to do after this. So yeah, L.A. has been pretty much taking up all my time. I’d like to spend more time [in Hawaii] but I know I’m going back there to make the movie.

You’ve acted a lot in the past. What was that one moment when you realized you really wanted to direct?

I was actually really lucky to work on Pleasantville for a long time. I guess I was just so blown away with what Gary Ross was creating from a script. When I first read it I thought it was somewhat of a B movie but when I got there I saw what he was doing. The guy was just so full of imagination and created a world interior wise and exterior wise. He built up a whole town in like Malibu Canyon and that to me was just mind blowing.

I absolutely love that film. It’s definitely something to be inspired by.

Yeah. To be honest with you I really got lost in the world when we were making that movie and I think we all did. We were all a bunch of kids. It was really cool. It was the most movie world I felt I could get into. Which was part of the story too so its kind of ironic I guess. I saw what he was doing and I was so blown away by the workload. Even as a little kid–starting off when we were doing the Salute Your Shorts TV show–when I first started acting in front of the camera I was always so interested in the job and what it was and what they were doing. But when we did [Pleasantville] that really inspired me. What he was doing and just watching what he was able to create.

Fortunately two years later I got a job working on We Were Soldiers, that Mel Gibson movie. I got to watch Randall Wallace do the exact same thing but in Vietnam. They were these really cool larger than life movies that I was able to spend three months on, or two and a half months on, whatever it was on each of them. It was on each of them, that really made me go, ‘Wow these guys are really doing it. They’re getting out there and they’re going to war to make this film.’ And I was like ‘I just have to direct.’

So how was directing your 2006 Bottom’s Up with Kevin Smith, Jason Mewes and Paris Hilton?

With Paris, she was just at the peak of her popularity. It was brand new…We got Paris and producers came on and started pushing the movie and doing the whole nine. After Jason Mewes, because we thought it would be kind of cool and off casting, through Jason we brought Kevin Smith on. Kevin worked two days, two nights on it.

Would you say you’re more in control now that you can choose what you want to do?

Yeah, yeah. There are huge commitments taking on a film project. Especially working on the level of films I am. I mean the smaller Indie-ish kind of films and what not. It’s just a huge commitment. It took me two years to get my script the way I felt it needed it to be and you end up spending a couple years on a project no matter what. But I love it. I mean it’s a battle. You know it’s going into battle and having a knock out list to do every day…It’s just a list you have to accomplish. I love it, yes. It’s a fun thing for me.

When it comes to working with friends, in Pleasantville you acted alongside Paul Walker and in Life Makes More Sense If Your Famous, with Scott Caan. Would you consider working with them again in the future?

Yeah, I don’t know, maybe. They’re old, old time friends. Paul and Scott and those guys, when we were doing that short when I was younger, it was great they would be able to show up and help me out with that. They were just really supportive with putting that together. Yeah, they’re old friends so if there was something that’s right, I would love to. Scott’s a really talented guy and so is Paul. Scott’s showing himself a lot as an actor these days, which is great. Paul is an action guy. The Fast and the Furious franchise has just been amazing. Its gone as far as its gone and it’s still going.

Now, we have to get to Salute Your Shorts and your Michael Stein character. Do you still get recognized for it?

Not so much anymore. I did for years! I did for a really, really long time. It’s been years for me and I don’t get recognized a whole bunch because I was the straight man in it. Danny Cooksey was Budnick the redhead kid. He probably still gets recognized for it like crazy. Him and Michael Bower, the Donkey Lips character. They were pretty much the iconic characters from the show so when people think of the cast they think of them.

It does have such a fan following, but does it haunt you in a way? 

Does it haunt me? No, not at all! When I was younger, I think it probably did. When I was in my 20’s I was really serious about acting and I really wanted to prove to myself. So I think it kind of haunted me then, but no, not at all. I think it’s really cool. There were so few episodes and it’s turned into something like a little bit of a cult thing for us.

Do you have any memories from the show?

Yeah, I wasn’t four! [Laughs] I was I think 14 or 15. Yeah, probably around then like 15. I had a great time. Danny Cooksey and I had a great time. We were hellion kids. Cooksey was already the most famous guy I’d ever met. He was like a superstar around that time as far as I was concerned. We had a great time. It was a young crew of people in their late 20’s. It was a lot of laughs and a lot of good times.

For me I didn’t stick around for the second season, because I had a manager who had gotten me close on getting some pretty decent parts in films. They wanted to get me off that show to try to push on that. I got close on some stuff, but then it was a thing where I was going to prep school in Hawaii. I was being taken out of school and the school was getting angry because I wasn’t there enough and with the show I was getting pulled back and forth. I spent time in Hawaii and I had the same friends since I was five years old, and there was a really good school I was going to up there. So it was just kind of like, I wanted to go home and finish up high school, so that’s what I did. I was fortunate to work my senior year in high school on Byrds of Paradise for a few episodes with Seth Green and Jennifer Love Hewitt. It was really short lived…but I was able to work in Hawaii, which was great.

So is acting behind you? Is it just directing from now on?

I wouldn’t say that. I don’t know. I don’t audition anymore. I haven’t auditioned in years. I don’t want to say I quit but I stopped acting and going out trying to find work. When I started to go out with Bottoms Up, I made a short film right after We Were Soldiers and that was it. That was about almost ten years ago. But yeah, given the opportunity I would definitely do something if it were cool.

What kind of role would have to come around for you to consider auditioning?

I’m not really what I was as a kid. I guess you can say I’m a little on the edgier sides of things. So I like things that are really honest, which is what I’m trying to do with this movie. I really like honest performances. Honest characters. I saw The Town and I was blown away by what The Town was. It’s just the honesty of it and the authenticity of that. So when you are able to do subtle film acting that’s not over exaggerated and if there’s a certain amount of realism that comes through, I’m attracted to that.

Well, a little off topic here. But do you have a guilty pleasure song on your iPod?

Guilty pleasure? No, but I do listen to “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangster” a lot. That’s the closing song from Office Space. Wait, I got to pull it up. Yea, it’s by Geto Boys, that’s who it is. It’s like a 90s rap song.

That’s an awesome movie.

Oh yeah. Its great, its perfect. I saw it again I think about maybe a year ago and that song was in the closing and I was like, ‘Oh that’s like an anthem.’ [Laughs] You know? I was like ‘That’s like an anthem right there.’

That’s going to be in all your credits.

[Laughs] Yeah, I’m just going to role that no matter what the tone of the movie is. I’m going to come out with some “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangster.”

And what are your three Ologies?

OceanOlogy, the ocean. I’m a Hawaii guy. ServiceOlogy, helping others. And FamilyOlogy.

It probably sounds like you’re doing an interview with a guy from 1955. [Laughs] I’m a dying breed I guess.

Erik is not quite the dying breed when it comes to the film industry. He currently lives in L.A. and is set to go into production of Pono in March 2012.

Photo Credit: Gregory Bojorquez

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