In an industry overcrowded with single-minded film school grads and career crew techs, Michael Thomas Daniel has spent decades on roads less traveled. Before shooting the Oregon-set Get Gone, an indie thriller that begins streaming Jan. 28, the 50-year-old writer-director was best known for chronicling his own extended walks along the entire Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails as well as an ocean-to-ocean trek via the American Discovery Trail in a series of documentaries.
Even though his first feature is about to debut, Daniel has been distracted by a much more urgent matter. Almost immediately after Get Gone's Gorge-area production wrapped last July, he set out on another solo hike only to be forced off the route and into a hospital due to worsening stomach pains. CT scans revealed stage IV colon cancer had metastasized to his lungs, liver and a kidney.
"So, I'm a dead guy," Daniel laughs. "According to my doctor, even with treatment, I'll probably be dead in three to five years max, but I'm going to try to stretch that out. That's all I can do. Just take it as it goes, you know? I keep a good attitude about everything, man, and the film helps fire me up."
Though he currently considers himself a resident of La Pine, Ore., while undergoing medical treatment in nearby Bend, Daniel hadn't spent any time in the state before a Get Gone investor suggested the Gorge as a potential locale for the blood-soaked tale of a freakish family's battle against an invasive drilling company. Scream queen Lin Shaye (Insidious, Ouija) signed on to the project as the clan's matriarch while Nic Cage's son and nephew, Weston Cage Coppola and Bailey Coppola, play her sons.
"Everything came together," Daniel marvels. "My friend owns Cascade Locks Ale House, where we shot five different locations. Thunder Island Brewing let me use their place. A good buddy wrote the theme song. People I know sent music we could use for free from all across America. I just reached out to every resource and pulled from my butt this thing that somehow turned into a rolling ball of fire."
So far, that inferno has won honors at festivals like San Francisco's Another Hole in the Head (Staff Award for Best Feature Film), Las Vegas' Action on Film (Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound Design, the Xristos Award), and California's Seal Beach Film Festival (Best Feature, Best Actor). Critics have justifiably lauded Daniel's taut pacing and inventive tweaks to the crypto-mutant slasher flick; though his facility with genre trappings felt more resonant, which the director's wanderings surely informed.
"Traveling all over the country on foot," he says, "exposed me to all kinds of people for characters, for experiences, for conversations. Hiking is literally one of the best things a writer can do."
Even during the madness of last year, Daniel continued to develop ideas for future projects. He's nearly finished the script for a 21st century Western pitting a redneck village against a neighboring religious compound, and has recently been working on the dark supernatural story about a terminally ill woman whose attempts to contact her late husband conjure a far more malevolent spirit.
"So, I'm using cancer as a story element," he admits. "I'm using it to write. I'm using it to get in shape. Everything that went on led us to where we are."
Following a limited theatrical run in Los Angeles and New York City, Cleopatra Entertainment will stream Get Gone through Video On Demand starting Jan. 28 and issue DVDs two weeks later. By then, Daniel should know whether to flesh out his already-conceived plot line for a sequel or focus his energy on something new. Understandably, he doesn't want to waste any time.
"It is what it is," he says. "At least, I got a good-looking movie made, and it'll have an actual release. That's pretty awesome. They're flying me down to Hollywood and putting me up in a hotel for the premiere. Kind of looking forward to seeing my movie play in a theater on the Sunset Strip. Hilarious to say, but I accomplished the dream."
SEE IT: Get Gone streams on Video On Demand starting Tuesday, Jan. 28.