Joe Fiorello is a Hong Kong based screenwriter, actor and director. But a closer look on IMDb shows that he is so much more (producer, cinematographer and editor) with many titles under his belt. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to pose Joe 10 Q’s about his experience in the film industry.
How did you enter the film industry?
I started writing my first screenplay while I had downtime on my first job out of college. I was an accountant at the time and had gone to school for business, but I always felt I was an artist at heart. I was just a matter of getting that push to really make a go for it and get out of that comfort zone. I guess push came when I got laid off of my first job, the economy was rough and I found myself with a bunch of time to finally focus on becoming a filmmaker. I tried jumping into whatever indie film projects I could get onboard, trying to get some street cred and experience, while making my own little projects. I was determined to do the whole write, direct, and produce an indie feature to get into film festivals. After finally building a network of people who wanted to collaborate, I wrote a script for us to produce and it was for “My Stuffed Animal is a Monster.” It was super low budget, but it was an experience getting that put together. I managed to have one official screening of it before I relocated to Hong Kong. I used that and a couple of other short films as my calling cards to start collaborating with filmmakers I met after the move.
Originally a New Yorker, what made you want to move to Hong Kong?
It was my fiancé at the the time (now wife) that got me to move to Hong Kong. Moving to Asia was not something I had even considered before it suddenly became an opportunity to grab. Interestingly enough, I had been trying to convince her to move with me to Los Angeles. I had a couple of friends that moved there to get into the whole Hollywood scene and I wanted to do the same. I felt like I really wanted to make a real go at making film into a career and I felt like I wasn’t getting that full immersion in New York.
At that point, making films was still something I would do on the side of my full time job (when I had time off, vacations, etc.). She was willing to make the move, but concerned that financially, it would be a struggle compared to New York. It was then that her job had asked her if she would be willing to go to Hong Kong to start an office there. When she approached me about it, she thought I would be very hesitant, but instead it felt like such a eureka moment. I remember I turned to my DVD collection and realized like half the movies I was into at the time were Hong Kong movies or Asian movies in general. The chance to go to the Hollywood of the East? I immediately told her, “Yes, when do we leave?”
Have SE Asian films always influenced your work?
I wouldn’t say SE Asian films. I think beyond Hong Kong (kind of a market of it’s own), I never watched movies from anywhere else in South East Asia (at least not until Tony Jaa was introduced to the world).
With Asian films, in general, it definitely became an influence I really loved Hong Kong movies, but it was mostly action movies, martial arts, gangster movies that I would come across. I was more into dark comedy, satire, horror when it came to my writing. When I really started making a go at making my own films, I had been introduced to the films of Wong Kar Wai with his moodiness and visual aesthetic, something I immediately wanted to copy. Plus, I got introduced to some really awesome dark comedy/horror films from Korea and Japan. I kind of took a little of that and mixed it with the Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith influence that had first gotten me started wanting to be in film and merge it all together.
What are the challenges for you working in the SE Asian market?
For Hong Kong, the language is an issue if you don’t know it. You can get around and there’s a good amount of expats you can collaborate with in town, but there’s always going to be only so far you can go here without really getting fluent with the language. Of course, for expats that do come here, then there’s the question of whether to focus on learning Cantonese or Mandarin. Each will take a lot of time and effort to learn. And there’s pros and cons to learning each. I tried to make a go at learning Cantonese, but I didn’t get very far. That didn’t stop me from really wanting to make a Hong Kong movie for Hong Kong people. And that’s something I’m proud of having done with Love Stalk. Unfortunately I ended up running into the other challenge of this town, which is that people are very “star” oriented here. So if there’s not a big star in your film, it’s very hard to get people in Hong Kong to want to see it, in whatever language it is in.
Where in Asia would you say is the most exciting, emerging market?
Exciting, “emerging” market? Tough to say. Thailand? Indonesia? Every now and then something mind blowing comes out of one of those two markets. Should be interesting to see how they will be in 10 years. China is definitely the market everyone wants to get into these days because there is just so much money being thrown around, but I feel it’s getting pretty mature already and it’s hard to break into it without some serious backing. There’s a lot of pitfalls and barriers that you can run into trying to shoot there. From stories I’ve heard, it’s tough to get in there and not end up losing your shirt. You really need to know people who know how to get it. But China is definitely going to be the center of the world film industry for the years to come. In Hong Kong, most filmmakers here are looking to shoot for release in China, especially with streaming video platforms being very popular there. Getting on cinema screens though, seems impossible in China unless you’re studio connected.
You have written and are acting in Noriko: The Hong Kong Dead – as the writer is it difficult to take direction on a script that was your vision?
Noriko actually was Arne Venema’s vision. I came on board to help him make it happen, but it’s still in development. I’ve actually collaborated with Arne on a few projects and scripts. In each of them, I think we make for a good team because he has some pretty awesome ideas for the high concept and I’m pretty good at helping flesh out the characters and plotting. Even when I’m acting in one of his projects, I feel like we have that kind of understanding as well where he’s got the cool ideas about the character and what he’s supposed to do and I add in my touches about why he does it. In either case, Noriko is a project that I hope we can finally take beyond the current concept trailer we released and make the feature version.
As for taking direction as an actor on a script that I wrote and was my vision? There’s been moments that it’s happened and I’ve liked it, having someone else bring their take to what I was trying to do. I think with anything it depends on creative chemistry. I think the most recent moment was on Love Stalk, I had to take a small role because of a last minute change with the cast and my producer Sophia Shek directed that scene behind the camera and it was great.
Do you write across screen genres?
I do. Although if left to my own inspirations, I tend to basically write love stories with a body count. Relationship dramas with some kind of serial killer/thriller aspect. That’s basically what “Love Stalk”, “My Stuffed Animal is a Monster”, and “Four Muffins” were about. But I’ve definitely crossed genres. My first hired screenwriting job when I got to Hong Kong was for an animated kids movie. Since then I’ve written for a couple of action thrillers, a campy slasher film, a cyberpunk detective story, and also one film that was simultaneously a buddy cop/treasure hunt/road trip/martial arts/action comedy.
What has been your most fulfilling work to date?
Love Stalk would have to be the most fulfilling. Even though it didn’t achieve the success I hope it would, it still was a dream come true, having written and directed a Cantonese language film in Hong Kong. It was four years of blood, sweat, and tears, it’s finished and out there. There’s plenty of other projects that never even make it to the finish line, so I’m glad I can say that one did.
Which writers and directors have inspired you and why?
The whole batch of indie filmmakers that blew up in the 90s Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, etc. those were the writer/directors inspired me to start getting into film in the first place. As I really started trying to make my own films, John Woo, Wong Kar Wai, Chan Wook Park, and Takashi Miike became a big influence. After getting to Hong Kong, I started rewatching a lot of Stephen Chow films, his zany wordplay and slapstick humor, got really into Johnnie To’s work, but also was getting inspired by a lot of the more successful Hong Kong indie filmmakers like Pang Ho Cheung, Fruit Chan, and Patrick Tong.
What are the essential elements that make a successful film?
Heart… and passion. I’m kidding. That’s all I thought I needed when I first starting making films, but here’s what’s really essential, especially if you’re someone trying to get started.
A) Know your market, but even more important know what distributors need to see in your movie to market to your market. Sure, distributors want a good story and good production values, but it’s so important to make sure that your movie is able to tick off the boxes they need in order to be able to even sell your movie. Unless you want to just four wall your own screenings and sell DVD’s out of your backpack (which I have done and kind of still do), you need to know how can you get a good distributor to want to sell your movie. If you’re thinking “I’ll just make the movie I want to and then go to the distributors when it’s done”, be prepared to hear a lot of “Oh, this is good, but it’s a shame you didn’t do these list of things instead. Oh well, too late to reshoot now.”
B) Do everything you can to get commercially known actors in your cast. Going with no name actors because they are perfect for the role is good and all, but then your film has to have an awesome hook or high concept or something that pulls people in, otherwise you’ll have a hard time finding anyone besides friends and family to watch it. Do whatever you can to have at least one recognizable face on the poster or name in the cast.
C) Listen to your crew when they say you are making a really bad decision that will affect the marketability of your film. Crew members, especially in Asia, are not usually going to go to the director and be like “hey you’re doing something wrong.” If your line producer, director of photography, and assistant director are basically telling you the same thing, even if you’re thinking “this is my vision” or if feels like “hey we’re in too deep now to change now, we just have to keep going.” Take a minute to put the brakes and realize that you may have a problem that all the post production in the world is not going to fix eventually.
D) Make sure to have a marketing plan and a marketing budget saved for the end. It’s the thing people forget most to take into consideration (after getting good audio). There’s this general idea of “make the film, get it in the can, figure out how to pay for marketing later, just need to raise completion funding.” Know that you are taking a big risk with that kind of strategy. At the very least, make sure you’re saving enough money to pay for stuff like poster design, PR, maybe even a press screening, wrap party, film festival entry fees, etc. Beyond that, there’s a chance that you might have to have a cinema run for your film and that’s going to be out of pocket unless you have a distributor that really believes in financing your cinema run (not likely unless you’re already established). Be prepared to have to fork out those costs yourself and definitely try to have at least a limited, local cinema run to be able to get reviews, press, local awards consideration, etc. for your film.
E) Make sure you have a good team that will stick to the end… the very end, that means the marketing and distribution part too. Many people are going to work on your project and then head off on to the next project. Make sure you have some people that will stick it out with you till the end, because getting your film out there is a lot harder when you’re stuck doing all the marketing and distribution aspect on your own.
F) Beware of vanity projects. Financing is always a tricky thing to get a hold of for your film. Occasionally you’ll run into someone who’s willing to put in the money for the film or to find the money for the film in order to play the starring role. Beware. If you decide to jump into an arrangement like this, best piece of advice I can give you is DON’T MAKE THEM THE STAR. Make them a supporting actor or some nice one scene stealer. Surround them with experienced actors to take the meatier parts and get someone with experience or a name (ideally both) to be the star. Don’t make an inexperienced actor with no name the star of your movie just because they are the financier or producer. Believe me, you will save yourself a load of heartache and maybe even sell more of your movie.
Joe, I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, and I would like to wish you all the best with your various upcoming projects! Hopefully see you in Hong Kong very soon.