Filmage-A-Trois: Joe Atkinson – By P.J. Starks and Jakob Bilinski

Welcome to Filmage-A-Trois, our own little super sexy slice of indie film euphoria. We’re indie filmmaker’s P.J. Starks (HALLOWS EVE: SLAUGHTER ON SECOND STREET) and Jakob Bilinski (THREE TEARS ON BLOODSTAINED FLESH) your guides through an insane world of picking the brains of independent filmmakers (and sometimes artists) we’ve been lucky enough to call friends. What exactly is a filmage-a-trois? No, it’s not our attempt at three ways with other artists. We prefer big boobs and wieners, not egos. So rather than suckering them into the sack, we’ve asked them to have an in-depth conversation. We’ve tasked ourselves with bringing you the best and in some cases obscure filmmakers we’ve been privileged to meet along the way of our own adventure. To get right to the point of what makes them tick and to see what kinds of film topics that get their gears turning. So put on a brain condom, cause we’re about to blow your sensory overload!

Joe Atkinson has been working on independent cinema since 2011 when he tackled his feature film Reality, a satire on the whole reality television trend. Since that time he has dabbled in many areas including editing films for others such as the upcoming short films The Telemarketer and The Dream Job as well as creating the highly successful web series The Book of Dallas which garnered a whopping 1.3 million viewers during its run. Joe has also served as Producer for several projects including Happy Hooker Bang Bang, Reality On Demand and Three Tears on Bloodstained Flesh. A man of many talents, especially talking, Joe decided to have a sit down with us and tell all his dirty, morbid thoughts. Here is what transpired…

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JB: You, like most of us, wear a lot of hats, Joe. Is there a particular area you relish most? A lot of inquiring minds always seem to have the most questions regarding producing. What do you find most challenging/rewarding in that arena? And not to be cheesy, but what advice would you offer to those who are looking to get their project produced but aren’t sure how?

JA: Yes, the hats are plentiful; on The Book of Dallas alone, I believe I served as writer, director, producer, showrunner, editor, colorist, actor, camera operator, boom operator … I don’t think I ever touched a light, but I can’t rule it out. So yeah … lots of hats. But the parts I get most excited about are writing and editing. I think I’ve gotten fairly good at producing, but honestly, that part isn’t nearly as much fun – it’s a lot of detail-oriented things that have to be done to get a film made. That’s the vegetables. Writing is a good appetizer, though, and editing is dessert … editing is the reward that comes from eating your vegetables.

PJ: You created a highly successful web series with The Book of Dallas that touches on a lot of deep and controversial issues. Why do you think it’s important, as a filmmaker, to touch on subject matter that might be out of some peoples comfort zone?

JA: I think it’s really less about touching on things outside of the audience’s comfort zone than it is about having something to say. It just turns out that the things I wanted to talk about in The Book of Dallas were probably outside of some people’s comfort zone – which, I suppose, most things worth talking about ARE. But my first film, Reality, came out of a certain level of disgust with what was happening on television – the “Honey Boo Boo-ing” of our popular culture. The Book of Dallas came out of a similar distaste for religious intolerance and the things that were being said and done in the name of religion. To me, these are important things to be talking about, and film is the medium where I can talk about them and hopefully find an audience interested in joining that conversation. Of course, part of that also means saying what I have to say in a way that is entertaining, and doesn’t preach at the audience, because nothing turns me off as an audience member more than being preached at – even if I happen to agree with the ideas being preached. So that was a line I tried to walk with The Book of Dallas, and I hope we pulled it off in the final product.

JB: You’re one of the only people we’ve talked to who has significantly dabbled in multiple media formats, as well. In that you’ve worked to varying degrees (creator, writer, producer, director, etc) on short films, features, and web series. Do you have a preferred format? Or is it just all about the story? Also: pros/cons in each construct?

JA: I’ve actually enjoyed working in all three media, though I’d have to say the one with the biggest drawbacks in the short. That one’s the easiest to make – I’ve worked on, I think, five of those now, and none took more than a weekend to shoot. But more than anything, they’re a proving ground, and a great way to learn and practice and kind of strengthen yourself to the point where you’re more confident as a filmmaker.

The biggest drawback to the short, though, is that I never feel like you get enough time to really tell a story in a short. More often than not, I leave a good short thinking, "Man, I really would have liked to see that play out more … but I guess they didn’t really have time to do that in a short." That’s why I prefer the long form of filmmaking. As to whether it’s a film or a web series – to me, that’s kind of dictated by the story. The Book of Dallas ended up being a web series, after starting off as a feature script, because the story was getting very long, and I really wanted some more time to flesh out characters like Benjamin and the preacher, Grant Hammel. Doing that in script form would have led to about a 180-page script, which is far too long for anyone in the indie world. But as a web series, it had two advantages: First, it could be longer, because it was broken down into shorter episodes. But secondly, the episodic format allowed the opportunity to kill 15-20 pages, because the need to have a logical transition from one scene to the next disappears between episodes. Episode 3 starts about nine months after the end of Episode 2, and I didn’t have to show that time passing … one episode ends, the time passes, then the next one begins. Easy.

I did love the immediate gratification of getting an episode out and getting immediate feedback. You don’t get that in a feature … with a feature, you finish, and you wait, and wait, and wait; with a web series, we’d finish on Thursday, upload on Friday, be live on Monday, and have notes on our Facebook walls later Monday morning. Good or bad feedback … it’s awesome just to know someone’s watching.
So I like the web series format a lot. But not enough to stick with it; I’m getting ready to be pretty heavily involved in a new feature now, which isn’t necessarily because I like that medium better, but this story made more sense there. And honestly, I’m happy enough working in each medium that I’m thrilled to go wherever it makes the most sense for the story.

PJ: One of my favorite questions to ask filmmaker’s is about the regurgitation of Hollywood remakes. What is your whole take on the remake shtick & if you did a remake, how would you reimagine it and why?

JA: I’m not really a fan of the whole remake trend, though I have to say that with the caveat that there have been a few remakes that I’m tremendously fond of. By and large, though, I think my issue with remakes stems from the movies that people choose to remake. I mean, why the fuck would anyone want to do a remake of The Manchurian Candidate, for example? The original film is perfect … there’s not a wrong or false note in that whole movie. So why remake it? On the flip side, you look at a remake like Ocean’s 11. The original is a pretty mediocre flick. Soderbergh, Clooney, Pitt – those guys made that into the coolest damn thing to hit screens since … well, probably since Soderbergh and Clooney patented cool in Out of Sight. In an instance like that, a remake can be a good thing – where you’re taking something that SHOULD have worked and got utterly rat-fucked, and you’re turning it into something better. I’m good with that. But when you remake Psycho, or The Manchurian Candidate, or … what good can come from that?

So that makes the last part of your question easy to answer: If I were going to do a remake, I’d want to find a concept that had some promise, but that someone screwed up and turned into a shitty movie. And my goal would be to pull that nugget of a great idea out and reimagine it into what it could have been, instead of what it ended up being.

JB: What do you think it takes for a film, be it at the script or production phase, to earn replay value? In that you find rewards in viewing the final film multiple times, as opposed to some that are one-and-done’s after the first viewing?

JA: For me, I think the distinction is more about what makes a great film NOT have replay value. I mean, sure, there are some things that I enjoy more upon repeat viewing – most of those are films that have a certain comic element that works better when I know the story and can just appreciate the intricacies on repeat viewings. The Hudsucker Proxy, Inglorious Basterds, The Big Lebowski – films like that have had tremendous repeat value for me.

But generally speaking, anything I think of as a great film is something I can watch repeatedly without getting tired of it. The exceptions, for me, tend to be those films that I think are great, but really don’t ENJOY. Films like Requiem for a Dream. Is it a great film? Absolutely. I think it should be shown in high schools as a lesson about drug use – it’s a fucking masterpiece. But do I ever want to see it again? Hell no. I tend to think about it more in those terms … not what makes me want to see a great movie a second time, but what makes me NOT want to see a great movie again.

PJ: Horror is VERY prevalent in the indie film scene, especially in our area in particular. Why do you think that is and how difficult is it to produce/promote a passion project that’s not the typical genre?

JA: Horror films are cheap to make, popular as hell, and they don’t have to be great films to get attention. If you think about it, there really isn’t another genre of film where the quality of acting is almost more entertaining if it’s bad – where fans almost get off on the kind of schlocky, over-the-top shit that horror audiences get off on. In some cases, it’s almost more fun to watch a shitty horror movie than a good one!

But yeah – there’s definitely an added degree of difficulty when you’re doing an indie project that isn’t horror, when it comes to trying to get it seen and build an audience. Getting it made wasn’t too much of an issue; I like to think we had a pretty solid story that got people excited about being a part of The Book of Dallas. But if we hadn’t managed to pique KoldCast’s interest, I think I’d still be trying to find an audience outside of our cast, our crew, and our immediate families.

JB: The whole "there are no new ideas, everything is recycled!" argument (which annoys me to no end and seems a cop-out excuse to bitch). Weigh in. What do you think it takes to put something "original" out there amidst the barrage of remakes, re-imaginings, reboots and flat-out copycats?

JA: I think it takes an original idea to start from. And when I say "an original idea," I don’t mean something that’s completely out of left field … those are few and far between. That’s why everyone was so blown away by the shit Charlie Kaufman was doing a few years ago. Being John Malkovich was totally out of left field. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the most original love story I think I’ve ever seen. But that’s not what I’m talking about … if anything that didn’t hit that level of originality was a copycat, then EVERYTHING would be a copycat.

But a new twist on a story is what makes something interesting and original … and also kind of a big risk. Hollywood loves doing the remake thing, because it’s kind of a, "Well, we know this hit once, so it probably will again!" kind of thing. Look at Oz … the original is one of the most beloved movies in history. So there’s not really a lot of risk about doing another story set in that world; and if they needed any more assurance, Hollywood got it from the success of Wicked. So they make Oz … and it makes a gajillion dollars, and they’re already talking about a sequel – in spite of the fact that the movie sucked, and the lead actor was so completely miscast that they could have replaced him with the "March of the Penguins" lead and not lost anything. You want to know why Hollywood keeps going back to the remake, re-imagining, reboot mine? That’s your perfect example.

So I guess what it takes to be original is an original idea … and someone willing to take a risk on it.

PJ: As artists, we’re constantly searching for either a fresh way to tell an old story or come up with a new idea all together. Along the way we experience other filmmaker’s who get there first. Is there a film you’ve seen in the last 5 years where you were like, "damn, I wish I’d come up with that concept?”

JA: Honestly, the last five years is kind of an odd stretch for me, because four years ago, I became a dad. So for a while there, I saw pretty much nothing; that’s starting to turn around now, and I’m seeing more than I used to, but still nowhere near what it was before children and for the record, it’s a trade-off I’d take any day, though. So I suppose I’m answering this question with that caveat. But, having said all of that …

Probably Inception. I love shit that’s out of the box and unique, and that fit the bill. The way Chris Nolan was able to structure that movie – taking you to a dream within a dream within a dream without ever confusing the audience – was fucking brilliant. I want to be that good.

JB: I always find it interesting that as creators we each completely disappear into our work, sinking into the mindset of characters who do things we have zero experience with, or might not even be able to sympathize or empathize with, despite striving to make them interesting. Yet from all this fiction/fantasy we dabble in, it’s almost impossible to not shed a bit of your own self, personally, into these works (and sometimes we intentionally purge personal waters into them, which is quite a vulnerable thing at times). And every project is different.

JA: Oh, I think that’s definitely the case. Each of the scripts I’ve written has some piece of me in there … and I don’t just mean in the characters. I mean, yes, there was some of me and my struggle with religion in Dallas McKay, and I had sort of a proxy character – someone who said all of the things I was thinking – in Mike throughout Reality. But for me, I kind of show up in the themes. Most of my stories are subjects I spend time thinking about – whether it’s wanting to take shots at reality TV, or religion, or just talking about those fears of what I’m afraid of becoming as I get older. But those things are all very much me. What’s interesting is that I took my first swing, recently, at doing a script that WASN’T like that … it wasn’t some theme I’ve been ruminating on and spent much time thinking about. I just had an idea for a story, sat down, wrote it, and it was done. I don’t think there’s very much of me in that story at all … a lot of ideas and inspirations from other pieces of pop culture that I love, but really, very little of the kind of raw self that shows up in the other things I’ve done. Those films, I feel like I’m kind of putting myself out there in a very vulnerable way – they’re very personal projects. This is the first time I’ve written something that was more detached – just telling a story that I think is kind of cool, and makes for a good, slow-burning yarn. And while I really like the story and have quickly become pretty fond of the script, it doesn’t have that personal angle that my other stuff has had, which is kind of an odd feeling.

PJ: The Rock calls you and says that he wants you to write him a starring role in a political drama, something against type. What is the synopsis, title and tag line?

JA: I’ve actually been toying around with the idea of writing a drama set in the future, after climate change has wreaked some havoc on the coastlines, the population is blowing up, and Congress is having to enact laws to deal with all of this. And there have been a few unexpected consequences that have come from all of this.

I’m gonna cop out and not give you the full synopsis or logline, because frankly, I might decide to write that, and I’m not big on publishing ideas before I get to write them. But suffice it to say that The Rock would be excellent as a Congressman who is struggling with his conscience as a major vote approaches that would, quite literally, be a life-and-death vote for millions of Americans living in gross overpopulation in a world that has been radically altered by climate change.

And thank you … now, I’m gonna find myself writing that with The Rock in mind.

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Special thanks to our friend Joe Atkinson for taking the time to talk with us and let us creep inside his synapse. To find out more about Joe’s work and upcoming projects, check out his production site at Joe is yet another fine example of the type of passionate filmmaker we’re lucky to have in our region. He’s a good friend and a great human being with immense sexual prowess. If you too would like us to say something nice about your talents, true or not, click the Pay Pal link when sending us an email for a mere $49.95 + tax. Some states need not apply, including Alaska and Detroit. Editor’s note:  Yes, this was a joke.  Please don’t send money.  P.J. and Jakob never say anything nice about anyone for money.  Punch and pie maybe, but never money. 😉