An interview with Joe Russell | Laboratory Conditions | VMA19 BEST OF THE MONTH | May Edition
How can you scientifically prove the existence of the soul? Who can give us tangible proof of what the soul actually is? What happens after death? What energies govern the world of the paranormal?
The more intriguing the theme, the more fascinating and at the same time frightening a project can be devised, with which to give the audience a conceptually possible and sci-fi perspective on questions that are still unresolved.
This is the case of Laboratory Conditions, a short film produced by Joe Russell, known for his over 100 projects (like XOXO on Netflix, Yvonne and the upcoming "Dashboard Jesus and Hula Girl"), written by Terry Rossio (writer of Aladdin, the upcoming Godzilla vs Kong, The Pirates of the Caribbean series, etc; nominated for the Academy Award for Shrek, and Annie Award - BAFTA winner) directed by Harvard alum Jocelyn Stamat, writer and director of the series Turbo Dates.
Completed by an all-star cast of American cinema: Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler, Spiderman, My Cousin Vinny) and Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting, Will & Grace, Speechless), above all.
Laboratory Conditions, an award-winning short film within the high-profile Film Festival scene, shot in 5 days featuring visual style and editing on the level of Feature films, with its stunning 16 minutes, redefines the limits of what can be achieved in the narrative genre of short films.
This production has definitely earned and won the Best Sci-fi award at the Vegas Movie Awards and was elected Best Film of the Month in May 2019.
We had the honor and the immense delight of being able to interview Joe Russell on this wonderful project. Here’s an interview oozing with experience, inspiring for both filmmakers who aim to raise their level of professionalism, and for the audience, who’s always thirsty for new and intriguing products to get passionate about.
• Thanks for joining us for this interview, Joe, and congratulations once again on your incredible Vegas Movie Awards victory! For the uninitiated and those who don’t know you yet, would you like to make a brief mention of your hitherto extraordinary career?
Sure, here is a brief rundown. For my first 7 years in LA, I was only trying to make it in acting, improv, sketch, and stand up comedy. I had done lots of commercials, a number of indie films, and even booked the lead of pilot. All the while, I was writing my own content. Then, after 2 really big acting jobs that I booked fell through for production reasons, I made the decision to start producing my own stuff. Since then, I have produced over 100 things. The two biggest being Laboratory Conditions and The Netflix original film XOXO.
• How did the synergies between you, Jocelyn, and Terry, come about and what prompted you in your decision to produce Laboratory Conditions?
I had met Jocelyn and Terry on the set of the first feature I produced back in 2012. They liked my producing style and asked me to produce a few episodes of their digital series “Turbo Dates.” Soon after we completed those, we wanted to make a short film before making our first feature together. “Laboratory Conditions” was the best unproduced short film I had ever read at the time. In the years working together, we have all become very good friends.
I could keep going, with more problems, but that is sort of what being a producer is. Solving problems and making it happen!
• We read about the screenplay idea for this project and we know it dates back to several years ago and resulted from a challenge. Would you like to tell us about this trivia behind the realization of this project?
While he was in college, Terry Rossio had read a story about some rich guy offering a cash price of $100,000 to anyone who could prove the existence of the human soul. Terry thought this was a great concept for a movie, so he wrote his first script.
• To redefine the limits of shorts is a very ambitious challenge, especially if you want to achieve excellence on every technical aspect in just 5 days: from the narrative rhythm to the care for visual effects, to the production of an incredible original score, to the management of a legendary cast. What are the difficulties you have encountered in each field and which collaborations have allowed you to overcome them brilliantly?
List of difficulties: We fired a major star 3 days before filming. Our gaffer quit the 2 days before the shoot and took all of his equipment with him. I slept in our “laboratory” location to protect all of our equipment. Our 5-day schedule should have been an 8-day schedule. It rained on our only exterior day. Finding a real hospital to film in was nearly impossible. Our DP was out of the country until the day before our pre-light day. The first shot on our first day was a complex crane shot that took us over an hour to get and put us behind schedule. I could keep going, with more problems, but that is sort of what being a producer is. Solving problems and making it happen! It's really all about asking people for help. Mr. Rogers has this great quote “look for the helpers.” That is pretty much, in a nutshell, all I do. I had an amazing script in my hand and I was excited about it. I did not limit myself in who I asked for help, no matter how famous they were. I sent hundreds of emails and got lots of rejections, but we sure got yes's where they counted.
• How has this challenge enriched you in terms of a new film experience and what were the advantages of choosing the short film rather than the feature film option?
I guess the advantage of doing a short is really just time-based. We did everything for our short that we would have done if we were making a feature. We did table reads, created storyboards for each setup, tried to get movie stars, got top-notch film and lighting equipment, searched for very specific locations, integrated VFX, booked a talented crew, etc. Thinking back on all of our efforts, it makes logical sense to me that we ended up with something as good as Laboratory Conditions is... but, I must say, there certainly is an element of magic to our having pulled it off.
• We know that Hans Zimmer was also involved in this project. How did it enrich you from an artistic point of view to work with such talented artists and be part of this great synergy that is created between prime numbers?
Hans composed the Pirates of the Caribbean movies which Terry wrote. He emailed Hans the script and asked him if he had the time to help us out. He was on tour at the time but messaged us back that he would love to be involved in some way. We waited 8 months for his tour to end. Then, we were invited for a tour of his studio and were introduced to one of his lead composers (at the time) Andrew Kawczynski. Andrew was just phenomenal. Incredibly talented and super-nice person. The mix took just a few weeks once he got started.
• How did Laboratory Conditions enrich you from a human point of view, given the fact that a total of more than 100 professionals worked on it?
I feel like my experience with Laboratory Conditions solidified my general philosophy. I believe in hiring based on personality first, and talent second. Talent is important, of course! But if you are a jerk, I really do not care how talented you are because you're probably not going to be a fun person to create with. When someone is on set with me, I am aware that they are not with their family and loved ones. So, I am profoundly grateful to everyone who works on anything I produce. Everybody should be treated equally on set, so I do everything I can to remove the typical "set hiraccy." I encourage extras to sit with the producers or main acting talent during lunch, everyone eats at the same time and has access to the same snacks, etc. No one should feel out of place.
• Let’s talk about the plot, without spoiling anything: the two main characters in the story have an identical medical-scientific background, but two different ethics and sensibilities: on one hand we find the brutal cynicism and the thirst for scientifically irrefutable answers (even at the cost of life) and on the other moral ethics and a ‘sensibility’ that leads to the ‘vision’ of the answers without necessarily having verifiable scientific proof. Two very clear positions, strongly in contrast with each other. How did you define and perfect the peculiarities of each character with Marisa and Minnie?
Here is how that happened. Terry wrote 2 wonderfully compelling and relatable characters. Minnie and Marisa knocked their performances out of the park with our director Jocelyn guiding them along the way. It is important to note that we did not rush the editing process, which we worked on bit by bit for over a year.
• Laboratory Conditions begins quickly and literally stuns the viewer, transporting them directly and breathlessly into the story, in an escalation of suspense with a deliberate, unsolved ending that engulfs terribly. Do you want to motivate this stylistic choice?
Jocelyn, Terry, and I watched hundreds of short films in preparation for ours. Our general philosophy was that we did not want to waste any time. No beauty shots just for the sake of beauty shots. We wanted each moment on screen to be meaningful and move the story forward.
When someone is on set with me, I am aware that they are not with their family and loved ones. So, I am profoundly grateful to everyone who works on anything I produce.
• This project will leave in the eyes of the audience a burning desire to see its sequel and makes for a perfect feature or TV Series. Is there any chance it will become something more and be released soon?
We still have not released the short to the general public yet, but we have now appeared in 83 film festivals all around the world and have won over 20 awards. We remain open to offers for a feature or tv series deal. We did get one offer for a feature version, but the budget being offered was too low for us to keep our stars, so we passed. Instead, we decided to work on our next feature film entitled “Dashboard Jesus and Hula Girl".
• What do you recommend to the indie filmmakers who will read this interview and who constantly have to deal with various challenges (first of all, the budget) that indie productions involve? What are 3 fundamental points for you that you believe have allowed you so far to excel in your projects?
If one part of the process is holding you back, ask someone for help. Regarding budget, work backward from the amount you want to spend and do not skimp on the food / crafty amounts. Be fair and upfront with everyone regarding the amounts you actually have to spend in each department. Prep every project as if it were a feature. Hire your crew based on personality first and talent 2nd. Watch other films in your genre and make notes about what you like and don't like. Above all else, have a good life experience while making your film... and take a few pictures for your scrapbook.
• At the end of this experience, do you feel you have found some extra clue to what the soul is? What is your interpretation of this?
In my 20's and for the first part of my 30's I certainly tried to find answers to questions like these. Will my soul survive after my physical body dies? If it does, I like to think of my soul skimming across the universe at the speed of light while holding the hands of my loved ones as we take in the wonders of the cosmos. But, I do realize that is just my imagination at play.I have found more happiness when I ask myself the question "How I can make my life meaningful?" We have the power and ability to make this life a great experience for almost all of humankind, but instead, a lot of humans like to pick sides. Black vs white, left vs right, me vs you, this country vs that country... etc. Where is the religion based on John Lennon's song "Imagine?" Sign me up for that one. I do understand people needing faith, and why that leads them to religion... but I think it would be helpful if folks stopped believing in a doctrine that was likely created in the dark ages.
• It was an immense pleasure to have had you and Laboratory Conditions shine under the lights of Las Vegas. Thank you for this wonderful interview, Joe. Is there anyone you’d like to thank and dedicate these last few lines to?
I hope that everyone who reads this knows how special and unique they are. Take chances. Jump and the universe will catch you! If you cannot find strength in yourself, find it in other people by talking to them and telling them about what is troubling you. No one is alone in this world. If you are a filmmaker, make the kind of movie that made you fall in love with movies in the first place. We need more of those.
- Website: www.JoeRussellProductions.com