An Interview with Joe Atkinson – By Philip Smolen

Last month I reviewed Joe Atkinson’s sci-fi short “The Last Day” for Rogue Cinema. It’s a shattering, thought provoking film about a future society where global warming has made life so difficult that the government now mandates that all senior citizens be euthanized on their 70th birthday. So for one final evening a kindly father (David Ross) and his beloved daughter (Cindy Maples) get together for one last meal. The film is brutal and devastating and pulls no punches.

I needed to know where Joe got the idea for this movie, so I reached out to the Illinois native and he kindly agreed to answer all my questions about “The Last Day.”

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RC: Joe – your short “The Last Day”, is every bit of an apocalyptic thriller even though the sun is shining. The world looks perfectly normal – except for this one horrible thing. Was it your intention to contrast the horror of what is happening to David Ross and Cindy Maples even though life goes on normally for the rest of the world? That’s true horror going on right under everyone’s nose.

JA: Well, honestly, I can’t claim credit for thinking that deeply into the “shining sun” part, because … well … we scheduled the shoot for a Saturday afternoon, and the weather was going to be whatever we got that day. But I’m glad it played out that way, and that the contrast is there, because I think it works out very nicely. Realistically, though, we scheduled the shoot for the time of day that I wanted to capture, and it ends up being this beautiful, sunny day that we were able to capture right as the sun was beginning to set. But don’t be fooled – it wasn’t THAT perfect out there – it was actually damn cold that weekend!
On the flipside, it was very much my intention to make this a very personal story about an apocalyptic circumstance. In the movies, these types of circumstances are always shown with these huge, cataclysmic, worldwide events – think “The Day After Tomorrow.” Realistically, what would happen is much more likely to happen gradually … and how do people react to those gradual changes? They adapt.

So it was very much my intention to show a story where the world has just gradually adapted to this new world that they have found themselves living in. So that horror – the horror that Frank is about to face head-on – is always right there under the surface for everyone. But until they have to face it themselves, people just kind of go about their lives.

RC: I see themes from Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” as well as some old 70’s sci fi flicks (“Soylent Green” [1973] and “Logan’s Run” [1976]) in “The Last Day.” Where did the idea for “The Last Day” come from?

JA: The idea really just kind of came from wanting to find a very intimate, personal, and – at least in my mind – realistic story about what life could be like if we don’t ever deal with climate change.

Several people have mentioned “Logan’s Run” as a reference point for the story – and now that I know the story of “Logan’s Run”, that makes perfect sense to me. But I hadn’t seen either of the films you mentioned when I first wrote the short story that I eventually converted into “The Last Day’s” script (this was two or three years ago, at least). I just wanted to write something about how the effects of climate change might affect people in the future, and this was the story that came out.

RC: Do you have a strong feeling about assisted suicide?

JA: I can’t say that I do. I certainly believe that, if someone is suffering in some way where there is no hope, and there is no chance of their life improving, then they have the right to make that decision instead of going through a very long, drawn-out, painful dying process. But I can’t say even that is something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about (and I hope I never have to!).

RC: Are you taking a poke at the healthcare system in the US or just the government in general?

JA: I wouldn’t say I’m really taking a poke at either one. I’m more attempting to shine a light on an issue that I think should be paramount in people’s minds right now – climate change, and the dangers that it poses – but absolutely does not seem to be. We have seven billion people on this planet, and that number is rapidly growing. There is a finite amount of space here – if we don’t curb climate change, and we don’t curb this population explosion, then we’re going to have more people and less space, to the point where it could become a serious problem.

Of course, I certainly don’t think that the option that the government in this story has come up with is the ideal one – and given the way our government is operating right now, I don’t even know that they could get their shit together long enough to agree to this (or any other) “solution.” But in my mind, the back story to this was always that the government struggled with this problem, and this was the best solution they could come up with (and most of them really struggled with the idea of it, but had to do something). So no, I don’t think I’m really taking a poke at either one.

RC: Do you think that what’s presented in “The Last Day” could potentially happen in real life?

JA: Unfortunately, I do, for a lot of the reasons I mentioned above. Of course – and not to get too political – this happening would require our Congress to pass a law, and unless something changes, that could be the least realistic part of the scenario.

RC: How long did the script take to come together? What landmines did you have to avoid?

JA: The script actually came together very quickly, because I was adapting it from a short story that I wrote a few years back.

The biggest land mines had to do with the exposition. In the short story, I could very easily set up the world and the circumstances in the narrative. Here, there really wasn’t an easy way to do that. I didn’t want to do the corny “newspaper/news report” thing, so I had to figure out a way to sort of lay out the world in such a way that the audience would understand it, without browbeating them with it. Eventually, I settled on a lot of subtle clues, mixed with our “overhearing” a conversation between two of Frank and Janie’s fellow diners in their dinner scene (that scene still feels a bit too “awkward-exposition-y” for me at times, but overall, I think it works). The idea was to give them enough in that scene, and then pepper the clues around it, and let the audience figure it out … give them 2+2, and let them figure out 4 for themselves.

Of course, the other obvious pitfall is that, when you’re dealing with something that is an “issue-based” thing, it’s easy to become overly preachy (or just preachy). I REALLY hate preachy cinema; I’m okay with having a point, but I don’t want to be browbeaten by it, and I doubt many others do, either. So I worked very hard with the script to not go there, and I hope I pulled it off!

RC: Where did you film?

JA: The entire film was shot in just a few locations in and around Evansville and Newburgh, Indiana. We used a friend of mine’s home for Frank’s house, we used the same location for both the dinner and coffee shop scenes – it’s a terrific, locally-owned place called Just Rennie’s that is split in two. One half is a cookie company, where they do lunch, coffee, and are known for these amazing cookies. The other half is a catering company, where they host events – rehearsal dinners, receptions, etc. So we shot the coffee shop scene in the cookie company, and the dinner scene in the reception area.

The biggest trick was the last scene, which we shot outside the Civic Center in Evansville, Indiana. We had to bring in all of those extras, most of whom came from the local filmmaking group, the Indiana Filmmakers’ Network. Can’t say enough how important their support and help was to make that last shot work. But even with that, we only had access to the outside of the building – it was a Sunday morning, so the building was closed, and we couldn’t open the door. That should pretty well explain why the film ends how it does – lemons out of lemonade there.

RC: Who was your crew?

JA: Calling our crew “skeleton” would actually be kind of understating how small it was, really. We filmed the short in a weekend – Friday night, Saturday, and then Sunday, wrapping at around 2 or 3:00 on Sunday, if I remember right.

Because of various commitments that many of our usual collaborators had, we ended up with a crew of 3 (including the director) on-set for most of the shoot. So Friday and Saturday, it was, for the most part, myself, DP Bonnell, and Jimmy Sanders, along with the two main actors. At one point, as we were shooting the scenes in the car, David was doing the lighting, Jimmy was running the camera, and I was actually sprawled across the backseat of the car, aiming the mic into the front seat at the two actors. Some pretty guerrilla filmmaking.

Sunday, our crew expanded a bit … we shot both the government building and the dinner scenes that day, both of which had many, many extras. Some were kind enough to offer themselves as crew after they finished filming – that was how Caleb Johnson, our boom operator, got involved with the project. We’d have been lost in the dinner scene without Caleb!

RC: Did you storyboard the film at first?

JA: I didn’t. I always go in with certain shots in mind; on “The Last Day”, for example, I knew that I wanted that opening credit sequence to be a sequence of jump cuts while Janie smokes. I knew I wanted the shot where the convertible top closes over Frank near the beginning and the long, slow pan during the introduction to the dinner scene. And the long take near the end – where the camera disappears behind Frank, then cranes up to show the crowd – was there from the first draft.

So a lot of those pieces are in my head long before I come to the set, and I always make sure I talk to DP Bonnell, the director of photography, well in advance, because with our limited budgets, pulling off some of the ridiculous shit I come up takes a very creative director of photography. Luckily, DP is extremely creative; as long as he has some time to think about it, he can find a way to do damn near anything.

But aside from those major pieces a lot of it came together on-set.

RC: The believability of the story would fall apart without good acting. How did you decide on David Ross and Cindy Maples? They are both phenomenal!

JA: I’d worked with both David and Cindy in the past – David played St. Peter in my web series, “The Book of Dallas”, and Cindy and I have been on a few other projects together. I don’t know that I’d ever seen either of them do anything quite this intense, as far as the level of emotion they had to find. But I had enjoyed working with both, and knew both were immensely talented, so when I wrote the script and determined the ages I wanted these characters to be, I never really considered anyone else.

But, of course, there was still the question of whether they could get where they needed to go from an emotional standpoint. I’ve seen Cindy play in that realm before, and wasn’t terribly worried with her; David, I had mostly seen do broad comedy. The one dramatic role I’d seen him in, he’d absolutely crushed, but again – still didn’t require the range this one called for (or the waterworks).

We got to his biggest emotional moment – his breakdown as he enters the house near the end – on the first night. At that point, I was feeling REALLY good about what he’d done so far that night. But when we got to that scene, we just rolled audio and sound, and David stepped outside, and I told him we’d keep rolling, and when he was ready, to just come on in. I’m not sure how long he was out there – it was probably only about five minutes, but it felt like half an hour while we were sitting there, waiting. But after what felt like forever, a rather intense sobbing sound came from the other side of the door, and I looked at Jimmy Sanders, who was running the camera at the time, and just raised an eyebrow – kind of a “Holy shit, something’s gonna happen here.” And David came in, and … well, you can see what happened in the film.

All of that is a long-winded way of agreeing with you, I guess – they both had pretty demanding roles, and the movie was only going to be as good as their performances. And their performances were amazing.

RC: Was any scene tougher to film than the rest of the movie? Why?

JA: I can’t say any one scene was tougher than the others – all had their own unique challenges. Getting all of the extras for the end; keeping the camera steady for the slider and the wraparound shot in the dinner scene; getting the camera suspended for the overhead shot of the convertible closing – there were challenges throughout. But really, I think what’s kind of amazing about all of it is how smoothly the entire shoot went.

RC: How did you maximize your production value? Did you call in any favors?

JA: I don’t think you can make a film on this budget without favors. Whether it’s dragging the entire IFN (and their families) out by the Civic Center to be extras, or asking local business owners if we can use their establishments while they’re closed (thank you again, Chef Doug Rennie!), asking a colleague to bring her convertible by for a few hours so we can use it in a scene (yes, I’m talking about you, Lucy Himstedt), or asking a friend if you can borrow his extensive collection of tequila for a slider shot (one of my favorite shots in the film – and I’m pretty sure most of those bottles individually cost more than our movie).

Luckily, we have a tremendously active and supportive independent film community in the Evansville area, and everyone was very kind and gracious in their willingness to help. Because without those favors, the movie doesn’t work – without the extras, that crane shot is crap; without Doug opening up his beautiful space to us, our dinner scene doesn’t have that great look that it does.

So I guess I don’t know that I can say I called in favors, because I probably owe all of those folks more than I could ever pay back from previous projects. But I’m fortunate that people continue to be very gracious in their willingness to help make films happen in our area.

RC: Tell me about your crew…

JA: Well, as noted above, it was small.
DP Bonnell is the director of photography I work with most – we actually worked together for a while in our 9-to-5 jobs, as well, doing video for the University of Evansville. I don’t like making films without DP, because he has a way of taking the shot ideas I have and either figuring out how to do the impossible ones, or figure out a way to make all of them better. More than once, I’ve told people what I want, and then David will say, “What if we tweak it and do that same look, but do it this way instead?” And my response is to just tell the rest of the crew, “Okay, what I just said? Fuck that. Do his thing.”

Jimmy Sanders was our other full-time guy – our 1st AC. Jimmy is from Louisville, Kentucky; I met him on the set of a short that I acted in called “The Telemarketer” (with Cindy Maples again, actually), and just really enjoyed working with him. So when we started on our next project – a film that I wrote and Jakob Bilinski directed – I asked Jimmy if he wanted to come hang out. He ended up doing quite a bit on that shoot – from running audio to actually running the camera one of the shooting days. And we all enjoyed working with him so much – and thought he was such a valuable addition to the set – that it was a no-brainer to call and ask if he wanted to come play on this one. And again, he was just a great guy to have around – talented, great attitude, and just a blast to work with.

David Ross recommended Virgil Franklin, our composer/sound mixer. They’d worked together on David’s short film, “Flash of Wire,” and with the composer I normally work with still busy on Jake’s film, we were looking for someone. Enter Virgil, who was great to work with and, I think, crushed the score on this film.

And, of course, Caleb, who I already mentioned. He’s actually a very talented filmmaker himself, so it was great working with him, because I never had to explain why I wanted something done with the audio. I’d just say it, and he’d say, “Right, because …” And it was perfect every time.

So yes – small crew. But I was lucky that our small crew was also a damn good one.

RC: How long was post production?

JA: Post production was a few months, I suppose. I was finishing up a documentary project – a 30-minute piece for the local PBS affiliate on the making of UE Theatre’s production of “Sweeney Todd” – and was absolutely consumed by that for the first two or three weeks after we shot. But as soon as I finished that, I dove into the rough edit of “The Last Day”; it probably took me two or three days to cut that, then another week or so to tweak it. By early December, I had a fairly locked edit, and we went into sound/color/music work. I think that wrapped up in mid-January or so. So probably about two months of work in post.

RC: What festival activity are you planning?

JA: Right now, we’ve entered, I think, 14 or 15 festivals. We have screened in three so far, and the fourth is coming up the first weekend in April, in South Bend, Indiana at the Riverbend Film Festival.

After that, we have a bit of a lull. There’s a local fest we’re hoping to play in at the end of May, and then we have entries into several others. I think we’ll hear about one of them in May, one in June, one in July, then the floodgates open between August and October. So if all goes well, we’ll be REALLY busy from around mid-August until late November, going all around the country with the film. Fingers crossed!

RC: What makes the film special to you?

JA: That’s actually a tough question …

The story touches on something that I feel passionate about, which are the potential human consequences of what we’re doing to the planet. I wanted to tell that story without descending into preachiness, and I feel like we’ve pulled that off.

More than anything, though, I guess what makes the film special to me is what came out of it. I set out to do a few things as a filmmaker with this film, the biggest of which was to make a better film than I had in the past. That we were able to hit the tone and style I wanted, telling that personal story about a tough issue – and that David and Cindy were so incredible in their roles – makes this probably my favorite thing that I’ve directed.

RC: Where can Rogue Cinemaniacs find “The Last Day”?

JA: Well, hopefully, they’ll be able to see it at a festival near them before too long.

We’re currently entered in more than a dozen festivals; we’ll be finding out how many we get into over the course of the next several months. So far, we’ve played the film three times, and had a pretty good reception, so I’m hopeful, but who knows?

Once we have a better sense as to where/when we’re playing, festival-wise, we’ll come up with a plan for putting the film online. So eventually, people will be able to find it online; for now, though, hopefully, we’ll be in festivals across the country throughout 2014.

RC: What else is in the hopper for Joe Atkinson?

JA: I’m actually not planning to direct anything – at least, not in a narrative format – this year. But in spite of that (or maybe because of it?), it’s shaping up to be a pretty busy year.

I just finished a run playing Captain Isaac Whitaker in the Evansville Civic Theatre’s production of “A Few Good Men” – that was about a two-month commitment. Right now, I’m getting into the heavy work part of producing a five-episode run of original programming for the local PBS station, which I’m following with a feature-length documentary project that will take up most of the second half of the year.

But as far as narrative film projects: Jakob Bilinski is currently editing the feature we shot together last summer, which still doesn’t have a title. I wrote, he directed, and we produced together; we’re hoping to start submitting that to festivals late this year or early next. I’m currently writing a new feature project, while in the early throes of preproduction on another. That one – the one in the early stages of preproduction – is from a script called “The Third Act”, which I wrote last year and want to direct in January 2015. I’m particularly excited about that one because it would give me the opportunity to work with a lot of great people (including another chance to work with Cindy Maples, who is signed on to play “The Third Act’s” lead). So … fingers crossed that, I’ll be begging you to interview me about the feature I just finished shooting!!

RC: Thanks Joe! And all the best to you and your awesome short film “The Last Day.”

JA: Thanks Phil!