Always Be Filming (A Miniflix Interview)
Acclaimed Short Filmmaker Joel Moffett On Life In Academia, Breaking The Rules And The Never-Ending Pursuit For Cinematic Excellence
In a certain sense, Joel Moffett’s life has come full circle. Raised in Hawaii (on the island of Maui), he went to college in California. Though he’d start in theater, film eventually took its place. But after years of going up and down the California coastline, doing everything from working under A-list talent to running a traveling theatre company for the homeless, Moffett settled back to his birthplace to help start the first and only film school in Hawaii: the Academy of Creative Media at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa.
Though he’s a full-time professor now, Moffett refuses to rest on his laurels, and still considers himself first and foremost a filmmaker. He’s proven that with a steady output of acclaimed short films, garnering top honors at major festivals, getting invited to Cannes and even having one of his films selected for museum preservation.
Miniflix Interviewer: First, I wanted to talk about your arts education background. I noticed you have several degrees. I just wanted to walk first through a timeline of both the film and theatre degrees you earned.
Joel Moffett: I was a ventriloquist as a kid and got involved in local theatre in grade school, so from a young age I knew the act of performance was going to have something to do with my future. I’ve always been interested in acting and luckily got a scholarship to study Theatre at Chapman College — as it was called back then. You wouldn’t think it, but Chapman was a crazy magical place in the 80’s. Lots of young punks, anxious to experiment and shake up the Orange County aesthetic. Our professors were trippy stoner hippy freaks like Ron Thronson and Paul Frizler, who very much made our little revolution possible.
Theatre and Film was still all under one roof, so everybody worked on each other’s shit, and as a result I ended up inadvertently helping out on a bunch of movies. So, when I went on to get my MFA in Theatre, I decided to make a film as well: The Lost Continent. That was my first movie. Looking back, it was kind of a train wreck, but it gave me a chance to explore film with a unique freedom and a couple of the sequences worked pretty good…to such a degree that I got accepted into the Directing program at AFI [American Film Institute]. And that’s when everything changed.
Miniflix: What really connected for you at AFI? Was it the craft of it [storytelling] or the technical aspect? What specific turning point took place there?
Joel: Dezso Magyar was still the master teacher at AFI back then. Every once in a while, a school will produce a teacher whose voice really dominates — artistically and intellectually. And Dezso was one of those teachers. He had a very specific set of lessons, and he was able to communicate them in such a powerful way that, if you listened and followed his direction, your work would transform in front of your eyes.
The primary lesson Dezso taught was the importance of premise. Unfortunately, in Hollywood the word premise is as misunderstood as the word motivation or objective is in the theatre.
The premise is a non-intellectual thematic statement grounded in the arc of the protagonist and primarily articulated through the behavior of characters so as to guide the audience through an emotional journey that ends up communicating a thematic truth.
But unlike a conventional thematic statement, that can often produce forced and “on-the-nose” artistic decisions, the premise statement hides sub-textually behind the behavioral changes that characters go through. As a result, the premise concept is inherently cinematic in that it nourishes a subliminal, meditative and distinctly emotional journey for the audience.
At its best, cinematic storytelling strikes at the deepest chords of consciousness. It should affect the viewer on a subliminal level. The audience member should not be aware of the emotional impact the story is having on them. They shouldn’t be able to describe why they’re feeling what they’re feeling. I don’t want them to intellectualize. I want them to feel. I want them to be moved instinctively. And after the lights come up, and as they’re walking home — that is the time to think. Ideally, the audience should connect to the cinematic experience the same way lovers connect when making love, or enemies connect when fighting. They are in the moment. Nothing else exists. So, cinema is obviously a highly manipulative art form. We cradle the audience’s consciousness in our hands. We have an enormous responsibility.
M: Was My Body made after your time at AFI?
J: No, My Body was my thesis project at AFI. And we actually made it twice.
M: Oh, wow.
J: During your first year at AFI, you made three cycle projects… So, within 9-months you make 3 movies back-to-back-to-back. My Body was my third cycle project. The first-year experience at AFI was a rigorous and unparalleled educational experience, especially for Directing Fellows. And the only people who really grasp the enormity of it are those who’ve gone through it.
I was actually in the last class of Fellows who had to compete with each other to get accepted into the second year. I think there were 28 or 29 Directing Fellows and only 7 or 8 of us were accepted to make a thesis film. So, when you went to AFI back then, they kicked out a lot of people, and it was not guaranteed that you would get an MFA. Moving beyond the first year was highly competitive — and honestly very scary.
M: So you re-shot and re-edited My Body as your second-year thesis project?
J: And I re-wrote it… You can see both. They’re both on my website.
M: My Body eventually received a long list of awards and screenings at different festivals. Can you walk through the process of taking the [final version of] the film from post-production to the festival circuit and the exhibition process?
J: It was all so different back then… When you applied to festivals, you filled out a paper application and sent in a VHS tape. So you sent all of your submissions in the mail — there was no Withoutabox. Then, if you were accepted, you sent in your 16mm print.
The post-production experience on My Body was intense because we only had a very small window to get everything done. It was also the first time I had the chance to work on a non-linear editing system… I was very used to working on a flatbed, but it was the mid 90’s, and Hollywood was transitioning to digital. So AFI gave us some of the first Avids to work with, and my genius editor, Mark Catelina, really embraced the new technology. I’ll never forget all those giant bulky hard drives that could barely hold any data. So we went through the telecine process, and then outputted back to film and cut the negative. I spent endless hours out at 4MC (the processing lab) and had to compete for time with Greg Araki, who was finishing his film, Totally Fucked Up.
Once we started submitting to festivals, we got heat very quickly, and started getting invited instead of having to apply. Going to Cannes was insane. Lots of buzz. My crazy-awesome Producer, Matthias Visser, sold our next project there, and I got a very sweet writing gig as a result. I miss working with Matthias.
M: I did want to ask you about the score for My Body. What was the collaboration like with Richard Tuttobene?
J: Richard is a saint, and a deeply talented composer. I will always be indebted to him for the amount of time and effort he put into that very magical score. I drove to his house way out in Diamond Bar every single day for months. His wife and kid were very kind to me and they very much took me under their wing even though I almost drove Richard nuts! But he tolerated it, and we became close. Richard is a master. He is one of the most brilliant artists I’ve ever worked with. We based the score on a Shostakovich piece.
M: Were there ever any wildly different directions the soundtrack could have gone? Or was the tone of it pretty well settled early on?
J: We [Richard and Joel] had to hunt for the tone for a long time, but finally we stumbled upon an oom- pah-pah motif. Once we figured out that the oom-pah-pah was the answer, Richard developed themes we could return to from scene to scene.
M: How would you say the light, whimsical, childlike music enforced the thematic material?
J: The protagonist in that movie is very childlike and innocent, but he thinks of himself as guilty; that’s where his neurosis comes from. The tragedy of being a closeted gay man is that, by denying this part of your identity, you are implicitly buying into the idea that there’s something wrong with you. The childlike quality of the music, and the style of the movie generally, was meant to reflect the absurdity of this belief system — by putting an innocent character in a situation that forced him to view himself as guilty. By weaving in a child’s voice at the end, my hope was to communicate the idea that this guy was gonna be okay. He was just a child who was growing up.
M: I was noticing some overlap or connection between some of the stylistic choices in My Body and some of your Brecht adaptations on the stage. Was that an influence at all for you, or were you really operating on a particular, singular level with this film?
J: As a director, you have different tools to work with… slowing action down, speeding action up, reversing action, repeating action, minimalizing, withholding, exaggerating… I’ve always been fond of the tool of exaggeration — perhaps too much!! Regardless, those choices you are referring to really came from the exceptional collaborative relationship I had with my Director of Photography, Drew Thomas. To quote Drew, we believed in taking a ‘broad stroke’ stylistic approach to My Body. For example, the character of the Doctor was a very high octane, fiery, in-your-face kind of guy, so we had fun composing extreme and theatrical shots that reflected this presence. I should also mention the brilliant lighting of Chris Manley, who was our Gaffer. I’m very proud of the unique bright and colorful look of My Body.
M: You really got some fully-realized, consistent performances. I’m thinking particularly of the way Charlie and Dr. Lockerman have the same skittish, nervous, constantly apologetic speech patterns.
J: Well, Kim Strauss, who played the doctor, was super-smart and he just started constantly imitating me! It became very irritating actually. [Laughs]. But it was great, because the doctor represents what Charlie was going to turn into if he doesn’t fix his problem…if Charlie doesn’t get over the issue of being afraid of being gay… Kim really approached the doctor as an older version of Charlie. And that was all Kim’s inspiration.
M: I wanted to talk about a connection between Poi Dogs, a later film of yours, and My Body. Both end with a chorus of voices. My Body having the high tones and Poi Dogs having the recorded rendition of “Hey! Baby!”. What inherent power do you find in the human voice, or groups of human voices, that made you want to end both films in this way?
J: It’s true, I did use voices at the end of both of those films. The idea for the voice at the end of My Body didn’t come from any brainy or intellectual concept — it was just instinct. My partner, John Signor, composed the music for Poi Dogs…and all those voices were mostly our friends and students. The reason we brought in the voices in the end was…to introduce the song early on, but in a subtle thematic way, so hopefully you wouldn’t recognize it. Then at the moment of climax, we reveal that what you have been listening to is actually — surprise! — a universal love song you’ve heard a million times.
M: While My Body was an epic, zany adventure with a contained point of view, Poi Dogs works in an inverse way. Less characters, less “going on”, but with a much wider arrangement of compositions. It was striking to me how Poi Dogs worked on the opposite level of My Body in the shot selections and the choice of perspective-storytelling. Are you typically looking to stretch yourself narratively and aesthetically? Is that something you have in mind when you set out to do a new project?
J: I think you’re right on the mark there…and one of the reasons I try to do that is because I’ve made the mistake of repeating myself. So part of the point of Poi Dogs was definitely to do something new. Plus, when you end up spending a whole bunch of time on a movie, you just get fucking tired of it… After I made Poi Dogs, which all takes place outside and in the daytime, all I really wanted to do was make a movie that takes place inside and at night [Technical Difficulties of Intimacy], which I’d never done before. So, for me, especially as I get older, my choice of what film to make next is often motivated by my reaction to the film I made previously, and my desire to do something different…
M: A connection between all three films only came to me now, because there’s so many shots in Poi Dogs obsessed with the lower extremities of both humans and machines. There’s shots of seats, wheels, exhaust pipes. They’re often used as the establishing shots for a scene. Do you consciously set out to highlight or foreground the taboo, or undervalued, parts of the body as an attempt to remind us of their fundamental attachment to our nature?
J: There is definitely a connection there. For me it had a lot to do with the lower socio-economic class that this film was set within… And what you are so astutely recognizing is a perfect example of something I don’t want people to recognize. Because those kinds of choices, especially with the emphasis on the feet and the emphasis on the ground, those are the kind of choices that I strongly believe can have a powerful subliminal impact on the viewer. And because I would never want the audience to be intellectually aware of such choices, I’m pleased but horrified that you recognized them at all. They’re the little brushstrokes that you don’t want the audience to notice.
M: I just love how much the film relies on gestures, sounds — not necessarily dialogue — just the physical presence of the characters.
My first question about Technical Difficulties of Intimacy is by way of Poi Dogs. Seeing some of the reviews that Poi Dogs got, many responded to your ability to tell a universal story of attraction, but using against-type characters — at least against type for our modern Western culture — to tell it. And I think the same could be said for Technical Difficulties of Intimacy. In terms of sexual orientation and gender, as well as the way they look and act. It doesn’t have that Hollywood sheen. Are against-type pairings something you actively seek out?
J: It’s really hard to answer this with regards to Technical Difficulties of Intimacy, because at the time it was made, I don’t think this story had been told before. Plus, as a queer filmmaker, I’m always super wary of type-casting. For me, the thing that attracted me to this story was the idea of luring an unsuspecting audience member into thinking they were watching one movie, only to discover they were watching something different, and then hopefully recognize some of the commonalities of romantic relationships.
M: Out of all three movies, Technical Difficulties felt the least controlled. At least to me. Which probably means that that isn’t true and that it probably was the most controlled in terms of shot selection and editing. The points of views are always switching in and out of the camcorder’s perspective. What was the shooting experience like on this film as opposed to the other two?
J: We shot the movie in sequence. And the great Buck Angel, who played the male lead, is not an actor. So a big part of the shooting of this movie had to do with just getting the performances right. But as far as visual aesthetics go, for me, the house itself was a character. So the fun I had with style had a lot to do with the color and design of the house. And because the paint job was already so extreme, I didn’t want to draw further attention with overly composed shots.
M: Do you think short films are more than just a “shortened” feature film? Is it its own art form, and should it be treated as such?
J: It most certainly is not [a “shortened” feature film]. The short film is a form in and of itself in the same way that a novella or a short story is different from a novel. The time issue simply mandates a different approach to story, and as a result, narrative tools are used differently in the construction of short films. Think of the difference between a shorter and longer psychedelic trip. They can both be profoundly moving, but the time issue mandates different approaches to the experiences. In a short film, the audience must be quickly immersed in an empathetic identification with whatever conflict is being explored, and then this conflict must be somehow addressed and/or resolved with equal brevity. It’s kind of like a Haiku poem.
Features are a different animal. It’s all about Act Two, hills and valleys, ebb and flow, and interweaving B stories with A stories…
But both the short and the feature are dependent on this idea of the lights going down and the audience fully immersing themselves emotionally and even meditatively in this experience that is outside of themselves…the Other. So I think that they accomplish similar things in a different way.
M: What is your favorite short film?
J: I like this film Baby Shark because it doesn’t embrace traditional narrative in the same way that most shorts do. It’s like three or four narratives blended together with different protagonists in kind of a Crash way. They don’t all come together at the end but they’re all thematically related. And typically, this approach to story, as far as weaving three or four different narratives together, is something we see in features, but not shorts. And certainly not short shorts like Baby Shark. I love that film.
I also love Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Tram [Tramway]. I believe that was his student thesis. And, at least the version I’ve seen, doesn’t have any sound. I love that film because it’s so simple. And filmmakers like me can learn a lot from the simplicity of The Tram.
Check out next week’s articles, as we continue our discussion with Joel Moffett and discuss the artistry behind Kieślowski’s The Tram.