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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Joe Leonard - Film Director Interview

Some of you may remember me excitedly posting a film trailer a few weeks back. It was the trailer for a new film called 'How I Got Lost,' an independent feature about two disillusioned, twentysomething New Yorkers; written & directed by Joe Leonard.

I was intrigued to find out how such a personal project came to fruition, and how an independent movie can, in this day and age, find film festival recognition, as well as distribution. Luckily, Joe Leonard provides us with some fascinating and insightful answers.

'How I Got Lost' seems like it's come from a very personal place. How did the project come about? What inspired you to write it?

Yeah, it's a pretty personal project, which is what I love about it. A lot of it came from a certain time in my life when I was living in the East Village trying to figure out where I fit and what I was looking for. I came up with the title early on, and I was trying to write a film that captured a feeling. It was after 9/11, and none of us wanted to leave the city. But at the same time, it was a hard place to be.

That's when I read "The Sun Also Rises" for the first time. It felt like it had just been written. It felt like it could be me and my friends. So I was inspired by that.

I think you can really tell that the film comes from a Writer/Director, your voice is all over the film. Do you worry that will get lost if you start doing bigger-budget projects, funded by the studios?

That's a fun question, and one I should test out! Realistically though, my interests as a writer and a director tend towards independent, lyrical films. I'm interested in people more than plot. I don't have much control over that, as much as I'd like to.

Right now I'm working as an editor on "Glee," a new show on Fox this fall, and I think it has already taught me a lot about working on bigger-budget projects and making strong decisions. It's been an amazing experience, and terrific after finishing "How I Got Lost." It doesn't hurt in this case that it is an incredibly creative show, or that I work with incredible people.

Do you think there's a place, commercially, for films that are more interested in people than plot? I'm like you, these are the types of films I crave-- it just seems unfair to me that someone who does really moving work like you might struggle to get films funded and to make a great living, whereas a filmmaker making 'Scary Movie 9' prospers?

I do think there's a place commercially for good stories that are character-based -- but it's a hard business, and the more arty you get, the less likely you are to find your way into a big budget or big return. I do know that actors want to do good work, though -- and that's an ace in the hole. Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't necessarily want to do "Scary Movie 9." So if your script is good enough and he gets his hands on it somehow, I like to think that you have a shot at making an ambitious character movie. Then suddenly, if Jake Gyllenhaal is involved, raising money and finding distribution works with an extra set of zeros.

In terms of survival and success, you have to define it for yourself. There are quicker ways to strike it rich. As a filmmaker, you have to figure out how you can make a living to survive long enough to make your movies. I stumbled into editing, and it's actually helped me a lot as a filmmaker. So I actually feel lucky that way.

I've read that you won an award; and that grant formed a big part of the film's budget. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience and what it did for you?

Well, it was a make or break point for the film. I had written the first draft in 2002, moved to Hollywood, shown it to everyone who would look at it, and gotten essentially nowhere. But I couldn't give up on it. The more I faced rejection, the stronger I felt about the material. The more I heard other people's takes on the project, the more it came into focus. I started asking questions when I hit each wall to try to figure out a way to make adjustments, so that the next time I would have outflanked their concerns. It was a tough project because it wasn't very structured, so I had to back my way into a sequence that would feel structured. So it was a great service, hearing "no." I was persistent. I applied to the Sundance Lab -- 3 times. And to the IFP LA (now Film Independent) Labs -- 5 times. Never got in. I did get into a lab through IFP NY with Scott Macaulay, which was a great resource. And then one day I got a mailing from NYU -- where I went to film school. There was a grant set up for filmmakers making their first feature. The Richard Vague Production Grant. You had to send in the script, and a budget, and a proposal -- and you had to fly to New York to pitch it if you were a finalist.

The first year I was a finalist, I didn't win. But I thought about it afterwards, about the questions they asked me after my pitch, and about how it could be better. So I went back to the drawing board, beefed up the budget in certain areas, hired some producers, and pitched everyone I knew in the month leading up to the meeting to practice. The day I got the grant, I felt like Muhammad Ali. Now I was able to lay all of the groundwork for the film -- and I had a ribbon to point to proudly, saying someone important believed in me. That was all the permission I needed, and I didn't ask for any more for the rest of the production. We ended up raising all of the money privately, with the most incredible set of investor/producers you could hope for.

What was the budget?

We made it for under a million bucks with a non-union crew and a SAG cast. Most of the money went to our 4 week shoot, to pay our amazing cast and crew, to renting trucks, and to getting people from New York City to St. Louis.

I like what you said, 'I had a ribbon to point to proudly, saying someone important believed in me.' As independent filmmakers, I think we can often go for an awfully long time on self belief, never really having the proof that anybody cares what we have to say. Had you ever felt that?

You're right. We have to be pretty hard-headed, and in this case I think that's a good quality. You have to have that us versus the world mentality. And if you know you have something to make you've just got to stick to your guns. On the other hand, you don't want to shut yourself off to criticism, or to collaboration. It's a tough balance to strike. But being self-motivated, and believing in yourself -- you can get far on those fumes. It's worth noting that actual encouragement (from teachers, friends, parents, film organizations, festivals) is still the actual fuel. Mom, dad, thank you! My list is actually quite endless.

The film has garnered a lot of recognition at various film festivals. How important are these for the film, and for you as a Director?

Well, similar to the grant, the festival exposure has been great for us. What we're trying to do now is build an audience and build awareness of the movie. Each time I can post on my blog or Facebook page that we've gotten into a new fest, or won this or that award, we gain some momentum. It's sort of like navigating New York by following the walk signs at each intersection. We know basically where we're headed, and we just don't want ever to have to stop.

As a director, festivals are just fun. People get to see the movie. You've already done the work. I always get worried about things like the projector quality or the sound levels. Once I've relaxed about that, or given up on it, it's a blast.

How do you decide which festivals to enter?

Well, we had a list. The theory is that you go for the "important" ones first, then trickle down to the regional fests. This is a great theory, but we finished our movie after Sundance and Tribeca -- where we were rejected based on our rough cuts.

My theory is that theories are just... theories. Good movies should get into good festivals. I look at the festivals and I try to track their reputation, but I don't think there's any point in not applying to a festival because it isn't on the highest tier. At this point in the game, I am most interested in how filmmaker friendly they are. I also sort of look at our festival run as our theatrical release -- though we are planning a theatrical release this Winter as well. So I apply to festivals in places where I imagine folks might be who would like our movie. Places like Austin, and Chicago, and Portland. New York and LA, San Francisco.

My favorite fests, based on the screenings we've had and where I've screened shorts before, are Dances With Films, Austin Film Festival and the St. Louis Film Festival.

If I have a short film I want to get into festivals, would you recommend focusing on the main ones or just sending them to absolutely everywhere? And would a bigger festival want to screen something that's just be screened in a little film festival in Nebraska?

With a short I don't think your premiere status really matters. I'm no expert, but I'd advise sending it to fests that you really want to go to. Fest applications can be a huge waste of money if you send it everywhere. Apply to your regional fests, apply to your dream fests, and apply to one or two that you hear great things about. That's my advice.

Why did you decide to shoot on the RED camera? How was the experience for you and the DP?

There was an economic reason. We wanted to shoot a high production value arty movie on 35mm lenses, but we didn't have the budget to do it the way we wanted to. But the real reason: we were excited about it. It fit the motto's on the door of our production office in Brooklyn: "No Surrender," and "ambition beyond our means."

We had a great experience. We tested it a little... not much. Chris Chambers, my amazing DP, did a beautiful job of adjusting to it and creating some amazing images. And my editors Sarah Broshar and Sam Mestman (who was kind of our RED guru, and also our colorist), designed a practical workflow. We had no real problems.

You worked with a really incredible crew, full of talent and experience-- how did you pull them all together?

I had the best crew in New York City in April of 2008 -- fucking (pardon me) amazing. I found them working on projects over the years. I collected them as I went along, because I knew I was going to make this movie. Chris Chambers and I shot two films together. Jared Parsons and Sam Mestman produced films with me going back to our NYU years. I met Massoumeh Emami working on a film by Danny Leiner called "The Great New Wonderful." I just did my best to find talented people, I gravitated toward them, and try to come up with an excuse to work with them. Like JR Hawbaker, our costume designer and one of my favorite people in the world who literally created from scratch several dresses for the film. And Lexi Cuesta, who was a jack of all trades MVP on set even when I had totally exhausted and frustrated her. Then Massoumeh brought in some of my favorite new collaborators (everyone who makes movies in New York, by the way, will attest to how incredible Mass is -- as a human being and as a film collaborator). Chris DeAngelis, our co-Producer, was Rainman with a schedule, and remains the only guy I would personally follow into war. And Matt Munn and Katie Akana made me want to be a production designer. Or at least hang out with them and help out however I could (not much). The list goes on. Our gaffer Corey Eisenstein went to high school with me! They were incredible. And the movie is what it is because of their hard work. What it boils down to for me is that I like making movies because I love the people you get to work with. I love that you are in it together, on this crazy journey. And I love how hard it is, and how far everyone gets pushed (including me of course), just as much as I love how fun it is.

Do you have a distribution deal? Are we going to see it on a wider release?

It's up in the air. It's pretty interesting right now. There's been a total collapse of the independent film market in the last year or so, and now everyone is trying to find a new model. I like the Soderbergh model actually -- a simultaneous theatrical, cable, DVD and digital release... There's a whole new landscape now. Internet, VOD, the iTunes store... we are planning to have a DVD distribution deal in place by the beginning of next year. And right now we are pursuing a limited theatrical distribution this winter. We'll see how it goes. It took me five years to make this movie, so I'm going to do everything I can to make sure it gets out there.

You've done what many aspiring filmmakers only dream about. You put a project together and you went out and shot it. What advice can you give to upcoming writers and directors, how do you take that leap to going out there and getting a project made?

I had a film teacher, the documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, who said "if you're a filmmaker, get out there and make a film, every day." It sounds extreme, but I think it's right. I think that's the mindset you have to have. Pick up the camera, of if you're working that survival job, keep a notepad with you. Movies start within you -- unless you're using heavy machinery, let your mind wander. Look for the people you want to work with. It's easier to make a feature with a die-hard collective of ten filmmakers than it used to be. Support each other -- you can't do it on your own. And don't ask for permission... unless it involves fireworks.

Joe, thank you so much for taking the time for this. One last thing. Is there one little piece of advice, or one little nugget of information you could give that might help writer/director's like you who are about to embark on making their first low-budget feature?

Well, keep it in perspective if you can. Making a feature is a long haul, and you want to love your movie and still have a few friends a year or so later when you finally get to your festivals. It's an amazing mountain to climb, but oddly it doesn't feel like what you might think at the end. The joy is really in making the movie -- there's is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But I don't think that makes it any less worth chasing.
I think a great way to end this interview, in fact, a great way to end any interview, with anyone, is to mention Bruce Springsteen. Here, I have the perfect reason. The picture below was taken in the 'How I Got Lost' production office during shooting-- and sums up Joe and his crew's work ethic, and is as good a phrase as any to live by when working long hours on a feature. In the words of Mr. Springsteen...

Care to share?


  1. hell yeah joe- going to the screening in NYC....

  2. Inspiring! Really hope to see this film.