"With this film, I empowered my team to take ownership of their positions"
An interview with Joe Lam | FUGITIVE ZERO | VMA20 BEST THRILLER | September Edition
In a world with a flawed criminal justice system, an alternative parole program that secretly tests the morals of prisoners could become a reality in the future.
This concept developed by Joe Lam, VMA winner for Best Thriller in September, is dramatized in his latest film, Fugitive Zero, an adrenaline-pumped action-thriller. The film deals with an escaped convict who discovers he’s taking part in a live simulation where surveillance cameras monitor his every move, undercover FBI agents act out crisis scenarios to test his morals, and the person who ultimately approves his parole is the mother of the victim he killed.
Joe Lam, established director, writer, and producer of this intriguing film, deepens the story with his perspective on how technology can offer an alternative solution to the criminal justice system.
• Welcome and, again, congratulations on your victory at the Vegas Movie Awards as Best Thriller and Best Director in September, as well as Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Poster. Would you like to make a small introduction about who you are and when did your career in the film industry begin?
I first started as an Intern at Paramount Pictures and then graduated from the Academy of Art University where I won my first award for my thesis film. I worked at various production companies starting out as a Production Assistant and then became a Producer in 3 years. However, I never felt satisfied working for a company and what shocked me is that many of my co-workers who were 10 years ahead of me actually wanted to write, produce, or direct their own projects.
So, I left all of that and I decided to start my own production company called Shining Light Pictures, which allowed me to work on a variety of projects from commercials, music videos, promos, and documentaries. In my spare time, I focused on learning the craft of storytelling by writing screenplays and directing short films so I could transition into writing and directing movies.
• Your film Fugitive Zero talks about an alternative solution to criminal justice based on proving the real discernment of prisoners through a sort of “simulated reality” where you can also assess the degree of “change”. Could you elaborate on this idea and how it came about?
I know someone who was charged for a crime through a sting operation conducted by the police without an actual victim. I thought to myself, if police can create a simulated event to lure someone into a false crime, why not use that same process to determine the release of a prisoner by secretly testing their morals? That became an interesting idea to measure whether a person improved or became worse during their imprisonment.
So I built a storyline where a prisoner thinks he escaped prison and must pass a series of five moral tests for their parole hearing. To personalize it for the characters, I changed the process from a judge granting parole to the person most affected by the prisoner’s actions, the mother of the victim he killed. This helped elevate the stakes and tension.
I thought to myself, if police can create a simulated event to lure someone into a false crime, why not use that same process to determine the release of a prisoner by secretly testing their morals?
• What are your greatest sources of inspiration as a filmmaker so far? Who has influenced your style in any way?
I grew up watching Spielberg, Scorsese, and James Cameron who are masters at blending dramatic tension with a strong visual style. They tend to place or move their cameras in just the right way to maximize the impact on an audience. They also express universal themes that elevate their stories to something deep, meaningful, and transformative. I always find myself hooked from start to finish while watching their films and that’s what I strive for in my storytelling.
• Exploring the point of view of a prisoner, in the case of the protagonist Frankie Harris Jr. (Andrew Golubic), an innocent victim of a misunderstanding, is a passionate and arduous choice. How do you think your idea of “simulated reality” might help, from Frankie’s psychological standpoint?
At his core, Frankie desires to do the right thing and the program’s simulated reality was not meant to prove his innocence, but to determine if he was safe to be released back into society. When he discovers the true nature of the program, he seizes the opportunity to reveal the truth to the victim’s mother about what happened about how her son died. It’s a moment of truth and redemption that’s stolen by the villain, who sabotages the program and frames him for murder.
• The rhythmic pace of the lines, within just 15 minutes of your film, manages to achieve an incredible degree of involvement for the viewer. What approach and what tricks did you use in writing your screenplay to make your narrative so effective?
Since it’s an action-thriller, I intentionally designed the story in a way that would create a thrill ride for the audience in both the action scenes of the live simulation and the dramatic moments inside the surveillance room. To maximize story tension, I created clearly defined characters each with their own agenda.
• Every character in the story is really well thought out, and a really good cast makes Fugitive Zero really captivating for the general public. How did you create the characters and everything that defines them, both in personality and visual style?
For character personalities, I created characters with directly opposite goals. I started with Frankie and created a desire for him to tell the truth to Victoria, the mother of the victim he allegedly killed. I then designed Victoria as a character who couldn’t rest until she knew the truth about Frankie. These two people needed each other in order to heal and move on, which maximized the tension and conflict.
I also created tension with two other opposing characters, Baker, who created the program and Ashton, who sabotages it. These two push and pull on Victoria as she holds the final approval to grant Frankie’s parole. Baker supports justice and while Ashton supports punishment.
In terms of visual style, I allow the actors during rehearsal to figure out their own placement in each scene and then I position the cameras around them. I also storyboard every shot to uncover the best way to communicate the moment’s concept, theme, or message. This also breaks up the visual flow so that every scene looks different. I also shoot to edit and would rather spend time capturing one amazing shot rather than a lot of mediocre shots that cover the scene. With the movie already assembled in storyboard form, it saves the entire production enormous time on set.
• Large productions require a lot of coordination between departments, and require greater challenges than normal. What were the biggest difficulties you encountered in Fugitive Zero?
Honestly, there weren’t many difficulties in filming as I’m extremely meticulous as a Producer. We held numerous pre-production meetings with the cast & crew to ensure everything would run smoothly on set and since I storyboard and plan every shot in advanced, it became easy for all departments to follow along and for our 1st AD to keep us on track. In the end, we captured every shot on camera so I was pretty happy.
• Do you have any trivia or stories about the filming of the movie?
Yes, we actually lost one of our actors 1 week prior to filming. After months of searching through 6000+ actors and auditioning them, we suddenly needed to find a new actor who could fit in with the already established cast. When we booked another actor, he ended up leaving four days before our shoot date for a bigger television project. However, we managed to find Corey Brill from “The Walking Dead" within 60 hours of filming. We scrambled to get a suit for his character and he stepped into the role without any rehearsal time. Without his involvement, we wouldn’t have finished the film because our location became unavailable for the rest of the year.
• How have you been enriched by shooting Fugitive Zero and what are the things you feel you have improved with this experience, as a director and as a human being?
With this film, I empowered my team to take ownership of their positions. Especially with the cast, I entrusted them with creating their characters and rewriting dialogue to fit their way of speaking. They felt included in the collaborative process and it gave them the freedom to craft genuine performances without me interrupting them between each take. I learned that if am controlling every nuance of their performance, they lose their connection with the character and are no longer listening to themselves, they’re listening to me. I believe that if an actor fully understands their character at their core, asking them to act differently will actually pull them out of their character. This process led four of our cast members (Andrew Golubic, Georgina Elizabeth Okon, Brent Gutierrez, Patrick Zeller) to earn 14 Best Actor Awards.
I entrusted the cast with creating their characters and rewriting dialogue to fit their way of speaking. They felt included in the collaborative process and it gave them the freedom to craft genuine performances without me interrupting them between each take.
• Fugitive Zero is well suited to become a feature film. Is this a possibility you have considered for the near future or are you already working on other projects?
Yes, I based the short film on a feature screenplay that I wrote and won an award for in 2019. Since it’s a larger budget for a first time director, I have entered into a co-production deal with Joe Barbagallo of Barbhouse Productions to produce a low budget horror movie called “The Fetus” about a man who’s been seduced by a demonic woman who sets out to kill her when he discovers she carries his unborn, demonic child. That will be my directorial debut and after that, we plan to make the full-length version of “Fugitive Zero”.
• Thank you, Joe, for this inspiring interview. Where can our fans and followers find your work and follow you?
Here are sites where people can connect with me.
Joe’s Personal Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ShiningLightPictures/
Fugitive Zero Facebook: https://facebook.com/FugitiveZero
- Joe’s Personal Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ShiningLightPictures/
- Fugitive Zero Facebook: https://facebook.com/FugitiveZero
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shininglight/
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org