Filmmaker Joe Carabeo talks controlling time and failing upwards
Joe Carabeo is a filmmaker, comic book creator, and photographer based out of Washington, D.C. In time with the release of his latest short film, Rough, and a few weeks before another short of his, Process, will be in the running at the 2018 Pitch to Screen Film Awards, I sat down with Joe to chat about working in specific mediums, always approaching character first, and being part a famous backyard wrestling federation in high school.
Process tells the story of a journalist seeking the scoop from a famous and lonely musician in need of inspiration, while Rough depicts two people trying to work through their breakup — while training for a fight.
Read the full interview below:
Mike Mazzanti: I want to start off by jumping back a bit: where did you grow up?
Joe Carabeo: Actually, I grew up in Northern Virginia. Berk Virginia, exactly.
MM: Do you have any idea about what it is in that area, growing up there, that inspired you, or continues to inspire your work today?
JC: I guess the closest thing I could gravitate towards is, whenever you move away from your hometown, at least for me, I was like: I’m going to film in my high school! The stuff that when you made films when you were younger, you still had on your checklist. So, part of that still inspires me. I have yet to film in my high school [now]. During my high school time, I actually did a lot of filming there. I was part of a very prominent backyard wrestling federation that got on the news, got on Howard Stern TV. Because before, my school did not have a film program, so this was the best way, in my mind, to get into filmmaking: To do the backyard wrestling, and to release the stuff on the web — on the early internet — back then. When I was filming that, I always had movies in mind. We’d be making a movie, and there would be a [wrestling] match involved, sort of secondary.
MM: Would you wrestle in the events as well as shoot them? Or were you just coordinating them from behind the scenes?
JC: Absolutely, man. I was camera operating and I was also a wrestler on that show. It was unique because when we graduated high school — because we did that [wrestling show] from sophomore year until we graduated — and I had to make a real choice. When I graduated I was like, okay, I really love the filmmaking part but I do love pro wrestling, too [Laughs].
JC: So, it was unique. So what happened was, I [had] partnered up with one of my good friends there, who is still [wrestling], and I had to make a choice: We were either going to go into pro wrestling as a lifestyle choice after we graduate, or I was gonna go into filmmaking. And, I made that choice of focusing on filmmaking, and he made that choice to do pro wrestling as a living. So, I always have those thoughts of, ‘oh man!’ I see him and what he’s doing [Laughs] I always have that like, ‘I wish I could do that too,’ but I’m focused. This is what I love doing as well.
MM: Yeah, you have a little bit of that ‘could’ve been me.’ So then, what made you choose the path of continuing storytelling in the filmmaking sense, what made you go down that path?
JC: It really came down to following my instinct. Because, yeah, I love pro wrestling. I love comic books, I love drawing. But I felt like the one thing that encapsulated all of that was filmmaking. For me, everything I’ve done has been through lessons, or some people would say, failures. [Laughs]. I felt like I wasn’t a good enough artist to be a comic book illustrator. So, with that [in mind], I was like, well what’s easier than that? Oh, photography! Then I was like, ‘oh, I don’t think I’m good enough to do this level of photography.’ Well, what else could I do that was like telling stories like a comic book, but also shooting photography? Oh, that’s filmmaking! So, each level of the way, I was like, ‘oh I’m not good enough, I’m never good enough,’ so I just keep on, I guess, failing upward? [Laughs]. If that makes sense.
MM: Absolutely. When I look through your filmography, I see you’ve experimented in all sorts of genres and fields. You’ve done sci-fi, silent film, drama, commercials, music videos. So you have this wide spectrum of modes of storytelling, and also of genres. What modes of storytelling or what genres do you find most enticing to you right now?
JC: Well, I love the idea of genre. Genres in general. Francis Ford Coppola was like, don’t mess with the genre! Keep those rules as they are. I was a big Joss Whedon fan growing up, I watched Buffy [the Vampire Slayer]and all those shows growing up, that were genre-bending. You’re breaking the rules of a genre which created its own genre. So, I really love the idea of, I guess being rebellious in a genre? Like, oh, you know in a romantic comedy, they have those rules of [how] the people who hate each other in the beginning are, of course, going to come back together in the end. The Taming of the Shrew style. Again, with the comic book background, I’m a fan of Alan Moore, whose always deconstructing ideas and genres. I love taking that into filmmaking.
So, with that in mind, I actually have no idea what I’m into right now! [Laughs]. There’s such a wide spectrum. In 2018, my goal was to make a short film every single month. I did it in 2013, and the pressure was that I had to release something every month. And so, in 2018, I sort of took that away. So [now] it’s going to be made, but I don’t have to have a deadline of releasing it every month. Because that was a crazier idea. But, it’ll get produced in a month, and then it’ll get done in the year or so. But we’re right on time.
MM: Great! So every month you’re having something in the works that you’re producing and that you’re working on?
JC: Absolutely. And just today, October 1st, we released the new one. So, we’re just rockin’ and rollin’. And talking about genres, each time you make a film, you can’t repeat the last one. So, now I’m like, what else can I do next? So, each film has become a response to the last one.
MM: Right. So for you, it doesn’t seem like genre dictates story. You sort of choose a story, and then you find the genre or genres that best fit that story that you’re looking to tell. Is that how it seems to work for you now?
JC: I’ve always believed that the characters are what dictate [everything]. The way I was taught — again, this is pooling from Alan More. [He] was a big influence for me, and when I was getting into writing, I actually bought a book by Alan Moore called Writing for Comicsand for me, everything in that book embodied the way I developed things. He would talk about how you have characters, then you develop the world around them, and then you start playing God [Laughs]. So I think for me, I’ve always begun with imagining a character, and then trying to decipher who this character is, and then systematically, I go into filmmaker-mode. [Then I say], what can I do with this person? What can happen in their life? And then build the world around that.
MM: Sometimes it is tempting, for me, to pick a genre or an idea, but I think it is always smart to come back to character and have them dictate the story, the action, everything. As long as it’s coming from character, I think that’s a good way to go about it.
JC: Yeah, and I feel like it’s also an honest way of going at it, too. It makes things emotionally-driven, and I feel like if it’s based on character, and it’s based on emotion, hopefully that’s something the audience can understand. Then after you’ve already painted that picture, that’s the part where you say now, as a filmmaker, what can I do with this story? That’s the building blocks. Because we all know, when we make a script, and we take it onto set, and then we go into editing, that script can change. So many times.
MM: Definitely. So as long as you have that core element keeping you anchored to everything, you know you won’t get too off track.
JC: Yeah. And I feel like I’m a unique situation, because I write comic books constantly. My wife and I, with Curls Studio, we’re making comic books and we’re doing the convention scene. I have to bounce back and forth between writing [in] the comic book style and writing [in] a movie or a television script style. It’s weird, I was telling people, yeah, I’m going to start doing comics a lot more. They would always jokingly say, ‘oh comics? That’s just storyboards in a movie. Those are just storyboards, I can do it.’ So, I almost went out of my way to make the comics so theycannot be made into movies [Laughs]. If that makes sense. Because, it’s like a respect to the medium. There’s certain things in comics that don’t cross over to movies, and there’s certain things in movies that comics have so much control over. I think the main thing — people don’t realize — is time. As a director, you’re controlling people’s time. So when you watch a movie, you’re stuck with whatever running time the movie is. You can only watch the movie in that time. As a filmmaker, we’re giving the audience that much information at whatever speed, but only in the constraints of that block [of time].
But in comics, the creators — we have no control, really, over how long the audience will read that page. If we put one panel, we hope they’ll stay on that page forever, but really that’s what’s cool about comics: the audience can sit and read it as fast as they want, or take their time. I think that’s why both of those are cool. In filmmaking, you’re trapping your audience [Laughs]. In comics, you’re hoping they go for the ride that you want them to, but they have control over their time. I think that’s cool.
MM: Absolutely. I think that’s interesting, because my next question was actually about your short Process, which is the short you submitted to the Pitch to Screen Film Awards.
MM: With that one, even though it is a set runtime, as a narrative, it takes its time. That’s interesting, I don’t know if you were working on a comic at the same time, but the way time works in that short made me think of what you’re talking about regarding constructing time.
JC: In a way, we were trying to get into the mind of a character that’s stuck in her own time. When you’re depressed, or sad, or trying to get over things, a lot of times, time moves slower. I was telling this to Rachel [Faulkner], who plays Frankie: everyone seems to have a tendency to go a little faster when directing. People always start with spitting the words out as fast as possible. One of the things I learned was, a lot of acting is breathing. So, I told her, this person’s [time is moving slower], breathe slow. That’s the mentality, that’s the pacing we’re going to be in. Don’t feel like you need to rush. Slow it down.
Because I feel like when you slow down the pacing of the breath, when you slow down the pacing of things, you start to be able to control the room. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this in real time, with people. If you’re talking to a person…and you slow it down, like I just did, people start to listen more. I think that’s interesting. So, I wanted to play around with that, and with the pacing.
MM: I think that’s clever, and I think that brings it back to what we were just talking about in terms of approaching everything from character first. So, going from that place, while in production, in Process there is that focus on character and on performance. Is it important for you to always emphasize performance before getting into composition or lighting?
JC: At a certain point, there is a good balance to that. The composition has to be amazing, but also the performance has to be just as amazing, so it doesn’t look like we’re doing anything. I still believe filmmaking, everything we do, should be to that level of magic where people don’t realize you’re actually creating anything, if that makes sense. It’s weird to me, when I get excited about someone’s performance, I start to giggle and laugh, because I can’t believe it’s friggin’ real! The first time I had an actor just nail a performance — in any one of my films — it made me feel like, ‘I know this person in real life, and I can’t believe they went to 500! They actually hit that level. I’m like, oh my god! This is crazy! [Laughs]. But, cinema is the completion of all those things. It’s like, oh the performance is great, but I’d feel bad if the performance was so good, but then [the composition] looks like crap [Laughs]. So, I need to have that balance.
JC: It’s like our responsibility. If the actor is willing to go 200%, we have to be willing to supplement that in every direction. So it’s a respect to the medium and to everyone’s work ethic as well.
MM: I know you said you have a lot of things in the works, and you just released a new film.
SPOILERS BELOW FOR TWO OF JOE’S FILMS, PROCESS AND ROUGH.
JC: So what’s amazing is, when we finished Process, we were talking about how that is sort of a more mental project. And with the two characters, Frankie and Haley, I like the fact that you’re sticking two strangers together and you don’t know what’s gonna happen. I really enjoyed that part, and while watching it, you hopefully understand the loneliness that Frankie was going through. Because, for all of her millions, every part of her life was broken up. She has to create something, but she can’t create something. It’s almost like the ultimate writer’s block. I don’t know if anyone’s experienced that, but when you’re at that point, where you don’t know who you are, or you don’t know what you’re doing with your life, and you have someone enter your life — they don’t know this but, that person is really important. Because what they say or what they do could shape what happens next [for you]. I was really intrigued to see what happens there.
So, their character arch was cool, because from that moment, and who knows what Haley’s real motives were, but her existence in that house with Frankie could’ve given her hope. Who knows where she would’ve been [otherwise]. Her moment there, her friendship or whatever may come of that, that was a direct impact on Frankie. So, I wanted the audience to be like, ‘oh! They could’ve been friends.’ So, you go from strangers to possibly friends, to back to loneliness.
But what we do in my new film, Rough, is the complete opposite. We’re having an ex couple who used to have a relationship, but now they’re trainers. They train each other for muay thai — we never really talk about [that in the film] — and I always thought it would be intriguing to see two people who used to be in a relationship try to solve the problems of the relationship, while training for a fight. Because, usually if you’re in a fight with a man and a woman, you’re not supposed to punch and kick, you know? But in this case, I guess you’re allowed to, because they’re training; it’s like, this is what you do [Laughs]. Essentially, Frankie and Haley’s relationship in Process, they never touch. They’re only talking with words. But now there’s such a physical aspect in Rough that I thought was amazing to dig [into] and see what happens there.
MM: Great, I’m excited to watch it! Where can people find you and your work?
JC: I always send people to my website, JoeCarabeo.com. That’s the easiest way, and it has links to every single thing that I do. Right on the main page, you can go to my Podcast, you can go to my Instagram, you can go to whatever music I’m playing. You can go to my tumblr, because all the kids are on tumblr! [Laughs]. So, all of that is filtered through there, and you can also see all the newest films I release, as well as the newest photography series and comic books that I release.
Process and Rough are both available now on Joe’s website, JoeCarabeo.com.
The writer: Michael Mazzanti is a filmmaker, writer, and critic based out of Washington, D.C. He is the resident genre enthusiast at The Film Stage, and a lover of everything from the outré to the everyday. You can find him on Twitter @BeTheGeese, on Vimeo @MichaelMazzanti, on Letterboxd @RidleyScotch, on Instagram @Lionsgatepictures, and via email at MikeWMazzanti@gmail.com.
Originally published at medium.com on October 1, 2018.