An Interview with Joe Atkinson – By Duane L. Martin

Joe Atkinson is a writer/director with a bit of a peculiar take on religion. Recently, he completed a web series called The Book of Dallas, about an atheist guy named Dallas (Benjamin Crockett) who gets hit by a truck and dies, and then is sent back to Earth by God (Kristine Renee Farley) to write a new Bible, because God isn’t happy with what religion is doing with the old one. I recently had a chance to talk to Joe about the series and what all went into creating it.

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DLM: Let’s start out like I always do and have you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

JA: Ummm … well, right now, I’m sitting in my living room in Newburgh, Indiana, watching Star Wars with my 3-year-old son. That seems as good a place to start as any.

I have two children, actually – he’s the older, and my daughter is 10 months old. They and my wife of eight years, Erin, are all kinds of awesome for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is their willingness to let me disappear for entire weekends (sometimes, entire MONTHS of weekends) to film things like The Book of Dallas. But film’s been a passion of mine since high school – at that time, it was watching, not making, because if there was an independent film scene in my hometown (Cincinnati, Ohio) at that time, I didn’t know about it. I know they have a pretty thriving one now – we actually connected with a few folks from there during our casting process, one of whom, Michael Loos, appears in Episode 9.

So throughout both high school and college (Ohio University, where I met Erin), I saw somewhere around 100 movies a year (usually a few more, actually). I’d go with crowds, I’d go with friends, I’d go on dates … I kind of preferred to go by myself, though, because I was that guy who was going to a movie to WATCH, not to socialize. Having friends around was mostly a distraction (unless the movie sucked; then, it was nice to have them to go all Mystery Science Theater with me). But I loved those movie experiences where we’d all go in together, and then, we’d get so sucked in that the credits would roll and we’d think, "Holy crap – I haven’t talked to any of these people in two hours!" I specifically remember having that feeling at the end of movies like Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (still one of my favorite films of the last decade, alongside things like The Two Towers – and the rest of The Lord of the Rings, but no cinematic battle has ever held a candle to Helm’s Deep – and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for me).

But I digress.

I graduated from OU in 2001 and came to Evansville, journalism degree in hand, to write for the Evansville Courier & Press. That lasted about three years, all of which I worked as both a reporter and the movie critic. I kept critiquing for a couple of years after as a freelancer; on the one hand, it was a great job, because I got to see everything, so I discovered things I wouldn’t have otherwise seen (Bill Paxton’s horror flick Frailty and the stunningly funny Eurotrip come to mind). It was also a crappy job, because I had to see everything; I’ve seen Dumb and Dumberer, Alexander" and countless other godawful pieces of crap.

Now, I’m the Director of Digital Media for the University of Evansville, and an independent filmmaker on the side. The Book of Dallas is the second project I’d call "mine;" I’ve helped on film’s like Jakob Bilinski’s Three Tears on Bloodstained Flesh and Internet TV series like Marx Pyle’s Reality on Demand – but, of course, the level of commitment involved when it’s "your baby" is on a completely different level. So for the last few months, my life is pretty much family, work, and The Book of Dallas.

DLM: Tell us about the origins of The Book of Dallas. Where did the idea come from and how long did it take to develop the script?

JA: The origins of The Book of Dallas go back to my days at the Courier & Press. I ultimately left that job because I was 25 years old and thought I had the Great American Novel in me. I figured, newly married and with no kids – that was the time to step away from work and do what I really wanted to do. Eventually, I’d have responsibilities; at that time, it was just me and a very understanding and encouraging wife.

It didn’t take horribly long to realize two things: That there was something to the story I wanted to tell, and that I was an absolute crap novelist. But, as I was struggling with that novel, which was the first (and a very different) iteration of Dallas, I had another idea that would only work as a screenplay. So I wrote it as such; eventually, it turned into my first film, Reality. And, as I prepared to shoot Reality, I revisited my religious-themed story. I kept a few of the elements, but revisited the main thrust of the story, along with the idea of what Heaven was going to look and feel like. But ultimately, what really broke the story for me was the idea of this atheist getting hit by a truck, waking up in Heaven, looking around and saying, "Oh, fuck." Everything else spawned from that.

DLM: This film has a religious theme to it. What appealed to you about doing a film with that sort of a theme?

JA: The idea of writing something about religion has always appealed to me; in fact, my good friend Dan Eaton, with whom I wrote Reality, and I were out drinking one night, and talking about story ideas. As I bounced a few things off him, he just looked at me and said, "You have this fascination with writing about God."

I was raised Catholic, but somewhere along the line, I started to sort of struggle with that. I think that was what pushed me toward writing about religion – just a desire to explore my own feelings about God and religion. So, in preparing to do so, I started doing more reading – A History of God, God is Not Great … stuff from pretty much all across the spectrum. I suppose you could say that reading all of that created something of a crisis of faith – which, of course, made God and religion even greater themes in what I was writing at that time.

That was where I was when I started writing what became about the first five episodes of The Book of Dallas. I wasn’t particularly happy with religion – or, in particular, what people were doing with religion. I liked the idea that God felt the same way – that all of the fighting and killing and judging being done in God’s name really just pissed God off. So that became Dallas’s mission – write a new religious text that gets rid of all of that crap, then sell it to the public. From there, I was off and running.

DLM: Your representation of God and Heaven are a bit different than most people would expect. Have you had any negative feedback from any overly religious people about these representations in the series, and if so, what do you think of this kind of feedback, and how do you respond to it?

JA: What do you mean, different?

I’m kidding, of course. Yeah, our take on God and Heaven aren’t exactly Old Testament. But I haven’t heard anything directly about people having an issue with how we portray either one. I’ve heard a couple of rumblings about a few hardcore religious folks in the area who have taken issue that we tackled religion at all (and that we made God a woman), but that’s all been secondhand; no one’s ever said a word to me.

In fact, we actually had a few folks involved in the production – both cast and crew – who I would say hold a pretty strong faith, and I made a point to touch base with them on the subject. Just to kind of take a temperature and see what they thought, you know? And each had the same reaction, which was that yeah, the script takes a fairly liberal approach to God and Heaven. But more importantly, the series has a very positive message, about what religion should and shouldn’t be. And none of the religious people I’ve talked to had any issue with the central theme, which was that religion should be used as a uniting force, not something that divides people by creating hatred and violence and discrimination and bigotry. In fact, I think I’m safe in saying that they embraced that idea as much as or more than anyone else on the set.

DLM: When it came time to cast the series, how did you go about it, and how difficult was it to find just the right people for the roles?

JA: Marx Pyle, who was one of the producers on this project and directed four of the episodes, is kind of a casting wizard. I don’t know exactly what he does, but I send him the information for casting – the project description, schedule, roles, and all of the dates and places and such – and the next thing I know, people are emailing me about audition appointments. And I mean from everywhere; whatever Marx does, I get emails from Chicago, New York, LA … they don’t all stick around when I emphasize details like budget, etc., but they do hear about it.

And some do stick around. We were lucky on The Book of Dallas; as I said earlier, Michael came in from Cincinnati. Sarah Moore, a talented actress and writer from the Chicago area, asked if we had anything that she could come down for one weekend and knock out, which led to her playing a pretty pivotal role as a super-religious TV reporter in Episode 1. And David Ross, a very strong actor and damn talented filmmaker in his own right, came down from Indianapolis to play St. Peter. I actually sought David out for that role; I’d met him at the Hoosier Homegrown Film Festival in Anderson, Indiana, when Reality played there last year, and we’d had a chance to chat after the screening. He was just a great guy – again, a very talented actor – and he had this BEARD. It just screamed St. Peter. So he came down, auditioned, and I knew after his first line reading – that "Hellooooo, Dallas McKay!" that you hear in the teaser – that we had our St. Peter. Honestly, I felt kind of bad that he drove all the way down for the audition; he could have done that on the phone, and I’d have cast him on the spot.

Some of the other roles, we had people in mind right away. I met Kevin Roach on Marx’s series, Reality on Demand, and from that moment on, I pretty much wrote the role of Benjamin for him. Marx’s wife, Julie, is a talented actress, and pretty early on, the role of Andrea became her in my mind. So those roles were easy. Some of the others were a bit harder – particularly the lead. We had so many people read for that, and we held so many extra auditions for it. We had some great actors read for it, but either scheduling was an issue, or they just didn’t quite fit right. Benjamin Crockett, who does a great job in the role, was a last-minute decision, just because we had some issues getting him scheduled for the audition. At the regular auditions, he was sick; when we did our table read, he had to work. But he was dogged about wanting to play the role, so one night, he finally just came to my office, and I got out a cheap video camera, set it up, and recorded him reading a few scenes against me. When I sent that to Jake and Marx to take a look at it, it became a very quick decision … we had our Dallas.

DLM: Is anyone in the cast vastly different that you had pictured them in your head when you were writing the series? If so, did they sort of re-shape your thinking of the character a bit?

JA: I’m gonna apologize in advance for being a little vague on this one, because yeah – there was one character who underwent a pretty significant change after casting. Like, to the point where I had to rewrite some dialogue to account for it, and pass out a new draft of the script to everyone. The good thing was that one of the best lines in the series – the one my wife says is her favorite, actually – came out of that rewrite and change. And I think the character worked out extremely well because of the way we cast it, in spite my having to go places I’d never even considered.

But – and this is the part where people throw tomatoes and whatnot at me – I think that’s as far as I want to go with that. There are a few things I really don’t want to pull the curtain back on until people have seen the series and formed their own judgments, and I think this is one of them. So … ask me around Thanksgiving, when the series ends its run, and I’ll be less cryptic.

DLM: What sort of difficulties did you encounter during the pre-production process, and what would do you think was your biggest obstacle in getting the series underway?

JA: Well, first of all, let me start this one out by saying that I’m an idiot.

I had started writing this story with the idea of just writing it as I felt like it needed to be written, so I didn’t think about things like the number of speaking parts or the number of locations that I was putting on paper. So when I finished the last episode and started going back to break the thing down for pre-production, I started thinking, "Crap … this is a lot of locations." And Jake looked at it and said, "You know, we’re gonna have to start calling in favors to fill out some of these speaking parts." Because, at the end of the day, The Book of Dallas has about 46 speaking parts and 36 locations. So there was a pretty significant period of time when Producer Joe wanted to take Writer Joe out to the woodshed and beat the hell out of him.

So that was one challenge – nailing down all of the locations so that, when it came time to point the camera, we had a place to put it down and something to point it at. Fortunately, my real life interceded in a positive way – my employer, the University of Evansville, was very supportive, and we were able to film several scenes there. They do have a few hoops you have to jump through first, and even as an employee, I had to jump through them (with good reason, I might add). But once we did, my coworkers couldn’t have been more helpful or accommodating, which made things much easier. Not easy – there were a lot of things we COULDN’T shoot there, too. But it was easier.

I suppose the other challenge was what I talked about under casting: Finding Dallas. But we’ve already been there, and we were lucky that, when the time came to roll the cameras, we had the right guy in the lead.

DLM: How did you fund the production?

JA: Frankly, I funded it myself. I actually picked up a couple of freelance public relations and video jobs, and used it to create the budget for The Book of Dallas. Have I mentioned yet that my wife is awesome? Not sure how many spouses would be okay with, "I’m going to go out and pick up side work, and not bring any of the money home – it’s all going into my filmmaking." But she never batted an eye.

DLM: You’re working with Marx H. Pyle Jakob Bilinski and P.J. Starks on this series. Both Jakob and P.J. are quite well known to us here at Rogue Cinema and have been featured in the magazine several times. How long have you know these three talented guys, and what led to their involvement in the series?

JA: I’ve actually known Marx the longest of the three; he did the casting and ran the boom on Reality. I met PJ on Reality, too – he was an associate producer and lensed all of the Behind the Scenes pieces for that film. And I met Jake at the same film fest where I met our St. Peter, David Ross; Jake’s film, Obsolescence, was playing there alongside Reality and Marx’s short film The Silence of the Belle.

Marx has really been involved in The Book of Dallas from the get-go. I gave him the first two episodes to read in the time between wrapping Reality and the start of his Reality on Demand shoot. He liked it, and every once in a while after that, he’d just ask me, "What’s up with The Book of Dallas?" Finally, I asked if he kept bringing it up because he wanted to make it, and he said yes. So we sat down at my kitchen table and talked about it for a while, and by the time he left, we had something of a tentative plan toward filming The Book of Dallas.

Over the course of our planning, he brought Jake’s name up a couple of times. So when we met at the festival up in Anderson, I sort of kidnapped him for a few minutes to pitch the project to him. It turned into about an hour-long conversation about various film things (as all of my conversations with Jake now do, regardless of what we originally intended to talk about), and ended with his expressing an interest in the project and me promising to send him the first two episodes. After he read those, he was in. Fortunately for me, both he and Marx liked the other eight episodes enough that they didn’t have any buyer’s remorse after seeing where the series was headed (at least, none that they told me about).

All three of the guys you mentioned up there are strong filmmakers, and I wanted to have them involved as much as they were willing and able. With PJ, that was a little bit less, because his schedule didn’t necessarily allow him to be on-set as much as the others of us needed to be. But he expressed an interest in being involved early on, and came on as an associate producer, and has been a tremendous asset in a lot of the off-set (read: less-fun, but no less important) parts of the project.

DLM: Was there any part of this series that was particularly difficult to shoot or produce? Say, a difficult effects shot or shooting in a particularly challenging location, etc..)

JA: I wouldn’t say that there were any particular shots that were tough to get (though Jake may take issue with that, as he’s got probably the biggest bitch of an effects shot right off the bat in Episode 1). But there certainly were locations and bits of the production that were more difficult than others.

But I think the biggest challenge for a story like this is that there are several scenes that call for extras – news conferences and church sermons and that sort of thing. And I don’t know how it is in other areas, but where we are, finding extras seems to be a significant challenge for everyone. I mean, there were scenes where we got there and were pleasantly surprised, because we had all of the extras we needed; more often, it was a matter of figuring out how to sell a scene with fewer extras than we really wanted.

Probably my favorite anecdote about a location, though, was out in the big, open area where we shot Dallas waking up in Heaven. We needed that to be a bright day – sun shining, blue skies, the works. So, of course, the day we ended up doing it, it was about 98 degrees outside, and we’re out on this abandoned road by an old strip mine with absolutely no cover. Not pleasant for anyone; I think we were all sunburnt in the first 15 minutes. But no one as badly as Jake, who – after directing his short bit out there, took over holding the reflector for Marx’s scene. At one point, as we’re waiting for Ben (Crockett, who played Dallas) to do a wardrobe change, Jake looks over and says, "Man, it’s really hot … I mean, it’s REALLY hot. My feet hurt." And he looks down and realizing he’s been holding the reflector so it’s focusing the sun onto his feet (which happened to be in sandals at the time). So Jake’s feet weren’t the same for quite a while.

DLM: You’re running the series on KoldCast. Tell us about KoldCast and what led to you running the series on this site as opposed to elsewhere?

JA: KoldCast is an entertainment distribution company based in Irvine and Los Angeles, California, which has a pretty hefty focus on Internet television.

Early in the process, Marx mentioned that he wanted to send something to KoldCast, because he thought this might be a subject matter that interested them. So he sent them a news release, and the CEO, David Samuels, got in touch with him to basically say, "This sounds interesting, please keep in touch."

A couple of weeks before we wrapped filming, David touched base with Marx again, and this time, they ended up on the phone. That time, Marx gave me a call, summed up the conversation, and basically said, "I think it’s time for you to get involved in this conversation." So I emailed David, and we agreed that we’d finish our teaser and I’d send it to him, and then he’d let me know the next steps. The long and short of it is that they liked the teaser and wanted to work with us; we were very impressed with the content on their network and excited to become a part of it. So from there, it was pretty much just about ironing out details.

As for the "why there?" question – that was an easy choice. The shows on KoldCast are some of the best Internet television out there, and we’re excited to be playing alongside them. On top of that, playing with KoldCast will give us a much broader reach than we were likely to find anywhere else. As an example – we had the teaser on YouTube for about a week before it went live on KoldCast, so everyone’s Mom, Dad, siblings, friends, etc. who worked on it saw it then. At the end of that week, we had 777 views on the teaser. At the end of the first week with KoldCast, we had more than 6,200 views on the teaser on their site alone … and that number is now more than 108,000. So aside from being a great company to work with, and having a great network of programs that we’re proud to play alongside, KoldCast also gives us access to a tremendous audience that we wouldn’t find other places.

DLM: You’ve had a tremendous number of views on the series trailer. How are you going about promoting the series that’s managed to create such a buzz?

JA: I signed a contract with KoldCast. Anything we’re doing so far is probably responsible for less than 5,000 of those views; the other 105,000 or so is all about KoldCast. David Samuels has been amazing to work with; he and his team have a wide audience, and they know how to market a show and build an audience. Being part of the KoldCast family, and having The Book of Dallas as part of its lineup, has been a fantastic experience so far, and I hope it’s one that continues not only through Dallas, but that I get the chance to work with them again at some point.

But I got away from your question, which was how are we promoting the show to create such a buzz. And the answer really is KoldCast. My role in promotion is essentially: When they tell me they need something, I make sure they have it as quickly as possible.

DLM: When will the series debut on KoldCast, and how and where can people see it?

JA: The first episode of The Book of Dallas will premiere on Monday, September 17, across all of KoldCast’s digital platforms. So it will be available on their web TV network at www.koldcast.tv; on set-top boxes like Roku, Boxee, and Flingo TV; and on mobile devices and Internet/smart TVs.

DLM: Ok, I’m going to ask you for two pieces of advice here for the other film makers out there. First, what’s the most effective way in your opinion to promote their film or web series, and second, what’s the worst problem or speed bump you’ve ever encountered as a director, and how can others avoid it in their own projects?

JA: Honestly, I’m not sure how good an answer I can give to either of those questions, because in a lot of ways, I feel like I’m the last guy other filmmakers should be looking toward for advice … I want to ask THEM advice most of the time!

But I’ll take a swing.

On the promotional side – totally be a whore. If someone wants to do something to help you promote your project, say yes. Always. We’ve been very fortunate on The Book of Dallas to be part of the KoldCast family, so we’ve had their marketing and promotional machine leading the way, and our job has just been to give them what they need, whether that’s a graphic or a video or just me doing an interview somewhere. But I’ve told them several times (and they aren’t shy to ask if I didn’t): Just tell me what you need, and it’ll get done.

On the flip side, I do think there is such a thing as too much promotion, particularly in social media. On my Facebook wall or my Twitter feed, there’s a fine line between good promotion and "Get out of my face!" And unfortunately, a lot of filmmakers are on the wrong side of that line. I think – and this is totally my opinion, and I could be totally full of crap on this – but I think there’s a propensity to just absolutely barrage people with stuff about your film online, and at a certain point, it all just becomes noise. I like the projects that’ll post new things when they have them … but that don’t hit me with the same post over and over and over and over again. But that’s just me – maybe the barrage thing works with other people. Who knows?

The biggest speed bump or problem? That kind of thing generally falls when I have the "producer" hat on – things like nailing down locations, finding extras – and figuring out what to do if those things don’t materialize. To date, the best answer for those things is to write something where you don’t have to deal with all of that crap. Jake and I keep joking that our next movie will be three characters in one room for two hours. It’ll be boring as shit, but it’ll be easy to make.

DLM: What’s your favorite piece of production equipment, and one that you would strongly recommend that other film makers look into adding to their arsenal?

JA: I’m absolutely the wrong guy to ask this, because we play pretty guerrilla when it comes to equipment. Ask me again when I have a budget to buy awesome production equipment, and I might have a good answer to this one!

DLM: What’s next for you, or have you thought that far ahead yet?

JA: Yeah, I’ve absolutely thought about what’s next – probably more than is healthy. I’m actually going up near Chicago in October to direct a short called The Banded Heart. It’s a 12-page fairy tale written by one of our Book of Dallas cast members, Sarah Moore. I really dug the script, and my son is getting to the age where he starts asking, "What does Daddy do?" There’s nothing I’ve done to this point that I can show him, which made the idea of doing The Banded Heart even more appealing.

After that, I’m doing a small directing gig on an anthology project with Jake, PJ, and DP Bonnell, and next year, there’s a script that I wrote with Dan Eaton (we also wrote Reality together) called Trouble Follows that I’m planning to produce (but not direct). And while all of that’s going on, we’ve pulled together a team of writers to start work on another Internet television series. That’s something I always wanted to do – have a team of writers that works together to create a series, where everybody works together on the overall story, then different people write different episodes. The whole "writer’s room" idea always appealed to me – I thought it’d be a cool to be a part of something like that, so I’m excited to start diving into that project.

DLM: Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we wrap this up?

JA: Just a huge thank you to everyone involved in the project, from our on-set MVPs like Timothy Paul Taylor, Brad Reinhart, Andy Smith, Kate Bolin, and Michael Armanno,; to our behind-the-scenes folks like Kana Brown, Sidney Shripka, Saundra Hadley, Larissa Ross, Brian Bolin, and probably a few others who I’m forgetting to name right now. They worked their butts off alongside our terrific cast to make this thing happen. I hope they’re all proud of what they were part of when this thing starts airing on KoldCast in a few weeks.

Also, I do want to put in a plug for KoldCast – along with being awesome to work with, they have some great shows there, so anyone who isn’t familiar with the network, take a second to hop on their website at koldcast.tv, and check out shows like Candy Girls, Hitman 101, Malice, and a bunch of other great stuff that they have there. I’ve actually gotten hooked on quite a few since we signed with them, and am a little embarrassed that I didn’t know more about them before they got interested in Dallas, because they have some good stuff there.

And, of course, thank you, Duane, for taking the time to reach out and do something on The Book of Dallas. I’ve been reading your stuff with PJ and Jake for a while now, so it’s awesome to get invited to the party!