How director Joey Curtis found a writing job on Mandy and made a $750k movie that is now on Netflix
Joey Curtis is a Mandy.com member who writes, edits and directs. He co-wrote Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated drama Blue Valentine starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. After finding a $10,000 (£7,000) writing job on Mandy Crew, Joey directed the film – an ambitious movie called 2307: Winter's Dream which is now available on Netflix. Here Joey talks to Mandy News about how he started out, making his movie, getting jobs through Mandy and more.
Joey, how did you get into writing and directing and how you started to pursue that officially, when that was?
I grew up a Star Wars kid like so many others in my generation. I also watched Spaghetti Westerns on TV and my mom took me to the movies once a week. She always wanted me to be an artist for some reason. Lol
I grew up racing motocross and cars in the Mojave desert, Southern California (which is kind of like Tatooine where Luke Skywalker grew up.) Like him, I always had big dreams of traveling and adventure. I read George Lucas' autobiography and related to it so much. It created this romantic vision of going to film school. After watching The Empire Strikes Back, I always wanted to live in the snow. So I chose the University of Colorado at Boulder, originally to study Psych but when I discovered they had a film school I changed my major after my first semester. I was paying my own tuition so I decided to follow my dream.
I won every award I could win in film school and met my partners Derek Cianfrance and Jim Helton. We made our first three feature films together, starting our first, Brother Tied, during our final year in film school. We raised all the money ourselves and shot on 16mm black & white with colour flashbacks. It took us a few years to finish, we were only 23 years old. Our first submission was to Sundance and they loved the film but passed because it was too long. So we re-edited it, cutting it down to 100 minutes and we got accepted into Edinburgh Film Festival in Scotland. What an amazing experience that was, one of my favourite times of my life. Then we resubmitted to Sundance and they accepted it for the 1998 festival which was even more amazing. We were some of the youngest guys that ever went to Sundance!
After Sundance, we thought our lives were going to change. We actually got offered commercial contracts. This commercial company, out in Colorado, asked us to direct TV commercials for $10,000 (£7,000) a day but we said "No, all we want to do is write Blue Valentine, will you put us on a salary?" They said that no, that's not what we do. A while later we realised that was the worst mistake of our lives because we probably could have paid for Blue Valentine ourselves making that kind of money. Lol But at that time we were hard-core artist filmmakers sand told them "no way, we don't want to make cereal and beer commercials just yet.”
So we focused on writing Blue Valentine on our own because nothing happened with Brother Tied. It never got sold because Derek wouldn't change the music rights. It had all of these Elvis and Nat King Cole songs.
Anyway, after writing on Blue Valentine for three years I thought it was never going to happen. So I started editing for a living. Every month I would save money and buy camera equipment. I would fly back and forth from Colorado to Los Angeles doing edit jobs, a lot of 24hr days which really took a toll on me later. I used the money I saved to shoot for a month at a time on my next film called Quattro Noza which was my street racing epic set in Southern California. I grew up here so I really know the terrain. I’m totally a desert rat.
I spent 2 years building footage and living in the LA inner city with a family from El Salvador. I would cut movie trailers all day then write the script all night. The biggest trailer I did was What Lies Beneath. While I was doing all that stuff, Derek was in New York working for this little ad company, Fountainhead, and I said "you gotta get me out of here, they won't let me cut my footage at this trailer company because all they want me to do is work on their stuff.” So he got me a job at Fountainhead.
I flew out to New York and did some cool work for them. After a few months I asked the owner, Fredric King, to use his Avid system at night when nobody was using it. I'll buy my own Avid drive,” which was so expensive then. I paid like $7,000 (£5,000) for 500GB and started cutting Quattro Noza. I pieced together about 15-20 minutes of scenes that I had shot and then cut together a little trailer because I knew how to do that. Fredric came in at two in the morning to look at this stuff and he started crying. I said "Do you want to be a part of this?" and he said "Yes!" He basically invested everything into it and we went into principal photography shortly thereafter.
It took about one more year to finish and we able to show it to John Sloss, who was a big shot at Sundance. He submitted it to the heads of the festival and they chose it immediately. We were their first selection for competition in 2003. The film won the cinematography award and was nominated for the Grand Jury prize. It was also nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards in 2004, Best First Feature and Best Cinematography. It took a year to make a distribution deal with Lionsgate. They changed the title and released it as Streets of Legend which really sucked. For a film that was shot completely illegally in LA, racing 15 cars on the freeway - it was crazy successful!
After that, I spent two years trying to get directing work and couldn't do it! Even with that kind of success! I would go to so many meetings but Hollywood just didn’t get the film because it was shot on the original 3 chip digital format, Canon XL1. So even though the cinematography was super cutting edge at the time, the Hollywood people would look at it and be like "What's this? because they were used to seeing 35mm pictures.
Personally, after that, I got mercury toxicity and had to spend about 10 years re-building my health. That really killed my career but, during that time, I found Mandy.com. I said to my friends "I can't get a job - how can I get a freaking job?" and they said check out Mandy.com! So I started looking at it and applying for jobs. I'd had a full-time director position with this small company and I got laid off in 2011. So, I bought a camera, a Sony FS700 because it shot 240fps slo-mo, and I started applying for jobs on Mandy. At that time Blue Valentine had come out so I was considered a “real writer,” finally, because of the stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. They really made the film special.
I applied for a sci-fi feature writing job because I'm a sci-fi nerd at heart even though everything started with drama (Brother Tied, Quattro Noza and Blue Valentine are all tragic stories). So I applied to the sci-fi job, they liked who I was, I think, because of my past history with successes in the indie circle. They chose five guys to compete against each other, writing the first five pages of what they thought the film would be. I said "Ok! I can do this!"
I wrote this banging five pages which was more for a big budget sci-fi movie, but they really liked it and I got hired to write this script for $10,000 (£7,000). I think I'd always had the ambition to direct the film but the executive producer had bad experiences on two previous films hiring the writer to direct. They weren't really directors and had no experience, so they did a terrible job. So I really had to prove myself and build really good rapport with him. I did that over the 9 months it took to write the script. It took nine months because I was hired at the same time to write another script called Girl on the Edge that got bought by Showtime.
It was hard writing two scripts at the same time but the sci-fi film was one of the easiest films that I ever wrote, I think because it's something that I knew so well and I had wanted to write something like this forever! The EP eventually hired me to direct and originally wanted to make the whole film for $300,000 but we broke the script down with my line producer and couldn't get it under $750,000 so we kept trying to tell him "Look, man, it's going to cost at least this much or are you going to make something that nobody's going to want to watch?"
At one point, he was threatening to pull the plug and I knew he was bluffing because he wanted to make the film so bad but, because of my experiences with other films where I knew how to raise money, I just needed footage. Every time I've ever shot footage, I can cut together a trailer and make people salivate when they see that sucker. So I said "OK, we'll make it for $300,000.” We basically took a year building all the handmade props so they would be unique. I designed them with this amazing artist Ben Chester who lived on the East Coast. And we designed and built all the costumes from scratch!
We really tried our hardest to make something special even though it was on a low budget. I felt like we could do something that would totally blow people's minds. I think the biggest challenge, really, was that my lead, who was the exec producer, is a really successful surgeon. He's not an actor so he was my biggest challenge. If I could just get him to be serviceable we could make a good picture. So I sent him to acting school that whole year and he did his training while we were designing the whole film, storyboarding and building the crew and found this amazing production designer, Delarey Wagenar.
The film was originally titled Winter’s Dream but our sales agent ended up retitling it, 2307: Winter’s Dream, so that it would place higher on the VOD alpha stack. We shot what I called Phase 1 photography in October of 2014 in LA. That was all the underground stuff because in the world of 2307: Winter’s Dream everyone lives underground because it's like -60 degrees above ground. Humans have to get all these enhancements and put on this special gel so that they can withstand the cold. We shot all the interiors mostly at this water treatment plant here in LA and because it was almost like a studio with really cool industrial infrastructure. We would take little sections of it and dress it to make it look like whatever set we wanted. We shot out of all our money, $300K (£212,100) in Phase 1! So I had to start cutting fast to prove my plan to raise the rest!
I cut for a couple weeks on the trailer which is pretty fast. Then I started pitching it to all the investors from my other films and they just loved it! Ken Burgmaier, whom I'd worked with since Brother Tied and who was one of the original investors on Quattro Noza went out and chased down money. The Exec Producer ended up pitching in a little more as well. So then we were able to go out to Buffalo, New York and shoot in one of their biggest winters of the last 15 years. It was a really intense winter where even Niagara Falls froze over!
We were out on Lake Eerie and it was sometimes -20 and the wind was blowing on us. So it was real and matched my concept in the script! I didn't want to shoot a green screen movie because I knew that if I put the actors out there in the cold, then they wouldn’t be acting, it would be real!
I remember I would take my glove off, to adjust camera and my hand literally felt like it had frozen solid. I’m a California kid and it was hard on me! But when you're out there, shooting, there is so much adrenaline. I was running around like a maniac on the set anyway because I was operating camera a lot too. It was an extremely ambitious project for the budget. I went out there and shot for two weeks at a really high pace.
Some stuff was disappointing to me as I didn't have any real stuntmen because it's a non-union film and no real stuntmen would work with us. We just did what we could and made it as good as we could.
I think that the results show that you can make something bad ass even on a really low budget. I’ve always been very ambitious with all my projects.
So you found the job through Mandy.com – amazing! So tell us the timeline from start to finish. And how did you go about securing distribution, that would be interesting to hear about?
I applied for this job in December 2012, spent 2013 writing it, 2014 in pre-production and then I think we started principle photography in November of 2014. Then, I forgot to tell you, it took us a long time – about a year – to edit. Once we had a really nice rough cut, I contacted this VFX company out in Long Island, Platinum Platypus, that had been sending me emails for a few years. I’d promised I’d contact them first when I did a feature and I did. They loved the script and were willing to work with us. We paid them about a $100,000 (£70,000) cash but because they loved the film, they put in $300,000 ( worth of VFX.
Some shots were just clean up shots, whether it was trees in the shot that we didn't want or whatever. There are about 1,000 shots in the movie that have some kind of VFX on them. They did amazing work, the owner, Pete Sussi, is my hero.
After I cut that initial trailer, I would keep updating it. When we shot the winter footage I put all that cool stuff in and the same with VFX shots. This really helped at the film markets like AFM to pre-sell most of the foreign territories while we were still editing. When you're making any film, it does really help to have a sales agency on board from the beginning. Unless you know somebody or have a banging script that people are really interested in, it's hard to get people to visualize a script before you have footage.
We had a lot of early interest from different distributors and once we finally completed the film, it took a long time to sell. It was a tough sell domestically, because we had no recognized actors.
Eventually, we ended up going with Vertical Entertainment. They got us an 11 AMC theatrical deal which was amazing. The film did great on the VOD platforms and is currently on Netflix with a 3.5 star rating out of 5. It is really cool to see my first sci-fi movie next to Star Wars: Rogue One, Ex Machina and The Thing! To start with this $10,000 (£7,000) job from Mandy and then see yourself sitting next to the big boys is amazing. It’s not a perfect film, it's an indie film made for $750,000 (£530, 250) but it felt like David and Goliath, y’know?
If you believe in something enough, it becomes real - that's always been my motto! Whether it's fighting an illness or making a movie, you just have to believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt in the positive things, not the negative. You have to believe you can create or manifest these dreams - and I think that's what we did.
It's definitely a team effort, that took a lot of hard work from everybody but I'm very grateful that we had any kind of success, let alone this kind of success – winning six film festivals and getting a Netflix deal.
What advice would you give to people wanting to write or edit or direct?
Well, first of all, I'm not an authority on anything. I’m just another struggling artist/filmmaker. Even after all those accolades and successes, I'm still really just an independent film maker. I've never been invited into the studio system, which my old partner Derek Cianfrance has. It has so much to do with those stars and his strong mindset!
I’d start with the basics first. Go to film school or learn on set or even the internet has insane knowledge. I had never even shot on a camera before I went to film school. It's a really big risk for your life and I think that if you really are going to do it, it really has to be a calling, a vocation, where it chooses you… you don't choose it!
When Derek and I started out we would set ourselves up to have nothing else, our backs were against the wall. We invested all of our money, all of our time and we didn't do anything else. We were not chasing women, we chased film. I spent countless 24-hour days on Quattro Noza when I was younger. I can do those days only once in a while now. I burned myself out making that movie. I was raising money by myself. I would do two edit sessions a day sometimes and so that work ethic is what you're up against in this industry.
There are no real overnight successes. I think one of the neat things about short film making, that didn't really exist when Derek and I were growing up, is that short films give filmmakers such a great opportunity to practice. It doesn't cost as much as making a feature, which is so expensive! Doing short films is amazing because if you make something really power-packed for 10-12 minutes and tell a really tight story, you can get exposure. I know filmmakers who have gotten deals with Warner Brothers.
One of the big things is to treat people with kindness and gratitude because they're helping you make your dream come true! Everybody is a part of that one dream. Nobody is better than anybody else on the set! I move sand bags, I run around like a maniac trying to help everybody move faster because you have to move so fast making an indie movie.
Is there other stuff that we can tell you're working on this or another screenplay or something?
I have multiple projects in development. I've been doing re-writes on a western all last year. I grew up on spaghetti westerns so I just love them. In the re-writes I'm pushing it more in that direction but it's more of a classical period western.
Then I’m developing a TV show that's sci-fi themed, similar to Black Mirror but not so nihilistic. It's about the positive aspects of what technology might do for people. Then I have another drama and a rich Chinese investor who wants me to write and direct something out there. I’ve been able to set up lots of meetings because releasing via Netflix does open doors.
Nowadays, it actually opens more doors than the theatrical release because unless you have big stars, people don't pay attention to the film that much.
How did you end up getting the opportunity to work on the western film?
That was through a distribution company called Good Deed Entertainment. They're actually distributing this amazing film called Loving Vincent which was nominated for an Academy Award, Best Animated Feature. They want to start making films. That was always the dream for them so I might be one of their flagship directors.
They’ve been old friends of mine, for many years and Grady Justice is one of our co-producers on 2307: Winter’s Dream. He raised $50K for us.
Joey is currently rewriting and directing a short film for $5,000 – a job he found through Mandy.
2307: Winter's Dream is available now on Netflix.
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