Interview By Franklin E. Wales
The name Joseph M. Monks generates more hits than a bad boy at Catholic School. He and his lovely wife, Pam are regular staples not only at the annual Chiller convention, but countless others across the country. If you’ve ever met Joe at a convention you know from his table of works why he is such a popular web search: the entire space is filled with everything from comic books, magazines, short story anthologies and movies that have been created around his written word. While visiting Florida’s southwest coast, Jacki and I had a chance for a sit-down with Joe and Pam regarding some breaking movie news he’s involved in.
FEW: Joe, let’s start with the obvious elephant in the room, okay? We’re sitting here in this sports bar at nine o’clock at night…those sunglasses you’re wearing aren’t just to make you look cool, are they?
JM: I thought I’d try the Neil Gaiman look. Kevin Smith says he gets laid a lot, so…
(During the twenty seconds of blank tape that here I simply sip my beer and wait. Monks is in a good mood this evening, and I have a lot of tape available)
JM: Seriously? Well, I can’t say for sure how often Neil gets laid, but Kevin tweets about his prowess, so that’s all I have to go on…
Anyway, cat’s already out of the bag, so no, the shades don’t have anything to do with looking cool. Back in 2002, the lights went out on me due to diabetic retinopathy. So it’s a Ray Charles thing. Some folks who don’t know me—or who’ve never met me at a convention before—occasionally mistake me for a self-absorbed prick trying to look like Johnny rock star, but nope, blind as the proverbial bat, that’s all.
FEW: Let’s talk about The Bunker. By the way, from the research I’ve done, it seems you are the world’s first blind feature film director, congratulations on that.
JM: Thanks, and, you’re right. The Bunker may not be groundbreaking in terms of a revolutionary plot or changing the face of filmmaking like Citizen Kane or Jurassic Park, but in terms of opening doors for other folks down the road, I’m pleased with what was accomplished with the flick. There’s been other handicapped filmmakers, but there hasn’t been a blind one at the helm of a feature. At least, not until I felt like muscling into Christopher-Reeve territory.
FEW: That being said, I want to take the film on its own merits. What made you decide to jump straight into a feature for your directorial debut? Why not a short?
JM: It wasn’t intentional. I was running through my inventory of published work, writing outlines, fleshing out some comic book stories, trying to find one that would lend itself well to the screen, but which also wouldn’t be too expensive to shoot. That’s when I thought about this short story I’d never actually written, only had the concept for. A story about a congressman whose daughter is a wild-child, and keeps running away, putting his political career in jeopardy. I didn’t even have a title for it at the time, it was just, ‘that congressman story.’ I sat down to begin writing it, and it just blew up. One of those, seems-to-write-itself kind of things.
Once I started, I wasn’t even paying attention to running time. I was just writing the story, and letting it take me where it wanted. Originally, I still planned on letting Hart Fisher direct it. Since he was banging on doors and shooting some indie band videos, though, I started thinking, “Why not me? I know this screenplay better than anybody else. I know exactly how I want to do it, how the pacing should be, the way I want the sets… Why hand this off to anybody else?” I didn’t even think about the blind thing at the time. That wasn’t remotely important to me. My focus was on, “Okay, how can I finance this, and how can I make sure the production value is the best it can be.” Not being able to see the actors? Hell, that didn’t seem to be a big problem at all. I couldn’t see the artwork for the Zacherley comic we were doing, and my work was getting some of the best reviews I’d ever gotten. I was relying on my scripting, my stick-figure thumbnails, and Pam to give me feedback on how the panels matched up to what I was asking for. That formula was working, so I decided to bring in some stunt-eyes to help me out, and a really good DP. If I could fill the holes around me with good people, I had no doubt. I could direct the movie, and it wouldn’t be some hideous piece of crap.
FEW: This wasn’t going to be easy, or cheap. What about your wife, did she think you were crazy for believing you could pull this off? At least more crazy than she may have already?
JM: (Laughs) I remember poking my head into her office the day I began doing the research. I spent a couple hours on Google, using all sorts of search terms. Then, I called the Hollywood Reporter, since they have this huge repository of film factoids. I asked them if they had any reference to a blind feature film director. The girl on the phone was like, “What? Are you serious?” And I told her, “100%. Can you check to see if you have any record of one.” Couple minutes later, she gets back on the line and says, “No, sorry, we don’t.” I told her, “Don’t worry about it. That’s about to change,” and hung up.
So, I tell Pam, there’s never been a blind feature film director. I’m going to be the first. She’s quiet for a few seconds, then says, “How?” I laid out the basics, how I planned on going about it. And that was it. She was behind me right from the start. Given how much the initial investment was going to be, it was even more impressive. Self-financing a feature ain’t cheap, although I guess the Paranormal Activity guy had a lot of favors to call in. Pam poured a ton of money into the flick, and a lot of the freelance money I was getting from writing gigs was funneled into the production. We sacrificed a lot. Things got plenty tight along the way, but even though we made lots of mistakes, most of our decisions worked out. Buying the camera and the computer equipment and software to set up a top-notch editing bay at home was a big nut, but paid for itself the week of principal photography. I like to say The Bunker was my film school. Tuition is always pricey, but if you really learn something, then you’ve made a worthwhile investment.
FEW: There is a lot going on in this picture, but the majority of screen time is spent on the congressman’s daughter as she is abducted and held captive in a small windowless bunker-like room. Her captor is played by Terry M. West, perhaps the best “heavy” in independent film. I was pleasantly surprised to see West not only play the statistical lunatic side we expect, but also a subtle compassionate and emphatic side as well.
Emotionally, for me, the story ran the gauntlet somewhere between the claustrophobia of Stephen King’s Cujo and the surreal viciousness of Hubert Selby Jr.’s The Room. Now that is an interesting mix. Tell me a little about the backstory on this tale.
JM: I’ll start with Terry. I wrote The Bunker with Terry in mind. A lot of people who know Terry and who were going to work on the film weren’t quite sure of my choice, because while Terry has the look, in reality he’s the nicest guy you could ever want to meet. But I’d seen him get ticked off a time or two, and I knew he had the chops to bring the character to life, both in terms of the character’s brutality, and the reasons he does what he does. Terry was my anchor point. Plus, he was a director himself. It was like having an extra pair of eyes on hand for everything, as well as a talented actor. Throw in that we’re on the same wavelength most of the time when it comes to the creative process, and you can see why he was the first cog in the machine.
In terms of the story, you hit on one of the other key components. Claustrophobia. I wanted the film to be claustrophobic as hell. For one thing, without a huge budget, limiting the locations was important. By literally limiting the confines of the bunker, it further enhanced the tight, closed-in feel. I knew I needed to get viewers on my side quick. I needed to lead them into my tale with something familiar, hit them with the violence of the kidnapping, and then keep them where I wanted them. By getting them to empathize with the congressman’s daughter, getting them to feel like they’re in the cell with her, it helped make them uncomfortable. While there’s multiple subplots going on, I tried to limit them so as not to detract from the main storyline–the girl in the bunker waiting for what’s about to happen to her next. In reality, there’s only a handful of scenes that take place outside the bunker, yet they move the narrative forward without giving you much time to breathe before you’re right back in that cell with Saskia (Gonzalez, who portrays Julia Jennings, the daughter of New York congressman Robert Jennings.)
FEW: I tell people this is one of the best movies they’ve “never” seen. You made the announcement of its completion a while back; I’ve seen the picture, yet it is unavailable. Can you tell me where it sits now?
JM: Man, have the setbacks piled up. Around the middle of 2009, I was sitting on a distribution offer, ready to take it. But I needed one more piece of score to wrap things up. I was dealing with a composer from California, going back and forth over some of the final music. So, I’m waiting and waiting on this piece, unable to get in touch with the guy. Finally, I decided to send him a note through MySpace, since he occasionally checked in there. That’s when I found out he’d committed suicide. That was a huge blow. Gary’s work was solid, and he was really invested in the project. He wanted to be *the* guy—he wanted this to be his first film score and he was damn proud of it. But, to the best of my knowledge, he never filed copyright on the music. That set me back in terms of the score. When I threw Hart Fisher off the project, I decided to dump all the bands he’d been involved with. Since then, I’ve had a new composer, Robert Feigenblatt, do a fully orchestral score that’s just phenomenal. Sounds like the kind of film score you’d hear in a classic ‘70s horror film. I also just secured licensing rights for a Billboard chart-topping artist, The Cruxshadows, who will provide a song (Deception) for the film. I have a handful of bands to finish negotiating with, and then we’ll put a professional film look on and—knock on wood—we can release the film in 2011. Currently, I’ve got a Kickstarter project going to help out with the finishing funds, which can be found at: KICKSTARTER
FEW: So for as little as a buck someone can actually be a part of the first feature film by a blind director? That’s being a part of history for less than a 16oz soda.
JM: You got it. You get plenty of cool stuff with pledges of $5 or more, but we wanted to be as inclusive as possible. Everyone who pledges will get thanked and recognized on my web sites just for throwing a buck our way. There aren’t many guarantees in life, but I feel confident promising people that this is definitely the most unique filmmaking project they’ve ever been involved with.
FEW: I understand you have put up a Youtube Insider series for SIGHT UNSEEN PICTURES on the making of the picture. How’s the response on that?
JM: It’s been very positive. I wanted to start INSIDER in 2009, but there was just too much going on, finding regular help was like trying to find a clean needle in a crack house, it was just a nightmare. But now that we’ve gotten back on track, I’m trying to put one up each week, updating people on the movie, what’s going on at Sight Unseen, my screenwriting, that sort of thing. I don’t know if the term vlog’s caught on yet, but that’s basically what it is, a video blog. People always like video better than text, and there’s no question, it does have a more personal feel, so people are digging that.
FEW: I’ll certainly be following the progress of this picture. I am personally looking forward to viewing the finished product. In closing so I can shut off this recorder, tell me how folks can reach you.
JM: All my sites have a contact form that goes right to me. So if you go to JoeMonks.com, or SightUnseenPictures.com.com, you can reach me that way. I’m also on Twitter at twitter.com/josephmonks/ and on Facebook at facebook.com/josephmmonks. But the best way is by e-mailing me directly, I get those the fastest and respond to all my own mail.
This interview actually ran over eleven pages, but had to be trimmed for web publication. Joe Monks has a million stories to share and all of them worth hearing. If you see him at Chiller or any other convention, stop by and say hello…you will be glad you did.
Franklin E. Wales is a South Florida novelist. On a summer long book signing tour he took the time to meet up with several independent important voices in horror today. His series, Beer Summit, runs exclusively here at Horror Vein. You can learn more about his works, and how to contact him through his website: www.FranklinEWales.com
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