Fans of modern independent horror should by now be well acquainted with the films of Joe Begos. Across four feature films, the director has carved out his own niche that build on his influences with bloody abandon. During last year’s Fantastic Fest, I had the pleasure of attending a double feature of Begos’s two most recent films—Bliss, currently on disc or streaming on Shudder, and VFW, which will be unleashed upon the unsuspecting masses next week. I recently had the chance to discuss the making of these films, and plenty more, with the director. Please read on for our interview with Joe Begos…
Your previous films were shot in New England and Los Angeles. Were there any specific challenges that came with shooting VFW in the Dallas area?
Yes, there was a lot. You’re just so far removed from everything. Even in New England, if you’re in the middle of a shithole New England town, but Boston is 45 minutes away and New York is two hours away. In Dallas, the closest thing was Austin, kind of—that’s like four hours, and from there you’ve got New Orleans, which is about eight hours away. So you’re so far removed that if you need any sort of specialized equipment, you’re fucked. Also, the crews down there shoot a ton of like car commercials and things like that, so whatever crew they have in the area is usually tied up. When you’re trying to get equipment or put a crew together, your options can be limited.
Since you have now directed features in three very different locales, is there any place that you haven’t yet filmed that you’d really like to?
Yeah, I’d really like to film a movie in Alaska. I’d love to film a movie in the Pacific Northwest. That was another thing about Dallas—the area was just so nondescript. I just don’t like the way it looks. If you go to New England, there’s a lot of cool textures around because it looks like Maine, or like a Stephen King novel. There are things you can shoot there that you can photograph in a way that makes the location almost a character in the movie. When you’re in Los Angeles, if you photograph it right, Los Angeles can be such an overbearing character in the movie. It gives the movie a place, a time, and an atmosphere. Same thing with my first two movies. I like having locations that do that. When I look at Alaska, it’s unbelievable. Nowhere else looks like that. Or with the Pacific Northwest, I want to make a movie that looks like First Blood. It looks so distinct. I like locations that have an inherently distinct look, so that I can build a movie to exist in that world. I’d also like shoot a movie in the heart of New York City, like a real New York movie. I just haven’t spent enough time there to make a true New York movie. I had to live in LA for seven years before I felt like I could make a true Los Angeles movie.
VFW was the first time you’ve directed a feature script that someone else wrote. Is that something that you’d like to do more of in the future? Were there unexpected challenges in working from someone else’s script?
The biggest challenge that came along with it was trying to familiarize myself with the material. As a director and a camera operator, and someone who’s so deeply injected into the production of the movie, I think about certain things when I write that other people don’t necessarily think about. I think about how a scene is going to be staged, how it’s going to be lit, what the atmosphere is going to be like. When I’m writing a script and I go through different drafts, that movie is in my fuckin’ blood. I can walk in without a script, without anything on the day of shooting and I’ll know exactly what to do, or where I want to go, and what’s going on. It’s a lot harder to familiarize yourself like that when you’re coming to a script that’s already been written as opposed to something you’ve built from the ground up. I did some rewrites on the script to bring it into my aesthetic and my world, which helped me familiarize myself with it. But that was the biggest challenge. I was into trying it because some of my favorite directors have done it. Some of John Carpenter’s best movies, someone else wrote the script for. Same with Michael Mann. It’s something I wanted to try, and I’d be interested it doing it again. It all depends on the script, and whether the material is right. I have such a specific aesthetic and voice that I want to showcase, so the project needs to be right. It needs to be something I can make my own. I’m open to it, but I definitely want to do some more of my own material next and get that itch scratched.
From the beginning of your feature filmography, there has been a consistent tone and feel to your movies. Even when the era or location has changed, it still very much feels like one of your movies. I think part of that likely comes from the fact that you work closely with a team of the same cast and crew. Was that something you always had in mind, or is it something that has grown organically as you spent more time working on features?
I think it’s a combination of both. Me and Josh [Ethier] have been working on stuff together for close to twenty years now. He and I have always been collaborators. We went to high school together, and all that. It’s not only that someone is a good person or I want to work with them. I make movies in such a distinct way that you’re either in, or you’re out. You either can’t stand the way that I work, or you love it. As I’ve made more movies and I found talented individuals who are great to collaborate with, good to be around, can help elevate what I want to do, and all of us together can make something good, that’s who I want to bring in. Some of my favorite directors have ensembles of crew and actors that they regularly use. Paul Thomas Anderson always uses the same department heads and the same cast. The Coen Brothers, Sam Raimi… So people from every facet of the industry have these groups that they work with. I feel like that is an important part of maintaining what I want to do. With my company, Channel 83, I like to consider us like a band. I’m the bandleader, and every movie we make is a new album. I want to keep people in the band who give something to our distinct sound.
And working with the same cast and crew, you develop a shorthand…
Yeah, definitely! Like on VFW, because I made Bliss beforehand with that same crew, not only did that inform how the movie played, but it helped inform my relationship with my effects people and my cinematographer so that we had a shorthand and I was able to work more with the actors. It was a really good experience.
That had to be a crazy experience. I know one of my high points of Fantastic Fest last year was watching VFW, immediately followed by the 35mm print of Bliss. Seeing those films back to back in that festival, with that audience was great. I can’t imagine how much blood, sweat, and tears it must have been getting those two movies from script to screen, and then screening them at that venue. Can you tell me a little bit about what that experience was like?
It was the dream! It was hard work getting those movies. It was blood, sweat, and tears, and all that other stuff—but to me, that’s what I thrive on. I’m just kind of hanging out in my apartment the past couple months writing, and it’s so fuckin’ mind-numbingly obnoxious because I just want to be back on set, working fuckin’ scenes. I love all that shit. I would rather be doing nothing else. It’s not like I consider it hard work—it’s just something I wish I was doing all the time. I think that’s what lends itself to me being able to do that amount of output when it’s possible. Having it culminate in the double feature screening at Fantastic Fest was something I never thought would happen. That’s my favorite festival, and to be able to premiere the 35mm print and my new movie, to have two movies screening the same night… The previous Fantastic Fest I was at with The Mind’s Eye, I won Best Director and was in the Fantastic Debates in a fight that I won. The Mind’s Eye had its American premiere there. I thought nothing could ever top 2015. I figured it was all downhill from there… then in 2019 I have two fucking movies playing there, and it’s like NOW nothing is ever gonna top this. There’s no way they’re gonna program three goddamn movies, so this is what it’s gonna be. (Laughs)
That was a helluva night. Along the same lines of working with a familial cast and crew, several of your regular collaborators—I’m thinking primarily of Josh Ethier and Graham Skipper, but now also Dora Madison—have been killed onscreen multiple times in impressively gory ways. Have you ever had anyone tap out because a gag was “too much” or they felt like it went “too far”?
No, and if they did, you wouldn’t see their face anywhere around one of my projects ever again. (Laughs)
Right on. I was just sitting there thinking, especially after seeing a couple of Graham’s death scenes in your movies, that he’s pretty much gotta be up for anything. Am I remembering correctly that you and Graham met when you were both working on the Re-Animator musical?
Yeah. I was stage managing that show. I worked with Stuart Gordon for a couple of years as his assistant. I worked on the Nevermore stage show with him and Jeff Combs. When he did Re-Animator: The Musical, he had me take over the whole production and technical aspects of it. I was stage managing the show, but I was also the only crew member. So that meant I was doing all of the effects, wrangling all the actors, running all the rehearsals, doing all the prop work, doing all the costumes, washing all the clothes over the weekend, setting up the lighting design, setting up all the gels… It was a crash course in DIY filmmaking. I was already making a ton of shorts then, and Stuart would read my stuff and give me notes. But seeing him direct an ensemble, seeing him have no money and have to come up with ways to do effects live, seeing him have to deal with all kinds of stuff like that… And then with me having to do it all… I definitely shouldn’t have been doing it all by myself. After a few months, I told them that I really needed an assistant, and asked if we could please hire one. But during this time, I was trying to watch Stuart direct everything that I could while I was still learning quick costume fixes, fast prop fixes, fast effects fixes, learning how to do everything I could. You have ninety-five minutes for a stage show, and there’s no dicking around. I did that for a year, and at the time I didn’t think too much of it, but looking back—that was a school unto itself. Graham was the lead, and so once it was done I told him that I’d written this tiny movie that we were going to go do on our credit cards. I asked him if he wanted to star in it, and he was like, “Hell yeah!” So we went and made Almost Human for like $20,000 and change.
As I was preparing for today’s interview, I went back and rewatched all four of your features. I was digging through the bonus features and behind the scenes materials on the discs. Then yesterday you started sharing all of the behind the scenes photos and videos from Bliss. I loved getting the chance to see that stuff. I know that the physical media release of VFW comes out at the end of March. Are there plans to include a lot of the behind the scenes material on the disc?
There’s going to be some behind the scenes material included. We had hoped to do something longer because there is so much footage, but we just didn’t have the time. Maybe it will be released in the future, or put up online. We also recorded a couple of commentaries for it too. We were drinking a bit while we recorded it. We got a little toasty and had a good ol’ time. The last three movies, I had to record the commentaries in my living room using my own equipment. Otherwise the distributors couldn’t justify the expense. So thankfully we had the ability to record them. As far as I can do, I want all my releases to have as many special features as possible. That’s what I like. Plus, I want to be able to look back in thirty years and see some behind the scenes stuff. That’s why I was putting all of the Bliss material online. That movie was so small and made so fast that we just couldn’t really have someone on set taking the behind the scenes footage. We do have some of it, but I’m deeply sad that I didn’t just pay someone out of pocket to document the whole thing. That was an insane shoot.
The way that I came to your movies was because I was looking at different movies that Steve Moore had scored. That’s how I first got turned on to The Mind’s Eye. I had been a fan of the band Zombi since around 2004 or so, and had always thought, “These guys need to be scoring horror movies!” I was wondering if you could tell me a little about how that partnership came about, and what your approach to scoring your films is like.
The way it came about was pretty similar. I was a big fan of Zombi, and thought I’d love to have this guy score one of my films. Steve did the score to The Guest, so I knew he was open to doing score work. I wrote him this long email, and he wanted to see the script. I sent him the script to The Mind’s Eye and he was into it. Ever since then, he’s been someone who has joined my collaborative. What he does comes from the same seed of what I do. We like all the same stuff. We’ve worked together so much know that we have that shorthand. He knows what I want, and I’m able to push him and he’s able to push me. We get results that are above and beyond what I expected. He’s such an important part of the process. When we do think of the score, we do the rough cut and lay out a blueprint with the temp score. He takes it, and goes from there.
I love Steve’s work, so any time I see his name in the credits I get excited. And his music fits so well with the aesthetic you’ve cultivated with Channel 83.
Synth scores kind of got overdone. I love synth scores, but so many people are uninspired about it. It’s like, “Oh yeah, this is what horror fans want, so I’m gonna do a synth score.” Then they hop on a little keyboard and do a ditty that they knock out in five to seven minutes. But I feel like with Steve, that’s what the motherfucker lives and breathes. He’s actually using basses and analog synths from the 70s. He’s using the exact model of synth that Carpenter used to do Halloween III! He’s doing it with the real equipment, and he’s doing it because he loves it. He’s not just coming in and slapping together a lazy synth score. I feel like a lot of artists have come in and made synth scores seem cheap. But Steve is coming in and doing real music with multiple instruments, real instruments. And that fits in with what I’m doing. I’m shooting on film when I can. I’m working with practical effects. He fits in that environment very well.
I wanted to ask you a question about the ensemble cast for VFW. These guys have such a sense of camaraderie throughout the ups and downs of the movie. I was wondering if there was a lot of rehearsal time given to develop that bond, or was it something that each of the actors brought to the table when they signed on to the project.
Each one of the actors is such a unique personality in their own right, so we had that going for us. We were also gifted the time of a few days for rehearsals, which I’d never had before. Thank fucking god we had it on this, because there are so many actors on screen for such a big portion of the movie. With all the effects in this movie, the thing I was most nervous about was that we had like eight actors on screen for 60 pages, all in the same room. As a director, one of the most complicated things is when you have more than three actors in a room. You’ve got to move around and keep things interesting, but you’ve also got to maintain eyelines and continuity and beats. People don’t think about that, but it can be a fuckin’ nightmare. In my movies I’ve never had more than about three main characters in one scene interacting. Even with three it can be a pain in the ass! And now I’ve got eight to keep track of, for 60 pages, and it’s a constant escalation where in every scene they have to be in a different mind space. On top of that, the eight actors that I’m directing in this giant ensemble are amazing veteran actors that have over three hundred years of combined experience, compared to me. I look like a drifter who wandered in and just picked up the camera. I also operate the camera, and I didn’t know if they were going to feel weird about that. So it’s me in a room with these guys, trying to tell them exactly what to do—so that gave me a lot of anxiety. But in the rehearsal process we figured it out. These guys are so good, and so collaborative. They got to know each other as people and as actors. They embodied the roles, and in all our hangouts we were able to figure out who each other was. The rehearsals enabled us to grow that chemistry, and to do a bit of improv. We shot all of the bar stuff in sequence too, which helped a lot. On day one we had like twelve pages of dialogue to shoot, so that was a blessing and a curse. I think all that led to the very naturalistic chemistry that you see in the movie.
I’ve got to give you props on some of the needle drops used in both Bliss and VFW, especially the ISIS and Unsane tracks. I know you’re a fellow metalhead, so I’ve gotta ask… What’s one album that you’ve really been into recently?
That’s a good question! I’ve been listening to an album called Dog Whistle by this band Show Me the Body. I hadn’t heard of them before I saw them open for Daughters and HEALTH a couple months ago and they fuckin’ blew me away. The album came out in 2018. They have a couple of full lengths, but Dog Whistle is insane. It’s like really hard current-day Jesus Lizard—that would probably be the best way to describe it.
I’ve also got a question for you…. You watched all four movies in a very quick succession. That’s an interesting arc that I wondered if people have done. Is it weird to see? Can you see the through-line in all four movies watching them back to back?
Absolutely! That’s something that I’d always felt, but it struck me more watching all four films over the space of two days. Even with changes in time period and locale, or with a growing cast, they all feel very much like a Joe Begos / Channel 83 film. They all have a look, a sound, and a feel to them that make them almost instantly recognizable.
Huge thanks to Joe Begos for taking the time to chat with us. Be sure and check out his new film VFW, opening in select theaters and on VOD on Friday, February 14th. VFW hits physical media formats on Tuesday, March 31st.