Family Portraits: Michelle Pollino

Michelle Pollino is an Emmy-nominated producer, writer and director with nearly 15 years in the entertainment industry.

After getting her start in California as a journalism major at San Diego State, then doing a turn in radio, Pollino finally found her true calling in film. In 2007, she started a production company, “Chicken & Stars,” with fellow filmmaker Nikki Stella. The company focuses on movies and videos about and for women with an emphasis on the LGBT community. Along with a third partner, editor Doreen Mosher, they are currently in pre-production for their first feature film, “Birding 101.” This past summer, Pollino’s short film “Looking For … ” received the Qfest Audience Award for Best Short Film.

PGN: You moved here from California; where are you originally from? MP: I was actually born and raised in Upper Darby. I left for a short time to go to San Diego State for college. When I was out in San Diego I started doing radio. I was a traffic reporter. A full-fledged flying-through-the-air-in-a-helicopter reporter.

PGN: What brought you back? MP: I ran into some kids I’d gone to school with in Upper Darby and they kept asking me, “Don’t you miss home?” and I realized, yeah, I did. So I came back here and started working here. I was an on-air radio personality at a few radio stations and then got into television and films. I did some reality-show work at Banyon Productions and I was the producer of “Philly Live,” which was an award-winning series on WYBE.

PGN: Brothers and sisters? MP: I was an only child until I was about 15 and then, from my father’s second marriage, I got three instant brothers and four more siblings from my mother’s marriage. So on one hand, I’m an “only” from my mother and father; on the other hand, I’m the oldest of eight!

PGN: What did your parents do? MP: My mother is a mortgage broker and my real father was a used-car salesman.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? MP: Shy. Very shy. As an only child, I kept to myself most of the time. I used to read a lot. And I would play Twister … [laughs] by myself. I just liked the colors and twirling the wheel! I loved the game because it was really social and I wasn’t. So I’d pretend there were other people and make up the spots they would land on.

PGN: A favorite teacher or class? MP: I had a favorite teacher. You’ll think this is funny: Her name was Mrs. Nash. She was my fifth-grade teacher and I had a huge crush on her. I mean your fifth-grade teacher, how could I not be crushing on her?

PGN: I’m doing a documentary right now in part about the fact that I had a crush on my third-grade teacher and tried to buy her a negligee for Christmas. MP: That’s fucking fabulous! I never tried to buy her presents, but at any moment at any time, if she wanted me to do something, I was right there. I had a sixth-grade gym teacher who was obviously gay. I wasn’t into her ’cause she was too dykey for me, but I liked her because I instinctively knew she was one of me. In my mind I was like, “OK, we’re in the same tribe, I’m going to have to protect this bitch.”

PGN: So what was the coming-out experience like for you? MP: It was difficult. I was that girl in school who was always chasing the boys. I was really confused about my sexuality. I joke and say that, in my 20s, I chased all the boys and, in my 30s, I chased all the girls — and lived with at least half of them. I didn’t come out until my 30s. I was on air as a radio personality on Star 104.5 in Philadelphia, so it was hard for me. But I fell in love with a woman and broke up with the guy I was dating so I could figure it out. Two years later, I came out to my mom and of course she had to adjust, but she’s one of those amazing moms and now she’ll ask me about different women. But I’m sure it was tough for her. I’m her only biological daughter, her flesh and blood, and she expected one thing from me and got something totally different. I love the fact that she was able to grow and change and deal with it. PGN: What was San Diego like? MP: It was an amazing city. Unbelievably beautiful, a real special place to live. I’d like to go back there, but it just wasn’t home. But it’s really cool, so unpretentious. The only thing it’s lacking and that I missed about Philly was the diversity and the neighborhoods. It’s kind of weird there, you’re either Mexican or white, there’s not too much else around and that’s kind of boring. Other than that, 74 and sunny year-round is hard to beat!

PGN: So why Chicken & Stars? MP: My last name is Pollino, which means little chicken, and the friend who I started the company with is Nikki Stella: Stella means star in Italian. So Chicken & Stars was just a natural.

PGN: Your Web site says you foster a “more environmentally nurturing way of making films, commercials and music videos.” What does that mean? MP: Well, there’s a lot of waste on a film set, and we just try to be cognizant of that and find ways to be more environmentally friendly. A small example would be, on most sets, at the end of the day you usually have trash bags full of plastic water bottles. Instead of using individual water bottles, we might have a large cooler with water. There are a lot of things like that you can do to lower your environmental damage while filmmaking.

PGN: Did you always want to go into movies? MP: No, my childhood was not one that nurtured creative thought. I wasn’t lucky in that sense. Where I grew up, you were raised to become a wife and mother. I went to school for journalism, but it didn’t really do it for me. It wasn’t until later that I found my calling. I was on my first film set in my mid-30s and that was it. You can say that I found the love of my life at 35.

PGN: Speaking of movies, what was the first R-rated movie you ever saw? MP: “Carrie.” That freaked me out for forever. “Goodfellas” is another film that stays with you. When it’s over you’re like, “Really? That’s just sick, but it’s good.”

PGN: What historical figure would you most identify with? MP: It would probably be Amelia Earhart, because number one, I like to fly, I have a license and I truly do fly planes. And two, because she was amazingly adventurous and I’d like to see myself like that.

PGN: What traits have you inherited from your parents and/or what’s the best advice they gave you? MP: Unfortunately, they didn’t give out very good advice, but they did hand down some magnificent traits. Both of them gave me the tenacity to keep on going no matter what. I would never give up on a dream. I would rather die trying than give up and fail. It’s not even in my realm of possibility.

PGN: What’s something memorable attached to your film work? MP: After we were finished filming “Looking For … ” one of the production assistants, Matt, came up to me and said, “Thank you for letting me be involved in this project. I was really proud to be a part of it. So proud, in fact, that I came out to my parents. I realized that all the lead people in this film were gay — you, the director, the star and executive producer, TJ, some of the other actors and a large number of the crew people. It made me feel like, ‘Wow, these are awesome people and they are all proud of who they are and don’t hide it.’ I went home with such a good feeling that I came out to my parents.” I told him, ‘What you just said to me — I don’t care where this film goes or how it does — that just made the whole project worthwhile.” That was the most memorable moment.

PGN: So outside of flying, any other hobbies? MP: Landscaping. I love it. I have an obsession with trees. I bought a house that was a blank canvas when I got it. Now it’s an oasis; I’m really proud of it.

PGN: What book would you choose for Oprah’s book club? MP: “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway. It’s all about the struggle.

PGN: What was a favorite book when you were a kid? MP: One of the greatest stories of my childhood was “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. As a city kid, it was an escape. It allowed me to go to a world that was different, but felt free.

PGN: What toy would you not want to have? MP: A Slinky. They can hurt.

PGN: You have a new project you’re working on about human guinea pigs. What’s that? MP: It’s about people who make a living being guinea pigs — people who sell themselves to the medical community to be experimented on. There are people who do it as a full-time job and it’s fascinating. PGN: I did a sleep study once when I was just out of college. It was only to study sleep patterns, no medication involved, but it was fun and definitely lucrative. It was $1,400 for three weekends of sleep. And that was some time ago. MP: Right, it’s insane the amount of money people can make.

PGN: What’s your zodiac sign? MP: Pisces.

PGN: And is it accurate? MP: [Laughs.] Not at all. I’d say I’m more like a Scorpio.

PGN: As a filmmaker, what do you think about the state of gay film? MP: It’s a very difficult path. Very difficult. There are so many hurdles. Let’s face it: We are a minority, which means we have a small number. So to make a minority film, you need to find someone who will fund a minority film knowing that it’s only a minor number of people who are going to see it. It’s not going to be something that you are going to make money from. It’s going to be something that you do from your heart. You are going to throw away possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars just to tell a story. So raising money for a gay film is one of the hardest things you can ever do. You just have to go to people and basically say, “OK, you’re gay, I’m gay. I’m going to ask you to throw a whole lot of money just to prove a point. Are you in?”

PGN: What films have moved or provoked you? MP: I’d have to say “High Art.” It’s the most amazing gay film I’ve seen. I think “Half Nelson” and “Junebug” were independent films made on a really low budget that were really great examples of storytelling.

PGN: Any phobias? MP: Not really. I’m very lucky in my life that I don’t have any fears. The only thing that scares me is forgetting people’s names. I feel like such a jerk-off if I don’t remember a name. It makes me fear that they’d think that I don’t care enough to remember someone’s name, and that makes me feel bad.

PGN: What misconception do you think people might have about you? MP: I think some people think I’m a dick, but I’m just very straightforward: “Who are you and what do you want from me?” I’m very trepidatious when it comes to people: That’s just who I am.

PGN: What would be your dream project? MP: If I had the money, with all the films that I have on my plate, if I could do anything I wanted to, I would do the life story of singer, songwriter and civil-rights activist Nina Simone. She lived in Philadelphia when she was 17 and used to play piano and sing in Atlantic City. She was a talented, feisty and fascinating woman.

Pollino’s film “Looking For … ” will be screened during the “Who’s Got Short Shorts?” fundraiser for Giovanni’s Room, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 at Sisters Nightclub, 1320 Chancellor St. Admission to the night of short films is free.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].