The BOP Interview
BOP Interviews Joel Miller About His Film, The Still Life
By Calvin Trager
September 15, 2005
Joel Miller, 28, has recently completed his first film, The Still Life, which he wrote, produced, and directed. The Still Life is a candidate for The Sundance Film Festival. Joel agreed to be interviewed by BOP and answer a few questions about making movies.
Box Office Prophets: Let's get the important question out of the way first: Your IMDb page says your nickname is Rifken. Is that a Seinfeld reference? I guess you should also tell me what your movie, The Still Life, is about.
Joel Miller: Yep. I was a roadie for a long time. There are usually a few hours during the day where there isn't much to do. It's really the time to eat some food and relax a bit before the show starts. I always spent that time writing on my laptop. So when Seinfeld was on one time in the front lounge, one of the roadies was joking that I was like The Unabomber on my laptop sending out e-mails to kill the world or something stupid like that. Anyhow, Joel Rifkin was a subject on the show and the Joel Miller/Unabomber joke just seemed to click in roadie land. Hence Rifken; I changed the spelling cause I didn't like the nickname but it was only after the nickname stuck and I couldn't get them to call me anything else. I even got a paycheck one time to Joel Rifken.
The Still Life is about a guy I called Julian Lamont (played by Jason Barry). Julian was basically modeled as a troubled rock star who is off the road. Though he isn't a musician, he's a fine artist. Julian paints a painting and destroys it one night, afterwords passing out drunk. The next day the art dealer, Mr. Fernot (Don S. Davis), comes over and likes the destroyed painting. Together they start an art movement Mr. Fernot calls Destructionism. Julian and his new art movement are an overnight sensation, but Julian finds it harder and harder to put his life into his products knowing he has to destroy them to find critical acclaim.
BOP: Well, I suppose you can feel fortunate they didn't dub you "Puddy" or "Mulva" instead. The Still Life's premise sounds like it could be played either way - as a serious drama or for laughs. What kind of tone does the movie have? As the writer, what themes are you trying to communicate?
JM: Yeah, there are a few breaks in the heavy emotion to give you a pretty good laugh. I didn't want to have a movie that was just heavy-duty from start to finish. I can pretty much guarantee that if you have any sense of humor you'll laugh a couple times. Josh Todd is pretty funny, Jonathan Davis is pretty funny, Patricia Belcher is a riot. Grant Cramer takes the cake, though. His scenes are really, really funny, Tiny Lister and Nadia Wit are pretty damn funny too. There are some funny moments for sure.
The theme I am trying to put across is to push for what you want in life, but to be careful what you decide. In other words follow your dreams, but stick to your path.
BOP: For the benefit of our readers who are interested in making films themselves someday, can you share some of the ups and downs you experienced in bringing your first feature film to life? How did you get it off the ground?
JM: Whew, a lot of ups and downs. To put it in a nutshell, it is really, really tough. And I'm used to working hard and a lot. The thing that makes it difficult is wearing all the hats. For example, I'd wake up in the morning, get the coffee going for the crew, find my storyboards, put notes on them about how I want to direct the scene, deal with getting the crew situated, and then start getting the ball rolling to actually get the first shot off. After that it's directing and getting the most out of the scene and the actors. At lunch time it's back to casting for scenes not yet shot, dealing with paying the caterer to get more food, getting more tapes for the camera, etc. So that's the first half of my day. With all that going on there are bound to be a lot of ups and downs and there isn't much you can do about it. But it is worth it.
Getting the film off the ground is tough but I'll let you in on a little secret. Breakdown Services! They kick ass. If you are doing a SAG film they will send the breakdowns of each of your characters you list - it's a paragraph of information about your character - to all the managers and agents in Hollywood. And you can get really good actors. Once you have actors you have a movie. Find a Director of Photography who knows what they are doing and has his own camera package; my DP kicked ass. So now you have actors and you have a camera to shoot on. Yep, you got a movie on your hands. Now stick to it and get the film shot. However, post production can be a beast, so keep money set aside for it. Issues will come up that you cannot control. Little things you want to delete in the movie cost money and are time consuming to get rid of. Lastly, make sure you have a marketing campaign to actually try and sell your film. If you are going to enter festivals make sure you save money to enter them; that adds up quickly as well. So to answer your question, I thought of all this stuff and worked out all my schemes and angles and went for it. I'm really stoked to say I'm doing okay and it has been a really fun trip.
BOP: You've done a lot of different things in a short time - a little acting way back in the day on Party of Five, roadie, set dresser, plus I'm sure tons of other things. What did you learn from those experiences that you used on the set as a first time director?
JM: Don't burn bridges. All the pursuits in life you undergo are for a reason. Eventually, you'll want to be in touch with someone you worked with in the past. Their talents might help you get going. For example as a set dresser I worked for Alex Tavoularis. Alex set me up with one of his colleagues who also worked for Coppola. I would have never met my production designer if I didn't stay in touch with Alex for all these years.
BOP: What's the hardest job: writer, director, actor, producer, set dresser, or roadie? What's the most rewarding?
JM: [Laughs] Wow. I guess it is what you are trying to get out of it for yourself. A gig is hard when it means a lot to you to do well. I've found all to be hard at times but real enjoyable.
BOP: Which other directors do you look up to?
JM: I'm a pretty big Tim Burton fan. He brings an artistic element to his films that I love. I even wrote a screenplay where he plays one of the main characters. Him and Tom Waits are two of the leads. How cool would that be!
BOP: A movie starring Tim Burton and Tom Waits - the BOP staff would be there opening night!
JM: I also really love how Scorsese develops his characters and Coppola's ability to tell a story. Oliver Stone is an incredible writer and I think that is what makes his films so powerful as well.
BOP: As a writer, you have an unlimited budget in theory. But as a producer/director, you have to figure out how to pay for everything the writer has written and get it on screen. Since you wore all the hats for The Still Life, did it influence your writing, knowing you were on the hook to actually get it made? What would you have been able to do differently with a larger budget?
JM: That is a real good question. No one has asked me that yet and that in a nutshell is what independent filmmaking is all about. It is hard, really hard, to write a film that you yourself can make. The Still Life had another 50 pages, I think, where the art dealer had a crazy house and part of it was shot in Europe and stuff like that. I cut all that stuff out cause I can't build a crazy house or shoot in Europe. The truth is I think that having a limited budget actually made the film better. You have to be more inventive when you have no money.
With a larger budget, I think I would have just got some other people to wear some of those hats. But all in all I don't know how much different the film would have been. There are a couple locations that could have been cooler. Shooting in the Sistine Chapel, for example, would have worked...
BOP: [Laughs] I'm sure Pope Benedict would have been all over that. Talk some about Sundance. Are you excited, do you think you'll win, and what does it mean to have your film entered?
JM: I really hope we win. It is what I set out to do. It is still my goal. I hope to raise some eyebrows, that is for sure. My film is what Sundance is all about. Giving an independent film director an opportunity. I funded this whole movie off of a roadie's paycheck. My dad was a car mechanic. I had no hidden bank accounts or any people to give me anything. That is what Sundance should be all about. So I really hope to kick some ass up there. To get your film entered just means you still have to get them to accept it. I believe they accept 12 feature films out of something like 6000 submissions.
BOP: Wow. Those are long odds.
JM: Yeah...wow...So I'm not accepted yet, but how many other submissions have a soundtrack with original material by Dizzy Reed (Guns N Roses), Adrian Young (No Doubt), Dean Dinning (Toad The Wet Sprocket), Snake Sabo (Skid Row), Eddie Hedges (Blessed Union of Souls), etc. And even though that is, of course, really cool stuff, I got everything (including a killer cast) off of a good screenplay. And they say that is the most important thing. So keep your fingers crossed and when we get in come up and party with us.
BOP: Well, we are getting dangerously low on swag, so we'll have to consider it. Let's look even further into the future. Where do you see yourself in five years at the ripe old age of 33?
JM: Ripe old age, huh? Ha! Well, I see myself making another film with more rock star cameos. [Laughs] Just joking. I am now working on some stuff with Michael Grais (Poltergeist) and hope to start a strong career with him as a producer/writer/director. I'll tell you one thing - I don't plan to disappear. I'm just starting out in this industry and I'm going to continue to climb that ladder.
BOP: What's your fallback position if Sundance doesn't work out? At what other festivals might we be able to see The Still Life?
JM: I'm gonna work hard to get into Slamdance as well. The plan, though, is to hit up a good amount of festivals but to get the film into art house theatres globally. I'll do that myself if I have to but I think we'll find a good distributor
BOP: There's been a lot of talk this year about a box office slump. What do you think is the main reason fewer people went to the movies this year?
JM: I think it is because it is expensive to go see a movie and they are all pretty much the same sort of thing anyhow. I think people want fresh ideas. I also think that with DVD's becoming more and more popular and TVs getting cooler and cooler people wait to watch movies at home. The DVD is the same price as going to see the movie and you can also see all the behind-the-scenes stuff on the DVD too.
BOP: What's your advice to aspiring filmmakers, to someone out there who just wrote a killer screenplay but doesn't know what to do next? What do you wish someone would have told you back when you had just finished writing The Still Life?
JM: Try and prepare yourself as much as possible. But mostly stick to what you set out to do - which is make a movie. No matter what happens, keep it going and get it made. I guess I'd tell the good screenplay writer to hit up breakdown services and start the ball rolling. You aren't going to get an agent. William Morris isn't going to be blown away at your incredible talents. The competition is just too fierce. You have to make the industry recognize you by not giving them a choice. If you are a "killer" writer than find someone who you think is a good director and find a good producer. Basically, to me it was like putting a band together. If you're a good drummer you still need a singer, guitar player, bass player and whoever else. So set up your team and then go get your resources together. Another great way to find crew is Craigslist.org. I pretty much got every single one of my crew through that site.
BOP: Who was your favorite Party of Five sibling?
JM: Jennifer Love Hewitt is pretty hot so I'd have to say her. Scott Wolf is a really nice guy though.
BOP: You cast yourself in The Still Life as Van Gogh. The Van Gogh? What's he doing in your movie?
JM: What good is an art movie without Van Gogh? Yep, it is the Van Gogh. People say I look like him so I went for it.
BOP: Joel, thank you for answering our questions. Best of luck with The Still Life and on your future endeavors.
JM: Thanks, I appreciate all the support.