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.
Aldo Ricci is a man of few words, yet those words carry an immense weight. And when crafting a story, Ricci lets his work do the talking.
Ricci's work is epic and expansive. His films literally give you a different view of the world. Often using a drone to get his larger-than-life footage, Aldo's works are often moved by music, allowing the scenery to speak for itself. His work reminds us to stop and smell the roses and that it's important to get a different perspective every now and then.
Aldo Ricci responded to our questions from his home in Noci, Italy. We chatted about the importance of music in his films and how he's always looking for ways to improve his craft.
M: When did you realize you wanted to become a director?
AR: Last night! no joke, it all started about 4 years ago when my girlfriend bought me a camera, but it was also video. since that day I have not stopped my passion in the world...to my world!
M: What is your favorite moment of the filmmaking process?
AR: What you see online is just the tip of the iceberg, in fact the realization of a video is much more: I listen to the needs of a customer, translate them into a storyboard, choose actors, lights, room to utilize .. and then back studio to the stage assembly, music selection and finally ColorGrade. Out of all this, shooting is definitely my favorite moment.
M: Do you always have a clear vision in mind while filming?
AR: I always, or nearly so, write a precise storyboard many times. However, I also "write" all in my head during the shooting. I can imagine how the imagery will mount, and then click the right shots.
M: Do you ever have happy accidents during filming?
AR: Happy accidents happen very often, and serve to defuse tension in my work. because for me, passion comes first and then it becomes work. If it were not so I would not be able to achieve what I have done to date.
M: What role do you feel the music in the film?
AR: Very often I say in my workshops, music is an integral part of a video, is the backbone of a project, it is a true link between scenes and emotion. Music is the 60/70% of a good movie.
M: When do you know you have something ready to show the world?
AR: There really is not a date, there is no deadline. Any filmmaker must have the courage to "face" the web, be good, but staying at home is useless. When I started watching a lot of videos by other filmmakers, especially behind-the-scenes videos, I start to understand where to improve. Always learning.
One of the striking and successful elements in Simon's film is the use of music and how it moves the images on screen. The sparse, ethereal song "Dusk" helped create an vivid atmosphere of reflection and perfectly glided with the sweeping landscapes on screen. We caught up with Joe Simon and chatted with him about how he arrived to find the perfect soundtrack.
M: What was the process of finding the right music for "Budapest"?
JS: I wanted to find a song that was a little mysterious, started off slow and built up to a really nice climax. I love searching for music on Marmoset because of the "Arc" search, it makes my life a lot easier that I can find music specifically to hit the high points I've planned for the edit. I had a quick deadline editing this film, I wanted to edit this in Budapest within 12 hours so I had to limit my music search to 1 hour and I happened on this song about 45 mins into my search. As soon as I heard it I knew it was the one.
M: What led you to decide to choose "Dusk" out of so many songs? What was it about that song?
JS: There was a few things that made this song perfect.
1. Started off very slow, almost ambient. This allowed me to open with the right shots to create anticipation
2. A solid build throughout the song
3. Built to a great sounding climax.
4. The instruments had the right sound to fit the vibe I pictured in my head.
M: How important do you find music to be in your projects?
JS: Music is huge, it's a large part of our storytelling process. The music sets the tone of our films as well it enhances the emotional content. Different music will make your viewer feel different things about the same footage/story, it's so powerful.
Continuing along with Simon's point about how music can set the tone of a film, here are 2 examples of "Budapest" with a different soundtrack to showcase how completely different the mood can be by changing the music.
In this version of the film, we used the song "Silverleaf" by Glass Wands. This piano-led ambient piece starts off sparse and ultimately ascends into a beautiful crescendo with strings and synthesizer.
In this modern landscape of the music industry, the role of music licensing has become one of the most important avenues of income for blue collar, working musicians.
On Wednesday, July 9, Marmoset will bring together a group of talented and experienced creatives to have an open conversation and help break down and demystify the fog and complexities of music licensing and what it means for you, the working artist.
We're ditching industry jargon and insider talk for an honest, transparent conversation. We'll break down the process and decision making that goes into licensing your music to film. We'll show some examples, take you through the process and help explain why decisions are made, what music works best, and the nuances behind the scenes.
The discussion is taking place at our Headquarters - 2105 SE 7th Avenue, Portland OR 97214. Doors are at 5:30.
The event is currently filled and we're no longer accepting RSVP's. Please check back in or sign up for our newsletter to find out about our upcoming events. Thanks so much.
Let's meet the speakers...
Ron Lewis is a Music Supervisor at Marmoset who's worked on a ton of independent films, commercials and ads. He's also experienced time in the field as a touring and recording musician with the likes of The Shins, Fruit Bats and Grand Archives.
Joe Simon is an acclaimed Austin-based filmmaker who's traveled the world, capturing stories with his striking documentaries. Winning multiple Telly Awards and a place on Event DV's Top 25 list, he's become one the most innovative voices in the industry today.
Johnny Clay is a composer whom has built up a incredible resume of scoring for ads, film and reality TV, leading him to been able to quit his day job and pursue a full time career in music. He's a wonderful case study of a Pacific Northwest blue collar musician success.
Leading the event is our fearless leader, Marmoset Co-Founder Ryan Wines, bringing a wealth of working knowledge in the music licensing industry as a label owner, band manager and creative director. Ryan co-pilots Marmoset’s creative teams, overseeing all music licensing and original music projects. He also recently gave a TED Talk on fostering creative culture and creativity
Ever reach the summit of a long hike or see the sun set over a desert plain? Have you felt the need for some grand, sweeping strings or booming drums to play over that moment? We get you.
Here are three songs for adventure that pair well with those stories - especially when those stories are filmed.
Our video collaboration with The North Face and Camp4 Collective centers on professional rock climber Alex Honnold, who is well known for breaking speed records up rock walls with his free solo climbs. Watching the footage itself is a tense ride, as Honnold tackles one of the largest solo climbs in the world - a 2,500 foot ascent up El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico. One of the coolest parts is how the music (or lack of music) matches the shifting emotions of the film. The Camp4 crew uses silence to its advantage, as gorgeous aerial shots and timelapse footage of the rock wall, its surroundings, and Honnold himself climbing without ropes shows the gravity of the situation and what might happen if he falls. Complemented by the interspersed music, the silence is broken up by Matthew Morgan's "Sun Through the Clouds." At first emanating a deep sense of seriousness and focus, the dainty flurries of piano later exude a feeling of triumph and wonder as Honnold determinedly makes his way up the wall. At one point, three simple piano notes repeat slowly while a fixed overhead shot shows Honnold carefully strategizing his next holds. At another, strings rush in behind the piano to create a sense of wonder and happiness as Honnold stands carefully on a tiny ledge thousands of feet in the air, making it hard not to smile right along with and his sense of adventure.
The Valley of Fire National Park in Nevada is known for its red sand stone formations that bring to mind burning fire when they reflect in the sunlight. That's a bit different than the rain-soaked, Doug Fir-laden lands we are used to here in NW, but this video draws us to there regardless. A collaboration with filmmaker Joe Simon and The Delivery Men, this video combines sweeping shots of the Nevada national park with "This Moment" by Pistol Shrimp, juxtaposing an electronic approach to views of wide open spaces. This might seem like an unlikely combination of the natural and machine-made, but the floating harmonies and big drums keep the music from feeling cold and match the warm colors with expansiveness of the desert plains. The song's rises and falls are paired with slow moving, spacious shots and then more rapid cuts through the scenery, setting a captivating pace that holds attention on the awe-inspiring mountains. With an M83 influence and walls of synth that keep the whole thing anchored, the song creates a hazy, echoey vibe that makes the imagery seem all the more epic.
We weren't a part of this collaboration, but this video gets an honorable mention for being so awesome. Sighting what he deems a "call to adventure," timelapse photographer Shane Black set out last summer to travel across the country with friends, photographing the spectacular views around him in between teaching workshops. Amidst layered timelapse shots of thunderclouds, shooting stars, sunsets, desert plains, canyons and everything in between, light and ethereal post-rock guitar plays supported by echoey touches of piano and chimes. All of these elements lend themselves to a feeling of awe and majesty at nature spinning by. Matthew Morgan's "Dawn of Time" from our singles catalogue captures a similar feeling of pure astonishment, as delicate piano drifts in waves, not unlike the clouds rolling by in the video. Often accentuated with hazy harmonies with synth in the background that blankets what might normally be a fragile sound, this track has got slow moving, jaw-dropping nature written all over it.
- Kaitie Todd