Michael Graf pivots from making commercials to writing movie scripts

In early December the International Screenwriters’ Association named Graf to its Top 25 Screenwriters To Watch In 2021.
Michael graf with a film reel

Michael Graf spent the past 26 years in Madison shooting television commercials for businesses including Jimmy John’s, Batteries Plus Bulbs and the Wisconsin Department of Tourism — earning a regional Emmy Award and other accolades along the way. But when the pandemic upended the advertising business early last year, he put his production company Spot Filmworks Ltd. on hiatus and pivoted to writing movie screenplays.

And he’s getting noticed — in early December the International Screenwriters’ Association named Graf to its Top 25 Screenwriters To Watch In 2021.

The shift resulted in several productive months for Graf at the rural Cottage Grove home he shares with his wife, fine art painter Linda Massey. “In one sense, the pandemic has been — I don’t even want to say this out loud — but it’s not been a bad thing for me. I’m not going to say it’s a good thing, but allowing me the opportunity to really concentrate on [screenplays] has been a good thing,” Graf says.

By last fall, Graf had written a historical noir thriller set in Venice Beach, California, in the early 1900s — a pet project brought to him by Bryan Grill, an old friend who is a two-time Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor whose projects include “Apollo 13” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” Grill is enthusiastically shopping the script around Hollywood, pitching it as a true-crime anthology series.

As the first writer in residence at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, Graf also finished the first draft of an “environmental action thriller.”

Now he’s working on a passion project he’s been working on for over 10 years. Based on true events, “The Last Indian War” is the story of an undefeated Native American football team. Graf says he’s working with a former Disney executive in Los Angeles who “thinks the market has finally caught up” enough to have the script made into a successful movie.

The pandemic put on hold plans to shoot Graf’s “Throwing Hammers” — a romantic comedy set in Madison and focused on curling, which Graf plays as a member of the Madison Curling Club. He hopes New York City producer Bradley Ross, a 2005 UW–Madison graduate, resumes production soon.

Graf says the curling movie will likely be shot in upstate New York. “Story-wise, it would still take place here [in Madison], but we would do the actual production somewhere else,” he says.

Several years ago, Graf had success with another Madison-based story adaptation for the screen. “Winter of Frozen Dreams” was based on a book about the sensational prosecution of Barbara Hoffman, a UW–Madison student and massage therapist, for the murder of two men in the late 1970s, and her conviction for killing one of them. Graf co-wrote the screenplay for the 2009 film, which starred Thora Birch.

When asked, Graf can’t predict which script now in development will be made into a film first. He adds that the movie industry must survive the pandemic first.

“It’s been absolutely devastating to a lot of people — a lot of artists, craftsmen and technicians,” he says. “But if there’s a silver lining it’s that the studios and production companies, while all production is shut down, they’re still reading, buying and looking at developing material for when things pick back up.”

Joel Patenaude is a former associate editor of Madison Magazine.