Interview With Filmmaker, Joe Simon

Field Notes Interview #89: Joe Simon, Filmmaker

We chat with filmmaker, Joe Simon, about the sensitivity of scenery when filming, his new film exploring the story and history of whiskey company, Slow and Low, and one piece of important advice he'd give a filmmaker just starting out.


Using location as character.

When telling any story, you'll find the most honesty in the details. And there's nothing more sobering and clarifying than taking note of the surrounding landscape that colors the story. Joe Simon knows this well. While portraying the history of longtime Philadelphia whiskey distillery, Slow & Low, Simon discovered that the story of the distillery meant nothing without providing context of the city where it lives.

Before traveling to the notoriously blue-collar neighborhood of Kensington, Philadelphia, Simon became a researcher to find out as much as he could before diving into filming. This historic neighborhood is rough around the edges, while also changing rapidly as the city shifts. In order to capture this, Simon, along with his production company, The Delivery Men, decided to find out the feel of Kensington through first-hand interviews and filming what he saw on the streets. What came from his experience was something raw and beautiful. This is not only the story of a distillery -- this is a story of a city.

We got a chance to talk to Simon about his process, from concept to completion and everything that falls in between. Enjoy.

Marmoset: Who are you and what do you do in the world?

Joe Simon: I’m Joe Simon, I’m a filmmaker. Dog owner. Husband. Bike rider. I like adventure and I like challenges.

M: What are some defining elements in crafting a compelling story?

JS: Crafting a compelling story, you need so much to go into it. You have to have a good concept and you have to have a good story to begin with. Either it’s a documentary and you have the right story to follow, or if you’re creating the content from scratch, you’re creating something that’s going to grab someone’s attention, keep them interested while they’re watching. I think a lot of what we do is in pre-production, spending that time before the shoot -- creating something and building a plan -- so when you go to into the shoot, you know what you’re doing and you’re not winging it and hoping you come back with a story. 

M: Does a lot of the work happen before you press record?

JS: A lot of the time. On this project, it was not exactly that way -- mostly half and half because it was more of a documentary. However, right now we’re working on a short film and we’re doing a ton of pre-production to answer any questions that might come up while we’re on set.

M: How did this project come about?

JS: I have some friends at a branding company called LAND and they do all the labels and print materials for Slow & Low. They approached and said they’d love to collaborate with us. From that point we were working with them as well as the actual Slow & Low company to see what would work for the brand. They wanted to create a history piece because they are fairly new. They wanted to show the history of Rock and Rye. That entailed researching back to the 1800s, when Rock and Rye was invented, and figuring out what would tell the story the best way possible.

M: How do you factor in place as a character in your films? Is that intentional?

JS: A huge part of this project was location. The brand is very specific about wanting to show off the old factory -- it’s been there since the 1800s -- but also the neighborhood it’s based within, which is Kensington. Showing the juxtaposition of these guys that work at this factory -- they’re hardworking Philadelphia blue-collar guys -- next to this drug and prostitution neighborhood. The two are on the edge of each other. How do you show that visually and really capture what it’s like to be in both locations?

I think in general with our work, place is a big factor. I’m a big fan of architecture and landscapes. To me, you can create so much feeling from capturing them in the right way. That’s the mix with this project -- shooting it in Super 8 to match the vibe of certain pieces. Giving it a grade and adding grain in post to make it feel a little more gritty. Shooting it handheld -- different ways to bring that aesthetic out.

M: Did you learn anything new about the city as you were shooting?

JS: You always learn something new. Going into this project researching as much as we could, we could find so many images on Google and so many articles about the area, and most of them are pretty terrible. So we talked to a lot people and did a lot of man-on-the-street interviews, learning about the neighborhood itself, which we learned was sketchy, basically. Going into it, we wanted to capture footage in the Kensington Square -- but when we actually get there and see the drug deals going down on the street, you see prostitutes walking around and people out of their mind on drugs. It’s two-fold -- for one, it’s sad and you don’t want to exploit that and use it in a way to make it worse. And two, you don’t want to get shot or stabbed with someone being like “why are you filming me?” It was a delicate situation of capturing the location without going down the wrong path.

M: Was there was one particular person you interviewed that had interesting story about the area?

JS: They were all different. Going into this, we had a couple storylines with man-on-the-street interviews mixed with interviews from people in the factory. But once you talk to a few people, you realize if this is going to work or not, do you have the right charismatic characters? We didn’t really get much of that. The attitude of the people there wasn’t the right fit. The guy that you do see, “Brother Moe,” who says “You can get anything you want in Kensington, whether it’s good or bad” -- that guy is amazing. He’s a rap artist and filmmaker himself and he lives across the street from the factory. He has a lot of stories of how the neighborhood’s changed. The area used to be really bad, but now it’s gotten better and it’s on the uptick, like most lower-income areas that are now being gentrified.

Slowly, that gentrification wave is coming through that area by the factory. It’s getting really expensive and the bars are going out of business. People are moving away who have been there for generations. It’s a sad story of sorts. You have the neighborhood like the one we filmed in, and you walk into this place and you're transported back in time and there are locals there every night and everyone knows each other. It’s that old-town blue collar bar, not like the ones in Portland and Austin where it’s more hipster vibe -- these are gritty. 

M: As a filmmaker, how do you feel your profession has been misconceived?

JS: I think people outside of it think it’s a simple, magical process of sorts. Like you go out and capture something and it’s done. But it’s a very intensive process to go from developing a story to having something worthwhile to then it sucks again to then going back and getting it on the right path and then going shooting again and many things going wrong that you didn’t expect to wrong. It’s like solving a math problem over and over again. Then you get to post [production] and it’s that whole process over again. With any kind of artistic venture, it’s similar. People looking form the outside think “Oh you go and shoot and then you edit and everything comes together really easily.” It’s always a difficult process. No matter how much time you’ve been at it, it’s never easy.

M: How did you land on the music for this project? How do you overcome and transcend “demo love”?

JS: We had a short list of music that we liked. It was hard because the client really wanted a huge band, but they didn’t have the money to license something like that. And often, once a client has something like that in mind, it’s all they think about. It’s trying to find the right fit and create something to show them the best option. Something in the style and in a budget they can afford. With clients, it’s always a process of talking them into what needs to happen vs. their dreams. They have a budget of a kitten, but they want a tiger -- it’s always like that. Once you finally get into that place, when they finally hear that one track, they’re like “this is the one.” Sometimes the first track we drop in, the client loves it. Sometimes it takes three or four songs to get to a place that works. Even though I love the song, it might not be that the client loves the song.

M: What would be one piece of advice to a filmmaker starting out that you wish you had?

JS: The best thing you can do is go out and shoot as much as you can, because having that experience and that practice is the only way you’re going to learn. If you’re just constantly thinking about doing it and developing all these ideas into a book and not executing them, you’re not getting the real experience. It takes that trial and error, it takes that time on set and that time conquering those problems and issues you have to actually grow. It’s definitely getting out and shooting as much as you can, be it editing or whatever it is you’re doing. It’s simple.