Ashley: Welcome to Episode #261 of the selling your screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screen writer and blogger over at www.sellingyourccreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Joseph Culp who’s been working as an actor for many, many years and now he’s written and directed a feature film called Welcome To The Men’s Group. We talk through his process for making this movie happen so stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode viable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast so they’re very much appreciated.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer-director and actor Joseph Culp. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Joseph to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me this morning.
Joseph: Happy to be here Ashley. Thanks so much, it’s a pleasure.
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: Well, I’m one of those strange, freaky people who grew up in show business. My father was a rather famous actor named Robert Culp. He was very popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ’80 on a lot of big TV shows. A very famous guy and he also was quite an excellent writer and director. So I grew up in that world. Coming up into the ‘70s in LA I was aware of film sets and shooting and what that all meant. I lived with a guy who was an actor and a film maker essentially. He also had a tremendous respect for writing. He was a writer, he sold many projects especially to TV over the years. Even though he was more known, Robert Culp was more known as an actor, he was also a prolific writer.
So that’s kind of…I had that background so there was some permission for me to be creative to also become an actor and a writer. And also there was a bar to kind of shoot for because he had had a lot of success.
Ashley: Yeah. So what was your first steps to turning this into an actual career? Was it acting, was it more on the writing front, was it high school…doing some theater in high school and then trying to get an agent and get commercials? Maybe you can talk through those sort of first steps to actually getting a career in the business.
Joseph: Absolutely. So yeah, I started acting probably in school plays around the age of nine. I was always part of something I felt was my calling through high school, did a lot of challenging work in the theater, and studied and then got into college in New York. I went to NYU, I did the theater program, then I started studying independently in the city as a young actor and just went through the whole learn as you go. It was all about acting. It was all about trying to be a good actor and live up to the kind of actors that I loved. They were my heroes. So this was all during sort of the early ‘80s. So that was biggest driving passion. At the same time I was always a writer. I wrote stories, I wrote little plays and I knew that there was something in that for me.
But I have to say trying to make my balance as an actor was always the foremost thing for many, many years until I would say the early ‘90s. And then I started looking around saying, “Okay, I’ve been working in some movies, some television, but I’ve got this other passion which is story telling in the sense of being a writer. And I started looking around it like well, independent film people are doing movies now on video cameras. It was during the dogma year out of Denmark where we saw films like The Celebration and these incredibly brilliant experimental pieces. And they were saying, “Listen, go tell a story. Don’t wait around for people to give you money.” So that really spoke to me and I started doing that with my colleagues, people who were just out of film school, people who were also trying to get into business and I made a feature film.
They took several years to complete with my dear friend Maria Giese and it was an adaptation of a great Norwegian novel called Hunger. This is a very finesse classic novel and we adapted it from modern day Los Angeles. And we did everything. She wrote it but I acted, produced, and we made this film together and it became kind of like its own training ground, its own school. I realized like yeah, I got to start doing this more. And so I started writing screenplays, stories I wanted to tell, I worked with partners as screenwriting is one of the only partnered art forms I know of that actually works, and really began cranking out stories and addressing myself to making films. And then I ended up making more independent films out of those screenplays.
So that’s a bit of a set up to Welcome To The Men’s Group which was my latest film and what made me think that that was gonna be possible was by doing.
Ashley: Yeah, so let’s dig in to Welcome To The Men’s Group. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is that film all about? And then we’ll dig in to sort of the specifics of it.
Joseph: So Welcome To The Men’s Group, the logline essentially is a group of men meet in an all-male support group once a month and this particular day conflicts between them and one guy who’s probably headed for a breakdown throw the group into chaos and threaten the very trust of the group. So it is decidedly a comedy drama and I emphasize it is a dramedy, it’s a [inaudible 00:08:33] because it’s about some very serious things that men deal with, but it’s about a phenomenon called The Men’s Group which is a real thing, which is guys getting together to actually talk about their feelings, not talk about…not drinking beer and watching football but actually trying to deal with the issues and that that can become both very poignant and also quite funny and absurd at the same time. So that was the genesis of it.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. So where did this idea actually come from, are you in one of these men’s support groups, did you have friends in it? How did you even hear about it and how did you kind of make that leap from, “Hey, there’s this phenomena going on and maybe that would be a good screenplay?”
Joseph: So, absolutely. This is one of those screenplays that I have to say is not just a clever concept screenplay, which I have written a few of those. This is from my personal life. This is a personal work. It means that I have been involved in men’s groups for nearly 20 years. I’m very passionate about the idea that men can do this, that we break the taboo of being stoic and tough and men come together in these groups. I participated in them, I’ve been greatly inspired by them. That’s precisely what happened probably seven or eight years ago. When I first thought about this I said I was in a group one day and I saw something happen between men that I thought was so wonderful and beautiful and fascinating that I said, “I wish I had a camera.
I wish someone could witness what I just saw, and that if they did they might see men in a whole different light.” It really did…I got to be honest, it came from that moment. Another guy in the group was sort of on the same wavelength and he had had a background in writing as well and so we started talking. We started meeting in coffee shops and saying, how can we make a film about a men’s group that is not…I will say not a typical satire that Hollywood would just make fun of it, but that actually would try to bring an audience into that experience where men are risking being vulnerable, saying things that you would never hear them say in public or to their wives or girlfriends. What if we could do that? And so that was really the moment that it happened. And we started crafting the screenplay out of that.
Ashley: Yeah. And I’m curious too, by this time you’ve got a lot of experience as a producer and the one thing that occurs to me as you pitch it is that it’s very ripe to be a low budget film because you’ve got a very contained location, most of the action is gonna take place in this one house as they’re having the support group. How much of that played into the idea or I guess the excitement for actually writing this and getting it produced was just knowing you could get it produced fairly easily?
Joseph: I always had an eye on that. My co-writer, and it is a co-written project, which I think was really appropriate in this case because you need another…in this case another man to kind of bounce around the story with and the characters and his experience as well. But I had produced movies, I had been doing low budget independent films and I thought I wanna do this. I wanna write it but I wanna direct it too, and so that was in the back of my mind. And the first thing that came to me is like how can I make this, do it simply so that it’s honoring the subject but manageable? And I did think about that because…and as I think I mentioned earlier a little bit, the typical approach to pitch this to somebody would be, “Hey, okay, let’s make it a road trip movie, the guys go on a camping trip and they meet up with hawkers and it becomes big, you know, they rob a bank.
And that’s exactly what I said we’re not gonna do. We were not gonna make this even more of an experimental film if I have to. I really wanna be in that room, that’s the movie. I said that to my partner and I said it to other people who said, “I don’t know.” They were really skeptical. I said, “No, that’s the movie. The movie is these guy’s in the room, which means it all takes place on a single day in a single house in a location- the house movie. Call that a house movie. And house movies can work. There’s been a lot of great ones. Forget [inaudible 00:13:39] look at 12 Angry Men which is a great play that became a movie. Look at The Boys and The Band which is another, takes place in an apartment.
Look at half a dozen other terrific movies that basically take place as a single event movie on a day or in a location. And so on a producorial level I was thinking we can keep it economical, we can do it like that but this is a story and I’ll say this underlining it, where that’s appropriate. You don’t have to go to the mountains and go on a car trip and do the hangover. You don’t have to do that, not for this story. The story is about men relating to each other or not relating in conflict with each other. It’s a drama. It’s a play basically and it takes place on this stage. So yeah, that was important.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure, and I totally get that. I’m curious too again, sort of with your producer hat on, how much of the current political climate with the Me Too Movement also play into this? I mean, I think there’s gonna be a lot of sort of redefining men’s roles in society and these sorts of things, and you know, movies and art, that’s all gonna be a part of that. How much of that played into this being sort of timely?
Joseph: Well, I’ll be honest with you Ashley, actually I wanna say it didn’t, which is to say that we wrote the script before the big explosion happened which was just last year with Me Too and Time’s Up. This moment was…we didn’t foresee it happening, which is the timeliness of it just couldn’t be better. Now the film is gonna be released this week and it’s a film about men and male vulnerability and men frankly trying to redefine their masculinity. That’s what in many ways the film is about. It’s questioning that. It’s like well, who are we as men today? That’s the essence of the movie is like well, can we…we’re not the men of our father’s generation or our grandfather’s generation. We’re dealing with women who are empowered.
We are dealing with changing roles of men is society. So all of that was very relevant for me and Scott Ben-Yashar, my co-writer. We knew that just by participating in these groups some years ago. And as we wrote it definitely we thought about it, you know. We are writing this too as this wonderful possibility that women could see into this world, this private world of men talking and revealing themselves. So we were conscious of that part of it and I will say happily that a lot of our audiences in screenings and festivals are resoundingly enthusiastic of the women. They love the movie because they get to see into that place they always wanna see men be more vulnerable, more empathetic in a certain way and that the movie is all about that.
But the thing that happened just last year which is redefining everything, Me Too and Time’s Up and everything around it, we didn’t know that was gonna happen and the movie was already shot. So it was one of those…I wanna say maybe we were being transient, you know. We were being like seeing like there’s [inaudible 00:17:33] about this movie even before that happened and now I hope it’s even more relevant.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So let’s dig into your writing process. Maybe to start out we can talk about your collaboration with Scott. Maybe you can just describe like how that actually looks. Are you guys in the same room? It’s sounds like earlier on you guys are just in a coffee shop spit balling ideas. At some point you must be getting a little more formal creating an outline. Maybe you can just sort of walk through that process. Did you guys divide up scenes and then bring those scenes together and rewrite them? Just all about how you collaborated with Scott.
Joseph: Sure, every collaboration is different. I definitely collaborated on a half a dozen other scripts with different friends and writers, we have different processes. Sometimes we’re in the room. I would just say one guy is on the computer, one guy is walking or pacing. And then sometimes you trade off and you kind of bounce back and forth. Again I love the [inaudible 00:18:41] awareness that for me writing screenplays is the…I think it might be besides songwriting it might be the only form of writing that people can do together really well. It’s just one of those things. Maybe it’s because it’s dynamic, it’s a dialogue, it’s something like that. But you don’t write novels together and you don’t write poetry together.
But screenplays you can, and it even benefits by writing together. So when Scott and I started we were both a bit old school. It’s like well, we’ll meet for coffee and we started to…someone recently said, “You know, Welcome To The Men’s Group has a style. Someone said, “It’s slightly caffeinated, meaning it’s very hyper-energetic quality to it. I said, “Well, that’s funny, because we met in coffee shops when we wrote it. We started out as you said, by spit balling, by looking at okay, what is a character driven piece? It’s not a clever story ploy. It’s all gonna come out of character. It’s about who the guys are and what’s going on in their lives and that’s gonna define what happens in the story. That’s a very different…as you know, there’s the character driven piece and then there’s pieces that are completely concept driven.
There can be stories about whatever…hystorical piece or it could be about what if aliens landed in Los Angeles or it was the end of the world. That’s a concept. This is about these guys, these characters. So the first thing we did was decide who are our guys? Who are they based on, what parts of ourselves can we relate to about that. It’s not an autobiographical film or a story but it is a lot of stuff is taken from either our own experiences or parts of our own lives. So we were willing to do that and we came up with eight archetypes, eight guys and we said they’re archetypes. And we won’t even call them by their names yet because we don’t know their names. Instead we’re gonna call them by what defines them.
So there was Mr. Needy, who’s a guy who always needs to talk and wants a lot of love [laughs] and can’t seem to get it either from women or from the guys in his men’s group. There’s Mr. Sex who’s the guy who’s always talking about his…he’s a self-avowed sex addict, that was the role I played in the film, meaning that he’s in recovery and everything somehow funnels through that prism or shines through that prism in his life. His betrayals, his wife, all of that and sexuality is kind of big on his…There’s another guy who’s I think we called him Comedy Man at first. He’s a guy who’s always making jokes and he does these jokes to joke away his fear. He jokes to cover up what he’s been doing in his life financially where he’s ripped off his wife and her family to try a big business scheme.
There’s another guy who’s…well, the list goes on. The lawyer who’s whole life is mortgaged around his house. His wife is depressed, his daughter, he doesn’t have much of a relationship, his whole life he’s worked to build this amazing mansion of a house and yet nobody’s there. He wakes up that day, his wife’s not even home. And so we’re trying to get ideas such as what are men doing specifically in America and the American dream and also universally, how they suffer in private ways that people don’t know about. But we started with archetypes and we name them all and wrote as many notes as we could about what was going on in their lives. And then we started saying like, “Well, these guy could be the guy who’s gonna have a breakdown and he ends up doing things in the group on this morning that basically hijacked the group.
And so we knew that that was gonna be part of the story. Something has to happen, okay. It can’t just be…we’re not making a documentary, we’re not…I will say that I said to Scott early on, I said, “If we’re brave enough this will be like a great film from the early ‘80s called My Dinner With Andre which was two guys talking. It kind of blew the lid off of independent film. Nobody thought that was possible. My Dinner With Andre is a great film, if no one’s seen it, please go and rent it and see it immediately. It’s one of the great independent films of the early ‘80s. And it was simply Andre, Gregory and Wallace Shawn talking in a restaurant. What they talk about is everything, is the whole world and it’s the most compelling film in the world. And I said, “Let’s be willing to even do that.
These guys would do long monologues, they will trigger each other, things will happen and it will all come out of what they need in their lives and how that might play out on a single morning. So one guy turns out he’s lost his wife, he’s lost his money, he’s really on the edge and he’s probably suicidal. So we were using that as a potential conflict. And another guy, his wife is serverly depressed and he doesn’t know where she is on this morning, that’s playing on him, but he’s hosting the men’s group in his house. And then two guys have a long standing argument going on that’s gonna boil to the surface. And on top of that one guy is gonna have a secret that might jeopardize his whole position in the group or even his place there.
So out of really spending time with these characters, many of which we pulled from…I would say they’re mixtures of people we’ve known and maybe part of ourselves. And it was an interesting way to work because we didn’t really have the typical outline. We didn’t have a first, second and third act outline to begin with. What happened is we distilled that out of understanding who we wanted to show in the film, what kinds of guys we wanted to show. So it was kind of working reverse in some ways.
Ashley: Yeah. So let’s go to the next phase. You guys have written this screenplay, what were those next steps to actually raising money and bringing this thing into production?
Joseph: Well, there [inaudible 00:26:10] always besets every writer, filmmaker, person. Oh my God, it’s…I think we spent a couple of years trying to find ways to finance it. We certainly did send it to various people but we kind of knew…I kind of knew at the back of my head this is something we we’re gonna have to couple together and maybe even figure out a way to shoot it for next to nothing if we can, because sometimes there’re projects that are close enough to your heart that you just have to do that. I’ve done it a couple of time already so I wasn’t afraid of that. But we did some budgets, I looked at it and said, “You know, I really think we can do it for this and keep it below the different tiers in the SAG agreements.
Finally after pounding the pavement quite a bit I will just have to say we got lucky where someone that was frankly in part related to us [laughs] was willing to make us a loan. And that’s a big chance to take with an independent film. Can you pay that loan back or how long will it take to pay it back? I don’t recommend this to everybody [laughs]. What I do recommend is don’t let the financial stuff stop you. There’s got to be a way to make the film especially if you’ve written it in such a way that it’s fairly economical. So that’s something I just wanna put out there because I really…I think we spend way too much time trying to find the money [inaudible 00:28:29] have to try and find the money, who could be in this.
But there’re ways, especially today with all this awesome technology, and I see that like an old person, but there’s such great cameras, there’s great editing software and if you can put a little live shot short films for zero, for nothing just by getting people who wanted to be part of it. So never let the money part stop you. In our case we got enough and we made a schedule and we found a line producer and we said, “Okay, we can do this, but that’s the next part of the story, its just how did we pull it off for that much money and for that amount of time. And I can continue with that if you want because that was really…
Ashley: Let’s end it there because you’ve been very generous with your time, we’re at the 30 minute mark. Maybe you can just give a quick plug to Welcome To The Men’s Group. How can people see it, do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Joseph: So thanks. Yeah, Welcome To The Men’s Group is gonna first appear…we did a premier, we’ve had a number of screenings in the US and Europe. We’ll continue to do those screenings theatrically, but VOD begins…the first wave of VOD begins this Friday. It should be available on iTunes and Google Play, Amazon and a bunch of I wanna say cable systems will have it available. So please, please go look for it, Welcome To The Men’s Group. It stars even Tobolowsky who’s just…everybody knows him, he’s been in a thousand movies from Ground Hog Day, Ned Ryerson…everybody knows him to Carlifornication, The Goldbergs, the guy is like everywhere and he does some stuff in this movie. Go look at the trailer online. You will not believe what he does.
Ashley: I saw it…I didn’t believe it [laughs].
Joseph: He redefines the words “Brave Actor”. He’s just…he’s a star in this film. Timothy Bottoms who’s a veteran from Last Picture Show, Paper Chase from the ‘70s. This guy gives one of the greatest performances of his career in this movie without a question. Dave Clennon who is in The Thing and Gone Girl, the guy’s been around forever, McKenzie Aston, I’m in there too [laughs]. If you don’t know me I played the father of Don Draper on Mad Man and I was the first Doctor Doom in the Fantastic Four. It’s an amazing ensemble cast and you don’t see that too often where equally all these actors are doing incredible work. So please check it out.
Ashley: And I will put all that in the show notes so people can check out the trailer and maybe go to iTunes and Amazon and rent it or purchase it. 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 also round that stuff up for the show notes.
Joseph: Oh, thanks very much. Certainly friend me on Facebook, I’m always posting stuff that I’m doing and about the movie, about other stuff I do. I got things coming up and I also have a website, www.josephculp.com is my website, you can see more stuff about me there too. And please friend me on Facebook, I’d love to have more friends and connect with everybody.
Ashley: Perfect. Joseph again, I really appreciate your time coming on and talking with me. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films.
Joseph: Thank you Ashley, I really appreciate it. Great talking to you.
Ashley: You too, will talk to you later.
Joseph: Okay, bye bye now.
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On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing Vladimir de Fontenay who just did an indie drama called Mobile Homes. This is a good example of a film that the filmmaker first made as a short film and then was able to expand it into a full length feature film. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show, thank you for listening.