But, it doesn’t come from a depressed, “we’re on a rock hurling through space on our way to a horrible cataclysmic death.” The inevitable, gruesome, flaming 67,000 mph death spin may be in his head, but his smile and calm demeanor doesn’t let on.
The Hughes brand of fatalism is more of a “Why make a plan? Let’s just see what happens.” More Zen-like than fatalist. A complete peace found at a center of a storm. This approach manifests itself in the simple day-to-day decisions as well as the big life directional conundrums. His approach never changes.
For example: Our trip to Saint Louis’ own Southern, a Nashville style fried chicken eatery located on Olive Street. Glancing at the menu on-line before we leave, I know exactly what I want, down to the greens and pork side-dish. “I have no idea,” says Michael. “I’ll figure it out when I get there.” He’s been there many times. He must have ordered something before. But this time, just like every time, he’ll roll the dice.
The fulsome smell of chicken gently coated in flour, savory cayenne pepper, garlic, salt and a host of other aromatics in the air, time swirls and we start at the beginning.
He was born in Texas but moved to St. Louis when he was almost two. The reason they left is a bit of a mystery, but Michael has a theory.
“I actually don't know what the exact reason was, but... I think part of it was for my mom's work definitely, and part of it was for my dad's work cause my dad's a history teacher.”
His dad had taught at NYU for a little bit. Then he was at Alabama when they were the lords of college football. After that he ended up at UT Austin and he was there for a good while. That's where Michael was born.
“But then UT Austin pulled a real shitty move, I don’t really know exactly. But, it may have had something to do with tenure or some shit. Fuck you UT Austin” he says with a slight smile. “Then we just moved.”
Maybe that’s where Michael’s fatalism was born as well. It seems that no matter how qualified or how decent you are, the rug can still be pulled out from under you and the plans you’ve made can be scattered to the cedar-rich Austin winds.
Our meals have arrived. The Tabasco-esque aroma hits his nose.
“My first memory of St. Louis was flying here for the first time. We were coming here to look at houses or something like that, but it was during the massive flood, so even as a little baby I remember flying over and looking out the window and just seeing everything underwater and just being like, where are we going to live? Like we're moving here, I can't see anything."
He attended the Whitfield School in Creve Coeur, where he was, “the only guy who didn’t enjoy wearing slacks, button downs and listening to Dave fucking Matthews.”
Unlike the Brian Johnsons, Claire Standishes and Andrew Clarks of Whitfield, Michael would come home from school, go down to his basement and “troll through hip-hop mixtape blogs and download probably like 3-5 mixtapes a day just from like... absolute nobodies. Then I would just go through ‘em and make little CDs of my own just to have some of the hot tracks off of those. People would be like, "Who's this?" And I'd be like, "I have no fuckin idea.”
Were these rough, dark and damp basement editing sessions the hand of fate reaching out and providing Michael a glimpse of what his future held? If it was, he’d never admit it.
He did an internship at Avatar Studios in Saint Louis as part of a senior year project. But it didn’t leave a lasting impression.
His graduating class was slightly larger than 70 people, and when given the opportunity to flee the confines of private education, he did so quickly and without much thought.
“I was like, public school? Fuck yeah!" Michael says, wiping the Nashville spice from his face.
But rather than look around at Missouri colleges and universities, the only schools he looked at were in California. If you’re thinking this is the pivotal moment in which Michael formulates a plan to get into film, you would be wrong.
“I just wanted to get the fuck out of Missouri. At that point, I didn't have any like film aspirations really. I just had ‘get the fuck out of here’ aspirations.” But, honestly, aspirations of any sort are destined to crumble under the crushing weight of fatalism.
Out of due diligence, he went and toured Mizzou.
“One of their big selling points was the journalism program. It’s the number one journalism school in the nation. Seriously. Out of the entire nation, our journalism school, it's number one. So, I'm like…all right.”
He had no real love for journalism. To be honest, he had no real love for…anything.
But, he did like storytelling as a craft.
Michael is running out of napkins, and as fate would have it, a waiter just drops a pile at our table.
Maybe there’s something to this fatalism. We didn’t ask. We didn’t plan. The napkins just showed up.
“I figured I'll just go to the one that just accepts me for some reason. So, I wouldn't say that it was a decision that I like actively made. It was a decision that just like, just where autopilot took me.”
Auto pilot = fatalism.
“Journalism at the time felt like it might be a good professional way to make money doing storytelling. But then like after like three semesters of journalism classes, I realized very quickly that like, not my type of storytelling, not at all.”
It’s at this point that I set my sweet tea down in frustration and tell him we’re an hour in and I have no idea where to go with his story.
He looks at me with a smile and says, “I’m living it and I have no idea where it’s going.”
So, out of the blue Michael left school. He just fucking quit.
“I hated it. So much just fucked up shit kept happening at Mizzou. Good God. I was just tapped, I was, I tapped out.”
He called his parents one night and told them he was fine, but he didn’t want to go back next year.
He was met with deep, deep sighs. But no ultimatums.
After spending a year working at Hatch (a market research firm) he came to a conclusion: he needed to get out of Saint Louis.
“To be honest, the only vehicle I had that would let me just straight up evaporate into a different place, was education. I used that as an excuse and reason, kind of, to move out to Denver.”
Michael enrolled in film school at Denver University.
“I wanted to make sure that it was something I at least like. You know, even if that meant that it was going to be a stupider, less functional degree. Again, it's not like I was going to school to get the degree. I was going to school to get to Denver.”
Film school was a clash of old-school thinking and drastic change in video production techniques. The switch to digital had just begun, but many of the professors were still mired in analog thinking.
“I had teachers actively give me wrong information. Like, over and over and over again. I took a cinematography class where the teacher never mentioned the word ‘aperture.’"
Three weeks after graduation he landed a job at High Noon Entertainment, the Rocky Mountains' premier reality TV production company.
Evidently, there's a lot of reality TV production is based in Denver. Shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives—which everybody thinks of as the classic southern California show—is produced, edited in Denver.
But again, it wasn’t as if Michael kicked down doors, demanded interviews and was driven to become a reality TV producer.
“I met a good amount of people from High Noon because there were a couple of times where they just needed like a PA or something and I helped out.” He says with a shrug. “Once they were shooting this proof of concept for a game show. They just needed bodies and participants, so I was a kind of actor in one of their proof of concepts.”
Soon they hired him to do pre-production work like casting and location scouting. Then he ended up doing a total of three contracts over 10 months. He was never really working on any active show that was on TV that people would have seen.
“I was making the 20 shitty ideas and then landing one. I did a lot of work for Discovery and History, as well as some of the more male-skewing networks. But High Noon just had much better relations with Scripps Network stations, which were like Food, Travel and HGTV.”
We’re finished with our spicy chicken and savory sides, but there seems to be so much more story left. Or, is there?
“We actually pitched Real Housewives of the Middle East Jihadis,” He says with a roll of his eyes.
I drop my drink.
“I mean, already seen Atlanta. We've already seen L.A. What about Tehran? That one didn't land.”
“Also there was ‘Boo! I'm Inside You: The Chronicles of Ghost Rape.”
Michael laughs at my slack-jawed, wide-eyed shock.
“You've seen the shitty recreation TV shows where it's somebody talking about being haunted? It's that exact same format and we go shoot a recreation of a time someone claims they were raped by a ghost. And then we have that person, giving their straight-to-camera interview.”
“Those ones were rough. The name ‘reality TV’ is misleading. Because it isn't referring to real reality. Reality TV is more referring to an overly manufactured attempt at reality.”
It’s no wonder he fled and headed back to Saint Louis. Well, “fled” is an overstatement.
“I mean, reality TV wasn't for me and St. Louis is an impeccably livable place. Denver is so expensive. The cost of living in Denver, like, doubled in the four years I was there. St. Louis has plenty of flaws. But every place does. And St. Louis' flaws are at least manageable for me.”
But does he miss Denver?
“People always ask: 'Do you miss the mountains and stuff?’ But, people fetishize the mountains in Denver way too much. Like, yes, I love them, they're nice. But it's whenever someone in St. Louis asks me that there's just this like hint in their voice that they seem to not realize that like nature is around us here.”
Michael headed back to Saint Louis and promptly moved into his parent’s basement. He putzed around for a little bit. Started a business with a guy he went to high school with — just a little, two-person little video production company for a short while.
But, the work (or lack of work) was starting to wear him down.
There were a few stops at other video production houses, but it was a chance meeting at a party with Paradowski’s own Carrie Edmiston that sent him our way.
“I met Carrie, she was just like, 'Hey, what are you up to nowadays?’ I had just quit my job. She asked me what I was looking to do, and I said video work, but I don't know anybody that’s looking. And she said, 'Oh, I might have a job.'”
It’s at this point I drop what I consider to be a hole in his whole fatalist approach.
“I do think it's kind of funny, that you paint yourself as aimless, no real plan, nothing you're really good at. However, you do an internship at Avatar Studios very early. You went to film school.”
Michael looks at me. “I mean, yeah, I guess. But it’s never been as cognizant as it might appear. I just kind of let things happen and then roll with the punches. And then just try to make that work in its best way.”
Fatalist? Maybe. Resilient? Definitely.