For Mike Stasko, a local filmmaker and professor, this year will prove to be the most fulfilling one to date. His love of filmmaking and his passion for teaching have finally brought him to the doorstep of his ultimate dream: combining the two. For Algonquin film lovers, Stasko’s newest feature film will be released on DVD in early February.
As his hard work pays off, he is set to become a full-time professor this winter at the University of Windsor where he will be teaching film. On top of a full time teaching career, his new feature film, The Birder, has accumulated widespread success across Canada and has just been selected to tour with the Toronto International Film Festival.
The 34-year-old grew up in the Riverside area of Windsor, Ont. He discovered his passion for film early on in his university career. He knew he wanted to become a filmmaker, but he would have a tough time getting his parent’s approval.
Ever since he was a kid, he had been destined to become a doctor. He had the smarts and a history of doctors in his family so a career in the sciences seemed inevitable.
Although his parents had always been supportive of him they were unsure about his choice to major in film. “I had to prove to them that I could get the grades and I had to convince them that that’s what I really wanted,” he said. Once he started to show effort and success his parents were entirely on board with it.
He abandoned his degree in biochemistry and started a degree in communications where he specialized in film. With his long-standing interest in teaching, Stasko was striving to ultimately become a full-time film professor.
“I liked the idea of the lifestyle of a professor,” he said. He would have to work hard for eight months, maybe get some pre-production on a film done, and then he’d get four months off where he would have the time to make his films. Combining teaching and filmmaking and being successful at both has always been Stasko’s goal.
It started when he was a kid. Stasko considered several different career paths he thought he might enjoy. “When I was a small kid I wanted to be stuntman before I knew that it involved maybe getting hurt,” he said. He also thought about being a lawyer because he enjoyed debating, but dermatology was his career choice up until he discovered his passion for film.
He took a standardized career test online before he went to high school and his results told him he would be well-suited as a dermatologist or an air traffic controller. He took those results seriously.
“I was like oh, a computer printout told me to be a dermatologist so I must do that,” he said.
He started his undergrad in biochemistry at the University of Windsor, however the turning point in his life stemmed from the single film class he took as an elective. “I fell in love and I knew filmmaking was what I wanted to do,” he said.
What was appealing to him about a filmmaking career was the wide range of adventures he’d get to experience. “While making a film and doing research for it you get access to a lot of different industries and jobs,” he said. Considering his ever-changing career choices as he grew up, filmmaking suits Stasko’s desire for variety.
What further intrigued his interest in film was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a well-known 1980s TV series. When he saw Twin Peaks for the first time the combination of the moving image, sound and the storytelling conveyed meaning to him he didn’t know was possible.
“I look at paintings and it’s like only one of every thousand paintings that I see that really move me or that I get, but when I saw Twin Peaks it hit me in a way I didn’t know arts could do,” he said. Twin Peaks inspired Stasko and David Lynch’s art played a big role in Stasko’s debut.
After Stasko finished his undergrad at the University of Windsor, he went on to do a post-grad at Sheridan College and then to the University of Colombia where he obtained his Masters in Fine Arts so he was able to become a professor.
Among all professors, only about five per cent have an MFA degree in place of a PhD. MFA degrees are the highest level of degree that can be reached in the fine arts.
Stasko originally fostered his teaching career before he turned his passion for film into a second career later on. His first teaching gig was in 2009 at Algonquin where he taught video editing for television and developing your documentary. Soon after that he was able to get his foot in the door at the University of Ottawa.
He started teaching as a part time professor in the department of communications and has been there for the past five years. He is a really well-liked teacher by students, past and present. To increase his seniority at a faster rate, he picked up some other part-time teaching gigs at Ryerson University and the University of Western Ontario.
However, working at three different universities wasn’t always easy for Stasko. He’s lived in London, Toronto and Ottawa based on where the bulk of his teaching was located.
“Ottawa is a very underrated city,” he said. “It’s got everything that a big town needs but it’s not stupid like Toronto.”
He originally bought himself a car when he started teaching to make the trips from each university. “In two years I put 210 kilometres on my car,” he said. “The car is dead. It died on me last Christmas and I had to buy a new one.”
He would travel from London to Toronto to Ottawa and back twice a week; it was a big 700-kilometre loop. “The only thing that saved me was audio books,” he said. “I got through two audio books a week so I was definitely well-read.”
The somewhat stable ground in his teaching career led to the beginning of his film career. The summer after Stasko completed his MFA at the University of Colombia he went into production for his film Iodine. With this film he won an award at WorldFest-Houston for Best New Director.
But film production has not always been a solo job for Stasko. His long-time friend Theodore Bezaire shared his passion for films. They have been friends since their high school days at F.J Brennan Catholic High School.
They lived in the same area of Windsor growing up and would often hang out and watch movies together. “In high school we met in a videography club and I was more into the technical side of films and Mike was more into the drama aspect of it,” said Bezaire.
Stasko partnered with Bezaire, who specializes in movie production, on his first film, Things To Do, and his newest film, The Birder. Their idea for the main character in The Birder came from their experience with a high school teacher they had.
The two work well together. Stasko and Bezaire co-wrote the scripts of both their movies. “It works out well because we have a similar sense of humour and we find the same things funny,” said Bezaire.
To date, their newest film, The Birder, has been to the Calgary International Film Festival, the Raindance Film Festival and the Los Angeles Comedy Film Festival. Their film proved to be successful at all three festivals. Currently, it’s only available as a feature film on Air Canada flights until its scheduled DVD release in February 2015.
Stasko is a dedicated and hard working scriptwriter for his films and that is something Bezaire admires about him. “Mike is true to himself,” said Bezaire. “He knows what he wants and he sticks to it.”
Stasko’s hard work in both teaching and filmmaking has finally paid off. His new job this winter at the University of Windsor is the job of his dreams and to complement that, The Birder is set to take off with the Toronto International Film Festival on a movie tour around the nation.
With two new movie projects in the making, moving back to his hometown of Windsor, Ont. will be bittersweet for Stasko. “Most of my family lives back in Windsor and my sisters have kids so it will be nice to be able to spend time with them,” he said.
Stasko has spent the last few years setting up his life the way he wanted it to be. He has the best of both worlds with teaching for eight months and then having the summers to devote to filmmaking.
“The only thing that has been missing from this lifestyle is that I’ve been away from friends and family,” he said. “It’s kind of like this final perfect marriage where I get everything I want and I get to go back to my hometown, too.”