An interview with Joey Ciccoline, director of the amazing short film, ’88:88′
Hey hey there D&T audience –
A few weeks ago we told you about a spectacular new short film – “88:88.” It’s probably the best looking sci-fi short you’ll see all year, combining all sorts of influences from Ridley Scott to Steven Spielberg. Really. It is that good. The thing is – we really like this short. A lot. Office consensus at D&T is that this is one of the coolest things we’ve seen in a long time so we thought we’d go all out and ask New York film writer and visual artist Caspar Newbolt to sit down with Joey Ciccoline, who directed the project. Here is the result of that series of talks. – Ned Hepburn
Caspar – Before we get to the good stuff, let’s start at the top real quick. Let’s talk about how you got into making films. We’ve both I’m sure read 100s of interviews where the film director of the moment has some story about how he never went to film school, was given a film camera at a young age and blah blah blah lead to blah blah blah. What’s your story, Joey? When did you realize you wanted to do this stuff for real? Was it a film you saw, a conversation you had with a friend at a bus stop, or maybe perhaps to impress a girl … ? Paint us a picture of how you got into the mind-state of wanting to seriously make films. If this interview were a film, this can be our little prologue. Something like that stupid intro to Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang where Robert Downey Jr. narrates over childhood footage of himself. We just need to get people’s juices flowing at this point whilst we get through the obligatory credit sequence.
Joey – Ha. Well, there was no grand epiphany to speak of. I think a large part of it is simply the result of how my brain works. Everything for me is incredibly visual. Music has a visual component in my mind. Thinking about the past, present, and future lays out an expanse of light, shadow, space, and form mentally surrounding me. I thought everyone was this way (and I think most people are, to varying degrees) until I had a conversation with a good friend where he talked about how there is no visual component to his mind that he can recognize in any way. He can remember the lyrics to pretty much any song he’s ever heard. I can’t remember the lyrics to even my favorite songs without the music, but I can tell you what every song looks like and how it moves.
Growing up, I was always drawing, watching movies and shows, then drawing more. I would draw to explore the things I enjoyed, and the things in my head. When, I was in middle school, my parents bought a video camera. It was a pretty decent one for the time (a higher end Sony Hi8). I used it constantly, figuring out how every bit of it worked. I learned how to edit and mix in music using the camera and two VCRs. From that point on, everything I did creatively had some tie back to filmmaking.
￼Somehow, though, I ended up not going to school for film, or even pursuing it after I graduated. Several years into a full-time corporate graphic design job I remembered what I really wanted to be doing and quit. A few years of freelance video work, several music videos, and a comedy web series later I finally made a film. So I guess that’s where I am now, just finally getting started.
I just re-read that in Robert Downey Jr.’s voice. I think it’ll work.
Caspar – I hear what you’re saying about the visual experience versus the text or numerical. I have a friend who’s one of those prodigy’s at music that ended up doing almost the complete opposite with his life, almost as a reaction to the way he’d be expected to behave to succeed at music. Getting high, listening to music and talking it out as we would as kids he’d tell me he didn’t listen to lyrics at all and that music made colours and shapes in his mind and that was all he wanted or needed it for.
As for myself I can pretty much recognize any film from seeing just a still of it, but I can struggle to recognize the song if I’m only allowed to hear a few seconds of it. So it’s certainly very interesting in what way our minds are setup and what we’re more receptive to.
Your story about drawing a lot before having the technology at your fingertips to make a film, and then doing graphic design before quitting to actually make films full time, is very interesting. It reminds me of the way my father describes what he does as a teacher of ‘life drawing’ (read: nude model, pencils, paper, easels etc.) in England. He describes his process as teaching people ‘how to see’. He refuses to teach you a style of drawing, or a technique one should use to capture what you see on paper. He’ll simply work hard to help you understand what you’re looking at to the point where the drawing happens successfully for you, and thus entirely inside your own unique style. By which I mean clearly you’d trained yourself how to see well before you took to the mechanics of choosing shots and capturing them on film.
Given the drive you had to make the best of the limited, longwinded technology at your disposal back then (2 VCRs etc.), did you also immediately have an idea of the subject matter you wanted to handle when you made films, or were you more in love with the process, the art of it, than anything else at this point?
Joey – Yeah, speaking of drawing … in a lot of ways I’m so glad that I went to school for art instead of film. My first college drawing class was very much the same way. The physical side of drawing (arm to hand to instrument to paper) has very little bearing on your ability to draw well, but only on the technical skill, and style. The ability to see and translate to paper is the hardest and most important part. The same applies to color. It’s such a basic concept, but the fact that a white wall is almost never actually white is so contrary to how your brain automatically functions, but so integral to conveying reality. This all applies to filmmaking and storytelling, but instead of walls and colors you may have people and conflict.
I have to figure out how things work. It’s what I do. Once I can visually rebuild something and it’s function and simulate it in my head, I’m good. I think that’s mostly what was happening at first. How does it work to film something? How do I put it together? How do I fashion a squib out of supplies a broke teenager has in order to create bullet hits? Once I exhausted the basic mechanics of the camera, editing, and sound, I dove head-first into effects. There was a book, The Making of Jurassic Park (I still have it) that I studied like a text book. I knew the theory behind every bit of making that film. There was also a show that used to come on the Discovery Channel, I believe, called Movie Magic. Each episode would cover a specific type of special or visual effect or a specific film, and give a basic overview of how things were done. They were more like instructional videos for me, than TV shows.
It wasn’t until later on in high school that I started getting some idea of the type of stories and storytelling that I loved and what I would want to do, given the chance. One night I rented Luc Besson’s The Professional and it totally blew my mind. When it was over, I started watching it again. I watched it at least once more and then made a copy of the VHS tape before returning it. It’s such an incredibly strong and original love story dropped in the middle of … I don’t know … what could have been a soulless action movie. It’s so natural feeling. It’s neither all glossy and cool, nor dark and gritty. It just is. That’s something that I still love so much: taking a situation that is extraordinary or insane, and wrapping it around a real human story presented in a very natural way. Also, Gary Oldman’s performance in that film may still be my favorite ever.
Later on, as I came to understand all of this, I started to realize that it’s exactly what was happening in so many films I grew up with. It’s funny, but it really clicked a few years ago when I watched JJ Abrams’ mystery box TED talk. There was one thing he said that made a lot of things make sense. He talked about how Jaws wasn’t a movie about a giant, man-eating shark. It was about a guy dealing with his new job and family, in a new town. There’s actually something to care about, and then there’s a shark on top of it all. Sadly, I feel like if they made that movie today, it would simply be about the shark.
Caspar – Yeah, I hear that entirely. I just a moment ago had to hold myself back from getting into an argument on Twitter (I know, I know) with a guy with a heap of followers who basically didn’t understand how anyone could want to carry on watching the X-Files after a few of the episodes let him down. So he was asking everyone why he should bother watching any more and after taking a look at various replies from people saying, “you should only watch the ‘monster of the week episodes’, dude”, and others recommending their faves, I couldn’t hold back any longer. I told him that the thing that made the X-Files good was the developing relationship between Mulder and Scully. Like your Jaws example, yes the X-Files is about weird creatures, alien conspiracies and government cover-ups, but if it wasn’t for the formidably understated, funny, moving and entirely compelling performances from those two actors, I really don’t think there’d be a show at all.
Of course your point about this and your interest in making what the film is ‘about’, not actually what it’s about translates entirely into your film “88:88″ and is, I think, what makes it work so well. I’ve talked to many people about the film and often what they find so wonderful about it is how caught up they get in your protagonist’s preparations, and how much you learn about her in that time without even realizing. As a co-worker of mine commented – ‘I could have watched her setting shit up for another hour.’
Reading between the lines of what you’re saying though it’s clear to see that, much like being bored in biology class but sitting on the edge of your seat through the entirety of Jaws, everything we do take in is a matter of context and presentation. When you’re in the film, in the world and everything is at stake you’ll pay attention to every detail about a great white shark, it’s biological makeup and behavioral routines, when you’d earlier just been staring out the window when being told that same information in class.
The same way when you’re researching details at the script-writing stage of a film and suddenly you’re avidly researching shit you’d never have given a damn about before, just to better tell your story. Why? Because you’ve harnessed what it is that has you on full alert, what makes you care about something and where the core of ￼your generosity lies – in the telling of a story to another generation of kids, bored in class, who need to have things fed to them this way.
It’s fair to say I’m sure that you learnt a good deal about human nature through films, and that whilst you needed to have real life experiences to really compound that, you have finally realized that you can take what your film is ‘about’ and explore what it’s really about in the process. Much like the aliens in the X-Files, you can use them as an excuse and a shelter whilst you explore things that you’re processing yourself as a human being growing up.
In this way how did “88:88″‘s character development come about? Was it very much planned and then simply performed on the day, or was it something that you felt out or developed further in the process of making the film, much like say John Cassavetes would have in his day? Furthermore did the experience change the way you want to approach making films from this point?
Joey – The initial core of the character came with the concept. I wrote this with my friend Sean Wilson, and the idea was his. We had been writing a feature film script together pretty intensively last summer, but I knew that I’d have to make at least one short film first. To ever have a hope of making the feature, we’d need money and someone interested in what we were doing. That, of course, is a lot easier when you have something you’ve already done to prove that you’re worth the investment. So, I told Sean that I needed a story for a short film, something that would be easy to produce with little to no money and minimal people involved. At the same time I wanted to do something interesting that wouldn’t completely blend in with all the other indie shorts where two people are having a conversation about life or something. So, he came up with the idea of a person very intensively preparing for something, where the type of preparations happening would increasingly make the audience wonder what the hell was going on. I think he knew at that point, too, what he wanted them to be preparing for. It was a good idea, but I guess this is where it ties in to what we were just talking about. If it was just about creating the mystery and then answering it, it would likely have been an interesting film, but not one that would hold much weight beyond that. We knew that we need to focus on the state she was in and how all of this has affected her life and relationships. Ideally you learn a lot about her just from the situation and the environment. She’s the white wall, but we didn’t paint her white. We just let the light around her reflect off her, so you know she’s a white wall, so you know she’s alone and at the end of her rope yet strong, by how the situation is filtered through her.
￼We did come up with a fair amount of depth to the immediate story we were telling, but just enough to know her and her world. Sean works and writes by seeing the end result as a viewer. If the viewer doesn’t know something, then often times he doesn’t either. That’s a little harder for me, especially when I have to make the film a reality. I need to be able to make decisions informed by the history and depth of the situation and world. For example, she has cut everyone out of her life and isolated herself. Rather than start by saying, “she has isolated herself, now show that,” I’d rather start from a position of, “what is the history that results in her isolating herself, and how does that look here in this moment.” Maybe that’s me needing to know how things work. One advantage of working that way, though, is that you’re more free to explore and let it take on a life of its own, knowing that you have all of the preconceived experience to inform where you’re headed now, even if it’s not exactly as the script dictates.
Caspar – Absolutely. In fact what you said about her being the ‘white wall’ and learning a great deal from her from her environment and the very little she actually says, is one of the fascinating aspects of a film like this, or say John Carpenter’s Hallowe’en, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West or perhaps even Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Each of those films central characters says very little and this leaves you to your own devices as to how to handle that. Suddenly you’re the one deciding what they must be thinking and you’re the one having to face your own fears in the process. I know there have been a lot of people, just from reading your Youtube comments, that have had very different ideas about what your protagonist was in fact preparing for. The exciting thing about that for me is that it shows you much more what people are afraid of in their own heads, but also that it teaches you a huge lesson about negative space in terms of a script.
As you suggest, we’ve all seen those Kevin Smith-esque movies where it sometimes feels like it’s 60 words a minute in terms of witty dialogue and it’s easy to fall into the trap that that’s what a ‘good script’ should be. However as filmmakers, it’s clear it was exciting for you and Sean to see what you can do with images instead of words to convey the same sentiments. In fact my brother just told me that Ridley Scott ripped big chunks out of the first script he was given for Gladiator because he wanted to turn everything he could into an image, as is his style.
Given the way you made “88:88″ and its success, would you say that this predominantly visual approach something that appeals to you even more as a filmmaker? Similarly are there any other tricks or lessons that you learned this time around that you’re keen to improve upon in future films, the way say Darren Aronofsky kept using his ‘Hip-Hop montages’ for a while?
Joey – We had a lot of fun, while writing, intentionally leaving ways for people to come up with a variety of different things that she could be preparing for. The crazy thing is that people keep telling us about what they thought was happening and so often it’s situations we never even thought of. There is a very fine line between ambiguity and and just not telling a story. We were constantly riding it and I honestly wasn’t sure we ended up on the right side earlier in the editing process. It was really great to start showing it to people and then have them tell us the story of what they just saw. They always got it. The details were often different, and the source of her troubles was always interpreted differently, but they all still got the story we were trying to tell. Nothing ever works out the way you intend, but it’s great when you succeed in what you set out to do.
I will always, even sometimes against my will, approach everything primarily visually. There’s a great little book by David Mamet called On Directing Film where he talks about what he calls the American way of making a film (just following the actors around with a camera and creating a record of what happened) versus Eisenstein’s theory of using a series of juxtaposed images to move an audience through a story. The former relies very little on the visual side of things, or the camera. As a result, the imagery becomes about style and coolness and simply telling you what is happening. The films that actually feel whole to me are the ones that do the latter.
The camera has a purpose, and the viewer is given only what they need to discover what is happening and have a genuine reaction. There’s nothing like the feeling of watching a film where there’s a level of craftsmanship and sensitivity that is almost palpable. It’s all about restraint and purpose.
A great example of this is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Supposedly the original script for the film was pretty good. He and Ryan Gosling worked through it and threw out most of the dialogue. What resulted was a film that relied on imagery, and moments to tell much of the story. Everything had more weight and depth. The dialogue, when it was there, had a very definite purpose. No one does that anymore. Simplicity has become a sin.
As far as things I want to improve on the next time around? Everything. I definitely have no desire to repeat things as I move forward. I’ll do enough of that unintentionally.
Caspar – Quite so. I’ve read that Mamet book and am inclined to agree with you about Drive. Though when you watch a film like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant you find yourself with a simplified film that’s also doing a lot of simply following people around, and thus realizing that what’s not happening on screen is what is happening and that what the camera is only showing glimpses of is really beginning to freak you out.
There are clearly different ways to skin this cat and excitingly so. Speaking of which one thing that people seem to be really responding to in your film, which is particularly unusual for a short I might add, is the music. There seem to be a good deal of people commenting about how they want to know what the end credit music is and where they can get it. This often happens of course if you’ve found a pop song to stick at the end, but rarely so with a score piece.
Do you subscribe to the John Williams / Harold Faltermeyer school of film scoring where the thematic musical elements are so memorable that they themselves are often considered pop songs in their own right? Furthermore, do you foresee working with Makeup and Vanity Set (who did the “88:88″ music) again for this reason?
Joey – I’m definitely much more a fan of scores with themes that I want to listen to over and over on their own, especially when they’re tied in well to the film. I think you could have a score that serves a film beautifully but would be terrible to listen to on its own. There’s some soundtracks that I own where I love the main themes but NEVER listen to the music for suspense or action sequences because it’s just to unsettling and irritating when separated from its place in the film.
The collaboration with Makeup and Vanity Set has been great. Somehow we’ve ended up in a kind of cycle of inspiration where the film inspired the score and an incredible album that has only fueled me (and Sean) more in coming up with new ideas to require more music. It’s a relationship that I definitely intend to continue. I love that the track at the end (“A Glowing Light, A Promise”), which is the first track on the album, seems to get a lot of attention. We were initially going to use a modified version of “A New Dawn” from the previous MAVS album Never Let Go and it was working alright, but there was something about the end of the film that just didn’t sit right. I couldn’t quite figure it out. Then Matt (of MAVS) sent me two rough tracks he had been playing with for the album. “Glowing Light” was the first one and as soon as I started listening to it I ￼knew it was perfect. I dropped it in the edit and suddenly the film felt complete. It really seems to come in and say, “the film is done, and wasn’t that awesome?!” It feels like cheating, slightly.
Caspar – Haha, yeah. Well when you’ve done so much on your own as you have, I’m sure that the more you get to collaborate with different talented people on your productions, the more and more it will feel like cheating. Film is a really bizarre medium in that regard. Your sense of control changes hugely as you relinquish some powers but gain a whole set of others.
I’m glad that Makeup and Vanity Set gets to potentially join the ranks of Clint Mansell, Angelo Badalamenti and Howard Shore as default composer for a select new generation of film makers. That’s the sorta thing that sends shivers down my spine, and furthermore means you’re more likely to produce consistently more unified pieces of work. Seems like a smart move.
In fact, since we’re talking about the end credit music, this seems like an excellent point to wrap this up. You know, so that Robert Downey Jr. can freeze the frame, maybe rewind the last scene a bit, ask himself if he really wants to end the film this way and then someone like Val Kilmer can yell at him from stage left, and we can finally cut to black and let the proper end credits roll. Classic pop song included.
I wish you all the best with your future projects, man. Sincerely. There are of course many more questions I’d love to ask, but I’m not sure people read things this long any more, or whether they’ve even read this far. Either way if you carry on like you’ve started, maybe they’ll dig this up in years to come and finally finish reading it.
Joey – Haha. Thanks so much. It’ll be really interesting to see where things go from here…