Heyyy! We asked Joel Clark some questions, and he answered! Joel is a Joel of all trades. He has written and cowritten a number of screenplays, helped design a Moby Dick card game, and is currently directing and acting in a film he wrote called XMAS IN JULY. No robot cats were harmed in the course of this interview. Enjoy!
Where does your creative timeline start? And what sort of trajectory are you noticing?
I grew up in an extremely rural part of New Hampshire--my nearest friend lived 10 miles away. So I spent a lot of time alone. I also had very little access to relevant music and culture until I went to college and was mercilessly attacked for having a tiny collection of CDs and 'still' being into Weezer. (I was lucky enough to have my older sister dub a tape of Weezer on one side and Rush on the other when I was 13. With Rush I was like whaaa? and with Weezer I was like yesssss.) Growing up rural certainly forced me to 'make something out of nothing' from day one. When I hit the world I was thrilled, and began consuming shit like Jabba the Hut, and when I started writing and creating things, they kind of spewed out my brain filter in a very weird way, ie any of my early things are kind of a mash up of outdated cultural references and incomprehensible babbling. In college I made sketch comedy with my friends in a group called Olde English (oldeenglish.org). I like to date myself by saying that this was before youtube, and it's crazy to watch the oldest of those videos, since the 'internet video' form didn't really have a lingo yet. A lot of those early videos are unwatchable in relation to standard format video sketches that are made today. God, I sound like a grandpa.
It's funny how the ubiquitous advice of 'do one thing well' is totally true but I continue to refuse to prescribe to it. I think I'll be 'just a writer' sometime in the future, but what scares me is when people are hemmed in by this idea not in terms of form but in terms of content--it's like, oh, you made a screwball comedy about hackers and people love it, now you can ONLY MAKE SCREWBALL COMEDIES ABOUT HACKERS. But that's maybe a personal perspective trap that I can't get out of, and it may fuck me over in the end, because I'll refuse to write the sequel to whatever and blah blah blah. Suffice it to say I'm wary of trajectories--I'm not a spaceship I'm just a dude.
Your work is all over the map in the most excellent kind of way, lets start with some earlier projects. You worked on a recent hit card game Moby Dick, or The Card Game. How did the idea for this project come up, and what was your role in bringing it to life?
My good friend and long-time collaborator Tavit Geudelekian called me up and asked if I was interested in doing some writing for a video game. This was around the time of Red Dead Redemption etc, so I was excited to learn about that form of writing. He asked me to bring some ideas for the kind of game I'd like to make. I told him something about sailing tall ships would be great and why not do Moby-Dick. He gave me a funny look because he had been thinking the same thing. We dreamed of a 20 million dollar 40-hour retelling of the story on xbox and ps3 with an open-world online multiplayer game-plus mode ending with the scuttling of the American whaling fleet at the start of the Civil War. Then we realized that would have been the greatest game of all time that no one ever bought or even attempted to play. Our friend, game designer Andy Kopas, joined up and brought the idea of making it a tabletop game. As it turns out, the Kickstarter platform was kind of quietly creating a tabletop game renaissance, and board games were getting superfunded left and right. Besides, there's something really classic about card games, a very sailor-like pastime.
Overall it took about 3 years to make. We were joined by producer Mark Perloff and art director John Kauderer, whose work on the game is utterly terrific. My label was creative director, which meant a lot of different things. I worked very closely with John, sourcing about 100 images for him from weird archives and databases of photographs, daguerreotypes (finally learned to spell that one), and ambrotypes. My other big task was to make sure the game experience was directly related to the experience of reading the book. I'd been obsessed with the novel for a long time already, but this process took it to a whole new level. I spoke with some really amazing scholars about the various implications, inferences, internal allegories and whatever else that's inside that book. I wrote entries for each card on the game's website, detailing how the card was created and integrated into the system, and how each card is significant to the deeper thematic underpinnings of the book itself. I have my collaborators at King Post to thank for how well the game turned out. It's a beautiful object in itself, and the experience of playing it is I think as close to reading the book as we could have come.
Our new game, Beowulf, a viking raiding and trading board game, will be available in early 2015.
What character on the Pequod are you?
Ishmael is so prone to reverie and philosophical/emotional expostulation, it really seems that all the members of the crew are extensions of his own mind. Except maybe for Ahab. I don't know. I guess I'd like to think I'm Stubb, laughing all the way to the grave, but I'm probably more of a Starbuck--cautious, only courageous when I'm certain of a positive outcome. In my more neurotic moments I worry that I'm Bulkington--someone people are drawn to, who just suddenly disappears from the world. IDK BRO ITS PROBABLY A SPECTRUM
You cowrote the film Man From Reno which is out now. What's it about and what was the process like to write a film and see it become a reality?
I've been lucky enough to collaborate with Dave Boyle on four feature films that he's directed, Man From Reno being the latest. Before this, we've done comedies (surrogatevalentine.com), but Man From Reno is a noir film, about a depressed Japanese writer and a small town sheriff who become embroiled in a sort of classic murder mystery. Dave and I wrote the film with our friend Michael Lerman, and it was a real challenge. When you write a comedy, its clear that some of the jokes won't land with an audience, but it's kind of okay, people leave the theater being like, it was pretty good. But at that crucial moment when the mystery of a noir thriller is revealed, you really put everything on the line. We've all seen a thriller with a bad reveal, and the knee-jerk reaction is 'this movie sucks' even if you liked the rest of it. Needless to say we went through many, many drafts, and agonized over how the information was being doled out.
I co-executive produced the film as well, and spent some time on set, which was a real thrill. Dave works with an incredibly talented crew, and the cast of the film is really top notch. It's amazing to see actors like Pepe Serna, who's been in over 100 movies, give a totally excellent take EVERY TIME. That guy is amazing. Ayako Fujitani, who's been acting since she was very young (she starred in the Gamera films as a girl), also never gave a bad take. I just thought that was crazy amazing. The film was shot by a genius dude named Rich Wong, and if/when you see the film, you'll notice that every shot is like, perfect. Dude is crazy good. We're up for an Independent Spirit Award in February, and the film will most likely be released in March.
Right now you are working on a movie as director and writer called XMAS IN JULY that your own company Nothing Pictures is putting out. It's Kickstarter tagline goes "XMAS IN JULY is a feature-length psychedelic adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. OMGGGGGG ROBOT CATS ON FIRRRRRRE++++++++". How has being at the helm of a feature length film been? Are robot cats into acting?
|These pictures are all production stills from XMAS IN JULY|
The robots have been terrific, great attitude, happy to be involved. But for real running a feature film production is insane. I've seen my friends and collaborators do it, but until you do it yourself, you really have no idea what kind of pressure is involved. Film is one of the most heavily collaborative forms--50+ people all looking to you to answer every question, and have a vision for a way forward. It's exhausting, terrifying, and really forces you to come to terms with your deepest insecurities. Don't get me wrong, there's lots of fun parts and I'm filled to the brim with appreciation for those 50+ people who said YES to the whole thing. Not to mention the kickstarter backers and private investors. It's amazing to have so many people prove, either with their time and effort or their $$$, that they believe in what you're doing. Of course, that makes you question what you're doing THAT MUCH MORE.
What's really crazy about production days, and I don't think I really conceptualized this before we started, is that every single take is pretty much as important as every other, and you have to maintain a level of focus and commitment through the fire of crazy circumstances and long hours. It's actually extremely difficult to stay focused through it all. We shot 18 days, 9 of them in a row--most of them 12+ hours. By the end, my apartment, my studio, my finances, and my relationships were all in shambles. But we walked through the fire and I think we captured a lot of really crazy stuff. My wife, Crichton was my co-star and she rocked every take like a BOSS.
The robot cats are my dark homage to Milo & Otis, a classic film alleged to have committed pretty horrific animal abuse (ie throwing kittens off of cliffs, etc. sorry to spoil the movie for peeps but its what happened). I figured making a film with robot animals would allow me to destroy them at will, without facing legal or moral consequences. SUPER DARK DRINKING GAME--watch Milo & Otis and take a drink every time you think one of the animals got, um, killed. Don't judge me, its a fun game if you're in a dark mood and you get really drunk.
When can we expect to see XMAS IN JULY?
Um. All I can really say is that during shooting I was regularly surprised by what I had written, and by the fact that we were actually shooting it. Every day I expected to finally have a straightforward day where it was just like, people talking or whatever. But every day had something that was utterly weird. I knew I was doing something right when each day freaked out a different member of the cast or crew. I even freaked myself out.
A lot of your projects are crowdfunded, how does that affect the way you work, and the outcome?
Crowdfunding is extremely difficult, and it can put a lot of pressure on your social relationships. I could certainly be accused of crowdfunding 'too much,' and people chafe at being asked so many times on social media, over email, in person, etc. On the opposite side of that coin, I always try to not force it. Crowdfunding is funny like that, because in order to have a campaign succeed you need a lot of visibility, but that visibility also has an adverse effect on the people you're trying to get involved. We've all felt it, and I'm one of the main perpetrators in my community. But the reason to do it is clear--there are so many structures in our culture that are built to obstruct the relationship between artist and audience, its actually fucking terrible. It means that artists have to pander to these structures (advertising, distribution, marketing etc) in order for anyone to even see what they do. But the thing about pandering to mass culture distribution methods means that you have to break your own legs and offer up content that literally has broken legs. This is not to say that there's no quality work in the mainstream, but it's crazy to think of all the stuff that doesn't quite fit just never seeing the light of day. The more I'm getting into the business side of things, however, I don't really know if there is a light of day on the other side of distribution. But now I'm rambling. The real point is to create a one-to-one relationship between artist and audience, and asking your community whether or not they want to see what you do, rather than asking some marketing dude if he thinks your project has legs. Broken enough legs. Also, now all I owe are Kickstarter rewards and the product itself, not percentage profit or blah blah market success. I have no one to answer to except the people who judged the project online and said, sure, I'll pay to see that happen. That allows me to have real, true artistic freedom to do what I want, and I'm supremely grateful for the support I've received.
Any other projects in the works?
There's a lot more to accomplish on the XMAS film before I take on anything equally huge, but yeah there's always this and that happening. The next film with Dave Boyle is probably my top priority.
Do you have multiple brains?
No, but sometimes I can't shut the one off, so yeah, maybe. Also maybe in parallel universes I enact things that were only nascent germs of thoughts in this reality KNOW WHAT I MEAN??
I just want to throw out there that I have read your original script for Spring Breakout (a movie mashup of a prison break and spring break) and I still am waiting for that to come out.
Look for it 2018. No, I don't think anything will happen with Spring Breakout, but I'm actually way into that script. It has a pretty fun first act, some tripped out occurrences in the second, and of course it ends with tits and explosions. We've done a few readings, its always been fun. It's right up there with RA RA EGYPT, a full length ancient Egypt action comedy I wrote way back in 2007.