This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 298: Writer/Director Joseph Mbah On Making An Action Film Far From Hollywood.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #298 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Joseph Mbah. He’s another great example of a filmmaker living outside of Hollywood who’s getting his films made. He lives in Arizona and he just completed another feature film, an action film called Expo. We talk through that film as well as how he’s been able to get movies made while not living in Hollywood. So stay tuned for that interview.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer-director Joseph Mbah. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Joseph to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Joseph: Thanks so much for having me.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Joseph: I got interested in filmmaking in high school. My senior year in high school I had a wonderful English teacher and she was doing a project dealing with point of view and things of that nature and she encouraged us to not just do a regular project which she was tired of us doing. She wanted us to do something more creative. This also happens to be that time in your high school career where you’re like, “You need to figure out what you need to do with the rest of your life,” type of thing. So I remember my older brother used to be an actor and I remember him bringing home scripts and things of that nature to read and I just, I donno… my mum told me, “Hey, you really need to rethink… because at the time I was gonna go into the Air Force.
I was in ROTC so I was gonna finish ROTC, go into college still and ROTC then and go into the Air Force, but then my mum was like, “You really need to rethink, I don’t really see it this way. I see you doing something that comes more natural to you.” So I gave it some thought and with all that was going on at the time, I was like, “I’m just gonna make a short film for this project, then if it goes well I bet this is what I’m gonna do.” I borrowed my friend’s dad’s camera and we ran outside and shot this script that I wrote with my hand on my notebook and I just loved every single second of doing it and that’s how I got into filmmaking.
Ashley: I got you. So then take us through… so did you then decide to go to film school for college or you just got out of high school and you decided to start pursuing film?
Joseph: Yeah. So I did… that was the next thing. I was like, “Okay, I wanna go to college for real. I wanna actually learn what this filmmaking thing is. At the time we were living in Palm Springs, California and I looked at different colleges and all of them where very expensive. I found one in Arizona, Collins College that was more affordable. It wasn’t too far from California, so that’s where I decided to go. I came to Arizona to go to college there and ended up staying. I did a little bit of film program there. It was like a semester of like a crush course in filmmaking, that I ended up taking then the rest of it was just me going out working for people and just getting the experience from doing it.
Ashley: Yeah. So let’s talk about that. Okay, so then you were living in Arizona. How do you actually find gigs in any sort of capacity in the entertainment business? It’s not like Arizona is a hotbed of stuff. What was your methodology for finding these gigs and actually getting some practical experience?
Joseph: It’s definitely been a very slow process. I know if I stayed in California and been in LA I think it would have been faster, but I actually did prefer it this way because it wasn’t like beating me on the head, it would give me time to really figure out what it is I’m trying to pursue. And as far as being able to find gigs, it was just a matter of… I started in my mum’s garage and it was me shooting videos putting on YouTube. I would do little after effects projects and little short films and then the more I did it I would meet people at school and then little by little I began to get introduced into the film community in Arizona and then eventually I got into the community here and realized that there was a lot more happening here.
Not as much as California, but there’s a decent amount of work that happens here in the film community and the more I grew, the more I met more professional filmmakers and we would do it on a higher level and was able to get on their projects and just kind of build from there.
Ashley: So take us through that jump. It sounds like you’re kinda doing the production stuff. I assume when you’re on the younger side you’re probably doing the PA stuff, moving up the coordinator and that sort of stuff. How did you make that leap to writer- director? Your crew position, did you start writing screenplays throughout this whole process and then start passing them to people you knew? Maybe take us through that process of sort of working as a crew member and them ultimately becoming a writer- director with your first feature.
Joseph: Got it. So I knew right away even very early on, just that experience I had in high school where I wrote something and then went out and directed it and shot it, I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do. But then of course when you’re someone fresh, out of nowhere like, “I wanna be a director.” They’re gonna look at you like, ”Aha, sure, ” and move along. I understood that that’s the nature of it and I was very fortunate to have a teacher in my short period in the program who helped me to understand that yeah, you do need to go out and work with people who are doing it and gain experience. Don’t be afraid to work for free. One thing that I find nowadays is people are more afraid. But going on and volunteering definitely helps.
So what I did was I started working whatever I would be allowed to do, so be it PA, then I eventually found out what a grip was and as I was working without the people then eventually I got into the [inaudible 00:08:08] department. While I was doing that, of course I was writing my own short films and doing it on the side but my ultimate goal being I wanna be a director. What ended up happening is as I was making those short films, because I didn’t have the experience and I was working with other more experienced cinematographers, what happened was just my experience dealing with them was not the best experience I would have wanted to have and that encouraged me to want to learn more about it really means to be a cinematographer and what they do.
So I began to… I’d reach out to local artists who were looking to shoot music videos. I would shoot their music videos for free and I used to shoot what I call my $50 music videos and I was like, “Hey, everybody needs a video these days, just come out and we’ll figure it out. All it will cost you is $50, I know your struggle with money, it doesn’t matter.” I would do that and I would get so much of those, so I was shooting videos all the time and it gave me the opportunity to work on… even though they’re music videos, but I was encouraging them to try to shoot videos that have a little bit of story in it. So it gave me the chance to not only practice the cinematography side of it, also get some story going.
After a while of doing that and eventually landed my first cinematographer gig on the feature film from one of those higher up directors that I was talking about that was working here in Arizona. I was able to go on set and see what it’s like to be on a feature film set and be a DP that way. That’s kind of how I did it, little by little just [inaudible 00:10:02] and then from there I became more comfortable being a DP and then… but again I was so frightened and making my own short films and eventually when I transitioned into filmmaking, into making my first feature it was a very comfortable and natural transition for me to be able to write something and direct it and be the DP of it at the same time because I’m so used to having my hand telling the stories that way.
Ashley: I got you. No, that’s a great story and I hope people listen to that. It just sounds like a lot of hussle at the end of the day, always just trying to make things happen for yourself and I applaud that. That’s really what it takes in this business. So let’s dig into your latest film Expo. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick pitch or a logline for that film. What is that film all about?
Joseph: In short Expo is about a guy, an ex-military guy who has had troubles in the past with the law and he’s trying to get his life together and he’s finally… when we meet him in the story he’s finally getting his life together. He has a new job, he’s working as a kind of an Uber driver for rich people and things are going well and then as the story progressed, one of his client’s daughter get kidnapped under his watch and the way the story is set up, it just happens that he is the only suspect. Everybody else that could have been has been cleared. Because he has this running with the law he doesn’t have trust in the system and all of that stuff. He decides that he wants to go on a journey to clear his name on his own and of course doing it that way he runs into a lot of troubles along the way and then ultimately has to learn the lesson that he needs to learn and grow as a character. But that’s exactly what it is.
Ashley: I got you. And where did this idea come from? What is sort of the genesis of this story?
Joseph: I got the idea to do this film when I was working as a DP for a commercial that my friend was directing. His mum works with a non-profit called Star Bright and it deals with helping kids and children who’s been in the human trafficking and sex trafficking world and just helping them kind of get their lives together and do all these. So while I was shooting that commercial we were going through the pre-production I got a chance to learn just how dark that world is. What really touched me about it is that where I live in Arizona is one of the top places that human trafficking happens and no one talks about it.
So I was like I wanna make a movie about this thing, but of course it was like okay, I can make a drama about it, which is probably what’s gonna get people talking or I can make an action movie about it. So let me take this thing I care about and combine it with this other thing I care about and that’s kinda how the movie was born.
Ashley: Yeah, take us through that thought process. Why go the action route over the drama route?
Joseph: It was a couple of different things I was considering. First thing was okay, I wanna make something I care about. Yes. Great. Then my next thought process was, Okay, I love action, so I wanna make something in that action genre. But beyond that really was from the experience I’ve had with just all these years of working under other producers who are making movies and just hearing what they have to say about the genres of films that sell as far as independent films go. I just knew that drama wasn’t gonna be it for me at all, plus I love action movies. I also understood that action movies, Sci-Fi and horror films are easier sell when it comes to independent movies. All of that packaged together is why I decided to go the action route.
I love action, plus I know that it would be an easier sell when it came to get distribution for set up.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. Let’s talk up your writing process a little bit, and we can talk about it sort of in a context of writing Expo. Where do you typically write? Do you have like a home office here or do you go out to Starbucks and sit in a coffee shop? What is your routine like with writing?
Joseph: Yeah, I write at home and I have a desk that… I spend a lot of time there and that’s where I write. It’s a very comfortable place. With me while writing I just need to be in a very comfortable place that I can just let my imagination run lose and think of all the things that I think about. So yeah, I write at home pretty much.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. When do you typically write? Are you a morning person, night person, do you write a vomit draft in four days, does it take you longer?
Joseph: Okay, so when I first started writing I would spit out a script in like… you know, I’ve been talking short films… I would spit out like a 20 page short film in a couple of days in a blurr and just go out and shoot. But the more I’ve grown as a writer the more time I’ve taken to really think out the process and the character and the plot. What I actually do now is I don’t write a single word until I… I probably spend I don’t know, a month, two months just thinking through the story in my head, thinking who these characters are, what their backgrounds are, all these different elements of it and then…
Ashley: Are you jotting down notes and creating an outline doing index cards during this phase?
Joseph: Yeah, I’m a sticky note person. So yeah, I do take notes and I just stick them by my computer like this is the character, this is what their problem… I just gotta go through that process and I stick notes everywhere and then eventually when my head is full and I feel like, okay, I just need to start putting words down on the paper and then I start looking through all the notes I’ve and I, “Okay well, this doesn’t make sense at all, and eventually I start putting things down on paper and then I just gotta go through a first draft where I just… my first draft, I mean, I think everyone can relate, your first draft is like trash. My first draft is just, I just call it ideas on the page.
It’s just everything on the page and then after that, and then I take time off from it, come back and read it and I’m like, “Oh my God, this is terrible [laughs].” And then I go through the process of changing and tweaking and then eventually I get to the point where I feel safe enough to show it to my close friends and get their feedback, and usually you just gotta brace yourself for the first feedback because the first feedback is always like… so I’m currently writing my next film and this is the feedback my friend gave me when he called. He’s like, “So what do you think about it?” I’m like, “What do you think about it.” We just go through the process and I have to make him comfortable enough to tell me the bad news that I know they’re bringing, and from there I take what I need from it and then I go work another draft and then I go from there.
Ashley: So pulse that out a little bit, you take what you need from it. How do you take those notes, you send it to two or three friends, you see if there’s some overlap in what they’re saying. And what do you do if you don’t necessarily agree with specific notes that are coming back?
Joseph: Right, and that’s the… I think what has helped me with that part of it is just experience of having written a few things to know… and just having made stuff to be able to dissect what people are trying to tell you and of course knowing what the journey is that I’m trying to go as far as the overall picture of the story. Once I know what that is then I can better navigate people’s notes. For example they can say something like, “Oh, I really like this part of the story and what the character is doing but then you kinda lost me when the character this other thing or something like than then I can look at the thing they didn’t like and be able to dissect it based on again just the end goal that I have in mind of what the movie needs to be and then be able to take the notes out that way.
Ashley: I got you. Okay, so this is an action film, how do you approach some of the genre requirements? I know like from a distributors stand point they’re gonna say stuff like every 10 minutes you need a little action scene or something. How do you approach those sort of regimented or tried and true templates with the genre?
Joseph: As far as the action bits of the story go, my first film, I was trying to do that where I need to have an action here, so then I would kind of force the story to have an action there and then this one I was just like I don’t really care, I just want it… I want the action to be motivated by what the character is going through and what the story needs, versus having to pigeon hole myself into something I think that a distributor might be looking for. And from getting the feedback from the distributors that I sent the movie out to, it made me more confident in that process where… just write the story that feels right. Do justice to the story that you’re trying to write and then once you have something there people are gonna come.
I used to try and fit a specific thing that I think people want to see and distributors want to see and that now I just… It sounds bad the way that I say it, but I just don’t care. I’m like I want to serve the story.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. Okay so you’re done with the script at this point, you’ve gotten your notes back, you’ve done your rewrites. What were then your next steps with Expo to actually raise the money and get this thing into production?
Joseph: So, the way that I’ve approached it up to this point is that before I made my first film, sorry I keep going back to that, but my first film was a huge learning experience for me. Before I made my first film I sat around for a good probably six years talking about the movie that I want to make and never actually making it. And it’s not that you intend to sit around and not make the movie, is that you try to raise money, I tried to do crowd funding, I tried to do this and then everything fails and eventually I had to figure out my own way of getting the movie made and that was kinda reverse engineering the whole process. For example with Expo, what we’d do, what me and my team, what we do now is we have the story we wanna write.
Before I go off and write the story we make a list of all the different resources that we have, so things we can get cheap, things we can get for free, free locations, cast members that we know and all of that. We make a list of everything. So as I’m going through the story and writing all these stuff, I’m writing with all those different things in mind. So when we get to the end of the journey of, “Okay, now it’s time to actually make the movie,” we already have those things in place, we’re already getting information from different people and all of that stuff. So it just makes it easier and cheaper to just dive in and start doing that. And of course what we do is we do our gigs throughout the year and we save money and all that. It’s so far all been self-funded.
We save money in the areas we can and then we just fund the rest ourselves and then we just jump into it and go make the movie. That’s what we do, just make the movie.
Ashley: For Expo, did you guys shoot it in Arizona?
Joseph: Yes we did.
Ashley: Okay. And so maybe you could talk just briefly about that. What are some of the advantages that you see about shooting outside of Los Angeles? What are some of the things that are good, and what are some of the things that maybe are negative about shooting outside of a place like LA?
Joseph: I’ve found a great… the positives of shooting in Arizona for me greatly overweigh any negatives. Like I would say this to people, I do not think I would be able to do what I’m doing now if I lived in Los Angeles just because how difficult things are to do there. Permits and how expensive things are and just the cost of living in LA is just higher, significantly higher than in Arizona. So things are cheaper to do in Arizona and plus if you… [inaudible 00:24:14] shoots in LA, where you’re shooting in LA and you’ve got to approach a person about using their location to shoot. They’re like, “Ah, no!” Or, “How much do you have?” Because everybody’s so used to that there. Versus in Arizona, here you’re like, “I’m making a movie.”
They’re like, “What, you’re making a movie? That’s awesome! Yeah, come on, this is my schedule, can I watch?” So it’s different and part of me… people are more excited when people are making movies. To give further example of that, there’s a city here in Arizona called Globe Arizona where we work very closely with a lady there and her name is Mali. She’s very open and welcoming when it comes to filmmaking there and she goes above and beyond to help us secure locations and wave permit fees and all of that stuff and she… just the culture here is more open to filmmaking. People would definitely go out of their way to help you make your movie happen here.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So, I just like to wrap up the interviews, I ask the guest, what have you seen recently that you thought was really great? Anything that’s streaming, in the theaters, whatever. I’m just always curious to get some eclectic film recommendations or TV for that matter from other filmmakers.
Joseph: Man, this is always a bit [laughs]…
Ashley: It doesn’t have to be that profound, but anything you’ve seen recently that you really liked?
Joseph: Well… Actually, I would say… can I say two?
Joseph: Okay. I think the movie that I say… it wasn’t very very recent, but it was more recent that I really liked what they did. There was the Avenger, from being an action movie person, I just loved what they did with the villain character and how they were able to breathe life into him, so it wasn’t just, “I’m a brut and I’m here to destroy the world.” It was… you can really feel I can sympathize with him even though I hated what he was doing I could sympathize… From a writing perspective I was like, “I wanna do that more. I wanna be able to create bad guys that even though you hate them and hate what they’re doing you can understand why they’re doing it and you can sympathize with them to a degree. So yeah, that movie really stood out to me in that regard.
Ashley: Perfect. How can people see Expo, do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Joseph: Expo is currently out on On Demand. If you have cable TV and… if you have cable TV you can watch it On Demand and then later on the distributor is gonna put it out for streaming, Amazon, Amazon Prime all the works.
Ashley: Perfect. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I will round up for the show notes.
Joseph: If you’re on Facebook you can follow Paradox Universe1 on Facebook. And then if you’re on Instagram you can follow me personally, I’ll be Joseph_Mbah on Instagram.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. I will round that up and put it on the show notes so people can click over to that stuff. Well Joseph, I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to come and talk with me. I wish you luck with this film and of course all your other films too.
Joseph: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Ashley: Thank you. Will talk to you later.
Joseph: Alright, bye.
Ashley: I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select Screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a logline, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. There have been a number of success stories come out of this service. You can find out about all the SYS Select successes by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. Also on SYS Podcast Episode #222. I talk with Steve Deering who was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database.
When you join SYS Select you get success to the screenplay database along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. These services include the Newsletter, the monthly newsletter goes out to a list of over 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also provide screenwriting leads. We have partnered with one of the premiere paid screenwriting leads services so I can syndicate their leads to SYS Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner. Recently we’ve been getting five to 10 high quality paid leads per week. These leads run the gamut.
There’s producers looking for a specific type of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties. They’re looking for shorts, features, TV and web series, pilots- all types of projects. If you sign up for SYS Select you get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also you get access to the SYS Select forum where we will help you with your logline and query letter and answer any screenwriting related questions that you might have. We also have a number of screenwriting classes that are recorded and available in the SYS Select forum. These are all the classes that I’ve done over the years. So you’ll have access to those whenever you want once you join.
The classes cover every part of writing your screenplay from concept to outlining to the first act, second act, third act as well as other topics like writing short films and pitching your projects in person. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about please got to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing my good friend and author and writing partner Nathan Ives. He was on before in Episode Number 18 so if you haven’t listened to that it might be worth checking it out. I will link to that episode in the show notes. He just did a really cool documentary about artists who aren’t super famous but are making a living from their art. Hopefully you consider yourself an artist and this topic is interesting to you. I’d say you’re probably listening to the wrong podcast if it’s not. We talk about making the documentary as well as dig into some of the more philosophical issues since we too are both artists that are always struggling to get our art out there. So keep an eye out for that episode next week.
To wrap things up I just wanna touch on a few things from today’s interview with Joseph. If you listen to this podcast with any regularity, you’ll know I’m a big proponent of what Joseph is doing. He did music videos for free, he went and did short films when he had time, he networked and made connections in his area and now he’s got a feature film. I’ve talked about this before, but a lot of my interviews come through a publicist who’s been hired by a distributor and that’s how I actually met Joseph. And that’s the thing, he was able to get distribution, he made his film, he found a distributor and now the film is getting out there. And that’s really hopefully what all of us want in terms of being screen writers.
He so motivated, I have little doubt that he’ll continue to make bigger and bigger projects as time goes on. He’s plugging away and with each project I’m sure there’ll be a little bigger and a little bit better. The other piece to this is living outside of Los Angeles. The conventional wisdom which I actually do agree with is that it’s easier to be a screen writer if you live in Los Angeles as opposed to not living in Los Angeles. Living in Los Angeles is an advantage to trying to be a screen writer. That’s the conventional wisdom, and I think generally speaking that’s true. But if you do live outside of Los Angeles and you can’t move here, try to figure out what advantages you have by not being in Los Angeles and leverage those advantages. Use those to your advantage.
This isn’t just for producers and directors. Even if you don’t wanna produce there’re plenty or probably I would say some advantages that you have that you can use. Maybe you haven’t thought about them, maybe you’ve got to think, wrack your brain and come up with them. Just at the top of my head I tried to come up with some examples just so you can kinda see what I’m thinking about. For instance, if you wrote a script around a really cool location in your area that you knew you could film at, this would be something that a producer might be interested in. You could mention that in the query letter that the main location in the script is taken care of, it’s in your town and you can shoot there.
Again, this little bit of producing, that’s sort of producing, getting some of those assets in places doing a little bit of producing. But doing some of those things can be a big advantage. It can be something that a producer might think about, might say, “Ah, that’s great. It’s not gonna cost me a lot of money, I can shoot it in your small town.” Another example I thought of, there’s probably filmmakers in your area that you don’t know about. Maybe there’s a director or a producer, and guess what, since they’re also not living in Hollywood, they’re probably not getting inundated with people asking them to read their scripts and or meet them for coffee. These people are out there and might be quite happy to meet you and consider your screenplay.
Again, you’ve gotta do a little leg work, you’ve gotta figure out who those people are. And just a real world example, I had a friend recently who produced a feature film in a small American city and somehow he found out that one of the producers from the Godfather lived there and was sort of semi-retired. He contacted him and was able to bring him on as a full producer on the project. I mean, just think about what I just said. It’s a small city in the United States, there’s this producer, was literally a producer on The Godfather, he’s now semi-retired, he gets… I mean, The Godfather is one of the greatest films of all time and it was not that hard for my friend to bring this producer on to his project.
These opportunities are out there, you just have to be creative and think about them. Do some leg work, network locally. The way this producer actually heard about him, he was in this small town just starting to produce this film and he started to run into people who said, “Oh yeah, this guy is here.” And this producer needless to say, since he was a producer on The Godfather, one of the greatest films of all time, he’s kind of a bigwig in that town. So once you kinda get in the film scene you’ll probably start to hear about somebody’s opportunity. Probably people will know about him. You’ll meet some other local filmmakers, some other local actors, maybe someone that’s done something or wants to do something and you’ll start to hear about some of these opportunities. Again, you just gotta get out there and just meet people and network and just figure out what those advantages could possibly be for you by not living in Los Angeles.
Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.