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Joe Russo Interview

Producing Fear From the Heart: An interview with Joe Russo

An Interview with Writer / Director / Producer Joe Russo

Joe Russo has been writing, directing, and producing fear for over a decade now and there is no stopping him. Born in Connecticut, Russo made his way to Los Angeles, and along his journeys has worked with a few people like Mick Garris, Joe Dante, Bruce Willis, and Zac Efron, just to name a small select few. A strong fan of genre films, Russo was gracious enough to spend some time with us chatting about his writing career, his thoughts of recent respect for the horror genre in the mainstream, and his love of Ghostbusters, making him “gooble, gobble, one of us!”

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Ian Klink

Joe, thank you so much for doing this interview.  You have three movies coming out in 2023, plus producing the podcast Post Mortem, plus I know you write every day, and you have your family, so the big question: When do you sleep and for how many hours? 

Joe Russo 

Yeah, I don’t have kids and I think that’s a big reason why I do get a good night’s sleep. 

Ian Klink 

I’ve got one. That’s why I don’t. 

Joe Russo

There you go. I think if I factored in children on top of all of those things, I probably wouldn’t sleep, but I actually sleep very well.

Ian Klink 

In this industry, that’s good. I’m glad you can. So growing up in Connecticut was there a thriving film community, or did you really just find it all on your own? 

Joe Russo 

There was not one. I grew up loving movies. My parents weren’t really sports people living in Connecticut. There are no major sporting teams. So there was no one really to root for in my hometown, so movies became the thing I became passionate about. And I love watching them and rewatching them and rewatching them and probably much to my parent’s chagrin and nightmares. There wasn’t really because Hollywood’s so far away from Connecticut that no one really considers it a real job, you know? Where there was one guy I went to high school with named Andrew Pappas and he was kind of the film club kid who wanted to be Steven Spielberg. He was making movies in high school and he and I became passionate about movies together and he kind of fueled that passion. And one day when we were both freshmen in college, he came home from his school in New Hampshire and said, ‘Do you want to go with me to the action cuts filmmaking seminar?’ It was hosted by one of the directors of the late Children of the Corn sequels. 

Ian Klink 

That makes it a hundred times even better in my opinion. 

Joe Russo 

And I was like ‘Sure,’  and I credit him and that moment as being the thing that made me go ‘Oh wow. This is a job you can do. This is a real.’  This guy in front of me had made a movie and maybe I could, too. It was shortly after that, I started making my way out out West.  I finished my college career at Arizona State, which got me just a little bit closer to Los Angeles, and then after I finished college I worked production for a couple of years out there. Finally, I made the move to Los Angeles, and the closer I got to Hollywood, the more my film community expanded. 

Ian Klink 

I have to ask, what was the first job not in the film industry that you had to end up doing? 

Joe Russo 

Oh, that’s interesting. When I got to Los Angeles, I had a job, so that might be a bad question. I will tell you when I was working in production in Arizona I worked on things like the Jamie Foxx movie The Kingdom, some low-budget horror movies, and reality shows like American Idol. While I was doing that, because the production work came Infrequently from Los Angeles,  I was working as a personal trainer, so that was kind of what I was moonlighting during that time. But once I moved to Los Angeles, I came out with an internship at a production company called Level One Entertainment. And at the end of that internship, the CEO hired me to be his assistant. 

Ian Klink 

That’s awesome. 

Joe Russo 

I got very lucky. I didn’t really have to do too many grind jobs. Just the stuff I did in high school and college. I did my fair share of stocking shelves in a grocery store. I worked at an amusement park and cleaned up more than my fair share of puke. I worked at a Hollywood Video, so I feel like I’m part of that last bastion of filmmakers. 

Ian Klink 

I got to work at Movie Gallery before they shut down, so yeah. That was the best. 

Joe Russo 

Oh, nice. Yeah, I loved working in a video store, and I feel like that’s something the next generation of filmmakers; they’re never going to have that. 

Ian Klink 

They won’t know. 

Joe Russo 

That experience, that community. They just swipe through Netflix. 

Ian Klink 

That’s really a crime. I know you’ve been involved in more than just the horror genre, So what is your favorite film to watch? And I don’t want the film school answer, I mean the Joe Russo specials that you watch over and over.

Joe Russo 

Well, my favorite movie of all time is Ghostbusters. So you will never put that movie on around me and not have me get sucked in to watch it. I was very upset with a friend of mine. He threw an Oktoberfest party at his house last fall on the same night that the Hollywood Forever Cemetery was screening Ghostbusters. Now mind you, I’ve already seen Ghostbusters at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to go again, right? 

Ian Klink 

I would. Who wouldn’t?

Joe Russo 

So my go-to top favs are Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost ArkBack to the Future, and The Empire Strikes Back draws me in.  If they’re near me, I will watch them any day, every week. 

Joe Russo Interview - Nightmare Cinema

Nightmare Cinema (2018), Produced by Joe Russo

Ian Klink 

Can you please tell us about your experience producing the anthology Nightmare Cinema, working with all of those horror legends in one place?

Joe Russo 

I will say Nightmare Cinema was my film school. I learned so much about the art of storytelling. And watching somebody like Joe Dante was such a privilege, you know? And I got to see how he approached the crew cast, the shots, the storytelling. And it truly was like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I remember sitting in on his color timing session and post-production. And if you know anything about color timing, it’s not the most exciting part of the process and he said ‘Why are you here? This is like watching paint dry. Why are you here?’ And I said ‘When else am I going to get to watch Joe Dante color time?’ 

Ian Klink 

What a great answer.

Joe Russo 

To me watching how Mick Garris. Joe Dante, Alejandro, Ryûhei Kitamura, and David Slade carried themselves on set was such a great example for me when I went to go direct my first movie. That was invaluable and it just gave me so many arrows to put in my quiver I could deploy because all of them approached it differently. But then they all approached everybody with respect, confidence, and just a love of the creative craft and that was a contagious thing to be around. 

Ian Klink 

So as the producer, was it your responsibility for getting somebody like Mickey Rourke? Is it your responsibility to get the actors involved or do you leave that to the directors?

Joe Russo 

So I came to Nightmare Cinema when Mick came in. We met for a general meeting back when I was still a development exec. So I was there basically when it was just a one-line pitch of ‘Let’s try to redo Masters of Horror under a new name. I went out and helped find the development money for the script. Brandon Hill and I found the production financing and then I supervised production and post-production. And you know, it was really in conjunction with one of our other producers who kind of ran the physical part of the unit. I was mostly the go-between with the money producers and Nancy and her team. So that was kind of where my day-to-day fell. So, you know, when it came to like the cast for. For example, it was working with Nancy to find a  casting director to help flush out all the different parts. Mickey Rourke actually came to the project because one of our financing producers worked with him previously on another movie and so they asked for him through that relationship. It takes a village.

Ian Klink 

Absolutely, 100%. Being a producer is just not the job people say they want to do in film school. So what advice would you give anybody who wants to get into producing? And honestly, what should they be working on? 

Joe Russo 

Well, the easiest way to get into producing… Actually, let me take this one step back. I disagree fundamentally that it’s the hardest job on set. 

Ian Klink 

Oh?

Joe Russo 

I think the grips and electrics and the sound people and the PAs, have much more physically demanding jobs. But I will say that producing requires a lot of mental fortitude in that you’re dealing with all different types of personalities. You’re trying to keep essentially a military operation on time and functional and moving. With a lot of different personalities constantly trying to derail that forward momentum. So it’s not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination. You know, there were lots of fires that I was putting out over the course of Nightmare Cinema. As far as what you should be doing? Prepare yourself for that. Look, short of having lots of money, the easiest way to get into producing I think is being able to identify a great piece of material. And that can be anything from newspaper articles, magazine articles, comic books, video games, and songs. Anything that could potentially be adapted into ultimately becoming a screenplay or identifying a great screenplay itself. If you can find that piece of material and put it in front of the right people; Congratulations, you’re a producer.

Ian Klink 

Was it John Landis who said ‘If you directed one minute of film, congratulations, you’re a  film director?’

Joe Russo 

John would say that. So I mean it’s that easy but it’s that hard because you have to find something great that people want and developing that eye for that piece of material takes thousands and thousands of hours that I don’t think most people are ready to put in, you know, hence buying your way into producing is probably the real easy one. But  I think the best thing you can do to prepare yourself for finding that thing is to do two things; watch movies and read. You have to do a lot of it and eventually, you’ll develop. I heard the logline for the documentary short The Greatest Beer Run Ever based and I knew that was a movie. I felt it in my bones and now it Is a movie.  So you develop that eye for the material by immersing yourself into great storytelling and ultimately you’ll be able to target those things too. 

Ian Klink 

Let’s talk about Post Mortem, one of the greatest podcasts I can honestly say I love listening to (and winner of the 21st Rondo Awards for Best Podcast of the Year). So what have been some highlights of the show for you as a producer? 

Joe Russo 

Oh my God. That’s a big question. I mean it’s been seven years that we’ve been doing this, so I will say there’s been a lot of creative highlights. We’ve done some very good shows over the years. I think still, maybe my favorite was Mike Flanigan and Mick Garris both talking about The Shining. I thought that was quite a special episode. 

Ian Klink 

It was epic!

Joe Russo 

You could only get that conversation on our podcast. Obviously meeting Stephen King, John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro, and Jamie Lee Curtis. I mean, the list goes on and on. I think one of the things that have been great for me is when I go to a horror convention and somebody recognizes me, or more likely recognizes my voice, and just hearing about the joy the show brings them. It’s been wonderful and I wasn’t on the show at the beginning, but I became part of the show about halfway through. And doing the AMAs with Mick has been a wonderful experience. I think it’s deepened both of our relationships with each other. I can dig a little deeper I think than most people can in interviews with him and I think that the fans really appreciate that. It’s been fun to do. 

Post Mortem
Joe Russo produces the Rondo-winning podcast Post Mortem hosted by ‘Master of Horror’ Mick Garris

Ian Klink 

Well, I loved hearing the one yesterday. You got surprised when he did the script for the Star Wars book and nobody knew that. 

Joe Russo 

Literally, that was a new one and I don’t think he’s ever said that in any interview anywhere.

Ian Klink 

Lately, horror has been held in high regard. I just read a Variety article about it yesterday. Personally, we horror fans have known this for years. One example, you had Peter Medak on your show. The Changling is an Oscar-worthy kind of movie that got little praise then, so why is horror getting respect more now?  I wouldn’t say Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is horror, but it certainly is genre. 

Joe Russo 

Well, it’s science fiction for sure.  So I do think it’s a cumulative effect, right? I mean, obviously, you know in the 70s and 80s Jaws and Star Wars kind of ushered in tent poles and you know, Halloween and The Exorcist made horror go mainstream. As the fan bases for those things got bigger and bigger, and I would even say, the rise of comic book movies has led to this too. Being a genre fan is no longer seen as something to be frowned upon. People are going back and looking at these movies with fresh eyes and realizing there was a lot of craft here, something that they were trying to say. That rediscovery of the genre coupled with this growing mass acceptance of geek culture has shifted the paradigm. I mean,  Jamie Lee Curtis. ‘Laurie Strode’ winning an Oscar. Oh, we’re moving in that direction, yeah. 

Ian Klink 

I love watching the video of her saying ‘shut up!’ She didn’t believe that she could get that. I mean, it’s a fantastic movie, but you know, Get Out I think absolutely changed a lot of perspectives. when I saw it in the theater, I said ‘This is going to change a lot.’

Joe Russo 

It really did. It was definitely a lightning bolt moment in mainstream horror, but that’s not to say there hasn’t been that throughout the years, too. I mean you could even point to Scream, The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity as being moments where horror took over the collective consciousness of people and I would say every five to ten years there’s a movie that just reshapes the paradigm of horror and what it is. And the great thing is drama, right? There are only so many types of stories you can tell in a drama. But horror. It’s fantastic. It’s fantasy. It’s our nightmares that come to life. You know, if we can dream it, it can become a story. 

Ian Klink 

Now, with the technology, absolutely. 

Joe Russo 

Yeah, exactly. So there’s literally no limit to the types of stories we can tell in the horror genre, which is why I think it continues to be successful and so varied and diversified. And it’s just the richest. Genre, I think. 

Ian Klink 

So you’re waiting for The English Patient movies to come back is what you’re saying. Right?

Joe Russo 

I mean, look, I love, love, love movies. I said on Twitter the other day there was a genre writer who didn’t know who Nancy Meyers was. And she’s obviously been in the news lately because she had a Netflix movie get shut down because the budget was very expensive. But Nancy Myers is one of the top-grossing female directors of all time and for aspiring screenwriters to not know who that is is remarkable. I think if you’re going to be a good genre writer you have to be able to understand human emotions. And one way you can unlock human emotions is by watching dramas, by watching comedies. By watching other genres of film and reading other books. I  love a good Rom-Com. I learned a lot about human nature from watching stuff like that. And even if I don’t, maybe subconsciously or consciously take it into something I’m writing,

Ian Klink 

So I love asking this question. Can a movie be bad and still be good? And can a movie be good and still be bad? 

Joe Russo

Yes.

Ian Klink

That’s a great answer to it. 

Joe Russo 

Is it absolutely? I think labeling movies as good and bad is unfortunate and Rotten Tomatoes is kind of aggregated this. It is kind of a destructive way of looking at movies. I can tell you movies that I adore, that have flaws, and I can tell you movies that I think are painful to watch, that have performances in them that I love. So the answer is yes. I think that if you’re going to critically examine a movie and you’re going to do it from an analytical and creative perspective as I do. You can’t just look at a movie as black and white. It can’t just be good or bad. You have to see where the positives are and where the negatives are, which is probably why people always accuse me of liking everything because I try to see the good in the movies. I know how ******* hard it is to make a movie. 

Ian Klink 

I say the same thing: to make a movie and to get into theaters is a miracle. I mean it’s the Tim Burton mathematical thing. You have to acknowledge yes it might be Beach Monster Bingo but it took a lot to get there!

Joe Russo 

Exactly, it’s true. I’ve also learned having a couple of movies on my resume that I’m not thrilled with how they turned out, there are still people who are fans of those movies, and there truly is a fan for everything. There’s a fan for every movie. That’s why it’s it’s truly impossible to say that a bad movie is bad. Or a good movie is good because our opinions are so varied, we bring so much different life experiences to them. That we’re going to get something out of each and every movie. Guillermo del Toro once said at a talk I attended at the Academy ‘Going to the cinema is like going to church. We keep going in hopes that we hear that one sermon that speaks to our soul. And when we do hear it, it changes everything.’ So it’s worth sitting through the bad to find the good. 

Ian Klink 

That is an amazing note to end this interview on, Joe. So where can people find you? Any future things you can tell us?

Joe Russo 

I’ve got two movies that are in post-production and, you know, lots of development. 

Ian Klink

Thank you so much, Joe.

Joe Russo

Cheers.

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You can follow Joe Russo’s work

Website: https://joerussofilm.com/

Instagram: @joerussogram

Post Mortem Instagram: @michgrarrispm

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