Interview: Filmmaker and St. Louis Native Joe Weil

Filmmaker Joe Weil sits in a booth at the Olivette Diner in St. Louis, which even GoogleMaps affectionately calls an “old-school brunch spot,” similar to the diner Paul Thomas Anderson used for his first short film “Cigarettes and Coffee,” but without the mountains of northern Los Angeles in the background. Ambient diner noises abound: glass clinking, coffee stirring, boisterous conversation, coffee pouring and someone has scrawled “No debit or credit cards accepted” on a white marker board.

25-year-old Weil, who grew up in St. Louis and is now based in L.A., wears a bright turquoise patterned shirt and pink sunglasses, an empty plate beside him which had formerly been eggs and bacon. Weil actually shot one of his first films here when he was back in high school, called “Welcome To Shirley.” Later, on the way out, he runs into a woman with a blonde pixie cut, who shouts, “Joe Weil! You’re in town?” He asks if she’s going to the diner, she says she’s going next door for a pedicure before he runs into another hometown friend.

Weil admittedly had little idea about how the industry worked before moving out to Los Angeles, but he doesn’t profess to know the intricacies of its inner workings now, either. But he did know that he wanted to tell stories, with film as the medium. After attending the University of Southern California and studying film production, Weil and a group of surrounding creatives started the company Psycho Films, and has directed music videos for artists like Kendrick Lamar and Puff Daddy, with the ultimate goal of writing and developing feature-length films. Yet he’s also privy to how a film project, even by successful filmmakers, can go off the rails

“Have you seen the Hobbit movies?” he says. “They’re trash. Peter Jackson actually filmed this video clip where he talks about exactly what went wrong in a really honest way.” He explains that Guillermo Del Toro was originally slated to direct and was awarded a large budget and over a year of pre-production. Del Toro dropped out, so Peter Jackson ended up directing it. “But he only had three months of prep, so he wasn’t able to make the kind of film Del Toro was going to make. They had these massive scenes with tons of extras and green screens and special effects that would normally take two or three months to shoot. And they had to do it in like four days. It’s so depressing and so true.”

Keep reading for our conversation with Weil at the Olivette Diner, where we discuss his inspirations, heroes and how to break into film.

How did you start making music videos for these high-profile artists?
Honestly, we needed a way to show people that we could make stuff. It was kind of by accident. We had a film project we were trying to get off the ground, “Fringes,” which I co-wrote. We’re actually shopping it right now. We also had a TV-series idea called “White Boy Fly,” which one of the guys we work with came up with. But nobody knew who we were, and no one really cared, so it was hard for us to find an access point to actually get these things made. Music videos were a way to start making things, to show people what our style and aesthetic is.

L.A., especially in the last 10 years, has been in the midst of a super intense arts revival, coming out of the downtown area and the arts district. We were meeting a lot of interesting, creative people, and just down the street is this great arts district. We started doing videos for artists that probably no one has really heard of, for no budget. They didn’t have money, but what they did have was time. Right now if I shoot a video, I get probably two days with an artist, if I’m lucky. But if you meet someone who’s still living on their mom’s couch and trying to get a music career off the ground, you could have them for 10 days. That allowed us to get really creative with our shooting and concepts, with a bunch of different locations and spending a ton of time editing.

What was the moment where you really broke through those first (of what must be many) barriers in the industry?
Eventually, we were showing those videos we shot at art showcases around downtown L.A., and we ended up getting discovered by Hit-Boy, a Grammy-winning producer who has worked with artists like Kanye West, Rihanna, Eminem, Lil Wayne and Beyoncé. He saw something in us when we were just showing videos, and he approached us, took us under his wing and really showed us how the music industry works. We were going around with him shooting content, pretty much attached at the hip, and he made a ton of intros for us.

We ended up in rooms with amazing people when we really shouldn’t have been, with lots of energy and assertiveness. We got our real break with videos for Kendrick Lamar, at which point we already knew a lot of people in the game as friends. It was a weird phenomena. It was this little bro dynamic, where they were really proud of us. I was very lucky. Once I have videos like that in my reel, I can go and pitch on other things. No one’s going to question why I’m at the table. It’s weird how the industry works like that, but there is a real barrier to entry. It’s just a game, honestly. I’m still trying to figure it out.

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Tell me about Psycho Films and your aesthetic.
We’re a group of creatives, directors and filmmakers, all pitching very subversive, provocative and strange concept ideas. We wear our brand on our sleeves. So, if you’re an artist and you’re looking for somebody who’s going to give you the regular, typical video experience, you just don’t have a reason to call me. The artists I work with—I’ll use Puff Daddy as an example, who I worked with at the end of [2015] on a video called “Blow A Check” with Zoey Dollaz and French Montana. If Puff had said to his team, “Give me a list of the top working music video directors right now,” I’m probably not going to be on that list. But if he said, “Give me a list of the top young directors making new, cool stuff,” then I will be on that list. So for someone to approach us, they must want what we’re giving, which is not the traditional music video experience. That’s protected me in a way.

I’ve also gotten much more accepting about not getting jobs. Sometimes I’ll bid for something and write the craziest concept for a video, and I won’t get the job, but I’ll see the video they put out, and think, “That makes total sense. They clearly did not want the thing that I do.” If they want something really boring or typical, like cars with hydraulics and girls twerking or whatever—that’s just not what we do, and I understand why they didn’t come to us.

That’s not to say that everyone else’s stuff is bad. I’m much more upset if I see an artist put out something and think “Wow, that’s a great video. I wish I had been able to work with them.” That’s been a big part of situating ourselves in this industry: figuring out what we offer, and not getting too caught up when someone wants something that isn’t my aesthetic.

What’s it like to direct Puff Daddy?
I love Puff. I can’t say enough good stuff about him. When you work with an artist like that—I mean, he’s an expert. I’ll say that. He’s been in the industry for so long, and what you get when you work with an artist like Puff is a lot of experience. That is something that could, depending on your personality as a director, be difficult to manage when you have someone who probably knows more than you do—he’s going to weigh in a lot. I had a phenomenal experience working with Puff. I’ve been lucky working with all the artists I’ve been able to connect with, because they’ve been willing to listen to my ideas and I theirs—creating stuff that we’re proud of.

Obviously your end product has to be amazing, but also when we’re looking at other directors that we want to create with, we factor in how good is the end product, and how good are you at actually making it? How good are you at being on set with the artist, and not losing your shit if a curveball comes your way? We do have systems in place to help with that—producers and managers. So when I’m directing a video, I pretty much just talk to the artist and a few of my department heads. But you’re still the captain of the ship, and it comes down to you when you’re running out of time and you have to make a compromise.

How did you know you wanted to be a director and live this life?
I think those are two separate questions. I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker always, ever since I was a kid. I reenact the movies I watched in my backyard, and I made videos with my friends on the camcorder. I’ve been shooting stuff since I was 10 years old. I always knew that was an interest. I made micro-budget feature-length films in high school growing up in St. Louis, and tapped into the film scene here. That helped me learn how to motivate people, organize and put a team together.

When I learned I wanted to live the lifestyle was really when I committed to film school, because I’m from St. Louis, so I didn’t really know anything about the industry. I thought I knew a lot, but I didn’t know shit. I’d made some stuff in St. Louis, but when you get to L.A. and see the industry, how it operates and the business behind everything—there’s an entire production machine behind making something. There was nothing shooting like that in St. Louis. Obviously there’s a completely legitimate route for filmmakers who stay close to where they grew up and produce low-budget festival movies. That’s great. I love filmmakers like that and their work. But L.A. is a different beast. There’s an industry and a framework of how things work.

That being said, you still have to make your own path there. I didn’t really know what the truth of the lifestyle and the industry was, and the realities of what it’s like. I still don’t. I’m still on the periphery. I’ve been lucky to have some really awesome experiences that I never thought I’d have in my life. I have ideas and thoughts about how to sustain a career, but I really don’t know. I’m still learning every day.

How do you see your career progressing, and what choices have you made to get to this point?
When I got my first music-video credits, the more typical route would have been that I go and sign with a music-video production company to be on their roster, because I’m inexperienced. I’d then have a bigger company that has experience and a name that already had relationships that could help usher my career. But we didn’t do that. At the same time, we’re growing these directors and this creative brand, we want to keep growing this company. Which means when you work with these influential artists, we have to worry about whether these massive labels, like Universal and Warner Music, trust us enough to give us these large budgets and know that everything will be done right, on schedule and accounted for properly. On the entrepreneurial and creative side, you have to earn capital. But ultimately hope that’ll give us the most creative control.

I’m really trying to transition back into film and television, which is originally why I went out to L.A. in the first place. About 70 perfect of what I’m working on is TV, because that’s where all the fun long-form stuff is. I’ve gained a real appreciation for that medium.

What films and television shows do you love, and why?
I try to watch as much as possible. I just watched “Big Little Lies.” I really like HBO’s content. They’ve really mastered the mini-series. It’s mixing the best of film and television, with long-form storytelling. You’re not left with a quick hanger at the end. You really get to explore the characters. I also loved “West World,” and the question it was posing. That if you subscribe to the idea and belief that God, or consciousness, created man, then what’s the difference between that and us consciously creating these robots as people? I also watch comedies, like “Insecure” on HBO, and “Love” on Netflix. Like every other twenty-something filmmaker, I love Judd Apatow. He’s a genius. He has a flourishing directorial career, but can also produce and help other people who he thinks are talented find ways to get their start. That’s super inspirational. I’m not a fan of people hopping: the whole, “I’ll work with you all when it’s convenient for me,” mentality as a way of climbing the ladder. And I don’t think it’s nearly as advantageous as rising the whole movement up with you.

In film, I really look for a solid perspective, honesty and good writing. Good writing, really, and story crafting. I’m also watching “Superior Donuts” right now, which is based on a Tracy Letts play, who wrote “Killer Joe” and “August Osage County.” I thought it was so interesting that they’d take a Tracy Letts play and turn it into a laugh-track sitcom. It’s about a donut shop in Chicago that’s been there for years in a neighborhood that’s being gentrified. It’s fresh to see stuff like that.

“Love,” too. With that show, their whole idea was to make a show that harps on every single awkward painful moment of two people getting to know each other. The stuff that usually gets skipped in the beginning is the meat of the show. “Magnolia” by Paul Thomas Anderson is probably my favorite movie of all time. I argue with my friend, one of our directors, about that movie all the time. He thinks it’s a great film, but he likes to talk shit about it sometimes because he knows how much I love it. That’s also a great example of a film that takes the minutiae of life and treats it as if it’s the biggest, most epic stuff in the world. Those day-in-the-life moments are treated with such a riveting pace.

Who are some of your favorite directors?
That’s evolved over time. Obviously Paul Thomas Anderson is one. I love the Coen brothers and Woody Allen. Those last two make a lot of movies—enough that there are missteps. They have their films that are among the greatest ever made and then [they have] their flops. But maybe they grow on you, because they’re taking a lot of risks in diverse genres. I love Kevin Smith movies, and films like “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma,” “Mallrats.” That’s the antithesis of some of those other small-moment movies—those are more based on the hometown experience.

How has growing up in the Midwest shaped your experience as a maker?

It gave me so many foundations to build upon. St. Louis is a city that really values arts and culture:  many public institutions and museums are free, which enabled me to soak up varying perspectives and artistic ideas that I might not have been able to access otherwise. There’s so much great music, powerful theater, and beautiful movie theaters there, which all became second homes throughout my adolescence. Being in a small but mighty pond taught me the power of collaboration, and from the time I started making things I knew I wanted to do it hand-in-hand with friends and like-minded, free-spirited individuals. I was so lucky to find that in St. Louis’ talented pool of actors and filmmakers, many of whom I still work with today and and others I hope to work with again in the future.

The city and its industry were so welcoming when I was making my earliest productions there, granting me access to locations and opportunities that enabled me to tell the stories I wanted to tell, with little experience and no budget. My classmates at Ladue Horton-Watkins High School allowed me to be weird and indulge my creative urges, and teachers placed a real value on multi-media education. They and allowed me to find my way by supporting my projects, providing mentorship and a stimulating intellectual atmosphere. Its not lost on me how lucky I am to have grown up with all of that.

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