You may not know who his name just yet, but Minnesota filmmaker Josh Stifter is having a great year. After wrapping up production on his third feature, Josh’s second feature film, Greywood’s Plot, plays at Arrow Video Fright Fest later this summer. This “film noir grindhouse” approach to a “creature feature/found footage mashup” represents a little bit of everything we like about independent film.
Indie filmmakers have a reputation as rebels, thanks in no small part to Robert Rodriguez and his journey from El Mariachi to Alita: Battle Angel and beyond. But while we’re often told to think ‘outside the box’ to get ahead, my discussion with the Rodriguez protégé elicited the opposite advice. During our lengthy conversation for for Not Suitable For Anyone, Josh was kind enough to share his perspective as a journeyman filmmaker working almost exclusively out of the upper midwest.
But the story of how he came to make his third film during quarantine begins several years ago. “I wrote [Scumbag] far before any of this lockdown or quarantine stuff happened, all based on this concept where I was on this reality show, Rebel Without A Crew.” The series, brainchild of the aforementioned Rodriguez, required participants to each make a movie for $7000–Robert’s production budget for El Mariachi.
While Josh naturally found the experience formative, the conditions he worked under weren’t necessarily comparable to Robert’s. “No one talks about the fact that it’s all nonsense,” he says. “Like, what do you count in your budget? Do I count my friends driving themselves? Do I count their gas?” Continuing, Josh explains that “the real ‘rebel without a crew’ was a movie one guy would make in his basement by himself. So, I decided to try that.”
In fact, his closest friends and collaborators initially talked him out of making a movie on his own. Daniel Degnan, actor and creative partner to Josh, pleaded with him: “He read it and he’s like, ‘Dude, don’t do it. Don’t make it yourself. This is too good. I want to work on it with you.'” But when Covid-19 shut down worldwide film production last year, Josh decided to forge ahead. “So I started on it, and through the last year I’ve been filming this movie by myself. I grew my fingernails and my hair out for it and I my wife was not happy with the way I looked for a while.”
But before Josh made a movie literally without a crew, he participated in the eponymous reality TV show after a chance encounter with its creator. Among his talents, Josh’s work as an animator earned him an audience with Rodriguez leading to an invitation to apply. But what made Josh stand out from the 5000 or so applicants? “There was this one question that said, ‘what is your spirit animal?’ And I said, ‘Beaver, because I work hard and say damn a lot.’ And I think that’s the I think that’s the only reason I got on the show. They’re like, ‘Oh, he’s an idiot. We we need an idiot on this show,’ and they picked me.”
Idiot or no, Josh seized his opportunity without letting minor details get in the way. “They called and were like, ‘Can you send out the script for the movie you think you can do for $7000?’ And I was like, ‘Can I have a week to clean it up?'” If you know what comes next, you might be a writer. “I lied,” Josh admits. “I had no script, so Daniel and I just started writing like crazy.” The result? Josh’s debut feature, The Good Exorcist.
But the mad scramble to finish the script wouldn’t be the last rude awakening for Josh, who describes the experience on Rebel Without A Crew as his own form of film school. “It was like being thrown into the water and being forced to swim. And everyone is sort of watching you and laughing, but no one is going to help.” Josh initially set his script initially in a Minnesota B&B before learning that all production was to take place in Austin, Texas. “They don’t have basements in Texas, so I was like ‘I have to change this whole thing,’ and you can see that in the [the show]. I’m constantly rewriting scenes, changing characters.”
Josh’s script called for a portly, Jack Black-like character. “Then Avery [Merrifield] showed up and he’s this like handsome, goofy looking mustache guy and I’m like, ‘OK, well I guess I’m rewriting that character.'” Ultimately, Josh said he and Daniel “drowned together and somehow made it back to the shore.” Josh, rightfully, is extremely proud of The Good Exorcist, despite what he calls its “rough edges.” Having only 14 days to shoot was not the only challenge.
“We had to actually finish the whole movie in like 2 1/2 months,” Josh explains. Without the benefit fo ADR or pickups, the show tasked Josh with transforming the existing footage into a feature length film to screen during a special block at SXSW. This required, among other things, hundreds of visual effects to remove reality TV crew from his shots. “Of course, their best shot is being in my shot. You know they want to film me so they want to be across from me as I’m filming.”
Of course, when it comes to reality TV, never let the truth get in the way of a really good lie. “One of the biggest things about [Rebel Without A Crew] is the stress is played over,” Josh tells me. “So, like, it’s fun to watch people get stressed out and the tension and everything. But what you don’t really understand is like how quickly that actually goes away.” There’s a key moment in the TV show where Josh becomes frustrated, ostensibly because one of his actors wasn’t getting their lines. “The reality of that,” Josh says, “was she did her lines just fine.” The actual source of his frustration? “A Pierce Brosnan show actually came in and started destroying my set while I was filming,” Josh reveals. “They were running nail gun outside and I was like just about to snap.”
But getting at the root of what drives him, Josh and I eventually get into how a career cartoon artist pivots to making feature films in his 30’s. “Well, the only reason I went to school for animation was to learn how to make a movie,” Josh admits. “And then I turned 30, and I had kids. I had a wife, I had a mortgage. I had a good job, and all this stuff and I’m like, ‘I didn’t do the one thing, the easiest thing, was going to make a movie. How did I fail at my one bucket list item?”
So for his birthday, Josh, Daniel, and some other friends went out into the woods to begin filming the story that eventually became Greywood’s Plot. “I had this idea about a movie where Daniel is like a Dr. Frankenstein character, and he turns me into a spider-man. I’m terrified of spiders, so I thought it would be cool to become the thing that scares me.” Of course, things didn’t exactly go according to plan. “We came back with the footage, and I was like ‘Oh my God we have, like, an eighth of a movie.’ We’re not improv guys; there are these rambly sequences, and I … I don’t know what’s going on.”
But Josh refused to give up. “That was three years ago,” he realizes, “and since then I finished Greywood’s Plot and that’s going to be hitting some film festivals.” His perseverance was rewarded with the aforementioned selection to Arrow Video Fright Fest in a few weeks, where the film will make its UK premiere.
As if that wasn’t enough, Josh has since completed filming his third feature, the aforementioned Scumbag, capping off a trio of micro-budget films made without a crew. “I didn’t think about who the audience was or how I was going to distribute them. I just went. I’ve learned a ton, but I feel like I’ve gone to the greatest film school ever, but it’s just been ‘go go go.'” I steer the conversation over to the philosophy that enabled him to accomplish this amazing feat in only a few years with even fewer resources: thinking inside the box.
“I think a lot of people wrote their scripts for what they wanted to do,” Josh remarks about his experience and selection on Rebel Without A Crew. “Robert read a lot of them and said they’re never going to be able to do this with $7000. They’re not thinking inside of the box.” Meanwhile, Josh’s script had little “Cliff notes” about repurposing props from other projects and short films. “So then they could actually kind of reference what I was thinking and how it would be possible to do it for no budget.”
Of course, not even Josh anticipated the boxes that a reality TV show would place him in. “We weren’t allowed to do any sort of stunt,” requiring creative solutions. When Daniel was forbidden from throwing himself into walls, Josh re-structured the scene so that he and Daniel would be the only ones in the room. During another scene, Josh was not allowed to climb a ladder. After successfully negotiating the use of “one step,” he immediately ran to the top of the ladder to get the shot. “They all swarmed in on me, I’m like, ‘Oh, you said one? I thought you said the top. Oh silly me.’ So I just played stupid a lot of time.”
The hardest part, according to Josh, was being part of someone else’s production at the same time he’s trying to produce his feature. “It’s hard to wrap your head around trying to be creative and … figure out your script and, you know, figuring out your lighting … Trying to do all that while also pandering to this reality show, you know, going on their union lunch breaks. Making sure that you’re done before their unions are up.” Having a glimpse of working under rigid structures of larger productions, Josh has advice for young filmmakers: “Take advantage of the fact that no one is telling you what to do. You could do anything; you could get away with so much.”
So, while a small budget production puts you in a certain box, so do bigger budget productions. “The bigger the budget gets, the more you think you should be able to get away with. But the more everything starts to cost and it makes you become dissatisfied and rush things and force something for your budget versus creativity. And I like this concept of playing with creativity versus being being forced to come up with an excuse to to be crazy. It leads to a different creativity, the more restrictions you put on yourself.” That’s not to say Josh wouldn’t love a budget to get rid of those restrictions at some point, but he admits “having those restrictions has taught me a lot over the past few years.”
Josh likens watching micro-budget films to the difference between going to a Metallica concert or watching a local neighborhood band play a garage show. “I remember seeing a couple of high school kids in the neighborhood would just play music in their garage, and they weren’t very good. There were three chords, the drummer could barely play. It was a mess, but there was something about the passion and drive to learn, and feeling like I was part of the band–I was part of the experience of coming up with this stuff. Every mistake, every error, every time they had to restart. I loved that. The fun of being a part of that experience, versus going to see Metallica.”
Going to see Metallica is an experience that “everyone has all the time,” Josh explains. “It’s kind of undeniably good” but it’s also “a huge production” with no “rough edges.” About those punk bands just figuring it out, Josh says, “I just felt so much more connected to that sort of creative process. One of the things I’ve been very particular about is that I don’t force a lack of rough edges. I allow the audience to see the rough edges a little bit here and there. Everyone can go watch A Quiet Place, but it takes a certain person who really wants … that punk band mentality of filmmaking that we’re able to do now because we are able to buy cameras that don’t cost us a ton … just like those kids bought $200 Gibson rip offs and were able to make music in their garage.”
Josh prefers the sort of ‘rough around the edges’ movies. “Show me what you can do with nothing,” he says. And, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that was my sentiment as well. And before you go thinking that it’s just a cop-out to make a “crappy movie,” think again. “With The Good Exorcist, there was a lot of moments that Daniel and I went back and forth while I was in the edit, figuring out how I wanted the movie to play out. There are a lot of moments where we’re like, ‘We could cut this and make a really solid 60 minute movie,’ but I was like, ‘No, I want people to see the mistakes and the the things that we tried and the things that we put in the movie that maybe didn’t work.'”
As for where to see his work, you can see The Good Exorcist right now on digital, with a blu ray coming soon from Troma. His short film The 1st of November just made its world premiere at the Portland Horror Festival, which is also going to feature Greywood’s Plot ahead of its UK premiere at Fright Fest, and, with a little luck, distribution to follow.