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Last week, I introduced you to THE NIGHTMARE, a tightly shot and whip-smart piece of
independent horror. It was one of the films I saw that really had me convinced
I needed to start this blog to document this new movement in film. This week I want to introduce you to the writer/director of
THE NIGHTMARE, Joseph Christiana. I got a chance to ask him some questions and
I think the result is, well…I hesitate to say “inspiring,” because that just
sounds insincere and tacky, but that’s honestly how I felt after reading it.
He’s out there making remarkable, quality productions with off-the-shelf gear
while juggling career, art and family.
This is what the new flesh is. Art. Sacrifice. Risk. Will.
Passion. All these things and more describe Christiana and the new flesh in
FANGORIA: When did you know you’d lead a creative life? Was
there a moment? A film? A book? A person?
JOSEPH CHRISTIANA: It wasn’t a single occurrence, more like
a chain of events. But one thing seems to jump out at me just now: My
grandparents took me on a pretty amazing journey through Italy when I was
young, maybe 12 years old, and I saw incredible works of art. I had no idea how
seeing Michelangelo’s work—the Sistine Chapel or the Pietà, for instance—could
possibly affect me at the time, but thinking back, I realize that the
experience must’ve sunk deeply into my DNA. I was in a foreign land, away from
my parents for the first time, at a very formative crossroads in my
development, and I didn’t speak the language. It was during that summer that I
learned the art of inner dialogue. Trying to figure out what these fantastic
things I was seeing meant to me, what they meant to the people around me, was
my main occupation for a while. I spent large amounts of time thinking, because
trying to speak made me feel foolish. I remember staring at the worn-down feet of the statue of St.
Peter and trying to fathom how many lips had to have kissed them in order to
smooth down the stone…and what compelled centuries of pilgrims to do so. The
idea astounded me. I think it was there I realized that art is inseparable from
religion, that art is religion. In hindsight, just now actually, I see the tremendously
exquisite irony in it—that people had such passion for a work of art that they
were compelled to touch it, and in doing so, wiped away its form forever.
FANG: Will you always pursue something creative no matter what you’re doing
with your life?
CHRISTIANA: No question. If I’m not actively working on
something, I feel a depression, a sense of dread, a weight, an anxiety. It’s
that feeling you get when you’ve just left the house for a big trip and you
swear you forgot something but can’t remember exactly what. It’s the dread of
nightmares, to be unproductive.
FANG: What is your single biggest influence?
CHRISTIANA: This is a difficult question. So many things
influence my work, and they shift and change on an almost daily basis. I can
rattle off a list of artists I love and people in my life, but if I chose one
single influence, it’d feel incomplete, inaccurate or downright dishonest.
I think the closest I can come to an answer is to say that
whatever my immediate previous work was is the single biggest influence on
whatever I’m currently working on at the time. Without fail, my “current
project” is always either a direct reaction to, or a developmental progression
of, whatever I was just working on.
Right now, for instance, I’m working on a script that I plan
to shoot on my own with a very limited budget. It’s a script that’s so
unconventional, it would send any respectable Hollywood producer into an
epileptic fit. And it’s a direct reaction to a screenplay that I just optioned
to one Hollywood producer. It’s a script that rails against narrative
convention and genre expectation in a way that simply cannot be done in the
mainstream system—at least not by someone like me, who isn’t thoroughly vetted
and deemed “marketable.” What excites me most is that in spite of that, it’ll
get made. There’s something liberating about that. Something empowering.
FANG: When did you start writing?
CHRISTIANA: In college, I started writing lyrics for one of
my childhood friends, Ron Muga. We still write songs together. Wrote one a few
weeks ago, actually. It was also around then that I started writing sketches
for short films, maybe the occasional short story or freeform poem.
But really, my writing is merely an extension of my visual
art, so it wasn’t until I started actively making films that I started taking
my writing more seriously. I was already almost in my mid-20s when my wrestling
match with the written word got serious.
FANG: When did you start making your own films?
CHRISTIANA: The first film I made was for an independent
study in college. Sort of. I was a graphic/industrial design major, and it was
a time when technological developments were changing the way graphic and
industrial art were practiced. Along with the graphics software came early
versions of Adobe Premiere. So to say that I made a film for my industrial art
class isn’t entirely accurate. I made it in spite of the class? In tandem with
it? Anyway, I made the film purely out of curiosity, only because I could.
The film was a semi-abstract take on the silent-film genre
that incorporated animated elements. After it was completed, I took a Super-8
camera and filmed the piece off the computer screen. Then I took the Super-8
film and wound it into one of these looping-cartridge projectors that I found
in the back of some thrift-store graveyard. During the senior thesis opening, I
projected the looping film from inside one of the art offices onto a
translucent sheet stretched across a window facing the main courtyard. So
everyone who walked into the building saw this looping abstract film playing
with no explanation whatsoever. One of the repeated motifs in the film was a
sequence of extreme close-ups: an eye, an ear, a gag. It seemed to engage in
some way with the whole notion of “art school.”
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I made a film
for a co-worker who was “taking an acting class for fun.” He knew I loved film
and asked if I wanted to shoot a monologue for him for his class. He had no
idea what he was getting into. We ended up making a half-hour short about a man
who wakes up in an empty world. It was my first collaboration with my
cinematographer, William Bourassa Jr.
FANG: What is the average budget of one of your productions?
CHRISTIANA: MOTEL AMERICANA VOL. II, a feature-length
collection of short films, was made for something like $6,000, spread out over
a period of a year and half. The other long projects I’ve worked on cost less
than even that to produce. THE NIGHTMARE, a six-minute short, cost about 15
bucks, I think—the cost of three mini-DV tapes.
FANG: How many people are involved in a typical production?
CHRISTIANA: Including myself, MOTEL AMERICANA VOL. II had a
crew of three, sometimes four. We had a makeup artist for one or two days of
shooting. Other than that, it was just the actors. For THE NIGHTMARE, it was really just me and my son. When he
was on screen, I was handling the camera. And when I was, vice versa. There was
no script, and I had no idea where the film was going. It started like this: My
son and I got kicked out of the house for the day because of my daughter’s
“girls only” birthday party, so we spent the afternoon in the woods shooting an
abstract chase scene. I was watching a lot of Jan Svankmejer at the time, and I
was interested in filming something that existed in a seemingly disconnected
universe. A nightmare universe, one drawn solely by emotion. When I started
editing the footage together, I fell in love with the natural sound of his
panting. It was almost accidental that I got the sound actually, but it sounded
to me just like pure recorded emotion. So I focused on it. One thing led to
another. One idea or scene fed the idea for the next and the whole film became
about breathing. The film, in that way, was entirely improvised. Impossible
with a budget and a crew.
FANG: How much support do you get from your friends and family on these
CHRISTIANA: My wife is a saint.
FANG: What kind of gear are you using?
CHRISTIANA: We were using a Sony PD170 until recently. My
cinematographer, William, just picked up a Canon EOS 5D that we’ve been testing
out. We’re dying to put it to proper use. We expect to shoot something very
soon. We edit on Premiere, and AfterEffects is always fun when we need it.
FANG: What does it mean to you to work outside of the creative establishment?
CHRISTIANA: It means having the freedom to fail. If you
aren’t afraid of failing with a scene or a shot or a performance or even an
entire film, you’re suddenly liberated. You find yourself able to play, to
explore, to improvise. And from that process, ultimately, you’ll end up with
something unique and, in my opinion, worthwhile—something of value.
There has to be risk involved in art, or else it becomes
something else. It becomes commodity. The eternal battle between art and
commerce has been described more eloquently and at greater length than I’d be
able to here, and I’m afraid any elaboration on my part would sound more
pedantic than I have a right to be, so I won’t begin a long-winded diatribe.
But I will say that it seems to me that, with rare exceptions, anything that
gets pushed through the system is done so with more effort put into the hedging
of bets than into coming up with something illuminating, or challenging, or
even mildly interesting.
It’s understandable. There’s so much money involved, so many
investments to protect. And don’t get me wrong, I chomp on popcorn on occasion
too…but in the end, I’d choose to watch a graceful failure over a blockbuster
common denomination any day of the week. From what I can see, the great irony is that when you allow
yourself the freedom to fail, you’re more likely, at some point, to have great
success, the kind that lives on long after you do. But if you play it safe,
hedge all your bets, more often than not you get uninspired, lukewarm successes
at best, and usually, you’re at greater peril of finding an ugly, formulaic
failure on your hands.
TO BE CONTINUED
Bloody Blogs -
Long Live the New Flesh
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