Aaron Murtagh earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in art photography from the College of Visual and Performing Arts’ Department of Transmedia in 2006. He founded Majorie Michaels, a production company based in Bozeman, Montana, to produce and distribute the indie comedy Present Company Excluded with writer/director Jenny Hatchadorian. The film, which stars Lauren White as Chris, a crass, awkward young woman who desperately wants to impress her glamorous, wealthy next-door neighbor Vivian, has won several festival awards, including Best Actress (International Film Festival North Hollywood), Best Director (New Film Festival Los Angeles), and the Best Women in Film Alice Guy Blaché Award (Golden Door International Film Festival, Jersey City, New Jersey). It is now available on Amazon.com.
Why did you decide to become a producer?
I produced Present Company Excluded because I loved the script and felt very passionate about working with everyone involved. The project also aligned with our mission at Majorie Michaels to create entertaining, visual stories that add to the culture of American cinema. Producing can be a challenging role because it requires you to say "yes," regardless of your opinions, at every turn to help the director actualize his or her vision. In this case, my wife is the director, so I had full access to the project from its very beginning. This was both a benefit to the film and a detriment. It was a first for almost everyone involved. That environment can be rife for disaster, but I also think it is an incubator for risk and discovery, which are essential in creative work.
How did your experiences at Syracuse and SU:VPA factor into it?
I studied photography at SU in a class of maybe 18 students. Photo students are always helping each other out because you're a student, and you need friends to help you get things done. Whether it be models, hauling equipment, locations, whatever, there is a sense of camaraderie that develops out of necessity. That is a lot like a film set; everyone has to band together to make sure things get done. We shot Present Company Excluded in 18 days with less than $30,000. That is all about favors. I have tons of great memories from working as a college student, and I think those memories buoyed my enthusiasm on the film set; it was almost nostalgic. And a positive attitude is vital when you take on the unknown.
Were any Syracuse University alumni involved in the film?
There are many SU alumni involved in the film, as my friends and colleagues really came through during our crowd-funding. And I reached out to a friend from college when we were casting the film, and he helped me get in touch with an agent in LA. The Syracuse "mafia" is deep and wide.
What lessons did you take away from your time at SU and SU:VPA in terms of professional practices?
When I was a student I lived in a frat house, a dorm, an Italian villa, and several apartments and always with a new set of peers. Syracuse exposed me to many different people and cultures. I think that comes back tenfold in professional practice because it added to my skill set as a communicator and helped me feel more confident in new situations.
Syracuse was also an extremely formative time for my voice as an artist, and I was forced to think about how to talk about "my work.” This is invaluable as a producer because many times the producer helps the director and the creative team communicate, and the producer is always thinking about how to most effectively express the "gist" of the film to the audience—how to get them hooked. And that doesn't mean bikinis and explosions; it really comes down to the story—how to capitalize on the most compelling parts of the story in a single line.
What have you learned over the past 10 years that might benefit SU:VPA students as they prepare for their own careers?
I think the biggest misconception I had about college was that it was a finite experience. But instead of being the last phase of my life as a student, it was the beginning of my professional life. Because of that I find that there are many relationships that I started at Syracuse which are still extremely important today. Current students need to focus on the enriching experience of being in college. It’s important to respect that time because there are amazing resources on a college campus that you lose access to as a professional. All those responsibilities and commitments are inevitable, so enjoy being a student while it’s happening.
What’s next for you professionally?
I am currently finishing a short film that was shot here in Montana, and I'm producing a web series about two people who have an affair via Skype; it’s called e-fair. I'd love to get another feature in the works.